[GUEST POST] Aaron Johnston on Kicking a Dead Horse: Or Why We Don’t Need “Worst of the Year” Lists

Aaron Johnston is a New York Times bestselling author and comics writer. His novel Earth Unaware with Orson Scott Card was released by TOR in 2012. It’s sequel, Earth Afire, will be released June 4, 2013. He lives with his wife and four children in South Carolina. Follow him at aaronwjohnston.com or on twitter @aaronwjohnston.

Kicking a Dead Horse: Or Why We Don’t Need “Worst of the Year” Lists

This week Entertainment Weekly has printed a special double issue that lists “The Best & Worst of 2012.” They give you a bit of everything: best and worst movies, music, TV shows, books, games, scenes from movies, etc. If you go to their site, you’ll find even more best/worst options, including their list of [thanks but no thanks] best/worst nude scenes. And no, I’m not providing a link.

Now, I like Entertainment Weekly. I’m a subscriber. Have been for a long time. But do we really need to point fingers and call something the absolute worst something of the year? That strikes me as cruel. Yes, we should celebrate the achievements. Yes, we should applaud those who did the unexpected, or who wowed us with their talent, or who moved us with their performance, or who broke our hearts with their prose.

But must we also turn up our noses and say, “Hey, remember John Carter? Wow, that movie really stunk. That was the absolute worst movie of the year.” Because that’s exactly what Entertainment Weekly does. It calls John Carter the worst movie of the year.

Now, my purpose here is not to defend John Carter. I haven’t even seen it. And it may, in the eyes of some, indeed be the worst movie of the year. But why rub its nose in that fact? Why kick it when its down? It lost a bajillion dollars at the box office. Isn’t that enough suffering for those involved? Why must we parade its corpse back out into the street and take a communal pee in its wounds?

What do we gain by this except to bring greater shame and disappointment and hurt feelings to those who made this movie? It’s unnecessary. The movie flopped. It got terrible reviews from people who didn’t like it. Careers were ruined. Jobs were likely lost. Let it be. It’s been six months or so. These people are trying to move on. Reminding the world that you think what they achieved was pure rubbish isn’t doing them any favors.

But they brought it upon themselves, you say. They made a bad movie. They have to pay the piper. When you make a product for the general public, and the general public doesn’t like it, the general public has the right to smear its failure into the creators’ faces again and again and again.

Well, if you honestly think that, my friend, then you’re not what my mother would call a “nice person.” Reminding people that they failed, or even worse, telling them that they failed more than anyone else is simply mean spirited. It breaks people. It cuts deep. I don’t speak from experience, but if you told me that I was the worst dad of 2012 or the worst guest poster of 2012, it would likely sour my day.

Do corporations give plaques to the “Worst Salesman of the Year”?

Do retail establishments plaster photos of the “Worst Employee of the Month”?

No. They treat their employees with respect and encourage those who may have underperformed by rewarding those who succeed.

Or what about schools? Does the administration point a collective finger at the “Worst Teacher of the Year”?

Or consider the Olympics. Should we have a fourth podium on the awards stand? A spot for the worst athlete? “Ladies and gentlemen, here are our four winners of the men’s 100 meter race: gold, silver, bronze, and a tinfoil dunce cap for that slowpoke from Nigeria. Ha ha, what a snail. Did you see him? He totally came in dead last. What a goof. What a maroon. What an absolute failure. To get to the Olympics and then to finish dead last. Hardy har. Go home, Nigerian guy. Hang your head in shame. You’re the worst runner of the Olympic qualifiers.”

No, of course not. We’re better than that.

But if we won’t do it to athletes or accountants or salesmen or teachers, why would we do it to people who work in the movie business? Or the music business? Or television? They’re people too, right? They might be wealthy and famous and living large, but does that gives us the right to stand and clap and jeer when they fall? Taylor Kitsch of John Carter has feelings too, after all.

But that’s the risk you take in the entertainment business, some might argue. You’re putting yourself out there. You’re sharing your art and talent. You’re inviting criticism.

And that’s true. I’m not suggesting that we don’t be critics. If we don’t like something, we have every right to say so. What I dislike is taking what we call “failures” and putting them on their own little loser scale. To me, that’s taking criticism a little too far.

Because the sad truth is, lists like these get noticed in the industry. They destroy careers. They ruin people’s livelihoods. Who’s going to hire Taylor Kitsch now that his movie was the “worst movie of the year?” Answer: Not many. Which is a shame. I think the guy’s a solid actor.

So while Entertainment Weekly might think itself charming and clever for doing these lists, they’re actually doing a lot of harm.

What I find especially amusing is that the reviewers throw all this scorn without directing any of it at themselves. Did Entertainment Weekly give us a list of the Worst Movie Reviews of 2012? Or the Worst Movie Reviewers? Of course not. They’d never eat a piece of their own mud pie.

So I say poo to “worst of the year” lists. And in 2013, let’s spend our energy applauding the achievements. Let’s hail the victories. Let’s give standing ovations where ovations are due.

And let’s leave all the failures alone. Let’s let the dead horses go peacefully to their maker. Let’s be civil, not mean spirited. Polite, not cruel. And let’s rely on publications like this one that do exactly that.

15 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Aaron Johnston on Kicking a Dead Horse: Or Why We Don’t Need “Worst of the Year” Lists”

  1. I’ll defend John Carter to the death. Worst movie of the year? Hah. Right. Worst marketed movie of the year? You bet.

      1. John Carter is the perfect example to have picked for this article as it has galled me for the last month going to site after site and seeing it dredged up as a piece of steaming poo. And not just because I had the sense to know what it was and loved it for that but also because I went to site after site seeing people praise it when it was out. Real people.

  2. Yeah, I’m not a fan of the worst lists. Funny that it came on the heels of a Mind Meld I disliked for similar reasons. People are entitled to their opinions, of course, but there’s a difference between a review (which is meant to inform), and simply being mean-spirited.

  3. All these lists are just one person or some group of people’s opinions and generally don’t mirror yours nor should you allow them to influence you.

    I agree with the suthor here and feel that these articles are just ways to fill up magazine and blog space,ways to get the writers a check for doing something instead of not doing it which is what should really happen but would force a magazine like EW to publish a magazine with blank pages (not always the worst possible outcome).

    The job of critic always struck me as ridiculous,being paid to give your opinion.We can all do that job.Just because somebody is being paid to give an opinion doesn’t mean it’s better than yours.

  4. I’m perfectly fine with anyone stating what they think is The Worst of Whichever Year. If you have a podium from which to comment upon art, go do it. If people don’t want to listen, they won’t. Your authority as a critic stems from your reputation.

    Now… I couldn’t get through 20 minutes of John Carter before giving up. I thought it was singularly, almost awe-inspiringly awful, and I told everyone within hearing distance that it was. Did anyone take me seriously? Sure, a few people, people who have the same kind of aesthetic. And those that didn’t just said, “Hey, I liked it!” and that was that.

    At least that was it for most people. Some people, I imagine, liked me a little less when I insulted something they loved. it happens all the time when we discuss geeky topics.

    This fact bothers me. Why must there always be people in the geek “community” who get butthurt when someone is critical? I don’t get upset when someone says they hate The Rolling Stones. I realize that their opinion, no matter how definitively stated, is just that. Who cares? If you don’t agree, read or watch something else. Vote with your wallet.

  5. As a professional writer, I accept that it is my lot to be praised or spit at as part of the package. I imagine professionals in all forms of media and sports accept that, and some like pro athletes and name actors get paid well enough to laugh all the way to the bank as they are called names.

    Sure, “worst” lists are mean-spirited, but they are what they are.

    What really bothers me is sites and newspapers that go after amateurs like college athletes who are not only not paid, they are kids who don’t deserve a bunch of shit from guys sitting on their lard butts telling them how terrible they are.

    I went letter-to-the-editor ballistic when the local paper started this practice with college sports and managed to stop it. Don’t let the jerks win by saying nothing.

  6. Opinions come in all flavors — just like the piece I’m commenting on. Actually, just like this comment. Best-Worst lists and even awards mean nothing to me. Halls of Fame mean nothing. If someone is dumb enough to be a sheep and dislike something merely because it’s on a “worst” list is a moron. If someone is going to get butthurt because something they created is disliked by a loudmouth then they need to toughen up. I don’t want to live in a world where even the kid who can’t throw, catch or even walk without falling over gets an award at the end of the year.

    Then again, I don’t even know how one judges something that is geared towards personal taste.

  7. By this logic, we should not have any awards for creative projects, because that’s a reminder of how not-good so many things were. Your movie didn’t get nominated for an Oscar? Guess it sucked! Awards remind us of what was great and what wasn’t. In a sense, awards ceremonies are a form of rubbing it in.

    I get that there’s a sense of mean-spirited-ness in the Entertainment Weekly list, but that’s the price we pay for art. People will hate what you do, and that magazine is simply an avenue in which such people will express themselves. It’s criticism. It’s not about being a “nice person.” It’s about marking what is good and bad from your personal subjective position. You don’t have to agree with it, but it doesn’t make the people who do that bad people. It makes them critics.

    1. As I stated in the column, I’m not suggesting that we don’t have critics, or that critics don’t tell us what they do and don’t like. I love reading movie reviews. The good and the bad. I read far more reviews than I see movies.

      Nor am I proposing that we do away with awards for those who excel. I state very clearly that we should celebrate great achievements. And giving an award to LINCOLN for best screenplay does not, as you suggest, remind us how bad the writing is in Adam Sandler’s movies. Or at least that’s not what goes through MY mind.

      What I’m suggesting is that “worst of the year” lists, that very specific retrospective approach that some critics take, goes too far. They actually do damage, serious destructive damage. And as a lover of art, it saddens me whenever someone who doesn’t make art themselves has the power to squash and destroy someone who does. It’s more than hurt feelings. It’s economics. It’s jobs.

      1. A) Your assertion that awards do not remind us of the not-so-good is purely wishful thinking. We can delude ourselves into thinking such things, but the reality is that all awards are a reminder to some that they simply didn’t make the cut. To use one of your own examples: Do you think the Olympic swimmer who gets 4th place is inspired by failing to make the medal cut? Doubtful.

        B) How exactly does a “worst of the year” list do any real damage? What evidence do you have of that claim? John Carter won’t result in the loss of jobs because it sucked. It will result in the loss of jobs because it didn’t make enough money. Do you think the people behind the Twilight films will be out of jobs just because a critic rightfully identifies them as utter trash? Do you think Hollywood actually cares about the critics when it is making massive amounts of profit? No. It doesn’t. If it did, it would have stopped making crappy films a long time ago. But they keep making them because they make money. The notion that a critic has as much power as you claim in this particular instance is another falsehood. They might have power in small, indie circles, and perhaps for films that will not make much anyway, but John Carter was an expected blockbuster. A whole different category.

        1. You make an excellent point. Money trumps all considerations. Box office receipts are far more important to industry decision makers than the words of a reviewer.

  8. I agree in that I don’t see much of value in “Worst of the Year” list and I find them to be different than sharing an opinion about something either at the time of its release of the time of my partaking of it. I also think a person can give an honest critical assessment of something and not be mean-spirited about it and that there is value to not promoting or championing those groups or individuals who are mean-spirited when they spout their opinions. It is one thing to say I don’t like something and why. It is another thing entirely to take a “this product sucks” attitude which, in its venom, does hurt, at the very least it hurts the people who don’t feel the same but who feel completely bullied by the person spewing their “my opinion is the right opinion” attitude. And we’ve all seen these kind of opinions being voiced and there is a distinct difference between the one kind of criticism and the other.

    As I said above, John Carter is a perfect example because it was sunk before it ever started. No argument that it was poorly marketed and that most of the blame for its lack of financial success should be laid at the feet of Disney who spent a lot of money on it and then acted like they could care less about it. But I also read so many scathing reviews of it before it ever came out that it didn’t even have a chance to get traction among those who might have been interested to see it but who were swayed not to go because of vociferous opinions as to its merit.

    Should we get bent out of shape when someone doesn’t like something that we do? Not at all. Should we strive to treat creators and the fans of those creations with some dignity and respect when voicing our opinions about why their creation didn’t work for us? I should hope so.

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