Top Ten Things People Say to a Critic Who Writes a Negative Review

Top Ten Things People Say to a Critic Who Writes a Negative Review

Siskel Ebert

10. You couldn’t do any better.

Line of argument: If you, critic, could make a better play/movie/book/record, you would. Since you have not made a better version of this thing you’re reviewing, you are unfounded in saying that it could possibly be better.

Response: Am I not entitled to say whether or not I like a flavor of ice cream, and give reasons for that opinion, unless I go home and make a better one?

9. You don’t appreciate how much work this takes.

Line of argument: You think it’s easy to make plays/movies/books/records. You think the director/writer/artist was just being lazy when he/she made such a bad play/movie/book/record. Actually, a lot of work went into this—and you should respect that.

Response: do know how much work went into it. That makes the fact that it sucks all the more unfortunate.

8. You’re just trying to get rich.

Line of argument: Being negative is entertaining for your readers, which gets you lots of traffic and encourages your money-hungry editor to keep you in your job, as well as to reward you with a handsome salary.

Response: In fact, positive reviews get much more traffic and attention than negative reviews, because everyone associated with the production—and all the fans of that play/movie/book/record—wave a positive review around as proof of how good the thing is. Negative reviews may amuse some readers, but in general, people try to pretend they don’t exist. If you wanted to get rich as a critic, you’d just praise everything—which a lot of reviewers do.

7. You don’t understand the vision.

Line of argument: You only think this play/movie/book/record was bad, because you don’t understand what the director/writer/artist was trying to do. If someone just explained it to you, you would understand what a work of genius this is.

Response: No viewer ever entirely understands what an artist was trying to do. A viewer just sees what the artist did.

6. You should just talk about what’s on the stage/screen/page/record.

Line of argument: To put your negative review in context, you mention something you know about the artist, or something you saw at the theater, or a remark you overheard, or something that came in your press kit. You ought to do your job and just review what’s on the stage/screen/page/record.

Response: People only ever complain about this when the review is negative. When the review is positive, no one complains that I shouldn’t have mentioned how beautiful the weather was that day or how much I loved this artist’s previous work or what the name of my childhood pet was.

5. You should say how much other people enjoyed it.

Line of argument: Okay, so you didn’t like this—but a lot of other people did, or might! If you don’t mention that fact in your review, you’re being unhelpful and uncharitable. You are not the only possible viewer.

Response: If it’s clear that my reaction was markedly different from a reaction that others are having, or might have, then I will say so. In general, though, readers understand that I’m just one person, and that a review is a statement of my individual opinion. It’s not incumbent on me to imagine and address every reaction that other viewers/readers might have. They can—and should—write their own reviews.

4. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

Line of argument: It’s hurtful to say negative things about a show/book/record that someone put a lot of work into. If you didn’t like it, just zip your lip and save your reviews for things that you actually like.

Response: A critic is a reporter, and simply remaining mute about things I don’t like would be the equivalent—for my job—of a political reporter failing to cover a political speech because he or she doesn’t agree with the politician. News is news, and a negative review says your show/book/record is newsworthy—even if I don’t think it’s an artistic success.

3. You’re too professional.

Line of argument: You see too many shows; or you read too many books; or you listen to too much music. You’re completely detached from the experience of the average viewer/reader/listener, and thus your opinions are relevant only to other critics.

Response: When you see a lot of shows, or read a lot of books, or listen to a lot of music, you know how much really amazing stuff is out there—and it pains you all the more to think that people would spend their valuable time on crappy stuff.

2. You’re not professional enough.

Line of argument: Your publication is a joke, you’re an amateur, you don’t know enough, you don’t understand your job.

Response: This is another one critics only hear when they write negative reviews. If the review is positive, everyone treats the reviewer like a wise sage. (Exception: positive reviews of the Star Wars prequels.)

1. You’re abusing your power.

Line of argument: With great power comes great responsibility—and you, as a critic, have great power. You should use it to be constructive, not destructive.

Response: First, come see the studio apartment I live in at age 37 before you start talking about my great power and influence. Second, any influence a critic has is based on the integrity of his/her publication and personal reputation. How much influence do those “critics” who churn out fluffy blurbs really have? If they stop churning out fluffy blurbs, they’ll just be replaced by other fluffmongers. The truly influential critics call ’em like they see ’em, and they do so not out of a hatred of life, but out of a love of art—even if it doesn’t always seem that way.

Jay Gabler