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.

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