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So You Want To Be A Critic

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Introduction

A reviewer, regardless of the art form, has a responsibility to readers to be knowledgeable about the specific art form. Reviewers do not simply express opinions. There’s a huge difference between “I liked Killer Ants Devouring Lithuania,” and “Killer Ants Devouring Lithuania was a good movie.”

In the former, you’re only expressing a personal opinion based on your likes and dislikes. You have the right to that opinion, but as a reader, my reaction is, “who cares?” I want to know about the movie or book, not about you. In the latter, you have a set of criteria by which you can judge the work of art. Too many people fail to see or accept that distinction. If you fall into this category, you’ll write lousy reviews of no interest to the reader; you’ll merely be feeding your own ego by seeing your name in print.

But if you study the medium, its history and trends, if you can break a performance into its component parts to evaluate how they fit together, if you can put your review into the context of similar works, then you’re offering valuable insights that will help readers decide whether to experience the art, and you’re teaching them how to enhance their experience and appreciation.

Here’s where it gets messy. These criteria are not completely objective nor are they totally subjective. They lie somewhere in between. But if you deny the criteria and claim that all opinions are subjective, why bother to review anything at all? Your opinion carries no more weight than a three-year-old watching the same movie.

What follows are standards used by professional critics, and few people have the time to engross themselves this thoroughly in an art form. Don’t be overwhelmed by the complexity; rather, use this article as a starting point, adopting ideas and concepts that make sense and recognizing that, to become a good critic, you never stop studying the medium.

It’s also important to emphasize that while there’s not one right way to write a review, there are essential elements that make it either a good or bad one.

Elements of a Review: The Hook

Like all good writing, a review has to have a “hook,” an opening sentence or paragraph that draws in the reader. Rarely, if ever, should that hook include the word “I,” which tells the reader “it’s all about me.” Most will stop reading and move on to another article. Another trap to avoid is being obvious while attempting to be profound. For example, comments about short stories, poetry, or essays not getting the kind of attention they deserve insult your readers’ intelligence.

Here’s the opening sentence of a book review on BC: “Harvey Pekar writes autobiographical comic books for grown-ups, and he is rather prone to grumpiness.” (Except for the word “rather,” it’s a great set up. Remember adjectives and adverbs are weak words; nouns and verbs are strong words.) Regardless, look at the juxtaposition of autobiographical, comic books, and grumpiness. How could you not want to read on?

Here’s another from a BC review: “David Jones came from humble beginnings and worked his way up to CEO of a successful British retail company. And he did so without telling anyone that he had Parkinson’s Disease for most of his tenure.” Personally, I’d eliminate the period after “company” and substitute a comma. But the surprise of the Parkinson’s compels the reader to keep going.

One doesn’t have to be formal and rigid with a hook. Consider the opening of this BC book review: “Okay guys, listen up. Because it’s time to Man Up. And who better to teach the finer points — the ins and outs if you will — of being a ‘man’s man’ than veteran mob guy character actor Frank Vincent?” I don’t even know who Vincent is, but I read the review.

Compare the above to what follows. Another BC book review begins with three paragraphs about Socrates (the book has nothing to do with him), only introducing the book being reviewed at the end of the third graph. The fourth and fifth paragraphs are personal statements about the reviewer. Sorry — readers aren’t going to wait that long.

A CD review: “Sad to say, this CD leaves me cold. Yes, there is some tasty guitar work on it, some fine playing, but nothing really stands out and captures my attention. If [artist] is basing the appeal of this CD on the songwriting and the singing then I think it’s a miss.” Classic case of “all about me,” although the reviewer has some of the right elements in there: fine playing, tasty guitar work (nice adjective).

Finally, avoid being cute and keep yourself out of the hook unless there’s a really, really, really good reason. One TV reviewer on BC had used “I” five times in the first three graphs, twice with self-deferential comments that were out of place.

One of the best movie reviews I’ve read violated all these rules: Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of The Fugitive. Now Maslin was one of the best reviewers ever; she could take liberties where others would fear to tread. I don’t remember the exact words, but she made the review very personal. She basically said, “I was grabbed by the throat by this movie and wasn’t let go until the last moment.” She went on discussing how inescapably engaged she was by the non-stop tension. She pulled it off. Most can’t.

Hook ‘em. It’s just like fishing. You put a worm or a lure on the hook, not a picture of yourself or a treatise demonstrating your deep wisdom.

Elements of a Review: After the Hook

You’ve captured my interest with a solid hook. Now increase that interest by continuing to be provocative. Don’t wander off into parts unknown…yet. If you’re going to do that, you’ll have time.

1. “Matrix IX is a really interesting movie with great special effects. I was captivated from the first moment.”
2. In what seems to be a never-ending raising of the technological bar, Matrix IX once again demonstrated that there seems to be no limit to how mind-boggling special effects can get.
3. Matrix IX continues a series of mechanical performances by actors who could just as easily been replaced by some computer generated figures.
4. I could barely keep my eyes open during the most boring Matrix movie yet, Matrix IX.

See the difference? Numbers 1 & 4 are all about “me.” 2 & 4 are about the movie. It should be easy to see how to expand these topic sentences for a longer paragraph explaining what you mean.

Elements of a Review: The Rest

Earlier, I wrote that reviewers have a responsibility to be knowledgeable about the art form they’re reviewing. What does that mean? This list isn’t intended as a straightjacket; quite the opposite, this part of the review is where you can bring in not only comments about other works of art, you can carefully express your own opinions within each of the elements, below. Also, while everything in this list doesn’t need to be included or in this order, reviewers should be or become knowledgeable about:

  • The art form and how what’s being reviewed fits or varies from that form.
  • The history of that art form and others to be able to give the reader some context in which to judge what’s being reviewed. What in the past is similar to what you’re reviewing? What’s dissimilar?
  • The genre in which whatever’s being reviewed fits. Is it just more of the same, or is the artist breaking new ground within the genre? What other works of art can you cite that will give the reader a better understanding of the work in question?
  • The trends, i.e. the societal, political, religious, artistic, etc. movements, that this piece of art references.
  • The criteria for judging a specific work of art. This part is perhaps the hardest because knowledgeable people can disagree, but a reviewer needs to be able to comment on issue such as tone (is it consistent throughout), message (is it clear or confused…perhaps intentionally confusing,) pacing and timing, and importance (does this work of art set new standards, raise new questions, demand that the viewer or reader challenge his or her preconceptions, etc.)
  • (Most important) The specific artistic elements that make up the item being reviewed. For example, in a play or movie, the set, the lighting, the costumes, how well the director manages the artists’ performances and their movements (called blocking), the writing, the music, the actors’ interpretations, and the actors’ interactions, to name a few. In music, how well the sound is mixed, the quality of the lyrics or band, and the variation in the selection of music to create a complete experience.

This knowledge base is what allows a reviewer to form a judgment that something is aesthetically good or bad as opposed to offering a personal opinion. One doesn’t always have to cover all of these points — sometimes it’s not relevant, but you can’t ignore them all either.

Interspersed among the above are the reviewer’s judgments about the acting, singing, story line, whatever. It’s how you continue to engage readers by offering insight into what kind of experience they’re likely to have.

Elements of Review: The Close

Just as the hook grabs the readers’ attention, the close is where you create something memorable so that your review stays with them. Unfortunately, it’s just as difficult to write as a good hook.

By now, you should be done with the details, but you want to remind the reader why this art is a piece of gold or…clay. For example, if you’re reviewing a fantasy book, and you’re a Tolkien fanatic, here’s one suggestion: “Many years ago when I put down the final volume of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I knew I had found a gem the likes of which I’d probably never again uncover. Dragons Don’t Have Teeth may not be the Hope Diamond, but it comes as close to Tolkien as you’re likely to get.”

The use of “I” works because of the reference to one of the most beloved fantasies of all time. People will see the Tolkien reference and understand completely what you mean by getting close without being distracted by your opinion.

Here’s a close that could have been much better had the writer just left himself out of the picture:

I’m sure my friends from the party are talking about my musical tastes behind my back. At forty-six, I probably should be more immersed in jazz, classical, and pop then I am. But let the mf’ers talk — so much of what we call entertainment these days is flat and boring. At least NOFX and other bands approaching middle age still have the balls to produce some very funny stuff.

Start reading from “So much of what we call entertainment…” and you’ll see how powerful the ending could have been.

Here’s an almost perfect close that sums up quickly the essence of an album:

It’s a relative impossibility that Queensryche could ever surpass the brilliance it created the first time around. Too much time has passed: Whereas the original likely sprung from a magical, collective inspiration, the band’s musical ideas are now conceived and planned. Still, there is no denying that the band’s latest release is the best work it has done in more than a decade. An appropriate sequel to their best-ever work, Operation Mindcrime II delivers as most had hoped it would.

I can’t help but be an editor. The only problem is too many words. Here’s the same close tightened up:

It’s impossible that Queensryche could surpass its original brilliance — too much time has passed. Where the original sprung from a magical, collective inspiration, the musical ideas are now conceived and planned. Still, the band’s latest release is its best work in over a decade. An appropriate sequel to their best-ever work, Operation Mindcrime II delivers as most had hoped it would.

A few more good closes:

The band sounds good, and the power of Dio’s voice does come around eventually, but the bulk of the appealing CD here (disc 1) is plagued by the most raspy, unpowerful voice you’ll ever hear from Ronnie James Dio. Says it all, and leaves the reader with a clear picture.

Eh, but who cares about bad acting and moral lessons anyway? We’re here to see Karloff’s Monster lurch and grunt and beat people up, and that’s what we get. And as an added bonus, he cries. What more can you ask for from a monster? A memorable close and a great last line.

There’s a lot of power in the close to this move review, but, again, too many words: He is an artist who understands his medium, down to its core who isn’t afraid to take chances, who and knows his film history. Yet, he doesn’t feel the need to tell us that by throwing in with obvious homages or clips from a film with similar themes. Rather, he simply goes about telling his story in the best way he knows how, using his accumulated knowledge for maximum effect. It is a great debut, a gleefully subversive film that’s a wickedly funny and fearless gem. My only fear is that Reitman won’t be able to duplicate it.

Read it edited: He understands his medium, isn’t afraid to take chances, and knows film history. Yet, he doesn’t need the obvious homages or clips from a film with similar themes. Rather, he tells his story in the best way he knows how, using his knowledge for maximum effect. It is a great debut, a gleefully subversive film that’s a wickedly funny and fearless gem. The last line about can he duplicate it destroys the great lead up to “wickedly funny and fearless gem. Why include it?

And then there are the closes that probably leave the reader cold:

Rather than continue to babble on in a vain attempt to describe the book, let me just say that it is a darn good read and one I would recommend to anyone. Interesting characters, thought-provoking, easy to read, it has it all. If you like your fiction intelligent and suspenseful, Spies should be on your list. The last two lines are good. The first two inadvertently say, “Why should you listen to me. I’m just babbling and can’t really describe the book anyway.”

Conclusion

If the point hasn’t been driven home by now, let’s make it simple: Being a critic is hard work, it requires study and analysis, but if you’re just starting out, this article should be consider inspirational rather than a foundation you have to build before you can proceed.

Being a critic means sitting in a theater or music hall with a notepad on your lap, trying to capture everything going on around you without losing the essence of the experience. It also means divorcing yourself from what you’re experiencing so you can make the statement, “I didn’t like it but it’s a great work.”

For example, I hate, despise, and can’t bear “Romeo & Juliet,” but I can’t deny that it’s a great play. Slasher movies scare the shit out of me, so I’m totally incapable of making any aesthetic judgment about them.

When I was a theater reviewer many years ago, friends who’d accompany me would ask, “How can you enjoy the play when you’re always taking notes and tearing it apart like that?” Hence the “like” vs. “good” issue. Critics enjoy the work more because they understand how difficult it is to get all the elements to come together in a masterpiece, or they can see which elements failed and which caused the piece to not be a masterpiece. Ask yourself, who would appreciate a jazz album more, Thelonius Monk or your five-year-old? (Note, I didn’t say “enjoy.” Appreciating is an aesthetic experience; enjoying is a personal one.

If you review books, read constantly. If you review plays or movies, try to go three or four times a week. If you review music, you should be listening to everything you can get your hands on. And you should be reading reviews written by the top reviewers in the field to get a feel for what they do.

Being a critic can be one of the most satisfying things you’ll ever do — but you’ll only succeed if you know what the hell you’re doing.

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About Mark Schannon

Retired crisis & risk manager/communications expert; extensive public relations experience in most areas over 30 years. Still available for extraordinary opportunities of mind-numbing complexity. Life-long liberal agnostic...or is that agnostic liberal.
  • http://www.moviesteve.blogspot.com Steve C.

    I was with you all the way to the conclusion. If I, as a filmgoer and critic (on a strictly amateur basis), hate and despise something, then I’m not going to say it’s a great work. That, to me, is fundamentally dishonest and leads to Mantlepiece Movie Syndrome — you know, the kind of meticulous, gorgeous, perfectly realized filmmaking that is nonetheless hermetic and dead. (The Cider House Rules is my go-to example of this phenomenon.)

    Then again, maybe I’m the wrong person to be commenting here, as I freely admit to enjoying trashy cinema. Is Doris Wishman’s Indecent Desires a good film? By general standards, no. By the standards of the genre it inhabits, yes. You don’t seem to leave room for relativity in your rules here. Or am I misunderstanding?

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Gag. What stiff, unpleasant and unreadable writing. You sound like that stodgy old teacher in Dead Poets Society.

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    Steve, you’re right, I did leave out the notion of relativity. I don’t use the same standards when judging a meal at a diner that I do when going to a fine restaurant. I think Bruce Willis’ “Die Hard” films are great–for their genre.

    However, when you talk about “hate and despise” something, that’s an emotional opinion. If it’s based on an analysis of the elements of a movie, then you’d also make the judgment it’s a bad movie.

    For some reason, I can’t stand Cher. I have no idea why. I’ve seen a couple of her movies, and while the critic in me can appreciate their value, I’m squirming every time she’s on the screen.

    This like/hate vs. good/bad issue is one of the most contentious in aethetics, so you’re not alone in your opinion. I’m just trying to get people more in the center and less focused on their personal reactions.

  • http://www.moviesteve.blogspot.com Steve C.

    I can’t claim to be above irrational dislikes (Andy Garcia, for some reason, gets on my nerves). But I think the key to a reconciliation of these issues is to be able to react from both positions — to start with the emotional response (i.e. I hate Andy Garcia) and justify that reaction through an examination of the artistic worth (i.e. Andy Garcia is a bland and dull actor with bad taste in film roles — I mean, The Man from Elysian Fields? Please).

    An example, from 1982: George Miller’s The Road Warrior vs. Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. I like the former and dislike the latter. In terms of artistry, both films are good, and anyone viewing the two side by side objectively would conclude that Contract is the ‘better’ film. But it isn’t. Greenaway’s film is impeccable in terms of artistry, as are all his films. It’s also arid and humorless, a triumph of direction and nothing else. Contract lacks the scholarly playfulness of many of Greenaway’s other films that leavens the arrogance that seems to waft off his pretentious screenplays. Because of that, I see it as a bad film. The Road Warrior, on the other hand, is not only well-constructed — it’s well-constructed to a purpose. The tight, elegant immediacy of the film’s action setpieces is matched by a similar economy in character and storytelling. We learn everything we need to learn and nothing else. There’s isn’t one wasted or superfluous minute in the film. Thus, it is a good film, despite its classification as an action film (typically considered a ‘low’ genre). The comparison may be a tad unfair, as The Road Warrior is a transcendent example of its ilk. But I think the argument works.

    Also, just as a side note: While personal-to-a-fault ‘critics’ (i.e. Harry Knowles) are an irritant, I tend to also be unimpressed by people who stick solely to ‘objectivity’. (There’s a reason I try not to read Film Comment.) Most of my favorite critics manage to find a graceful middle — I don’t want to read impersonal, staid criticism any more than I want to read someone who can’t articulate beyond “It was awesome!”

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    Rodney, I always wonder about people who take pleasure in belittling others with not even at attempt at a cogent argument. It reminds me of a Napoleonic complex. I feel sorry for you.

    Steve C, hell, I should have had you co-author the article with me. Your analysis of Andy Garcia is exactly right–but, what if you can’t justify the emotional response? (Me & Cher, for example.) At some point, if you decide your dislike of an actor has no relation to the actor’s skills, your aesthetic sense has to take precedence over your personal feelings, right? How else would you handle it?

    Your analysis of the two films is excellent–you make your point both from a personal but, more importantly, from an artistic/technical point of view why Road Warrior is a better film, even though the genres are so different. I’m going to steal it & use it in other articles(giving you full credit of course.)

    The challenge, which you address perfectly in your close, is the balance between hard-core analysis and personal taste.

    I hope my article doesn’t give the impression that reviews have to formal, stiff, and boring. I tried to throw humor in there and used examples that were anything by dry. However, if it does come across that way, I’d appreciate you letting me know & I’ll work on it.

    Thanks for your comments. I appreciate the thought you’ve given this.

    In Jameson Veritas

  • http://noumenal.net/blogs/weblog.php Che

    Mark, your rules are fine for the days of stiff, scholarly critiques, but nowadays, in the age of voyeurism, the reader not only wants to know about the book (or the movie, or whatever)they want to know who it is thats recommending this. They want a peek inside the person to see if they relate. A scholarly review might get you a bunch of readers quickly, but a more personal approach will slowly build a core group of regular readers who identify with YOU and value YOUR opinion because they know, like and trust you.

    In every book review I write, I reveal a little something of myself. I also explore writing style, atmosphere, character-development and plot. I try to understand WHO I’m writing for and what they’ll be seeking when they pick up a book from the shelf. Knowing your audience is good. Forming a relationship with them is better. I like to read, and I like communicating with people who like to read.

    Even in the Blogcritics file that is sent out when you first join there is the recommendation that you write about “what it means to you”. I prefer to stick with that.

    Rules are good. Breaking rules is better.

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    Che,

    I’m convinced I need to rewrite the article. People are coming away thinking that there’s this stiff, formulaic, boring way of doing reviews that is best. I didn’t get across that that is not my intention at all.

    The process you describe in no way “violates” any of what I wrote, although I take full blame for not making that clear. In fact, I fully support what you wrote: “In every book review I write, I reveal a little something of myself. I also explore writing style, atmosphere, character-development and plot. I try to understand WHO I’m writing for and what they’ll be seeking when they pick up a book from the shelf.”

    You search for a balance of the personal “a little something of myself” and the aesthetic, “explore writing style, atmosphere, character-development and plot.”

    And I never mentioned who you’re writing for–another omission I’ll correct. I think I went overboard on the formal side because too many reviewers overdo it on the “I like it” “look at me” side. I…sigh…forgot my audience.

    Thanks for the feedback, as much as I hate to think the article is that unclear, I’d rather get it right.

    In Jameson Veritas

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    Che, One more point. You can’t break the rules if you don’t know what they are. Wandering through the Picasso museum in Paris a few years ago, we were looking at paintings from his “Blue” period when we saw this incredibly realistic painting from the same period.

    It was as if Picasso was saying, “Look I can paint realism, I know all the rules of composition, color, perspective, etc. I just don’t want to do that anymore.” But he was able to paint such incredible work because he’d learned the basics of painting.

    In Jamesons Veritas

  • http://www.moviesteve.blogspot.com Steve C.

    I do have a couple blind spots, and one is actress Selma Blair. Maybe her performances are good. Maybe they’re not. All I know is that when I see her on screen, all I see is a mumbling, tone-deaf shrew and I want to run away, far away. To answer your question, if she popped up in a film and was no good even though the film was, then I’d praise the film and try to avoid talking about Blair. If I had to talk about her, I’d probably admit my bias up front, a la Roger Ebert confessing he doesn’t like Rosie O’Donnell in his review of Exit to Eden. That’s all you can do, really. (Having said that, on my weblog I’ve slagged Ms. Blair a couple of times, but she keeps making it easy by picking crappy films.)

    You’ve inspired me, actually, to pen an article of my own expanding on the idea of turning “love/hate” into “good/bad”. I know exactly what films to use, too.

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    Steve, let me know when you’ve written it. I’ll be interested to see your take on it. I’ve had so many arguments with people over the years who refuse to acknowledge that there’s a difference.

    But that’s to say that knowledge is of no value, that the personal opinion of a kumquat is as valuable as that of someone who’s spent a life studying an art form.

    Good luck with the article.

    In Jameson Veritas

  • Baronius

    Distaste for Andy Garcia is simply recognition of a scientifically provable fact.

    Excellent article. I recently read a review on Blogcritics, and realized afterwards that, if it weren’t for the title of the article, I would have no idea what was being reviewed. This piece is a necessary reminder.

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    Baronius, thanks for restoring what little is left of my ego. I think Steve and Che raise good points, but did you agree with them? The reality is that this, in some form, is going up in the BC files to help people get better at reviews, so I want it to be clear as possible.

    Thanks.

    In Jameson Veritas

  • http://www.communistvampires.com/author.htm Thomas M. Sipos

    You wrote: “A reviewer, regardless of the art form, has a responsibility to readers to be knowledgeable about the specific art form. Reviewers do not simply express opinions.”

    I once heard some differentiate between reviewers and critics. The former simply states what a film is about and whether they liked it. The latter gives a more formal analysis based on objective aesthetic criteria.

    I myself, when I review something, differentiate between my subjective response (whether I liked it) and my objective analysis (whether it was good).

    Some films I recognize as bad, flawed, a real mess, full of plot holes, yet extremely enjoyable (the 1978 Terror). Other films I personally dislike, but I recognize their merit (many, not all, Hal Hartley films). Other films are both objectively and subjectively admirable (Lost Souls) and still others bad on both levels (the remake of Carnival of Souls).

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    Thomas,

    Interesting distinction I’d never heard before between reviewer & critic, but it’s clear from your comments that you understand the like/good distinction and apply it well.

    BC isn’t looking for “reviewers” in the sense of pure description and personal taste–that offers little to readers. We do want people to be more critics–although as the previous comments make clear, that doesn’t preclude personal tastes nor enforce some rigid, formal style.

    In Jameson Veritas

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Mark,

    I just wanted to thank you for including the opener from one of my BC reviews as an example of a good one. After reading your piece, I honestly feel honored by the inclusion.

    Reading your…yes, somewhat dry…but equally expert lesson in Critical Journalism 101, I was also reminded, somewhat painfully I might add, of some of my own occasional excesses (the “Me! Me! Me!” thing unfortunately reminded me of a few of my own reviews).

    Anyway, I thought your article was a very good read. And that’s my review.

    Thanks for the lesson.

    Glen Boyd

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    Glen,

    Thank you–your comment means a lot.

    I am surprised at how dry it came out, which sure ain’t my style. It’s going to be going up in the BC files but I told Eric O that I wanted to rewrite it first–to capture a lot of comments made here and make it a lot less dry & more fun.

    Mark
    In Jameson Veritas

  • http://www.andyhorbal.blogspot.com/ A. Horbal

    Being a critic is hard work, it requires study and analysis, but if you’re just starting out, this article should be consider inspirational rather than a foundation you have to build before you can proceed.

    Absolutely. And it also requires a great deal of practice, preferably in a public forum where people will respond to you and where you can try different things. A place like Blogcritics.org. Good criticism does not spring fully formed like Zeus from the head of the writer, however studied he or she may be. Nice article.

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    Thanks. It’ll be better when I make it less dry & clear up some of the misunderstandings…although I have no idea when I’ll get to it.

    Appreciate your comments.

  • Matt SUGRUE

    Just want to say thank you to evryone who takes the time to chide in, thats what keeps the fresh keepinn refreshed,

  • Anonamous

    On the point of devorsing yourself from the experence to make a statement, I would have to disagree. There are a great many critics that have been able to remain within the experence of what ever it is they happen to be reviewing and put out completly unbised opions on the work.

    I may have goten your meaning wrong on that point and if I have I am sorry. I just do not think that you have to neglect the experence to give a good unatached review.