There’s No Wrong Way to Write a Review

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Have you ever read a review of a book, movie, TV show, or game and felt like the reviewer must have been reading or watching or playing something completely different than you? Of course: stupid question. We’ve all been there. Sometimes we even get super-emotional about how wrong that reviewer is, and immediately spout off a response outlining every reason why.

Sometimes my own response is more confused than that. I’m an open-minded, kind-hearted, relatively progressive person, but I’m also dripping with privileges. So when I see a review that condemns a work as, say, racist or sexist or homophobic or, well, any number of sinful attitudes, for a slight I never even noticed, and I feel the review has missed the point, I start to doubt myself. Is it wrong of me to think this review missed the point? Am I letting my privilege get in the way of me seeing the truth? Am I a bad person for disagreeing with a review like this?

Then I saw this article, “Stop Asking ‘Is This Feminist?'”  over at The Mary Sue last year, and suddenly everything made sense.

“‘Is this feminist?’ wasn’t about applying the lens of feminist theory to media studies in an accessible way, people just wanted to feel good about liking non-problematic things,” the author, Lindsay Ellis, wrote. “And that is in itself problematic because it sidesteps the whole point of media criticism; it shouldn’t be about making you feel good about liking the ‘correct’ media. It’s about tracing patterns in filmmaking and film language and applying them to their sociological and artistic context.”

Oh wait! I realized. This isn’t about progressivism after all. It’s about Literary Analysis.

I’d started college out as an English major, because I thought that’s what you DID when you wanted to be a writer and librarian. When I started my first major-specific class, Literary Analysis, in my second semester, I thought, what fun! I love analyzing literature! I can do it nonstop! Then I started getting graded on my analysis, only to discover I was doing it all wrong. I was digging into the works as I saw them, as they presented themselves. But Lit Analysis was about looking at works through specific lenses, matching a premade framework to the literature in question, and evaluating the work based only on those criteria.

IT MADE NO SENSE to me. These Lit Analysis methods seemed altogether backwards. It was like telling a work, “How well do you follow my rules?” instead of saying “Okay, art, what are you here to offer me?” Why were we intentionally biasing what we said about a work in this way? Why couldn’t the work itself instead work on us, and then we could say how it managed what it did?

My professor kept rolling her eyes at my idiocy and repeating the same seemingly nonsensical things over and over, certain that if she just said it again with MORE EMPHASIS I’d get it. But instead, I decided it was hogwash and changed my major to elementary ed, where our analysis of literature revolved around how well it worked for kids of various ages and abilities, which is much more the way I preferred to do it.

I still get frustrated by reviews where people compare works against an imaginary ideal in their head and get mad when it doesn’t meet those expectations. But now I have to acknowledge that the disconnect is one of intention more than one of right-or-wrong. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this checklist-style of review. It’s just painfully antithetical to my own way. I cannot experience art by chopping it up and going at the pieces with a checklist. I prefer to look at a work for what it is and see what it might have to offer. But it’s hypocritical of me to insist that people who can review by checklist are doing it wrong, when I know it’s unfair of anyone else to insist that I am doing it wrong.

Both types of review have their own purposes and their own places in discussion. We run into trouble when we forget why we prefer a particular style of review and what we really intend to accomplish, and start judging others for their own review focus.

I’m a public children’s librarian. My primary professional purpose in reading a review is asking, “Does this have a place in our collection?” I think of a basic philosophy toward public library service, Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science, particularly two of them: “Every book its reader” and “Every reader their book.” Who uses my library and how might this book serve them? I’m not looking so much for “Is this book good or bad?” as much as “What does this book have to offer? Is it worth spending part of our limited budget to make this book available to our patrons?”

Librarian Liz Burns uses a review format for her book blog that sums up this sort of usage. Each review comes in two parts: “The Plot”–a synopsis–and “The Good.” There is no “The Bad” category. But Burns does not write unfailingly glowing reviews, either. I don’t recall any of her “The Good” sections being only, “Nothing much,” but she does address things she didn’t like or wasn’t comfortable with in her response. She explains her responses, though, in the context of the rest of the book. By labeling her response section “The Good,” and clearly noting her negatives as being her reaction and why, she’s made the overall purpose of her review matching work to audience.

Librarian webcomic Unshelved‘s weekly “Book Club” column is another approach along the same lines. With sections like “Why I picked it up” and “It’s perfect for,” the focus again is on reader’s advisory, matching book to audience. Every book on the list has its reader, and this format helps pinpoint who that reader might be.

Many professional reviews in publications like School Library Journal or Booklist end with a line like, “Recommended for large libraries where this topic is popular,” or “Recommended only for libraries with a high demand for this subject.” Then, occasionally, you’ll see “Highly recommended for all public and school libraries,” which is the way these reviews say “THIS IS GOOD.” At which point I’ll put a tally in the “Number of Raves” column of my library book review spreadsheet, and that merely increases the likelihood that I’ll buy it.

But, aside from these occasions when the quality is blatantly obvious, the focus of this type of review remains on who it would be good for.

Non-professionally, when seeking out something to read or watch for myself or my own children, I still prefer this type of review. I want to know less whether some reviewer thought it was “good” or “bad” so much as what it has to offer me.

But that’s beforehand. Sometimes I like to read reviews after I read or watch, too, in which case I want something a little different. Many of these kinds of reviews are better labeled “recaps,” although I don’t care for the ones that are straightforward play-by-plays, either. What I’m looking for now is another fan, someone who wants to talk about what we’ve just experienced, who may have noticed something I hadn’t, who wants to laugh over the best lines again, who wants to ask questions about things that might have confused them without writing off the work as a whole. I wouldn’t be reading the recap if I didn’t enjoy the thing, so I never like overly negative reviews. Even with a relative disaster like, say, that last X-Files episode, I still want to know my reviewer genuinely likes the show as a whole, and can engage with the things that flopped as a fan would. And I want the good to be acknowledged, even if it might be overpowered by the bad. I’m a fan. I’m not looking to have my favorite thing ripped to pieces in front of me.

But that’s not to say there’s no place for the academic critical review, the kind of reviews I did (poorly) in Lit Analysis. Sometimes it takes viewing a work through the lens of a specific philosophy to start important discussions about art and society as a whole.

Insiders of an underrepresented group offer perspective about how well that group is or is not portrayed in culture. Sites like American Indians in Children’s Literature and Disability in Kidlit exist specifically to evaluate books with this criteria. The focus is, indeed, not the book as a whole, or matching book with reader. It’s about highlighting the way these portrayals subvert or reinforce stereotypes, “tracing patterns,” as Lindsay Ellis put it in that Mary Sue article, of such portrayals throughout culture. Its purpose is to raise awareness, to make people think. The contributors to the blog Reading While White are specifically trying to unpack their own privilege while discussing racial diversity in books, modeling the process for others to follow.

It’s important to remember that this kind of review is not limited to progressive groups. Others might seek out books promoting politically conservative messages, or view books through an Evangelical Christian or Conservative Judaic lens. No matter what someone’s biases actually are, those biases can be, and are, used as the framework for reviewing art. It raises the discussion they want to have about how their views are portrayed.

But what now? If a reviewer of this sort finds content in a work that strikes them as highly problematic to their world view, does this invalidate the entire work? Here is where people start to get hot-headed–or, rarely, but at least in the case of the comments on this post at the Horn Book, have a calm, thoughtful, and interesting discussion about where the lines are between calling out problematic bits and insisting works should not be bought, shared, or read.

Which brings us back to our gut reactions when encountering reviews we don’t agree with. Could it be we’re so defensive because we’re not sure what a reviewer is really trying to tell us? Do we assume a reviewer is telling us we’re not allowed to like something when they’re really just trying to discuss a broader issue? Do we assume a reviewer doesn’t care about social issues when they’re just trying to celebrate what a work did accomplish?

Or is it the other way around? Do we, as reviewers, overstep our bounds by insisting anyone who disagrees with us is wrong?

It can get tricky, especially on the internet, where nobody knows anyone’s background and nobody can tell tone of voice. In a discussion of overly-critical reviews I mentioned how I just wanted to say, “Stop going at the show with a checklist and just view it for what it is!” and someone responded that, while they agreed the review was overly critical, they are “always hesitant to tell people to ‘just view it for what it is’ because that’s often something people say to shut down legitimate criticism.” Probably because they hadn’t outright accused me of trying to shut down legitimate criticism, it made me think instead of getting defensive. I knew I wasn’t trying to shut down a discussion. I just wanted to see a review done my way. But because we have so much trouble seeing through the same lens as other reviewers, how much more removed are we from the lenses of fellow commenters on a review, who have all come looking for something different?

It’s easy to be a hypocrite, to insist that your way of evaluating art is the only valid way. For my part, I think I get so sensitive to being told my way is wrong that it makes me want to shoot down everyone else’s way. That’s why I’ve written this piece, to balance out the advantages of everyone’s ways, to be objective and hope we can use that objectivity to better evaluate opinions we don’t immediately agree with, and maybe then the whole world can exchange ideas in harmony.

(But in defense of MY way, I think I get to enjoy myself more with the work-as-a-whole method. I can experience the forest without harping on about how some of the trees are shaped.)

(Just saying.)