With the advent of the internet and online reviews, I do think that reviews have become a more democratic process because actual people or consumers have a say in stating what they don’t like about something — whether it is a book, film or restaurant or a product.  These reviews are out there for the whole world to review, absorb and/or dismiss.  These more audience or consumer centered reviews are now the norm, and run over a large spectrum.  While their impact is significant, I don’t think they have quite the same long term impact or power as what we formerly called critical reviews in the pre-internet world.    Yes there are paid literary and film critics and consumer reporters on the internet/online but there reviews are out there with everyone else — and that’s what I mean by democratic — everyone’s in the digital pool together.  To note, I know there are also paid “influencers,” or folks that want to become influencers but generally I am not referring to people who are writing in the hopes of being paid for it but just sending their thoughts out into the world because they loved or loathed a certain book, movie, etc.  In my mind, those folks sort of line up with the special advertising agencies that work on placing products into major feature films, etc.  And for them it’s a living as well.

There is something to be said that is both positive and negative here in theory.  The idea of even a common person being abusive in their review or opinion/or a review or an opinion being hijacked and cut up by commenters, etc.  It is something that happens online a lot but I don’t think it quite has the staying impact of those pre-internet reviews that were critical and scathing. Or to use the cliche “career making or breaking.”

One example is a direct reflection from pop culture itself: there is a Sex in the City episode where the fictional writer Carrie Bradshaw is climbing the walls worried about The New York Times book critic reviewing her book — both before and after the review.  This was well portrayed.

Tying this into a memory I have from back in college, one of my professors J. ran our creative writing program.  Technically she was the advisor if you wanted to be an English major with a focus in creative writing.  J’s method of teaching was very hands on, unlike most of my other writing professors and impacted me quite differently.  She was obsessed with character depth and motivation.

For example:  If you wrote a scene where two characters were talking and broke the dialogue with one of them taking a sip of water — she wanted to know the emotional or psychological motivation of your character pausing to sip the water — and no: “they were thirsty”  or: “perhaps they felt like their mouth was dry from so much talking,” really did not constitute an acceptable answer for her.

During our class J. was working on a new novel and she would bring in the galleys to show us which was cool and talk somewhat about their edits.  To get through the class, I adopted my style to fit with what J. wanted.  On our final project we had a first round meeting and she gave me a lot of edits and suggested changes which I did not really like including the ending.  But I took all these notes and made the changes anyway.  Luckily I kept the notes because when we met again for the final review, J. had no memory and was asking me: “why this transition/why this motivation/why this ending?”  And thankfully I was able to break out the notes she gave me previously and confirm that she had herself directed me this way.

As it happened, this was a good life lesson and it actually prepared me down the line for working with people very much like J.  Now, returning to J., her book was reviewed by The New York Times, back in the early 1990’s.  Just to be reviewed was a huge honor but sadly J.’s book was completely panned.  My classmate/friend A. also a writing major, he made copies of the article/review and gave them out to everyone in class.  Clearly remember standing on the enclosed pedestrian bridge on campus, when he walked up to me, pulled copies out of his bag saying something like: “And they said her characters were insipid.”

Have to admit I felt bad for J.  She was my reluctant advisor until graduation, no help with internships or helpful with insight on logistics with finding a job or anything.  After graduation, once back home,  I pulled her debut novel from the stacks of my small town public library — it was well written and raw and graphic and the characters were flawed but not insipid.  Later I learned through one of my favorite professor’s memoir that J. was a friend of his and gave him a shot being an adjunct teacher, and I felt more kindly toward her.

Going back to reviews, as a consumer of different mediums: art, literature/books, music, theater, film — to name a few I do still sometimes read professional reviews but with an open mind.  Just because one person is paid to write their opinion does not mean that it is necessarily true about this creative work — folks need to make up their own mind.

Recently I saw a film where I had a faded memory of reading a bad review in a city weekly that has recently folded (which is sad for many reasons, including they had good listings of bookstores and readings all around our Metro area).  But I was intrigued by the overall idea/concept of the film and watched it anyway.  Then I searched online and per imd(dot)com/Amazon trivia notes, found that may have been influenced by a short story and novel with similar themes/premise — which I’m now going to see about reading and/or will be added to the “to be read” list.

Interestingly, many of the online reviews of this film, dismissed the critics right away and loudly up front in their reviews.  Others just duly panned it or frankly said what they did not like & made their suggestions to resolve/rework the plot — which were interesting ideas, although I don’t agree with those folks either.

As for the film itself, I will likely write my thoughts about it down later, because certain things need to be processed and there are films and books too, where you need to see or digest things — often in a second reading or watching, were you absorb things you did not initially — and when you are reviewing something and on a deadline then you don’t have the luxury of re-reading or re-watching — especially in such a vast media landscape.


One thought on “Literary Digression/Essay: About reviews and critics — in literature and in life.

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