25 Nov

So I’ve done the thing that most bloggers do when they want to write something they feel will be significant: I read the blogs of some people who are a lot more successful than me, and decided to throw in my two cents because, hey, I have this space to do it in and nobody’s going to stop me from being a prating imbecile on the Internet. Originality, like body mass index and life insurance, is a terrible, hilarious illusion, and if you really want to read on after that opening paragraph, you’re a better man than I. Anyone who wants to read John Green’s post about his experiences as a reviewer and Shannon Hale’s book-evaluation vs. self-evaluation post will probably find this lump a little bit easier to digest.

For a long time, I never understood the concept of reviewing entertainment – publications in which books, films or video games were numerically rated always seemed odd to me. When I was a kid, the reviews I got from my friends about all the latest entertainment landmarks were decidedly concise and useful – “and then that guy gets his head kicked off by the other guy, but all sparks and stuff come out of his neck and he’s really a robot and then the other guy picks up a gun and goes BRRRATATATATATATAT CHK CHK BOOM! It’s fucking cool” – but as soon as I started to read reviews from people that were paid to write them, I got confused. Video game magazines would rate a game 10 out of 10 and urge you to kick over your desk, burst through your front door and sprint for the nearest HMV lest you miss out on this unbelievably enjoyable slice of gaming history et cetera et cetera.

But all too often I’d buy the game, play it for an hour and then want to chew the CD to pieces because I hated it and was told I’d love it. Movie reviewers would waste a page’s worth of ink in castigating some new action film for its banality and lack of intellectual value, and the next day I’d spend my whole lunch hour telling anyone who’d listen how cool it was when the missile base explodes and the guy gets impaled on a spike and how they should put down their sandwiches and come and see it with me right now. These days, after reading a broadsheet’s book reviews, I’ll go out and buy a book that got a bad review (or at least a highly condescending ‘I-write-for-the-Independent-so-I-know-much-more-about-everything-than-you-do, you-tedious-little-shit’ review) just to see whether or not the reviewer was talking out of his arse.

I’m rambling a little bit here, so to get to the point of this post: entertainment is subjective, so people who are paid to review entertainment cannot base their evaluations on whether or not they like what they’re reviewing. Here’s an example: the other day I saw a movie called Pontypool, which is about people being turned into zombies through a memetic virus that spreads through the English language. This appeals to the two entertainment centres of my brain – the “Hmm, interesting concept, I wonder how the movie explores it?” half and the “Never mind all that shit – zombies!” half. It turns out that I didn’t actually like the film. This had nothing to do with the criteria that usually govern whether a film is considered good or bad – cinematography, direction, cohesion etc. – and everything to do with the fact that I just didn’t really like certain parts of the movie: the main characters and the ending, mainly. But if I was being paid to review the movie, I’d concentrate on the solid, quantifiable aspects: whether or not the plot works, how well the actors perform, and whether the movie achieves its intended purpose. I can tell the reader that I personally hated the movie, but I have to recognise that other people may have completely different opinions of it, and judge it based on measurable and useful criteria.

The paradox, of course, is that while I can tell you if I liked a piece of entertainment, I absolutely cannot tell if you’ll like it, because nobody ever has the same opinion about subjective things. Some people like epic, SFX-heavy thrillers with guns and explosions and car chases and a villain you love to hate, something you can watch without having to think. Some people like cerebral, paranoid whodunits, with a small cast and a clever script and an ending which leaves you wondering who wrote the script and why he hasn’t been voted Best Writer In The Whole Fucking World. But those are the differences between Die Hard and The Usual Suspects, both regarded as two of the best action films ever, and there are people who’ll love one and hate the other for reasons that have nothing to do with what a journalist’s opinion of the two films is. Coming back to my original point: you can suggest that people take in a piece of entertainment for considered and balanced reasons, but you can’t elevate or dismiss a product based on whether you liked it or not.

A reviewer has to use experience, objectivity and balance in his work. I don’t read the Independent’s film reviews any more, because all the big action, horror, comedy and sci-fi films get slated, dismissed as ‘populist’, ‘banal’ and ‘dreary’, whereas every European independent film about the tribulations of Albanian goat farmers or whatever will be uplifted to ‘a quiet masterpiece, a heartbreakingly powerful examination of love and loss, the equal of any Hollywood Oscar-nom’. Even the few big films that manage to be equally thoughtful and entertaining are dismissed out of hand, but not for any real reason – it’s just that the guy who writes the reviews is an snob, and an unreconstructed wanker as far as my highly objective and rational opinion goes.

What I’m trying to say, ultimately, is that reviewers mustn’t confuse the concepts of (to use two highly technical terms) enjoyment and likeability. A book or film might be perfectly written, it might accomplish exactly what the author wanted it to, it could later be hailed as a modern classic. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the book. You might hate some parts of it – an unsympathetic main character, maybe, or a moral message that clashes with your own beliefs – but you can’t dismiss it based purely on that. You have to think about the people who are going to read your review and decide whether or not to buy the book based on what you write. It’s unlikely that everyone who reads your reviews is going to have the exact same opinion that you do on everything – if you think a certain group of people will enjoy it, say so, and give equal measure to the book’s merits and failures. But for God’s sake, be objective, and don’t let your subjective opinions cloud your review.

Fuck me, that took a while. Expect less finger-wagging and more foolishness later in the month.


One Response to “Reviews”

  1. Owl November 28, 2009 at 3:17 am #


    I must say, I enjoy reading your blog just as much as I enjoy talking to you.

    – Owl.

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