Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The End of The Critic

GI Joe is opening this week, and like Transformers 2--which has been the biggest hit of the summer--it isn't being screened for critics.

In the past, when a movie wasn't screened for critics, it was usually because the producers knew it would get terrible reviews.

But we're moving toward a world where producers don't seem to care about that once-valued stamp of approval. And there's a reason for this.

You, the consumer, don't care about critics.

In years past, the critic had a role to play. They informed and opined about upcoming releases--releases you may not had heard of, or that you had heard of but wanted to know more about.

But now, anything you want to know more about is just one click away. And if you're looking for opinions and reviews, you can get them from your peers. and are where people look for movie reviews. And unlike critics, many who are notoriously tough, biased, or eccentric, these sites provide an average rating.

The masses have spoken.

Books are similarly covered (pardon the pun--actually, embrace the pun.)

With the meteoric decline in newspapers, the rise in Internet reviews has more than compensated. Besides personal blogs and websites, booksellers like Amazon, BN, and Borders all allow users to rate books. Goodreads, Librarything, and Shelfari are dedicated specifically to book reviews and recommendations.

Bye bye, Mr. Critic. You had a good run.

Personally, I find it both liberating and disconcerting. It's great that someone like Roger Ebert no longer has the power to kill a movie with a downturned thumb. No matter the media, chances are the artist worked like a dog and poured their heart and soul into the project. It isn't fair for one person to destroy potential profits.

But at least that one person was somewhat informed. While the masses seem to agree on their overall ratings, and the average is a better indicator of worth than the words of one man, there are still thousands of barely literate chuckleheads who have no clue how to review, yet continue to do so.

So we've traded snooty for ignorant.

I'm okay with that. I've spent my writing years hoping for the big newspaper and magazine reviews, and haven't gotten many. But search the net, and you'll find plenty of people willing to review my books. It levels the playing field.

It also makes me wonder when awards will follow suit.

I'm not a big fan of awards. Nepotism rules. Judges' opinions carry too much weight. Often they don't even need to read the nominated work. The self-congratulatory nature of most awards is a turn-off, and I rarely agree that the winners were indeed the best.

But what if the masses actually could pick?

I'm curious why doesn't give awards. Couldn't they sell a few more books by giving the top 5 Best Reviewed Books of the Year an award?

Why don't Goodreads and Librarything give awards? This seems like a more honest, and realistic, way to judge merit than just about any award I can think of.

What do you think?


Stacey Cochran said...

The thing is that a writer in 2009 can have a comfortable living, a huge readership, so much to stay on top of that it's sometimes hard to keep his/her head above water... without a traditional publisher and so-called 'professional' reviews.

We just live in a different entertainment world today. It's the world of the community voice. The irony is that this is what writers have been about all along: connecting with readers and a society at large. But they had to get through the middlemen to do so.

We have, in many ways, begun to eliminate the middlemen. And if this cultural tide continues to shift further, it only makes sense as an author to be ahead of the curve.

As you have done with this blog, innovative grass-roots touring, etc., for several years.

Stacey Cochran
Bestselling author of The Colorado Sequence

yuzuru said...

I think you may like this about publishing:

Dave Zeltserman said...

critics still matter, for me more than ever with movies given the time investment. I use religiously to pick which movies I'm going to invest a trip to the theaters with. Newspaper book reviews also matter to me--I read the Boston Globe reviews everyday to help find interesting books--trusted friend recommendations also play a key role.

Marc said...

"Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain -- and most fools do."

- Dale Carnegie

Sandra Ruttan said...

The flip side of a critic not having the ability to kill a movie or book with a downturned thumb is that a critic also now can't make a movie or book with a thumbs up. It used to be these people had clout, and that helped quality projects gain profile.

It's always uncomfortable going through a time of change, so it's hard to say if things will be better coming out the other side, or if things will be much much worse. I know, for myself, there are a few reviewers whose opinions I trust, but most of the so-called critics seem to just jump on bandwagons. Critic A won't touch a book until Critic G has praised it, and then everyone jumps on the bandwagon and chimes in. And the buzz books - nobody wants to be the last person to weigh in with praise.

I listen to reviewers who don't pay attention to that stuff and voice their own informed opinions. When I get an ARC I don't even want the PR sheet. I don't give a flip who blurbed the book favourably already - I'll make up my own mind about how good it is.

Erica Orloff said...

I don't know . . .

I think there will always be people who seek literate reviews. Who will put the next brilliant indie film on their must-see list. If I look at my TV watching, for example, it's often BBC or obscure dramas--not reality show crap. That stuff is popular, but . . .

It's definitely a time of change . . . but there's always, I think, going to be people who are not interested in the latest popcorn flick or the next commercial fiction hit by so-and-so.

AND . . . those were the SAME people who ALWAYS felt that way. I.e., I never went to "Fast and Furious" or whatever was the latest popcorn flick; never bought x or y book, or watched x or y TV show. So I don't know that the power has totally shifted. I just think the masses are more VOCAL now than ever before, more visible on Amazon or wherever.


JA Konrath said...

User-aggregated content, and being actively part of the media rather than passively watching it, is becoming the norm. As is instant access to information.

Seeking out opinions before committing to something is natural. But equally natural is the need to share our opinions.

Communication, which has always been a two way street, is now more balanced than ever before in history.

For decades we were told what to watch and what to read. The networks, studios, and publishers put out what they think we wanted, and learned professionals critiqued it.

These days, we can post our own videos on YouTube, and put our books on Kindle, and report breaking news with Twitter on our cell phones as it happens. We rate the movies and the books.

We have more choices than ever, and more opinions than ever to help us make those choices.

I don't see a downside.

Matt said...

I'm a reviewer and interviewer in the music field in addition to being a writer, and I do think an informed opinion as a critic still has some weight- especially if you've developed a reputation for being trusted through the years.

That being said, with the internet boom the power has shifted into the hands of the people. Word of mouth matters, and if you know how to market your book to get that underground buzz swell, you can create quite the following. The difference being it may take longer to achieve more.

amberargyle said...

What I think?

I think your a marketing genious. Maybe we should start our own top five list.

I'll give you my #1 book of 2009: Hunger Games.

If you haven't read it--you should slap yourself for being slow.

Rusty James said...

I always make my Book and DVD rental/buying choices based on Amazon customer reviews - never visit Rottentomatoes or Ain't It Cool.

Amazon Awards is a great idea.

Jim said...

Joe, an important distinction to keep in mind is that publishers need libraries to buy their books. Libraries, in turn, genenerally rely on the pre-release reviews of Booklist, Kirkus, PW, Library Journal, and a few others. Thus reviews by these organizations are and will continue to be important to publishers and authors.

As for reviews directed at the public rather than libraries, you're right in that the ability of many readers to post reviews at many places, together with the ability of any potential reader to access those reviews, significatly waters down the importance of the traditional review venues such as newspapers.

ssas said...

I've never paid much attention to reviews for books or films. I read back cover copy, flip to the inside, watch trailers and read movie websites to make up my own mind. Let the writers do their own marketing (publishers want us to do it anyway) and let everyone else get out of the way.

JA Konrath said...

Librarians are on Librarything, and many are getting their reviews from there.

Joe Menta said...

I don't see any real downside to the new reality, either. True, the one benefit of the print ivory tower was that- theoretically- one had to have some coherence and polish to be pushed onstage in front of the masses, and that now any ranting guy in a shack (as long as he has a laptop) has an audience.

But while there are indeed many crazies- and, alas, many normal, well-intentioned folks who just aren't that interesting- on the 'net, there are also many, many more great writers offering helpful, entertaining, and illuminating comments than there have ever been available before to those who seek opinions and tips on books and movies. And I'm happy to wade through the muck to find them. Heck, even the muck can be fun at times.

And the mechanism for interacting with reviewers and bloggers is another wonderful aspect of the new reality, including the mechanism of critics being regularly rated by their readers!

Or maybe I think it's wonderful because I recently was voted a top 500 reviewer at Amazon, which isn't bad for one's ego in today's humdrum world. But seriously, that means something to me because it's real readers, ordinary people like me, who have been repeatedly giving me their "helpful" votes.

Melanie Benjamin, author, ALICE I HAVE BEEN said...

As far as reader awards - they tried the Quills for a couple of years, and that didn't really work out. Someone - literary critics, maybe? - chose finalists in several categories, then the public voted for their favorites. So it's been tried, anyway; perhaps it was just before its time.

Jude Hardin said...

The words review and published and bestselling are becoming about as meaningful as "new and improved" on a box of laundry detergent. We're going to have to invent some new language to separate the true professionals from the wannabe hacks.

T. M. Hunter said...

People are more apt to believe someone that is just like them, in regards to both movies and books (and a number of other areas, like music, etc.).

Professional reviews were done by people that weren't your normal readers (viewers, listeners, etc.). Readers want a good story for a fair price...

Jude Hardin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike MacLean said...

For me, intelligent, informed criticism still matters. In fact, it matters more than ever.

I’ve read too many five-star reviews given by “critics” who admit they haven’t seen the movie yet, but that it, “looks KOOL!!!” I’ve also read one-star reviews where the amateur critic said, “I ain’t gonna watch it” because the film was “gay.”

I’m more optimistic about amateur book reviewers (maybe I have misguided faith that readers are more informed). That said, I still ignore most of Amazon’s five-star and one star reviews. Amazon’s ratings are so inflated, giving a book anything less than four stars seems like an insult. On the contrary, many of the one-star reviews feel as if they come from a bitter dark place.

But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

The only thing stopping online sites from giving awards is that they haven't actually thought about it yet. Give them time. Brave new worlds aren't built in a day.

Joe Menta said...

Jude: What's interesting and wonderful to me is the whole new area- thanks to the 'net- that exists between "true professionals" and "wannabe hacks". There are so many interesting writers, pundits, critics, etc. that there simply weren't room for before in the world of traditional publishing (because only so many books and periodicals are published each year). But now anyone has the opportunity to show their stuff without a hierarchy deciding if it's good enough to see. Makes wading through the lesser stuff worth it, in my opinion.

Maria said...

I hadn't really thought of what was happening with movies and critics since I don't watch movies--good points.

As for the comment about librarians...yes, they do read those review rags, but I know that the buyer at my library also reads other librarian blogs these days. Communication has really opened up when it comes to voicing opinions, or finding them. It's easier than ever for a librarian to ask her colleague for her opinion even if that librarian sits three states over.

As for me, I never read print reviews because I never read the newspaper. When I wanted to read, I browsed either the bookstore or the library. I asked friends. That hasn't changed--except that now I browse Amazon and my friends consist of book blogs, book forums and...I do read reviews, especially the Amazon reviews since that is where I do the bulk of my book shopping.

Jude Hardin said...

I agree with Pink.

Therapist/Writer said...

Never hugged a pun before. I'm game.

Olga said...

I also think the Awards will happen. As for the role shift, I like it except when great books get taken apart just for the fun of it. Otherwise, more diversification can be a good thing.

Tim said...

Hey. This is the LibraryThing founder here.

The problem here is that you don't read reviews online they way you read them offline. The professional newspaper reviewer was a known quantity. The social-media reviewer isn't, so the review is a comment on both the book and the reviewer. For discriminating readers at least, you can basically ignore any review that isn't well written, and dozens of raves from people who write in text-speak is probably worse than no reviews at all.

So, social-media reviews are helpful and interesting, but they have a much more complicated relationship to possible quality.

JA Konrath said...

So, social-media reviews are helpful and interesting, but they have a much more complicated relationship to possible quality.

I agree with you, Tim. But I also believe it's a more familiar and personal relationship. We tend to take the advice of friends and like-minded peers.

A critic, by definition, is someone who critiques.

A co-worker, neighbor, relative, or friend can offer a more intimate opinion.

Social networking and user aggregation is what makes LibraryThing, Facebook, Goodreads, etcetera work, and keeps people coming back. There's no distance between the opinionated and those seeking opinions. I think that's the way of the future.

Sure, there will be those who don't adequately present or defend their opinions. But there will also be smart, literate people who will make suggestions and recommendations, and those people will find others who will listen to them.

Anonymous said...

The problem with general voting awards is who votes. The knuckleheads you mentioned? Here in Australia there's an awards thing called the Dittmars, which is voted for by peer writers. An inside source told me that writers basically get all their friends to vote so the person with the most friends wins. Don't ask me who else votes - maybe everyone is so apathetic about it that they don't bother. But it totally undermines the credibility of the award, and nobody in the know takes any notice of it.