I didn’t intend for this to be YWIB week here on Da Blog. My YWIB post was originally going to be one part to be released last week, with a followup on Powerup Comics this week, but the post on YWIB itself got split into two parts and delayed to this week. Nonetheless, I really thought I was done when I finished my post on Powerup Comics, but – probably unaware of what I was doing – Eric Burns(-White) has a rather interesting and relevant post on Websnark that aims to answer the question: Is it possible to criticize the critic? Hey, that’s exactly what I did on Monday and Tuesday!
Burns(-White) also believes it’s obvious the answer is yes, and starts by identifying three definitions of criticism that, to varying extents, we’re probably all familiar with. The first is your English teacher’s definition, what Burns(-White) calls the “analyst” or “scholarly” definition, deconstructing a work to figure out what it’s saying and how it’s saying it. The second is the “reviewer”, which basically says whether a work is good or bad. The third is “critic” as in being “critical”, essentially bashing whatever you’re, well, criticizing. To broadly oversimplify, Websnark generally tries to be definition 1, while Tangents tends to fall more under definition 2, especially as it’s tried to drift away from definition 1. (We all know what definition YWIB falls under.)
We’ve probably all seen all three of these definitions, and seen them get conflated and confused (especially if we’re aware of and looking for them), but what this post, pretty much unintentionally, put into focus for me was how interrelated these three definitions are, and how these interrelations contribute to the conflation (hey, I lost this post earlier today to a Blogger/IE7 bug and I’m retyping this post from memory while something else is on trying to at least continue to claim I posted it on Friday, and failing, so give me a break – I watch TV pretty much nonstop on Fridays from 2 PM to midnight). It can be hard to review something without giving reasons why you think it’s good or bad, which often means dipping into definition 1, and similarly, it can be hard to focus on what a work does, and certainly how it does it, without slipping into value judgments on whether or not it does it right. As for definition 3, that’s basically a modification of definition 2, and it can be hard to determine whether a disapproving review is definition 3, or a negative version of definition 2. If, as Burns(-White) does, you include “constructive criticism” under definition 3, it essentially becomes a conflation of definitions 1 and 2. YWIB has a lot more to do with definition 1 than definition 2.
Burns(-White) then demonstrates how all three definitions are themselves subject to all three forms of criticism, which I won’t get into except to say that Part I of my YWIB review was more definition 2, and Part II was more definition 1. He then finishes by stating that, to some extent or another, he’s written all three forms of criticism on Websnark, prompting the first commenter to respond:
And, if you’ll forgive me a moment of critique, you fall squarely in the first definition of critic. You’re too polite to go far in the third definition, the snark. And you focus too much on things you personally enjoy (or which are created by your personal friends) to be an effective reviewer for new or unheard of comics. And that’s fine — this is your blog, first and foremost, and people should be aware that they’re getting only what you want to write.
The webcomic world really could *use* a popular, unbiased, and wide-focus reviewer. But you ain’t it, and you should push back against people who want you to be.
This prompted a later commenter to respond: “When there are so many “reviewers/bloggers/news site owners” looking to do little more than get in the good graces of their favorite creators so they can hang out at cons together? Might as well ask for all of Bill Gates’ money while you’re at it.”
First off, I’d have to disagree with both Burns(-White) and that first commenter; if anything, Websnark fairly consistently falls under definition 2, even when it tries not to. It makes a point in the FAQ that the name is somewhat misleading, as it doesn’t really snark so much (other than “You Had Me And You Lost Me” I’d be hard pressed to find a single example of definition 3), and even when attempting to simply do analysis and deconstruction can often incorporate how whatever he’s examining made him laugh or how much he’s enjoying what the strip is doing. On occasion, Burns(-White) has even mentioned times when a strip just isn’t doing it for him, so he doesn’t praise every strip.
The major issue with being a “popular, unbiased, wide-focus reviewer” mostly has to do with the wide-focus part. There are a lot of strips that aim for specific niches. It’s hard to truly appreciate a strip like Penny Arcade or Ctrl+Alt+Del or even User Friendly if you’re not a part of the gaming subculture. On those occasions when xkcd refers to some obscure bit of math, if you’re not a math major you may find it hard to assess properly.
I’m not a definition 1 critic; I’m just too detached from all the esoterica of scholarly analysis to examine comics as closely as Burns(-White) is known to do sometimes. I’m just not that much of an English major. Yet much of what I’ve done so far has been, in fact, best categorized under definition 1, in part because of the areas where definitions 1 and 2 overlap and in part because I’ve seen myself as something of a successor to the once-dormant Websnark. Now that Websnark has started to come back to life again, and with the start of school coming up in less than a month now, I’ve been starting to think about possibly dropping my webcomic reviews.
I think, especially if Part I of my YWIB review is any indication, I’ve started to see myself as a definition 2 critic and even potentially the answer to the commenter’s call. But it’s very hard to be wide-focus enough to properly assess all the webcomics out there, and it’s always very tempting to slip into definition 1. Those are the main reasons there isn’t a truly unbiased popular webcomics reviewer out there, why “the Roger Ebert of Webcomics Criticism” (definition 2) is someone who fancies himself a definition 1.
(And now one of the commenters says another reason is that you’d need to either pay someone or have enough money not to need a job, rendering any other considerations irrelevant. Them’s fighting words.)