Points of Articulation
Must You Be So Critical?
In January 2002, I went down to Congers, New York for an interview with ToyFare magazine for an editorial assistant position. This was actually my second interview with them; the first was in May '01, just before I graduated. I ended up not taking it that May because an internship came through with Atlantic Monthly magazine, which was just too good to pass up.
Initially I was excited about the January interview. Here was a chance to get a job in journalism focused around toys, my favorite hobby. It seemed like a dream come true. But in the weeks before the interview I was wracked with anxiety, which only increased on the drive down to Congers. During the interview itself, I became filled with an increasing sense of dread - really, dread is the only word I can use to describe it. Before I'd even made it home that night, I'd already decided to tell ToyFare I didn't want the job (even before they offered it).
There are a number of logistical reasons why I turned the job down, not the least of which being its low pay, my lack of friends in the area, and the fact that ToyFare was by then little more than a glorified catalogue for upcoming toys. But the strongest reason was that sensation of dread. I quickly recognized it for what it was: that a job at ToyFare seemed to me, in the "post 9/11-world," to be very irrelevant and trivial.
Simply put, writing about toys for a living just didn't seem like contributing to society. If anything it felt like promoting consumerism, rather the opposite of what I'd like to be doing. I also realized that I enjoyed toys most when they were a hobby, a pleasant distraction from other aspects of my life. Eating, sleeping and breathing toys seemed an awful idea.
Of course, toys remained an important part of my life. I wrote reviews for several websites, including Action-Figure.com and Michael's Review of the Week. Last summer, yo go re corralled me into writing reviews for OAFE. Finally, I had found a way to use my writing talents as a way of enjoying my hobby, without the nasty relevance questions (and suffocating ubiquity) that would have troubled me at ToyFare.
But my time at OAFE has not been consistently smooth. As yo go re or Shocka can tell you, my writing tends to be very streaky; I'll write four or five reviews in a month, then none for a month or two. This is often due to a return of the feelings I felt during the interview at ToyFare; a sense of irrelevance, a dissatisfaction with spending so much time of my life writing about playthings, particularly when I wasn't getting paid for it. I was told by a professor I respected more than two years ago that I had to stop writing so much for free.
And yet I come back to OAFE time and again, writing long-winded, digressive "reviews" of toys that tend to have more to say about the character the toy represents, or the history of the toy line, than the toy itself. I use the term "reviews" loosely, for recently I've come to view reviewing in commercial media as a very suspect enterprise.
"Criticism" in the academic sense came into being in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, primarily in the field of literature. Since the early days the schools have progressed from philological-based work all the way to the semiotics and "postmodern" critical work of today. But "reviews" as most people encounter them - in the Movies section of the newspaper, in the pages of the New Yorker, or on a website such as OAFE - are quite different from the work found in academic papers. This type of reviewing is indelibly entertwined with consumerism; the reviewer is informing the reader whether to read this book, or see that movie, or watch this show, or buy that toy. This is a form of marketing; in theory, a reviewer's seal of approval can influence the success of a film.
Yet over the years, even the marketing function of reviewing in popular media has given way as the reviews have become something of a commodity themselves. They are now a form of entertainment. I find movie reviews are particularly symptomatic of this: with a few exceptions, the majority of film reviewers are people who have seen a lot of movies, not studied filmmaking at NYU or written a senior thesis on themes in the works of Tarkovsky. Their reviews often spend as much time talking about the films in a wider context, such as the ouvre of the director or principle actors or an overall trend in filmmaking, than they do on the film itself. Any reader can tell you the best movie reviews are reviews of bad movies. The reviewers seem to know this instinctually and tend to lay into bad movies, particularly when those movies are the product of hubris (The Messenger: the Story of Joan of Arc) or too much plot or direction (such as Basic - reviews of this film a few weeks ago often ran to two or three pages).
Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin, Joel Siegel - these people are not critics so much as entertainers, their reviews intended to market their bestselling books as well as make an attempt to control the success or failure of a motion picture. The high priest of these reviewers is Anthony Lane, once primarily a book reviewer for the New Yorker who turned to movie reviews when he realized they were more lucrative. Lane joined the ranks of the bestselling critics last year with Nobody's Perfect, a collection of his reviews. It was in reading this volume that I realized the true worthlessness of film reviews. When read intermittently in weekly issues of the New Yorker, Lane seems erudite and witty; but when a large number of his reviews are read in a single sitting, one divines an inherent paucity of meaning beneath the witty prose. When one finishes a review, one finds oneself pleased at having read it, yet left with a sneaking suspicion that Lane has rendered no opinion whatsoever on the film (I suspect this is because Lane is smart enough to know just how vapid film reviewing is).
The most telling symptom of the true relevance of film reviews is this: the success of a film often has no relation to what the critics are saying (or braying) about it. While hype can always win an opening weekend, word-of-mouth - and not critical adoration - is still the main arbiter of how successful a film becomes.
But I have digressed; it is this concept of the reviewer as entertainer that I wish to focus on. If reviewing movies teeters on the edge of relevance - at least a movie can sometimes tap into the zeitgeist - reviewing collectibles is a valueless enterprise. As I've often claimed, very few toy collectors make a decision based on a review; they make it based on the pictures, or some aspect of the figure's stats. Most of them have already decided one way or another whether they are going to buy any given toy. I am fully aware of this fact.
As such, I look at my reviews not as "reviews" so much as a form of entertainment. I make an effort to provide an interesting read, offering tidbits of tangential information, external links, humorous photo captions and even personal anecdotes.
This concept of the reviewer-as-entertainer has been embraced by my comrades here at OAFE, but there are others out there who still provide bare-bones, relatively bland reviews. The only other reviewers I can think of that attempt to make their reviews interesting are the good people at Raving Toy Maniac (although please, folks, the pimp hat is getting really old). The rest, including several high-profile review sites, spend perhaps a paragraph or two on information and then delve into the review, providing sober analyses of numerous aspects of a bauble as if it were a high-end sedan.
I simply can't take toys that seriously. Perhaps it stems largely from my wavering dislike of consumerism, but it bothers me when such minor purchases are treated with such solemnity. It seems disturbingly like the glorification of the inanimate and trivial - basically, just another form of advertising.
Of course, by writing such entertaining reviews I open myself to accusations of being just as bad as the more bland reviewers. But I make sure never to rate a figure on any kind of objective scale; I rarely consider its price; and I never tell the reader to go out and get this or that toy. My reviews are usually works of love, which is why I tend to review only Masters of the Universe or Ninja Turtles figures. I rarely buy a toy out of curiosity these days, and never because of hype. My purchase is almost always dictated by my fondness for the character being represented.
The point of this very lengthy exegesis is to explain (to myself as much as you, faithful reader) why I choose to write reviews of collectibles and child's playthings for free. I do not intend to denigrate the enterprise or its practicioners, even the blander ones, though I am calling for a bit more recognition of the rather absurd idea of reviewing toys, as well as a bit more freedom and imagination in writing such reviews. But fear not; I shall continue to write them, as well as writing "figuretoons" placing hapless toys in the battlefields of Iraq. And I'll do so because it's fun.