So the new season of Game of Thrones got a less than kind review that also happened to take pot-shots at fans of the show. There’s also apparently been a kerfuffle over a review of The Hunger Games, which I don’t have a handy link to. I’ll be honest with you, dear readers; I don’t give a fuck about Game of Thrones. I don’t have HBO, and I haven’t read the books. From what I know of the premise, it just seems too politically focused, and too much politicking and intrigue quickly bores me. It could be I am wrong about this, and one day will discover that I think it is the most awesome series ever. That day is not today. I’ll also freely admit that I give even less of a fuck about The Hunger Games. I have also neither read nor watched it, and have no plans to. That is why I won’t be reviewing those things.
Let’s get that out of the way up front. If you’re going to offer a “review” of something, you should be familiar with that particular book/movie/album/sex toy/whatever. If you’re not actually familiar with the thing you’re supposed to be reviewing you’re not engaging in a review, you’re presenting a comment, and an incredibly uninformed one at that.
What I’m here to talk about is the idea that we should expect reviewers of geeky things to be a fan of said thing/a geek in general/familiar with the genre/at least not hate the genre. These are all pretty much bullshit.
Let’s start with the idea that you shouldn’t assign a reviewer who hates either the genre under review, or even the specific material in question. I hate Plato. I think his work is lacking in pretty much every way it is possible to lack, and is the source of some of the most destructive ideas in human history. I also think Descartes is shit. I have reviewed the work of both men despite that fact. I’ve have torn into their ideas. At the same time, I have countered weak ideas presented by their critics, because if you’re going to criticize their thought you should make damn sure you know what it was they were actually saying. Philosophical writings aside, if someone can articulate why they hate Game of Thrones, or why they think fantasy in general is a subpar genre unworthy of consideration beyond a simple, “it is fantasy, and fantasy is shit,” I am perfectly content to let them review it all they want.
Let us move on to those levels of familiarity whose criteria is slightly more involved than “not having active antipathy for the material in question.” This is often a significantly worse idea than a reviewer who is apathetic or antagonistic to the material at hand. First and foremost, if we are familiar with a genre we often accept that genre’s conventions, even if those conventions are shitty/sloppy/stupid. It drives me nuts when we handwave away something that is weak, and that deserves to have criticism heaped on it in big steaming piles, just because that’s the way things are done in genre X, and everyone else does it that way, so we just accept it and move on. The only things I can say to that are: What the fuck? And cut it the fuck out.
Even if we are going to uncritically accept the conventions of a genre, why should a new reader coming to the genre be left unaware of them? They don’t have the same assumptions about what to expect as we do.
There’s also another problem, and that is the problem of language. There was a cat named Wittgenstein who said some things about language. No, not an actual cat – I’m sure there have been cats named Wittgenstein, but they are neither capable of human speech nor writing philosophy. Anyway, ignore Wittgenstein’s earlier work; he doesn’t get interesting until he shakes off Russell’s tedious influence. One of the things Wittgenstein talks about is the way in which different groups have their own dialects. Certainly most of us are familiar with the concept of regional dialects; they way a common language shifts and differs from place to place. Saying soda vs. pop, or the pronunciation of certain words, for example.
Wittgenstein goes beyond that, however. Even within the same region, a builder and a banker have different languages. I’ve talked before about how our environments are part of shaping us, are in effect part of who we are, and our language is part of this. Even though the banker and the builder might both be from Boston, and are both speaking English (for sake of argument we will presume they are both native speakers of English), both their past and present experiences shape their ways of understanding and conceptualizing the world, and thus shape the languages they speak.
Geeks are no different. We speak a language that is often incomprehensible to those outside the tribe. For that matter, we further subdivide ourselves into clans that often have difficulty speaking to each other (despite claims of inclusiveness for all, geekdom is still as fractious and tribal as ever – this is but another manifestation of that). If we can’t even speak clan-to-clan, how the hell can we meaningfully review something for anyone other than other members of our clan, who are presumably already fluent in our clannish tongue, let alone to those who aren’t even in the Geek tribe?
We already see some of this in this most recent NYT piece. Their audience is not geeks.I suspect that they conceptual audience they keep in mind when establishing the paper’s “voice” don’t even give a fuck about the existence of geeks. This shows in the language they use to speak to that audience. Snide jokes about Dungeons & Dragons, and using D&D as a referent for the concept of fantasy in general, is perfectly in line with the conceptual schema from which their language arises.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a sneering piece of snobbery that isn’t particularly effective as a review, but that’s what the NYT is about, really. I don’t go to them for actual reviews, I go to them for the snobby opinion; doesn’t matter if the material in question is genre or not.
Even if the NYT woke up tomorrow and started publishing actual, critical reviews my immediate thought still wouldn’t be to appoint a geek to review geeky things. We’re often not the best choice of critics – our general affection for the thing being reviewed blinds us to its faults. There’s also the simple fact that we’re often not the best ambassadors of our own interests. They often horrid public behavior of geeks aside, we’re too wrapped up in our conceptual dialect to be able to effectively communicate to those who don’t speak the lingo. This is problematic enough when we’re dealing with our own; if we’re trying to speak to others it often renders the message unintelligible; which is, I suspect, a less-than-ideal choice from the point of view of most publishers.