Thinking About Reviews

I consider myself something of a natural reviewer. I like to do things like read books, watch movies, listen to music, eat at various restaurants, and so forth; and then try and some up the experience. Pound for pound, a good chunk of this website is in review of something. Even things which are "serious looks" at things are often just a way for me to review some policy, some lawsuit, or some philosophy. Most of the reviews are kind of short, maybe too short, or are sort of fluttery. This is one thing I want to keep working on while this website continues to grow.

As I was cleaning up (read: deleting) "Dickens of a Blog", I came across a write up about Laura Miller's negative review of Chuck Palahniuk's Diary and the negative response she received in return. Most people who chimed in their dime came back with something between "Fuck you!" and "While Chuck is a nice guy, some of his fans are weird." We have reviews of reviews. Glorious. I don't mean that, by the way, sarcastically, it is something that we do need and something that we can benefit from. While looking up reviews, recently, of various John Ringo books I found one with glaring spelling errors, massive logic faults, and something that can only be described as a deep-seated pout because John Ringo did not make a magical book that changed it's content to precisely fit the reviewer's wishes.

Reviewers getting more than "You suck!" and "Good review, dude, I'm gonna pass on that book!" can only increase the power of them. Remember when the guys at Penny Arcade made some comment about a review and some guy, not involved besides indirectly, got up on his high horse and ranted into a podcast about how they should just "write their little comic"? Even if you don't know what I am talking about (it doesn't really matter for the point of my story), you have a guy with the seeming emotional control of a squashed grape griping at two men known fairly well in the gaming community as being earnest and honest reviewers of games for some time, mostly through the medium of their comic and the "news" bits attached to them. They do not write long reviews or attach itemized scores to them because they talk about games, mostly, in a very natural way. Some, like the ranter, fail to even note that they are effective reviewers and promoters.

A person whose life it is to review games for a living (assuming the rant was paid for) takes offense at reviewers being reviewed? Now, a videogame to text review is one thing, but let's go back to the Laura Miller bit I started this with. Miller writes a lot of reviews, and most of them seem to be good. In the deleted post that got me to thinking about this, I did state that she sounded more like a jaded lover than a fair reviewer and she did. She spent paragraph after paragraph talking about 1) how repetitive Chuck was and 2) how wrong about facts Chuck was. Attacking a fictional writer for writing about something that is not the real world, especially when his stuff often has a slight speculative fiction feel is just pointless. Doing this over and over again, in a review in which the word "repetitive" is of a pejorative character, seems like playing bad pool.

Nevertheless, Miller writes a good number of reviews and most of them seem well taken. She is a writer. It makes sense that she would also be reviewed. This is the day and age of Web 2.0. Everyone has the power to write reviews. Go and look at The Top Reviewers often have thousands of reviews under their belt (and often have thousands of craptastic reviews that do little more than quote the back of the book and go "Was good!" at the end). Target. Wal-mart. This is not even including the semi-professional reviews of gaming sites, book sites, cooking sites and so forth. There are probably about ten times the number of reviews than there are people to ever want to read them, much less products.

Reviews have to have a sense of standard, have got to be treated more like a writing style in their own regard. I have decided to try and hold myself up to some standards, a self-review of sorts. I may not always get it right, but thinking about all of this has led me to a few basic ideas. There is no good way for me to back and change all the existing items over, but this something for me to keep in mind for the future.

First, a review is a thing of a moment. Define the moment within the review. Tea that tastes bad in one sitting may be excellent the next. This applies to everything. Fill in the gaps. What books have I read by the author? What sort of mood was I in? How many cups did I drink?

Second, a review should never be too long. About one written page is a good break off point. If a review is postive, it becomes fanboyish and sappy. If a review is negative, it starts rehashing needlessly. Say what needs to be said succintly. If a review pushes past this limit, it needs to be fleshed out into something more like an essay.

Third, the writer deserves a review of at least the same rough passion and quality as the original work. No review should be knocked off without a sense of spell check, editorial restraint, and general flow.

Fourth, reviews should not limit the product by restraints not appropriate. Fiction will not be chided for being "untrue". Latakia based pipe tobacccos should be repetitively based for roomnote. Philosophy can be chided for being "impractical", however. Just like a fictional book can be chided for not being believable inside of its own context.

Fifth, this is a review and not a encylopedia article. The review is meant to give enough facts to discuss the book or game better, not to go on and on about background.

Sixth, reviews should be transparent. If a review changes due to something, this should be noted. If a review is about a product that was given as a free sample to be reviewed, that should be noted. If the review is about a book tha ta friend wrote, that should be noted.

Seventh, it is a review. Despite the guidelines above, a review is always biased and a outpouring of opinion. This should be controlled, to increase the effect and to make the review worthwhile, but no review should be expected to be anything beyond this. To enhance this, reviews should eschew arbitrary numerical systems of ratings and talk more in natural language.

Finally, a review should always be just as open to attack as the original work it attacks.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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