Essay : Art Criticism in the Internet Age
Why the fuck would you read criticism when you can read Amazon reviews?
I've been trying to answer this question for eight long years now and I'm almost there. Because I've been that guy, pouring his heart and soul into books, movies, television shows and album reviews since 2009. It's plenty of time to wonder: is my existence justified? Am I actually doing something useful?
My answer isn't all that simple of comfortable to hear.
But let's begin with the problem. The internet, by virtue of eCommerce's nature, outsourced criticism from experts to consumers. You could say it democratized the process, I suppose. Whoever pays for a product can now leave a review on point-of-sale sites like Amazon and whoever is interested in paying money for the product will probably read it and perhaps even interact with the reviewer. That makes total sense if you're buying a pair of headphones or a washing machine. What they deliver is straightforward: good sound and clean clothes can't be debated into oblivion.
The problem is that Amazon, Goodreads and other review aggregators of their world apply this logic to books, movies and other art forms. And they've become somewhat of a one-stop shop for audiences. Most people reading this say it's not safe to trust the Amazon hivemind for art and they're right, but put yourself in a casual reader's shoes: let's say you want a book for your week-long stay at a resort in Playa del Carmen. You're going to browse the category you're interested in (let's say mysteries or thrillers) and go either for an author you know or best seller with many reviews and a high ranking. That person will either end up with a book by Agatha Christie or freakin' John Saul.
The commodification of art is nothing new. Walter Benjamin spoke of it at the turn of the century, but what is my place in a world where criticism has been commodified too?
Why is criticism different from Amazon reviews?
Let me get this out of the way: everything I do here, I could do on Amazon or Goodreads. I just don't want to. Primarily because I don't want to fight for attention alongside strangers and crazy people. I also believe the length of the piece I write here would go widely unread over there, so fuck that. I do leave reviews on both platforms because they affect artists' bottom line (it has a positive effect whether it's good or bad) but they are raw, digest versions of what you can find here.
What I've been trying to develop on Dead End Follies for the past eight years is a relationship of expertise and trust. What makes me an expert critic, you'll ask? Valid question. I've been to school for it, but anyone could do what I do on this site if they put the necessary time and energy to it. I might not have put my 10,000 hours into criticism yet, but I must be pretty damn close. That doesn't buy me anything, but if you choose to browse this site on a weekly or monthly basis, it's because you trust my opinion. It's because you're looking for my thoughts more than you're looking for general opinion on a product in general.
This is a tough act to balance because while I have many readers (about 3,000 uniques a month since The Great 2016 Reboot), my primary relationship is to authors. Few readers manifest themselves and I have a business relationship to authors, for whom reviews have a promotional value. I'm still getting asked for reviews several times a week in 2017 because authors need trusted voices to discuss their books. They need people to give prospect audiences good reasons to read a novel (or good reasons to hate it!) and they need to be "in the press". Have their book discussed on as many internet outlets as possible. Amazon and Goodreads are commercial links. You share them for people to buy your book. Not to stir excitement, controversy or discussion.
That is why people say any press is great press. Aggregators will turn people away with low scores, but a bad review will make audiences want to make up their own mind.
Why do I bother?
Because art is not a commodity to me. It's a vehicle for ideas and an altruistic way to understand the world. If you can put yourself in another person's skin for a couple hours, you experience a perspective that isn't your own and therefore make your own richer. Fiction is also a way to explore questions that don't have an empirical answer. For example: how would you react if you hypothetical daughter would be murdered? Or if your significant other claimed to see a ghost that demanded she avenge its murder? There is no way to answer these questions without putting yourself (or an imaginary self, that's why lots of protagonist reflect who the authors are) into that situation. There is something sacred to that.
I bother because I've learned a long time ago that talent and marketability don't go necessarily together. The majority of people don't read books or watch movies because they're smart or enlightening, but because it delivers something they're looking for: action, thrills, access to a supernatural world they wouldn't normally have. That is what Hollywood studio and Big 5 publishing companies are selling to you. That is also why most people only casually consume art, because most of the time it's not fucking satisfying. Lots of it is infuriatingly shallow and opportunistic and it's my job to call that out.
I bother because the majority of great artists are fucking starving, dropping from the face of the Earth and taking boring soulless job to spare themselves the frustration of broken dreams. That is also why I review the likes of Stephen King and Peter Straub, and countless mainstream movies on this site. They are a common language through which we can establish a baseline for our relationships. If I gave you a reason to better appreciate a book you've already enjoyed, you're going to trust me when it comes to material you don't know. That and well, let's face it, audiences discover Dead End Follies by researching authors they know. Come for Stephen King, stay for Laird Barron and Brian Evenson. That's my motto.
Last but not least, I bother because Amazon and Goodreads reviews are mostly family members and colleague leaving vague, but glowing reviews for their friends; jealous hacks trying to torpedo talented people's success; people leaving vague personal appreciation that has nothing to do with the book and sloppy synopses put together. And that has everything to do with promotion and nothing to do with criticism. There are a few, proud critics out there but most of these guys have their own sites anyway.
I think you need art criticism in the internet age, but I probably need it more than you. I've always prided myself in doing things for the right reasons and Dead End Follies is the embodiment of that.
What do YOU think? Why do you bother reading criticism? Who do you think are the best critics out there? Answer either in the comments section here or on Facebook. Looking forward to discuss it with you.