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who cares what you think?
the unclear future of criticism
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
pop culture

Reviews are dead. Long live reviews!

The difference between "what the people think" and "what the critics think" has always been rich territory for discussion, but never more than now, especially as "the people" become "the critics" through the internet takeover of society as we know it. If the critics are the people, then there's no difference, right? If we are the reviewers? Hold that thought for a sec.

There are, of course, still (some) professional critics employed by major newspapers, writing reviews of books and food and music. But, as there are fewer and fewer major newspapers, there are also fewer and fewer professional critics, and there are those who argue that's a good thing.

I'm not one of them.

Let's start with books. You may have heard about Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, Freedom, getting all sorts of press and plaudits and adoration, including two reviews in the New York Times, which became a jumping-off point for novelists on Twitter (including Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner) to raise the question of why the New York Times, with its minimal review space, needed to dedicate two reviews to a single book by a literary white dude while it tends (they argue) to ignore entire genres more commonly written by non-literary maybe-not-white non-dudes.

I'm not going to get into that, largely because I don't have a lot of information on what the NYT does and doesn't make a practice of reviewing. Other people have looked into it. You can Google it up if you like.

But for me, the Franzen fracas raises a more interesting question: what is the role of the reviewer, anyway? Is it to tell us what to think about things we've already heard of, or bring to our attention things we might not have found on our own?

It's a little of both, I suppose, but as a reader, I'd rather a reviewer bring something new to my attention. I don't need 83 reviews of Freedom, although the two reviews I've read of it told me exactly what I needed to know: there is a large section written in a woman's voice, except it's not the woman's voice at all, it's the novelist's voice, and nothing chaps my you-know-what faster than an unconvincing narrative voice, seeing as how I think writers owe it to their readers to at least try to write in a first-person voice that could come out of the person concerned, instead of simply demanding the reader suspend disbelief for umpty-dozen number of pages.

Anyway. Sorry. Bias showing. (Which is something critics have too, though we try to pretend they don't.)

But for every inch of column space devoted to Freedom, that's an inch of column space that's not going to another book. And yes, critics need to cover things that are "big" -- of course the New York Times is going to review a Lady Gaga show at Madison Square Garden, or the opening of the latest David Chang restaurant, Ma Peche -- but as the space available for reviews shrinks, I fear one day the "big" things will be the only things reviewed.

Which brings us back to the idea of the citizen reviewer again, doesn't it?

With books, this is clearly already the way. Book blogs have sprung up all over the scene, either for a particular genre or not, and readers looking for recommendations know how to find a reviewer whose opinion they trust. And, depending on where you buy your books, your local bookseller is probably happy to recommend things that fit a certain set of your parameters, and certainly Amazon's software will be happy to attempt the same.

With restaurants, it's a little bit different. Partly because, in my opinion, the gulf is wider. Restaurant reviewers at the New York Times or the Washington Post or what have you will write thoughtful reviews of some length. And you can quibble with whether they spend too much time describing the decor instead of the food, and whether they fall back too often on "delightful" and "utter" and "gracious", and if perhaps they spend too much time at restaurants most people can't afford more than a few times a year, but you at least know one thing: you know this is a professional reviewer with standards and intelligence and no axes to grind.

If you're looking at reviews on Yelp, you have no idea what to believe.

Crowdsourcing criticism is risky, although it's also the path of least resistance. If you can't trust a stranger, you can in some way trust a hundred of them, if things tend to fall into a clear pattern. If you're trying to decide between two restaurants on a Friday night, you may thank your lucky stars for random stranger reviews, but if you're picking a special occasion place, you may prefer to consult with the professionals.

Criticism is changing, that's for sure. I don't like the loss of professional reviewers, and I mourn the shrinking book sections of major newspapers, but I suppose change isn't always bad. Without change, we never would have seen the Washington Post's Ron Charles branch out from written reviews into hilarious and informative "Totally Hip Video Book Reviews".

(And yes, he did one of Franzen's Freedom, and if you only read/watch one book review this year, make it this one. It's... a lapidary masterpiece.)

(Indeed, reviews are dead. Long live reviews!)


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

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joe procopio
9.3.10 @ 8:57a

This is right on target, Jael. Any idiot can slam something. A review or critique of value requires taking the time to understand the subject matter, as well as what makes something good or bad, and then evaluate against those criteria. This is problem with crowd-sourced reviews, they're mostly gut.

candy green gustavson
9.3.10 @ 4:39p

The appreciation of Art (of any kind) is and always has been subjective. What endures, I suppose, could be called the collective subjective (!)-- having nothing to do with "temporary" reviews. Bless the dear memory of Vincent Van Gogh. May we be challenged to read, write, paint, compose, sing, dance, listen to what endures.

tracey kelley
9.3.10 @ 6:20p

Brilliant observation, Jael. And THANK YOU for the Ron Charles links!

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