Thursday, August 20, 2009


By Dave White

I'm a big fan of Rutgers basketball. I'm an alumni, I have season tickets, and I love college basketball. Three years ago, RU hired a coach (Fred Hill) with local ties, a lot of good will going forth, and a great ability to recruit. In those 3 years he hasn't won a lick. Players transfer in and out, assistant coaches are hired and shuffled around. The team does not win. Fans are irate and want Hill out of town. Academic scores on the team have gone up. Players who once got away with anything are now disciplined. Tuesday a player was kicked off the team for a violation of rules. Somehow, to these fans, the player who violated the rule is not in the wrong. Hill is. Because he doesn't win.

It's pile on time now.

I am also a fan of Spider-man. A year and a half ago, Marvel Comics completely revamped the Spider-man universe, separating him from his wife of 20 (real life) years through magic. As if it never happened. Since then, the Spidey series has gotten strong in terms of storytelling. There are a ton of mysteries in the series that are extremely compelling. Does that matter to the fans of the marriage? No, they're irate. If they're not reading about a married Spider-man, they're not reading Spider-man. They'll complain about every flaw in the story. They'll complain how each story could still be told with the marriage. Even if it's a good story, they'll admit they enjoyed it, but at the same time it sucked because Spider-man wasn't married.

It's pile on time now.

What does this have to do with crime fiction?

A lot and a little, I suppose. There are a lot of bad reviews out there. More than good reviews. That's fine, if the reviews are critical and give reasons. But a lot of bad reviews just give reason for people to spit venom. It is so easy to hate.


Is it because we don't view coaches, writers, directors, or any kind of entertainers as real people?

Or is it because it's always easier to verbalize our dislike? I can come up with 1,000 reasons not to like something. Specific reasons. But it's hard for me to back up why I like something.

I enjoy a lot of things, but often when I do I can only spout out cliches. Edge of my seat. Page turner. But when I don't like something...

Take MAD MEN for instance. When the series premiered, I watched the first episode and hated it. I thought it was too self-aware. There were too many jokes about being in the sixties: whether it was pregnant women smoking, kids playing with plastic dust covers over their face, or the worst one of all... "It's not like we have some machine that will copy for us." It was easy to point out reason when I disliked it.

It wasn't until I picked up the DVDs later on when I became intrigued. I gave the show three episodes and it really started to grow on me. I became intrigued in the characters. I wanted to know more about them. Don Draper was a mystery to me. And I wanted to solve that mystery.

But I could really put the reasons I started to like the show into words. I knew I liked it... I knew I kept watching, but if someone were to ask me why, I wouldn't really be able to say why.

Then I discovered Alan Sepinwall's blog. He writes for the NEWARK STAR LEDGER. And his thoughts on Mad Men were compelling. He was being specific as to why he liked it. Why the show was brilliant. He put into words what I wanted to say about the show.

That's what a good critic does.

Anyone can say why they hate something. Anyone can pile on the hate when things go bad.

A good critic can acknowledge the bad. (Sepinwall, for instance, talks a lot about the jokes I hated.)

A good critic can acknowledge that, and still show you why there's good in what you're watching or reading.


Scott D. Parker said...

To date, the bulk of my own blog consist of reviews. I'd like to think I've developed a bit of a reputation as I do my best to say why something's good (much easier for me since it's my blog and I'd rather rave at a good thing rather than blast something) but I'll also write about things that don't work. Didn't like the Elmore Leonard book this year and wrote about it here while acknowledging the good things. Ditto for a recent ARC I received. It didn't pass the 100-page rule and, yet, I felt compelled to complete it. I did, all but hated it, but did my best to be balanced in my review.

The key is, I think, discipline. It's so easy to be all negative or positive. I'd lose credibility if I only rave about stuff and never point out flaws. It's in this light that I hope to stay but I'll need the discipline to do it.

Dana King said...

Interesting timing. (For me, at least.) I write reviews for a web site, and make a point of justifying every opinion to the reader, whether I liked it or not. I also try to find good in books i disliked, and point the not so good things in books I liked, in the interest of balance.

Later today I have to draft a review for a book I finished yesterday, and hated. I ALWAYS finish books, but I would have dropped this one at about 100 pages, as Scott nottes above, but I promised to review it. It's by a writer who's building a nice name for himself, and has all the right acknowledgements and blurbs.

It's going to be a challenge, because I don't want the review to come across as a hatchet job, no matter how I despised it. Thanks for reminding me of some things to consider before I start putting notes on paper.

Steve Weddle said...

Good points.

Disliking a book allows folks to be clever and cutting, to write up our opinions using our intellect in order to dissect the thing. We can show how strong we are by showing how much smarter we are than the author of the book we hated.

Liking something makes you weak, you maggot. That book was stooopid. If you liked it, you're stooopid. Oh, so you loooooved that new book? Then why don't you marry it?

Wouldn't it be more challenging to actually write with cleverness about something we loved, to connect the gushy, in-love part of our brain with the rational, razor-sharp part?

In short, though I'd have more zingers if I thought you were wrong, I agree with you, sir.