Episodes: "In my opinion..."


First rule of criticism (or any opinion writing): If you have the words "in my opinion" in there somewhere, cut them out. Heck, if you have the words "I think" in there, cut them out, 999 times out of 1,000. The exception, generally, is if the thing you think is something genuinely only you think and there's reason to believe the rest of humanity would disagree.

This is the first thing I was taught about writing opinion-y stuff, because the idea is that readers know when you're writing opinions, and they'll mentally insert, "Well, that's just one guy's opinion in there."

(Sidebar: I frequently say, "That's just one guy's opinion," because when I was in college, a professor from another school came to critique our production of The Grapes of Wrath, and he prefaced literally everything with, "This is just one guy's opinion, but..." I guess he didn't have my opinion writing professors.)

(Sidebar to the sidebar: The best advice my wife and I got in marriage counseling was that the word "but" wipes out everything that comes before it. Useful in writing. Devastating in verbal communication. Use it, learn it, love it.)

For whatever reason, though, the internet freaks out if you don't constantly say, "That's my opinion!" Well, I shouldn't say "the internet," because the vast majority of online readership is savvy and gets it. But those that don't, oh boy.

What prompted this was a comment on my most recent Walking Dead review (the one piece a week I have comments on) that requested I pepper said piece with said phrases, because without them, I just came off as too much of an asshole (I'm paraphrasing, of course). Without saying, "in my opinion," how was I to acknowledge that other people might disagree?

But what's really got me thinking about this is the long string of comics fans who are convinced that the putrid reviews for the mostly putrid Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (I liked the performances and not much else) are due to the critics making up their mind beforehand or being paid off by Marvel (I wish) or just generally being assholes who forgot to let the fans know it was OK to disagree with them.

And I'd say that this is something specific to online geekdom (where it pops up a lot, to be fair), but a film discussion group I belong to just had somebody who went off at length on another critic (not a member of the group) for his obviously wrong opinions and how could anybody take him seriously and etc.?

Something about online discourse reduces every single question to an either/or value proposition. I've talked a bunch about how this is leading to more and more reviews that push toward either the absolute best or absolute worst ends of the scale, how I can find myself writing in, say, a four-star review (which on the Vox scale is missing a full star) a piece that has essentially no critiques of the film, even though the score would suggest I have a few mild ones. There is just something in the way we communicate online that makes it hard to read a well-reasoned argument you disagree with and not feel a little bit like somebody just insulted your parents/children. I've felt it. I know you've felt it. We all have. (I just used the "rhetorical we," another device critics love that drives some commenters apeshit.)

I don't know what this is. I've talked to people about it over the years, and maybe it was always this way, and we just didn't notice in the print media days, because responding to a review required writing out a letter. Certainly the old canard that, hey, I'll probably like this movie because the critics hated it (something I've heard countless times from my own family members, no less) stems from this same impulse.

The problem might be this: Critics see what they write as a dialogue (or at least the best ones do). But when you read it, it can feel like an ultimatum. Comments sections and social media eased that tension for a while, but now they're mostly full of baying hyenas, crying for blood. So we end up in slowly spiraling circles of destruction, with no obvious exit strategy.

Maybe the answer is that criticism is a fundamentally emotional thing we do, and because the internet tends to flatten emotions (mostly into rage), it invites responses in kind. The words "in my opinion" are a release valve, a reminder that the writer of the piece isn't a grand, moral arbiter, but just some dude who's writing this before going to bed, as his wife plays games on her phone beside him.

But those words are also clumsy writing. What the demand for them suggests, however, can be alleviated in other ways. It's really just a demand for the opening, a demand that, yes, you can feel what you feel too, dear reader. And while about 95 percent of that is on the reader (who will hopefully gain the emotional maturity to realize that no single critic has every answer), that last five percent might be on us. Sometimes, we scorch the Earth, when we might merely singe it. There are ways to return nuance and pathos and feeling to our writing, and I'm as guilty of forgetting that as anybody.

At least, in my opinion.

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Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.