The Virtues of Know-Nothing Criticism




Illustration by Michael Hawthorne.

RECENTLY I WROTE a story about Star Wars and science fiction for The Atlantic. The comments section, as these things will, featured a large number of people telling me that I was unqualified to write about the topic because I hadn’t read enough sci-fi books, or hadn’t read enough recent sci-fi books, or hadn’t read the right sci-fi books, or hadn’t seen the right sci-fi movies.

I’m sure this is a familiar experience for anyone who’s published work on culture. Discussions of films, or books, or comics seem to inevitably turn into discussions about accreditation. Whether you’re talking about Breaking Bad or William Shakespeare, Star Wars or superhero comics, the debate about the quality of your ideas devolves into a debate about whether or not you know what you’re talking about, or are part of the select group of fans who has the right to speak about these issues. The intense Gamergate backlash against Anita Sarkeesian’s videos is extreme in its vitriol, but the general outline of the conflict isn’t unusual. Sarkeesian criticized games; enraged fans insisted not only that she was wrong but also that she was not a true fan, did not understand games, and therefore had no right to speak. You could have checked the boxes off beforehand.

To some degree, this dynamic makes sense. Since our culture chucked the use of biblical truth as accepted argumentative strategy sometime back in the Enlightenment, expertise has been our common coin of validation — our argumentative Holy Grail. How, after all, can you be credible on a topic if you don’t know about the topic? There’s a visceral, stomach-clenching frustration in watching someone with a national platform spew nonsense about some piece of culture you care about. William Giraldi’s blanket assertion that “romance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn” demonstrates a shocking lack of knowledge about romance novels. In my research on the original Wonder Woman comics, I had to grit my teeth every time I read a scholar make the specious connection between Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth and the fact that her creator, William Marston, invented the systolic blood pressure test, a component of the lie detector test. In the original comics written by Marston, Wonder Woman’s lasso was not a lasso of truth. It was a (much more useful) lasso of command.

So, yes, it can be difficult to give folks the benefit of the doubt when it’s clear they haven’t done all the reading, or haven’t been paying attention to what they’re reading, especially if they make broad invidious assertions about how all romance novels are the same. William Giraldi’s piece is little more than a rehashing of received prejudices about the lowbrow worthlessness of romance novels; he’s proud of being ignorant, and I’m comfortable sneering at his sneering.

But, on the other hand, just because someone doesn’t know how the magic lasso works doesn’t necessarily mean that they have nothing useful to offer about Wonder Woman in general, or even about Marston’s Wonder Woman in particular. Sharon Marcus, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, knew just about nothing about the original Wonder Woman comics, but wrote a lovely essay about (among other things) Wonder Woman’s costume design. “Wonder Woman’s costumes,” Marcus writes,

similarly pit the fascinations of villainy against the bland simplicity of the good guys. To be sure, Wonder Woman’s signature outfit is burlesque fetish wear — bustier, micro-mini, stiletto boots — but its eagle breastplate and white stars on blue background give an overall impression of wholesome Americana.

I’ve read many more of those early Wonder Woman comics than Marcus has, but I wouldn’t have thought of that.

Part of the reason I wouldn’t have thought of that is because I’m not a scholar of fashion history, as Marcus is. She isn’t a comics expert, but she is an expert in something else, which allows her to approach the material in a different way than most comics scholars have.

The problem with demanding a certain kind of knowledge or a certain kind of expertise in criticism, then, is that it can end up presupposing, or insisting upon, a certain kind of conversation. And often that seems like the point: expertise is used as an excuse to silence critics — and especially negative critics. Gamergate’s response to Anita Sarkeesian is the most obvious example, but you can see it in virtually any fandom. Folks who adore, say, Game of Thrones, are way more likely to have read all the books and seen all the episodes of Game of Thrones. People who dislike Game of Thrones are less likely to put in the time. How can you watch one episode of Game of Thrones and dismiss it? How can you read half of Maus and think that it’s boring and pompous? What gives you the right? Expertise becomes a quick, efficient way to shut down naysayers. Those who love video games, or Game of Thrones, or Wonder Woman are the only ones who can truly understand; the haters are, almost by definition, stupid.

And sometimes haters are in fact stupid, just as fans are sometimes stupid. But other times skeptical folks who don’t identify as fans can have interesting things to say despite, or maybe even because of, the fact that they’re outsiders. Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, a reader-response study of the genre, is often denigrated because Radway has a limited sense of the form, and can be condescending to readers. But still I’ve found her useful in thinking about how gender identification in romance fiction can be a lot more fluid than it seems on the surface.

And for that matter, I’m always interested when folks say they hate something that I love. Take Peanuts for example. How can anyone hate Peanuts? What don’t they like about it? And that’s true even if they haven’t seen that many Peanuts strips, or for that matter, even if they haven’t seen any and only know the strip from the marketing. After all, more people have seen MetLife ads or Snoopy lunch boxes than have read and thought deeply about Peanuts comic strips.

In his book Television and American Culture, Jason Mittell argues, counterintuitively, that genres are defined not by a given formal criteria, nor by expert opinion, but by everyone’s opinion, experts and non-experts alike. To understand what a sitcom is you have to ask not just those who watch sitcoms, but those who don’t. Non-experts can give you an unexpected, and valuable, perspective. When people tell me that comic books are very successful and point to films like The Avengers, I always tell them that The Avengers is in fact a film, not a comic — actual comics sales are miniscule in comparison. But at the same time, it means something that there are people who think that a film with a superhero in it is actually a comic. They’re not (just) wrong. We tend to think that different media — films, comics — are easily distinguishable from genre (superheroes, romance). But in fact, many people experience them as overlapping, or muddled together. Experts know which category is which; non-experts, perhaps, teach us that those certainties aren’t so stable.

Art isn’t just for fans, which means that it’s not just for the knowledgeable, but for passersby as well. Expertise, then, seems an excuse to make everyone talk about the same things in the same way. But there’s no one true way to view a piece of art; no one privileged perspective that will give you the right experience of Shakespeare, or Wonder Woman, or video games, or romance novels. A partial view may be as meaningful as a whole one, and being alienated by a work of art, or feeling you don’t want to finish it, or look at it for a second more, is as valid as obsessive interest and passionate fandom.

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Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian and is a correspondent for The Atlantic.


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