Good, but: in praise of the mediocre review

Artists, and their fans, who hit out at mixed reviews misunderstand the value of critical ambivalence

October 07, 2019
Middling-to-poor reviews of Fleabag and the Office have been mocked by fans. Photo: Prospect composite
Middling-to-poor reviews of Fleabag and the Office have been mocked by fans. Photo: Prospect composite

There is a thing that happens with popular art where, once it has achieved an almost canonical status, we go back and roast the folks who weren’t that fussed on first viewing.

Ricky Gervais invited his fans to do it in 2016, sharing Victor Lewis Smith’s 2001 Evening Standard review of The Office in which Smith says “how this dross ever got beyond the pilot stage is a mystery.” In April of this year, the Spectator published a hilariously smug article in the wake of Fleabag’s second season saying that while they had always loved the work, many others did not. (The Spectator fails to mention the Scotsman Fringe First it won, and the Stage award for outstanding performance awarded to its creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, both of which may have had something to do with the fact that it was on the Spectator’s radar.)

The implication here is that all these negative reviews of things that the public have now deemed to be hugely successful are objectively wrong. Never mind that Smith’s review correctly picked up on The Office’s Larry Sanders’ influence, or the fact that the majority of the three-star Fleabag reviews are, in fact, full of praise for the show. The reviewers didn’t go ride-or-die hard for something that is now inarguably a hit, so they’re put up for ridicule.

Artists, too, are increasingly getting involved. Back in April, 2019’s breakout popstar Lizzo said “people who review albums and don’t make music themselves should be unemployed.” In September, Lana Del Rey responded to Ann Powers’ actually pretty favourable review of her new album Norman Fucking Rockwell with a couple of pointed jabs on Twitter, saying “I don’t even relate to one observation you made about the music.” Just the other week, one of those early three-star Fleabag reviews also went viral in the aftermath of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Emmy win, alongside the caption “Don’t let the fuckers grind you down.”

There’s a Simon Munnery joke, often repeated by comedian Stewart Lee, which says something to the effect of: “If the crowd’s behind you, you’re facing the wrong way.” It actually reads more like a philosophical maxim than a gag, and implicit in it is a suspicion of universal acclaim.

This is good. We should be suspicious of universal acclaim. If everything worthwhile received only praise, there’d be no way to separate not only the good from the bad, but also the great from the good. Unfortunately, often the most nuanced reviews are the lukewarm ones: The three stars; the ones that say “It’s good, but—"

We’re all guilty of applying our own unconscious bias to the art we consume. Art that resonates with us will seem more pleasing—but another perspective may pick up on something we haven’t. The great thing about this is that nothing bad can really happen if they do: either you’ll find yourself surer of your own opinion, or that opinion will be changed, and your strength of feeling recalibrated.

Besides, is it so much to believe that a professional reviewer is maybe better qualified than the audience, more able to spot flaws in something, given that is their job? After all, they are constantly consuming art at a far greater rate than most of us, and in most cases their goal in going to review something isn’t to tear it down, but to contribute to a broad, healthy creative environment.

Critics and artists aren’t in opposition. A three-star review may feel like a kick in the teeth, but it’s more likely intended as a kick up the arse. The frustration doesn’t come from the rating, but the knowledge that nobody puts three stars on a poster, and though it may be creatively helpful, from a marketing standpoint it isn’t. But criticism and art are two sides of the same coin. They are mutually beneficial careers.

Writing in News To Table, Rebecca Bodenmeier catalogued a range of responses from cultural critics from across the spectrum pointing to the ever dwindling rates critics are paid, summing this up saying: “Because consuming culture is considered to be a leisure activity, many people believe it isn’t really work and that cultural critics would just be doing it anyway.” She’s right, and this is augmented by artists—or fans of artists—dunking on those who have put the hours in to form these critiques. The more this happens, the less inclined people will be to apply this nuance to their criticism, and the unhealthier our cultural environment will become—three stars, at the very best.