The Trouble With Easy Criticism by Ritesh Babu

 

Something that’s been weighing on my mind a lot is something that’s been ubiquitous since my own youth. I’ve never not seen it be a thing. But more and more, as time passes, it becomes rather unbearable. I refer, of course, to ‘Easy Criticism’. It’s that which we’ve all seen, which we’ve all known, at some point or another. It’s that ‘If you like this, you’re…’ mindset, that good ol’ ‘This is only for…’ notion. But it’s also more than that, and it’s everywhere.

This has not been helped by the total ascent of platforms like Twitter in the last-decade, which have basically taken the place of forums, becoming our collective-super-forum. One wherein everyone from heads of state to your mum all reside, but are ruled by engagement-driving algorithms, which add fuel to the fire. More and more, every easy thought a kid online has becomes fodder for the collective internet to engage with.

But, obviously, it isn’t just limited to that. There are tons of incredibly smart people, some utterly brilliant writers, even folks I quite admire, who fall into this problem. Even the most breathtakingly insightful, lovely assessment of a work often has to be pinned by some snide, needlessly cruel value-judgement on all those who differ in their response to said work. And, of course, entire networks and communities have sprung up on cashing in on that same ol’ Easy Criticism.

It’s why you get Lindsay Ellis proclaiming Soul is a pro-life movie, or that Raya and The Last Dragon follows in some kind of made-up tradition laid down by Avatar: The Last Airbender. Both are absolutely absurd assertions, and steeped in not only massive bad faith readings, but bigotry. The latter claim is one Ellis would go on to try and defend, claiming since Avatar much of YA fiction as well as Raya were informed by its framework, as though Avatar was in anyway revelatory in basic story structure, world-building, or the mythos it was drawing on. Two white guys didn’t sit down and reinvent the wheel on storytelling. Neither did they come up with many of the cultural ideas shown there. But if you’re a White person in the west who mostly consumes Western media made by mostly White people, then you look at something that draws on Eastern Culture, by actual People Of Color, and you group that together with Avatar. You didn’t need to unpack or explore how and why that’s a really poor, racist thing to say.

That’s the thing about criticism: It often reveals more about the critic than the work. In fact, that’s what makes it beautiful. It’s getting to see the work and the world through the lens of that critic. It’s feeling how they felt. That’s the magic. But what is magical becomes monstrous when we see through lenses like the one above. People with massive platforms, with book-publishing deals, award nominations, and much more, can just spout these utterly nonsensical criticisms, without taking a second to pause and reflect, because that is where we stand now. It’s easy to do that.

Take for instance an apex-example of Easy Criticism, by fellow Linday Ellis-peer and pal, Hbomberguy, who helped spawn/popularize the dreaded [Insert Thing] Is Garbage, Here’s Why genre of criticism. His immensely popular ‘takedown’ of BBC’s Sherlock is an absurdly long-affair desperate to, once and for all, definitively ‘prove’ that this work is absolute, utter garbage, and so are its makers. Now, for the record, Sherlock is immensely poor, and a very, very flawed work full of problems, but the criticism employed by Hbomberguy, which has millions of views, does not actually get at them very well. It instead focuses, amongst other things, on points such as how Sherlock is Bad because it’s never a mystery you can actually ‘solve’, and that a ‘good’ mystery is one wherein you’re given hints and clues and should, logically, be able to ‘solve’ the mystery. The criticism goes on to say that this is the appeal of the original Sherlock Holmes novels, that that’s precisely what made them and all other Holmes works so good, because they were mysteries you could solve.

But if you actually sit down and think about it for 5 seconds…this does not hold. This simply isn’t true. If you go back and actually read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, even the very first, A Study In Scarlet, they are not ‘solvable’ mystery books. That is blatantly not the kinds of books Doyle was writing. They’re so utterly unsolvable that Doyle has to literally cut to The Sahara mid-way and do a whole flashback storyline to ‘explain’ the whole thing, which literally no one could’ve guessed without it. Which is to say, ‘solvable mysteries’ was not actually what made those Holmes books ‘good’ or worthwhile or ‘good mysteries’. In fact, the assertion that a ‘good’ mystery is always a mystery that the audience can and should be able to solve is…just that: an assertion. It is a type of mystery, to be sure, it is one way to tell stories. Fundamentally, it’s an opinion, a fair one to have. It’s a preference. It’s taste. But holding that up as Objective Fact, as to why Sherlock is Bad, Actually? That’s failing to engage with the text, hell, multiple texts, and just the subject at large, given the root of Doyle’s Holmes novels. It is a fundamental inability to see and engage with the material. It isn’t criticism doing the work, only criticism under the pretense of doing it. It exists solely to prove the ‘rightness’ of the critic.

It is not a critic’s curiosity that we reward, but their judgement. We don’t want engagement with the work, as much as engagement with our Righteous Take, whatever we perceive that to be. It’s criticism not for the sake of the art of criticism, but for vindication of the self. It’s criticism as not explorative and investigative thought, but as a grade in a math class. And more and more, as I see it and its tendrils wrap around everything, and The Discourse it summons, the more and more I grow tired.

A big hurdle, certainly, is how identity and projection factor in. Art is that which we imprint on, and that which imprints on us. It’s hard to separate from the self. And thus, any assessment on the art can be read as an assessment of the self. It’s why every critic, no matter how good and nuanced their exploration of a text, will always get people forever hounding them. It’s why you’ll have assholes read any and all criticism as hostile, as a personal affront and attack on their essence. But criticism, specifically the Difficult Criticism, the critique that does the work, is not an attack. It is a voyage into the text and an unraveling. An understanding, and a perspective. It exists not as vindication of the self, not to prove The Critic as ‘Right’, not as some missile of attack aimed at the text’s makers or its audience, but an X-Ray of the work. It is mining for truth, and doing so with perspective. It is a lens, and a means by which to see the text, and that which surrounds it. It is a vision of the work and the world, if you will. Criticism, like all arts, is an empathy engine. (Easy Criticism, however, makes the error of stumbling into all the pitfalls people in bad faith accuse all criticism of falling into.)

And it’s why it’s a problem when even the difficult criticism, that which is packed with all the right nuance and dimension, is conflated with the easy criticism. And it’s why it’s frustrating when all criticism is approached as being just that. When a sincere examination is constructed to be an assassination attempt. And it happens because identity is so baked into how we interpret art, and how much of it we project onto art.

It’s why, say, if Alan Moore is critiqued in regards to race and gender, you’ll get a legion of apologists and defenders out of the woodworks. And it’s because they have a deeply personal connection to the man’s work, it shaped them, informed them, and they saw themselves or formative truths in them. It’s wrapped up in youth and identity, in a way that’s inseparable. And it’ll happen because people that close to that oeuvre believe it and its maker are having their reputation ‘hurt’, and that’s not ‘fair’. But you know what? The reputation should be ‘hurt’. We should acknowledge all the brilliant, magnificent, parts of that oeuvre and its incredible maker, but we should also look and acknowledge all the dreadful, horrid parts, and adjust our relationship to it or how we see it through the lens of intersectionality, lest we mythologize that into being The Unsurpassable Pinnacle.

But, and this is key, the trouble becomes when rather than having that capacity, that nuance, we resort to ‘easy’ judgement. I’m reminded of an instance wherein a (White) person, amidst discussions of Grant Morrison’s work and its mess-ups on race, once said ‘So is Grant Morrison cancelled now?’ and that’s sometimes the level of nuance folks approach this with. And this plays into one of my biggest frustrations: White Saviors Driven By White Guilt. You’ve known them. You’ve seen them. They don’t want to like anything that could be deemed ‘problematic’. They want to be The Good Ally. They want to be The Good, Responsible White Person, repenting for all the colonialist cruelties of their people. The folks who view media through the simple binary of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’, because that’s how they’ve trained themselves to be, to fit the profile of The Good, Responsible White Person they’ve constructed.

They’re the folks most obsessed with the declarative judgement of media as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, above all. And it’s irksome because these White audiences have an entire canon to serve them. Of course, they can ‘pick’ and ‘choose’ and play this game of binaries. They’re everywhere. They are ‘the norm’. We are not. We don’t get to choose. We have to deal with a whole Western canon that actively says terrible things about us, doesn’t even see us, and is rarely kind to us. We have to actively, consciously engage with ‘problematic’ media, that which came before, for the alternative is to not do that. And you know the judgement our ‘ignorance’ will bring us. We have to be able to deal with that which came before, and have the capacity to love that which hates us.

It’s why, say, proclaiming ‘A Princess Of Mars is only for Racist White Dudes’ is perhaps the most useless value judgement critique one could make, because there are tons of People Of Color, who I know of personally, who’ve engaged with that text and feel strongly on it. They can see and acknowledge the vile, monstrous things, that which loathes them, and also fall in love or be fascinated by other things in it. The fundamental capacity of the marginalized is being able to care about that which does not care about you. We don’t operate on the Good/Bad binary. We have to embrace the ‘problematic’, the ‘messy’, and it’s particularly why Easy Criticism is deeply frustrating.

It’s why when I see White men proclaiming Zack Snyder’s films are only for fascistic White men, I wince, for I can think of so many Women Of Color, so many Trans folks, and just people in the queer community, tons of leftists, who enjoy his work. It’s why when I see all the ‘Enjoying this thing makes you a legitimately awful person, it actively makes the world worse’ notions, I wince, thinking of all the infinite reasons why someone might just enjoy a dumb, problematic thing. It’s why when I see White folks proclaim Tom King comics are only for Sad White Men, I wonder ‘So, do you want to go tell that to Ava DuVernay, a Black woman who was moved by his work enough that she hired him to co-write her movie?’

And that’s just it, right? We’re excluding people. We’re using Criticism as cover to hurt people, by excluding them, by judging them, for how a piece of art made them feel. And you know what? That strikes me as rather cheap. That strikes me as a rather poor, shitty usage of a powerful art like criticism. Why can’t we criticize creators, and the works of creators, without these terribly reductive, deeply shitty value judgments? At what point did what art you consumed define your morality and worth as a human being? Why are we building some sort of catalog of ‘Good Media’ vs ‘Bad Media’ in this neoliberal hellscape we’re stuck in?

Why can we not critique Zack Snyder’s work meaningfully without all the bad faith judgments about those who happen to find some resonance in it? Why can we not assess the messes of Tom King’s work without excluding people who find some meaning in it? Why can’t we talk about the work without alienating and hurting those who found genuine value in said work? Why are we so obsessed with feeling superior to those who feel differently towards a work of art?

I think back to when all the Warren Ellis accusations hit last year, and the number of people that went ‘Hah! I always knew he was a creep! It’s all in his work! No one took me seriously!’ without even realizing for a second how deeply shitty that is, how they’re making the suffering, the very real pain of these victims, about themselves, about their supposed, imagined vindication and validation. There is not a hint of awareness as to how victim-blamey that sounds, with the implication that these women should’ve known better from reading his work. And it’s this stuff that truly pisses me off.

Hell, TheComicsJournal, a respected, well-adored outlet, one with numerous awards and support from professionals, published an entire piece on the Ellis affair, wherein the critic, Abhay Khosla, uses the whole thing as a vehicle to proclaim how he always had superior taste. He used it to go off about how he was better, more ‘right’, for always believing this man’s work was shit, unlike all these women who believed otherwise.

In the same article, in discussing, or more accurately, under the pretense of discussing Cameron Stewart’s horrid predatory behavior and grooming allegations, Khosla, makes poor, tasteless ‘jokes’ about people, linking Stewart’s monstrosity to…watching Marvel movies, because what this is really about is Khosla’s elitism, superiority, and contempt for those who he feels to not have appropriate taste. It is not criticism of a culture, or of the abuse of power, or the systems that prop up and aid such abuse of power, it is entirely about the validation and snide, gleeful vindication of the critic.

A very, real, important issue like the lives, careers, pain and trauma of women, of harassment, grouping, exploitation and abuse, becomes a means for The Critic to feel better and more righteous about themselves. A reputable, major publication put this out, with it going through multiple sets of eyes. The critic ostensibly got paid to write this. Now, if such an important, sensitive subject and issue could be turned into and utilized as a vehicle for a ‘I Am Better Than You’, think about what could be done with an average piece of art- any movie, any show, any comic. Think about how that could be used to make things purely about vindication of The Self, about one’s ego and superiority, as ‘proof’ and as ‘evidence’ to ascertain, once and for all, the objective validity of the critic-on-high. That’s where we stand now. And it’s what makes things so infuriating.

It’s why I ask myself: Is this what we really want to be?

Why do we care so much about being ‘right’ over decent? When did it become so pivotal that we be superior and validated above all else, to the detriment, pain, and hurt of other people? Why the fuck are we like this?

Why can we not do the work? Why do we take a beautiful art like criticism and reduce it to another cheap tool and weapon for power play? To feel superior, ‘righter’, and ‘better’ than all others, by consuming media ‘right’ and ‘better’ or ‘correctly’, or what have you.

I think back to a piece of comics criticism a while ago by a smart (White) American critic, who wrote passionately on a text. It was a fair perspective. But by the end, having made its fair perspective, it dissolved into the most White Savior Driven By White Guilt ramble, wherein the critic was dead certain that this work was not only deeply racist, but only for White Men, and that it made the world actively a worse place, and stoked the flames of toxicity. And their certainty regarding their assessment of race in the text struck me, because prior to reading their review, I’d only engaged with perspectives by People Of Color, including folks who weren’t even American, to whom racism isn’t a concept, but a dreadful reality. And none of them felt this way in the slightest, which is what made the White critic’s certainty and conclusion so frustrating. White Certainty On All Matters, looming loud above the voices of all marginalized voices, speaking in order to ‘save’ us.

My mind flashes back to this prescient piece from years ago, by critic Kim O’Connor, on her experience with a White male critic holding greater influence. I think back to the frustration and pain in the above piece, and how to the man that caused it all, it is, still, to this day, a poor joke to laugh about. I think to all the friends I know, who just do not talk about certain works or creators out in the open, whether it’s about what works or what doesn’t, because even people who would call themselves ‘friends’ will respond poorly. And I wonder why, even amidst so many incredible, brilliant, smart people, we have to play this game of nonsense. Why can we not respect and be decent to folks, solely because they had a different experience with a piece of art? Why can’t we just listen, rather than write them off or make excuses, or build some wall of justification? Why do we treat criticism like a war, rather than a conversation? When did we lose all capability of discussing Art with totally different positions and viewpoints?

And to be clear, I do not mean folks supporting/evangelizing for/shilling people who are genuinely harmful or horrid (see: The Matter Of Geoff Johns, The Case Of Warren Ellis, etc), but people who just were moved by a work or a creator that a number of others feel differently on. It’s not that we can’t criticize them, by all means, we should, and need to, but can we not do it better? Can we not be more nuanced? Can we not sacrifice a stupid dunk for greater honesty and truth? Is telling the truth not what all this is about, more than some righteous desire to ‘be right’?

Criticism isn’t just condemnation, but conversation. It isn’t the end of the conversation, it isn’t final, but one part of a longer dialogue. It is tempting, quite easy, to construct Unified Theories Of Art, its makers, and its audience, to be a divine judge on high, deeply certain. It is far more difficult to deal with the complex realities which defy that. To have to wrangle with the truths that aren’t as ‘clean’ and ‘easy’, but messy and muddled, and yet pack something sincere.

Difficult criticism isn’t a comet from the stars raining down judgement, it’s a conversation from a person on the land next to you. The critical obsession with standing on a high pedestal and screaming feels frustrating, when the alternative of simply letting go of that high and mighty ‘rightness’ to be vulnerable is so easy. Good criticism isn’t about being ‘right’, it’s about being honest. It’s sincere. It is considered. And in the end, that’s all it really need be. It’s what makes it so worthwhile. 

Coda

In the end, this plea, this piece of criticism on criticism, is just another part of a wider dialogue. It is not a final statement, not the last sentence. In the end, as a critic, I am part of the space of problems I critique, part of its systems and patterns of errors, never above it. In my younger years, I said plenty of dumb, careless things, opting for Easy Criticism at times. And the only way to do better? The only way to not do that? It’s by realizing its true nature, and its impact. It’s by talking about it. It’s looking at the kind of criticism and conversations we actually want to see and be a part of. Recognizing and being open about where we’ve gone wrong, and what we could correct. And the thing about ‘better’? It’s never static. It’s a direction.

6 Comments

  1. I really appreciate the tar and feathering of Abhay Khosla here, but I think it needs to be said Kim O’Connor, who you cite as one of the good guys only a few paragraphs later, was totally on his side, snarking it up/egging him on on Twitter and Abhay even interviewed/hit on her during in that rampage. I understand the need to dunk on Riseman is great but, you know, it kind of makes you look dumb not to at least point that out.

    Also, name and shame: the guy editing the comics Journal right now is Tucker Stone.

  2. howtolovecomics – Trevor Van As is the founder and head writer of How to Love Comics and has been reading comics monthly since 2006. When he is not reading or not talking about comics he can be found illustrating and/or eating yoghurt.
    Trevor Van As says:

    Thanks for this fantastic piece! I wish I could give this to stan culture and idiot YouTubers to make them understand that criticism is not a personal attack or performance.

    Definitely bookmarking this to keep myself in check.

  3. Good article, but about this bit:

    “Western media made by mostly White people, then you look at something that draws on Eastern Culture, by actual People Of Color”

    I’m not saying the point doesn’t stand, but can a product of white company with white directors be called “made by POC” because two of its seven writers were Asian?

  4. Brilliantly-stated. I used to rabidly devour these “X is Bad, Here’s Why” video essays, but as time went on, and I found essays that were about *celebrating* media, rather than putting it down, more fulfilling to watch. Lindsey Ellis has never made me cry, but Mikey Neumann has made me sob baby tears *multiple* times from the sincerity and emotional depth of his videos, which, at their heart, seek to lift up and illuminate the movies he loves.

    These days, I’m watching more things like CinemaWins, Girlfriend Reviews, and Unraveled. Joyful works, sometimes irrelevant, but never dismissive of other people’s opinions. I don’t have much emotional energy for gatekeeping, these days.

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