More on Critique
Abigail: We're coming at the term authority from subtly different angles here, I think. Those are both good points, but...
OK, first point first. Actually, I don't doubt that defensiveness is often the motivation when this charge is leveled. It should probably be the first question asked: are you just throwing a strop because I've insulted your precious whatever? But the motivation of the utterance doesn't affect its truth-value. And that motivation should not be assumed. What if I assert this of a negative review where I essentially agree with the substance of the charges? I might well share the reviewer’s standards myself and therefore find the work not to my taste, but what if I’m capable of seeing its values through the lens of different standards, the standards it sets for itself? If I can see that the features the reviewer and myself find anathema are patently virtues in a work of that genre-form? What if I consider an equally negative review competely valid because I see it as a conscious compatibility assessment? Maybe it’s because I’m coming from nigh-on 20 years of workshopping, but I believe pretty firmly in critiquing a dyed-in-the-wool Epic Fantasy novel as to how well it works on that basis rather than on the basis of what one would really rather be reading; and I’ve seen first-hand the difference between those who struggle to do this and admit the contingency of their judgement even when they can’t get past it, and those who simply assert conclusively that the work has X, Y and Z “problems” that make it a failure. It is, I think, a valid question to ask: is this review’s profound negativity a conclusive judgement born of such prescriptivism?
How often is it a valid question? Is it suspicious that we don’t see the charge levelled against positive reviews. My sense is that prescriptivism is far more often condemnatory than it is celebratory. It comes into effect when the rules it sets are transgressed rather than when they’re being followed. So it might be natural to see this more with negative reviews than positive, I think, but I’m not sure it’s actually even that strong a division in practice.
In challenging a negative review, both standards and competence of analysis will be called into question, but more weight might be placed on standards because the positive reading is assumed to be legitimate by the reader. A negative review does call into question that reader’s own standards and competence of analysis — hence the possibility (even probability) of a defensive reaction — but assuming the advocate of a work is both competent and confident of these, the negativity of the review begs the question: if a positive reading can be achieved by this set of standards, isn’t the negative reading the result of either incompetent analysis or applying standards that are … legitimate but inappropriate?
Fools and boors will, and do, jump to the “you just don’t know what you’re talking about” argument, but you don’t have to be a genius to know where that leads. You can assume incompetent analysis but address it indirectly, by offering an alternative one — lay out your own argument in an attempt to persuade your opponent that a positive review is valid — but the argument will only be, at the end of the day, a tennis match of point-scoring, and what’s the use if the reviewer doesn’t “get it” even when it’s spelled out at the length of a novel? They’ve demonstrated that they can’t follow the complexities you’re going to crudely summarise at best. Still, this is also a regular form of challenge.
Now, if you assume competence of analysis, you have to assume it’s the standards that are the problem. No point in a tennis-match here; any points you make will ring hollow for someone who doesn’t accept the premises they’re based on. They’re playing a different game; they won’t recognise them as points. It’s futile playing by their rules, trying to argue, feature by feature, that Gattaca works as a Hollywood blockbuster, say. When the negative review is that it doesn’t, clearly you have to address the root of the issue. This is a matter of the reviewer refusing to allow for taste, refusing to accept the validity of a work that caters to tastes other than their own. Such personal judgement is, of course, entirely fair in a conscious compatibility assessment, but a blank dismissal on such terms can only look presumptuous without caveats. The more obvious it is to the readership that other standards might be applied to better effect, the more the absence of such caveats, of even the remotest consideration of those standards, imparts an air of prescriptivism — a sense that the dismissal is to be taken as conclusive because no other view is worth considering.
At this point, one has to assert the legitimacy of another set of standards. This is, by definition, a challenge to the authority of the reviewer — not the legitimacy of their standards, but to their inappropriate imposition of their own tastes in lieu of a critical consideration on what makes a book work or fail. The problem is, in a context where equally legitimate standards render a positive reading, not applying such standards implies a rejection of their legitimacy which is an assumption of authority.
Actually I can probably answer your second point here quickly. I don’t think the act of reviewing implies that one’s beliefs are authoritative, only that they’re legitimate. That justification, the “persuasive, well-rounded argument” is necessary precisely because the legitimacy must be established. The reviewer may consider themselves an expert, may be considered an expert by others. Their expertise alone may add no small amount of legitimacy. The reviewer can be assumed to consider their own views completely legitimate. But this is not the same thing as assuming authority — power, jurisdiction, command, control, charge, dominance, rule, sovereignty, supremacy, influence, to quote from the handiest thesaurus entry. Assuming authority is assuming that one’s own convictions have precedence within the discourse, that they are more legitimate than others. The accusation is not simply that the reviewer thinks highly of their own opinion and will hold to it in the face of opposition. The accusation is that they disregard the legitimacy of contrary opinion on the principle that judgement is their prerogative alone, that they are asserting a privileged status, expecting it to be recognised. If the author is dead, the critic has no claim to the throne.
It’s actually quite common to see this rejection of legitimacy articulated in reviews explicitly or implicitly. And in the field of strange fictions where there are so many works of so many different types, each inviting us to read it by sometimes radically different standards, there are a lot of readers of wildly eclectic tastes. Indidivdual readers who appreciate works of utterly different aesthetics, applying the appropriate set(s) of standards to each work as it comes, and expecting the same flexibility of their reviewers. That’s more readers likely to recognise inflexibility when they see it, and more likely to call the reviewer on their prescriptivism. Yes, many such charges will be defensive reactions, but reviewers who are inspiring them would be wise not to dismiss them out of hand. Not if they want to be good critics.
In challenging a positive review, both standards and competence of analysis will be called into question, but more weight is likely to be placed on the latter. A positive review similarly calls into question our own standards and competence of analysis if we disagree with it, but if we assume that positive reading is due to the reader accepting a different set of standards, we have two choices. We either accept those standards as legitimate or we reason that they’re illegitimate.
First case scenario: We accept the reviewer’s standards are a valid approach. We can still assert the legitimacy of our own standards, our own right to not enjoy a work. As long as each accepts the other’s viewpoint as legitimate, there’s simply no argument. Hell, if you are working on that basis, why would you assume the reviewer isn’t? For this to be an issue, the positive review would have to be explicitly rejecting dissent, asserting that there’s no way you can not like the work simply because it’s not to your taste. Even the most hyperbolic claims in reviews generally just assert the impossibility of not liking a book — which is not the same thing. Those hyperbolic positive reviews are most commonly formulated to address competence of analysis explicitly, to assert that you’d have to be crazy not to like this work. Any fool can see it’s a work of genius. Assuming that the reader is applying the same standards, (because they led to a positive reading and are therefore self-evidently appropriate,) what the reviewer is likely to make grand proclamations about is the end result of any contrary analysis. This, then, is the grounds that they will most often be met on, with a contrary analysis aimed at demonstrating how one can reach a different end result. You can’t not think Battlestar Galactica is the best sci fi series ever, they say. Yes, I can, you say. Here’s why.
(The nearest I’ve seen to a truly prescriptive positive review in terms of legitimacy is in the attitude of a few Smiths fans I know — close friends and lovely people in all other respects but insufferable in their refusal to countenance my hatred of the band. Understand, I have Smiths albums on my iTunes, and will happily play multiple tracks in a row if requested at parties, suffering in silence all the way through. I gave up complaining long ago. But this is not good enough for the true Smiths fan. It’s not good enough that I don’t challenge the legitimacy of their appreciation, am happy to accommodate their tastes despite not sharing them. Oh no. How can you not like them? they’ll ask. Morrisey’s voice annoys me, I’ll say. It has a nasal quality I find unbearable, a sort of goose-like honking tone to it. They cannot simply accept the legitimacy of this. No, what they will do is play “This Charming Man” again and again and again, in an attempt to convince me of the wonder that is The Smiths. But listen, they say. How can you not like it? As if on the hundredth play I’m suddenly going to not hear that tone. I can’t think when I’ve ever seen that sort of prescriptivism in a positive book review. Thankfully.)
Given the validation of their own positive response the reviewer has little reason to consider the legitimacy of other sets of standards. Applying this set of standards led to a positive reading, so it’s self-evident that they’re appropriate to the work, the standards the work wants to be held to. Unless there’s some misrepresentation circulating, it seems a fair assumption that a reader will similarly approach the work on its own terms — rather than, say, expecting Gattaca to have the spectaculism of an SFX blockbuster. The reviewer isn’t expected to take account of the possibility that readers will apply any one of an infinite number of arbitrary standards, every possibe set of expectations, however bizzare. Where you do see an injunction that one must not approach a work with the “wrong” standards, this is usually pragmatic, a warning or corrective to a real possibility of misapprehension. The directive won’t take the form “you’re not allowed to dislike this book as a matter of taste” but rather “don’t go expecting Total Recall,” which is not going to be seen as assuming authority; it’s going to be seen as communicating what the work or its author requires of the reader.
There are times when that sort of injunction is dubious, when “don’t go expecting War and Peace” translates as “don’t apply all those fancy-schmancy, hoity-toity, literary values, smarty-pants; just enjoy it”, and many of us may be inclined to baulk at the rampant anti-intellectualism, the bullshit excusing of what is Just Plain Bad. Here you do see people taking issue with the assumption of authority. But since the philistine reviewer situates their authority in the fact that the work will function at the basest level for those who are willing to take it that way, and is asserting that this is the way it’s “meant” to be taken, the complainant’s rejection of those will likely take the form of a rebuttal of this Populist directly. That sort of reviewer invariably appeals to the authority of the mob, of the dollar, so it’s that bogus authority the complainant will reject.
This brings us to the second case scenario though, where the reader reasons that the reviewer’s standards are illegitimate. It’s almost impossible, when faced with philistine anti-intellectualism, not to adopt the opposite extreme, insisting that there are basic standards of quality that are just… objective measures. That no matter how enjoyable something is in a “brain out, sponge in” sort of way, it is still Just Plain Bad. This is Just Plain Bad prose. This is Just Plain Bad characterisation. This is Just Plain Bad plotting. This is Just Plain Bad worldbuilding. It is being excused by some readers who are happy to be told a “good story”. Hell, even a Just Plain Bad story may be, as far as we’re concerned, being excused for the sake of eyeball-kicks. Thing is, if this is our position, we’re hardly entitled to gripe about the reviewer assuming authority. We are ourselves rejecting the legitimacy of their standards. If anyone is assuming authority, it’s us.
With all that in mind, I think it makes sense that you’d see more accusations of assumption of authority in response to negative reviews that you do to positive ones. Even aside from the obvious possibility that many of those accusations are motivated by defensiveness, I think it’s likely to pan out like that.
And while I’m on the question of basic standards of quality, this sort of segues into an answer to Matt, because I know there’s a degree to which I can’t help but see certain basic standards as technical rather than aesthetic issues, matters of craft rather than art, qualities which can be judged objectively… mostly… sort of. Matt has a good point about my critique of Battlestar Galactica, about the possibility that my aesthetics is inappropriate. Maybe it is too exacting. Maybe I was expecting too much. In the same way that I’d argue I Am Legend doesn’t automatically fail as a Hollywood blockbuster because of the “Hand of God” ending, couldn’t the case be made that the deus ex machina ending Battlestar Galactica is acceptable in the basic CTVSeries class, that all the cop-outs I hated were not actually Just Plain Bad. If the positive reviewer loved it because they applied standards in which Moore’s distraction tactics (quick! chuck a grenade at Adama!) are acceptable, where do I get off saying that’s not legitimate? Surely, I’m not being sympathetic, so I’m just pontificating about How Art Should Be. All I need is to make that gear shift.
I could make an argument that I’m applying technical standards of quality that are actually about creating a functional narrative, probably with some sort of reference to a Todorovian equilibrium model. I could argue that Moore flouts these with his cop-outs, the deus ex machina, the expediently inconsistent behaviour of characters like Starbuck and Tigh, that the result may be serviceable but it is still Just Plain Bad in terms of craft, like bad code that runs but is ridden with bugs. Like a program that only doesn’t crash if the user doesn’t do any number of things — things that any user would expect to be able to do. My instinct is that narrative dynamics can be evaluated on those terms, that it may be too complex a system to be as objective about as program code, but that a work can be deemed technically dysfunctional, badly crafted. It is an empirical claim; it’s just that the judgement is highly subjective, based on informal testing. It’s not conclusive, not authoritative, but it is a legitimate contention. This is, however, as I say, my instinct. Without a well-formed theory of narrative dynamics to back it up (hell, even with that theory,) all such judgements require to have their contingency recognised. To me this could be a sympathetic aesthetics that would lead to a different evaluation. If recognised as theoretical, you could say the danger is you’ve got pontificating blather even then — on How Narrative Works (I Think).
This is actually why I say in that post that my critique may well drop down to the lower levels because of “other features”. Those elements of the critique could easily be considered mere conventional standards. If the deus ex machina worked for Euripedes, why shouldn’t Ron Moore be entitled to pull the same rabbit out of the hat? On that basis, I can at best be said to be applying conventional standards that are relevant — writing a conventional review. By buying into those conventional standards am I guilty of pontificating blather on How Art Should Be? Sure. I’m judging a work by an aesthetics of assumed functionality, standards of operational integrity. They seem pretty relevant though. We’re not in Ancient Greece. In the context of the here and now, the context of the medium, the form, the genre, such basic standards are pertinent. Doesn’t mean they’re right, just that this sort of reading is legitimate and practical. I think what I’d aiming for here
In an evaluative critique, I might make a case that Moore consistently signals that we are indeed meant to apply such parameters, to view it not just as narrative but as a well-made story by the contemporary standards of televisual drama structured into episodes and story-arcs. I might argue that he sets his own standards as “telling a traditional story” and then fails to meet them with the deus ex machina. You can never “tell”, but I think the craft is sufficiently open to informal description that one can make that sort of case. The problem would not be that the deus ex machina is Just Plain Bad, but that it doesn’t carry out the structural function it’s intended to. I would have to consider the option that the narrative structure was intentionally ruptured though, that he was actually being boldly experimental. We’re inheriting the pontificating blather on How Narrative Works (I Think) so we have to allow for the possibility of being wrong. We could be mistaking raw narrative for polished story. Narrative is, I think, a much wilder creature than the domesticated story.
And ultimately I would probably note that Moore utilises compensatory strategies, patches that make it all hang together if you watch it on a non-critical level. I would have to recognise that as legitimate, this ad hoc construction of narrative that we can view as a bad story, a good story or as an artifact that just is. I’d want to, in fact, for what it tells us about how low-level narrative dynamics works in relation to the epiphenomenon of plot, how much it’s the dynamics we want. At the end of the day, in a quality judgement I’d be more likely to focus on the thematic prevarications and sleight-of-hand, since “asking the hard questions” is a clearly-stated aim that was, I think, demonstrably not followed through on. I’d be more likely to ground it in ethical critique of the subtext, to address the mixed signals of liberalism and conservatism throughout, the reactionary undercurrent that culminated in the “God did it” ending rather than criticise it as broken narrative in and of itself — i.e. applying values of story that assume architectural integrity. It would be less about whether it works and more about how it works.
As it is, enough of the points I make are based on relevant conventions that I’d make no claim for it as anything higher than a critical review. In so far as my spidey-sense kicks in as a writer, in fact, in places that maybe the majority of viewers would have no problem, you could well argue I’m just carrying out a compatibility assessment. There’s certainly a fair amount of grumbling in that critique about How It Could Have Been… which carries more than a hint of “Should”.