Thursday, August 02, 2007

Reviewer V. Critic

I've been thinking a lot about reviewers and critics. Two things spurned this on:

1) Warren Ellis discussing reviews and how he hates them: "I avoid reading reviews of my own work, as a rule, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read reviews of other peoples’ work and just thought, “it’s not that I disagree with your opinion, but that your opinion is based on you just plain not understanding what you read.” Or, worse, the chill of realising the reviewer just doesn’t know anything about how comics are put together; the equivalent of a music reviewer hearing guitars and thinking they’re clarinets. Which is not something you see often in music writing. And I get this from some of the best-known comics reviewers; I recall one well-regarded guy stating that a book was sloppy because it was cutting its scenes in the middle of the page instead of at the end. Which I imagine came as news to, say, Jaime Hernandez."

2) An article in The Globe & Mail on Harry Potter where the author constantly used both terms interchangeably and also lamented that reviewers are forbidden from spoiling the end of works, while critics in academia write as if the reader of the article is familiar with the work.

A few years ago, Steve Grant discussed the difference brilliantly in a Permanent Damage and that's been how I've looked at the two ever since.

I also have some experience with both and the best way I've come to describe the difference is: reviews must have opinions, criticisms do not necessarily. When I write a review, you're hearing my opinion of what I'm reviewing with the goal of influencing your decision to buy/listen to/see/etc. it. When I'm writing a critical article, I'm examing an aspect of a work (or works) to argue a point.

Comic reviewers don't have to understand anything about the comics they read other than what they thought of them. If they don't get a certain technique, so what--because their audience is the average reader and if the reviewer doesn't get it, maybe the average reader won't get it. And reviews are aimed at the average, uninformed reader, not the intelligent one. We assume anyone intelligent can figure shit out for themself and don't need our opinions really.

Now, criticism is different because it often doesn't look at a work as a whole in the sense of enjoyment. It assumes the reader is familiar with the work because the plot doesn't necessarily matter. The example most of us have dealt with is an essay and if you've written them as a post-secondary level, you'll know what you actually think of the work means dick all. I've written essays that have gotten A's on books I didn't actually read, but since I was discussing aspects of the books, specific techniques, all I needed to know was how those techniques worked in the book, for what purpose and how to string together an argument. If you read those essays, you wouldn't know if I enjoyed the books because it doesn't matter.

Now, is Ellis wrong to be upset that reviewers aren't more intelligent? Of course not. Intelligent, passionate reviewers are the best kind. However, he (and the Globe writer) are wrong to expect reviews on par with critical writing, because the two have different goals, methods and styles. There is overlap (which is where I like to think a lot of the stuff I write here falls, somewhere in between the two--although I certainly go back and forth depending on the post), but, ultimately, two different things and it's unfair to expect one to be the other.