So You Want to Be a Critic? Here's What You Need to Know!
Everyone has opinions about entertainment. Sometimes, those opinions can turn into drawn-out internet fights. People dig into trenches and refuse to budge. These debates can feel as weighty to some fans as a discussion about politics, or even more so. This is probably because consumers as a class have a lot of influence over the entertainment that gets funded. Their past buying behaviors influence the future of the industry.
For example, they're going to keep making Star Wars movies as long as the franchise remains so popular.
Often political decisions are remote, in contrast. They're made by people who don't need our votes, if they're already elected, reliably have worked our a way to stay elected for life, or are unelected. To many politicians, and to the political machine as a whole, we matter (individually) very little. For example, if you live in Hawaii, your vote for President is rarely going to feel like it matters as much, because it's already pretty much decided by the time the voting closes on the western coast of the mainland.
But entertainment fandoms are completely ruled by the people. They give ordinary people a sense of control. Yes, the artists, directors, writers, actors and so on are the ones making actual creative decisions. But, they make those decisions with the intention of pleasing their fans and target demographic. In the internet age, fans have had an enormous impact on the entertainment industry.
IN A WORLD where fans are so important to entertainment, critics who shape the opinions of these fans are also important. Nowadays, everyone and their grandma has probably written a review of something online, be it a review of a vegetable peeler on Amazon, a brief blog post on the latest blockbuster, or a book-length discussion of the portrayal of gender in video games.
And while there are not such things as correct and incorrect opinions, there are informed and uninformed opinions, and there are logical and illogical defenses for opinions. For example, if I said that I thought the last season of Game of Thrones was the worst season of the show, I would need logical reasons that support my opinion that are consistent with facts. I would have to establish criteria for what constitutes a good vs. bad season of the show, and those criteria would have to be logical, thorough, and consistent.
So here's what you need to research, study, and come to an understanding of before calling yourself a critic.
What Are Critics For?
It's important to think about the purpose of a critic.
A common misunderstanding is that critics are jealous and bitter people, who nit-pick things to tear them down. In that way of thinking, criticism is just another kind of bullying and negativity.
Having read and followed many critics, I don't think that. I see critics as people who care very deeply and passionately about the media they want to talk about. They want to see creative people do good things. We want to be encouraging to content creators when they make things we like.
But, it does anger us when we see bad things; cliches, poorly-written plots, uninteresting characters, annoying cop-outs. Or when low quality art tries to pump itself up with marketing, but product itself is shallow and meaningless. As fans of the works we criticize, we understand that it feels like a betrayal.
That's why a critic is a watchdog for the consumer. People read reviews to decide whether to pay to see something. A critic helps people make an informed decision about how to use their money. This is a crucial part of your role when you're doing media criticism. The most effective critics are the ones that care the most if people are wasting their money on inferior products. It's a kind of humanitarian urge. It comes across as just being mean to some creative people. Sure. But a critic's judgment also rewards people who put out good work.
Artists and writers need critics. When I think back on my education, I remember that there were fun teachers, mean teachers, and teachers who were tough to please - but always believed their students could meet high expectations. This last type of teacher helped me learn the most. Overly nice teachers just let everyone slide with good grades for mediocre effort. Overly mean teachers make you feel like no matter how much effort you put in, it will never be good enough. Then there were ones whose instructions and criteria were simply indecipherable.
The best teachers strike a difficult balance between extremes, and are clear about communicating what they want. They encourage effort and active participation. They support you, and believe in your ability to succeed. They have high standards, but they make you feel like you can meet those standards if you try, and they're usually right.
That's what a good critic does for the entertainers they critique. Critics offer an important service to artists; objective, rational, consistent, informed standards by which works can be judged. Their opinion is thus more valuable than the simple consensus of an ignorant mass of people - unless you're just shooting for sales figures and don't care about quality.
Know Your Medium and Genre
Whether you're talking about criticizing TV sitcoms or Shakespeare plays, you definitely have to be familiar with all the most significant works in your medium and genre(s) of choice.
- Why is what I'm reading/watching important to this medium?
- What am I supposed to get out of watching/reading this? Am I getting that?
- What do I personally feel from reading/watching this?
- Why did other people say this was good or important? Do I agree?
You need to know not only the most famous and important creators in your media of choice, but many of those not often studied by laypeople. With movies, it's best to start at the earliest films known for making certain technical innovations and work forward chronologically. You can find "canons" or lists of the greatest works, for many media and genres, such as for romance novels. Every critic should be intimately familiar with and knowledgeable about the works in their area of expertise that are considered high-quality, successful and influential, or historically significant. They should also be able to trace cause-and-effect, understanding how works are influenced by what came before them.
This is where an academic background can help, but it's not necessary. You just have to put some effort into educating yourself. Start with some basic questions you have, or that you think other people might have, about the media or genre you're studying.
Let's say I want to be a critic who focuses on crime drama TV shows. I might ask, which are the most famous crime drama shows? Who are the most recognizable actors in the genre? Which crime dramas are considered the best? Which ones had the biggest audience? Were there some that flopped but had potential? Were there any I think of as overrated? What do many of these shows get wrong about real-world crime and justice? What's one show that's really accurate? Educating oneself is simply a matter of asking questions and then finding reputable sources of information that answer those questions.
What is the History of Your Medium?
I touched on this in the above point, but simply learning what's so great about a list of books and films is just a first step. You should also be able to explain how your medium began, how it has changed over time, and what the significance and effects of those changes are.
In film and animation, this is important. But written literature has changed significantly since its earliest developments as well. How people heard or read The Epic of Gilgamesh or the Ramayana are significantly different than how people now read Twilight or Harry Potter. Your job as a critic involves a lot of historical understanding of your medium or genre.
One reason for this is because "good" and "bad" are subjective concepts that change over time. Culture changes, and so does how we perceive art and fiction. A novel that was once praised as excellent when it was written can become criticized as racist, overly wordy, or too sentimental by the standards of modern times. How society judges works changes, and understanding when those changes happen, why, and the results of the changes, is crucial for understanding the works you criticize.
Art is not made in a vacuum. Art is shaped by the culture the artist lives in. Economics, war, and even natural disasters can change how it gets made. Art is a barometer for the health, economic vitality, and happiness of the civilization it comes from. A movie made immediately following a major war is going to be very different from a movie made in a peaceful, prosperous time. Developing an understanding of your medium means developing an understanding of how larger social issues influence it.
Historical knowledge also helps you understand your medium from a technical standpoint. The way entertainment is produced and consumed relies on technology and is changed significantly by technological change. Just ask those actors who struggled to adapt to the addition of sound to the medium of film! Understanding the technical limitations of a work from a previous time period is important because you don't want to place unrealistic expectations on the work in question, demanding something of it that simply was not possible at the time.
Know What Your Medium Can and Cannot Do!
Which brings me to my next point.
Every storytelling medium has drawbacks and limitations. Try to make a five-hour movie, and audiences will get bored. Make a 45-minute movie, and audiences will be unsatisfied, expecting more. Inherent in each medium, and genre within a medium, is a set of prejudices and assumptions audiences will have before they know anything else.
If I know something is meant to be a romantic story, I expect that it will be told from a female perspective, center heavily on emotional themes, and probably have a happy ending. I don't expect excessive violence, gore, psychological horror, or a depressing ending. And my expectations as a potential movie-goer will influence how creators create, and how works are marketed.
They're also pivotal in understanding how to properly judge works as "good" or "bad" in quality. Expectation plays a huge role in how people react to something. For example, Star Wars Episode 7: The Last Jedi would have been received very differently if it weren't part of the Star Wars franchise. Because the Star Wars name is so culturally significant, the movie inevitably will always be judged not on its own merits, but as a piece in that franchise. Using that name and familiar IP from the franchise sets up certain audience expectations for the movie.
So as a critic, you have to understand what audiences expect. But also what limitations medium and genre could impose on creativity. Genres are guides, and media are sets of tools. They can help, but they also impose constraints. When criticizing a work, it is important that you understand those constraints, so that you're not setting impossible or unrealistic standards.
For example, given how fast animation studios work, some minor background detail errors are pretty inevitable in anime and cartoons. As long as they aren't lingering, overly distracting, or if the work doesn't have bad animation quality in general, I usually tend to overlook them. Movies are limited by time; they can't have as much information in them as a book or television series. However, a television episode has to be shorter than a book. So while the series as a whole can be more complex than a movie, a television episode has to have a self-contained plot in 20-40 minutes. Books are also limited; being primarily text-based rather than visual, they have to use words to describe things a movie could simply show.
So understanding the strengths and limitations of the medium help you become a better critic by helping you understand:
- What audiences expect and don't expect.
- What the medium requires the work to do that a different medium wouldn't.
- How to discuss adaptations, or the movement of a story from one kind of medium to another.
- What constraints and limitations the creators had to work within in terms of time, budget, technical capabilities, etc.
Altogether, this means you will learn how to come up with criteria for judging work that are more grounded and rational. You shouldn't expect a romantic comedy to have an exciting action scene, and you shouldn't worry too much if your summer blockbuster car chase movie has a sloppy romantic sub-plot. Not saying not to have standards, but don't expect things that are not reasonable to expect.
Tropes and Storytelling Concepts
There are a lot of concepts in storytelling, whether stories are in the form of a film, book, play, etc.You've probably heard about them if you've had an English literature class in high school or college.
Characters are the persons or person-like beings in the story. Their actions create plot, which is a sequence of events that make up a story. This sequence of events takes place in a setting which is the time and place of the story.
Themes, symbols, and motifs use the story, or elements of the story, to refer to things or concepts outside the story itself. A theme is an important topic or idea that the story centers around or reflects upon. For example, a theme in Death Note is the question of who deserves ultimate power. A symbol is some element of the story that acts as a reference to something outside the story, which shows that the author wanted to comment on the thing the symbol references. For example, using Death Note again, the apple is a recurring theme, or motif, that references the Garden of Eden story and symbolizes the lost innocence of humanity. Motifs are symbols that repeat throughout a work, highlighting the importance of the symbolism.
An allegory is when part of the story is intended to invoke concepts associated with an idea or another story. In Western media, allegories for Greek myths, Shakespeare plays, and Biblical stories, especially references to Jesus, are very popular. When different characters get bound with their arms spread out in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, this can be seen as a Biblical allegory. This pose is used to compare a given fictional character to Jesus. In the case of Madoka, it shows that the character in question is suffering like Jesus (Homura), or pure and self-sacrificing like Jesus (Madoka or Mami).
Critics of literature also pay close attention to the kinds of words an author uses. Language can be "beige" and merely factually descriptive, or it can be "colorful" and evoke many layers of meaning and many emotional associations. "Purple prose" is when an author over-does it with flowery, sentimental, dramatic, or metaphor-laden language. This is a problem some people have with certain historical works, written when a more poetic style of prose was more popular. These days, modern readers want writers to get to the point. In a fast-moving world, we want authors who move fast along with us. Books and sentences have gotten shorter.
Tropes are specific aspects of stories. All stories use tropes, and they can be thought of as building blocks. A lot of tropes are specific to a medium or genre. For example, the fairy tale genre uses well-known, and now often considered cliche or outdated, tropes, like "true love's kiss" or "love at first sight". Or having a heroine who embodies traditional virtues, like humility, compassion, and chastity.
Since criticism is all about expectations, genre and medium-specific tropes represent those expectations. Someone could make a modern fairy tale, that did away with some of the genre's more outdated concepts, but it would have to play some of the tropes straight to still be seen as a fairy tale.
For example, even though Shrek is a genre parody of fairy tales and fairy tale-inspired Disney movies, it still has true love, magic, and a happy ending. The creativity of Shrek is that it makes some fairy tale concepts stronger and more meaningful by poking fun at the more tired, outdated tropes.
Understanding what tropes are associated with your medium and genre is essential for comparing one work to others and evoking meaningful thought about the work.
- Is it original or cliche?
- Is it new and interesting, or is it only copying what other things that did it better before it?
- What audience expectations does it challenge? What does it not challenge?
- How does it fit in with other works in its genre?
Understanding tropes prepares you to ask the right questions when discussing fiction. You don't need a lot of big fancy literature class words necessarily. If they help, use them, if not, scrap them in favor of less formal terms. You just need a simple way to clarify your thoughts and break the story down into concepts like plot, character, setting, and theme, which are further broken down into specific types and sub-types of each.
I firmly believe that anyone can, with some time and effort put into self-educating, become a good critic. I also firmly believe that critics are important. We help creative people make better decisions, based on a deep well of knowledge about the craft of storytelling. We are also the first responders of entertainment, looking at new stuff and giving the consumers an informed opinion.
While the new medium of the internet made it super easy for anyone to call themselves a critic, only people who take a lot of time and put a lot of effort into deepening their understanding of their medium can become valuable critics. The kind of critics who are respected and listened to. Being a critic is much more than just being another person with an opinion, because everybody has opinions. But it's about having an opinion that is grounded in reason and backed by evidence, such that it deserves to be listened to and taken seriously. It's fun to rant. It's fun to get attention for being an asshole on the internet. But that's not really criticism. Criticism grounded in rationality is valuable, in a world full of emotional people trying to shout over one another.
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© 2016 Rachael Lefler