Andrew Wheeler’s essay, The Sorry State Of Fans, talks broadly about the same things I did the other day – fan response to, for instance, the Dr Who TV series. Both Wheeler and I find fandom wanting, though for differing reasons: I’m annoyed by fan reviews for their pettiness, he rails at their “goodwill”, the free pass they give to a mediocre show. (We’ve obviously been reading different reviews, for one thing – my sense is that fandom is a lot more prepared to dislike Who and that it’s the wider media who have a measure of goodwill towards the show.)

But his article isn’t really about Dr.Who – it’s about how critics of anything subcultural hand out free passes like sweets. Why do fans make such lousy critics, Wheeler asks, and his answer is roughly, because they like things too much. Perhaps he has a point: to the committed fan, the energy and community of fandom is surely as important as what’s actually under discussion, and too much negativity undermines that community and saps that energy. The negativity is instead channeled into disdain for the ‘pabulum’ on offer outside the subculture: this is where Doctor Who fandom is in such a pickle right now as the mainstream has embraced the show wholeheartedly so the subculture has to reflect that, or redefine itself. But in any case a vast amount of good art and good ideas comes from within subcultures, so we should probably let them get on with it. As I’ve learned from experience, if you’re disenchanted with a thing walking away from it is often a better idea than wasting time trying to reform it: cultural energy is nomadic and so can you be.

But Wheeler’s article is about something broader, something I’ll express as a neat little essay question. Which is more important: that a critic is prepared to like something or that they are prepared to dislike it? If you say “both”, you’re probably right. Wheeler’s point of view is that the disliking bit is more important. My view is that the disliking bit is also a great deal easier. Singling out items for praise is generally considered to be part of a critic’s job – but what takes more effort, singling them out by explaining exactly how and why they work and why it matters*, or singling them out by painting their cultural context as so debased that they stand out by default?

Of course it’s tempting to show how discriminating you are by turning the contrast button up, but it often comes across as self-congratulatory, and besides I’m not sure how useful it is for the reader, who is effectively being encouraged to enjoy less.

(The Ninth Art, Wheeler’s website, is a comics site “for the discerning reader”. Comics are a curious critical case as they run on the memory of mass appeal rather than the thing itself. So broadly speaking comics discourse is a three way fight: a group who want to reclaim the mainstream, a group who want to remain and celebrate a fannish subculture, and a group that sees comics as a minority art form, a bit like poetry maybe, and disdains the general public as basically not clever enough for them. But I digress.)

* Perhaps ironically, in between starting this post in the morning and finishing it tonight, I read a particularly excellent example of this – Mike Morris on ‘Dalek’.