Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Good and Bad Criticism vs. Postive and Negative Criticism

In my last post, I discussed three basic types of criticism (Constructive Criticism, Reviews and Academic Analysis), aimed at three different types of audiences (artists, culture users and society).

While I find this delineation an important one to make (and one seemingly lost track of far too often, in particular by critics themselves), there is another, dual distinction that all of them share. Because in all instances one can also arguably see a distinction between good/bad and positive/negative criticism.

Now, some of you might ask yourselves at this point what I am actually distinguishing here. In what sense is there a difference between these two sets of binaries? Well, to my mind, it is all a question of reference. The set positive/negative refers to how the criticism views its subject matter. Does the criticism relay a positive or a negative opinion of the material? The set good/bad, on the other hand, refers to how the criticism itself performs its task (regardless of whether it is favourable to the material or not).

Needless to say, it is always easier on the surface for an artist to encounter a positive piece of criticism (whether it is Constructive Criticism, a Review or an Academic Analysis), but as quickly becomes apparent upon a closer look, a good piece of negative criticism is preferable to a bad piece of positive criticism in terms of usefulness.

For instance, Constructive Criticism would be useless to the artist if it only offered unsubstantiated praise, whereas substantiated criticism (whether positive or negative, or both) would leave the artist with something with which he/she could work and based on that possibly rework the material at hand. In equal measure, a unsubstantiated positive review isn't much use to a potential culture user nor by default to the artist him-/herself. A well written negative review has the potential to let a user who would favour it find it despite the reviewer's lack of appreciation for the work itself (taste, after all, famously differs); and, of course, this is also helpful to the artist in question.

So, what makes for a good or bad piece of criticism? Well, I have already introduced the notion of substantiation. Simply put good criticism is marked by being well substantiated. The critic provides reasons for why and what he/she thinks are the strengths and/or weaknesses of the material. Furthermore, the critic knows the field, genre or category of the work at hand and judges it not only on its own (and, unavoidably, against his/her own palate), but as what it is and in its own cultural continuum. Also, in the case of good criticism, it is well written or at least formulated and at the end of the day useful to its intended audience. Arguably it is perhaps needless to say, but an overflowingly positive yet unsubstantiated and/or badly formulated piece of criticism is never really helpful to anyone (well, unless the piece of criticism is a review and people reading/hearing it have already established a very good taste equivalence with the admittedly bad reviewer and hence dare to chance it on the assumption that they might like it simply because the reviewer did).

Examples of bad criticism are not hard to find. In my last post, I brought up the currently all too common issue of spoilers in reviews. It is not rocket science to figure out that if your audience hasn't read/seen/heard the material you review, it is not up to you to dissect what they have yet to encounter (please, dear reviewers, leave that one to the practitioners of Academic Analysis, where spoilers can be taken for granted). A recent example of this trend are the two editions of the book 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. The title quite clearly states that this is a guide for people who wants to find books to read, yet far too many of the review pieces I have cast an eye at include severe spoilers, which quite frankly makes the function of the book itself questionable (who is it for really? and why?).

Another example of bad reviewing is when the reviewer (this time far from mistakenly assuming that he/she is actually making an Academic Analysis of the work) seemingly is under the assumption that the artist has asked him/her for Constructive Criticism. Of course, this yet again mistakes the intended audience of the piece of criticism and ends up serving fairly little purpose. As does overly negative and belittling criticism that simply puts the work (or its creator) down without qualifying anything. Perhaps the most telling of the latter I've come across was a Swedish tabloid review of a "Best of" type collection from former Marillion singer Fish. The review consisted of the single Swedish word "Fiskrens" (roughly translated to "fish left overs (after cleaning)"). Now, I am sure the reviewer thought he was immensely witty (and the fact that he didn't appreciate the collection came through clearly), but from my end, I could not help wondering how that could constitute a job well done. There was nothing in there informing me about what presumably was bad with the music or perhaps with this particular collection.
(As a slight aside in the case of collections, I've often found it interesting when reviewers, paid or otherwise, give a new "Best of" type collection a bad review simply because of merely adding an admittedly great track or two to an already existing great collection. I mean, if there are additions that fouls up an otherwise excellent collection, fair enough, but if the main complaint, as it so often is, is that this is bad because it is so commercial, I can't help wondering who the main audience for a "Best of" collection is... those who already have (almost) everything by the artist or those who have (almost) nothing. If the answer is the latter (which I personally find most reasonable), I find it absurd to give a great collection with added value a lower grade and standing. If you did not already have the first collection, clearly the second one is the one you should opt to get.)

Reviewing what you have not read/seen/heard would also be a rather big no; especially if on a professional basis. I clearly remember a film reviewer on TV remarking that a film he had seen was so bad that he had fallen asleep midway through and I couldn't help but wonder how many people would get paid for admitting to sleeping on the job (and hence not doing it).

The worst example I have come across in that respect, however, was a case here in Sweden a few years ago, where a reviewer had written a very caustic review (primarily caustic towards the author herself) of a book that was slated for being published that fall. However, as the author had not managed to get the book finished on time, the release had been postponed, apparently unbeknownst to the critic (who equally apparently had never intended to read the book anyway but merely saw an opportunity to spew out some venomous remarks about an author he disliked). It might be hard to believe, but the stupid and extremely bad critic even defended his action by offering the statement that he disliked the author ever so strongly. As if that should in any way be part of a review of the new novel in the first place. I was not in the least saddened to hear that the newspaper in question had rid themselves of that critic's services (though I find it less than heartening that he could get it published in their paper in the first place).

At the end of the day, I'd rather have a good piece of negative criticism any day of the week and twice on a Sunday; because regardless of whether it is Constructive Criticism, a Review or an Academic Analysis, it will provide me with useful information and knowledge. Which is something a bad piece of criticism can never truly do, no matter how positive it may be.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Constructive Criticism, Reviews and Academic Analysis

Of late I have been pondering the importance of delineating types of criticism in the fields of art and culture. Roughly speaking, I would argue that there are three main types. Listed in some sort of chronological order, these would be:
  • Constructive Criticism
  • Reviews
  • Academic Analysis
So, what are they?

Constructive Criticism is an important part of the artistic process. Most appropriately it is given by people who has been asked to provide it and normally before a given work is considered "finished" by its creator. It can also be given after the work is finished, then in order for the artist to improve him-/herself in his/her next venture, but still, unasked for criticism of this type might still be considered somewhat bad manners. For an artist (art form disregarded), it is perhaps needless to say very important to find people who can provide good Constructive Criticism (I will return to the notion of good criticism in my next post) in order to develop his/her craft.

Reviews are clearly not aimed at the artist or written for his/her benefit. While many culture critics would probably frown at the notion, the purpose of reviews is to serve as a form of market guide for the "users". Don't get me wrong. I don't mean this in a strictly capitalistic sense of buying the cultural product, but whether we look at culture through a capitalistic lens or not, we are nevertheless consumers and not merely in the financial sense. Whether we are reading a book or a comic, watching a film, listening to music or catching a show (concert, theatre or otherwise), we have to invest a certain amount of time (and mostly also money, there simply is no escaping that). As such, the main purpose of a review (whether of a book, comic, film, piece of music, play or otherwise) is to help us pick and choose among the available cultural material at hand. What this means is that the review as a genre primarily is aimed at an audience which is not familiar with the cultural material. The most blatant example of bad reviewing (and one far too common these days, I hasten to add) is reviews that contain spoiler material. A review should simply never give away important plot points or the like, and that includes most of them that is not there early on as part of the basic premise of the narrative. Far too many critics seem to mistake their role as reviewers with that of academic critics, which nicely leads us to the last type of criticism at hand.

Academic Analysis is the area of academic critics (though I'd argue that self schooled "academics" could enter the area as well) and it is not aimed at an audience unfamiliar with the material. In many (if not most) cases, the opposite is actually true, as the academic critic can assume his/her audience's familiarity with the material. Even if he/she opts to provide a quick summary of the work at hand (so as to help people less familiar with it to follow the analysis), such summaries would by nature contain spoiler material simply because the analysis itself looks at the work at hand in full, dissecting it, looking for answers to questions raised by the work itself, the critical community or contemporary culture.

Obviously, this type of criticism is important on a societal and cultural level in any society, but it is simultaneously important not to mistake it for reviews. Just as it is of equal importance for reviewers to understand that they are not producing Constructive Criticism or Academic Analysis. After all, the three different types of criticisms are aimed at three different types of audiences.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

To Seem or Not to Seem: On the Concept of Verisimilitude

In my last post ("A Not So Invisible Man: On H. G. Wells"), I briefly mentioned the term verisimilitude; a term I already brought up at the end of "Leaps of the Imagination" (posted way back in June), then promising to return to the term and the concept. And so, here we are.

Merriam-Webster's on-line dictionary traces the word verisimilitude back to circa 1576, etymologically stemming from the Latin verisimilitudo (in its turn from verisimilis verisimilar, from veri similis like the truth). The word is defined as:
1 : the quality or state of being verisimilar
2 : something verisimilar
Verisimilar then being defined as:
1 : having the appearance of truth : probable
2 : depicting realism (as in art or literature)

For obvious reasons, being that our topic relates to fiction (whether in the form of literature, comics or film), it seems appropriate to first turn to the notion of realism. Merriam-Webster defines realism as follows:
1 : concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary
2 a : a doctrine that universals exist outside the mind; specifically : the conception that an abstract term names an independent and unitary reality b : a theory that objects of sense perception or cognition exist independently of the mind — compare nominalism
3 : the theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization
For the purpose of our discussion here, it is obviously the third one that applies. What is important to note, is that the term itself has gone askew over the years. First because of the 19th century literary movement of realism (which still to this day, stylistically speaking, governs a great deal of the literary output to varying degrees), the existence of which makes it easy to assume that realism, at least in literature, does not exist outside of this time period or somewhat time specific genre. The second factor is the advent of the camera and its explosive impact on our perceptions in particular during the 20th century. With the camera (both photography and film, I might add) comes the notion of photorealism and the photo real; and together with the aforementioned 19th century literary genre, this leaves us with an understanding of realism as not merely pertaining to the real, but almost being the real itself; a perfect representation, as it were.

Here, however, is the rub, because as we can see in Merriam-Webster's definition, it is a "theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization" and as such it can never escape the layer of representation separating it from the real... whatever the "real" is.

Being representation, realism – more than anything else – is all about convention; about what we, as an audience, perceive to be real, truthful or, simply, realistic. This can be seen very clearly in the artistic development and handling of the film medium in the documentary genre, for instance. One of the reasons why documentaries held on to using black and white, and later grainier resolution, has do with using a visual that the audience perceived as depicting the truth, because precedents were laid out that made us trust these images more, simply because conventions had taught us that they were more strongly related to the real. Now, I think we can all agree that this is in fact convention and that neither black and white images nor grainier images actually are more realistic in the sense of pertaining to actual reality; or, more real, if you want.

This brings us back to the word of the day, that is verisimilitude. The Latin origin could be translated as "like the truth" and what is like the truth is not necessarily the truth. In short, verisimilitude has nothing to do with being actual truth or reality. Rather, as a convention, it is all about making something seem true or real. It is this which takes us into the territory where I've previously used the term; that is genres of the fantastic (e.g. fantasy, horror, science fiction and superheroes).

My first real encounter with the word itself (and an encounter that altered my own discourse on the subject, I might add) occurred some years ago. I was watching extra material on the DVD edition of Superman: The Movie and the word popped up. The director, Richard Donner, realised early on in the project that the main problem or challenge would be to convince the audience that Superman could fly. Don't get me wrong here, this is not a scientific question, not about explaining away the laws of gravity or whatever else. At the end of the day, it is about that age old concept of suspension of disbelief. Most (if not all) fiction relies upon that concept at some point or other, to some degree or another, because obviously a representation is never that which it represents (not even when that which it does represent is real; and let's remember that fiction problematises such notions even further by not necessarily representing or referring to an actual real event or occurrence).

Donner's film was presented with the slogan, "You'll Believe a Man Can Fly!" (i.e. the mantra the crew worked with throughout the production) and audiences did. Not because they were given lengthy explanations about how it worked, but because the film makers visually managed to sell the idea that a man could, in fact, fly. The audience suspended their disbelief and bought into this fantastical element of the fiction.

This is an approach that some films today would do well to remember (and that goes for some comics and literature as well). We sometimes seem to live in a world where the notion of verisimilitude is either all but forgotten or gravely misunderstood.

The former could arguably be seen in films (or fiction in other media) that do not seem to even make an effort in making us believe in the fictional world projected. Here we, for instance, find stories about vampires that throw all kinds of logic (narrative or otherwise) or credibility out the window, seemingly saying to the audience that "if you can suspend your disbelief to the extent of accepting vampires, well then I presume you'll swallow anything I offer, no matter what it is or how shoddily I attempt to sell it to you."

On the other hand, the grave misunderstanding of verisimilitude is no better, really. Here we have the over explainers, the people who in their pursuit of "realistic" depictions of the fantastic tries to go beyond selling it as like the truth or real, and find a way of explaining it as actually real, preferably in a scientific manner. The question being, do we really need to know (with great in-depth understanding) why the dragon can breathe fire or how Superman can fly? Do we? Really?

Suspension of disbelief requires that we can accept that what is happening on the screen or page is happening within the confines of the fictional universe at hand. It is the question of accepting the fictional fantastic as believable, as like truth (rather than as true) and move on from there. Over explaining things rarely helps to sell what is essentially an illusion to begin with. After all, how many people actually knows how an aeroplane works and flies? How many people knows in great details how a computer functions for that matter?

And before someone cries "I know" – I'd like to quickly add; that's not the issue. Sure, there are people who know these things (obviously). But my point is that far, far from everyone in the general public does. Yet this does not make them express disbelief in either aeroplanes or computers. And, for the record, aeroplanes and computers were merely two examples from a list that could go on and on and on. We live in a reality most of us know fairly little about on a multitude of levels and with regards to a multitude of functions. Yet we do not disbelieve in all of these things, despite the fact that we might not know or understand the how or the why of it.

An over explanation of a fantastic element is often more likely to reveal flaws in logic and presentation, ultimately rendering the over explanation counter-productive. The more you tie a fantastic phenomenon into a scientific explanation, the more you depend on that scientific model to hold and to in itself contain verisimilitude. Because here is another rub: that which is true needs not always seem like truth. This is why more realistic stories (in a traditional sense) can fail in depicting things that are actually true or real. Because verisimilitude is not a question of being or not being real. It is a question of seeming real, of seeming true.

And when it comes that question... well, then what actually is, is much less important. After all, we tend to believe in that which seems real.