Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Matter of Taste

Troy Patterson at Slate reviews HBO's Game of Thrones:

You see, Game of Thrones—adapted by David Benioff and Dan Weiss from a series of novels by George R.R. Martin—is quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap. That's not a comment on its quality but a definition of its type. The reviewer happens to have an anti-weakness for that general sensibility and those armor-clad generic trappings. Hey, his loss, he knows, but, for instance, he cannot trust his taste to tell him if the Harry Potter books are written well. An undergraduate attempt to learn to read Middle English led to naps in multiple Chaucer seminars. He recalls the emotional pain he suffered one lunch period back in the Reagan Era—the pain of wasting the time experimenting with icosahedral dice. Once, bowing to peer pressure, he lyingly implied that he thought Peter Jackson's adaptation of Lord of the Rings to be in the same league as Lawrence of Arabia, when the honest answer was, "I don't care." Many, many years ago, before escaping the provinces, he was horribly unchivalrous in canceling a date at the last minute. Word was going around that the lady in question made like a serving wench at many a Renaissance Festival, and he called off the plans for their Olive Garden rendezvous. Sorry.

Now, first of all let me admit I've never read George R. R. Martin, although I figure I will eventually. People whose taste in fiction is similar to mine seem to like him, so it's probably only a matter of time.

Now that that's out of the way: I'm not bashing Troy Patterson for writing this review. He's just a critic supplying an honest review to the publication that asked him to write it. It's okay that he doesn't like the genre. There's lots of stuff in the world that I don't like, too. And never having seen A Game of Thrones, it's entirely possible that it literally consists of nothing but quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap.

But here's a thought experiment: Let's imagine that I really, really dislike Mexican food. I think it tastes like crap. The texture of the food makes me gag. And when I do manage to get mouthfuls of the horrid stuff down without puking it up again immediately, it wreaks havoc on my digestive system. And it leaves me feeling miserable.

And I'm a writer, and one day the magazine that I write for asks me to do a review of the new Mexican place downtown. There's substantial buzz in the local foodie community, and my review is guaranteed to be widely read. So, even though I wouldn't go near the place ordinarily, I resign myself to my fate and head there for dinner one night.

It's horrible. I think it tastes like crap. The texture of the food makes me gag. I manage to get mouthfuls of the horrid stuff down without puking it up again immediately, but it wreaks havoc on my digestive system. I make several painful trips to the bathroom that night. I make all of this very clear in my restaurant review, which the magazine duly publishes in its next issue.

The fact that I don't like Mexican food doesn't make me a bad person. And I explain in my review that it's a cuisine that I don't like, and never have liked.

But why did the magazine choose me to review the place? I knew what I was going to write before I even stepped inside. Why bother going? That's what bugs me about Patterson's review.

I can't even blame Slate. Troy Patterson is a TV critic. A Game of Thrones is a TV show. Therefore, it is his job to review it, even if his distaste for the genre it represents renders him incapable of giving it a review that those of us who don't have an aversion to "quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap" will find useful.

I think the problem here is classifying entertainment critics according to the medium: TV critics, movie critics, book critics, and so on. At first I wondered if maybe publications should classify entertainment critics by genre instead: SFF critics, crime critics, romance critics. But the more I think about that idea, the less I like it. I've got a strong aversion to genre ghettos, and I don't think we should encourage them.

How about this: Rather than employ a movie critic, a TV critic, and so on, publications keep a stable of entertainment critics who don't each limit themselves to a single medium. You don't have one person who reviews only TV shows, another who reviews only novels, and so forth. Instead, you've got a group of decent writers on hand who can review across media and have differing tastes. Something like the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones comes along, and you can assign someone to review it who doesn't feel their skin crawl due to dislike of the genre. Maybe that person knows who George R. R. Martin is. Maybe not. Maybe that person will give Game of Thrones a favorable review. Maybe not. What matters is, Game of Thrones at least has a chance of making a favorable impression on the critic's brain.

And nobody has to sit down for a meal that he knows is going to make him sick. That's just not right.

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