Some webcomics are born irritating and some are made. In 2016, cartoonist Adam Ellis created an unassuming comic named “shhh,” which would go on to be — impossibly — both. “shhh” plays out in three fateful panels: in the first, two men sit on a couch. One is making fun of the other for watching sports. In the second, our sports fan, uttering the titular “shhh,” has clamped his enemy’s mouth shut. And then in the third, having ensured silence, he utters four words: let people enjoy things.
If we were using one of those little pain-measurement scales to log how annoying this comic is — zero being no reaction at all and ten being a song you can’t remember stuck in your head — “shhh” in its original form ranks, at the very worst, two out of ten. It’s a little smug. But it’s basically fine. In a happier world it would have slid down into the great content void and that would be the end of it.
Instead, however, some world-historical monster cropped out the last two panels, which in turn became a standalone reaction image. Let people enjoy things went from one piece of an, again, only mildly annoying comic, to a manifesto for a certain type of fan that gets very, very angry if somebody out there isn’t enjoying things. By late 2019, Ellis was so fed up with his own creation that he made a new comic in which he took “shhh” out into the woods and shot it. It was, however, too late.
I don’t have a problem with letting people enjoy things, for what it’s worth. Or if I do have a problem, it’s temperamental, not intellectual. When I think about the dynamic in the comic, what I consider, mostly, is that many people find the experience of watching movies with me unbearable. A friend once told me that if I left an anticipated movie with a list of complaints, she was going to walk away from me. If somebody mentions a show we both happened to watch, I’ll often start saying something like “I had issues….” before reminding myself that they probably don’t actually want to talk about the show, they just wanted to mention it. People don’t buy me books or movies because one of the last times somebody did that, it became one of my most hated books of all time.
“Let people enjoy things” is, partly, just about figuring out when it is and isn’t appropriate to get into a disagreement, which, for conflict-enjoying people, is a lifelong process. There’s a right time and a right place and, maybe most importantly, the right companions for me out there. My ideal way of watching a movie involves pausing it a lot to argue and then arguing about it afterward. This is how I enjoy things. To many other people, this is hell. (Not even because they don’t like arguing — the pausing alone is a deal breaker.) And that’s really fine. When in somebody else’s home — or their metaphorical home, like their twitter mentions — play by their rules.
The problem is this: For a small but vocal number of people online, any opinion they dislike is, essentially, being expressed by somebody in their home. “Let people enjoy things,” as a way of saying “learn basic conversational dynamics,” is a banal but true statement. But in practice, “let people enjoy things” means something else: it is rude or inappropriate to dislike something. And it’s this overstep that I do, in fact, have a problem with.
Not letting people not enjoy things has a rich history, but we can start the clock, for our purposes, in July 2012, when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises saw its Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score plummet from 100% Fresh to — brace yourself — 99%. The reaction to this development was so negative that Rotten Tomatoes had to shut down user comments, though, as one of the critics so singled out, Marshall Fine, pointed out in an interview, nobody who was so angry at his negative review had actually seen the movie yet. Fine wasn’t really bothered by the negative attention (or if he was, he kept it cool in public). Furthermore, reading Fine’s review today, it’s not even really wrong about the movie. But why were all these people so angry over a negative review of a movie that none of them had actually seen? That was the real puzzle.
We can fast forward to 2017, when video game critic Jim Stephanie Sterling gave Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild a score of seven out of ten — which might sound positive, but not in the world of video game reviews, where scores are so inflated that Grand Theft Auto V getting a nine out of ten was perceived as a politically-motivated takedown. Sterling’s review received such intense backlash that their website was taken down thanks to DDoS attacks, because — much like Fine — they had caused the game’s aggregate ranking to drop by a percentage point.
Fast forward again, now to 2021: Siddhant Adlakha is mysteriously replaced as IGN’s recapper of the Disney+ show Loki after he gave one episode a critical review. But it’s not so mysterious if you spend a little time browsing the hundreds of replies to IGN’s official tweet. “I’m honestly just confused as to why this person was given the assignment of reviewing this show,” goes one reply. “There’s clearly some sort of predetermined distaste happening here.” Most of the replies here are from small-fry twitter accounts, with followers frequently only in the double digits. They’re more remarkable for their numbers than any given person’s influence.
But while Marvel and DC fans have numbers on their side, they don’t have a monopoly on defensive rage. When critic Jane Hu wrote an article for Vulture about Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, titled “The Queen’s Gambit Is the Forrest Gump of Chess,” it provoked a similar backlash on a smaller scale. “What is it lately with people getting all bent out of shape by the fact that TV is not real life? Is that really such an outlandish concept?” tweeted one annoyed reader. “I mean, I understand the intention behind this specific article. When everyone praises something, the easiest way to get clicks is by shitting all over it.” Consumers of explicitly middlebrow culture are just as likely to get angry when faced with somebody who, to their minds, isn’t letting them enjoy things.
When challenged recently about Martin Scorsese’s putdown of Marvel movies on the Happy Sad Confused podcast, director James Gunn called Scorsese’s comments “cynical,” claiming that Scorsese was simply “coming out against Marvel so that he could get press for his movie.” As with many of these comments, the first leap is to figure out what secret motive a critical voice might have for saying such a thing — whether it’s “predetermined distaste,” a desire for clicks, or shilling a movie. Gunn’s comment here feels particularly absurd (is Martin Scorsese really languishing for attention?), but it is, at the same time, representative.
For the angry The Dark Knight Rises fans, it did not matter if The Dark Knight Rises was good or bad. They hadn’t seen it. What mattered was the 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a sign first that the movie was an unimpeachable object to associate yourself with and enjoy, and also that the newfound legitimacy of “genre” in the mainstream world was here to stay. But people who got angry over criticism of The Queen’s Gambit were operating under a very similar logic: that as a prestige product, The Queen’s Gambit wasn’t meant to be judged, just displayed, the same as Mare of Easttown or any number of poorly written prestige dramas that have come and gone over the past five years.
As much as I’d like to make the “let people enjoy things” problem about adults who enjoy comic books, it’s more deeply rooted: it is a pathological aversion, on a wide cultural level, to disagreement, discomfort, or being judged by others. “Let people enjoy things” is essentially the twitchy fear of “cancel culture,” translated over into the world of taste. There are reasons that it’s much more visible when it comes to comics, video games, and general fandom — among them, sheer numbers. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s everybody’s problem.
Nobody’s obligated to think that Hu or Adlakha or Sterling or Scorsese are correct in their criticisms; certainly, I don’t want to move “let people enjoy things” one tier up so that now we are all fiercely demanding to be allowed to enjoy cultural criticism. Negative criticism can be just as tedious, misguided, and fan-service-driven as positive criticism — a statement which is, I think, truer now than it was a few years ago, precisely because the critical landscape has shifted so much toward positivity or silence. But the paradox of a wide-open digital publishing field is that it has tended more and more toward consensus, with its two modes being the rave and the takedown, instead of diversity; even in terms of subject matter, culture verticals focus on the same things, instead of branching out.
To return for a moment to the Tomatometer: the biggest problem is that, from the vantage point of 100%, something’s score can only go down, not up. In an article for The Ringer, Justin Charity documented the reaction to Get Out and Lady Bird falling from a peak of 100% Fresh to the forsaken valley of 99%. “Ironically,” Charity notes, “critics—the stars of Rotten Tomatoes—are the biggest losers in the website’s outsized influence.… Where the critic additionally means to relate all sorts of ideas about the movie, and its actors, and its director, and its studio, et al., Rotten Tomatoes simply moves on to the process of aggregation, stripping the criticism for spare parts.” Rotten Tomatoes, furthermore, sifts its ratings down to just “rotten” and “fresh.” You like it, or you don’t.
People are as interested in conversation over pieces of art and entertainment they like as they have ever been. Hence the proliferation of recaps, reaction videos, let’s plays, podcasts, and other forms of commentary dedicated to talking about precisely these things — plus older forms of coverage, like interviews. But all of these take place within a context where interest and fandom are already established, which is part of why a harsh review of an episode of Loki can provoke such an angry reaction. A TV recap isn’t really meant to be evaluative; it’s meant to summarize and offer some theories and highlights. This is a world of appreciation; it may or may not be fandom, in the nerdier sense, but it is, essentially, a fan culture.
Much like evangelicals created their own parallel version of everything, from music to magazines, fan culture has its own alternatives to what, for lack of a better term, we’ll just call “non-fan culture.” Take TV Tropes: it lists things about shows, books, movies, and games in lieu of something like literary theory. It also expresses what I take to be a basic aspect of the fan approach to culture: everything is derivative, you just recognize your ingredients and mix them up a little. Works that really resonate with fandom audiences are works that repeat and recycle, but do it stylishly.
Negative reactions — up to a point — can live comfortably in this world, and can, in fact, be profitable. As Jim Stephanie Sterling of the Zelda controversy has pointed out in a 2020 video, their negative commentary is what people mostly want to watch, even if their inbox is filled with calls for positivity, and even if negative reviews can be met with extreme backlash. Negativity is just another brand—one which can be quite profitable, on an individual level, if the person at the helm has the nerves to weather periodic storms of condemnation. Even so, many kinds of negative criticism, particularly of a vaguely political bent, come down to trope recognition: women in refrigerators, Bechdel tests, who dies first in horror movies.
But criticism — by which I mean something that demands maintaining distance between the critic and the subject, not a negative or positive viewpoint — is, in a fandom world, an obsolete exercise. It lingers in legacy publications that keep critics around for prestige and flourishes in smaller publications that find criticism genuinely interesting. People who want to do critical work do it in the academy, if they’re lucky. In a 2019 address to the Modern Language Association Conference, for instance, Bruce Robbins singled out academic writing as having a “critical dimension,” as opposed to “opinions produced by fans as well as by journalistic reviewers, belletrists, and other adjuncts to the publishing industry,” and worried that trends in academic writing would “produce a criticism that is closer to fandom…. a rhetoric of helpful and largely positive advice to the would-be consumer.”
Sitting in the audience for that particular address, it was clear that, to Robbins, the journalistic reviewer is part of “fandom,” because such a reviewer is not committed to any particular critical project. I do not agree with much of what Robbins said in his address in terms of argument — not about trends in academic work, nor about public criticism — but on a descriptive level, he’s correct that the non-academic writer’s position in modern media is that of a relic of a previous time. This does not make their work worthless or mean that the situation isn’t able to change. But the growth area in culture writing is culture coverage — interviews and profiles — not criticism.
The reason that somebody feels as if one negative Loki recap or Legend of Zelda review is the equivalent of a rude, derisive person sitting next to them on the couch is because it sort of is. Nothing primes them for this kind of conversation or teaches them to expect it. As a different online reaction line goes: they just came here to have a good time, and they’re feeling a little attacked right now. The person who wants to have different sorts of conversations around art is forced into an interloper position by default, and even the position of being the token grump isn’t open to most of them.
But as I said, the issue isn’t negativity per se, which has its place in the fandom ecosystem. The issue is how to talk about things you love (or hate) impersonally. What is lost in fandom is ultimately detachment. Detachment can coexist with love, hatred, and indifference. But it’s never an especially attractive quality, and when people are encouraged to identify themselves with their interests and consumption habits, it’s also a very hard one to maintain.
A small prediction: The world is going to keep getting smaller. Opportunities in creative and intellectual fields are going to keep shrinking. Opinions will become both more binary and more homogenous, and about fewer and fewer things. Doing other kinds of work will remain possible. But things will get worse, whether or not they ever get better.
I want more for art and big-budget entertainment than the world it’s got. I want something more than consumption. I want smart thrillers for adults that aren’t turned into franchises. I want space for people to take big chances and blow them. I want to feel that a TV show or a movie or a book respects me, my intellect, and my time. I want conversations that are not striving for consensus. I want beauty and ugliness and all the rest. My appetite — really — is boundless.
In the conflict between fans and snobs, it’s easy to explain what I don’t like about fandom. I’d like to end on a different note: if you read this piece, and nodded along, because you find fans tedious and Marvel movies dreadful and gamers cringe and all the rest, consider becoming a better snob.
Like many cranks and snobs, I believe that art should not be afraid to be difficult, or offensive; I might even be willing to accept the word “messy” on some days. But routine calls for difficult art are one thing, and providing a real home for that difficult art is another. You don’t have to keep a close eye on social media to know that a piece “about” art, like this one, is going to be more widely shared than a piece that’s really about art, in the specific. I might not like what TV Tropes has done to how people talk about art, but I’d give the people who work on it this: They’re actually interested in specific objects.
If I had to, I’d rather deal with somebody barking “let me enjoy things” at me than somebody who is supposedly on my team but who might as well buy books by the foot. If art is not served at all by a consumerist, denuded approach, it’s not served either by some kind of commitment to difficulty in the abstract: to the art thinkpiece rather than the review, the manifesto over observation, proclamation over study. There’s something more than enjoying or not enjoying things out there. But more importantly, there’s something more than talking about it.
B.D. McClay is an essayist and critic.