On Winter’s Doorstep: An Open Letter
April 16th, 2011
One of the features I often try to do for highly serialized and widely covered shows is “____ the Morning After,” in which I create a conversation between various reviews of a single episode of a series the morning after it airs.
Given my interest in the response to HBO’s Game of Thrones, I had thought of doing a “Game of Thrones the Day Before” post to try to capture the pre-air response. However, this was a week ago, well before the internet has quite honestly exploded with reviews of this program (and reviews of those reviews). And with fan sites like Winter is Coming collecting those reviews, and with Matt Zoller Seitz doing yeoman’s work in breaking down the problems with Slate and the New York Times’ problematic reviews (the latter of which has already inspired a wide-ranging discussion of women and fantasy that has galvanized a larger fantasy community), the conversation has more or less already happened.
To be entirely honest with you, it’s a conversation that has surprised me in its voraciousness, although I shouldn’t really be surprised. In general, pre-air reviews are growing passe within this industry, replaced with post-air analysis which more readily allows for reader participation – while a pre-air review will draw conversation from those who have predetermined opinions regarding a project, the real discussion can’t really begin until the reader has actually seen the project in question, and things seem to be moving in that direction as a whole.
Of course, Game of Thrones is a unique example given that the most voracious participants in the pre-air conversation clearly have predetermined opinions about the project. This is understandable: Martin’s books have created dedicated fandoms, fostering a deep connection tested by reviews which actively challenge the legitimacy of the source material. As someone who has also read the books, and considers myself a fan of Martin’s writing style, I completely understand where these readers are coming from, and had similar reactions to those reviews.
However, as evidenced by my post last weekend and some of the Twitter conversations I have been having this week, I have found myself interrogating the fandom and their approach to these reviews. I’ve come to realize that this perhaps seems unfairly critical: the worst behavior has been isolated within a small minority, and it is equally important to call attention to those reviewers who have shown contempt for fantasy as a genre or fans in general.
Though this is true, I want to make clear that my criticism comes out of concern, not out of distaste. While the response to pre-air reviews may be understandable, I think the intensity of that response has brushed up against one of the biggest problems with pre-air reviews. Essentially, the reviewer and the commenters are coming from two completely different places: the reviewer has seen the show, and the commenter has not. While this does not mean that commenters are unable to take issue with the nature of the review, one can’t escape the fact that the situation is predicated on a dichotomy between a critic with access and fans following (comparatively) blind devotion to the source material.
I want to take a moment ahead of tomorrow night’s premiere to contextualize my concern, and to emphasize the value of this fan passion in the week ahead – we sit at an important turning point, one that will empower the fans who have been anticipating the show for a very long time, and I do not want my concern to prohibit the kind of discussion that I feel this fandom and this show should inspire.
Put simply, my concern is that the fans have become known as a mob, one which some sites will take advantage of; heck, in writing this piece directly to that mob, I am likely contributing to this phenomenon. Sites will write posts about the show in an effort to draw in that mob, using their sense of authority (in this case represented by access) in a number of different ways. Some use it for good, offering tidbits and information that might engage the mob on a positive level; certainly, as someone who quite liked the show and who can relate to the fan perspective, I knew my review would speak to the fan community, and had that community in mind as its intended audience. Others, meanwhile, seek to actively piss off the collective fan community, taking advantage of what they perceive as a mob mentality and fostering anger and page views in equal measure – I’d argue that Slate’s “review” certainly fits the bill in this regard.
In the latter case, it’s really a trap: the reviewer knows that they’ve seen more of the show than the people who are commenting, which gives them higher ground on which to stand in a pretentious fashion should a debate emerge. Now, those reviews deserve much of the criticism they receive, but I’ve been seeing this discourse spreading to critics who clearly had no such intentions. On some level, pre-air reviews are meant to be internalized: you read a critic’s opinion, determine whether or not you think that opinion is valid, and then consider how that might inform your own viewing experience. To make a judgment on a reasonable pre-air review before you’ve actually seen the series in question is somewhat bizarre when you really think about it, and since such judgments are often the most “public” I fear how those removed from this discourse perceive the fan community en masse. While some may dismiss the fans in a prejudiced fashion, unfairly judging them all based on the behavior of a select few, other more reasonable critics might just feel overwhelmed by the scrutiny of their analysis: why keep writing about a show if the fans are inundating them with comments/criticisms before they’ve even seen the show?
My goal in writing about the response to negative reviews was to promote self-awareness, to demonstrate how this not uncommon discourse among fan communities might be perceived by those outside of that community (specifically relating to potential gendering, a topic that seems prescient given how much Bellafante’s review in the New York Times has foregrounded the issue). I write this post, however, to signal a turning point within the series’ existence. Tomorrow evening after Game of Thrones premieres on HBO the balance of power shifts. As critics (myself included) write post-air reviews, the democratic discourse will be retained: the readers will have seen what the critics are discussing, and the conversation will be on a level playing field.
It’s inevitable, of course, that some fans will be tempted to use future story developments to counter certain concerns as they have in pre-air discourses. It is also inevitable that fans will disagree with some critics about particular episodes. However, once the episodes have aired, what has stood as a disagreement of principle will be allowed to become a true, complex debate. So long as conversation is kept to that individual episode, both sides will be working with the same information, and on a personal level I have been very much looking forward to this moment. As someone who used to be in the position of the fan without access scouring critical reviews, it felt almost unfair to be watching this weeks before people who are far more dedicated than I am. I have been dying to hear what fans have to say about the series, and look forward to the engaging conversations that will begin tomorrow night on the post-air analysis posted by myself and countless others with great anticipation.
This period will come with its own challenges, of course. Those who have read the books know more than many critics (and viewers), while those critics who have already watched all six episodes (and who are writing after seeing those episodes) have seen more of the series than their readers. However, whereas these different perspectives felt like points of conflict in the pre-air period, now I feel like they can become points of conversation. Post-air analysis will offer the space and depth to explore the series’ pros and cons in a nuanced fashion, and I am hopeful (and confident) that the discourse between critics and fans will evolve in kind. What was once viewed as an elite group of critics making a definitive statement on a show’s quality will emerge as what it actually represents: a group of engaged viewers who share their opinions in order to spur conversation and consideration, not consternation. And, perhaps most importantly, what was once viewed as a mob will hopefully be viewed as it truly is: a group of passionate fans who have been waiting for Winter for a very long time.
And Winter, like tomorrow, is only a day away.
P.S. While I fully understand why reviews have been so carefully analyzed, I would be an incredibly happy critic if everyone stopped paying attention to Metacritic. The scores are arbitrary, its importance to networks is entirely overblown (considering that they focus on pullquotes, which are more than plentiful with this project), and it’s just a terrible discourse to follow in any detail. When you’re part of a fan community where fan sites are collecting all of the reviews, including those not included in Metacritic, paying attention to that toxic dump of a website is just unnecessary.