"There is something beautiful about a person holding a grudge against James Joyce in 2012," said Caroline Picard, editor of Chicago-based Green Lantern Press. "The truth is, you pick up Joyce, you are told it's meaningful and has a place in history, and when it doesn't fulfill expectations, it is hard saying that. I imagine it'd be hard for critics too. Especially one who is an authority or claims to be. Not liking something can seem like there's something inherently wrong with them. But you don't always climb out on limbs."
Likewise, to seriously dismiss "The Great Gatsby" as "'Twilight' without the vampires," as an Amazon reviewer did, may be glib and reductive, but it's also brilliantly spot on, the kind of comparison a more mannered critic might not dare. "Whoever made that 'Twilight' comparison, whether they know it, is showing their education, that they can connect new media with old works and draw fresh conclusions," said David Raskin, chair of the art history, theory and criticism department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Raskin is a fellow connoisseur. He told me he often reads one-star reviews on Amazon, "especially the ones by cranks. The one-star reviews often reveal gaps in the culture worth pursuing, the kind that tend to make people uncomfortable." For instance, this one-star review of Toni Morrison's "Beloved" that, reading between the lines, reveals a deep, maybe class-based inferiority complex: "This is like a deliberately hideous painting called 'art' by intellectuals. Common-sense individuals question its merit and are told it is complex, beautiful and beyond the untrained understanding and crass sensibilities of the uneducated."
A review of "The Godfather: Part II" that complains, "I wanted a gangster movie, not a family drama," suggests a generational split. And a one-star review of William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" that admits that the reviewer has been very busy these days, having recently read "Love in the Time of Cholera" and "Hamlet," and therefore was not to be trusted here, is oddly admirable for its honesty.
Can you imagine arts critics pointing out how busy they are, and thus how exhausted and compromised?
Speaking of honesty: It should be pointed out here that, in general, online amateur reviews are not mean but usually as forgiving as the professional sort. Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied online reviews — "partly because I was curious if they were real or just someone gaming the system" — told me that 60 percent of Amazon reviews are five-star reviews and another 20 percent are four-star. The information research firm Gartner released a study in September predicting that, within a couple of years, between 10 and 15 percent of online reviews will be paid for by companies — rigged.
Presumably, they will be positive.
I'm not worried. If anything, all that positivity only renews my admiration for the cranks, the unreasonable. I was a full-time critic for years. As a critic, you are paid to have a heightened understanding of what you are writing about. Your friends say you can't enjoy whatever it is you cover — movies, theater, etc. — the way an average Joe can enjoy it. And you protest: You always want to have that "normal person" reaction too. Truth is, history, employment, reputation, context — the world hangs heavy. But the amateur is free.
The amateur always gets the last word.