How Do I Critique Popular Stories?

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Hello, Mythcreants! I’m a subscriber and your site has been very helpful in honing my writing/storytelling abilities. Anyway, I have a question about how to critique something that’s commonly thought of as good in my culture. What can I do to simultaneously be polite and scathing?

Hey Evan, thanks for writing in!

How to critique things depends a lot on the context of what you are critiquing. If it’s simply a popular story without any other considerations, like Star Wars or Marvel, I keep a few basic guidelines in mind.

Keep it about the work.

  • I’m critiquing the story, not the author, actors, director, etc.
  • I try to avoid making guesses about the author’s state of mind, and I especially avoid directing anger their way.

Remember that it’s a story.

  • Stories are important, but a bad story doesn’t “ruin my childhood” or anything like that.
  • Getting really upset about a story’s technical failings is likely to seem unprofessional.

Don’t qualify your opinions.

  • If I think a popular story has problems, or is just bad, I say it. People will either respond or they won’t.
  • Fan ragers will fan rage, and they won’t be mollified by you constantly qualifying your views by saying that this is just your opinion.
  • It’s automatically your opinion because you said it.

Of course, there can be other factors to keep in mind. If a story is important to a marginalized group of people, then it might not be my place to critique it, especially if I can find another example that doesn’t have those complications. For example, when I’m looking to critique the Marvel films, I generally default to movies other than Black Panther or Captain Marvel. Whatever problems those movies have, it’s usually pretty easy to find another MCU film with a similar issue that isn’t really important for onscreen superhero diversity.

I also consider the context of how other people are critiquing the story. If there’s been a lot of toxic hatred directed at a story, I usually try to find something else to talk about, because I don’t want to support toxic behavior even a little. That’s why I haven’t said much about The Last Jedi, even though it has a lot of problems as a film. Any critiques I make could be interpreted as siding with the bigots who hate TLJ for having an Asian woman in it.

Hope that answers your question!

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  1. Cay Reet

    Great suggestions. I very much agree with Oren.

    It’s no use to put it all on the author – yes, perhaps they’re not good at writing or just not good at writing that kind of story, despite thinking they are. (I mean, Arthur Conan Doyle thought his historical fiction was his best work!) Critiques are the only place where I actually do apply the principle of ‘Death of the Author’ and only speak about the text. What is good (if there’s something I found good – there usually is, even if the book is dreadful), what is bad, what is a good idea, but done badly, etc.

    There will always be the fans who will tell you that you’re looking at this the wrong way, that [what you criticised] actually is great because it means [what they believe it means]. There’s no point in arguing with the fans, they will not change their minds on that – at least not right away. Don’t get personal, just accept that this is how they see it and move on.

  2. Dave L

    Remember that if you’re critiquing a movie or TV show, the people credited as screenwriters may actually have very little to do w/ the final script

    Please DON’T insult the fans. Saying Battleship II: Ship Harder was a terrible movie is fine. Saying that anyone who liked BS II is an idiot… not so fine. Of course, feel free to attack those fans who say BS II is a great film because of some incredibly bigoted or otherwise toxic reason

  3. Bellis

    Depending on how you publish your critique, you might not have much or any control over this, but if you do: Make sure the comment sections are a place to discuss and argue and offer differing opinions and viewpoints – but NOT a place to harass others or spread bigotry. This is the reason the Mythcreants comment sections are interesting instead of toxic.

    Allowing bigoted or toxic comments in the name of “freedom of speech” unfortunately has the opposite effect, it ends up destroying opportunities to share opinions, because the ones who are affected by it will be driven out and no one will hear their opinions (oh and it causes emotional harm which in itself should be reason to ban toxic comments).

  4. Raillery

    “That’s why I haven’t said much about The Last Jedi, even though it has a lot of problems as a film. Any critiques I make could be interpreted as siding with the bigots who hate TLJ for having an Asian woman in it.”

    I am fascinated by the tendency to withhold legitimate critiques for fear of damaging one’s reputation in an independent field from your reasoning or validating totally separate opinions. And on some level I agree, but it is impossible not to hear the marketing executive at the board meeting: “Let’s keep milking this diversity cow while it’s fresh. As long as we’ve got enough of it, many critics will hold their tongues at any poor writing to avoid being labelled as bigots.” Mythcreants feels like a pleasant oasis where nuance is appreciated, but then I’m not the one moderating the comments.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Trust me, no corporate execs are arguing to do more progressive stories because they think it will get them *less* critisism. The only reason responsible critics like me have held off on TLJ is that an avalanche of less responsible critics already went after it in a less than helpful manner, to say the least.

      • SunlessNick

        Besides, diversity’s a positive, so if any executives really were thinking that, I’d say let them.

      • Raillery

        You’re right, I suppose that tactic would spark more than it dampens.

        And the marketing benefit of generating controversy would be another discussion entirely.

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