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.