Writers, artists and publishers alike have long been united by their fear of the hatchet job. One scathing review could result in a work declared dead on arrival; critics known for their harsh appraisals were regarded with terror. But as the internet has empowered amateur critics and emboldened fan communities, there has been a shift in the critical climate. On social media, negative criticism of popular albums, TV shows or movies is met with outrage. Anything less than adoring praise is received by mega-fans as an offence, and, as a result, critics are hounded and harassed online. Artists, too, have hit out against (even broadly positive) criticism of their work. In this cultural climate, the critic, no longer respected as a tastemaker, is dismissed as just another “hater”.
This attitude exists at the very top of our culture. Last week, Rolling Stone reported a series of leaked text messages between Casey Bloys, now HBO’s CEO and chairman, and Kathleen McCaffrey, the company’s senior vice-president of drama programming, in which the two discussed a “secret army” of fake Twitter accounts created to attack critics who wrote bad reviews or posted anything negative about their shows. These accounts tweeted at critics several times over 18 months. It’s an absurd and needlessly defensive move from one of the most successful television companies in the world – even more so considering that the reviews they took aim against were, in several instances, extremely mild. In one exchange, Bloys workshopped a response (not sent in the end) to an offhand post from the Vulture critic Kathryn VanArendonk, which contained some veiled criticism of the HBO show Perry Mason: “Dear prestige TV… Please find some way to communicate male trauma besides showing me a flashback to the hero’s memories of trench warfare.” When the New York Times TV critic, James Poniewozik, tweeted that The Nevers “feels like watching a show that someone has mysteriously deleted 25% of the scenes from”, Bloys instructed employees to respond from a fake account accusing Poniewozik of “shitting on a show about women”.
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Bloys apologised on Thursday for these posts, implying they were a result of spending too much time online during 2020 and 2021. But the incident – sanctioned and led by members of HBO’s most senior staff – fits into a wider resistance to criticism. This has come from artist themselves: Charlie XCX has argued that there’s no “point” to reviews after her own work was critically panned. In a podcast interview in March, Seth Rogen said: “I think if most critics knew how much it hurts the people that made the things that they are writing about, they would second guess the way they write these things.” Amandla Stenberg DMed her frustration directly to a New York Times critic last summer after receiving a middling review for her film Bodies Bodies Bodies. In 2019, after Lana Del Rey received a long, considered NPR review of her album Norman Fucking Rockwell, she tweeted her anger directly at the reviewer, unleashing a harsh backlash from her followers.
Among fans, there is a widespread anti-criticism attitude: even mild criticism is seen to be in direct conflict with being a fan. Ambivalence is treated as a butchering and this mob mentality discourages writers and publications from publishing fair criticism. (As a critic myself, there are celebrities whose work I avoid because of the typical response from fans – I’m not alone.) This doesn’t just apply to criticism published in newspapers and magazines either, but even to the average person sharing their thoughts online. Most people on Twitter could tell you fan pile-ons aren’t solely retained for established critics writing in formal publications.
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Being a “fan” once meant appreciating someone’s art with a critical eye. In 2023, being a “stan” means an all-consuming, unconditional love for the artist and any project they release, regardless of its quality. For certain celebrities with sizeable fandoms, we have come to expect exponentially increasing adulation for their new music, books and movies – work which is often, at best, just OK. This resistance to any form of criticism leaves us with an entertainment industry happily profiting off a culture of near-exclusive praise. Record labels, production companies and publishing houses know they can get good returns on the work of well-known figures even when it is derivative, rushed or cheaply-made. As a report in Vulture explored in September, the rise of the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and the decline of the individual critic has led to film and TV studios paying for positive reviews to bump up their overall rating.
But criticism is vital to a thriving culture. If the peaks and troughs of the cultural landscape are flattened, we end up with a wide expanse of low-quality cultural offerings, the value of which is grossly inflated, and original, innovative work is lost. When mindless, merely passable cultural products are uniformly celebrated, it has the effect of narrowing what is subsequently made: encouraging the industry to invest only in what conforms to a simplistic model of what is already popular.
The fallacy at the heart of this backlash suggests that criticism takes away from something beloved. But art isn’t hurt by criticism – it’s strengthened by it. Without it, not only will the individual work suffer but the culture will also stagnate. The only winners are those profiting from the conveyor belt of highly praised mediocrity – the losers are pretty much everyone else.