5 Things to Know to Be a Critic
Becoming a Critic
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. Oftentimes, 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, like way too many government officials are) or by people to whom we matter individually very little. For example, if you live in Hawaii, your vote for President is rarely going to feel like it matters much, same with living in a state with a low population that has fewer electoral college votes.
But entertainment fandoms are completely ruled by the people who make them up. They give 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, especially if we consider particular fandom phenomena such as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Game of Thrones. Although those shows are very different, they're both similarly influenced by the fans to a large extent.
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 to date, 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.
1. The Role of the Critic
One thing you should be thinking about is what the purpose of a critic. Many people probably think critics are jealous of other people's talent, creativity and success, that they just like to whine about everything to make themselves feel superior. Having read and followed many critics, I don't think that. I see in critics people who care very deeply and passionately about their media of focus. They want to see their preferred media do good things. That's why it angers us when we see bad things; cliches, poorly-written plots, uninteresting characters, annoying cop-outs, things that try to pump themselves up with marketing when the product itself is shallow and meaningless.
The critic is a watchdog for the consumer. People often read reviews to decide whether to pay to see something, so a critic is helping people make an informed decision about how to use or not use their money. Understanding this part of your role is important when you're doing media criticism. I think the most effective critics are the ones that care the most if people are wasting their money on inferior products or not. It's a kind of humanitarian urge. It comes across as just being mean to creative people, but their judgment also rewards people who put out good work.
You also have to understand that 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 who always believed that their students could meet their high expectations. The latter are who helped me learn the most in each class. 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, or that their instructions and criteria will never be decipherable to you. The best teachers strike a difficult balance between the two extremes. They encourage effort and active participation by engaging with you. 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. Basically, that's what a good critic is doing for the entertainers he or she critiques. Critics offer an important service to artists because they offer 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).
2. Familiarity With Your Medium
This applies whether you're talking about criticizing TV sitcoms or Shakespeare plays. What you need is connoisseurship, familiarity with all the most significant works in your medium or genre of choice. You should ask yourself:
- 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 in some way. They should also be able to trace cause-and-effect, understanding how works are influenced by what came before them.
3. Historical Understanding 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 beginner's 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. A novel that was once praised as excellent when it's written can become criticized as racist, overly wordy, or too sentimental by the standards of modern times. How society judges works changes over time, and understanding when those changes happened, what caused them, and the results of the changes is crucial for understanding what it is you want to criticize.
Art is not made in a vacuum. Art is shaped by the culture and society the artist lives in. Economics, war, and even natural disasters can change how it gets made. It's a kind of 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 the understanding of your medium means developing an understanding of how larger social issues influence it. Historical understanding also helps you understand your medium from a technical standpoint, because 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!
4. The Strengths and Limits of Your Medium
Every medium of storytelling is going to have inherent drawbacks and limitations. Try to make a five-hour movie, and audiences will get bored. Make a 45-minute movie, and audiences will leave unfulfilled, 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 about that work. 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 emotion thematically, and probably have a happy ending. I don't expect excessive violence, gore, psychological horror, or a depressing ending. So those expectations 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 would have been received very differently if it weren't part of the Star Wars franchise and the characters, places, and concepts had different names. 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.
So as a critic, you have to understand what audiences expect based on the medium and genre, but also what the limitations and setbacks that 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 have to 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 or anime episode by itself has to have a self-contained plot in 20-40 minutes or an hour at the most. Books are in turn limited by being primarily text-based rather than visual, they have to use words to describe things a graphic novel or 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.
5. Tropes and Storytelling Concepts
There are a lot of concepts that have to do with storytelling and the dissection and discussion of stories, whether they're told in film, book, play, etc. Characters are the persons or person-like beings whose actions create plot, which is a sequence of events that make up a story. This sequence of events takes place in a setting. Themes, symbols, and motifs use the story or elements of the story as a way of referring to things or concepts outside the story itself. Language use can be "beige" and merely factually descriptive, or it can be "colorful" and evoke many layers of meaning and many emotional associations.
There are many tropes having to do with these aspects of storytelling that get into specifics, but there's also a lot of tropes that are medium or genre specific. 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 like I've said before in this article, 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 and not some other kind of story. 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 basically copying what other things like it have done better before it? What audience expectations does it challenge? How does it fit in with other works in its genre? Understanding of tropes prepares you for delving into those sorts of 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 by breaking the story down into concepts like plot, character, setting, and theme, which are further broken down into specific types.
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 about what to do based on a deep well of knowledge we draw from about our storytelling media of choice and about storytelling as a craft in general. We are also the first ones looking at new stuff and giving the consumers informed, expert 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. Not just a "person with an opinion" because let's face it, everybody has opinions.