The critic’s job is to analyze, to illuminate, or (sometimes) to say, “This piece of art is horrible and should feel bad about itself.” But whether a critic explicates or mocks, the question remains: Which piece of art, of all the multifarious arts out there, should get a critic’s attention? Even before you get down to illuminating, you have to decide what to shine a light on. Do you write about the most popular art? The most important art? And who decides which is the most important art, anyway?
This week, geek-culture feminist fan site The Mary Sue decided that, for them, the most important art no longer includes “Game of Thrones.” The site has been covering the series faithfully for season upon season, though with mounting reservations about the ubiquitous use of sexual violence. This week’s episode, which included a traumatizing marital rape scene, was finally too much. “There’s only so many times you can be disgusted with something you love before you literally can’t bring yourself to look at it anymore,” Jill Pantozzi wrote. The site, she announced, would no longer include recaps, trailers, or other “promotional items” about “Game of Thrones,” although she added that newsworthy pieces might still be run.
The Mary Sue presented their decision as a refusal to continue marketing “Game of Thrones,” which makes the choice not to cover the series seem more like a consumer boycott than a critical decision. Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post, for one, dinged Pantozzi and The Mary Sue for “a piece that seemed to fatally misunderstand the difference between doing journalism about and criticism of a show and acting as a publicity subcontractor for HBO.” But is Pantozzi really misunderstanding? Or is she, instead, maybe acknowledging, a little too freely for comfort, the extent to which the two often merge?
Recapping every episode of “Game of Thrones” is in fact a kind of advertisement for “Game of Thrones,” whether you’re a fan site or a paper of record. The recap says that this show is important and interesting, and that it’s worth talking about. Rosenberg writes, “As a critic, I have to watch a lot of things I don't particularly like.” But she misses the larger point. Someone—Rosenberg, her editor—decided she should watch those shows regularly, and not, say, cover romance novels, or local art openings, or provide extensive recaps of every episode of “The Big Bang Theory.”
The force that determines the emphasis of cultural coverage isn't just popularity. Romance novels are an enormous industry, and the “Big Bang Theory” dwarfs the ratings of an obsessively covered series like “Mad Men,” which was never exactly a ratings blockbuster. But as Todd VanDerWerff writes at Vox, people publish so many posts about “Mad Men”because “you keep clicking.” Critics, and their media outlets, deliver what the audience wants. That’s a marketing imperative, and a multi-pronged one. Criticism of “Mad Men” serves to validate and promote the show. At the same time, the show “Mad Men” validates and drives readers to the media outlets that cover it.
Commercial art and commercial criticism form a perfect circle of niche attention and promotion. The fact that that niche is considered “mainstream” just serves to neatly erase the choices being made. People are used to thinking of sci-fi fandom, or romance fandom, as a particular audience and market, focused on a particular genre. But mainstream obsessions like “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones” are seen as the important thing that needs to be covered, not for the particular group interested in “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones,” but for the general interest of the general reader. The mainstream sees itself as covering the news that matters rather than functioning as part of a particular market. Which is perhaps why The Mary Sue, avowedly a fan site, is able to break out of the cycle and make a critical decision to dump a show they don’t want to support, while Rosenberg, at the mainstream Washington Post, is less able to see the way that marketing and criticism are, in our current moment, inseparable.
If readers are interested in “Game of Thrones,” they can’t blame content providers for serving up analyses of the series. But critics and editors also have a duty to break free of the marketing-criticism feedback loop. It’s the job of the critic not just to weigh in on the latest mega-marketed legacy property (Age of Ultron —could have been worse!) but to ferret out what’s worth paying attention to and what isn’t.
This is especially the case because mainstream tastes can effectively end up validating and catering to the preferences of the same people whose preferences are always validated and catered to: white men. Perhaps we need more critics like Monica Byrne, who told an editor recently:
Boyhood or the new Avengers movie? I could give a shit. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or Crumbs? Yes, please. And it’s not even that I’m actively boycotting the former. I just don’t care. They coast on the assumption that these are stories that matter to everyone; they don’t. I think it’s important to say that, repeatedly, out loud, and point to alternatives, until the alternatives become a new mainstream that reflects the actual world.
The editor in question works at Wired, where Byrne says she had been offered a column. She saw it as a chance to highlight lesser-known works, especially by women and minority creators. But when she started pitching stories about Nnedi Okorafor’s "Book of the Phoenix" or Priyanka Chopra’s move from Bollywood to the U.S. film "Quantico," she says the column offer mysteriously evaporated. Then, she claims, the editor stopped returning emails. Maybe everyone at Wired just got really busy. Who knows? But the upshot is, Wired hasn’t covered Nnedi Okorafor’s new book, and is instead obsessively recapping “Game of Thrones,” like everyone else in mainstream web journalism.
Which is why I think The Mary Sue’s decision to stop covering “Game of Thrones” is a hopeful sign. I personally find “Game of Thrones” tedious and unwatchable; I couldn't get past the first episode. But the issue isn’t whether “Game of Thrones” is overrated, underrated, or the best show in the world. The point is that critics have the right, and I’d say the responsibility, to decide for themselves what is worth talking about, rather than outsourcing that decision to a nebulous marketing cathexis. Criticism is meant to expand understanding of art, and for that matter of all those things that are not art. But how much expansion can there be, if a critic is obligated to talk about the same stuff as every other critic?
Mainstream sites are never going to shuck their market imperatives entirely. But The Mary Sue suggests that media outlets could do a little better if they wanted to. Take a moment to cover the Bessie Smith biopic (which, to her credit, Rosenberg does) in addition to publishing the umpty-umpth article on “Mad Men.” Somebody give Monica Byrne that column. And, in general, allow critics from varied backgrounds a bit more say, not just about the quality of the usual subjects, but about what those usual subjects are.