In my former life, I was a theater reviewer, gallerist, and curator. I continue to be a passionate advocate for artists and will always be a great lover of art.
Last year, I posted a sarcastic-as-hell blog post How to Write Bad Reviews. But I realize that people might actually be interested in how to be better armchair art critics. In an effort to replace snark with substance, I’d like to offer amateur reviewers some tips for writing useful and insightful reviews of books, film, and art.
Start from a Place of Love: Roger Ebert loved movies. How could he not? He spent much of his life in a dark room watching them. He watched it all: the high art, the camp, the b-movie, and the splattercore, the interminable, and the sublime. He went in genuinely hoping the filmmakers succeeded. Who the hell wants to spend 4 to 6 hours a day expecting the worst and getting it handed to them? You read/view/engage with art because you love it, right? Because you believe in the transformative power of books/performance/art, right? If not, why the hell are you spending so much time analyzing it?
Examine Your Expectations: When I was a senior in high school, Star Wars Episode 1 came out. Many, many people (my boyfriend included) camped out for days to be at the first screening. Do I really need to tell you how that turned out? There’s another way to look at this. My brother-in-law always says “Review the movie they made, not the movie you wished they had.”
If you find yourself saying “I wish the author/director/choreographer did ____ instead” a lot, you probably went in with too many preconceived notions. I get this response all the time with my first novel, Lunatic Fringe. People see it’s about lesbian werewolves and they assume a lot about what the book will entail. Many of the negative reviews I get are from readers who wanted me to write a different novel. Whether it was too sexy or not sexy enough, or too political or not political enough is a matter of taste. But that’s not the point of a review. Review the art the artist made, not the art you wished they had.
Try to Discern the Artist’s Intention: A good critique attempts to communicate how well an artist achieves their goals as perceived by the critic. (Again, it’s not the goal you wished they had). Using this metric, I might, for example, consider that George Lucas wanted Episode 1 to be a family-friendly introduction to the Star Wars canon, so that he might engage a whole new generation of fans, while offering their parents a bit of nostalgia. If this were my only metric (it’s not, btw) I might be able to write a useful review about popular media that spans generations. If I think George Lucas’s intention was to make a worthy prequel that offers nuanced and unique backstories for internationally-beloved characters, (I don’t, btw) my review is going to look a lot different.
Consider the Audience: Imagine reading a review of a horror film where the critic only ranted about how filthy and depraved horror films are. If you feel compelled to start a review with “I never read (blank) kind of books” tread carefully. Likewise, don’t review something of a specific genre just to trash the genre tropes. If you think Romance is cheesy and predictable, consider as to whether your opinion really gives potential readers anything of worth. Of course, you should be willing to engage with art for which you’re not the target audience. But don’t forget that the book/film/work wasn’t necessarily created specifically for you.
Give the Creator(s) the Benefit of the Doubt: I used to think that particularly salient symbols or stunning camera angles were a product of dumb luck or an overzealous reading by academics. I blame my seventh grade English teacher for making us highlight every use of the words “blue” or “red” in A Tale of Two Cities. It took me writing my own novels to realize that most of those details and beautiful moments are deliberate choices. Kubrick didn’t just happen upon eerie symmetries. He plotted that shit out. Even if the amaze-balls moments are accidents (or only become symbolic after a context shift the creator couldn’t have foreseen), your experience of the work and resulting analysis will only be made better by assuming the creator was mindful of the construction.
Don’t Write Snark for Snark’s Sake: Snark is lazy humor. It’s armchair criticism that has the sole purpose of making the snarker feel clever. Often folks include snark just because it makes for a fun pun or quasi-witticism. This kind of thing was popularized by icons like Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker. The reason we know these people for this reason is because snark is not about the art or the artist. It’s only ever been about the snark speaker/writer making a statement about themselves. If you want to make a name for yourself as a quippy bastard, snark away. If you want to be known for insightful critiques of art, ditch the snark and stick with the true.
Nitpicking is Tedious for Everyone: There will always be errors or oversights or typos. Is it really worth mentioning? Maybe, if the work is sloppy enough that you can’t have a fulfilling experience. But before you start nitpicking consider the degree to which the errors make a difference in the overall experience.
You’re Not the Arbiter of Taste: Art is wonderful because it’s so subjective. I hate some authors that critics seems to love. I love some stuff other folks think is bullshit. That doesn’t mean I’m smarter or stupider than you. It doesn’t mean anyone has the Correct Opinion.
You’re Not the Smartest Person in the World: Sure, maybe you’re smarter than the artist. Maybe you appreciate Artificial Intelligence on a much deeper level than Speilberg. Okay, fine. I promise, nothing is more tedious than a critic grandstanding about what a better piece of art they would make, if only they had. The fact is, Speilberg churns out films, and most critics will never pick up a camera. Don’t pretend you’d be a better artist if you’re not actually producing art.
At the end of the day, criticism is about adding value. At their most essential, critics help people figure out what stuff to spend their time and money on. That’s a great service to provide. Moreover, great critics are revered for adding insight to the works of art. They can add new dimensions to works that others have taken for granted. They can revisit a work generations later and use a contemporary context to reexamine the work anew. This is where criticism at its most beautiful. They keep art alive, keep people engaging with it, and keep asking questions of it.