OK, so there was a bit of a kerfluffle on the Internet this past week regarding an otherwise extremely positive review of the book How to Make Webcomics by Johanna Draper Carlson, which included this little tidbit:
Oddly, the promotion chapter doesn’t mention either press releases or getting reviews, both sources of free coverage; instead, dealing with critics is covered in the audience chapter. The author of this section, Dave Kellett, breaks them into four categories and says, “each one can be diffused or made impotent by kindness and politeness.” So the goal here is not to listen, but to deflect. And that’s reflected in his categories; not one covers someone pointing out a legitimate flaw or place for improvement in the work. In other words, he doesn’t think critics are ever right. (The categories are the person who’s mean without meaning to be and really loves the comic; nitpickers correcting “useless details”; the hater; and the troll. This section, by the way, was the first piece of the book I read — it’s where the copy I was browsing fell open when I first picked it up. Fate!)
I’m not sure how I ended up in so many tug-of-war competitions with bloggers, where the outcome of our match determines the superior position: creator or critic. But it seems to be cropping up again. There is a strange sense of entitlement, an eerie assumption of an unspoken working relationship that I am happy to inform does not exist. Why we insulate ourselves from the notion that the external critic can EVER be right, is because their critique is moot in regards to the progression of our work.
Think about Star Trek and the Prime Directive. Sometimes, civilizations take a left turn in their natural progression and things go tits up. Sometimes there is a dictatorship or a famine or a plague that is going to steer this civilization into trouble, but the crew of the Enterprise CAN NOT ACT. They can NOT interfere. To interfere with those hardships would be to damage the natural progression of that civilization.
All of the progress I’ve made in my work, be it writing or art, was accomplished through getting it wrong the first time. My father always told me that the first brush stroke will never be perfect. There’s only so much you can learn from reading books on writing or art theory. You have to create and get your hands dirty and see what works. You have to take risks and you have to fail.
There’s been a number of reactions to Kurtz’s statement, most of them negative. To my mind though, the best analysis was by Noah Berlatsky, who pretty much takes that barrel of fish and pulls the trigger of his bazooka:
I agree with the overall point, actually…but not for the romantic artist-as-tragic-hero reasons that Kurtz gives. The point of criticism really isn’t to help the artist out — at least not in the sense of telling the artist what it is he or she should do or change. A finished piece is a finished piece. You say it’s good or you say it sucks, or you say it’s somewhere in between, but that assessment is aimed at the work’s (potential) audience, not at the artist.
This is obvious when you review, say movies — the folks involved in Dark Knight aren’t going to read or care about my review, and everyone knows it. The comic-book world is small enough and insular enough that I think these distinctions can sometimes get blurred — Jeff Brown, for example, has suggested that I have a personal vendetta against him, when in fact I just don’t like his comics (or some of them — I rather like others.) Along the same lines, I think comics critics can write as if they’re giving feedback, rather than writing a review.
Berlatsky pretty much nailed it here, but I think the point is worth underscoring (and what use is this column anyway if I don’t bring up issues like this, even if it’s already been said better than I could).
To repeat: Kurtz clearly misunderstands what a critic’s role is. You don’t write a review or any piece of criticism hoping and thinking that “Oooo, this will show Creator X the error of his/her ways!” When Samuel Johnson wrote about Shakespeare, he wasn’t hoping that the Bard’s ghost will somehow pierce through the ethereal plane, read his words and at long last know true peace. Any good critic (and keep in mind, I’m talking about those who really and truly make an effort at writing worthwhile criticism, and not the nasty message board trolls and blog commentators that Kurtz seems to throw in the same bucket for some reason) writes for a) themselves and b) people who are wondering about consuming this particular piece of art. If it was the other way around, why bother discussing all these dead authors?
I think what Johanna was talking about when she mentioned the importance of getting reviews for a creator was not feedback necessarily as much as getting your work talked about. And what they say about there being no such thing as bad press can be true. If I read a withering review of a comic by a critic whose opinion I trust, chances are I’ll give it a thumb-through next time I’m in the store. I probably won’t buy it, but that’s more attention I spent on that book than the tens of other titles facing out on the rack that week. It got on my radar.
As Berlatsky notes, feedback is important. As much as I feel art is about self-discovery as communication, I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope that people got something of value from my writing, at least every now and then. And yeah, of course it’s a thrill to get to interview a creator you admire, or to discover they enjoy your work as much (or at least a little) as you may enjoy theirs.
Ultimately though, it’s beside the point. The work itself itself is the issue and I don’t really care if Kurtz or any other cartoonist writhes in agony over a cruel word I said about their masterpiece or decides to completely revamp their work from here on out or ignores it completely. I’m not reviewing the book for his sake.