“I’ll tell you a big life lesson,” John Krasinski enthused to The New York Times in early January, recalling the time his good buddy and fellow famous movie director Paul Thomas Anderson taught him to keep his lack of enthusiasm to himself.
Paul was over at my house, I think it was my 30th birthday party, and I had just seen a movie I didn’t love. I said to him over a drink, “It’s not a good movie,” and he so sweetly took me aside and said very quietly, “Don’t say that. Don’t say that it’s not a good movie. If it wasn’t for you, that’s fine, but in our business, we’ve all got to support each other.” The movie was very artsy, and he said, “You’ve got to support the big swing. If you put it out there that the movie’s not good, they won’t let us make more movies like that.”
A lovely and heartening sentiment, perhaps, when it’s the guy who did Phantom Thread counseling the guy who did A Quiet Place. “Dude, Paul Thomas Anderson is out there on the wall for us!” Krasinski continued. “He’s defending the value of the artistic experience. He’s so good that maybe you project onto him that he’s allowed to be snarky, but he’s the exact opposite: He wants to love everything because that’s why he got into moviemaking. And ever since then, I’ve never said that I hate a movie.”
Another way to get out there on the wall and defend the value of the artistic experience is to take the precise opposite approach. Roger Ebert, on the 1994 family comedy North: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott on the 2008 Will Smith melodrama Seven Pounds: “Among the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made.” Every film critic in America, myself included, roughly paraphrased on 2018’s farcical mob biopic Gotti: “LMFAO.”
This sort of scorched-earth denunciation has proved itself useful and necessary (and memorable!) across every medium, including reviews of books of other people’s movie reviews. Renata Adler, on Pauline Kael’s 1980 collection When the Lights Go Down: “Line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” It works, increasingly, in the Peak TV era. Vulture’s Jen Chaney, on the tasteless 2018 Netflix satire Insatiable: “It turns out the show is not as bad as you imagined. It’s actually worse. Like, worse in ways that you can’t even anticipate.” And it perhaps works best of all in the uncouth and anarchic arena of rock criticism. Robert Christgau in 1972: “Another thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them.” An unnamed reviewer on Spinal Tap’s early-’80s hard-rock opus Shark Sandwich: “Shit sandwich.” It is a proud, ever-evolving tradition. Pitchfork, in lieu of text to support a pseudonymous 0.0 review of Jet’s own 2006 hard-rock opus Shine On, instead simply posted first a GIF, then a YouTube video, of a monkey pissing in its own mouth.
An unapologetically mean review, too, is a big swing, and the ultimate weapon for passionate but principled critics who want to love everything but will not hesitate to really, really, really hate something. A truly vicious pan, a merciless slam, a full-scale ethering is born of a righteous fury that can transmute into pure joy. “The secret of the bad review is that you can get a lot of pleasure out of it,” A.O. Scott tells me, chatting via phone in late December. “It is a kind of a dopamine rush. First of all, editors—especially editors at The New York Times—love it. They love bad reviews. And they’re fun to do because they give you access to a lot of writerly tools that are fun to use. You can be funny. You can be clever. What you’re doing is, you’re demonstrating your superiority to a thing that you’re writing about.”
Which can be intoxicating, and for the sharpest-knived critic, a source of tremendous pride. “The first paragraph of my review of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor,” Scott says with a laugh, “if I can get to blow my own horn, is a classic to be studied in every How to Write a Negative Review class.” But “you can get too hooked on that feeling” of writing slam after slam, he warns. “They’re definitely more fun. But positive reviews—where you can make a case for something that you really feel enthusiastic about, and still write as well as you can—that’s a lot harder, and a lot more valuable.”
It is also, in the age of the Twitter Mob, safer. Scott knows this well: His excellent 2016 book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth opens with the infamous tale of his politely skeptical NYT review of 2012’s The Avengers, and Avengers star Samuel L. Jackson’s disproportionately indignant response.
#Avengers fans,NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let's help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) May 3, 2012
This potential for fearsome, mentions-ruining clapback was only magnified in 2018, which happily generated some of the harshest reviews in recent memory. In October, Pitchfork’s Jeremy D. Larson lambasted Anthem of the Peaceful Army, the full-length debut from the ludicrously Led Zeppelin–aping young rock band Greta Van Fleet. (Opening line: “Greta Van Fleet sound like they did weed exactly once, called the cops, and tried to record a Led Zeppelin album before they arrested themselves.”) This Larson tweet summarizes the resulting online conversation.
Later that month, fellow longtime critic Jeff Weiss, writing on behalf of The Washington Post, attended Post Malone’s inaugural Posty Fest in Dallas and did not care for it at all. (Opening lines: “Him? The most popular young artist in the most unpopular young nation is a rhinestone cowboy who looks like he crawled out of a primordial swamp of nacho cheese. Post Malone is a Halloween rental, a removable platinum grill, a Cubic Zirconium proposal on the jumbo screen of a last-place team.”) The result, as Weiss recounts now, was death threats, amid an avalanche of Twitter invective that included Post Malone’s own father referring to Weiss as “a petty little cuck.”
The film-review universe, meanwhile, is relatively more civilized lately, save the occasional gleeful mass beatdown visited upon the likes of Gotti or Fifty Shades Freed or the treacly Life Itself, which Scott himself described as “inadvertently hilarious.” As for television, in an overstuffed year more notable for its daunting quantity than any consensus as to any one show’s quality, Kyle Paoletta’s polarizing November essay for The Baffler took TV critics to task en masse for abandoning criticism in favor of pure cheerleading. “Left to their own devices,” he wrote, “our most prominent television critics seem solely interested in defining the best and the greatest, as determined by increasingly esoteric criteria.”
But Emily Nussbaum’s hard-nosed New Yorker takedown of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel last month suggests otherwise, a thorough and thoughtful disruption of that show’s general aura of universal praise, a valuable service Nussbaum also provided in 2014 when she punctured the awestruck bubble encasing True Detective Season 1. Still, for my money, the best, and meanest, and funniest TV review of the past few years remains Slate critic Willa Paskin’s “Excruciatingly Clear Plot Breakdown” of True Detective Season 2 in 2015, a riotously detailed explainer that doubled as a cry for help, or at least mercy. “As I was starting to do it,” Paskin recalls of that piece now, “it was very hard to organize the information.”
But in 2018, for pure vitriol, it was hard to beat Andrea Long Chu’s electrifying November Affidavit review of the Jill Soloway memoir She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy. “As a book about desire, power, or toppling the patriarchy,” the first graf concludes, “it is incompetent, defensive, and astonishingly clueless.”
People loved it. People wanted it. Who are Extremely Bad Reviews written for? What do they hope to accomplish? Are they spiteful acts of vengeance, or more principled demands for justice? Are outright slams more prevalent now, or more effective now, or both, or neither? The answers change with the medium, and the target, and the reviewer in question. Chu, for one, had compelling reasons to be so unsparing; with apologies to the unerringly supportive likes of Krasinski and PTA, the best and the meanest critics always do.
“Do not be critics, you people, I beg you,” wrote budding literary superstar Dave Eggers in a prickly 2000 email interview with The Harvard Advocate. He knew of which he begged:
I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.
“I just remember reading that,” Jeff Weiss tells me now, “and being like, ‘Honestly, you’re a contemptible hack.’”
What matters, to a professional critic, is sometimes saying no. Weiss’s Post Malone roast is a dazzling onslaught of one-liners, from “He looks like he got clubbed over the head by a cartoon peacock” to “He makes Macklemore look like Mac Dre.” It is based on long experience, not all of it wholly negative: Weiss notes that he cautiously liked Post Malone’s 2015 breakout hit, “White Iverson,” which got a very early semi-positive notice on his long-running online critical hub Passion of the Weiss. (He also realizes, midway through our phone conversation, that the coffee shop he’s sitting in is playing Post Malone.)
Less positively, he’d caught Post’s set at Coachella 2018: “‘The worst show I’ve ever seen’ is probably the most accurate statement.” But for the Washington Post piece, he showed up at Posty Fest in October willing to have his mind changed, if not fully blown. It didn’t go well.
But that, Weiss insists, is nothing personal. “No, no, I don’t care,” he says. “Post Malone is probably a nice guy. I don’t need criticism to enact vengeance on people. Nothing is personal in criticism. It’s art. You’re doing art. I think that’s this weird misunderstanding now, because everything has become this me, me, me, personal, like, this is my brain, this is my brand. All that bullshit. Criticism’s art and culture. That’s a thousands-of-years-old tradition. It’s one that’s probably broken down on the rocks right now, but like I said, I assume Post Malone is a pretty nice guy.”
You could hardly blame Post, of course, for what appeared to be his initial response, tweeted the same day the article ran.
fuck u— Beerbongs & Bentleys (@PostMalone) October 30, 2018
But as the resulting online fan invective, much of it directed at Weiss personally, ramped up, Weiss says Post apologized over DM, and the two came to something of an understanding. “Judging from our interactions, he was a pretty sweet kid that was trying to write really great songs,” Weiss continues. “I don’t know. I know about me, I want to write books one day, and if someone really wrote a horrible, horrible review, I mean, yeah, would I want to murder them? Sure, no question. Would I poison their first-born child? Of course! But I would think about it, and maybe think [about] what I did wrong.”
Post Malone, naturally, is no stranger to bad reviews. Same with the Chainsmokers, and Florida Georgia Line, and latter-day Justin Timberlake, and Imagine Dragons, all wildly successful and vividly polarizing pop artists who do not, to Weiss’s mind, therefore qualify as easy targets undeserving of discouraging words. “I think that I honestly find that a repugnant take, that there are some artists that are too safe,” he says. “I wouldn’t even know what a hard target is. Is Drake a soft target? These are the most popular artists in the world. They matter whether we like it or not.”
Nor will even the harshest review endanger that. “I have no delusions about criticism changing the trajectory of an artist’s career,” Weiss says. “Post Malone was going to be rich and successful with or without that review. The soft-target thing, it really pisses me off, because I feel like I don’t see any negative reviews anymore. That’s why I think my and Jeremy’s things resonated. … There’s always been those things. Writers have written entire books devoted to hating other writers. I don’t know. The notion of a soft target is just like—yeah, we have Donald Trump as our president. That’s the softest target there is.”
Greta Van Fleet, in their short but already luridly fascinating career, have likewise attracted a great deal of attention and stoked a great deal of indignation. But Larson’s Pitchfork review, for all its finely honed mockery—“At least Zeppelin knew how to separate their sweet-lady-I’m-horny songs from their howling-about-literary-fantasy songs”—was careful to take the absurdity seriously, and cite other 21st-century artists, from Andrew W.K. to the Darkness, who’ve updated classic-rock tropes with more verve and personality.
“I think to show fans that I wasn’t just a hired assassin just out to take this band out from 500 yards away,” Larson tells me, “I wanted to show that, like, ‘Look, I’m experienced. I know these songs. I know this style.’ And then, yeah, the response I got, it was a lot of people being like, ‘You don’t understand.’ And I’m like, ‘Ah! I really do. I really did. I promise you I do.’”
Another common complaint about mean reviews is you didn’t give this a chance, the sense that a critic hits play or sinks into a theater seat or slinks through a festival gate with an operatic takedown already written. That certainly happens; precious few critics are never guilty of letting their assumptions overwhelm their opinions. But it’s also true that a piece of art that’s terrible in a genuinely memorable way can take awhile to sink in. “I think it actually kind of tumbled around a little bit,” Larson says of the Greta Van Fleet album. “I find that it’s really easy for me to tell whether a record is mediocre right away. Like, I can kinda know, it’s like, ‘Oh, this isn’t doing anything special.’ But then when it’s something bad, you’re worried that you’re going to galaxy-brain it, and maybe this is really good. And so you’re kind of playing against being too cold. It’s like, ‘Well, it’s something that I find really repulsive right away. Now I have all of these feelings about it.’ And donating critical value to all of these feelings is not easy, I think.”
Pitchfork, in its 20-plus years as the chaotic focal point of rock criticism, has itself amassed a reputation for a singular sort of gonzo hostility. Devoted readers can likely reel off a half-dozen infamous 0.0 reviews and the calamity they wrought on those artists’ careers. The writing back then was often wilder, and loopier, and, sure, meaner.
“I think there’s a recognition of Old Pitchfork and New Pitchfork,” Larson says. “And there isn’t really a line there, but you know it when you see it. Like the Jet review, or the old Tool Lateralus review, which was written from the point of view of, like, a mega-Tool fan. Which I still think is really funny. That’s a form of criticism that is different from what Pitchfork is doing now. So, you know, I always foolishly start out a draft by being way too clever, and then eventually, you’re just like, ‘Ah, just write a normal thing,’ you know? And it always ends up better.”
What this means in practice is that the Chainsmokers aren’t liable to get a glowing review from Pitchfork in 2019, but they’ll get a fair hearing in a tone that’s a little less barbaric and surreal and detached. “I can’t really speak to if it was like a meeting one day where it was like, ‘No more monkey-piss GIFs,’ you know?” Larson says. “But I think it’s just sort of a, ‘Well, did we accomplish all we needed to accomplish with doing criticism like this? Is there a way we can challenge ourselves more?’ … I don’t think there was a meeting of the High Council of Pitchfork Reviews being like, ‘We are done having fun now.’ I think we sort of realized it’s a strong spice. You know? You gotta use it a little more conservatively.” And one way to hit harder is to lash out less often, and for that matter to hit smarter, not harder in the first place.
One common denominator in many of Pitchfork’s most caustic reviews, from Travis Morrison to Liz Phair to Black Kids, is the idea that only an artist the site used to love can inspire such visceral hatred. There’s a not-mad-just-disappointed air; there is, artistically speaking, almost a moral dimension.
This feeling is only heightened when there’s an actual moral dimension—when real-world values are at stake. The ferocity that goes along with that sort of argument can be thrilling, but critics invariably get much better at knowing how (and when) to channel that anger as they get older. And they learn to do that sparingly. “I think that this is often true, that the negative reviews—the sort of vicious, stinging pan—you’re used to doing, is more gratifying to do, and feels more justified when you’re younger,” A.O. Scott says. “Partly because you feel like you have something to prove against the world, and also, you do want that kind of revenge. And I did, when I was starting out as a film critic, I did take bad movies as a kind of personal affront—like, ‘How dare you put this piece of shit out in front of me? And expect me to watch it, and take my time?’ But, over time, I think that I saved the really harsh negative reviews for something that I think is a greater betrayal than that.”
From Scott’s perspective, there are, unfortunately, very recent examples. “It’s not just, ‘This isn’t a very good movie,’ but something cynical or meretricious—especially, something that kinda abuses the good faith of the audience at play,” Scott continues. “It’s kind of a moral lapse, almost, on the part of the movie. I really did not like Bohemian Rhapsody. And not just because it was dumb in the way that it was dumb, or kind of a clumpy biopic in the way that it was, but in the way that it took a figure that a lot of people loved and cared about, and just sort of didn’t do right by him or by the fans. I mean, a lot of people loved it anyway. But that just felt like something more than just not succeeding at making the movie as interesting as it should’ve been.”
That sense of purpose drives Andrea Long Chu’s review of She Wants It, the memoir from Transparent showrunner Jill Soloway that grapples awkwardly with both the accounts that Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor committed sexual harassment (which led to his exit from the show) and Soloway’s own decision to come out as nonbinary. As Chu writes:
This is a story about someone who responds to criticisms of her TV show by taking “a glamping writers’ retreat” to El Capitan: “We had a shaman come. She did magic incantations as we lay on the floor of a yurt.” It is an unwitting portrait of a rich Los Angeles creative type with a child’s knack for exploiting the sympathies of others, a person whose deep fear of doing the wrong thing was regularly outmatched by an even deeper distaste for doing the right thing. The nicest thing that can be said of this oblivious, self-absorbed, unimportant book is that it proves, once and for all, that trans people are fully, regrettably human.
“It makes it possible to bring a kind of moral clarity to a piece like that,” Chu tells me. “Like, obviously, there is the pleasure of dunking—I mean, I would be lying if I said that wasn’t part of it, but absolutely. The fact that there’s bad writing is bad, and as a critic I feel totally empowered to get really angry about bad writing, because it’s sort of my province. But there were parts of the book that were really attempting to exculpate Soloway, while actually doing the opposite.”
What elevated this particular review, then, from a satisfying artistic takedown to a viral phenomenon was Chu’s larger point of asserting that personal identity alone does not make Soloway’s thoughts or art important, or for that matter even tolerable. “It’s pernicious and condescending, because it’s a different kind of dehumanization when you assume that the aesthetic contribution of a minority group is simply existing, as opposed to actually producing things of interest and value,” Chu says. “It’s important for me not just as a critic, but as a sort of public trans person for better or worse to be able to say, ‘No, actually, extending humanity to historically dehumanized people means that when they make shitty art, you tell them they have made shitty art,’ you know? Like, that is actually where dignity lies.”
Transparent was far easier to grapple with critically when it was merely one prominent TV show out of what seemed to be 10,000 prominent TV shows. Pure volume and a near-total lack of critical or audience consensus are the guiding principles of TV criticism now, which affects not so much the shows critics hate as the shows critics regard as worth hating.
Slate’s Willa Paskin does not necessarily consider herself a harsh reviewer—“Someone once told me I was ‘unimpressed,’ in a complimentary way”—but she can still appreciate the joys of reviewing something harshly. “The thing about pans is that they’re very invigorating,” she tells me. “Any time you feel strongly—if you love something or you hate something—is a rarity, and so it’s really fun to write about. And when you hate something, you almost get to be freer. When you love it you have to explain it—it’s actually harder. It can be much harder. Explaining why you hate something is the easiest thing. So it’s the most fun thing to write. I mean, the simplest.”
And so her 2015 pan of the medieval FX dirge The Bastard Executioner radiates a nauseating sort of delight: “The Bastard Executioner is monstrously fetid, a mound of gorgonzola stuffed into a dead catfish’s gullet, smoked in sulfur, doused with heavy cream and left to rot for weeks inside a port-o-potty in full sun.” But the question now, less than four years later, is whether a show like that would deserve her attention, let alone her enmity.
“Because of the amount of TV, for something to be worth a pan, it’s harder,” she says. “When there were less shows, if it was on a network, maybe that was worth panning, just because of that. But now, it’s like, I’m gonna take this nothing show and shit all over it? I’ll just skip it. So if it’s something like The Romanoffs, that rises to the occasion, where I can be like, ‘Oh, I have nothing good to say about this, and I can say nothing good about it. It’s worth it.’ But if not, if you really hated something—like now, if The Bastard Executioner came out now, I just would never write about it. Why would I have written about that show? Of course it’s not for me, it’s like a minor offering from FX. There’s no way.”
There is a different but just as pervasive sense of futility to even those few shows everyone’s actually watching. The final season of Game of Thrones will inspire tens of millions of words of content, but is it beyond the point of inspiring provocative, effective criticism? And will the final season, as a stand-alone piece of entertainment, actually be “good”?
“Whether it’s good or not is not actually important,” Paskin says. “It’s not the question we’re litigating every time we talk about Game of Thrones. … We already know how it’s ending. Everyone’s gonna be all very excited about it, even as they’re shitting on it. And everyone’s writing like 10,000 recaps of things, and then there’ll be the finale. And then there’ll be like 100 pieces about how, whatever the finale is, whether it’s a good or bad finale. It’s kind of irrelevant. Then there’ll be 100 billion more pieces, and 100 million more things to come. I mean, it’s just so irrelevant. Game of Thrones is a thing to me that, it just feels like it’s so irrelevant what any person has to say about it. And it just gets great traffic.”
The calculus of when something is too powerful to be criticized or not powerful enough—or a critic is too emotionally invested to be impartial or not emotionally invested enough—continues to vex criticism as a whole, and complicate the question as to how criticism, in the past several decades, has or hasn’t changed. Reviews aren’t necessarily meaner now, nor are there necessarily more of them, but the social-media outrage that necessarily follows a righteous takedown might convince you otherwise. Is the critical conversation meaner now? Possibly. Is it louder now? Undoubtedly.
“One of the things that I noticed when I was working on the book is that when people make statements about the general state of criticism, both things are true at the same time,” Scott says. “So you have, almost simultaneously, people publishing essays about how criticism has gotten so harsh and so mean and we’re just trying to take everyone down. And, the next month, someone will publish something that says, ‘The reviews have gotten too soft and too permissive, and everyone’s just being cheering and encouraging, and no one’s harsh enough.’”
Meanwhile, the hits—and the hit pieces—keep on coming. In early January, Leonard Cohen, of all people, took a shellacking in The New York Times Book Review, via William Logan’s dismissive review of Cohen’s posthumous new poetry-and-drawings collection The Flame. “Monotonous scribbles of the moody-undergraduate school.” “At any moment of the day, ‘Suzanne’ is probably playing in an elevator somewhere.” “If singing badly is no bar to stardom, everyone who stands caterwauling in the shower should take hope.” Is Cohen a soft target? A hard target? Does it matter that he’s … dead? It’s something new to argue about, at least. So sound off in the comments—after all, that’s where all the best, or at least the meanest, criticism gets written nowadays.