While there are certainly those who look at critics as nothing more than people leeching off the work of those more talented than themselves, I think critics do play a valuable role in the creative process. Critics of any genre are (or should be, at least) people versed enough in the field that they understand what works and what doesn’t. At their best, critics help to keep artists honest, produce better material, and also alert the public to quality works that they might otherwise not find. To be fair, there are some critics out there who don’t seem to do much except trash works because of the sadistic thrill of tearing others down, some who base their opinions on nothing but emotion and ideas they consider self-evident, and even some who shill for the entertainment industry, but these are problems with individuals rather than the field. As a fan of nuance over absolutism, I think it’s necessary to remember that and as a creative person, not to dismiss critics if they’re genuinely doing their job, regardless of whether we agree with them or not.
But in recent years, criticism has changed. The rise of the internet and blogs has given voice to any fan with an internet connection and an opinion, which has led to a plethora of people writing about every field. No longer is criticism confined to academia or newspapers, but in a way it has become the voice of the people. For some, it’s just as simple as a fun way to vent their feelings or interact with fellow fans, and for others internet criticism has become a career, but much like it has been a game-changer in a thousand other ways, the internet has massively transformed who has a say in the conversation about art in society.
But going back to the original point about criticism’s purpose, has this change had any impact whatsoever? Do studios and publishers care what bloggers think? I think there’s some evidence to suggest that they do, but only in a limited capacity. There have been several instances of movie studios in particular backing off from projects because fans revolted, such as Superman with a living suit and Lex Luthor as a Kryptonian, or Jack Black as a Green Lantern who used his ring for fart jokes, but these seem to be more examples of market research than actual response to criticism. Of course, no creative person or organization can listen to every voice that comes to them; otherwise, they would produce nothing of value and be pulled in a thousand contradictory directions. Being creative demands a certain level of risk, and the willingness to put one’s work out there where people can tear it to shreds. Still, a wise person at least hears what others have to say about their work, and many talented artists who cease listening to anyone who might tell them they’re making a mistake have their work evolve into nothing but its own worst aspects. An adage often upheld in creative writing classes is that if criticism is divided, one can cherry-pick what to use and what not to, but if everyone is saying the same thing, it should almost always be addressed. Sometimes this does happen, as accounts about several video game designers and TV producers who listened to their fans on messageboards can attest to, and in other cases (as it often is in comics, for example), the internet critics are dismissed as a vocal minority who are absolutely unpleasable.
I think it’s safe to say that there is no absolute answer to this question, as individuals and groups see this emerging medium in different ways, but as someone who has read probably more than his fair share of criticism online, I have noticed that a lot of it (far from all, of course) is fans saying, “Hey, we’re not stupid. Please stop treating us like we are.” I think if any message could be gleaned from internet criticism, it’s this. Okay, sure, there will always be poorly spelled rants laden with emoticons and use of “Not!” in the Wayne’s World style which seem to disprove this point, but for all that it has exposed the worst and ugliest excesses of mankind, the internet has also given voice to many bright, creative, idealistic individuals who care about ideas and the growth and evolution of culture as well. I think in a way this can help to dispel the notions a lot of smart people have about being alone in a stupid universe, because depending where we live, it can sometimes feel that way. The point, if I have strayed from it, is that it’s important to remind people who greenlight entertainment that not all their consumers are mouth-breathers that they can cynically manipulate, and at its best, internet criticism can do that better than anything else.
I should point out that I don’t think every reader/viewer/player/whatever is owed a direct voice in every work they patronize. Artists have as much right to express themselves as critics do to respond, and they shouldn’t have to follow the dictates of the mob. While not every intelligent person will agree on everything (nor should they), the idea that there is a conversation going can at least work to help everyone rise above being lazy or cynical in what is created, and all of us, no matter who we are or what we do, can afford to improve.