Everyone’s Not A Critic: comics writer Fiona Avery on Constructive Criticism

Peter Woodward as Galen in Fiona Avery penned Crusade episode "The Well of Forever".

Peter Woodward as Galen in Fiona Avery penned Crusade episode The Well of Forever.

We recently published an item by comic creator and digital publisher Liam Sharp on his concerns  about the manner of some online criticism of comic creators, making an erudite appeal for calm – and common sense.

His appeal reminded me of a column first published in Babylon 5 Magazine Issue 16, back in November 1999, in which US author, editor and TV and comic script writer Fiona Avery, whose credits include the series Crusade and comics such as  Amazing Spider-Man, made a similar appeal, which prompted me to drop her a line to ask if she would be prepared for us to re-present it on downthetubes.net.

I’m pleased to say she was more than happy for its re-presentation, so here it is. It’s as pertinent today as it was over a decade ago…

“Everyone’s Not A Critic”

The Well of Forever – the Excalibur goes on a trip to a mysterious place known as The Well of Forever, which exists somewhere in hyperspace. The world looks like a big pretzel…”
– Glen Oliver, Ain’t It Cool News

“But, when Excalibur finds The Well of Forever… you will experience an emotionally moving sequence, which is devastating in its power. Another mythical element of this glorious forth act, is that you will find a lot of Celtic mythological themes. It’s intelligent, spiritual, and astoundingly emotional.”
–  Cordwainer Hawk, Ain’t It Cool News

When is a critic’s review a critic’s review? And when is it simply opinion? We all have the right to an opinion, and to voice that opinion, but many tend to neglect the necessity of an informed opinion. Just what good is an informed opinion? It’s the difference between being taken seriously, and being laughed at.

I’ve heard from several members of the crew, all wishing me well on my newly-produced and aired episode, The Well of Forever. They tell me that there are all these “online” reviews of my episode. I ask them who are doing all the online reviews?

I assume it’s a real review, a real critic and say, “I didn’t know the Washington Post was online…”

They say, “Oh, no. Usually it’s just fans with their opinions.”

To which I reply, “Opinions do not a critic make.” And I think this is a very important distinction that has been lost in this day and age.

I stumbled across this passage the other day, while reading Julia Cameron’s insightful book on writing, The Right to Write. It reaches a level of clarification I can not. It comes from a level of journalistic experience I do not have:

“When criticism was an art rather than an adversarial position, critics sought to shape and encourage by their comments. Deeply schooled in literary tradition, familiar with the tall trees of literary talents, they could often recognize promising new work the way a skilled forester might spot a valuable seedling growth on the forest floor. Today’s critics are not trained to give or receive this kind of influence. In our schools and in our media, we are encouraged to “criticize” but we are not shown how to criticize well.

“I have done book criticism since I was in my early twenties. It is notoriously hard to write a good review. It is hard to be specific about a book’s strengths. It is notoriously easy to write a slam. It is shamefully easy to be specific about a book’s weaknesses.”

Julia Cameron speaks the utmost and profound truth. I think part of the problem stems from a lack of training at the regional and probably some national levels. Gone are the days of Marv Kitman where you earned your position as a critic one of two ways. You studied and earned a degree. Or you were from the film or television industry and knew how it worked.

I know regional cases where, if a review is needed, the editor may ask the sports editor to take over, because a review is due and no one’s on it. What does the sport editor know about making TV or movies? He or she doesn’t go through any training on it, but simply dives right in with gross generalizations and a rude thumbs up or down. We learn these terrible habits from our own successful media institutions.

This dichotomy is reflected even further in fan reviews. A variant on what I told my colleagues above, goes, “25 years of watching television does not a critic make.” If I had to have brain surgery, I would not pick the surgeon who spent 25 years watching brain surgery on The Learning Channel. I would go to the surgeon who went through medical school. Watching something doesn’t make you an expert at it.

I chose the two reviews above particularly for what they represent. Both are posted on the same online news site, yet it clearly shows that the first review took the shamefully easy approach, while the second sought to capture the specifics of what worked in the episode.

If you are dubious about how hard it is to specify what works in an episode, try it sometime. I get fan mail from people all the time (and Joe [J. Michael Straczynski] even more than I) saying, “I don’t know how to say this…” or “What I feel and want to say is somehow beyond description…” It is notoriously hard to give specific praise. And as a point in case, even I can give you a rundown of things I don’t like about my own episode. It is shamefully easy to find specific problems in a piece of work, even for its author.

Because I am a proponent of free speech, I want to encourage fans to express themselves. But if you wish to post your criticisms online, and you want them to be taken seriously, I strongly suggest you heed Ms. Cameron’s advice. She has been writing for years, and has been a reviewer and journalist in Rolling Stone, Redbook and The L.A. Times among several other noteworthy credits. The reason I urge you to this advice is not to make it easier on us writers. But to make it easier on you. When we see slam reviews with specific dislikes and general conclusions, we just laugh. Poorly written reviews are as transparent as glass to any writer.

If you have a criticism, phrase it constructively. Here are two points on how to do that.

1) Be specific but positive. Constructive criticism is never vague, or presented in a way that makes the material seem absurd. Constructive criticism always moves in a positive direction. If you felt something was lacking, what exactly did you want to see? (i.e. I think a greater impact could have been made upon arrival at the Well of Forever, by using high colour saturation and a glossy filter, like that used in Contact.)

2) Judge your appraisals carefully. Do not be vague about your reaction to the episode. Avoid phrases like “It sucked”, “It was poorly written”, or “I was bored.” If one aspect was poorly executed, does that really mean the whole thing “sucked?” Generalizations don’t work because they are all-inclusive and presumptuous. If someone disliked the episode, then they didn’t like it. Art is subjective. But that does not prove that everyone who saw it, disliked it. One person who liked the episode would prove such a generalization wrong. So generalizations don’t make valid points to the audience or to the creators who read a review.

Finally, I’m not making these points up. Critics are the other ones who laugh at those who try to write reviews but don’t follow the established rules. The real critics follow rules 1) and 2) above. They also follow the Golden Rule: You do not use personal attacks. No name calling, no insults, no direct assaults on character or intent.

It was my hope, in taking on such a difficult topic, that I illuminated it for some. For others, it will always be a lost cause. They expect to be listened to, but cannot listen themselves. They forget that being a critic also means being a writer. And that as such, they place themselves at the same risk and vulnerability when sharing their work with those of us who write professionally.

Personally, I love a “good review”, and that isn’t the same thing as saying I like reviews that are filled with praise and come in as A+ or thumbs up. I would love to see a return to the period where there was a love of letters. Where criticism (literary or film) is treated in a constructive, authoritative way. The secret method is following these rules, and by doing this, anyone can write a proper review.

Our thanks to Fiona for allowing us to re-publish her column (which is her copyright).

“Re-reading the article again reminds me of a fantastic book I read on criticism in general a few years after it was published,” says Fiona. “The Power of Positive Criticism by Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D.

“While it’s not a book on literary criticism, much of it holds up to the same principles of criticism that will get through and get things accomplished.  A big one I remember from its chapters is ‘Acknowledge that it’s Subjective’ and of course ‘Know Your Criteria for Criticizing’ which is mostly what my article was about before I’d read this book.

“It’s really good source material for people critiquing anything anywhere.”

• Fiona Avery was the Reference Editor for the fifth season of the J. Michael Straczynski-created TV series Babylon 5 and Crusade, writing four episodes for the latter show, including Well of Forever and Patterns of the Soul, as well as the un-filmed Value Judgements and Tried and True.

Her comic credits include work for Marvel and Top Cow on titles including The Amazing Spider-Man and the X-Men range and three spin-offs from J. Michael Straczynski’s Rising Stars series – Bright, Voices of the Dead, and Untouchable – as well as creating Anya Corazon, aka Marvel’s Spider-Girl, with artist Mark Brooks. More recently, as Fiona Kelly, she has written on Musebreak.org right for the site’s Literature section and is their Managing Editor.


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3 replies

  1. I’m thinking it’s possible a review with “the world looks like a big pretzel” in it was actually meant as some sort of joke. So, if professional critics would laugh at it, that person probably doesn’t care. It might not be the type of laugh they were going for, but they were likely going for some type of laughs.

    A lot of fan culture is humor, really.

    I guess my point is, I’ve definitely come across people who really don’t care about being taken seriously.

    Why I am making that point, I don’t really know.

  2. That’s a fair point, KathleenCat, but it doesn’t invalidate the appeal for “Constructive Criticism”, which is the general thrust of the article.

    • Well, that’s kind of why I said I don’t know why I make the point. I know it doesn’t invalidate anything and I certainly wasn’t trying to. I guess I just got a sort of vibe from the article like if you aren’t serious enough, it means you don’t take what you’re doing seriously. Which is something that may not even be there, but just from the mood I was in while reading it.

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