On reviewing stuff

I am an avid reader of art criticism. This sounds incredibly haughty and pretentious but it is not. Everyone should read book, film, food music and visual arts criticism. Really nasty reviews (oof) are often hilarious, but I won’t do that kind of thing here, and it’s not really why I read reviews or criticism (although, okay, sometimes it is.)

I use criticism and reviewing basically interchangeably. I saw (somewhere! can’t recall where!) that reviewing was more tilted toward plot summation than criticism, which was more conceptual. An interesting distinction but one that I think is ultimately splitting hairs.

Art criticism teaches thinking.

It requires the reader-listener-observer to be present in the receiving of the work, to be a concentrated, focused, active reader, watcher or hearer. And then it ask two separate but linked questions.

First: does the work, work? If so, why, and if not, why not?

Yes or no is not sufficient. There must be reasoning and the reasoning must have basis in evidence. I say evidence, not facts and I think there is a distinction here. In any given work of any art, two people can easily construe the same sentence, film shot, musical technique, etc. in different–possibly diametrically opposed–ways. This is a classic idea, expressed best in William Empson’s excruciatingly difficult-to-read tome on ambiguity. But, yeah, evidence: I must have concrete statements, drawn from the work in question, that are used to build an argument.

Second, what is the work supposed to do?

It’s impossible to answer whether something is effective until you know what it’s supposed to do in the first place. Put it this way: a finesse pitcher doesn’t care about hitting 100 mph on the radar gun (see: Ginny Baker! or Greg Maddux) and evaluating the pitcher that way is nonsensical. You’d evaluate that pitcher in terms of movement, location and command. A guy who steals 60 bases with little home-run power would never be evaluated in terms of the greatest slugger of all time. In sum, you can’t answer whether a novel works until you’ve thought about why any novel works.What is the nature of the novel versus the short story? You can’t address the strengths and weaknesses of a crime novel until you’ve thought about the crime genre itself. Painting, photography, rock music–this idea applies regardless of the subject being thought-about.

And finally, a statement:

No conclusions before inquiry.

I swore that I hated musicals until my wife, who is in love with musical theater, started making me go with her. I went along out of respect for her interests and passion, but then I found, hey, musicals can be incredible. Dear Evan Hansen and Waitress blew my mind–they were wonderful shows. Now: there are many things I loathe and I will say so. Creed, Nickleback, most poetry and frankly most MFA-programmatic fiction all come to mind. I’m not now, and will never ever, argue for “liking everything.” I’m saying: be open to being surprised.

Reviewing requires a lot of thinking. I guess I’m just a thinky-type.

I also believe that the word “criticism” is not used properly most of the time. Too many, I think, have misconstrued criticism for negativity. Negativity closes doors and creates defensive postures. This is precisely the opposite of where I’m trying to go. I’m into opening doors and creating connections between ideas and emotions and work. Criticism is a means of parsing, analysis and understanding. It is not a vehicle for nastiness or putting-down. That is antithetical to good criticism.

Rather than having a 5 or 10 point scale, I have come up with a simpler system to “rate” work that I write about.

  • Strong recommend: Stop everything and read (see, hear, play, observe) this now. I expect these to be rare.
  • Recommend: Whatever flaws might exist, the strengths outweigh them.
  • Pass: Read (see, hear, play, observe) if you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • Hard pass: Stay away. Stay far, far away. I expect these to be rare.

I aim to use this space to shed light on work–music, writing, visual arts, even guitars and amps and guitar effects–anything that moves me, I will explore why. That, to me, is reviewing.

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