Friday, April 22, 2011

Criticism, Expectations, and Assumptions

In my quest for new and interesting things to read and watch, I come across negative reviews. We all do, yes? And I've noticed a tendency—a lot of negative reviewers dislike the book/movie/show because it doesn't meet their mistaken expectations. One of the greatest doozies I've seen recently, for example, was a negative review of The Diary of Anne Frank, annoyed because Anne hadn't had the decently to write at an adult level and talk about the conditions in concentration camps. Yes, really. I also saw a review of a different book saying, "I read this because I liked the movie, and this is nothing like the movie, so it sucks".

I see this a lot in SF movie reviews as well, that reviewers will go into the theatre and complain about all the action when they expect a deep, meaningful story, or they'll go in expecting an action flick and get said deep, meaningful story, and they'll tear the movie apart because they'd come primed for the wrong thing. Green Hornet, for instance, was an action flick that was criticized for its action. Inception was criticized for being too thinky. This happens a lot with blockbusters, and nearly as frequently with adaptations.

Of course, the adaptation thing is a little different, because the whole fandom-comparison thing gets factored in. It's only a little different, though, because when you translate stories between media, things will change. They have to. Complaints I've seen: Scott Pilgrim, Watchmen, Lord of the Rings. I'm still annoyed with Jackson's changes made to Two Towers, but I also understand that they do make for a better story, as a whole. We saw a similar sort of complaint with the Ginia Bellafonte Game of Thrones article. And what's up with non-SFF fans reviewing SFF all the time? Of course they're not going to "get" it.

So why can't we appreciate stories for what they are, rather than what we expect them to be? We should, right? It's unfair to creators, unfair to our fellow consumers, unfair to ourselves, to criticize a book for not being what we wanted. Is a fluffy urban fantasy any better or worse than a hard-boiled, dark one? Is an intellectual heist film any better or worse than an action heist? Is Agatha Christie better than Dan Brown? They have different audiences, or the same audiences in different moods, and different tropes and scenarios to play with, based on genre and audience expectations.

Arguments can be made, of course, based on literary grades of writing quality, based on the emotions evoked, based on acting quality, but the fact stands that movies, books, TV shows, and video games are entirely different animals from each other, and every subgenre or sub-subgenre is a different animal as well. Equating apples to oranges to mangoes doesn't work. They're not the same thing. You wouldn't put them in the same salads. So why pick up a bestselling novel and then complain that it doesn't compare to Dickens? Are we really expecting the same kind of descriptive social commentary from Jonathan Kellerman and Stieg Larsson? Not to mention that they're mysteries and Dickens, as a rule, isn't?

Sigh. I wish we were better at recognizing biases and filtering them out in public fora. We'd get a consistently better level of reviewing and more reviewer honestly, which has to be a good thing. This isn't to say that negative reviews shouldn't exist. I want to know if a book's writer can't keep their tenses straight and has no idea about plot. I want to know if the actors are pretending to be cardboard. But I don't want to know that Charlaine Harris's novels suck because they're not as dark and disturbing as Anne Rice's or Stephen King's. That's not real criticism and shouldn't be treated as such.


Brooke Johnson said...

When I review books, I really try not to compare them to other books.

This stemmed from a time I asked my husband which book he liked better, say "Starship Troopers" and "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", and he responded that they were nothing alike so he couldn't compare them, even if they're both considered sci-fi. He responded that they were both great books, but non-comparable.

I think books should be judged on what they are, at either entertainment level or craft level or both. They shouldn't be judged on expectations or hype-versus-delivery. They should be judged on an as-is basis.

I have an issue too with the negative reviews that fail to do this, that bash a book for not being what they wanted it to be. Glad I'm not the only one.

Reece said...

Whenever I see a movie based on a book I've read, I force myself to remember that it is not the book. I find I enjoy them more that way.

As far as books go, I agree with Brooke (as far as what criteria we should us to judge books). I don't have a problem with negative reviews per se, but they should be limited to craftsmanship or objectionable content, in my opinion. I don't think you can legitimately give a negative review just because the story didn't suit you; after all, just because you don't like something doesn't mean someone else won't (and there almost certainly is who will).

Oh, and I totally agree with Anassa's opinion of non-SFF fans reviewing either genre. That's like asking a politician's opinion of his/her opponent: you can't expect anything more than mudslinging and misinformation (intentional or otherwise).