Tuesday, 2 August 2011

What Makes a Good Reviewer?

It sold over 50 million.
It must be rubbish.
A few weeks ago, while I was neck deep and swimming frantically to get through Julnowrimo, I came across a post on Joe Konrath's blog about reviewers, specifically about confusing personal feelings with a product's worth. In essence he points out that if a work has deliberation behind it, in that a creator had a vision and deliberately set out to create that vision with effort, thought, and time, then it can't be totally rubbish. It might not be good but it won't be crap. This made me think of Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, which many online and elsewhere have reviewed badly, and it is often torn to shreds and posted as an example of how not to write a book. But it sold millions. Why, if it's so rubbish? Because people are stupid? Or is it that Dan Brown set out to do something with it, and he achieved that, and that's what people like about it (i.e. the book is very fast paced and is an ideal holiday read.) This doesn't make it a masterpiece but it does mean it successfully achieves what it was meant to do. (I have read it, I enjoyed it, and I'll likely never read it again. It does what it's meant to!)

The full post is here and is well worth reading:


I would go one further than Joe Konrath and say that reviewers also confuse their feelings with reality, i.e. that if they hated something than anyone who likes it must be a moron, as the work they're criticising doesn't have any merit whatsoever. This was particularly the case with the recent release of Transformers 3 - Dark of the Moon, which received some pretty harsh reviews, many of which descended into insulting anyone who did enjoy the film and comparing it to pornography (looking at you Mark Kermode for that last point). The problem I have with a lot of these types of comments, as well as the general superior attitude it comes from is; it insults those who have put a lot of time, effort and thought into the product; it insults anyone who doesn't hate or, god forbid, actually likes the product; and it's based on this arrogant assumption of "I could do better". I don't care what the likes of Kermode may say but I suspect a certain amount of envy plays its part in these examples, as the sheer vitriol is a suggestion that not only did they hate the film/book/painting/TV show etc, but that they hate how successful it's become or is likely to become in the future. And under that is the belief of "I could do better" - I haven't yet seen anyone that makes that claim actually manage it though.

I would love to see a version of Transformers directed and written by Mark Kermode.
Someone make it happen. Then I'm hiring Michael Bay to review it.
Those who have read my reviews on here and elsewhere will note that I don't slam films, even when they have obvious problems. I prefer to state what I liked, what I didn't, and why, then leave it to the reader to make up their mind about whether it's worth their time or not. But I also don't review films that are of genres I don't like. I know I just can't be fair to them so I don't see any point in reviewing them (this is also why my reviews tend to be at least a bit positive). In my opinion this is a massive problem with film reviews and film reviewers generally; you'll get people reviewing a film who just don't like those kind of movies. Again, Kermode is a prime (pun!) example of this, as he doesn't seem to be a fan of big, mindless action blockbusters. He clearly prefers more artistic endeavours; small, smart movies that most people never get the chance to see, or in fact choose to see if they do. But his job as "film reviewer extraordinaire" sets him up to watch films he knows he won't enjoy, and he likely goes in the screening with that sentiment, which funnily enough is only confirmed by the time he leaves. This is an area that I think games reviewers have got a much better system for. It is very rare for a game to be reviewed by someone who hates that type of game, or just doesn't tend to play them. If you like your strategy, RPGs and puzzles then those are the games you review. If you love your shooters and platform games, then that's what you'll get. Because games are a much bigger investment in time and effort it would be ridiculous to give them to someone who doesn't play that genre. I personally think films should be the same, or at the very least reviewers should be honest about which genres they love, which ones they hate and which ones they're ambivalent about. Then I suspect people would find reviews more helpful as you'd know where the reviewer was coming from.

Your work of fiction disappoints me.
So what makes a good reviewer? Someone who measures a piece of work by its own merits, not against what they thought it was going to be (nothing annoys me more than the attitude of "this was nothing like I thought it would be and therefore it is rubbish"). They are also someone who can put their personal feelings aside and look at the work not just for what it is but for what works, and what doesn't. Even in the biggest pile of turd there is normally at least one thing okay about it, if not actually good. A decent review will point out all the problems, but it will also show what works and leave it to the public to make their own minds up. And they will never, ever condemn someone for disagreeing with them. After all, it's all just a subjective opinion and what floats one boat will torpedo another. And if the work does have serious and deep flaws, then they shouldn't revel in pointing them out. Explain the problems, point them out, but don't turn into Mr Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. (Wow, such deep critical analysis - I'm glad my degree was worth something.)

So review with joy, but not with hate, is the overall message. Life is too short to be hating on creative works, especially when someone has put a lot of their heart and soul into something. But those cheap and nasty ten page kindle "books" that are just nicked from wikipedia? Hate away my friends, hate away.

What do you think makes a good or a bad reviewer? Are there things you look for when you read a review that turn you off; or turn you on? *nudge, nudge, wink, wink* Do reviews even mean that much, given their subjective nature? All comments, ideas and drunken ramblings welcome.


  1. Have you been drinking Alexa? Hmmmm ... yes (as always!) I tend to agree with you. You need to judge a film on its own merit within the confines of its origins - it's why I'll always tend to look more kindly at a SyFy home production than a multi-million mega-blockbuster; because one is obviously curtailed in some ways more than others (not that there's necessarily any connection between budget and 'value' of course). To some extent all reviews/reviewers are somewhat pointless as art will always be subjective, even when we live in a world where one set of paint smudges will yield $33m when another yields only $20.

    I generally make the distinction between "films I like" and "films that are good" much to the annoyance of a friend who says there can't be such a distinction. But I can utterly see the merit and qualities of something like The Godfather Part 2, without particularly enjoying it .... it's just not "my thing" so won't feature in any list of my top 50 films. But I'm not going to begrudge someone who *does* like it. However, when it comes to 'turkeys' (and again, my opinion) I find it harder to associate with someone who would like it. Face/Off is awful. I could tell you why, and it's pretty obvious, and I'd have a hard time understanding someone liking it, but I'd still let them hold their opinion without belittling it (well, not too much - then again I'm not a film reviewer).

    Personally, I'd like a 'good reviewer' to detail the key element or facets of a film, but also express some opinion about it, without detailing/inferring too much about what a "typical viewer" might think about it. Although I don't mind opinions of the 'only enjoyed by the most facile of minds' really - it's their opinion, and what they are paid for. I'd like some idea of the qualities, a review of plot, pacing, script, those sort of 'factual' elements I like to see. And if there's an argument or a moral then mention that. But no spoilers please of course! And also be clear and factually correct, without ruining any key elements for potential viewers. Obviously sometimes a tricky line to tread (how does one review 'Sixth Sense'? I hate those reviews that say 'oh, you'll never guess the final plot twist!' Don't tell me there's a plot twist as I'll then be expecting one!)

    The trickiest film reviews I think come from the fan-base. Say for a book adaptation, when the reviewer already has their idea of how it "should be done." I can't say that any of the X-men films have been brilliant, but I can sufficiently distance myself from the comic-books, and my ideas of what I'd like to see, to judge them as films on their own. But I've also read reviews saying 'x didn't look right; y shouldn't have been around at that time'; you have to expect that there is unlikely to be a direct transference from one medium to another (an exception being 'Watchmen' which is almost panel-for-panel ... what Moore's problem is with it I've no idea).

    Well, my review of your review of reviewers has gone on long enough! Up, up, and away!!!!!!!!

  2. Great post! I just recently had my first experience with reviews (of my work), luckily only one negative one and several good ones, so *phew*. BUT I hadn't really considered how nerve-wracking it would be! I agree that as long as it's honest and not purposely meant to slam, hurt or sensationalize that it's fine. You should be honest. But I also doubt people will stop because it draws attention. Even if you don't like something, the people/person who made it put in a lot of work, so being respectful is a good thing. BTW, I read the DaVinci Code and enjoyed it.

  3. Mike: Totally with you on the plot twist thing. I've had many films ruined because I knew there was a twist from the reviews and was trying to spot it throughout. It's hard to not mention it when reviewing when it really impresses you, but I agree it's probably better to keep shtum and let the viewer experience it for themselves.

    Lisa: Glad I'm not the only one who enjoyed The Da Vinci Code! Actually you touch on one of the things I dread when it comes to this masochistic desire of mine to write stories; people's reactions and reviews. I can completely see why some authors don't read them, but then I wonder if they're missing some vital feedback that could really help with the next book. Also I don't think I'd be able to resist seeing what people are saying about my story. (Sudden idea for a Pandora's Box style story, relating to Amazon book reviews...)