The Reviewer’s Fallacy

When critics aren’t critical enough.

Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Not long ago I picked up To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, a 2014 novel by Joshua Ferris, mainly because of the lavish praise on the cover: “Brilliant”—Washington Post. “A major achievement”—New York Times. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

I read the book. It is proficient. It presents an interesting protagonist, premise, and voice, and held my interest for about the first half. Then it pretty much fell apart, devolving into laborious subplots and ending with a whimper. Readers generally agree with me on both and Goodreads, giving it an unimpressive 3.1 out of 5 rating on both sites.

I have not seen A Quiet Passion, the Emily Dickinson biopic starring Cynthia Nixon. The film is a fixture of top-movies-of-2017 lists, including those of both A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of the New York Times. According to Rotten Tomatoes, 92 percent of critics liked the movie.

And those who paid for a ticket to watch it? Only 48 percent gave it a thumb’s up.

I’m not arguing and would never argue that the public is always right. The public is frequently a dope. Viewers gave Daddy’s Home 2 a 59 rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the critics an 18. I’m going with the critics on that one.

But note that almost everyone who’s seen A Quiet Passion or read To Rise Again at a Decent Hour belongs to a self-selected, inclined-to-like-it group, not random citizens plucked from the people standing in line for an Auntie Anne’s pretzel at the mall. The discrepancy between their estimation and the critics’ is an example of a persistent phenomenon. In my viewing and reading life, I’ve been repeatedly victimized by it, in a Charlie-Brown-and-the-football way. I call it the Reviewer’s Fallacy.

Critics have been criticized for basically ever, charged with being offenders of a few specific types:

  • Overintellectual nitpickers who blame works for not being what they were never intended to be: the Daddy’s-Home-2-isn’t-Molière syndrome.
  • Soft touches who’re in the pockets of studios and record labels. Most egregiously, “quote sluts” supposedly craft money notices for the express purpose of being featured in display ads.
  • Chummy logrollers—a perception heightened in the social media age. In a 2012 Slate piece called “Against Enthusiasm,” Jacob Silverman wrote, “if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.”
  • Careerist contrarians who try to stand out from the crowd by cynically ginning up unpopular hence eye-catching opinions: “Daddy’s Home 2 is the second coming of Molière,” or “Lady Bird is an exercise in tedium and self-regard.” (If you suspect that a particular movie critic is guilty of premeditated contrarianism, you can check his or her standing on Gizmodo UK’s number-crunched list of 367 current and former movie reviewers, ranked by how much they are in line with their peers.)

The Reviewer’s Fallacy is a different sort of phenomenon, less premeditated than baked into today’s critical enterprise. One of the root causes stems from Sturgeon’s law, named after its originator, science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who once observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” The “It can be argued” part usually isn’t quoted, and the figure is very ballpark. But it’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse. It would be tiresome for critics to constantly be counting the ways that the work under review is crap, nor would their editors and the owners of the publications they write for be happy with a consistently downbeat arts section. The result is an unconscious inclination to grade on a curve. That is, if something isn’t very good, but is better than two-thirds of other entries in the genre—superhero epics, quirky or sensitive indie films, detective novels, literary fiction, cable cringe comedies—give it a B or B-plus.

George Orwell got at this, with his typical hyperbolic bile, in a 1946 essay, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”:

It is almost impossible to mention books in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them. Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be “This book is worthless”, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be “This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.” But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse.

Elizabeth Hardwick took up the theme in 1959, writing in Harper’s, “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.”

Orwell and Hardwick present the “gross” overpraise as calculated; I think it usually is not. As a friend of mine suggests, critics fall prey to a sort of hermeneutic Stockholm syndrome. They experience so much bad work that they get inured to it. They are so thankful for originality, or for a creator’s having good or arguably interesting intentions, or for technical proficiency, or for a something that’s crap but not crap in quite the usual way, that they give these things undue credit. You see this in reactions to Coen brothers films, whose inside-baseball intricacies and references and sometimes distended cynicism set some critics’ hearts aflutter. Inside Llewyn Davis got 93 from the critics and 74 from the public on Rotten Tomatoes. For the brothers’ latest offering, Hail, Caesar!, the ratio is 85 to 44. (I loved the film. Go figure.)

A sign that the Reviewer’s Fallacy is in effect is copious attention to acting and cinematography (in a movie) or the quality of sentences (in a novel). Manohla Dargis’s blurb for A Quiet Passion says it’s “exquisitely directed … with delicacy and transporting camera movements”; A.O. Scott’s says it has “poetic compression and musical grace.” There’s of course nothing wrong with those things, but for most potential consumers they’re not very high on the wish list. And what’s above them? The answer wildly differs for different people (a big reason why it’s so hard to be a good critic), but in our own way we’re all seeking what the Latin poet Horace termed “delight.” In books, films, and TV, that often comes down to a story to which we gratefully suspend our disbelief and that carries us along like a well-tuned sports car. In pop music, the distinction is between words (easy to write about and find merit in) and music (the straw that really stirs the drink). When a reviewer goes on about a brilliant performance, or cleverly transgressive lyrics, I think of Paul Reiser’s bit about a friend who shows him a picture of his extraordinarily ugly baby. Reiser finds there is nothing he can say except, “Nice wallet!”

Here’s the heart of the problem: The set of critics’ and audiences’ interests do not perfectly overlap but rather form a Venn diagram. In the audience circle, the pressing question is, “Should I spend some number of the dollars I have to my name and the hours I have left on Earth on this thing?” Critics get in for free and by definition have to read or watch or listen to whatever’s next up. So their circle is filled with relativistic questions about craft and originality and wallet quality and the often unhelpfully general “Is it good?” (Some of them even have an idea of what they mean by “good”; the rest are winging it.)

I hate to sound like a philistine, but audience-critic discrepancies often occur when a work is less than pleasant to sit through, whether because of The Sorrow and the Pity–like length (a growing problem, pun intended) or grim subject matter. Take last year’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, which has a 98 critics’ and 79 audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and which I haven’t seen. The Rotten Tomatoes blurb calls it “The tender, heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.” I can get that at home.

The Reviewer’s Fallacy isn’t going away. Just look at television, where the number of scripted series has now surpassed the number of books crossing Orwell’s reviewer’s desk. I need more than two hands to count the number of recent shows I’ve read high praise for, then been disappointed by. I don’t claim that I’m always right. I acknowledge it’s possible that by objective measures, if such exist, The Good Place is a wonderful entertainment. I can certainly enjoy reading a smart critic making that case. But when it comes to my precious dollars and time, I have come to realize that I’m on my own.