Bad Criticism vs. Good Criticism

by Sonny Bunch on May 25, 2012

Serving as a critic of culture—be it TV, books, movies, whatever—is a tricky thing. You’re providing a service that is, ultimately, superfluous; as a result, the manner in which you do so doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. You can make an argument for the value of just about anything.

With that throat-clearing out of the way, allow me to suggest that there is one form of criticism is that is markedly lower/less valuable than all the rest, and that’s the kind where you count up all the things you disapprove of about your subject and catalogue them for the world to see. It’s the sort of thing that the Parents Television Council does (or perhaps used to do; I don’t pay a ton of attention to them any longer), counting up all the swears and lesbian kisses and what not so families can shield their kids from naughtiness. Conservatives often take it on the chin for performing that sort of criticism.

But conservatives aren’t alone! Allow me to present two different types of criticism—one good, one bad—about the Game of Thrones books as examples of how to do cultural criticism right and how to do cultural criticism wrong. First, the good:

The world of Ice and Fire is a place of impulsive and arbitrary power, where little stands in the way of a strongman and his desire.

No one embodies the worst aspects of kingship more than the adolescent Prince Joffrey, who assumes the Iron Throne after the death of his father Robert Baratheon. Joffrey is governed by his passions and sees power simply as a means to achieve pleasure. He is tempestuous, sensitive, and vindictive. He orders servants to perform acts of cruelty because he himself lacks the courage. He breaks oaths, issues contrary directives, and draws strength from the pain of others. “His Grace has a unique way of winning the hearts of his subjects,” Joffrey’s uncle quips at one point in Clash of Kings. Of course, Joffrey is neither feared nor loved—he is only despised.

Absent the rule of law, and with the exception of revolution, only a code of ethics might restrain a potential despot. A sense of personal honor might be able to set the king straight. And yet Martin seems to suggest that morality alone is insufficient to curb evil. The character of Eddard Stark, the viceroy to King Robert Baratheon, is honorable to a fault. Stark serves his king because it is his duty. When he discovers something that could turn Westeros upside down, he faces a serious choice. When most courtiers would accommodate themselves to prevailing circumstances, keeping quiet out of self-interest, Eddard decides to act on the information, and in so doing, he sets in motion a horrible chain of events. “You wear your honor like a suit of armor, Stark,” says a more cynical—and successful—character in Game of Thrones. “You think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down and make it hard for you to move.”

That was Matt Continetti (full disclosure: Matt’s a friend and my boss) writing in the Claremont Review of Books on the political worldview of George R.R. Martin’s series. Note that you might disagree with Matt, but at least he’s making an argument. There’s something to wrestle with, to grapple with. It’s an actual critique.

Now let’s look at an example of bad criticism:

I could get into the reasons why, here. I could try to construct some kind of nuanced argument for you. I could talk about how the impulse to revisit an airbrushed, dragon-infested Medieval Europe strikes me as fundamentally conservative — a yearning for a time when (white) men brandished swords for their King, (white) women stayed in the castle and made babies, marriage was a beautiful sacrament between a consenting adult and whichever fourteen-year-old girl he could manage to buy off her Dad, and poor people and people of color were mostly invisible — or how racism and sexism have been built into the genre ever since Tolkien. I could acknowledge the plotty, cliffhangery aspects of Martin’s writing as a selling point: So-and-so was dead! But now he’s alive! But now he’s dying! But now he’s a zombie! But now he’s the Prince of Sblarghlhaar, because he was IN DISGUISE! I could try to look at the positives, before I get to the criticism. But you know what? I’m still going to criticize the books. And if these are your toys, you’re going to be mad no matter what, because criticism of your favorite things exists. On the INTERNET, no less! SCANDAL!

So why don’t we just cut to the chase, here? George R. R. Martin is creepy. He is creepy because he writes racist shit. He is creepy because he writes sexist shit. He is creepy, primarily, because of his TWENTY THOUSAND MILLION GRATUITOUS RAPE AND/OR MOLESTATION AND/OR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SCENES. And I could write a post about those, to be sure. But you know what would be easier? I could just count them. One by one by one.

That’s Sady Doyle writing at Tiger Beatdown. She goes on to catalogue, Parents Television Council-style, all the ways in which the books offend her sensibility. It’s really quite depressing in its banality.

Doyle’s piece caused quite a fuss upon its publication, and I never quite understood why. The mistake that Erik Kain and Alyssa Rosenberg made in the dustup surrounding Doyle’s piece was that they tried to engage her in an intellectually honest way. There really was no point in doing so, just as there’s no point in arguing with a group that counts up swears for a living. They have a worldview, and you’re not going to change it by arguing that the swear words aren’t important. Why bother beating your head against the wall?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Fake Herzog May 25, 2012 at 11:43 pm

“With that throat-clearing out of the way, allow me to suggest that there is one form of criticism is that is markedly lower/less valuable than all the rest, and that’s the kind where you count up all the things you disapprove of about your subject and catalogue them for the world to see. ”

As a parent of two youngish daughters, I want to know about all the lesbian kisses! So actually, I find this service to be very valuable, although I’m not sure I’d call it criticism. It’s more like a modern guide for the perplexed, so I can keep my daughters innocent as long as possible. But either you find this service useful or you don’t — the one thing you don’t do is argue with the folks providing the service.

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