The Artful Collector: On Sensitivity to Negative Reviews

How many times have we read negative reviews by (mainly) newspaper- employed critics about books or films in the science fiction/fantasy genre that either were completely off base, once we read the book, or which panned a movie we’ve already seen….which thrilled us to death?  This has happened to me so many times, that I not only expect critics to pan the movies I will love once I see them – but I will go out of my way to see them (even if I had no interest in them to begin with).

That’s why it was no surprise for me to read Ann Hornaday’s tepid to lousy review of the movie The Hobbit in the Washington Post last year (  12/14/12) As soon as I read her observation that “It’s purely a matter of taste whether this world  is one you want to inhabit for nearly three hours.” I immediately wrote a mental note to myself  “Gotta see it.  Gonna be great.”

Yes, surely it’s a matter of taste.  And that’s exactly how, with that sly smug slug…Ann – along with numerous other critics – manage to make our “tastes” suspect, under the cover of mundane journalism. YES, I WANT TO LIVE IN THE WORLD OF HOBBITS.  OK?   Is that clear enough for you, Ann?  I’m 70.  I’m what you called a “dedicated fan”    Another slam….to a genre audience you don’t get.

A exotic giant beetle, captured in the wilds of Hyperboria, whom we we've named "Bailey"
A exotic giant beetle, captured in the wilds of Hyperborea, whom we we’ve named “Bailey”. He likes to sit and spin, his hunting days are over.

I also, to some unquantifiable extent, would love to live in the world of “Avatar” (as a Dragon tamer, of course 😉 ) and innumerable other worlds….whether I learned about them in books, movies or they came directly from my imagination. Indeed, there are few movies that critics have panned that I wouldn’t want to inhabit for 3 hours.   In other words, lots more.

But it gets worse.  Hornaday follows that line with “And it might be a function of age and aesthetic expectations whether the super high definition digital technology Jackson used to film – sorry, capture – “An Unexpected Journey” strikes your eye as dazzlingly crisp and realistic or more akin to the visual grammar of a giant “Teletubbies” episode.”

Now, I am no fan of Teletubbies.   Let’s face it….they are as close to my childhood as the Power Rangers.  But the reference to “age” as being the key to valuing the technology , as well as the phrase “visual grammar” in this context – both struck a chord.  In what universe would the media, and “visual language” make  Tubbies  equal to Tolkien?  I’m not a media guru, but the phrase “visual grammar” in the pages of a newspaper critique strikes me as not only elitist, but meaningless to anyone reading the review who would compare such dissimilar entertainments (with apologies to semioticians).  🙂

Whatever slam this reviewer intends, by the “capturing” vs. filming of performance, I think it really comes down to highlighting a demographic disjunct: those of us “of a certain age” or not….who are more willing than others to accept the tiger in “Life of Pi”  – regardless of how he got there.

Aggressive, but colorful non-aquatic fish that swims near our kitchen, taunting us with culinary possibilities.
Aggressive, but colorful non-aquatic fish that swims near our kitchen, taunting us with culinary possibilities.  He thinks, because we’ve given him a name, that we can’t eat him.  He’s wrong.

Sure, this could be a matter of age.  I know people my age who don’t own a computer and might be influenced by those distinctions.   But they aren’t the intended audience for The Hobbit.

I guess I would prefer to think of it as a matter of aesthetic sensibility.   In this case, perhaps, dependent on one’s willingness to suspend disbelief.  A phrase near and dear to SF/F lovers, and attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”

The suspension of disbelief. If you can’t grasp that concept,whether furthered by digitization or not, you have no right to critique SF/F.   Just recuse yourself, refrain forever from denigrating an audience you aren’t a part of, and can’t understand.

One of our dogs, "Spot". He is one of Jeff Coleman's creations, part alligator, part Rottie, and suffers from mange. He is also perpetually hungry, because he only will eat tender young virgins, and they are rare in these parts.
One of our dogs, “Spot”. He is one of Jeff Coleman’s creations, part alligator, part Rottie, and suffers from mange. He is also perpetually hungry, because he only will eat tender young virgins, and they are rare in these parts.

SF/F artists, from time to time, have volunteered that they’ve never gotten the kind of attention from the art world that gallery artists have – by which they mean fancy critiques and reviews in chic slick artsy magazines.  To which I respond, “Instead of moaning, you should be thanking Ghu you’ve been spared the art babble and negativity that inevitably would accompany any review of SF art.

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  1. Hi Jane;
    As a theater and book critic I believe that my job is to help improve things. I write what works well and what doesn’t and how to improve it, in my opinion. If I’m reviewing something I don’t know much about I say so. I don’t believe in proving I’m smarter than everyone else by being snide and dismissive. I also sometimes go to see things or read them or whatever because they’ve been panned. Thank you for an entertaining and informative critique of critics.
    Does he really eat only virgins? I thought there was a synthetic formula that worked…

  2. Jane,
    I always enjoy your posts. This one strikes a cord with me. I gave up recommending restaurants years ago, because my friends have different tastes and experiences than I do. It seems to me we are living in an age where reporters/critics are trying to make a name for themselves and make a reputation. If you like everything, then you couldn’t be a very good critic. Many want to be that tough hard to please critic that everyone is dying to impress. They think that makes them more respected.

    It is much easier to be someone that hates something or is neutral towards it than really endorse it. If you endorse it and someone else doesn’t like it, then you lose credibility faster than the reverse.

    Besides its cool not to be impressed. ;p

    I have found that I don’t read reviews of any sort that come in sets of one. That is to say I will read the gang reviews on Amazon or some other location to find the trend of opinions. The larger sample size always seems to be more accurate. I simply ignore the paid reviewers and semi-pros.

    Besides if we all liked the same thing there would only be one flavor of ice cream.

    Great stuff. Keep it coming.


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