Things That Threaten My Sanity: Reviews That Aren’t
I don’t claim to be the greatest reviewer in the world. I’ve only been doing it a few months and wouldn’t necessarily call it my strong suit. But one thing I think I do have going for me is that I always start from a reasonable understanding of what a review is (though where I’ll end up is anyone’s guess).
That’s not much, but it’s something. Many of the reviews I read around the internet and, to a lesser extent, in print publications seem to start from a flawed understanding of the review format. Flawed too strong a word? Okay, an understanding that is foreign to my own. I’m talking about “reviews” that…
… aim chiefly to let you know that something’s available (announcements).
… are basically just descriptions of what a song/album is about (summaries).
… are built on colorless, unfailingly positive language (press releases).
… merely describe the author’s personal relationship to the song/album (diary entries).
… are mostly interested in predicting airplay/sales rather than assessing quality (chart predictions).
… say nothing more substantive than “like it” or “hate it” (ratings).
Don’t mistake this for a comment on review length: a pithy paragraph is oftentimes a lot more interesting and insightful than a rambling, ill-considered rant. Also, don’t think that I’m opposed to any of the above styles of writing; in fact, I do some of them myself on a regular basis. I just don’t usually call those pieces reviews.
Summaries, ratings, personal responses, and chart predictions can all be parts of a review, but it seems to me that the most important element is also the one most often missing: the analytical component. My favorite reviews are the ones that begin from a gut response (love it, hate it, think it’s boring, etc.) but don’t stop there; that go on to explore the why and craft a whole argument around it, shedding new light on the original work in the process. If your review amounts to a “love it” or “hate it,” all the reader can do is agree or disagree. That’s boring. Complicate it. Add new layers. Develop an argument and see how far you can push it. Just do something interesting.
Adopting the approach that I’m espousing here doesn’t guarantee a quality review. There are still plenty of opportunities to mess up in the actual writing of the review (and I should know). But I do feel like it would raise the general quality of discussion if everyone at least started from a similar understanding of the term.