Why Critics Are Always Wrong

Management: This particular piece only covers one side of the equation, so before I start, I should link this earlier piece that tackles this issue from the opposite angle.

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve witnessed a good number of online teapot-tempests related to both criticism generally and tone specifically. Which seems like a silly thing to even announce – of course people have been bickering, this is the internet, that’s what it’s for. But these particular arguments kinda struck me – though they all concerned different groups of people, they all played out similarly, and I think the reasons why touch on some general pitfalls of both criticism specifically and discourse more generally. Unfortunately, those pitfalls don’t all line up in a neat row, so I’m gonna have to break this down into a few pieces – starting with the dangerous assumptions critics can make and hopefully meandering my way towards something approaching a point. Consider this an open letter to critics, fans, and anyone else who’s ever valued their own opinion enough to inflict it on others.


So. You want to criticize stuff, huh? Of course you do – every child dreams of spending hours of unpaid labor attempting to comment on art for an uncaring niche audience. But before you get to work, you should probably learn that you’re wrong, everyone else is right, your taste is irrelevant, and you’re a bad person besides. Why? Let’s take those charges one at a time.

On Why You Are Always Wrong

First of all, I hope it goes without saying that no critic is ever right. And by that, I mean anyone who says they’re imparting the “One Truth” of criticism on an uncaring public is lying to themselves. There is no one “correct” way to make a successful work of art, and all of us have certain artistic priorities we value more than others. You can talk about general values of criticism as applied to film or literature, but even these are fluid, and our response to various works is always based in our personal references and experiences. If you acknowledge this, you can be a harsh critic people still like – it just requires admitting that your standards of criticism are based, like every other single human being’s, on a personal system of evaluation. And even then, you can still argue “I think these artistic priorities are more valuable than others” – I certainly do. But that doesn’t mean I just attack anything that doesn’t correlate to those values – I try to evaluate how it succeeds in its own goals, and place it on my own scale in light of that. And I don’t go attacking people for enjoying it, because attacking what people already enjoy is the worst, least useful way of making people appreciate great art – frankly, it’s just masturbation designed to make you feel smart. You can’t take away other people’s experiences of art, but what you can do is try to illustrate why the things you love are so great – be a positive influence on the world and you’ll change a lot more minds.

Attack on Titan

On Why the Majority is Always Right

I often hear people disparage the “dumb majority” or the “lowest common denominator” or whatnot, and talk of how the majority is “wrong” to like what they like. Well, turns out this is pretty much just a fake idea, and based in some assumptions about “taste” that just don’t mean anything. For example…

Last year, the most popular show by far was Attack on Titan. It was a big, expensive blockbuster with a lot of action sequences, melodramatic direction, and classic, archetypal characters. It is very difficult to defend its writing as great literature, and even among the show’s fans, there were many people who said it had pacing problems. Does this mean people were “wrong” to like it? Not at all – it was very much the show people wanted. Its lack of anime-specific tropes opened it to a wider audience, its western aesthetic and action-packed narrative hearkened back to the shows a generation of latent anime fans remembered from the late 90s/early 00s, and its straightforward war drama focus kept audiences consistently entertained. It was the right show for the right audience.

That’s not to say it’s useless to critique it, of course. Obviously fans of anything can get defensive about the things they like (particularly when you start attacking the opinions of very young people, who are more inclined to associate their media with their identity), but that doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to listen to contrary opinions. I gave it a 6/10 review personally, but I didn’t get attacked for my opinion, because I stated my reasons and didn’t attack others for liking what they like. The majority don’t like what they like because they’re “too stupid” to like what you like – they like what they like because their favorites succeed in being what they want from their media. And until you can acknowledge the many different things people could want from their media, you will not be communicating at all.

Sekai Seifuku

On Why Your Critical Taste is Irrelevant

People often tar shows they dislike with terms like “pandering” or “indulgent,” and use these terms to dismiss the people who enjoy them. Crazily enough, it turns out these aren’t strictly negative terms, and seeking shows that challenge you doesn’t make you a better person. There are people who spend all day working on solutions to tough coding problems, or campaigning for politicians they believe in, or solving problems in a stressful office environment, and then come home and watch some moe slice of life to relax for a while. Do you feel justified in yelling at these people for not continuously watching cartoons that make them question their worldview? You think anime is the only way you can inject intellectual stimulation into your life, or even anywhere near the most effective way? That’s ludicrous. Personally, yeah, I generally (though far from always) watch anime with an eye for themes and writing, and my own preferences on storytelling often align with traditional metrics of this stuff, and I happen to be someone who finds nothing more interesting than storytelling itself, and so I’ve spent years and years obsessing over such things in my education, work, and private life. I am not normal. That is not the normal case, and it is not the “correct” case, either.

Because there isn’t a “correct” case – there are just people, all of whom bring different desires to media. Some people want to feel powerful. Some people want to relax and feel warm and unstressed. Some people want to feel intellectually engaged. Some people want to fall in love. One of the beautiful things about stories is they can do all of these things. And obviously I’m not neutral here, either – I certainly evaluate things, and I certainly get loud with my opinions. One of my most deeply held beliefs is that the transformative power of art, its ability to fundamentally change us as human beings, either rattling our convictions, opening our worldview, articulating something we’ve known but never felt, or breaking our hearts, is one of the most powerful, beautiful, and important things in the world, and I will always, always, always champion works that I think embody that power.

But that’s just my opinion. And if other people don’t seek that stimulation in art, they are still not wrong. And even if you want to demonstrate to other people how rewarding your own style of engagement with art can be, saying “your taste is stupid” is not the way to do it. If you’re actually looking to change minds, don’t tell people how stupid it is to be them. Demonstrate how satisfying it is to be you.

Aku no Hana

On Why You Deserve to Be Yelled At

I hope this one follows naturally from the ones above, but if it doesn’t, here’s the kicker: if you frame your criticism as a direct attack on the people who enjoy something, those people are going to get mad. Shocking, I know. And I don’t mean this to say you can’t do that – just that angry responses shouldn’t really be surprising. I certainly know why people frame things in dismissive ways – it’s fun! It’s very fun to feel powerful as a critic, and it’s fun to get silly with your criticism. The anti-camaraderie that builds around disliking a show promotes exactly the same kind of in-group special-feeling-ness that liking a show does, and riffing on what you dislike about a show is one of the easiest ways to make with the funny criticism yuck yucks. Plus, those clicks. Those delicious, delicious clicks. We all know how the internet works – hell, we all know how people work. Say something reasonable and well-thought-through, and maybe you’ll get one comment either agreeing, disagreeing, or commenting on your sexuality. Say something inflammatory and dismissive, and ho boy those clicks are comin’. People are baited by conflict in either direction – whether they agree or disagree, a wild, untamed opinion will get their attention. Believe me, I know the allure.

And honestly, I’m not actually against it. But when you switch from tearing a show apart to attacking the actual motives of the people who watch it, well, they’re not going to appreciate it. You are no longer engaging in even-handed criticism – you are now just mocking people on the internet. So when they respond to that with their own personal attacks, well, you can’t really say you didn’t see it coming.

Samurai Flamenco

On Why You Are a Shitty Human Being

Criticism isn’t necessarily a responsibility, but it is a power. When you put words out there, you change the worldNot necessarily in big ways – not every forum post and tweet is going to usher in a new era of kindness and humility. But every thing you write affects the reader. If they were having a bad day and you wrote something encouraging, you just made their life a little better. If they were having a good day and you wrote something dismissive, you just made their life a little worse. This doesn’t mean you need to pore over the potential consequences of every single statement you make, but please, from time to time, ask yourself. What are you trying to change? What is the purpose of your criticism? If it’s to entertain some and alienate others, then you have no right to complain about negative reactions. When you frame your content in such a way that it actively disparages people who disagree with you, their reaction is what you are creating. It’s not on them – hostility is what you have chosen to offer the world, and though everyone is in control of their own reactions, you always have the option to think about what you say before you say it, consider who you’re actually attacking, and be the better person. And if it isn’t already clear, this doesn’t just apply to critics – this applies to every person who has said anything to any other person ever.

I think a lot of this comes down to the fact that in modern culture, “asshole” has come to be seen as a perfectly valid way of representing yourself. “Sorry, I’m kind of an asshole.” “Pardon me if I offended you.” Etc. “Asshole” is considered a valid affectation – something comparable to “prankster” or “rascal.”

Well, here’s the last kicker: “asshole” is really just a socially-sterilized synonym for “shitty human being.” Does that sting a bit more? Good. That’s how being an “asshole” is supposed to feel. Not that you’re automatically a shitty human being if you say anything uncharitable or unkind – but I think internet discourse could use a whole lot less “pardon me, I’m kind of an asshole,” and a whole lot more “before I post this, is this something an empathetic person would say, or something a shitty human being would say?” You are not responsible for making sure no one is ever hurt by what you say, but your contributions to the dialogue are always within your control, and always reflective of your identity.

Gatchaman Crowds

On Why It’s Okay, Really

Unfortunately, the vast majority of us kind of are shitty human beings. At least sometimes. We get mad, we get lazy, we get self-righteous, we even just want to say dumb, mean stuff because it’s easy and funny and laughing along with people who agree with us feels good. We’re all works in progress here. I’m not here to indict you – I’m offering my opinion, because this is my struggle along with everyone else’s. Embrace being wrong in your own way, but make that a positive thing – make it something that even people who disagree with you can respect. Make your fortress passion, not scorn. Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t make mocking, dismissive stuff, or that doing that is “wrong” – it just means you should always be conscious of the choices you make. Making jokes about the art is fine, being opinionated and abrasive is fine, but don’t let cynicism be your identity – your negativity is not just a personal choice, it is an act that contributes to a discourse beyond your control. It’s a goddamn magical power the internet has given us, so be yourself, but always aspire to be kind.

46 thoughts on “Why Critics Are Always Wrong

  1. Well said. Though I think sucking at delivering criticism that involves actual critical thinking and clearly expressing that thinking without being dismissive is the true reality of why “critics” are always wrong. Being objective isn’t hard, but being expressive and accepting can be. I would estimate that the majority of people on the internet don’t understand how to express critical thinking and of course they don’t, critical thinking is a learned skill as is writing about it clearly. Laziness is much easier.

    Being dismissive of things we don’t understand or want to understand is always easier and probably more naturally than accepting them for what they are. We could all use a bit more acceptance and kindness I think.

    • Yeah, there are a whole bunch of learned skills involved in all these pursuits. And being an enjoyable read even when the reader disagrees with you is harder still – it’s something I’m always trying to improve at.

      Fortunately, kindness is easy, and it’s the most important part.

  2. Too much negativity exhausts me, and because of that the amount I’ve actually tried to discuss anime with people online has dwindled. Two of the things you’ve said here are things I feel have gone forgotten by a lot of people I know who are otherwise very fun to talk with as long as the subject isn’t anime, namely that there’s no one correct way to create art and that seeking out challenging works doesn’t make you a better person.

    What really makes a world of difference, in my experience, is if you present your criticism to someone in person, face to face. I feel I’ve absorbed other people’s opinions better that way and that there’s a lot less defensiveness and the negativity doesn’t become excessive. I don’t know why.

    • Agreed on negativity. I wrote this specifically because the tone of these conversations was just making me tired – I don’t want to see people who all care about the art just attacking each other.

      As far as seeing people face-to-face, that’s easy – it’s much easier to demonize someone across the internet, because when they’re just a set of words you dislike, you can forget they’re also a human being. The internet can really bring out the worst in us.

  3. I think this is one reason why I’m not too fond of doing reviews. I’m not that great at picking up nuances to poke at. I’m also not a great judge of what makes a quality anime series. That’s why I worry about those that love to do episodic reviews.

    The thing is that there are things that do disappoint me. Series like Naruto, BLEACH, SAO have some of the craziest fanbases. Though it’s like you said, those series fit what they want in their life. Not everyone wants complicated series. I think there’s not enough empathy in this world today, even outside of reviewing.

    What you said about being an asshole reminds me of the argument over being friends with assholes and douchebags. If anything, it’s better to be associated with an asshole to a certain degree than a douche. Assholes can be more valid than douches. They have some empathy. Douches are soulless people that can’t stand not getting attention. Assholes don’t seem to care and sometimes we might get drawn to that since some of us want to fight the “majority opinion.”

    Though I will have to agree that controversial criticism is not something that we should rely upon on time and time again. We should provide value through the internet and support communities of fans who love this wacky world of anime (or manga) as much as we do.

  4. I think a lot of people seem to conflate the term “objectivity” with giving something a fair shake. It’s impossible to be objective with a practice that is inherently subjective in nature, e.g., criticism. The very points that are called to attention, or not called to attention, the order issues discussed, etc., all give a glimpse into what the critic subconsciously feels is “worth” talking about and their value in relation to each other, essentially being another meta-layer of subjective analysis.

    Here’s the rub, if you will. There’s nothing wrong with NOT being objective. We’re all shaped by our experiences in certain ways and all have different notions of what is valuable. However, when a critic’s lack of objectivity slips into the territory of bias (either for or against), that’s the real problem. The best way to avoid such a problem is just as you’ve been putting to practice, just state the WHY. “I didn’t really like the art style of this show” is a more easier pill to swallow than “the artwork sucks” because even if it is an arbitrary reason, it’s an explanation that understands that we all have differences in opinion.

    • I agree, transparency is really the key. And I think understanding the subjective nature of our criticism actually HELPS our criticism, too. Not only does an awareness of your own biases help you better articulate how you feel about shows and why, but I feel attempting to square your own preferences with some aesthetic “ideal” of criticism just leads to stilted writing more concerned with sounding “correct” than actually being a reflection of an honest engagement with art.

  5. Wonderful essay, I really enjoyed reading this. The negativity of some communities, even if it’s not directed towards me, can be kind of draining and honestly makes me not want to contribute. That’s why I comment on blogs way more often than I will on other websites. I think a major difference people need to learn though is the difference between saying “this is the best/worst show” and “this is my favorite/least favorite show”. No one’s going to have the exact same tastes as you, and even things that are widely applauded and loved by the majority are going to have a few who just can’t get into it for whatever reason. Which is totally fine as long as they don’t condemn the ones who do love the show, and the ones who do love the show don’t try to force it down the others throats until they have no choice but to love it. It’s perfectly fine to try and convince someone to give something a chance, and to advertise and promote certain shows but in the end the choice lies entirely on the reader if they’re going to view it or not. And in terms of positive and negativity posts I agree completely. While some bashing posts can certainly be hilarious if done right, I would much rather read a post on why something is awesome then why something sucks and you suck for liking it.

    Kind of unrelated but boy do I miss Flamenco Girl and her ball obsession.

    • Yeah, I’m fine with snark, fine with criticism, and fine with trying to convince people to watch things – it’s really just understanding that other people both have reasons to feel the way they do and deserve respect for those reasons that I want to encourage.

      Agreed on Flamenco Girl. Hopefully her and Goto will both get to be main characters again soon!

  6. I agree with most of what you say. I think, however, that it is possible to make an objective and unbiased evaluation of objects of art and entertainment. The function of criticism is to determine whether a particular presentation has something of permanent value for mankind in it. In other words, a good critic can determine in the present what shows will still be viewed with respect 100 years from now. For example, the literary criticism written by Henry James 100 and more years ago seems to me to do this.
    I would recommend that you send a copy of your essay to Anime News Network; they could use it.

    • “Permanent value for mankind.” That’s really hard to quantify. I’m sure Bobduh can articulate this better than me, but when it comes to what works of art have lasting impact in our society, it comes down to a whole lot of external factors than just how intrinsically “good” it is. Often, it’s a freak of accident that a work eventually becomes endlessly quoted and studied. Turning criticism into some kind of guessing game in order to preempt or to decide which works will be remembered really narrows and cheapens the pursuit.

      • I don’t agree it is hard to quantify value. In accordance with the principle of least action, people do not keep useless things for long. Over time, the useless items get winnowed out, and what remains has value. The pulp magazines published between 1900 and 1950 had many thousands of contributing authors, but only a very few, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, have retained their reputations and still have their books in print. Burroughs was popular in his lifetime, but so were dozens of contemporary authors who are now forgotten. The function of criticism is to determine what qualities set Burroughs apart from the others. The purpose of criticism is to figure out which books those are without having to wait for 100 years to pass. The purpose of criticism is to help the reader or viewer from wasting his time on worthless things. If this is not happening, this is not the fault of the critical process, it just means that we have poor critics.

        Nor do I believe that the critical process is purely subjective. If you have to go to court, for instance, you would expect the judge to objectively determine the facts in accordance with the laws of evidence and then apply the law to the facts in an objective manner. If you had a scientist, you would expect him to present the facts in a scientific article in an accurate and objective manner, and not try to shade the truth to support his theory. The investigation and evaluation of artistic objects is no different. In other words, I reject the idea that we cannot evaluate artistic expression in the same manner as law or science or any other human endeavor. As far as “value to mankind” goes, the test is simple: if it lasts, it has value, because we don’t keep useless things for any lengthy period of time. A skillful critic can find that value. Criticism, therefore is the exact opposite of a “guessing game.” The good critic skillfully applies his knowledge of meaning and technique with a well-developed aesthetic sense to determine what artistic objects have true value. A bad critic does this poorly or not at all. We can demonstrate that there are good and bad critics because we have the writings of good critics such as Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe to set the example.

        To say that the critical process is primarily subjective is to deny that men cannot be objective. It is to say that the best you have to offer the reader is your personal preference. But the statement of personal preferences is a waste of the writer’s time to write and a waste of the reader’s time to read. I don’t care if you enjoyed something; I want to know if you think it is any good, and if so, why. That has value to me in making my own choices.

    • I disagree on two counts here. First, I don’t believe in objective criticism – I believe both that our own artistic preferences are always an influence on our judgment (though we can try to separate them to some extent – my list of “favorite” shows and “best” shows is somewhat different, but my “best” list is still influenced by the base assumptions of my personality and specific art education), and that although there are many widely accepted and meaningful rules of craft, the definition of “great art” is a bit too fluid and broad to create something you could consider an “objective” hierarchy.

      And second, I disagree that a critic can naturally tell what art will stand the test of time. Often, the books/films/albums that are remembered and influential aren’t highly regarded in their own time – many great works are important because they actually end up SHIFTING standards of criticism, meaning they don’t correlate well with the standards that exist at the time of their own release. Obviously this isn’t true of all works, but I feel relying too much on “accepted” standards of criticism is sort of a trap in that regard. Objectivity only exists within a given framework, and great art often challenges our frame of criticism.

      That’s not to say I don’t believe criticism is valuable – far from it. I wouldn’t write any of the other things I do if I believed that, and I have tremendous respect for the amount of definable craft that goes into great work. I just think framing criticism as truly objective is a mistake.

      • I don’t agree with you. I believe that people are fully capable of making objective evaluations. Any society which cannot objectively evaluate its situation does not last too long. As far as new artistic modes go, it is precisely the function of criticism to discover what is new and useful and announce it to society. Human nature is a constant, regardless of changing social attitudes. When the Odyssey was composed about 800 B.C., there was an incident where Odysseus comes home and is greeted by his dog Argos who has been waiting for him for 20 years. The dog wags his tail and dies. This is as pathetic now as it was then. Human nature is the same now as it was then. It is the function of the critic to look past superficial attitudes of the present to determine what is essential and unchanging in human nature, and apply these unchanging standards to the evaluation of artistic productions.

        Obviously, no one can be completely objective. The aesthetic sense is largely emotional. But the good critic feels more deeply and truly in relation to art. He understands what he is feeling and why he is feeling it and what significance those emotions have with relation to artistic value.

  7. Oh, wow. I’ve always respected what you do on this blog, Bobduh, but I don’t think it really hit me until reading this post that you’re a critic the Internet honestly needs. You’ve clearly studied critical theory, but what you really bring to the table is empathy and clear passion, and that’s something no amount of literary education can teach you.

    I’ve had some negative experiences reading criticism, where I think it’s often used as a means of entertaining others and for creating social hierarchies. Even if a critic doesn’t specifically insult others for liking a certain show, I’ve often been made to feel as if I’m a shallow and unintelligent person for genuinely liking and being moved by OreImo/SAO/etc. I know that by literary standards they are simply not well-composed, but there’s more to a story than the craft that goes into it and I think good critics implicitly understand that art is more than the sum of its parts. That quest for greater understanding is what drives all worthwhile criticism, and any critic who thinks he or she is stating a definitive conclusion has clearly got it the wrong way around.

    • It’s ok, you can always visit my blog, which is about coming to terms with having a casual taste 😉

      You’ll always be my third-favourite frog. I’m sorry, but Kermit is grandfathered #1, and the Frog in the Well is just too good :3

    • Thanks, man. I’m not lying in the piece – I definitely have to fight with my own instincts towards cynical, unproductive criticism, and I completely agree that criticism is an eternal struggle towards a broader understanding. I’m very happy to hear you appreciate the work.

  8. This is a great read. Now, if only we can have some people read this and learn a thing or two about critiquing anime without pissing off too many people.

  9. I’ve worked as a professional critic for over a decade now. There’s a fine distinction between critical analysis and paid opinions, the trick always being how to parse the two so that they settle well together. I concur that excessive negativity doesn’t achieve much. It took me longer than I care to admit to learn that. If you can manage to track down any of the old rags I used to write for, you’d find the reviews I wrote when I first started to be excessively inflammatory. At the time, I thought that was going to be my shtick, the hook that got me an audience. Over the years, I came to realize a few things, both about the process and about myself.

    Sugar definitely attracts more flies than honey: A select few people can work their way in to the niche of “shock-jock” reviewer and be successful, but not everyone. There’s a certain talent for snarky-but-entertaining prose that small group of writers possess that the greater majority of people don’t and trying to emulate it can and will alienate both your audience and your advertisers. One of the most painful experiences of my early career was being shoved off a project that I really wanted to do (and needed financially) because I’d trash-talked an advertiser a few months before. Scare of your readers and your advertisers, and well… what’s the point?

    Despite that, I actually did do fairly well for quite some time as a brutal critic and developed something of an audience, such as it was. I wouldn’t say I have the best snark ever typed, but it stood up well. Over time, however, I found I was starting to hate what I was doing. The joy of being published had eroded and all of the then attention I received for my work started to feel toxic.

    It wasn’t until I received an email from a fan that it all kind of clicked together; I realized what my job as a critic and my relationship to the audience actually was. I don’t remember the exact wording of the email, but the sentiment was essentially, “I tend to like what you like and hate what you hate — it’s great reading your stuff, because when you like something I haven’t watched or read, I know there’s a good chance I’ll like it, too”. Which, when you think about it, is pretty damned obvious. But for some reason, I never really got it.

    Until that moment. Then I understood.

    Before that email, I thought my job was to tear things down. To crush all the coal and hold up the very select few that would become diamonds. It was a selfish, very egotistical mindset. The media I was reviewing was irrelevant. The audience existed solely to witness how cleverly I could break a thing apart.

    After that email, I saw what the critic truly was; a biased injection vector. And I use bias not necessarily in the sense of the reviewer, although that can apply. It’s a bias on behalf of the audience.

    The reader, when consuming your review, is actively seeking your opinion. As a reviewer, you have an obligation to provide them with that opinion. That obligation includes, but is not limited to, an explanation of why that is your opinion. If the reader likes what they see — say they’ve already read that book or watched that show, and they coincidentally share your opinion, or mayhaps they watch it later and remember your review. They might come back to read more of your stuff. You build a rapport. You build an audience. Their views line up with your own in a way that they can now use you as an dowsing rod for new things.

    Seriously, I’m a little ashamed at how long it took me to come to have that revelation. But when it hit me, it really did change how I did things.

    Shortly afterward, that rag shuttered and I moved on to another magazine. I took that opportunity as chance to start fresh. I ripped things apart less and I focused more on the facets I enjoyed about whatever it was I was reviewing. I didn’t skirt the stuff I didn’t like. I never prevented myself from saying, “You know what, I didn’t really care for this — it really wasn’t for me”. I honestly feel you have to be willing and able to express honest dislike if you want your reviews to have credibility with your readership. Positivity-for-positivity-sake can be equally destructive as excessive negativity. But I would also provide a genuine, respectful framework around that opinion of why someone else might like it, the elements of it that I did enjoy, and why precisely the product in question didn’t appeal to me.

    I started seeing the art and nuance in both what I was reviewing and what I was writing. And lo and behold, the joy of the process came back to me.

    All that being said, I don’t necessarily feel that those who build their careers on cynical or blatantly negative reviews are inherently bad, either. I think if they have a talent for it, they can find an audience, and become successful… well, all the more power to them! But I do feel like, there’s a point at which what they’re doing is less direct criticism and more a form of entertainment in-and-of itself.

    The dirty little secret about most of those very successful, always-negative reviewers is that, even when they lampoon something into the dirt, it usually drives sales for whatever that product was. For that kind of a critic after reaching a certain level, simply deigning to speak of a thing, even if it’s to absolutely destroy it in a very grisly, public fashion, is a kind of tacit endorsement. And I don’t feel like that’s invalid. Or, at the very least, I feel like there’s a debate to be had there. Ultimately, though? That’s just not the kind of critic I wanted to be.

    You hit several of the nails square on the head.

    • Scare off your readers and your advertisers, and well… what’s the point?

      Very agreed. This is definitely at the core of my concerns – being yourself is great, but who are you writing for?

      But I do feel like, there’s a point at which what they’re doing is less direct criticism and more a form of entertainment in-and-of itself.

      I agree on this being valid, and I see it the same way. When you’ve created a critical identity, and your readers know you’re writing to tear stuff apart, it’s actually just its own kind of performance. Though of course all acts of criticism are partially an act of performance – there’s always a degree of interpretation involved in turning our initial perception of a work into a piece of criticism, and even outside of our own conscience choices, we are always “performing” the passive lens we see media through, which is what readers are there to hold up to their own eye.

      But you know that, of course. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, and I’m happy you enjoyed the piece! Also glad to hear you regained your own love of criticism – I know embracing a positive perspective has certainly helped me find satisfaction in what I write, too.

  10. I guess i have a new anime blog to follow now. I just emailed this essay to a friend of mine, even though he doesn’t like anime.

    I’ve dabbled with reviewing webcomics on my blog (an effort that is on currently on hold). That’s a bit different from reviewing the niche output of another culture, because there is a pretty good chance the creators you are criticizing will actually read what you wrote, and from the outset I decided I didn’t want to be a jerk. If anything, I probably suffer from being too positive – I’m not doing anyone any favors by being less than honest. On the other hand, what is the value of simply tearing something to shreds publicly? If I dislike it that much, why read or review it? If creating a crappy gender-bent furry Star Wars fanfic fulfills you in some way, it’s hardly my place to take that away from you.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. It’s definitely a balancing act – for me, the guiding principle is not brutal honesty or total sympathy, but mainly just what I think writing a given thing will accomplish. That can be as simple as “make people laugh” or as ambitious as “outline a writer’s central philosophy,” but if I can’t answer the question in a way that makes me happy to publish the piece, I generally either scrap it or live to regret not scrapping it.

  11. Well written. I think the essence of what you’re saying is ‘being a critic doesn’t mean you have to be negative’. Too often, people think they can just slam others with their opinion and hide behind it as moral superiority. When really, just because you can be critical about something doesn’t mean you should always be negative. Too many people just slam something without offering any positive input as to how it could be improved, nor do they explain their own tastes. I think that if more people could be harsh but fair, understanding that people like something and framing their opinions appropriately. It doesn’t mean don’t ever criticize something, but rather when you do it you should do it in knowledge that there are people who like it. I don’t mind when people don’t like what I like, but I just wish they’d talk more about what they like instead of going out of their way to hate on stuff. Positivity may not get clicks but it’s certainly a more wholesome thing to do.

    • I’m not really against negativity altogether – I think it’s fine to slam stuff, and I actually think it’s a problem if people’s feelings get hurt just because a critic dislikes a thing they like (we really shouldn’t attach our identity to our art that way). But attacking the fans instead of the work is really just pointless and self-gratifying, outside of it also just being a jerk thing to do. And if you’re all negativity all the time, what are you really contributing to the world?

  12. “There are people who spend all day working on solutions to tough coding problems, or campaigning for politicians they believe in, or solving problems in a stressful office environment, and then come home and watch some moe slice of life to relax for a while.”

    This really rings a bell for me. Even if I know Hidamari Sketch (for example) isn’t a timeless masterpiece, I really love it, because it was exactly what I needed at the right time. When I saw the last episode of Sketchbook’s full coulours about the sakura tree that grows at its own pace, it clicked with me completely. Sometime, we like shows, not because of their artistic value (whatever that means), but because they ringed with some personal experience, or because they just want to have fun. We’re all watching anime because we enjoys them after all, even if it’s for different reason.

    …ANd I prefer the term “discussion” instead of “critic”, especially here on the Internet. You share your thoughts and expose your arguments and can start debating with your commenter, so that, ideally, you can both understand better how you feel about it.

    ANd passion is also pretty important. Some of my best time as a blog visitor where when I see one or more persons being so enthusiastic that I thought : “If they like it so much, I really should try it”. I think making more people watching your favorite show can, in the end, being more gratifying that just bashing it (That’s how I got to watch H x H after all the twelve days in anime and the reviews here, or finally catching on JoJo, for example).

    • Yeah, even putting aside individual media preferences, pretty much all of us watch shows for very different reasons at different times. Sometimes I really need some friggin’ Witch Craft Works to unstress for a while.

      And yes, passion is the key. Positivity breeds positivity, too – it’s a great feeling to hear someone checked out and really enjoyed a show because I kept talking about how much I loved it.

  13. God, I love you and everything you said…Honestly, a lot of critics are just douches who try to show superiority by hating things that the majority likes. Most Reviews aren’t even about giving honest opinions on things anymore, they’re just about the reviewer trying to show off how, “intelligent”, they are by over-analyzing things. Anime News Network critics are some of the most worthless human beings I’ve ever seen. 9/10 they really have no idea what they’re talking about and that’s probably because they review a show after watching like 2-3 episodes and then never visit it again. Carlo Santos is a perfect example of the kind of douchey critics you talk about, literally all he does is spout, “Generic”, and points out no good at all in any of the things he doesn’t like. I’m sorry but if a person doesn’t name a couple good things in a review of something they don’t like then they aren’t credible because of the incredibly bias. I’ve seen a lot of shit but I watched to get the maximum amount of entertainment possible out of it. Basically, if you don’t like something minor than ignore it, if you don’t like something major then don’t continue watching and if you do continue watching anime then don’t bitch about it because you’re the one who put yourself through it.

    • Eh, I’m not against harsh criticism altogether – this is more about specifically attacking people for liking shows, as well as understanding why people can legitimately like stuff you don’t like. The idea that harsh critics are just trying to look smart actually kinda worries me, too – that’s often just used as a way to avoid engaging with criticism, and I’ve talked about it before. There are obviously people who do just dump on shows just to knock other people down, but being critical doesn’t automatically make you an asshole!


  14. I understand your intentions, and where you are coming from. No one really likes people who forcibly insert their own opinions over the rest of the population. But criticizing about critics? Really? I mean, come on, dude. Everyone criticizes something. I don’t know if you realizes it or not but this post can easily turn any anime-loving community into a sectional war front and we’d see people arguing over petty little things like how this post kills subjectivity or how this post is the real truth whatsoever. Honestly If we all hold onto our different opinions, the world’d be in chaos, but if we all consent to something we’d lose our individuality. It’s a paradox already and posts like this just bring back more arguments. For the sake of the entire community please don’t post controversial stuff like this again, no matter how correct you may be.

    • I’m frankly kinda flattered you think I have the power to screw up so many conversations! But in case people really do attempt to misinterpret this post, I’d say my central points are pretty pro-discourse. My argument is really just:

      1. No one has “objectively perfect” taste. We all bring our own baggage to media, and even hallowed standards of criticism have an element of fluidity. Criticism is still a very valuable pursuit, but this should never be forgotten.
      2. People approach media for many different reasons, and meaningful discourse requires an understanding of and respect for this.
      3. If you want to convince people that approaching media the way you find meaningful is something they should do, you’ll change a lot more minds by being positive than by being an asshole.
      4. And that aside, there’s no difference between “asshole” and “shitty human being.” We should all be better than that.

      p>I don’t think any of those are bad things to promote! I don’t really see how this post could lead to more friction from those four points, which are really the totality of my argument. I’m arguing for respect, not a loss of individuality or the right to promote what you value. And if people try to use this as an argument that “all critics are jerks who should shut up” or something, I actually have a piece specifically about how that’s a ridiculous attitude, too:


      • I understand where you are coming from. I once wrote a couple of papers criticizing the structure of modern harems in newly aired animes. When I shared it within a couple of Facebook group I received a lot of negative opinions which, to be honest, did make me bit angry at the time. However over time, I’ve realized that my own opinion is definitely overly sentimental and somethings need to be changed.

        The line between enforcing one’s opinions upon others, and correctly stating one’s own subjective opinion is really quite thin. I’m more than grateful that you wrote this article which could help others better understand the distinctions between the two, but understand this: there are always two sides to an argument, and what you have written just automatically put you on one side. I understand perfectly that you are playing the devil’s advocate as well, and I think that’s great. However to people who’s unfortunate enough to miss the first sentence of the entire article, they will misunderstand your intentions and possibly view you as a hypocrite. To these people, this is the perfect type of catalyst they need to start something meaningless.

        So far I’ve seen 2 college anime groups that somehow ended in argument between themselves because of what you have written(I’ll spare you the names of the schools), and there were some harsh discussions of it on 4chan as well. Is it really your fault? No, obviously you have never intended any of these conflicts to exist. But is it a consequence of your work? Surely some stupidity is involved for these arguments to exist (not reading the first sentence of this article), but as a creator of this article, you should assume some responsibility as well. I don’t have the right to tell you how to write your own article. However, please do take into consideration of how your article may appear to others as something too extreme or too opinionated which could potentially result in some serious “bloodbath”.

        If I haven’t made this point, I’ll make it again.I think you have definitely put some great thoughts into both of your articles, and I thank you for giving me a interesting short reading. If you do intend to post something of a similar nature in the near future, I hope those posts will just be as interesting. Just don’t overdo it next time.

  15. Thanks for the essay. I found myself nodding, but not always due to questions, and hence wanted to discuss this a little bit further.

    —- first question —-

    “But when you switch from tearing a show apart to attacking the actual motives of the people who watch it, well, they’re not going to appreciate it.”

    Would ‘epiphany’ moments be a counterexample? I mean, moments where the audience/reader/consumer is criticised and then has an ‘epiphany’ which actually changes their world view. In terms of anime, I am thinking of NGE, for example, where Anno pretty much attacks his own audience for being what they are, and it did actually change many of their lives.

    What I’m saying that it is possible that ‘attacking’ can actually amount to something positive, in a “lost the battle won the war” kind of way?

    Saying “I think this is a bad show” is not that different from “I think the people who watch this show are bad”. You seem to be saying that the former is OK but that latter isn’t.

    —- second question —-

    This essay has me thinking about the role of “critics” in various disciplines. I understand that you describe watching anime is a quite a private matter, in the sense that your watching of it will probably not spill over to society, and hence why the statements you make in “On Why Your Critical Taste is Irrelevant” are possible. It’s difficult to tell somebody off because of their motives – after all, most people do things because that’s what they want to do, and they do things in good intention (because doing what you want is a good intention).

    I deal with things that are way more public than watching anime – with architecture. Architecture is inherently public, because everybody that so much as looks at it has to interact with it somehow. Architecture is more public because it’s much more difficult to avoid, and because it necessarily intervenes in common space and changes the physical fabric of cities. We frequently come across the opinion that, for example, it’s not fine to like skyscrapers and therefore want to build one in the centre of a historical town. It seems that we can agree on what is appropriate, and therefore can say that somebody’s preferences are venomous.

    It’s curious that we DON’T ourselves to say that it’s not OK to like certain types anime, and want more of it, but also DO allow ourselves to say it’s not OK to like certain types of building and want more of them.

    What we accept as acceptable criticism might have something to do with the status of various mediums, with their level of engagement with society, with what is percieved to be at stake etc. I find this curious.

    • Epiphany moments

      There’s a few things built into that, so I’ve got a few mini-answers.

      First, the situation is a bit different when you’re creating art. One of art’s central purposes is to shock and shake up audiences – it is much better at this than criticism, and the kind of criticism I’m talking about here is more “stop liking what I don’t like” than “your worldview needs a good shaking” anyway.

      Second, that doesn’t mean art creators aren’t jerks, too. That’s a valid thing to feel about a piece of art, and everyone has the right to their opinion. But my argument with art would be similar to that with criticism – that is…

      You’ll change more minds through empathy than hostility. Anno knows this – his work is empathetic. It acknowledges why the audience would feel the way they do, and attempts to argue this is a self-destructive attitude – it doesn’t just outright condemn them. And my argument isn’t about avoiding making controversial statements altogether, anyway – it’s about acknowledging the effects and considering the purpose of what you do.

      “I think this is a bad show” isn’t that different from “I think the people who like this show are bad.”

      Completely, completely disagree. People have the right to like things I think are bad, and them taking my judgment of those works as an attack on them personally is a huge, dangerous leap on their part. It’s toxic identity politics – “you can’t attack the things I like or the ideas I hold, that hurts my feelings!” People deserve respect, but their identity should be more than the things they like or believe, and those things should always be open to be discussed or challenged.

      Taste versus public spaces

      Well yeah, that makes perfect sense to me. When your personal preferences begin to have public consequences, a conversation has to be had – it’s no longer just a private choice, it’s a compromise between conflicting opinions that all have a real, definable stake in the outcome. Which leads to trickier questions, like how you voting based on your personal prejudices affects the public good. Or the default counter to my original essay, which is that “people need to be challenged in what they like or less stuff that I like will be made!” Which brings me back to the original point – that even if you want to change minds, empathy beats hostility. Criticism is still valuable – in fact, criticism (or just public debate of feelings and ideas) is absolutely necessary to any society, lest living ideas descend into unquestioned dogma. I’m just saying that purposeful criticism generally requires empathy and an understanding of our diverse perspectives and priorities.

      • Thanks for the reply, and again thanks for the essay.

        I should say that I agree with the main takeaway from your essay, which I take to be that we have to avoid ad-hominem attacks and toxicity. Sadly, but unsurprisingly it is something that especially seems to hover around the usual geek/adolescent/informal communities (gaming, anime, music, fan-fiction, etc). You put it nicely: “I’m talking about here is more “stop liking what I don’t like” than “your worldview needs a good shaking” anyway.”

        Ad-hominem attacks are not only bad manners, but futile. Projecting one’s opinions on others or expecting them to have the same ones is a wrong dead end.

        Our difference seems to be that I think it’s fair game to actually criticise more than the target of somebody’s enjoyment (eg: anime) and go so far as to criticise their liking of it. Not because it is wrong to like something, but, perhaps, because supporting something has more implications than we might be aware of. Example: “I think you are wrong for liking Prussian Blue, because you are associating yourself with white supremacists, and you probably don’t want to do that”. It should be clear that I am really not in favour of “stop liking what I don’t like”, we have to have intelligible conversations.

        “People have the right to like things I think are bad, and them taking my judgment of those works as an attack on them personally is a huge, dangerous leap on their part”

        If you are attacking an object of my fancy, you are attacking my fancy. It’s quite normal for a policeman to feel attacked when he sees ACAB or FTP spray-painted on the wall. You can’t escape hurting people, because people do define themselves by what they associate themselves with. I suspect that this is why we get such heated discussions on the internet, because to these things actually matter to people. It’s not an attack on them “personally”, but it is an attack on them.

        I’m not saying this is good or bad, I’m just saying that to say “criticise things, but don’t judge people” is a contradiction.

        PS: I also wanted to let you know that your essay on Eva 3.33 is amazing.

        • Liking things that could actually be considered harmful is fair to criticize

          That’s a fair point – I’d agree with that case. I think that falls under “you’re free to like what you like, but you are not free from the consequences of liking what you like” – that is, I can’t stop you from liking Prussian Blue, but I can yell at you for doing it. But as you say, that’s a more specific case than what I was talking about… but then again, all of this falls on a likely ambiguous spectrum of “harm” with “supporting hate speech” at one end and “liking a silly band” at the other, and so you kind of need to bring an actual sense of perspective and priorities to any given situation.

          If you’re attacking the object of my fancy, you are attacking my fancy

          I agree, people do define themselves by what they like, and that’s pretty unavoidable – but I don’t think that instinct should influence your right to criticize media, and I think a meaningful distinction can be drawn between that and direct criticism of the people themselves. All criticism will step on some toes somewhere.

          And thank you! Glad you enjoyed the Eva piece.

  16. Pingback: Sword Art Online – Episode 4 | Wrong Every Time

  17. I’ll just say this: We’re generally shitty beings, and proof of this flies in our faces everyday. Being shitty feels shitty too. Like diarrhea, it’s some you create and you can’t blame someone else for your shit smelling something awful. I’ll refrain from using shit now. Guilt is conscience, it’s empathy and most of all, it’s cathartic.

  18. I understand why people like the action and gore in AoT, but then people start talking about the characters like we are watching two different animes. I’v always hated, with a passion, when people say/act a way to get a certain response. The way the characters in AoT were developed were just deeply enough, and no no more that, to get the response the creators wanted people to show… there was no regard toward realistic behavior, the characters were all built to be a certain way and did not develop to my standards. Plus my dick is too big to like that show.

  19. Ah, I’ve been reading for a while now, and never understood the name of the blog. I get it now. Awesome stuff.

    It’s funny how a big part in the formation of my similar (though less fully fleshed out) perspective on criticism has been my relationship to anime, i.e. “How can I reconcile my love for this medium with the fact that it is widely looked down upon/not taken seriously by my critically conscious peers? Isn’t this important? Doesn’t it still matter?”

    There were several answers (a few of which I have come to understand well enough to be able to vocalize):
    1. Well, some of the anime I like(d) are pretty crappy. Oh well, entertainment has value too. Whatever, I never would’ve made it this far without gateway shounen. Bottomline, personal value trumps “normative critical opinion” every time (as long as viewers aren’t indirectly engaging in a rape fantasy via anime, or whatever. yuck).
    2. As I feel like you’ve done a good job showing, the haters are wrong. Anime is rich with critically-analyzable shows, from eva to madoka to utenna and beyond, the kinds of media my critic amigos (and I) can drool over.

    So its been cool to see smart criticism and great (and crappy) anime come together in a way that improves the way I look at both of them! Thanks!

    Lastly, I appreciate the compassionate notes struck throughout the essay. Titling the sections “On Why You Are Always Wrong” etc. was brilliant, for some reason I just had sort of a limbic lightning association with the title of Dave Eggers first book: “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” just straight-faced sarcasm on the surface and a big ol’ ball of human compassion beating below it, so hey, that’s pretty cool.

    Keep up the good shit and happy holidays, here’s to a whole bunch of thoughtful, ambitious, and bloody fun shows in 2015.

  20. I know it’s been nearly two years since you’ve written this, and I know a lot has already been said, but I just want to say thank you for this. Reading this shortly after your thoughts on Hyouka 11 makes me feel pretty much like Houtaro at the moment with regard to my current view of myself as a growing writer and critic:

    “As Chitanda leaves, we see how Oreki now sees himself. Not as a detective or magician anymore, but a jester, a puppet on strings. A fraud who doesn’t even realize he is one, playing to a crowd of faceless clapping hands, only actually entertaining himself.”

    I won’t waste your time explaining my background or whatnot, but I hope the sequencing above makes sense as to how you’ve literally slapped me in the face with regard to my current maturity as a writer. It’s Batman slap worthy at this point.

    So yeah, you mentioned something about the effects of writing on the person reading. Clearly, you’ve done just that. Wrong every time. Gotta remember that for the next review I write.

    Thanks again.

    • You’re very welcome! Knowing my writing has been helpful to someone is pretty much the best part of my work. Thank you for your kind words!

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