This week one of my favourite writers, Nicole Cliffe from The Hairpin, has been discussing what makes a good review. As a guest reviewer of the ‘Critical Hit Awards’ at Electric Literature, she wrote:
I believe it is very difficult to succeed with a book review if you lack generosity of spirit and a genuine love of books. There are plenty of terrible books, there are far more mediocre books, there are many good ones, and there are some that are great. Books that are terrible or mediocre are rarely worth your time to review. Which is not to say that a negative review has no place in your arsenal, but when I am reviewing a book, I try to imagine that I am speaking to the author, that that author wants to have written a good book and has proceeded with that desire in good faith.
Linking to the article on The Hairpin, Nicole reflected:
But then, when I think about some of the book reviews which have really stayed with me, some of them are mean and brilliant. And I greatly prefer Anthony Lane’s more withering movie reviews to ones that are all, oh, Jessica Chastain is a revelation. So, hm, who knows?’
For me, the distinction isn’t between positive and negative reviews. Whether it’s affectionate yet clear-slighted love like Nicole’s Cliffe’s own Classic Trash, where our heroine takes us on a personal journey through her experiences with the best trashy literature through the decades, or vicious slamdowns (there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t shed a tear for the untimely hiatus of Videogum’s ‘Worst Movie of All Time’ reviews), I believe that the best reviews are highly personal and passionate ones.
We all have different experiences and worldviews and different reasons for loving what we love, and hating what we hate. When I used to write about music for another site, the editor would send me singles and albums to review. My biggest problem was never not liking them, but being able to acknowledge that they were good, but just not to my taste. How do you critically assess something like that? All the noises sounded good in my ears and everything, but once the review was written, I would never listen to them again. I was never particularly proud of those reviews – I would much rather write about something that provoked a strong response in me, one way or another.
I think that there’s a huge gulf between loving something and acknowledging that something is very good with few, if any, flaws, and not a lot of traditional reviewers cover that space. How often does Roger Ebert write reviews like “Terrence Malick’s new film is a profound and stunningly accurate examination of the human experience with a first-rate script, career-best performances from the world’s greatest actors and flawless direction, but I could have watched White Chicks twice during its 280 minute run time, and would much rather have done so”? (and he wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, so he should know the joys of great trash better than anyone).
That isn’t a problem – that is where bloggers can come in and win hearts and minds with their ‘OMFG guys, you just have to watch this movie right now’ views. (To quote John Cheese from Cracked.com: ‘If I have to explain who Leslie Nielsen is, you need to stop what you’re doing right now and go watch the Airplane and Naked Gun movies, and the Police Squad! TV show. Call in a sick day to work or school, explaining that you just discovered his body of work. They’ll understand. In fact, the only punishment you might receive would be a dock in pay or grades for not having done it sooner.’) There are a huge number of reviewers out there, in print and online, so what can set you apart is having a unique perspective and a story to tell. What can you see that no-one else can? Do you still love a much mocked movie because it came along at just the right time in your life when you could appreciate it? Do you love Freddy Got Fingered and hate The Godfather? Tell me why!