The Art of Reviewing: Introductory Remarks

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Every blog needs a large-scale project. The Art of Reviewing will explore reviewing as an art form and as a valuable element to understanding society.  During this project, I will profile specific reviewers of merit.  Several specific cases also explore other facets of reviewing.

What makes a good reviewer?

A review is only good as the individual reviewing the work.  But what is meant by good?  Good – like value, civilization, and culture – is a loaded term.  It should be not be used in a cavalier fashion or overloaded with moral baggage.  Does the reviewer have a technique, a perspective, and a knowledge base?  If any of these is found lacking, then the entire enterprise will become suspect.

Below are basic requirements for any review, regardless of length or intent:

  • Knowledge of genre/medium.

Every reviewer should have a basic understanding of what he or she is reviewing.  If not, they aren’t much of a reviewer in the first place.  One facet of this understanding is a general knowledge of the genre and/or medium.  While a complete understanding is impossible, since humans lack omniscience, a reviewer with the contours and trends of the genre is a valuable commodity.  The same goes for reviewers with a keen understanding of technological change and its impact on the audience as it relates to the work’s medium.

  • Knowledge of the author.

A reviewer should have a basic understanding of the author’s biographical details, including historical, cultural, and political information relevant to the discussion.

  • Critical wisdom.

Critical wisdom is conceptually vague, since it is hard to quantify.  A reviewer who misses a basic biographical fact or a major work in the genre can be slighted for the mistake, but how does one measure critical wisdom?  The nebulous nature makes it hard to quantify, but age, experience, and previous work may be helpful.  One gains wisdom not through the raw accumulation of information, but through the discerning use for that information.

  • Right to change his or her mind.

Humans, the ones writing the reviews, are fallible.  We all make mistakes.  Critics aren’t immune.  One of the risks of reviewing is speaking with confidence about a work and rendering judgment.  In the end, that judgment may be false.  A reviewer has a right to change his or her mind regarding any judgment rendered on a work.  This isn’t the same as bowing down to pressure from the mob or giving in to coercion.  Intellectual flexibility and humility are characteristics of a good reviewer.

  • Unique perspective.

Everyone has his or her own perspective.  A reviewer is no different.  With the plethora of information available in all kinds of media, there are hordes of reviewers out there.  Most are interchangeable and otherwise forgettable, evaporating mist on the critical landscape.  A reviewer with a unique perspective stands out among others.  A unique perspective also bespeaks of individuality and ownership.  “This is my opinion and I’ll stand by it.”  In the end, reviews are unique cultural products about another cultural product.  Even in the most perfunctory review, there should be more there than a mere rating and measurement.

  • Acknowledging biases/prejudices, etc.

Similar to the issue of critical wisdom, a quality reviewer recognizes his or her own biases and prejudices.  Every year, tons and tons of stuff get produced.  Reviewers see only a fraction of this.  Because of the impossibility to know every genre or author in totality, biases and prejudices are bound to pop up sooner or later.  This is another inevitability of humanity.  The reviewer should recognize the biases and prejudices within their work.  Readers should also be discerning enough to recognize them, since no reviewer is the absolute authority.  Reviewers should be questioned about their biases and prejudices.

The function of reviewing

Our culture easily dismisses the reviewer.  “Who listens to critics anyway?” is a common refrain.  What does reviewing offer?  The only difference is that the monetary investment may be smaller.  Before one buys a house, one should probably read up on sub-prime mortgages and reviews of the neighborhood.  Or one should read product reviews from Consumer Reports before buying a DVD player, TV, or some other essential appliance.  Why not do the same before buying a book or seeing a movie?  On the practical side, at least know the rating and bare outline of the plot to protect your children from any unwarranted swearing or nudity.

At root, the review is informative.  It should inform the reader.  Short reviews excel at this function.  Longer reviews can also be informative, going into more detail about the artist, adding historical context, and enlighten the reader are about similar works relevant to the discussion.  The function of the review is dependent on the needs of the reader.  Sometimes a reader needs a brief summary.  At other times, a more detailed discussion is necessary.

Blogcritics.org offers short informative reviews while the London Review of Books offers essay-length reviews.

The art of reviewing

Reviewing is writing and writing is an art form.  It is also a craft, but when a craft is well wrought, it transcends mere technique to become art.  A majority of reviews out there are craft.  They serve the function to inform the reader about pertinent information.

Automotive reviewing offers an example of technique versus art.  Purchasing an automobile is a serious investment.  MotorWeek, the public television staple, offers informative reviews of cars for the prospective buyer.  Profiled vehicles along with a voice-over and graphics listing off the relevant statistics offer an informative hour of television.  Then there is Top Gear and specifically Jeremy Clarkson, a loudmouth prone to saying sensational things.  Gone are the statistics and purchasing information, replaced by gorgeously produced segments that turn the sports or luxury cars under review into gorgeous baubles.  Infotainment at its best.

The value of reviewing

People should value reviews.  They offer insight into the products of a culture.  The practical side is being more informed before you go purchase a product.  The other side is that one is more informed about the contours and trends of the culture.  A reviewer should tell you why or why not a particular thing – book, TV show, automobile – is good and why.  A discerning reader or viewer will make up his or her own mind.

Reviewing is not a one-way street.  Reviewers are hardly the high priests, giving their audience information with unquestioned authority.  A nation without a strong critical press is in danger of descending into authoritarian madness.  People who didn’t read the reviews shouldn’t complain about their expectations being quashed.  South Pacific is not the same type of movie as Saving Private Ryan. If you don’t like being critical, stay home on Election Day.  Who listens to critics anyway?

Profiled Reviewers:

  • Jeremy Clarkson (Top Gear, London Times driving reviewer)
  • Clive James (author, columnist, polymath, wit)
  • Nathan Rabin (AV Club hip hop reviewer, My Year in Flops)
  • Special Case File #1: The movie 300
  • Anthony Burgess
  • James Wood (book reviewer for the New Yorker)
  • Anthony Bourdain (author, cook, world traveler, host of No Reservations)
  • Harold Bloom (critic, author)
  • Susan Sontag (critic, author)
  • Roland Barthes (author, theorist)
  • Joe Bob Briggs (film critic)
  • Joris-Karl Husymans (Against Nature, 1884)
  • Special Case File #2: The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
  • Walter Benjamin (cultural critic, theorist)
  • Michel Foucault (critic, theorist)
  • Special Case File #3: Reviewing Warhammer 40K fiction
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