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Reviewing the Reviewers

When Ginia Bellafante at the New York Times and Troy Patterson at Slate condemn “Game of Thrones,” they are expressing something that genre writers and readers have experienced often with people who consider themselves the guardians of high culture.  They condescend eloquently, but without convincing arguments.  The disdain they have for the show is less for the execution or artistry of the production than for the genre it comes from.  Ms. Bellafante manages to alienate women who read fantasy (who, in fairness she does agree exist).  Mr. Patterson indulges in a couple opening paragraphs of his own fiction, padding out his wordcount with descriptions of his mail.  Neither of them make a convincing case, and cover up the fact with biting but unfunny wit.

This happens all the time.

From the creative writing professor who won’t accept “that kind” of work to the friend who sneers at you for buying the latest Harry Dresden to the professional critic who will make grand generalizations instead of real arguments, people who are interested in high culture – and in gaining social status by what they read and who they look down on – have always found an easy target in fantasy and science fiction.  If they were strapped down and shown the importance and relevance of Ursula Le Guin, Philip K Dick, Octavia Butler, Stephen King, and the other giants in the field, it wouldn’t help. Be angry at the sun for setting if these things anger you, (he says, quoting Robinson Jeffers).

But they bring up what is, to me, a more interesting question.  The editors of Slate and the New York Times have selected these people and given them high-status venues from which to express their opinions.  They expect me and their other readers to appreciate these reviews and to care what the reviewers think.  My question is: why?

One possibility is that the reviews themselves are just another kind of entertainment.  Bellafante and Patterson are humorists in the vein of Dorothy Parker, and the insight and substance of their columns are less important than the schadenfreude they can inspire in the readers.  That’s not an ignoble answer.  Dorothy Parker was a scathing wit, and deserves to be remembered for it, and remembered fondly.  Her talent was as a humorist, not an arbiter of taste, but she was a brilliant humorist.  Maybe Bellafante and Patterson were trying for that.

Alternately, the editors who paid them might be looking for deep, reasoned, and thoughtful consideration of popular culture.  There are brilliant examples of fiercely intelligent writers who can deepen and challenge the reader’s understanding of well-known entertainments.  I remember being moved and disturbed by a bell hooks essay comparing the violence against women in rap music to Jane Campion’s movie “The Piano.”  I still think of that piece often, and if the New York Times and Slate are looking to provide that kind of really first-rate thinking, I have to applaud the ambition.

But my fear is that, while I’m sure they’re open to brilliant wit and insight, for the most part they’re trying to maintain high-status brands, and in this case with tools inadequate to the job.

In the final analysis – my final analysis, anyway – we are expected to privilege Bellafante’s and Patterson’s opinions over, for example, Jo Walton’s or Patrick St. Dennis’s because Bellafante and Patterson publish in high status venues.  And, with the glory of circular logic, the New York Times and Slate and others justify their claims of cultural importance by printing columns that benefit from that privilege.   They must be important since they’re printed here, and we’re important because we have them.

It’s not really fair to pick on Bellafante and Patterson.  Reviewers are still writers trying to pay their bills on a deadline, and with the unenviable assignment of making their opinions seem more important than their reader’s.  It’s a hard job, and they deserve respect for their efforts.  But the work they do cuts both ways: these judgments say as much about the New York Times and Slate as they do about HBO and George RR Martin.

In that sense, I think Bellafante’s and Patterson’s knee-jerk disdain for genre has done their employers a disservice.  Hopefully next time they’ll do better.

about the author

Daniel Abraham

  1. Amy Goldschlager

    April 16, 2011
    at 10:16 am

    Given that today, Bellafante’s column is all in praise of soap operas, I think she’s definitely wide open for mockery. So, a woman liking soap operas (total stereotype) is fine; a woman liking epic fantasy is a freak (even if she does exist). And all those women out there editing epic fantasy (including Martin’s editor) find it distasteful. Suuuuure. There’s probably something wrong with all of us female reviewers, too.

  2. Bardamu Foo

    April 16, 2011
    at 10:45 am

    Thanks for trying to make sense of those two strange reviews with a minimal degree of fairness. I agree that the Bellafante review was trying but failed to be funny. If she hadn’t paused in her diatribe to note on the show’s ‘perverse’ sexual exposition which almost tricked her into watching the show, the flow of the intended humor might have been holistic at best.

  3. Charles R Smith

    April 16, 2011
    at 12:55 pm

    Excellent article. Thank you for writing it.

  4. KT Chong

    April 16, 2011
    at 3:33 pm

    Nancy DeWolf Smith of The Wall Street Journal has also written a brief negative review of Game of Thrones, calling it an “adolescent-boy-action-show” for “the infantile”, with “basic appeal for role-players”.


  5. Marcus Weir

    April 16, 2011
    at 4:12 pm

    Thank you for such a beautifully written response. Not only was it the most appropriate, measured response I’ve read thus far, but you effectively demonstrated how a critique should be presented. Measured, respectful and honest.

  6. Fabio Fernandes

    April 16, 2011
    at 4:43 pm

    “Tools inadequate to the job.” You’ve pretty much got it all covered with that. Thank you for such an insightful article – too bad the NYT and Slate “writers” didn’t do anything even close.

  7. Mitchell

    April 16, 2011
    at 5:22 pm

    It’s not a review of the work, it’s some brainwashed and socially conditioned bimbo giving her opinion (not be confused with a ‘critical review’) on a show. I thought the New York Times was better then this and it should’ve been picked up by someone else there. If there is one fantasy novel that has engaged females then this is it.

  8. Gabe

    April 16, 2011
    at 8:06 pm

    “People who are interested in high culture – and in gaining social status by what they read and who they look down on – have always found an easy target in fantasy and science fiction.”

    Very well said. This discussion reminds me of critics like Kermode and Ebert, whose opinions I respect when dealing with movies, but both of whom are proud to announce that they A) never play video games, and B) that video games are, at best, incapable of being art. It’s always easiest to denigrate a creative field when you know nothing of it.

    I suppose it’s the very easiest character flaw for a critic to fall into. In the prison of critical writing, you have to find the easiest looking mark and beat him down, to show everyone else what serious business you are. Critics aren’t really remembered for justifiably praising a show, Ebert’s book isn’t titled ‘Your movie is good’.

    In the end instead of elevating the best movies (or books, or tv, or even video games), and helping to explain and understand what makes them excellent, criticism becomes exclusionary: spending most of their effort pointing out failings and perceived or real negatives. Book reviewers sneer at movie reviewers who sneer at tv reviewers who sneer at fantasy fans who sneer at anime, etc etc. Although both sides are necessary, I usually find authors who are confident enough to say something is good, and explain why, are much more useful to my understanding.

    This all got a little off-topic I suppose, but I find it interesting.

  9. Scott

    April 16, 2011
    at 9:57 pm

    @Gabe-There’s a flaw in your equating Ebert’s disdain for video game with the analysis of the Game of Thrones critiques: namely, Ebert doesn’t review video games. Gamers don’t turn to him for opinions on what to play.

    The situation here is different. The reviewers are being asked to give their opinions on a product they are predisposed against, and their opinion is deemed valid. In reading the NYT review, the most glaring example of this is the moment where the reviewer names off the “good” HBO shows, and says that what makes them good is their realism. The implication of this being that only works of art which replicate reality can be any good. Personally, I find that argument to be suspect, since every writer picks and chooses what they put in their stories, essentially making all storytelling a type of Fantasy.

  10. jojo

    April 16, 2011
    at 11:07 pm

    Even though I think Bellafonte’s review is a steaming pile of sheep pellets, I actually think that it serves a purpose. As hard as it is to imagine, there are a group of people out there that have the same or very similar tastes as Ms. Bellafonte. These people have come to expect that if they read a review by her, they will 1) be informed whether or not it’s something they will like and 2) be entertained by the prose. Those people were most likely both informed and entertained by this review, because who doesn’t like to hear someone agreeing with them and being “witty” about it? Everyone does. I get a lot of enjoyment reading negative reviews of things I hate, for example – almost as much as reading positive reviews of things I love.

    So let her continue to exist, and let the 99% of the population that has never heard of her continue to happily ignore her existence. By the way, she hated Return of the King. Because it wasn’t emotional enough. …What is this I don’t even.

  11. Dekar

    April 17, 2011
    at 12:43 am

    “It’s not really fair to pick on Bellafante and Patterson. Reviewers are still writers trying to pay their bills on a deadline, and with the unenviable assignment of making their opinions seem more important than their reader’s.”

    I respectfully disagree. Would you pat in the head of a engineer who screwed up some building project, and this building eventually fell down? I’m not saying that both jobs are equal in importance, all I’m saying is that if you do something wrong, you get at least a scold.
    You can’t “pity” them too because no matter how much we unleash our rage against these reviewers, they’ll still get paid for their work. Same as any profession out there… lawyers, physicians, you name it. They screw up, they get paid, but they lose credibility with it. You can’t turn a blind eye to these reviews– they are terrible and completely unprofessional. If things like that goes on completely unpunished, what’s stoping the next guy to do the same thing? Long story short, all I’m saying is; if you are a professional, you should strive to do your best in your area… If you can’t at least TRY, you’re useless.

    My thoughts.

  12. Teresa Nielsen Hayden

    April 17, 2011
    at 2:08 am

    Amy Goldschlager, I’m not surprised that Bellefonte is kinder to soap operas; they don’t make her feel stupid.

    Gabe, Scott’s right. Roger Ebert isn’t a comparable example because he doesn’t review video games. The other fact about Ebert you should take into account is that he has a longstanding relationship with the science fiction field. He’s not the snob you think he is.

  13. Jamie

    April 17, 2011
    at 3:37 am

    Thank you.

    It feels like the entire Internet is angry and wrathful in response to these two. Many responses to them overgeneralize and put (even more hateful) words into the authors’ mouths.

    Your response cuts more to the root of the issue, and does it without engaging in exactly the kind of tactics about which you’re complaining.

    Thank you.

  14. Daniel Abraham

    Daniel Abraham

    April 17, 2011
    at 5:02 pm

    “If you can’t at least TRY, you’re useless. ”

    Dekar: I respect your take. I’m a little more forgiving. I worked tech support for nine years, and God knows there were days I just phoned in my performance. But when I did it, it wasn’t put on Slate. :)

    As to Ebert and gaming, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, it’s true Ebert isn’t a game reviewer. On the other, he isn’t just a movie reviewer anymore either. It seems like he’s sort of lapped himself and become a cultural critic in his own right (as evidenced by the fact that anyone care what he thinks about gaming and art). That border is awfully porous.

  15. Kitt Walsh

    April 17, 2011
    at 7:45 pm

    I am a professional writer and have been an entertainment columnist for a Scripps-Howard newspaper. I covered everything from Tony Bennett to rap but when it came to opera, I passed off my column to a dyed-in-the-wool opera fan on the staff. I am (a) not a fan, (b) not as educated as I should be about the genre and (c) the woman I passed the baton to is a lifelong lover of opera and an expert in it. I knew the readers who appreciated opera would appreciate a review written by “one of their own.” The NY Times should have asked one of their talented staff, who read any of these NY Times best-selling books, to write the review of the show.
    This too-cool derisive attitude really should be adjusted if they are asking people to now pay to subscribe.

  16. Vicki

    April 19, 2011
    at 6:53 pm

    I think what a lot of fans are missing about this particularly with the Slate review and to a lesser extent the New York Times review is, these reviews are both online. That means, the writers job is to get people to click on the site. Their job is to get hits, which they did.

    I don’t think they should be reviewing fantasy but, I’m just not going to read their reviews anymore..problem solved.

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