Saturday, January 08, 2011

Why I write reviews

Finding a comfy spot to sleep Near the beginning of the year, the New York Times Sunday Book Review had several literary critics right about the purpose of serious book reviews. And the explicit background is the web, with many blogs where anyone with an interest can write reviews (e.g. yours truly), sites which invite reviews (such as Amazon.com). And in a world where anyone can say anything, what is the value of serious reviews (or what makes a review 'serious')?

What is not available in the crowdsourced review? Renee Fleming when she was in Pittsburgh last fall made the comment that the popular review had one flaw, that it tended to be gladitorial style, thumbs up or thumbs down. And as criticism goes, it was shallow and useless.

And there is the place for good criticism. The purpose of criticism is not to state a like or dislike, it it to describe and evaluate. There are a few things that you should be able to know after a well done review or criticism.

1. Where the work fits in its environment
2. What the work was trying to do
3. How well the work expresses its intent
4. The intended audience of the work
5. Who is not the intended audience of the work

And presumably, the reader of the review can identify if he is in 4 or 5, and if this is something he would want to read/attend/eat.

Why should I do such a thing? One, because this way I remember what I've done before. But also because every one of us is different. And these differences should result in differences in how we view a work. So when I have reviewed books, concerts, camping gear, movies, etc., the reader should be reading them with an eye for what makes us similar or different, and how would those similarities and differences change the way we would view the subject. And how does the object of the review fit into a larger whole (whether it be a set of experiences, gear taken on a backpacking trip, or a as part of a library.)

Do I do this every time? Probably not. Like many things, this is an ideal, to be followed when I am in the mood to do this, and the work is worthy of the attention. But having this ideal is a guard against a shallowness that contributes more noise than substance.
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