Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Problem of Criticism

My oldest son has been in a production this month of the play Stage Door (there was a movie adapted from the play that I was going to link you to, but, after looking at the movie specifics, I'm not doing that, because the plot of the movie is almost unrecognizable when compared to the plot of the play). It's just a small part, because he has the lead in their other production, Look Homeward, Angel, to be performed next year. To put it mildly, things have been busy, lately, our weekends packed with events, not the least of which have been shuttling our kids all over the place.

Before we went to the play, we asked my son about it, trying to figure out the best time to go and how much priority to give the play for his, basically, three minute performance. He completely downplayed it to the point where I kind of thought we should just skip it, because we were going to have to go on a school night, which was going to mean being out way past bedtime for the kids, since the play didn't even start until 7:00, and it was two and a half hours long. See, our son said Stage Door really wasn't very good. It wasn't about anything, and he really didn't like it.

No, he didn't try out for a play he didn't like. He didn't try out for it at all. They asked him to do the part because they were running short of guys, so he acquiesced.

We did try to get more out of him, but, basically, all we got was that it's about a bunch of girls living in a boarding house in New York trying to make it on Broadway. And that is what's about. But that's not a plot, and, as far as my son was concerned, it didn't have one. I have to say, I was ready to skip this one after hearing him talk about it. Oh, and it was being billed as a comedy, and my son couldn't figure out why, because he didn't think it was funny. Oh, there were a few places with laughs, but, you know, not a comedy. Not that he knew what it was.

But my wife wanted to go anyway, and I get that. We do want to support the program he's in even if it's just for three minutes of him on stage.

I'm so glad we went, because, well, he was just completely wrong about that play. It was great! And it was, actually, about something: the struggle to hold onto your dreams in the face of repeated rejection, something you writers out there ought to be familiar with. There were several story lines, but, really, all of them dealt with that same subject. It was good, and it was funny, although it did contain tragedy. Still, definitely a comedy since it has a happy ending.

So how could my son be so wrong about it? What was the problem with his criticism? Well, it's the source: he's a 16-year-old boy that just didn't "get" what the play is about. He had no context for understanding the struggles the young women were going through, so, to him, the play wasn't about anything more than a bunch of girls living in a house together. Later, maybe, once he's been out in the world a bit, he'll be able to understand. But not now.

The whole situation got me to thinking, though, again, about criticism and reviews and all of that stuff and how important it is to remember the source of the criticism (criticism here being used as the objective measure of merits and faults of a work). It reinforces my belief that negative reviews are just as necessary as possible ones, because we should all be looking at the source of any review or criticism. Does the review just bash a work without giving any reasons? Does it unashamedly praise the work without any given reasons? Neither of those things are helpful. Unless the source of the critique tells why s/he liked or didn't like a work, it's fairly unhelpful. Unless you have a feeling of why the source likes or doesn't like particular types of things, it isn't helpful.

All of that to say that the first thing I should have done when my son was telling me how much he doesn't like Stage Door was to consider the source. I know what he likes. He likes nerdy, geek stuff. ThinkGeek is his favorite non-place in the world. If it had been a play about aliens girls in a boarding house, he would have loved it. But it wasn't that, and it dealt with subject matter that he's not equipped to understand, yet, so he didn't like it. What I should have done was seek a better source of information.

That's always the problem with criticism. The source of it. In that respect, there's more of a responsibility on the reader to find what s/he feels is a reliable source. "What does this person like?" "Does this person give reasons for what s/he likes?" Because, you know, if you know what kind of things a reviewer likes, you can decide that you should check something out even based on a bad review.

And here's a good example:
The recent trashing of Guy Fieri's restaurant by the New York Times (and other New York food reviewers) resulted in a packed house for Fieri as people flooded the place to see if the food really could be as bad as the reviewer said. Here's a better response to all of that than I can give, never having eaten there. It's a good example, though, of taking into account the source of the review.

I wish all of you could go see Stage Door, but they ended their run this past weekend, even if you did live close enough to go see it. As the play teaches, hold onto your dreams. And, as I'm saying, remember the source of criticism. Weigh it as much as you would the material being reviewed. Positive or negative.

[Oh, and don't forget to drop by A Beer for the Shower and vote for my party! Thanks so much!]


  1. I always consider the source!
    And it's like the law of averages - toss out the top and the bottom. Somewhere in the middle is the truth.

  2. Charles Stross had a post about reviews this week that touches a bit on this too. Sometimes more nuanced or complex stories require an audience that has some life experiences that aren't universal.

  3. Especially on Amazon you run into a lot of dumb people who write "reviews" which are in no way grounded in any kind of factual basis. It's something I've complained about before, people who say, "I don't like this type of story..." then why did you read it? Did you not read the description to know what you were getting? So they punish the author for their own stupidity. Argh.

  4. Good reminder. I've used it when I buy things online, too. Reading the negatives and assessing the person's capacity for screwing in a lightbulb, changes the review for me.

  5. You've made a good point here Andrew. I'm looking back to the Golden Days of The Rolling Stones and remembering how they trashed Clapton-they were so very wrong.

    Best wishes on the contest!

  6. I recently read a critique of a book on Amazon. It put me right off, but I persevered anyway, I was so glad I did, I thoroughly enjoyed the trilogy. I usually tend to basically ignore what other people say and form my own opinion.

  7. I saw a one star review on Netflix the other day for a movie I wanted to watch. It stood out because most of the rest of the ratings were four and five stars. But turned out this person just didn't like that the movie had no subtitle captions, so they gave it one star. I've seen book reviews that are similarly boneheaded.

  8. Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has them. And it's always wise to consider what they are saying with regard to the product in question.

  9. I find nuanced negative reviews almost always help me more than positive reviews in determining whether I will like something. Often the things that bother people most are things that don't bother me at all, and I can say "oh, that's all that's wrong with it? Great!" and go forth to enjoyment. And a well-articulated explication of an issue I would see as a problem is much more helpful than a list of the things that DO work. For example, if somebody described 50 Shades of Gray to me as "a breakout novel about the intricacies of a sub/dom sexual relationship," I would be curious and interested. "Twilight fanfic with poorly-written explicit and problematic bondage sex" tells me clearly what to expect. Negative reviews help clarify what I can expect far more than positive reviews, both by their source and by their content.

  10. Alex: Hmm... I think there's something deep there.

    Rusty: Yeah, that's absolutely true.

    PT: Yeah, I don't get those either. I kind of figure it was something they read because it was free, but that's not always the case either, so I don't know.

    Donna: Oh! They screw in! No wonder the hammer isn't working!

    Anne: I don't like all of Clapton's music, but, even if I didn't like any of it, I don't know how anyone could say he's not a great guitarist.

    Luanne: I hate when people do that. That has nothing to do with the movie. You know, I'm sorry you were disappointed, but sheesh!

    Michael: I, for one, do not have... you know what, never mind where I was going with that.

    Jericha: So are you saying you read Fifty Shades or not? I'm confused. :P
    The problem with most reviews is that they simply aren't more than "I loved it!" or "I hated it!" Those aren't helpful except to people that actually know you.

  11. Oh man, if only I could get more reviews to complain about.

  12. I imagine you shuttling around the town with your kids and watching, proudly, as your son makes his way across the stage and it's all so Christmassy and charming. I know, you're writing about a serious issue, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed you talking about your son and his play.

  13. Nancy: Um... Of your own stuff? I'm not sure what you mean.

    Cathy: Wait till the next one where he's one of the leads!
    And I didn't even mention my other son and the play he was just in... as the villain! He was so great!

  14. Stopping by to let you know I voted for your party!

  15. I think you're winning, Andrew!

    Good point on considering the source of reviews. It's easy to get caught up in the negativity and accept the criticism, but it's also easy to criticize. I actually like to read the negative reviews for things, because they either hit home OR they reveal something the person didn't like that I WILL like.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  16. Shannon: I like to read reviews that give me the "why"s of why someone liked something or not.

  17. Insightful commentary on reviews. For movies I like sites like rotten tomatoes, because I can skim through several quickly, looking for common complaints/praise. On Yelp I always click on the person's profile to see their other reviews, there's a few nut jobs out there!
    I agree about the Guy Fieri thing. I did a story about that recently on my restaurant blog (I used to work for him years ago.) I said something about trying to review his restaurant seriously was like comparing Sponge Bob Squarepants to art house drama. Basically, the NYT's guy was acting a little silly.

  18. I like the point you make about needing to have explanation about what someone did or didn't like in order for the criticism to be helpful. It's not enough to know someone thought it stunk or was good. Perspective makes a world of difference.

  19. Winopants: Well, you know, I think those guys just get upset when they see something that they view as inferior being all popular. Like writers do with 50 Shades. But, then, you have to look to Emerson who said never to trust in anything that is popular.

    Lara: It does. Whenever someone says s/he didn't like something, I want to know -why-.