It’s been a looong time since I did a “roundtable” discussion (never mind an actual column), but I thought this recent post by Comics Comics’ Tim Hodler provided a good opportunity for kickstarting the thing back up.
In his post, Hodler, talks about the journalism panel he participated in at HeroesCon and then segues into this:
If I’m going to be editing and writing comics criticism, it’s important to be able to separate personal friendships and acquaintances from my writing, and it’s already a lot more difficult to do than it was just two years ago. (Being married to a cartoonist, and not wanting to have her work unfairly linked to my opinions — we disagree on plenty, believe me — doesn’t really make it any easier.) It’s not really that difficult, but it’s an ethical distinction that I have to be vigilant about, and it’s also probably the largest single difference between how I currently approach comics and how I read and talked about them pre-CC, when I’d praise or trash comics with impunity. Now I try to make a point of not reviewing comics by people I know well, at least in print or on the blog, and I think that’s probably for the best, at least for now. The comics world is a small world, though, and that policy won’t work forever.
That got me thinking. Comics is indeed a small pond, and it’s almost impossible to avoid some sort of conflict of interest somewhere down the road. How does a good critic handle this sort of situation? If you have friends or family who make comics, do you avoid critiquing their work? Do you avoid cons or meeting professionals at all for fear of “tainting yourself” (I heard somewhere the New York Times will not let you review a book if you’ve ever met the author, even if it was just to shake their hand). Should the critic try to keep the creator’s feelings in mind, regardless of how bad it is, when reviewing a work or is a scorched Earth attitude the best policy? How do you honestly engage the work if you’re friends (or at least on good terms with) the person whose work you’re critiquing?
I decided to take my questions to the blogosphere and see what some noteworthy comics critics and tastemakers had to say about the subject. Read on to see their responses.
Man, do I sound like I a little baby or what? I’d rather read what others have to say on this, so I’ll keep my response brief: Since I put up that post, I’ve basically decided that Wyatt Mason (to whom I linked in my post) is right: there’s no reason not to review your friends if you have something worthwhile to say (as long as you’re upfront about the potential conflict of interest). There are limits, of course—you won’t see me reviewing The Goddess of War any time soon, or anything published by PictureBox for that matter—but overall, it’s part of the job, and an unavoidable part if you don’t take the saintly hermit route and avoid all personal contact with artists and publishers. If you want to write honestly, you have to suck it up, and possibly, occasionally, piss off your friends. There’s no reason to be cruel, of course, but that’s true for all decent human beings, whether or not you spend much time reviewing funnybooks.
*I figure it’s always a conflict of interest to review work by a good friend or business associate–someone whose reaction I care about. If those people do work I really like, I’ll plug it in an informal context like a blog, but I don’t do formal reviews of it.
*If there’s any other question of a potential conflict of interest–and there is no single standard for that–I run it past whatever editor I’m working for. Most of the time, the response I get is “nah, not a problem”; sometimes it’s “yeah, that’s a conflict.” And sometimes the editor simply asks me to disclose it in the piece itself.
(There was a time when the idea of a conflict of interest for a reviewer was nearly unheard of: this piece, for example, discusses a letter from John Peale Bishop to F. Scott Fitzgerald in which Bishop is asking Fitzgerald for advice on how to review Fitzgerald’s book! I’m sort of glad those days are gone. But I’ve also seen excellent, scathing assessments of H.G. Wells’ writing by Rebecca West–who was the mother of his son.)
As for keeping creators’ feelings in mind: if you release any kind of creative work into the world, that means you have to live with whatever response people have to it. The trick, for a critic, is to respond to the work rather than to the person who made it (or an extrapolated idea of who that person is). The best creators tend to be pretty thick-skinned anyway; I’ve gotten to be friends with a few people as a result of writing middling-to-harsh assessments of things they’ve released.
That’s an interesting question, and one that I’m starting to struggle with as I start to get to know more people in the comics community. Luckily for me, at the current time, I don’t have any family or offline friends who make comics, but I imagine a relationship that close would probably cause me to recuse myself from critiquing them. But I do have several creators with whom I’ve been in contact, whether via email or other internet communication, and I do occasionally consider that I might be giving them extra consideration due to my relationship with them. But at the same time, if I like a comic, I try to point it out and get others to read it, whether I’m friendly with the creator(s) or not.
While I don’t know if I’ve found the perfect balance yet, I think the key is to be honest. Whether I know the creators or not, I point out what it is I like or dislike about the book, and why. That also helps, and it figures into my general review philosophy anyway: don’t just say that something is good, explain what’s good about it. Give examples. Be specific. And it probably helps that I’m not too negative of a critic anyway; I’m more interested in promoting what I like, rather than castigating what I don’t. I feel like there’s enough good stuff out there to focus on rather than getting all wrapped up in negativity. That said, I won’t ignore a comic if it’s disappointing, or try to whitewash the bad parts of a book because I’ve emailed the writer at some point. Like I said, honesty is the best policy, otherwise, what’s the point of writing about comics at all?
The social aspect is one of my favorite parts of comics work, so I would hate to have to become a hermit or skip going to cons. I don’t think that’s necessary, and in fact, it’s a bad idea. For four years I was the sole reporter for the weekly newspaper in the city I lived in, which means that I saw the people I wrote about on a regular basis. It’s very good training for a writer; if you slip up, you hear about it right away. While criticism is more subjective, the same basic principle applies: Tell the truth, but do so with respect for the people involved.
I have no problem writing negative things about a book by someone I know and like, but usually as part of a balanced review, one that picks out good points as well as bad. If a book has no redeeming features at all, I probably won’t review it—but that’s equally true of a book by a complete stranger. Bad books are boring. The most interesting books are good in some ways and flawed in others, and that gives me something to write about.
Journalism creates another important habit of mind: The ability to separate things or events from one’s feelings about the people connected to them. I critique the work, not the person. As a matter of principle, I disclose any close friendships or business relationships, but I think I’m pretty good at putting those things out of my head when it comes to actually reviewing a book. It’s more about what’s on the page than anything else.
Absolutely, I censor myself when I feel uncomfortable based upon people I might know or people who might know people I know or their cousins or their cousins’ cousins. But I censor myself a dozen different ways. I take out jokes that are way too crass or things that reveal more about me than I’m comfortable. Not every opinion I’ve ever had needs to find purchase in some blog post. This is mountain-molehill.
I don’t see self-censorship as being a automatic negative. For me, anything that equals out to “try not to be quite such a complete douchebag in public” is a much needed tonic.
Also: nothing I’ve ever done is because I don’t trust the people I know to handle it well, by any means. Except some of them.
I enjoy tainting myself. With my fingers. EEW! Look: there are a billion reasons to avoid comic people. Is scurvy contagious? I don’t think it is but a billion-and-one then, depending on your access to, like, oranges. But … “tainting” your precious, so-precious comic reviews shouldn’t be a reason to avoid people who work in comics, I don’t think. There are plenty of other reasons. Celebrate those instead.
I’ve never been too concerned about what creators are going to think about what I have to say about comics. As far as I can tell, any response to the work is basically free advertising, and regardless of how much I might dislike something, it’s not like I’m the only shop in town. While I don’t have any real friendships with any comics people, I do have quite a few friends involved in the arts, and I don’t know any of them (excepting true amateurs) who operate in a fantasy world where everyone who sees or experiences their work will have nothing but good things to say about it. I don’t have much interest or respect for people who parrot their grandmothers and operate under the “if you can’t say something nice” mindsets, and I think that’s pretty obvious.
I don’t attend many conventions, and I don’t let my opinions stop me from introducing myself to people–but at the same time, I don’t seek out individuals who produce work I can’t stand, in hopes that I can create some kind of drama. On a recent Mocca venture, I knew that a couple of creators whose work I found completely without merit were in attendance–but I’d already said all I needed to about that. I don’t feel any need to go and try to make friends with them, or apologize. I don’t do what I do for any reason then because I like doing it: it isn’t so I can get free comics, or build a social network, or do anything constructive for comics professionals at all. I do it because I think it’s fun.
I recently received a graphic novel in the mail. It was a hardcover book, with lavish production values, self-published by creators I’ve met at various events and like a lot. The creators sent the book to me gratis, and though there wasn’t a cover letter in the package, I assume they want me to write a review of the book on Thought Balloonists. I’d rather not, though, because I think the GN is terrible and I don’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings. What should I do?
Philosophically, I don’t believe in ‘one-size-fits-all’ moral principles that apply to all situations, so I don’t have too many inviolate rules when it comes to balancing criticism with conflicts of interest. I take it one case at a time, though I’d never lie and pretend to like a bad book. Once an artist friend asked me to review a comic book he’d done, provided that I be utterly honest; if I didn’t like it, I should say so. (Luckily, I thought it was keen.) While I could write a nasty TB post about that GN that came in the mail, I’ll probably opt to return the book to its creators instead, with a note indicating that it’s not really to my tastes. We don’t gotta be mean.
I’m tempted to say that there’s no such thing as a “pure” environment in which a critic can operate without personal connection or bias. At least there’s no such thing in public. And criticism, I think, is always a public thing: a negotiation between the critic’s personal sensibility and the (real or imagined) tastes, allegiances, interests, and concerns of an assumed audience. Robert Scholes argues, in his book Textual Power (1985), that genuine criticism (as opposed to mere interpretation) always comes from some collective position, not simply individual preferences, and though that’s an argument I fought against at first – I disagreed violently, actually – it’s something I now take for granted.
The “collective” interest in comics is, basically, Team Comics, or some faction thereof. And that’s what makes your question, Chris, so fraught for comics criticism: this is still a relatively small and intimate field, a “team,” a clubhouse. The more so since the rise of Internet fandom, in which there’s no running from your opinions. Hell, your opinions leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind you. The consequences of this are especially clear in the blogosphere, which, like independent comics, is a field in which the differences between “pros” and “amateurs” are effaced, if not under erasure. That’s an enabling AND a disabling fact.
Both “mainstream” and “alternative” comic books are genres sustained by – I’d say continually called into being by – fans. That’s nothing to be shy of. Fandom fed the costume revival in the sixties, and fandom fed the growth of underground and post-underground comix as well. Many if not most of us who write comics criticism are also, in a sense, fans. This affects the kind of stance-taking we do vis-à-vis other fans and vis-à-vis creators. I admit, as a fan I enjoy interacting with comics creators whose work I admire, and even, sometimes, with creators whose work doesn’t set me on fire. As a critic, though, I find myself needing to take some distance. And that’s not always easy.
So I agree with Tim that we are all, to a degree, constrained by our relationship to the very field that sustains us. And I agree that this can constitute an ethical problem for critics.
Myself, I suppose that I finesse conflict-of-interest issues simply by not reviewing things by people I know well. But that’s not an ironclad rule.
Of course, in my case I do most of my reviewing as an amateur (in the literal sense, that is, someone who does something for love rather than money), so I can be selective about what I review. When writing for Thought Balloonists, I don’t tend to review things that hold no interest for me. After all, review copies don’t come over the transom regularly; I request them sparingly. I usually have to have a prior interest to review something (though there have been a few occasions when people I know nothing about have contacted me out of the blue).
Usually, even when I’m slagging a book, I’m writing about it because it’s on a subject I’ve thought about for a while and have an intellectual interest in: either something that has grown out of my own reading, or something that I’ve agreed to take a look at, or something from a creator who makes a irresistible artistic claim on my attention, or something a that is so timely and talked-about in comics that I feel as if I ought to have a “take” on it. I’m rarely in the position of having something wholly unexpected cross my desk, so to speak.
In other words, there’s a kind of advocacy implicit in what I choose to write about (even when I’m writing a negative review). In this way, Thought Balloonists is more likely to be a record of my self-chosen reading than it would be if I was a professional reviewer getting review copies on a regular basis. Though I do think of Thought Balloonists as a professional-quality site, it’s something that comes directly out of Craig’s personal interests and mine, not a paying gig that entails obligations in terms of coverage. That means that we Balloonists can commit “silences” aplenty: again, we’re selective about what we review.
I’m not saying I would never review something by someone I know well, but let’s put it this way: I would not review a publication by someone I know if doing so would mean having to compromise my criticism in order avoid hurting that person.
Of course, I like to think that I can review something negatively without being bruisingly unfair. And it’s not likely that a friend would give me something that I find so objectionable that I would feel driven to ATTACK it online or in print. After all, I tend to reserve my harshest criticisms for things that offend on some moral or ideological level. In those cases, it’s a matter of stance-taking for reasons that have to do with more than aesthetics. That would be more than a matter of friendly “constructive criticism.” That would fall under the category of things I’m compelled to say.
If something crosses my desk that, aesthetically, doesn’t work for me at all, I’ll say so; I’ll say what I have to say about it. But I’m not going to sharpen my ax against a work unless it offends on some level that exceeds mere incompetence or dullness. The fires stayed banked down unless and until something comes up that represents a larger problem, or offends on grounds of moral obtuseness or prejudice or political cant or self-congratulatory wanking. In such cases, I may aim for the kind of criticism that can sting. That I do only when I’m elbowed into it – which ain’t so likely to happen in situations involving my personal acquaintance.
Admittedly, I can think of one occasion when I gave offense to someone I knew without meaning to. In a “State of the Industry” issue of The Comics Journal some years ago, I wrote some impatient, disparaging things about the direct market that, in hindsight, sound pretty high and mighty. I offended someone whose goodwill I valued: a local comics retailer who ran a very good shop. It wasn’t my intention to include his shop in my criticisms, but what got published was a sort of sweeping, indiscriminate attack that, basically, said the direct market had gotten too small and insular to feed my growing appetite for world comics. I regretted how that came out. It wasn’t in the context of a book review per se, but it was criticism, and it caused some awkwardness the next time I went into that shop. And probably the time after that, and the time after that. Still, in hindsight I’m glad that I appeared in that issue of TCJ and glad that what I had to say was provocative. I wouldn’t want to curb what I have to say critically just to preserve the niceties.
Oh, and I can think of one other situation. When I met Paul Pope at the Ohio State Festival of Cartoon Art last year, I didn’t have the brass to tell him that I had raked his work over the coals in print on two occasions. The truth is, Pope gave such an endearing talk at the Festival, and the atmosphere there was so friendly and open, I didn’t have the heart to dredge up some bygone publications in which I’d slagged his stuff. And I enjoyed meeting him. I didn’t want to skip out on the Festival’s convivial atmosphere just to preserve some sense of critical autonomy. Still, though I’ve enjoyed a lot of Pope’s work in the years since I wrote those pans, and though those pans gave me a pretty awkward feeling when meeting the artist, I stand by what I wrote about those particular comics. I must.
When I read Tim’s comments, and when I think about my after-hours chatting with cartoonists at the OSU Festival, I’m reminded that I play several roles with respect to comics. Whether and how I vent my critical opinions has something to do with the role or task that I’m taking up. Many of my readers on Thought Balloonists may not realize that my vocation is being an academic: that’s my main work, where I live professionally most of the time. That entails teaching as well as research. Sometimes the teaching involves venting my critical opinions and sometimes it doesn’t. People might be surprised to see just how seldom evaluative criticism shapes what I do in the classroom. But I’m also a nearly lifelong comics fan, which means that I long to have the usual drawn-out blowhard conversations with friends about what I like and what I don’t. And of course I’m also a freelance reviewer (whether paid or not). All of these roles benefit from the others – what I learn in one context goes into informing what I say and do in the others – but, at the same time, they are distinct most of the time. It’s an interesting problem, and I function pretty much on the horns of that problem. At the OSU Festival, where, after all, I was not presenting in any professional capacity, my roles felt weirdly mixed.
In conclusion, I’d like to think that my friends understand the role that I’ve taken up as critic, and that they respect the requirements of that role. But Tim’s right – it’s tough. I have to take it one moral dilemma at a time.
As someone who knows almost no one who reads comics, let alone those who make them, I can’t say this problem has come up (not to say I don’t wish I knew more people). The few comic artists I have communicated with have primarily been because I already like their work (and often because I already reviewed it). The idea of a falling out with someone based on a bad review requires that one writes bad reviews. I prefer to write critical praise rather than critical bashings. When there are so many good comics to write about, I don’t see why I’d spend my time to write about something I didn’t like (a benefit of assigning myself all my reviews). I prefer to see criticism as a way to expose readers to good works and to look at the “why” and “how”. This does not preclude criticism in the sense of “what doesn’t work”, but it does tend to weight anything to the positive end of appreciation. That said, having gone through art school–where criticism was part of almost every class and invariably your friends were right there next to you, I don’t have any qualms about criticizing (in the negative sense) the work of people I know.
I definitely recognize Tim’s sentiments, and have often had the same thoughts. The comics subculture, as mentioned, is such a small pond that a conflict of interest will invariably manifest itself for any given critic. In Denmark, where the community is tiny by comparison with the US, this problem is naturally compounded, and I’ve certainly had my share of problems in that particular context. And, in any case, critics of other areas of cultural production experience much the same thing, even if their particular field is a much larger one, such as contemporary fiction or rock music.
This is a given, unless one wants to isolate oneself totally from one’s peers — which carries its own problems for the quality of one’s work. My philosophy, ultimately, is to remain as honest as possible with my opinion. To express my views clearly enough that the readers will trust that I’m not holding back, even if there could be a conflict of interest in any particular piece. This might ultimately be an illusion and I probably don’t succeed nearly as well as I hope, but to me this is really the only way to handle this problem. That being said, I don’t review or otherwise critically assess the work of close friends or associates in public. There is definitely a limit to the expectations I hold for my readers’ suspension of distrust. The key, of course, is determining where it lies, but apart from special cases of close association, I’m normally willing to take the risk on the strength of my own feeling of critical honesty.
Regarding hurting the feelings of cartoonists, I believe the lack of critical tradition has made this a particularly problematic issue. I’ve written more about that here.
Generally I review works that have some unique aspect that drive me to write about them — usually works that are exceptionally good in some way, or every way. But sometimes because they are exceptionally bad in some way, or every way. I can only think of one book in the recent past that I had a negative reaction to that also involved a friend of mine on the creative team, and I think I did give him a heads-up that the review was negative, but our friendship didn’t factor into my review, and wasn’t affected by it. I do think a critic has an obligation to consider the work for what it is, not who created it or the circumstances under which it was created.
I’m not really sure how meeting creators compromises one’s credentials; as a journalist, it’s required I interact with my interview subjects, sometimes in person, and that has never had a negative effect on my comics criticism. In fact, seeing creators in person, observing them at home or in their studios, has sometimes lent insight into their creative process, which is invaluable to me as a writer about the artform of comics.
I have had some amazing reactions from strangers who submitted their work for review and somehow are under the impression that they have some say in the review. Everything ranging from angry demands I send the book back at my expense to a long, unexpected phone call from a first-time creator who, it turned out, was genuinely interested in improving their work and found value in some of my negative criticisms. Those are kind of the ones you hope for, beginners who understand they have work to do, and are willing to listen to criticism that they, themselves, solicited
Few comics are so bad that the Earth needs to be scorched. I find a mild roasting is all that is usually necessary. And no, the very last thing the critic should be concerned about is the creator’s feelings. What should be evaluated is the creator’s work. Mature creators will not have their feelings hurt by a negative review, they will understand that not everyone will react to their work in the manner they want, or expect, and the smart ones will understand that every criticism they receive has something of value for them in it.
If you’re not striving for honesty in every bit of criticism you write, then you shouldn’t be writing criticism in the first place.
What will the neighbors think? has just about stopped me from doing any reviewing any more, alas. A few months ago I started just picking up books at random to read with the intention of reviewing them, but the second one I read bothered me on almost every level from the concept on down. It was written by someone who I am quite friendly with. Since I try to adhere to the dictum “Don’t write something you wouldn’t say to a person’s face,” before writing the review, I decided to raise my objections with the writer and we got into a lively discussion about it that didn’t really change my mind, but did make me lose the head of steam I had for the review.
So I would say that is about the WORST WAY POSSIBLE to be a reviewer.
As for losing friends and pissing people off…once I was ego surfing and saw that Alex Ross was annoyed about something I wrote about Kingdom Come. That’s totally fair. If you write your opinion you shouldn’t expect to be loved universally for it. Also, the amount of slagging that creators give to other creators when that creator isn’t in the room is immense. Everyone is judging everyone else all the time.
As a former editor you learn to judge and criticize the work of even people you truly enjoy working with and respect so I don’t really see myself as biased towards friends, since I know so many people. I do have certain very very close friends in the business that I would never review, however. I know I wouldn’t really lose a friendship over a review, but it is just fraught with difficulties for me from so many different levels.
That said, I used to write reviews for CBG until a few years ago and really enjoyed it, and would like to get back to it someday in some guise. In my case, it’s really a question of getting the energy to put it together.
I have a hard enough time finding something interesting to say to worry about any of this stuff. I do believe in the Chicago Theater rule of a) not your own stuff; b) nobody you’re fucking. Other than that? Feh.
As far as people being mad at me, it’s just my job. I figure I have friends who hate my writing a lot of the time, too. If you think we’re enemies because I didn’t like your comic, you’re an idiot. If you think we’re friends because I liked your comic, you’re an idiot who might buy me beer.
In general, if the writing is good, I don’t care about the relationship between critic and artist. If the writing is bad, I don’t care about the lack of relationship between critic and artist. If I could change anything about my criticism, a more rigorous disconnect between myself and the subjects of my writing would be change #73, between “fewer Sanford and Son jokes” and “more gerunds.”
I keep telling myself that the New York Times won’t let me review stuff because I know the authors, but it probably has more to do with my sucking.
Anyone in the comments thread who doesn’t like what I wrote here is biased.