Getting the review right

I read a review of Kathy Lette’s new novel about a woman with a son with Aspergers. The book itself sounded ok, but the review retold the story in a very unflattering light while also giving away what seemed to be the most hilarious moments. And now I don’t need to read the book. A bit like watching an interview with Peter FitzSimons, where he gets so excited about one of his books, like Batavia, that he tells the entire story and again, you don’t need to read it. It’s also not about negative versus positive reviews. Negative reviews can be well argued and defended as can positive reviews, but both are useless if they are not done right. So these are some of my thoughts about reviewing.

A Thing In Itself

Imagine the pressures from marketers for positive comments, pressure from editors for fast turnarounds, pressure from the makers and doers to go see, attend, taste or generally experience their new *thing*. And then give them the thumbs up.  Reviews are the secondary creations in a world full of distinctive stuff. But it doesn’t mean they don’t have a place and can’t be useful. Indeed there is skill involved in reviewing. Yet how often do we talk about reviews as things in themselves? This article outlines some of the benchmarks and pitfalls of good and bad reviews.

What it is

  • A reviewer is a person who sees connections and illuminates how and how well a thing fits within a family portrait of others of its kind.
  • A reviewer answers questions. A review should bring people closer to understanding the thing reviewed. It doesn’t matter if this thing is a book, film, meal, artwork, performance or service, the principles are the same.
  • A review should identify themes and tease out similarities and differences to others of its oeuvre. A review can, if there is a need, head towards critique-land and attempt to place it within a cultural context. It can identify where it has come from and what it means.
  • There is no question that a review should provide evidence of its arguments and could even refer to what others argue.

What it’s not

Below are a few examples of what pretends to be reviews.

  • There is the kind that offers only an opinion. There is nothing wrong with opinions, but calling something good (or bad) is not a review. Characteristically there is no argument and no whys or hows are answered. Opinions abound everywhere and readers may or may not care about them.
  • Purported reviewers who only outline the story of say a book or film are not reviewers. They are re-tellers. They offer no insight and in fact a re-teller is a kind of thief, as telling the story takes something away from the first time experience of the thing. They are the famous Spoilers. And are they best avoided.
  • Promotional materials are not reviews. Sometimes they’re benign and offer useful information, like who wrote it, or who’s performing it and when. Otherwise they reveal the (only/or) best aspects of the thing and thus mislead everyone regarding what the book/film/show/work is.
  • Some bad reviewers avoid the above mistakes, but the review, rather than bringing the reader closer to understanding the subject, work to take the reader further from it. Ideally the review shouldn’t draw attention to itself, as it’s the spotlight, not the star.
  • There are different ways a review can separate rather than illuminate such as by using complex language or by highlighting the subjective experience of the reviewer over the object reviewed.

This last one is interesting. Some reviews get away with using the first person pronoun because they don’t make other mistakes and have engaging voices, or can call on their status as experts. This can backfire though – experts better be reliable.

At best a reviewer becomes someone whose knowledge is deep, whose opinion is trusted to be balanced by argument and supported by evidence and whose ideas will enhance your own unique experience of the book, performance, meal, service or thing.

Review vs You

As a navigator in a vast ocean of options, the reviewer can be a useful influencer, but you, the reader of the review, are the captain. It’s the kind of relationship that means you don’t always have to agree but the journey you take together should be worth something.

  • This piece first appeared on the now defunct Best Damn Creative Writing web site in March 2011.

One thought on “Getting the review right

  1. Pingback: Eeekphrasis | WritingBec's Blog

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