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Eric: The sad thing is, I generally preferred Siskel to Ebert.

Oh joy. It's another Zen and the Art of Criticism post. I'm sure you're all excited.

Like most people, I look at my various statistics. I like to know how many people come to the site, and how many of them have things to say, and how many of those things are good versus... well, not so kind. It's this thing one does. And most of us in fact do it.

Well, I saw an incoming link from Tad Williams's online forum, so I followed it to this discussion, which had been prompted by the Kurtz/Carlson thing, but (as with so many of these discussions) it had morphed into something else. The link in question described me as the "Roger Ebert" of Webcomics Criticism, which isn't the worst thing I've been called (one aspires to be the Pauline Kael of Webcomics Criticism, and fears becoming the Anthony Lane of Webcomics Criticism, but Ebert's a cool guy. I'm not nearly that good at what I do, mind, but still).

The question was raised, however -- well, let me quote "Rook," who was the guy kind enough to link me in the first place:

One of the things that kinda gets me is that works of art can be critiqued. But can critiques be critiqued? I suppose so, but that creates a weird feedback loop where there seems to be no end. Another thing is when you call a critic out on something, a typical response is, "Well, it's just a matter of opinion after all." Whereas an artwork, whether visual, written, or musical, has to stand for something.

Can critiques be critiqued? Can criticism be criticized?

Unquestionably, undoubtedly, and unreservedly yes. But we should discuss what we mean by criticism.

I've beaten this drum before, but there are really three definitions of criticism in use today, which have had the unfortunate effect of muddying the waters for everyone involved. In no particular order:

  1. Criticism is the interpretation or analysis of creative work, attempting to discern both technique and meaning within one of many potential contexts. This is the one Kris Straub will make fun of me over -- criticism in this definition refers to working out what an artist has done and how he has done it. While the analysis is necessarily subjective, this definition is less about judgement and more about interpretation. There are lots of "critical theories" that critics of this stripe subscribe to, ranging from traditional analysis through political filters like Marxism or Feminism (or any other -isms you care to apply) up to modern and post-modern theories like the (quite old) "New criticism" through the esoterica of Deconstructionism. When you read literary journals, this is ostensibly the kind of criticism you'll find.
  2. Criticism is the judgement rendered by (theoretically) qualified, (hopefully) impartial analyst over the effectiveness of given creative work at meeting its intentions and the suitability of the work to popular enjoyment. This is an overly highfalutin' way of saying "Critics review shit." This is the Roger Ebert side of Criticism -- it may touch on aesthetics or artistic merit or the like, but generally it says "this work is good and you should consume it" or "this work sucks and you should shun it," or some value in between the extremes. When we make references to film critics, book critics, theater critics, the old television cartoon The Critic or the like, almost always we're referring to Reviewers like this. Any time you've seen stars or thumbs as part of a criticial essay, you're reading a review.
  3. Criticism means pointing out the flaws in someone or someone's work. This is unquestionably the most popular day-to-day usage. "Do you mind some constructive criticism?" "To be critical for a moment...." "If you can't take criticism maybe you shouldn't ask my opinion." And so on and so forth. Criticism is innately negative, in this definition -- it isn't about what people do right, or how well a given work (or given person) accomplishes its goals, it's about they've done it wrong. Criticism is innately negative under this definition, and the only good that can come from it is reform.

You can see the problem, I trust. Someone can work diligently under the first definition of criticism and be conflated with the third by virtue of terminology. Reviewers and analysts becomes one thing, and the people who read their essays will expect elements of both somewhere in the work. It's not enough to describe how something is done -- the majority of the audience wants to hear whether or not the work's any damn good.

The relationship that each type of critic has with the artists they're referring to is different as well. The first type -- the analyst -- needs little and probably should have no direct connection to or influence on the critic they're analyzing. Seriously. Little to none. In literary criticism, for well over a hundred years, critics have asserted that "the author is dead," meaning that authorial intent -- what the author "meant to do" in his work -- was irrelevant to the interpretation of that work. Ray Bradbury can insist -- as he recently has -- that he never meant for Fahrenheit 451 to be about censorship. He meant for it to warn how television was and would destroy interest in reading. However, all the thousands of people who interpreted Fahrenheit 451 to be about censorship still saw it that way, whether Bradbury intended it or not, and the essays written supporting that contention aren't made wrong by authorial fiat.

But at the same time, if Bradbury decided to write a sequel tomorrow, he is under absolutely no obligation to write that sequel with the popular interpretation in mind, no matter how popular it may be. He may and should proceed from his own contentions and create the work he wants to read. And no one -- absolutely no one -- can tell him he's wrong when it comes out. No matter how brilliant and well supported the analysis and interpretation of a given critic, the author does not and never will answer to that critic. And that's entirely as it should be.

The second type of critic -- the reviewer -- is certainly important to artists, especially if they have some traction among the audience the artist is trying to attract. Certainly, every artist hopes for "good reviews," even if the artist has no intention of reading them. Good reviews mean more audience. Good reviews mean more money to buy food to keep the artist alive while he writes the next work that goes down the line. And whether or not artists should be influenced by their reviews, for the most part they are influenced by their reviews. It's coldly cynical, but it's true. If ten people review a book written by an author, and eight of them pan it and say he spends too much time on strawman arguments between characters and not enough on plot, the author's way more likely to make the next book plot heavy. He wants to sell copies, and reviewers are a means to that end. This can lead down bad directions, as an author who just writes to the reviewers' expectations can become artistically bankrupt -- possibly getting good notices and making some good sales, but producing forgettable works that have no long term staying power. And never forget -- some very popular works have been trashed by reviewers (which is how Rob Schneider still has a career) and creative works that were critically panned upon their release have sometimes absolutely stood the test of time and been acclaimed as masterpieces.

The third type of critic -- the so-called constructive (or destructive) critic is a very weird case. There are times their observations are spot on, and an artist would be well advised to consider them as they move forward. At other times, they lead to the destruction of the creative process -- the artist becomes paralyzed, unable to proceed because of the harsh words of a few, and all too often destructive critics aren't representative of popular opinion. An artist's best course of action is to find those readers whose opinions they trust and filter negative criticism through them.

I mention the artists above essentially to dispose of them. The question at the top of the essay remains. Can criticism be criticized?

I was unequivocal in saying 'yes.' Of course criticism can be criticized. More to the point, all criticism is subject to all three definitions of criticism given above, just like any other produced work, regardless if the criticism itself falls under the first, second or third definition.

Let's take them in order, shall we? We'll take an example of each definition of criticism at work, and we'll describe how each interacts with the three types of criticism being levied towards them:

Case 1: A scholarly essay analyzing a webcomic for both technique and interpretation.

A first definition (Scholarly) Critic would analyze the essay's techniques, interpreting language and showing appropriate context either within the essay or surrounding the essay to describe how the essayist analyzed the webcomic and intuit the philosophy behind the essay. The essentially philosophical field of Critical Theory is entirely devoted to the analysis of analysis. This is one reason Critical Theory gets mocked -- it seems self-referential and masturbatory. However, what the field is doing is less about literature (or other forms of artistic expression) and more about how we see literature or art as a whole. What is being analyzed is our eye, not what it sees. It is specialist work, often only of interest to specialists. Some truly great work has come out of these impulses (Coleridge's Biographia Literaria springs to mind), as well as many many thousands of pages of sheer, unmitigated bullshit. As always, the truth lies in the eye of the beholder.

A second definition (Reviewer) Critic would look at the essay's effectiveness. Consider the professor of literature, receiving a paper that compares Clive Cussler to Geoffrey Chaucer. That professor isn't looking at the paper's startling insights, typically -- the professor is trying to figure out if the student effectively stated his thesis and then supported it in the body of the work. If he did, even if the professor disagrees with the student's thesis, he should grade it well. The student has done his work effectively. If he didn't, even if the professor agrees with the student's thesis, he should grade it poorly. The student has failed to write a good essay. Applying this logic to a critic writing about the Case 1 essay -- a critic will review the essay based on the usual criteria. Was the essay well written? Did it make its point? Was its point well supported? And -- and I can't emphasize this enough -- was it entertaining to read? Essays of all stripes written for the public arena are themselves meant to be entertaining as well as educational. If your essay is boring (I know, you're thinking I might be calling the kettle black with this one) then even if you're right you've failed, because no one will stick around. He might not grade the paper (though, y'know, star reviews and other silly devices come into play), but his subjective impression will still inform others. And the essayist's credibility as a critic may well come into play.

A third definition (Negative) Critic would go into what the essayist did wrong. This is less about the technique of the essay or the effectiveness of the essay, and more about the flaws of the essay. This is the first area where the actual subject matter of the essay comes into play -- if a negative critic disagrees with the essay's point, he is going to judge it harshly. Even if he does agree with the essay, he's the fellow who'll gladly poke holes in the essay's points or evidence -- all the better to force the essayist to write a tighter piece next time, or so he thinks.

Case 2: A generally positive review of a webcomic's latest story arc.

The Scholarly critic would analyze the criteria a reviewer brought to his review -- examining the elements the reviewer found to be important and assessing the technique the reviewer used to develop his overall opinion. The scholar would likely take a scholarly interpretation of the webcomic itself -- as well as other reviews written about that webcomic -- and use it to illustrate the reviewer's philosophy.

A Reviewer might review the review (man, this is getting funky to type) both as entertainment -- was the review worth reading on its own merits? -- and as a statement about the webcomic. If the (second) reviewer disagreed with the first review's contentions, he may well review the webcomic himself as a means of highlighting the areas where the first review was weak, and use that as evidence to demonstrate the review's effectiveness (or lack thereof). These kinds of things can get heated.

A Negative critic will attack the review's weak points, obviously. Much of the time, this will be fueled by a disagreement with the review's result. Perhaps the negative critic hates the comic the review spoke positively of, and therefore the negative criticism will lash into those points the review makes to support its positive impression. Or, perhaps the negative critic thinks the areas that the review found to be weak were in fact not weak, and so the negative critic punches holes in those arguments. Or perhaps the negative critic will just think the reviewer had his head up his ass and make fun of perceived sexual preferences. It's been known to happen.

Case 3: A snark filled rending of a webcomic's failings.

The Scholarly critic might well analyze the snarker's underlying intentions -- perhaps looking at more than one rant to find commonality. Or the critic might examine the use of humor as a means of blunting (or sharpening) the hostile intent of the negative criticisms.

The Reviewer, as always, will look at the effectiveness of the rant. Many of the most vitriolic negative essays on the internet are meant primarily as entertainment. Television Without Pity doesn't lay into its subjects because they really hope the producers of America's Got Talent will reform their ways. They're trying to entertain their readers. A reviewer will look to see if they manage it -- and will try to tell the difference between a hate filled genius with words and a subliterate monkey hurling feces against the wall.

The negative critic, naturally enough, is there to tear into the snark filled rending with choice criticism of their own. All too often, negative criticism fails to be convincing -- in part because often a negative critic thinks his criticisms are self-evident (The E. Burns-White Principle of Discourse: any time you think something is self-evident? It isn't.) and therefore are unsupported. Or sometimes the snarker's points are (to the negative critic) just plain wrong. And of course, sometimes the techniques they're using detract from their point instead of make it, and the negative critic helpfully points those problems out.

For the record? I have written criticisms of all three varieties for Websnark. No one is superior to any other. I'll admit I usually strive to be a first definition (scholarly) critic, in part because that's what I enjoy. I certainly do indulge in review now and again (the "State of the Webcartoonist series" is nothing but review, really). And every so often, my essay is just there to point out something I think is wrong. Also for the record? Everything I write is meant to at least entertain. Maybe some essays are meant to entertain smaller audiences (I doubt the audience for this particular essay is as broad as, say, my essay on Garfield without speech balloons), but they're meant to entertain someone. And when I put something up, I'm opening it to the scholarly discourse, presenting it for others to judge, and inviting folks to tell me just how wrong I am. Just like every other website on the world wide web. It's the nature of the beast -- when you produce, even if what you're producing is criticism, you become grist for all kinds of critical mills.

2,700 words on critical theory. Jesus, we really are back in 2005 on here.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at August 28, 2008 1:40 PM

Comments

Comment from: Remus Shepherd [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2008 2:26 PM

Anyone who asks whether or not criticisms can be critiqued has never read your comments, Eric. :)

And, if you'll forgive me a moment of critique, you fall squarely in the first definition of critic. You're too polite to go far in the third definition, the snark. And you focus too much on things you personally enjoy (or which are created by your personal friends) to be an effective reviewer for new or unheard of comics. And that's fine -- this is your blog, first and foremost, and people should be aware that they're getting only what you want to write.

The webcomic world really could *use* a popular, unbiased, and wide-focus reviewer. But you ain't it, and you should push back against people who want you to be.

Comment from: Remus Shepherd [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2008 2:26 PM

Anyone who asks whether or not criticisms can be critiqued has never read your comments, Eric. :)

And, if you'll forgive me a moment of critique, you fall squarely in the first definition of critic. You're too polite to go far in the third definition, the snark. And you focus too much on things you personally enjoy (or which are created by your personal friends) to be an effective reviewer for new or unheard of comics. And that's fine -- this is your blog, first and foremost, and people should be aware that they're getting only what you want to write.

The webcomic world really could *use* a popular, unbiased, and wide-focus reviewer. But you ain't it, and you should push back against people who want you to be.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2008 3:28 PM

Ray Bradbury can insist -- as he recently has -- that he never meant for Fahrenheit 451 to be about censorship. He meant for it to warn how television was and would destroy interest in reading. However, all the thousands of people who interpreted Fahrenheit 451 to be about censorship still saw it that way, whether Bradbury intended it or not, and the essays written supporting that contention aren't made wrong by authorial fiat.

He is also lying through his goddamn teeth, because in a forward of one of the reprintings of that book he claimed it was an act of censorship that compelled him to write the story in the first place.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2008 3:50 PM

It's good to see you back!

Comment from: Tangent [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2008 6:44 PM

Actually, I'd say the best critics/reviewers have to be a little of each of those three points, Eric. Two of my friends who are critics cued me in on the power of the "negative" aspects of reviews, utilized in a constructive manner. Much as when you cut out infected tissue to save the whole, so too does the effective reviewer use the scalpel of "negativity" to excise the segments of a piece of work that may be lacking.

The caveat is that you also have to highlight the positive. This is where the shock-jock reviewers who try to tear down webcomics fail. They don't realize that there is an important, essential role that reviewers have: to build through destruction. Some of your best reviews have taken the negative and used it to expose those gems within that work so that the cartoonist, should he or she decide to, can work from those seeds to improve the comic as a whole.

Basically, what is needed is a happy medium. Without that, either the reviews end up overtly positive and useless for anything more than inflating a cartoonist's ego (I'm quite guilty of that, though my later reviews have gotten better) or they're a firestorm that razes everything, leaving not even the seeds from which a healthy comic can grow... and the third ends up just being a plot summary.

Thank you. You've given me a bit to think about here.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents

Comment from: GG [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2008 7:28 PM

To examine a not-impossible-to-believe scenario:

Someone takes a piece of archetypal mythology, a classic hero's journey and adapts it for modern consumption. Someone else turns that into a comic book character. Someone else comes along and turns the comic book character into a movie. A video game company makes a (probably bad!) game of the movie. Webcomic makers comment on the game in their comic, prompting a webcomic Critic (used in any applicable sense of the word) to comment on the comic. Then someone on a forum reviews the reviewer, prompting the critic to criticise the criticism. Which is in turn commented on in the forum.

Somewhere in Perdition, Nybbas is having a very fine day.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2008 11:27 PM

Worth noting, each different criticism has its own thrills too. It's been a while since I've fully endulged in type 3 myself... I need to get cracking on that.

Also, anyone who doesn't know (or believes it not possible) to critique criticism has never tried to bring up Derrida or Deconstructionism to more than one critic.

A question - didn't we actually discuss this specific topic here before? Something's dancing on the edge of my memory... but that might just be me remembering one of the times that I said that it's folly to take a work and analyze it independent of the artist's whole work (though admittedly, doing that makes it much easier to tolerate folks like the batshit-insane Dave Sim).

Comment from: Kris Straub [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2008 11:59 PM

I wouldn't make fun of you, Eric. You have an understanding of where criticism should reside, and moreover, I think you have a grasp of its function and how to achieve that function.

I may question the value of an essay on how Yiff City Psychic PI is actually a metaphor for 1930s fascist Italy viewed through the lens of a subculture attempting to find purchase in the mainstream, but I find one interesting when I find one that's well-written. They are incredibly rare. Yours are well written and I think they are done from a pure critical stance, and not an attempt to BE THE GUY who discovered some gem and go down in the "history books" (which are non-existent for webcomics unless we ourselves write them!).

The whole thing conjures the old knight at the end of Indy and the Last Crusade. Are you doing this for the critique's glory, or yours?

Comment from: Tangent [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2008 7:32 AM

Heh. Sounds like the punchline of one of your mini-arcs, Kris. ^^

Comment from: William_G [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2008 9:20 AM

The webcomic world really could *use* a popular, unbiased, and wide-focus reviewer.

When there are so many "reviewers/bloggers/news site owners" looking to do little more than get in the good graces of their favorite creators so they can hang out at cons together?

Might as well ask for all of Bill Gates' money while you're at it.

Are you doing this for the critique's glory, or yours?

This question seeks to negate the critic's argument through negating the critic. It's an effective tactic to be sure, and I can see why it has become such a crutch for some... Especially when one doesn't want dissenting opinion around.

Even though no one wants to acknowledge the elephant in the living room (out of politeness, I assume?), this subject is and always will be a free speech issue. When one argues that there is no need for critics, or that one feels that only certain types of criticism are allowable, one is arguing against free speech.

But people have the right to voice their opinions on webcomics. And how, why, and to the level of skill it gets done is completely unimportant in face of the fact that they have the right to do so.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2008 9:46 AM

You're right, William, and same is true for creating webcomics. I wave that banner proudly. But all of that is entirely beside the point.

Just because anyone has "the right" to do something it does not follow that everyone else is obliged to give a damn. That's pretty much rule zero for publishing on the web: you have the freedom to do practically anything you want in any way you want, but there's no guarantee that anyone else will care.

So how do you make people care? An argument that people have a moral obligation to care seems pretty flimsy to me, but that appears to be the argument you're using.

Comment from: Eric Burns-White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2008 10:09 AM

Interestingly, it goes back to the central question of the essay. Straub wasn't commenting on the right for the essay to exist in the first place -- he was responding to my statement that he'd mock me. ;) His answer was no, and he went on to discuss where he felt mockery would be appropriate.

(For example -- the phrasing of that paragraph. In my defense I'm on my first cup of coffee.)

Mockery is, at heart, a critical response to criticism -- most obviously a definition three response, but it can also be an implicit definition two response. (It can also constitute analysis, but only when we're mocking Harold Bloom. Who, as long time readers know, is insane.)

M. G's absolutely right. If someone made the contention that the critic shouldn't speak, they're arguing against free speech. But it cuts both ways -- but that's tangential to Straub's statement, which is that some criticism invites mockery. Which is to say, one can always criticize the critic, by any definition of either term.

And of course, M. Wright is right as well, in what he... write. (Damn so close to the homonym trifecta.) None of this obligates anyone to care enough to either mock or defend a critical work.

As to the question he posed: "how do you make people care?" Write well, write convincingly, support your argument, and write entertainingly. If they enjoy reading your essay, they'll read it to the end. If you support your argument in your essay, they may be convinced by it. If you get stuff wrong or misspell too many words, then it'll be a lot harder to make them care.

Or so it seems to me.

Comment from: Kris Straub [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2008 12:22 PM

William G, you're right that people get the right to blog their opinion in whatever way they see fit, but flying a "this is well-thought-out critical review" flag is not sufficient to bridge the gap between just plain ol' bloggin' and making valuable critique. I guess what I'm saying is, it's the difference between being a coach on the field and an armchair quarterback. I'm not going to tell the guy at home to sit still and watch the game, but it takes more to be a coach than shouting "BAD CALL" at the TV on a fumbled play.

There is this opinion that THE MAN is trying to crush the humble blogger with a criticism. This is impossible to do. Furthermore I don't know why I would be lumped in with that movement. I'm dying to have Starslip picked apart -- designed it to be picked apart! -- but no one has done it. Instead we get a million articles on how the gutter between panels 2 and 3 of yesterday's PVP was too thin.

Here, I'll give everyone a prompt. "Compare and contrast metaphorical constructs in Starslip Crisis with thematic elements in the poetry of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot." I have now laid it out on a platter.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2008 12:29 PM

Well Kris you know the width of gutter panels is the single most important challenge of our generation.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2008 1:06 PM

But people have the right to voice their opinions on webcomics.

I don't think anyone here is contesting that. I'd go so far as to say that it's an unexamined assumption around here. Of mine at least.

And how, why, and to the level of skill it gets done is completely unimportant in face of the fact that they have the right to do so.

I don't think anyone's contesting that either. But the premise of this essay (and presumably of this discourse) is that it is important for webcomics criticism's readers to discern how, why and to the level of skill it gets done.

Comment from: Eric Burns-White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2008 3:06 PM

It was during my rather long absence from such matters, but one thing struck me about Starslip vis a vis criticism -- Straub made one of the most cogent statements about the potential for the critic to affect culture for good and ill I've seen in a while.

Seriously. It was the culmination of the last major overarching storyline. The ultimate weapon was a piece of art -- one so profound, so perfectly realized that to see it would enslave the thoughts of any sentient other than the Cirbozoids (who have no innate sense of aesthetic). It was the purest expression of art as a weapon -- with the Spine of the Cosmos, all militaries could be suborned, sheerly through comprehension.

Vanderbeam, through his understanding of artistic appreciation and critical reception, understood the means by which the Spine of the Cosmos could be recontextualized. It could, by sheer dint of juxtaposition, be seen entirely differently. Its profundity could be made banal, completely negating its capacity for threat.

He saved the universe. And at the same time, he so completely altered the perception of the Spine of the Cosmos that it became incapable of being appreciated artistically. It became just another boring artifact of a previous artistic period. What had once been an artistic experience so all-encompassing that worlds could willingly burn while viewing it was now suitable for cheap tee-shirts and cheap knockoffs, and even those wouldn't sell very well.

Vanderbeam saved the universe by sacrificing the Spine of the Cosmos. He did worse than destroy it. He obliterated its meaning.

That right there was some grade A subtext on Straub's part.

Oh. T.S. Eliot? Well, Colonel Breckenridge harkens to Prufrock, clinging to the artifacts of the past while measuring out the future with outdated coffee spoons, iconoclastic to the point that the mermaids that are the future would clearly not speak to him. Nor would he to them. He would not, in the end, eat a peach.

Also, Cutter totally has Rum Tum Tugger's hairstyle.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2008 4:18 PM

To expound a bit on a point William_G made:

"The webcomic world really could *use* a popular, unbiased, and wide-focus reviewer."

While the form might benefit from one (or might not), I don't think we'll see such a reviewer for a bit., with the reasoning that William_G alludes to via sarcasm - money (and by extension, time).

Basically, the only way you'd get someone to review in such a fashion would be if they were doing it for a living, from an independent source. Thing is, I don't think you'll see an independent source even offer a position like that for a while. Most webcomics are free; who would pay a critic (be it a customer or an employer) for criticism on something free?

You might get an academic to do it, if they felt it was something in line with their research. That probably will be where it comes from eventually, but it hasn't happened yet.

Our other option is someone with enough money that they don't have to work, and they spend their copious free time doing criticism. In other words, we're waiting for the Batman of webcomics criticism. Hilarious idea, highly unlikely to actually happen.

Of course, that would just be the setup for somone to potentially be such a critic. There's still the question of whether Dr. Webcomic, Ph.D. or Webcomics Review Batman could actually pull off the engaging portion required.

Comment from: Eric Burns-White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2008 4:25 PM

It's also functionally impossible. Journalists can strive to be unbiased -- to let facts speak for themselves. (And, IMO, should, but that's a different rant.) Reviewers are dealing entirely within the subjective. A Reviewer may and should strive to be fair in his or her review, but they can't be unbiased. Their review always boils down to their opinion, informed by their biases.

The best way to use a reviewer, in any medium, is to go over a range of their reviews. Try to figure out their biases. Compare those biases to your own. Adjust your sextant to compensate between your biases and his or her biases as best you can. And then sail on. You know from stuff I've written that I really, really like four panel humor comics with a strong emphasis on story. You know I don't usually like Metahumor. If you love metahumor and hate Narbonic, you can already tell our opinions aren't going to sync up perfectly. But, get to know my biases well enough, and you can judge pretty well if you'll like a given webcomic based on my opinion, even if we disagree.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2008 9:15 PM

I wonder if that's the same rant as mine.

After dealing with many video gamers who complain that reviewers should be objective (which I've written about, after much exasperation), I've come to believe that in at least some cases, they just want the reviewer to be properly independent from what they're reviewing.

For webcomics review, I guess this would take the form of not accepting gifts, or actively avoiding cameos as much as possible. I don't know... in the video game industry, it's so much easier to say what not to do (and so much easier to find people *not doing it*).

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 30, 2008 4:32 PM

@Eric: thanks for finally putting all that down about Starslip. Reading that was one of those experiences where I could intuitively understand what Straub was doing, but didn't have the words for it. Now that you've put it into words, I find myself much more appreciative of it. Although you didn't touch on the sheer genius of Vanderbeam's climactic line: "WEAR IT LIKE A HAAAAT!" I still crack up when I remember that.

Comment from: Eric Burns-White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 30, 2008 4:37 PM

GOD YES! I use "WEAR IT LIKE A HAAAAAAAT!" in casual conversation now. It was so perfectly Action Heroesque.

Comment from: Sean Duggan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 30, 2008 9:39 PM

@Christopher Wright - Regarding Fahrenheit 451 and censorship, my understanding was that the situation he faced was that when he first published it, his publisher produced a bowdlerdized version for high schools. Personally, I'm amused by the fact that a book which regular makes the "Top 10 banned books" discussion has only had one case where someone tried to have it banned and it failed (extra bonus points for that it was found that the person who tried to have it banned, their son was supposed to turn in a book report on it the next day. Rampant speculation as to whether this was the equivalent of pulling a fire alarm to get out an exam).

Comment from: JackSlack [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 30, 2008 9:52 PM

Jesus, Eric. Greg just can't win with you.

http://www.websnark.com/archives/2004/08/its_a_fashion_s.html

:)

Comment from: JackSlack [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 30, 2008 9:56 PM

I'd also like to know how this wound up in /this/ column. Let me go put it where it's meant to be.

Comment from: Elizabeth McCoy [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 1, 2008 4:26 PM

*starts with HAAAAT and is on http://www.starslip.com/2008/08/13/start-me-up/ now*

*shakes a fist at Eric*

Comment from: Phalanx @ Ping Teo [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 2, 2008 11:51 AM

Nice write up, Eric.

One thing I find is that it's not easy to write a review in a manner that is entertaining, yet constructive and honest at the same time.

IMHO Snark-filled reviews are fun to read, but they are the junk food equivalent of reviews; they taste good at the time you eat them, but leave a bad aftertaste and in large quantities are bad for you.

Lengthy, in-depth, psychoanalytic "artsy" reviews on the other hand, can drag and drag and be as boring as heck. To continue the analogy, they're the tasteless health food that everyone knows is good for them but no one wants to eat.

As with all things, hard part is striking a balance.

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