A few weeks ago, the New Statesman writer Sarah Manavis steeled herself for a backlash. “It’s always fun to post an article that you know beforehand will get very badly ratioed,” she tweeted after linking to a piece in which she called Apple TV+’s feelgood soccer sitcom Ted Lasso “the most overrated show on TV”. And so it came to pass. Three weeks later, she tweeted: “Despite spending most of my career writing about online radicalisation and disinformation, I’ve never received more abuse than when I criticised T*d L*sso.”
This is far from uncommon, for it’s increasingly common for critics to adopt the brace position before daring to dislike something that many people enjoy. Back in May, the Guardian’s Scott Tobias became Twitter’s baddie of the day for battering Shrek on the occasion of its 20thanniversary: “Shrek is a terrible movie. It’s not funny. It looks awful.” I found the reaction extraordinary. Tobias was called, at best, a cynical, click-hungry contrarian; at worst a twisted, misanthropic snob. “Shrek Fans Diss ‘Joyless Chud’ Guardian Critic Who Called Film ‘Unfunny and Overrated,’” reported The Wrap. His crime, let’s say it again, was hating an old, animated movie about an implausibly Scottish ogre and his donkey friend.
Critics have never been the world’s most beloved people. Almost exactly 100 years ago, the Czech author and sometime critic Karel Čapek wrote about the consequences of a harsh review: “I’m reconciled in advance to the fact that [the author] considers me unfair, cliquey and incompetent. It’s definitely his right. I, too, use this right when an unfair, cliquey and incompetent critic, who gives my book a bad press, hurts me. To cut a long story short, there’s an eternal conflict between artist and critic. ‘Praise me, or I’ll hate you.’”
Nonetheless, there used to be an understanding among readers that any worthwhile critic, whether it be William Hazlitt, Kenneth Tynan or Pauline Kael, would need to hate as well as to love. As the late Clive James (who was skilled on both counts) wrote in a 2013 defence of hatchet jobs: “You can’t eliminate the negative. It accentuates the positive.”
Now critics are often up against readers who resist the very notion of criticism. A few popular lines of attack pop up regularly. There’s faux-objectivity: You said this movie wasn’t funny but I laughed, ergo it is you are factually wrong and unprofessional. Taking offence: How dare you imply that everyone who likes this movie is a tasteless dolt? Assumption of bad faith: You’re only saying this for clicks and notoriety.
Character assassination: You’re a vindictive killjoy who’s no fun at parties. Moral disapproval: Why would you waste your precious time being mean about something when you could be praising something else? Some people mix and match these accusations into strange hybrids like the schoolmarm-turned-troll: Why can’t you be more positive, you dumb piece of shit?
What these responses all have in common is not so much disagreement with the critique but fury that it was written at all. Thumper the rabbit’s famous maxim, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all,” might have been good advice for Bambi but it’s fatal for the appreciation of art. “Criticism is not nice,” writes AO Scott of the New York Times in Better Living Through Criticism. “To criticise is to find fault, to accentuate the negative, to spoil the fun and refuse to spare delicate feelings.”
For an entertaining reminder of a more knockabout era of criticism, I recommend the Ringer’s current podcast series Gene and Roger, presented by Brian Raftery. Between 1986 and 1999, when they hosted the half-hour TV show At the Movies, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were the most (and perhaps only) famous film critics in America, appearing on David Letterman and Saturday Night Live as celebrities in their own right and introducing many viewers to the concept of film criticism itself.
Central to their appeal was the intensity of their opinions, which often clashed. The show turned disagreement into entertainment. While they were both important champions of overlooked or misunderstood movies, one of my favourite comfort reads is Ebert’s 2000 anthology of pans, I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. It is an unfortunate truth that it is much easier to be funny when you’re being mean, but Ebert wasn’t just going for cheap laughs; he knew how wonderful cinema could be and was indignant when millions of dollars were squandered on crud.
Why has negative criticism become so contentious? One factor is the growing vulnerability of both journalists and the artists they cover. When there is less space for book coverage, it makes sense to foreground good work than cackle over the bad, except when a real stinker from a big name hoves into view and critics can take the gloves off with a sigh of relief. Smaller journals can be a little spicier, though: Becca Rothfeld’s masterly evisceration of Sally Rooney’s “riskless and conciliatory” novels in The Point last year was a bracing antidote to Rooneymania.
In the world of music, when most albums don’t make money, it is understandable for critics to pull their punches. The world of album reviewing now is so much more collegiate than the knives-out music-press culture that I grew up on. I’m glad that young critics no longer have to make their names with an act of ritual cruelty towards a soft target, but the really thoughtful takedown is an endangered species without which music journalism is merely PR. Older critics tend to lose their taste for blood while, as Clive James wrote, “among young writers, there seems a shortage of critics unhampered by excessive good manners.”
I would suggest, though, that it’s as much a question of self-preservation as good manners, due to social media’s abolition of context. When Siskel and Ebert panned a movie, regular viewers knew that that was not all they did. In fact, the duo might well rave about another film in the same episode. But when a review goes viral now, most of the people reading it (provided that they do actually read beyond the headline) will have no idea who the writer is, so he or she is reduced to the status of an HM Bateman caricature: The Man Who Hates Shrek, The Woman Who Hates Ted Lasso. Scott Tobias, for example, has written dozens of anniversary pieces for the Guardian, the vast majority of which are celebratory. I suspect he would have been delighted if his ode to, say, Alan Pakula’s 1971 thriller Klute had gone viral and Klute had become a trending topic, but of course it didn’t, because nothing fuels virality like outrage. Thus a negative piece is damned as “clickbait” by the angry people who are clicking on it while ignoring all the positive pieces. Whose fault is that?
Social media has also given us the militarisation of fandom. Major artists and franchises attract armies of fans who demonstrate their fealty by mobbing naysayers. There are DC fans who genuinely believe the conspiracy theory that critics are secretly paid to praise Marvel movies and denigrate their DC rivals, but then Marvel fans are no more reasonable. No movie that Martin Scorsese has made in recent years has generated as much attention as his mild dismissal of the MCU two years ago. Fortunately, the world’s most profitable movie franchise has survived his lack of interest.
All of this makes criticism an increasingly hairy business. Woe betide the outlier who costs a film its 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. When the critic Ann Powers published an ambivalent essay about Lana Del Rey in 2019, it was denounced by Del Rey herself to her 9.5 million Twitter followers, thus sending an avalanche of abuse in Powers’ direction. Complaints to employers are common, as are death threats. It’s hard to imagine a review of a major artist as famously scathing as Greil Marcus’ take on Bob Dylan’s 1970 album Self Portrait (first line: “What is this shit?”) in the age of Twitter. You want to take an axe to Korean boy band BTS and their ride-or-die followers? Lock your account first.
The instinct to abuse critics is justified by the idea that it is “punching up” at elitist gatekeepers. But unlike Siskel and Ebert, modern critics are neither famous nor wealthy nor powerful. They may have influence en masse, via review aggregators such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic (there is safety in numbers), but the days when one critic could make or break a movie, album or anything else are long gone. Yet fans still see them as dream-crushing monsters from which million-selling musicians and billion-dollar movies must be defended at all costs.
Perhaps there is so much ambient hostility online that critics are too easily lumped in with the trolls and “haters” who plague your timeline. There are of course some contrarians, bullies and attention-seekers who have built a brand on performative contempt but they are not typical. The author Matt Haig is nonetheless adept at painting his detractors as bitter, shrunken souls whose arguments are therefore invalid. Last weekend, the Thumper of British publishing crystallised the Haigist theory of criticism in a tweet that was ostensibly about Sally Rooney’s sceptics but implicitly about his own: “There is so much jealousy of Sally Rooney. If you don’t like her books, don’t read them. The great thing about books is there are lots. There have literally never been more books. Why spend your time dissing authors other people like when you could be championing ones you do?” It’s all there: the unfounded assumption of jealousy; the nonsensical idea that you can know you don’t like a book before you’ve read it; the suggestion that negative criticism is simply a waste of time. To voice disappointment or antipathy, in Haig’s world, is a moral failing.
Similarly, anyone who resists the gentle charms of Ted Lasso, which received a Peabody Award for “offering the perfect counter to the enduring prevalence of toxic masculinity, both on-screen and off, in a moment when the nation truly needs inspiring models of kindness”, risks being accused of hating kindness itself. The success of the show, so unlike caustic 2000s sitcoms such as Extras or Curb Your Enthusiasm, is itself symptomatic of a general desire for more warmth and less cynicism.
But the Peabody citation acknowledges that the premise “has all the markings of a formulaic cornball dud,” so it is inconceivable that some people, not all of them unfeeling bastards, wouldn’t indeed find it a formulaic cornball dud. It’s particularly tricky right now for black critics who dislike politically well-intentioned work by black creators. After Angelica Jade Bastién caught flak for shredding the generally well-received new Candyman movie, another writer responded: “one of the frustrating things about this era of didactic capitol b Black art is the idea that serious criticism amounts to some kind of disloyalty.”
I suspect that this hypersensitivity to critical voices has been compounded first by the ugly intensity of politics and then by the pandemic. If you think Candyman was made by good people with timely things to say about racism in gentrification, then you might be inclined to forgive its didacticism. And if Ted Lasso or Shrek made your lockdown a little more cheerful, then you might overreact to someone stomping all over them. But I worry that enthusiasm is being mistaken for a moral virtue, and negative criticism for a character flaw: What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just like things?
We all know, in our own lives, that everything isn’t for everybody. Any night of the year there are heated disagreements in living rooms and cinema lobbies, and negative reactions are no less worthy of representation in public discourse than positive ones. Disliking certain things is not just normal but essential. Hate is the back of the mirror, without which you would just have a piece of glass. “It can be positive,” Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys wrote in a terrific 1992 polemic on the virtues of hate. “It throws into relief all the things you know you like. It tells you, by elimination, what you’re about… To hate a lot of things is tantamount to really caring about others. If you like everything, you deal with nothing.”
Personally, I find that the act of disagreeing with a sharp takedown sharpens my appreciation of the work in question. If I have to think a bit harder about what I like and why I like it, that’s fine by me, especially when it’s something that has been almost universally acclaimed. I was wowed by Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror but I got a kick out of Lauren Oyler’s brilliant demolition job in the London Review of Books last year, as did Tolentino, who gamely retweeted it. “I’ve been idly waiting since my book came out for a truly scathing review of my bullshit, which seemed inevitable given the rest of my good luck & also like it could be useful,” she wrote. “It finally came: a cleansing, illuminating experience to be read with such open disgust!”
Tolentino’s suggestion that negative criticism is not just valid but useful would have surprised Karel Čapek. In the current climate, it verges on the saintly. It’s not that I long for an epidemic of gleeful brutality but I will always cherish the right of critics to express their hate, hate, hate in the ultimate service of what they love, love, love.