In 2018, while working as a freelance writer, I travelled three hours outside of London on a train, and then a coach, to review a music festival. I camped in the cold and the rain, waking up at 8am each morning to make sure I didn’t miss anything. When I got home, I filed what I thought was a generous review. I did not expect the organiser and the founder of the festival to find me on Twitter to tell me that I clearly hadn’t attended, or that my three-star review was full of lies. They were hurt that I hadn’t given it five stars. I was hurt that my hard work – complete with blood blisters, swollen glands and glitter that took two weeks to wash out of my hair – was now seen as a declaration of war.
As an editor and sometime critic specialising in pop culture, differing perceptions are par for the course. I find it skull-crushingly boring to see the same TV show or album receive near-identical reviews across the board, or read identikit reviews of the same film. I inhale people’s opinions – the good and the bad, the funny and the touching, the flippant and the problematic – and exhale them. I don’t internalise them. I don’t agree with a lot of what I read, but I take something from it: someone else’s views. I go to certain people because I know, nine times out of 10, we think very, very differently (here’s looking at you, Camilla Long). Reviews can serve as a guide but they are also an artform in their own right. They entertain, inform and challenge readers. The writer AO Scott described criticism in his 2016 book Better Living Through Criticism as “art’s late-born twin”.
It was a second strange experience, then, to wake up in a foreign country at the end of 2019, on a parental-death-imposed holiday where work was as good as a million miles away, to find that a Twitter “storm” had started around one of my opinions. At that point in time, my existence was a comforting combination of workaholism, panic attacks and grief. My writing – which had started by blogging online and then writing for the likes of NME in my teens – never took itself too seriously. It came from that place where love, deference, humour and actual journalism coagulate. Yet, the creator of a major BBC crime drama – yes, that one – had taken it another way. Reflecting on a (very) short piece online, he described me as snide, and talentless, and said I shouldn’t be doing my job. Never mind that this was the dance that we had both essentially entered into by doing our jobs – him to create art that was to be judged, me to write and judge said art – I was wrong. I was a horrible person.
I am not one for Twitter beef – and also couldn’t face paying another £200 for data – so I left it. I thought that was it, until the same person resurfaced a year and a half later, just before the new series of that crime drama, wanting me to know, in a national magazine, that I was a “cunt” and a “piece of shit”. The words rose off the page like some kind of twisted Magic Eye picture. Yes, this was about me; I was the bad guy.
As journalism has become ever more dominated by celebrity, public figures have also become more willing to engage with criticism of their work, pushing when they don’t agree with something. When the singer Lizzo was underwhelmed by a 2019 album review by Pitchfork’s Rawiya Kameir, she wrote in a now-deleted Tweet that “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.” Her reaction is, on one hand, understandable: who wants to be criticised? And yet it fundamentally misunderstands what culture writing and criticism is. It is not there to take pot shots at Lizzo, or anyone else: it’s a place for fans to engage with forms that they love; to be excited and disappointed; a place for differing opinions.
In this case, Kameir deftly situated the album in the canon of overly slick empowerment pop, and conceded that it “performs an important social function”. She considered it, explained it, and treated it seriously, like the art that it is. She wrote that Lizzo is talented; she looked for the positives. However, it was seen as something more devious, more calculating. The stereotype of a critic as cruel, immoral and even underqualified (perhaps best encapsulated on film by the restaurant critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille), rather than someone trying to contextualise, parse, and make sense of what they see, is a pervasive one.
When the Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen wrote in great detail about how the career of now-disgraced film star Armie Hammer had been stuck in second gear for a decade, Hammer called her “bitter AF”. In the same year, Lana Del Rey took umbrage with the music critic Ann Powers of NPR for saying she was embodying “a persona” (who doesn’t?), and that her lyrics were “uncooked”. Those were, of course, just Powers’s words. But to Del Rey, they had struck a nerve. She told Powers not to call herself a fan of hers ever again. In all of these cases, by shouting about them, the person with the actual power – the artist, the celebrity – ironically brings more attention to the critic’s views (see: the Streisand effect).
Of course, there are times when criticism tips into something more controversial. A review of Dolly Alderton’s book Ghosts went viral online in 2020. There wasn’t that sense of the reviewer having engaged with something before offering up a short, sharp, maybe flippant take. Rather it seemed over the top; the book, said the Irish Times writer Barry Pierce, brought him “nothing but pain and disappointment”. The editor-in-chief of Empire magazine, Terri White described it as “taking great delight in destroying for effect”. While I do not believe it shouldn’t have been published – as I said, I do not agree with probably 99.9% of what I read – I don’t know that it was the most informative kind of review. If criticism is an art, then this was a bad example.
Likewise, when Carey Mulligan clashed with the film industry magazine Variety over a review describing her get-up in the film Promising Young Woman as “bad drag” and adding that “even her long blonde hair seems a put-on”. Should it have been published? I think you know my answer. But does Mulligan’s appearance have anything to do with the review? Probably not enough to warrant inclusion. Yet, it all comes back, I think, to the question of intent. “I’m a 60-year-old gay man. I don’t actually go around dwelling on the comparative hotnesses of young actresses, let alone writing about that,” said its author, Dennis Harvey. I don’t think Harvey should have been talking about Mulligan’s appearance because, honestly, why? But that potential to say something that someone won’t like is inextricably baked into being a critic. Many writers I know don’t read the comments below their pieces for the same reason.
If we don’t give our true opinions, what kind of job are we doing? A colleague recently told me about one of the first reviews they had written, and the publicist who phoned them in a strop to get a star rating changed, assuming that the editor – whom they had worked with several times before, and would happily go for a pint with – would give in (they didn’t). I would happily enter into a dialogue with most people about my work – and have done, many times – but, really, who is going to do that on a public forum, especially when they are being told they’re trash?
Alison Herman, writing in The Ringer in 2019, described the present moment as “a time when the public is disconcertingly unaware of the function of a vital civic institution like a free press, a misunderstanding that’s frequently exploited for political gain. Fashion bloggers and music critics are not investigative journalists, nor are pop stars and comedians fear-mongering leaders. But they’re channeling a deeply troubling trend in how the public exaggerates media members’ power, just as that power – such as it is – has never been less secure”. As well as being insecure, criticism is still predominantly dominated by people of the same race, social class, gender and sexuality. Being different in any – or several – of those ways, does not usually a thick-skinned critic make. Your impostor syndrome has, of course, told you that you’re not good enough long before anyone else could get in there.
I left the festival feeling depleted, and – when the tweets arrived – confused about whether a handful of drinks tokens were really supposed to have secured a glowing review. I drained my blisters and got far, far away from Twitter. Unlike the founder – and the famous writer of an acclaimed crime drama – I knew it was best not to take criticism to heart.