The Critic versus the Consumer

Posted: March 25, 2011 by Twitchdoctor in Games and Life, Games and Writing

When everything seems to be going pretty well in my research, writing, and teaching worlds it is usually a sure sign that the bottom is about to fall out of something.  Or maybe everything.  Sometimes, however, it produces a productive overlap where my teaching helps shape my writing and research agenda which in turn helps shape my teaching.

Recently I worked with my class on an assignment that was designed to look at videogame reviewing.  Our starting point was a useful article by media critic-at-large Chuck Klosterman arguing that we currently don’t have any videogame critics in the true sense of the term.  Rather than criticism, what we have is simply consumer advice: product comparison that inevitably boils down to a recommendation whether or not a particular game is worth purchasing.  There is precious little in the way of commentary on games that attempts to explore why a particular game might be significant or worthy of comment in ways that fall outside its status as a consumer object.  (Yes, before anyone bothers to point it out, Yahtzee may be the exception that proves the rule; but in both my classes the jury was still out on that).

Before the writers in my classes could get on with the task I set them (generate criteria for a critical game review and then write a game review that fulfills those criteria) we had to spend some time figuring out what it meant to be critical. Helpful in this regard was an ancient fragment of decayed papyrus, a 1930 article from novelist and critic Herman Hesse (no relation to Rudolf; I bet he gets that all the time), “About Good and Bad Critics.”  In that essay, Hesse defines the good critic as follows:

in the first place, he likes a good and lively style, he is on intimate terms with his own language and does not misuse it.  In the second place, he feels under no need or compulsion to suppress his subjective view, his individual style, but on the contrary brings it to the deepest possible expression so that the reader can make use of it in the way one uses a yardstick: without sharing the critic’s subjective values and preferences, the reader is easily able to deduce the objective values from the critic’s reactions.  Or, to put it more simply, the good critic is so completely personal and expresses himself so clearly that the reader knows or feels precisely with whom he is dealing and through what sort of lens the light has fallen that meets his eye. (180)

By contrast, Hesse defines the poor critic in these terms:

the principal weakness of the poor critic is that he has little personality or is unable to express it.  The strongest words of praise of condemnation on the part of the critic remain ineffective if they are spoken by someone you cannot see, someone who does not know how to show himself to us, someone who remains a non-entity.  It is precisely the incompetent critic who often pretends to objectivity, as though aesthetics were an exact science; he distrusts his personal instincts and conceals them through impartiality (“on the one hand – but then, on the other”) and neutrality.  In a writer, neutrality is almost always suspect and a lack – a lack that is of intensity of intellectual experience.  The critic should not hide his passion, in case he has any, but make a point of sharing it.  He should not act as though he were a measuring machine or a ministry of culture but should stand up for his own opinions. (181)

We spent some time looking at examples of film reviews; sadly there is no shortage of book and film reviews that represent pure consumer advice.  The difference between film reviewing and the world of game reviewing, however, is that for film there are alternative models out there that are offered in publications geared toward a general readership.  Occasionally, you even get a chance to see these two modes of reviewing (critical and consumer advisory) side-by-side in the same publication.  For example, sometimes (not often) the Washington Post publishes not one, but two reviews of the same movie.  Recently they took this approach with The Adjustment Bureau.

The Post published the following two reviews:

The Adjustment Bureau: When Blade Runner meets Alfred Hitchcock” by Ann Hornaday, on March 4;

Dance’s Starring Role in ‘The Adjustment Bureau‘” by Sarah Kaufman, on March 4.

Although posted online on March 4, the Kaufman piece appeared in next day’s paper;  the Post is actually really bad about indicating when and where their articles appeared in the physical paper, and whether or not the online version has been modified.  (This is something that the New York Times is a lot more scrupulous about).  Why is this significant?  It meant that most readers of the paper wouldn’t have seen Hornaday and Kaufman going head to head.  Also significant is that the Kaufman piece was published in a section called, as I remember,  “The Critic’s Corner.”  The Post is thus signifying pretty clearly that there is a difference between reviewing and criticism.  This, again, is not the case with other publications such as the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker.

I’m going to declare my bias here.  I can’t stomach Hornaday’s work.  I think it represents everything that Hesse was critical of in his condemnation of the poor critic, with one significant exception.  He praised the idea of the good critic having a strong signature style.  Well, Hornaday certainly does.  It is light, and breezy, and very accessible.  However Hesse also saw that such a style needs to be married to a strong point of view.  What I most dislike about Hornaday’s work is that she writes in a way that always seems to indicate that she is saying something profound about the movie she is reviewing, but that is almost never the case.  She writes like the super smart kid in a high school English class who has figured out that if you have enough style, most people will never notice that you lack substance (and who is constantly rewarded for that behavior).  Hornaday uses exciting and, occasionally, elegant turns of phrase to point out the blindingly obvious about a movie.

Compare her work with that of Kauffman.  Hornaday’s piece is almost pure plot and character description.  It then ends with a final, summative paragraph, that presents itself as a moment of insight but in fact reveals only what any viewer of the movie who hadn’t slept through the entire thing would have noted for themselves.  Kaufman, on the other hand, focuses her analysis of the movie by concentrating on something that we would have noticed about the movie (hey, there’s dance in there!) but offers an argument for how the presence of dance is more interesting than we might at first have realized.  In other words, she is  hewing closely to the two meanings of re-view: to take a second look, or to see differently.  If we’ve seen the movie, we might stumble across her piece on the web and use it to notice something different about what we saw; if we haven’t seen the movie yet, she’s equipping us to notice something that we might pay more attention to than we would otherwise.

I am not presenting criticism and reviewing as absolutely opposed to one another.  Criticism can also make for a good review.  Note that Kaufman’s piece also gives you a lot of the key information about the film (what is it about, who stars in it, what is the basic plot) as you would need to decide whether or not you wanted to go and see the film.  In fact, because it isn’t driven by summary, it does it a lot more concisely than Hornaday.  But criticism does something that pure consumer review can’t do, and that is treat the object under consideration as being about ideas that are connected with other aspects of society and culture.  For Hornaday, by contrast, reviewing is mostly focused on the viewing experience (was it a good one or was it a bad one?).  If ideas are present, they rarely outlast the viewing of the movie.

The really tragic aspect of this, of course, is that Hornaday is the staff reviewer for the Post because her work represents what people want to read.  And not just the sweaty masses.  She has, after all, been nominated for a Pulitzer for her film review work.  (Which makes me think that no one actually read much of her work; I find it hard to believe that someone would have been able to do so without responding as an elderly (2006) Wonkette post once did: “Have you ever considered trying to write essays that don’t make us want to claw our eyes out?”).

But I think her work is popular for one very clear reason, and it is relevant not just to the world of game reviewing but to cultural attitudes toward games in general: it is a sin to think too deeply about popular culture.  Popular culture is only supposed to be “enjoyed.”  By which most people really mean, bought.

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