The OF Blog: Trying to grasp a muddled understanding of a review

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Trying to grasp a muddled understanding of a review

Apparently I am a coward.

Or at least that would be the implication from reading this bit from a recent interview on Temple Library Reviews:

HM: Reading your reviews I come across a very peculiar ranking system of 100 points that always aroused questions. What’s the deal behind it and what components build these 100 points?

PS: I think writing a review, and not giving it some sort of numerical score is a cop out; it’s cowardice—pure and simple—since many online reviewers don’t want to upset publishers or authors. So they write reviews that are open to interpretation, using nebulous terms like good, overemphasizing the positive aspects of the book, trying very hard not to have an opinion. It’s okay, you’re entitled to have an opinion, you’re entitled to take a stand and let people know what you think.

See, words lie; numbers don’t. And I don’t want to lie to my audience. So I score every book on a scale of 100. Like any review, the number is completely subjective; there are no underlying components. I score books by ranking them against other novels I’ve read in the genre. It’s rather simple. But effective.
Interesting. So it is not enough to view a review as being an interpretative (and occasionally persuasive) essay that attempts to reconcile the reviewer's interpretation of what is transpiring within a book with the attempt to communicate effectively with the potential reading audience. Apparently some number, letter, or parts of a gorilla's bare ass have to be employed as the final and only arbitrator between book and reader. Never mind the subjectiveness of such rankings (really, I am wondering if I should rate horror books by the number of whacks that Lizzie Borden's axe reportedly gave); the number/letter/perky tits up is the thing here. After all, "words lie," if one listens to Paul Stotts (and really, why wouldn't one? After all, read the article and see who he holds up as paragons of reviewing). Numbers/letters/strange glyphs that correspond to the number of pimples on Paris Hilton's bare ass in her sex video - those are the truth.

What a load of shit (three loads of shit out of five? 5.75 out of 10 handfuls of flung monkey crap?). A review is a review essay. Whether it be something by H.L. Mencken, Lewis Grizzard, Jorge Luis Borges, John Clute, or Pope Benedict XVI, a review consists of words strung together in a fashion to lay out an interpretation of what is transpiring in a written/visual work, how the observer responds to what is occurring, and how well the observer can translate emotions/thoughts into a coherent piece of writing that gives others things to consider, among several other things I omit for brevity's sake. I model my reviews, or at least the lengthier ones that go past 1500 words, on academic critiques. It is something of value to me and I hope for others. But as a model, I recognize there are flaws to it; it won't satisfy everyone, nor should it.

But whenever I (and I would hope others) take the time to write an essay that attempts to review aspects of a constructed work (visual, audio, written, or some combination), I would imagine that the effort is that of communication of a whole host of matters and not some attempt to reductio ad absurdum an often complex set of interactions with a text into a dumbed-down, oft-distorted summation that bespeaks more of a certain segment of an audience's unwillingness (I'm being charitable, as some might presume it'd be that audience's inability) to grasp anything much more complex than "Two legs bad, four legs good!"

But what do I know? If I were to read between the lines of Stotts' comments on the "elitists" who poormouth his almost-saintly influences, I would (without having a pictogram to illustrate this point, alas!) wonder if he were talking about the likes of poor widdle me. It is rather baffling, if not dismaying, to see the "elitist" label (misconstrued here; might as well call people such as myself pinko commie bastards who want to assrape your children, based on the context) thrown about in such a careless fashion. It shows, just as much as the condemnation of those who prefer to let words (lies as they may be to Stotts and others of his ilk!) create nuances that show at least some respect for the written language and its ability to move readers to consider the presenter's point of view in regards to a work.

But this essay is doubtlessly "cowardly" as well. So for those who refuse to consider the "lying" words, here's my one and only ranking of his comments:

Two smegma scrapings off of a diseased-ridden man's dick out of 10 possible scrapings.

Happy?

No?

Then read something elsewhere. I have to somehow try to work up the "courage" (said in a Cowardly Lion voice) to be more blunt in my criticisms, even if I still won't toss out meaningless numbers to make my reviews so easy that the Geico Caveman could grasp them. And as for the person who was interviewed and whose comments I quoted - barely know of the guy. Guess that is the most damning comment of all, unfortunately.

16 comments:

vacuouswastrel said...

No offence, but you're massively over-reacting to something you seem to be imagining somebody said about somebody who wasn't you anyway.

"But my reviews are modelled on academic critiques" - then they're critiques. A critique is a very different thing from a review (although of course one can do both simultaneously).

A review tells us how good the reviewer thinks the thing being reviewed is (not necessarily in some absolute way, but in terms of at least one dimension, even if it's only how much they liked it). This is something that can, if it is meaningful, by quantified. Personally, I disagree with this man, in that I don't find my views can be quantified so precisely - I just settle for marks out of seven, not 100 - but they can certainly be quantified. If you can't say that anything's better than anything else, you can't give helpful advice about what's better than what.

Now, if you don't want to do that - if you want to write thematic critiques instead - that's fine (indeed, it's one reason I read this blog) but then what does what he says have to do with you?

As for the word 'cowardice' - it's harsh, but I think it's true. Certainly I used to suffer from it - not cowardice of offending anybody, of course (no one cares enough about me), but I always used to have a certain cowardice when it came to stating my own views clearly and in a way that could be held against me later. In combating this, he's right that numbers don't lie - not because, as you seem to suggest, they say anything about the book (or film, or whatever), but because they say something accountable about YOUR VIEWS. If somebody recommends me a book I don't like, I can worm around that all I want in words, but when it comes to a number I can't deceive them or myself without knowingly lying. contrariwise, if I like a book I'm not 'meant' to like, it's easy to hide it by focusing on its flaws - but if I give a number that can be compared against others I've pinned myself to a wall to be jeered at (by others or by myself). And more than not letting me hide my opinion - it forces me to HAVE an opinion. As my reviews aren't really written for anybody else but myself, this is perhaps their most important function.

[Of course, there are other reasons too, for numbers. Personally, when I give my reaction to something, I focus on the bits that most interest me to talk about, which may not be the bits that most affected me at the time. Having to sum things up in a cold, numerical, way prevents misunderstandings arising from a bias in coverage]

If you don't give a number, or some equivalent (that is, a way of impartially comparing two or more reviews) then I don't think it's a review at all, because it doesn't address the whole purpose of a review - "should I read X, or should I read Y?". It's legitimate to answer "it depends on what you want out of it" (just as a restaurant critic may praise the steak at one place and the desert at another), but if there's no comparison there's no review. A number is simply a way of comparing one item with all the other items you've reviewed simultaneously.

[Personally, I think that because books are quite complicated artefacts it makes more sense to give multiple numbers (analogy: marking the steak and the desert on different scales, rather than averaging them for a single score) - personally, I like to assess books on about seven different criteria as well as an overall impression. I think this is likely to be more helpful.]

There's nothing wrong with not being a review, of course - good critique is rarer than review, I think. But it's an altogether different thing, even if the two things may be done simultaneously. In any case, I don't think the man is talking about critiques - I think that he's concerned with a different thing - the problem of advertising (whether for books or for 'reviewers') masquerading as 'reviewing'. Which from some reviews I've read is a legitimate concern - and published and referable numeric scores go a good way toward combating that.

Larry said...

I more having fun with the entire thing than taking actual offense, vw. I decided it'd be a fun way to vent and ya know what, it was.

Matt Tunnell said...

I don't want to make too much of this, especially since Larry seems to have written his post as fun, but your statement that, without a comparison, there is no review troubles me because it gives no credit to your readers. People make decisions about how to allocate their limited resources (in this case time) without resorting to numerical ratings all of the time. A good review ought to provide them enough information to make a decision suited to their personal preferences and I don't see how a numerical ranking would help this except in the case that the reader had made a careful study of a particular set of reviews in order to reverse engineer, so to speak, the formula behind those ratings. However, I'd argue that the careful scrutiny required to do such a thing would be sufficient for one to make the best decision without comparing numbers.

It seems the real crux of your argument for numerical ratings is accountability for reviews. I'm vaguely aware of a debate about review blogging ethics,l and I realize that there are tempting reasons for bloggers to be dishonest but I just don't buy the argument that numbers can't lie or obfuscate. There is no generally agreed upon frame of reference for a rating system, so any numerical basis will be arbitrary. This gives any reviewer the room plenty of room to weasel out of direct numerical comparisons, especially when the numerical ranking is just stuck at the end of the article (like at the Blood of the Muse).

I can, however, see an argument for your style of reviewing, where you go to a great deal of effort to make your numbering system transparent and less arbitrary, but while reading your reviews I looked for your explanations behind the scores rather than the scores themselves.

Harry Markov: daydream said...

Oh god, I loved the smegma part. :) A very fun post. In retrospect I have to say that that question I asked Paul seemed like the most innocent one at the time. Glad I asked it, despite my earlier intention to delete it.

Kat @ FanLit said...

I think that many readers, like myself, find a quantitative ranking method to be very helpful and efficient for (at least) weeding out what may not be worth my time. This is how universities decide which students to consider (only those who reach a certain grade point average and standardized test score) and how I decide which products to consider when I'm buying a toaster from Amazon.

If I've found a reviewer whose tastes match mine and who I trust, I probably won't consider reading a book that s/he ranks lowly. For those books rated in the upper, say, 80th percentile, I'll read the critique/review carefully to get more information that will help me decide.

Sure, I'm likely to miss a few books that I would have enjoyed but that rubbed that reviewer wrong (just as the university is going to reject a few geniuses), but in general, this strategy works well for me. I just don't have the time to read everything that's available that the publisher tells me I'll love, so I have to weed out some stuff. A trusted reviewers' rating system helps me do this.

Camilla said...

Clearly this person is an idiot. Reducing literature to a numerical value is ... I want to provide a proper rant, but I do not have time. Suffice to say it is reductive. And Wrong.

Kat @ FanLit said...

Camilla,
It is not reducing literature to a numerical value. It is one person quantifying how much he likes it.
Kat

Anonymous said...

Review scores are entirely unnecessary for reviews of artistic works. The idea of numeric scores comes from appliance reviews, where you can judge a blender or a set of tools based on objective criteria and derive a numeric result. You can't do that with setting, characters, events, symbolism, or themes, and anyone who tries is wasting their own time and that of their readers.

Anonymous said...

That's funny. I always thought you were brave, or at least more honest and rigorous, by not giving the books you review a numerical value.

Personally I think it's easier to be lazy in a review when you give a book a mark. Without one, you have to be far more accurate with your language and reasoning so the reader of the review understands how good (or bad) you think the book is.

Larry said...

I was toying with the idea of reviewing Pope Benedict XVI's Charity in Truth. Something tells me it'd be a bit tacky to give it a 69/100 score or something like that ;)

But on a more serious note:

Kat,

Quantifying what? Subjectivity that doesn't even have a rubric associated with it? No thanks. I prefer sticking with the critical essay.

Kat @ FanLit said...

Many reviewers do use a rubric and some rate separate categories for each novel (world-building, originality, etc). Those who don't use a rubric rank books by comparing them to other books they've read (while explaining in their review the reason for their rating).

I can certainly see why some reviewers prefer not to use a rating system. However, it's not accurate to say that it's impossible to quantify enjoyment of art or that people who do so are idiots. Quantification of subjective events is used by non-idiots in scientific research all the time.

Larry said...

As I stated before, I write essays, not something that tries to mimic something taken from Gamepro magazine. I personally consider such attempts to quantify to be unreliable, idiosyncratic at best, unreliable when it comes to the breadth and depth of subjects that I (for example) like to cover.

Yes, I can see it now:

Pope Benedict XVI, Charity in Truth:

Worldbuilding: 0 out of 5.

It's useless for the likes of me. If others feel like it's worth their time, more power to them. I just find it to be something that I ignore, sometimes in the form of not bothering to ever read a review again by that person. Personal taste and all that jazz.

Anonymous said...

Dear sir,
It is clear that you are well educated, as you so subtly remind your readers, so I hope you will not find this post beneath you (and I don't mean its location). In my attempt to string words together in a fashion to lay out an interpretation of what is transpiring within your argument, I am disturbed by your utter dismissal of the numerical ranking. You blame the influence of the mass media, a fair enough criticism. We, the mindless masses, love our rankings, which is clearly why the BCS is still around. Rankings, though subjective, though contentious, provide clarity for the reader. Did your professors not subjectively score your essays on a scale of 100? What I mean to say, then, is a ranking too profane for the likes of your hallowed blog (quick, somebody bless this martyr!)? Yours and Paul's blogs are both review blogs, but from what I gather they serve different purposes. Though you shrug off the term elitist, and though you say you're above beguiling your readers with numbers and rankings, it is apparent your craft is far more ostentatious. Were I a mean spirited individual, I would say your blog is megalomaniacal, pretentious, a sad attempt to hold onto that delicious feeling you got in school as the person who always had the answer. Your hyperbole, venom and general poor taste in this instance certainly don't endear you to anyone. I digress, though, because I am not that person. What I do know though is that your blog tends more to the academia, whereas Paul's does tend more towards to the Amazonian review. As such, I am somewhat surprised you would even be fazed by his comment. Numbered rankings make sense for his site, and they don't for yours. So please, save some of your dignity sir, and take your hands off the leper's penis, it is making us more uncomfortable than your run-on sentences.

Sincerely,
MLB

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."
F.S. Fitzgerald
Cliche, maybe, but we should all remember that.

Larry said...

Actually, I didn't get numbered scores on my essays, but a rubric based on the comments made in terms of argument, presentation, and research. But I must say that you have some style with your retort, but considering the hour (as well as the stated nature of this post, which was to be mock-angry rather than truly angry), I must retire from the debate. After all, there is a time and place for both, I agree, and I was showing through hyperbole why other's style wouldn't work for me.

Mihai (Dark Wolf) said...

For some reason I take personal offence in this. I am not easily offended, it takes a lot to get me to that point. I don't mind reading or hearing opinions different from mine. I believe that a difference in opinion can lead to the improvement of one's opinion.
But to say that I am a coward because I don't use a scoring on my reviews it is actually mean. I am not against these ratings as long as someone backs up, with a review, his score. But for instance if I rate Carlos Ruiz Zafon's "The Shadow of the Wind" with a 10 and Bill Hussey's "Through a Glass, Darkly" also a 10 what it will say this to someone who is unfamiliar with the both novels. Zafon's novel is the best I read in years and Hussey's is the best debut horror novel I read lately. So, for different reasons I'll give both a 10, but I feel that Zafon's novel made me feel and enjoy it more than Hussey's. And I ask myself in this situation, what is the proper score for them? Still, if someone give these novels scores I'll totally understand, but don't call me a coward for not using something similar.

ThRiNiDiR said...

Wow, but is Paul taking a beating.

 
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