Criticism is conversation, not an assault on your identity

Published on Sunday, 12 May 2019 19:36
Written by Sonny Bunch

Special To The Washington Post

It’s open season on critics. As Alison Herman compiled for the Ringer, over the past few weeks we’ve seen musicians go after music writers, actress Olivia Munn attack the proprietors of the fashion site GoFugYourself and “Saturday Night Live” star Michael Che suggest that a writer for Uproxxx performs sexual acts on homeless dogs.

Since then, Joe Carnahan (“Smokin’ Aces”) took issue with critics who panned “El Chicano,” a tepidly reviewed movie he produced about a Mexican American Batman-like vigilante. Carnahan described one critic as “a man who makes a loaf of Wonder Bread look gangsta” and suggested that another shouldn’t have reviewed the film because he’s based in Mexico City instead of Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, fanboys and girls remain as snitty as ever when you dare to criticize the single most dominant cultural force of the past 20 years: nerd culture. The “let people enjoy things” meme reached its apotheosis last week when an aggrieved fan of Pokemon implied that a (Jewish) film critic who gave “Detective Pikachu” a mixed-to-negative review was a modern-day concentration camp guard.

Artist and fanboy angst fused together in writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s essay for Indiewire, in which he lamented being picked on as a kid for enjoying the dörkenkultur and suggested that anyone who believes comic book movies have become too dominant is little more than “a square, flat-topped father drinking a beer in a barca lounger while the game is on, telling his son to quit playing guitar/painting/writing/reading comic books/daydreaming and get a real job.”

As a critic, I’ve generally been of the opinion that critics shouldn’t be too surprised when they receive pushback, be it from fans or artists. I’ll never forget what Fred Barnes told me when, as a junior editor at the Weekly Standard, I asked if he’d like to reply to a letter about one of his articles: “Nah, I’ve had my say. Let them have theirs.” I’ve had my say (my review); let them have theirs (angry tweets calling for a jihad against me for suggesting that something they like or something they made is bad, actually).

Still, what’s striking is the way that criticism of criticism is often couched in terms of identity. This is what Perry is getting at when he spends so much of his essay establishing his nerd bona fides, by recounting the comic books he liked and the gym classes he hated and the lockers he was shoved into. His nerd-dom isn’t just a collection of preferences - it’s an identity; it’s who he is. This successful writer/director whose childhood obsessions are now the biggest business on the planet is attempting to recast himself as an oppressed minority in need of protection from even the mildest of criticisms of said obsessions. When fans tell critics to shut up and let people enjoy things, they are attempting to shield their conceptions of themselves from dissolving.

As a critic, then, I ask you to try to remember when you read something you don’t like about something you do: Criticism is not an assault on your identity. It’s an effort to help you better understand what you do and don’t like about the things you love.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Editorials on Sunday, 12 May 2019 19:36. Updated: Sunday, 12 May 2019 19:39.