Thursday, August 30, 2007


Ah I know what you are thinking, I've been burned and feel the need to vent. Or I am over the moon at something someone wrote about me and just want to thank them in my blogging way.

Well you is wrong!! On both counts! Ha!

This is simply something I've been thinking about for a while, and something I find very interesting as well as ridiculously obvious. And I just thought I would write about it today.

And this is what it is:

Reviewers are people too.

Amazing discovery isn't it?

But this is what I mean. I had always understood this concept on a theoretical level. I had always gone to see the movies I was interested in and read reviews with a critical eye. I discovered which film reviewers I usually agreed with and therefore could read their articles with more faith in their observations (Richard Crouse here in Toronto, like he's totally awesome. I even met him once and I was actually star struck - he's one of my favourite film reviewers definitely). But it never really came to me just how subjective reviewing really was.

Yes yes, there are those films and books out there that get generally the same ratings across the board, but more often then not, I am finding that the difference between one review and another, well, is a matter of taste.

As an example I offer myself up on a silver platter. A few years ago I produced and directed A Weekend in the Country at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Two days into the run a reviewer came to see it. And he loved it. Not only did he love it, he was kind of obsessed with it. He happened to run into a few of my cast members at a club that night and was just gushing to them how much he loved the play, he was practically star struck in their presence. The next day he wrote a brilliant review and we had it for the full month to put on our posters and publicity materials. We got subsequently more great reviews, and one or two critical ones (which even then, concluded they still liked the play - yes okay I'm qualifying, I know), but none quite as wonderfully enthusiastic. We were lucky. We were lucky this guy had been assigned to our play, and not someone else from the same paper. We were lucky that for some reason our play was exactly to his taste. And because of such luck, we had been given the gift and ability to advertise ourselves using such a glowing review.

It could have easily happened the other way around.

But reviewing is not only dependent on personal taste, but the pre-conceived ideas that the reviewer may bring with them to the work even before they have experienced it.

I am reminded of a story my mom tells (okay and the details might not be perfect, but the idea remains the same), how at a dinner party once, everyone was served lemon sorbet for dessert. Right away people were making faces and looking at their bowls with suspicion, and someone asked, "Has it maybe gone off?" The hostess frowned and went into the kitchen. She returned moments later and said, "Would it taste better if it was banana?" Everyone tried again. And suddenly with the knowledge that the sorbet was not lemon as they had all thought, but banana, it was greatly enjoyed and I'm sure some even had seconds.

And such is the same with reviewing a book or a film or a piece of music etc. Sometimes, and it isn't an excuse, sometimes the reviewer simply was expecting something else. Again if you are lucky it turns out the same way as the sorbet scenario, them loving it despite at first being slightly disgusted. But sometimes you get the reviewer who neglects to go back into the kitchen to discover the sorbet is actually banana.

Of course this is doing a slight disservice to reviewers, in saying they are not able to see beyond their own taste or pre-conceived ideas. There are excellent reviewers out there who are able to appreciate a genre they do not like in general (my playwrighting teacher, Djanet Sears, was amazing at this. She was able to critique your piece, and work with it within the boundaries of your writing style and genre, and not try to turn it into her preferred style). And at the same time there are occasions when it doesn't matter what the genre, the work is pretty darn bad and deserves to be panned.

But I do think as artists we must remember these simple facts of taste and pre-conceived ideas. The reason is two fold.

The first is to stay sane. That is, if you have produced something you really care about, and have worked on it quite critically (usually with other people), and truly believe it is the best it could be, or at least feel proud of what you have produced, then there shouldn't be any reason a bad review can get to you. Because reviewers are just people too as we have now learned.

But it also teaches us how to be critical and good reviewers of our own creations. That when we look at what we have done, we ought to remember our taste versus that of our audience. And to attempt to wipe away the pre-conceived ideas we might have looking at our work. To see things with as fresh an eye as possible (it is impossible, I think, to be truly objective about something you create though, so don't go crazy trying to). To not get too precious about what we produce.

And to be honest with ourselves that sometimes, what we've done, eh it's not so good. It might be banana, but you know what? Banana sorbet? Personally? Not so much.


hwalk said...

Sadly, I've never really thought too much as reviews are people before.

Should start doing that more.

Susan Breen said...

My novel is coming out in Feb. 2008 and although I know it is not possible for each and every person in this world to love my book, I'm not looking forward to bad reviews. Even lukewarm ones.

Jen said...

I tend to never agree with reviewers, so I've always thought of them as people - usually those people I don't agree with.

Although, to be honest, there was a blog a while back that reviewed movies, like his stuff.

You're right about being objective with our own work - it's so hard! But I have managed to be honest with myself. I had a WIP a while back that was awful, and I finally realized it.

Dawn said...

This is not a review, Adrienne, but I see that Ted is for sale at a NZ online store, but has no image. Thought you might like to point them to some code.

Ted downunder

Adrienne said...

hwalk - well sometimes it's tough, but I think it serves us well to remember they are just people too.

susan - I think you'll find you are able to tolerate bad reviews way easier than you think. It just stops mattering you know? Good luck though, isn't it just the most thrilling process!

jen - yeah, sometimes when you come to the conclusion that something you've done is really awful, I dunno kind of freeing isn't it?

dawn - hmm . . . how do I do that? (thanks for the link btw!)

Kanani said...

Have you ever seen Critical Mass the National Book Critics Circle blog or Literary Lotus Christine Thomasen's blog? Both are examples of real reviews, the type of insightful, thought provoking observances that are quickly disappearing from newspapers due to the downsizing of the entire industry.

Anyway, taste has a lot to do with reviewing, though a good review (as you've experienced) isn't necessarily dependent on it.

In terms of development of a piece, yes, it's that reader who can work with structure and content and help make it stronger and clearer who is the most helpful!

Kanani said...

FYI....Here are John Updike's Rules For Reviewing over on Critical Mass.

Dawn said...

I copied the image from your blog and have sent it to The Nile as an attachment so I think that should work. I did something similar with my own book when I found online sites that didn't have an image. They say 12-16 days for delivery so I'm assuming that it isn't actually in the country, but I shall start making enquiires at book stores and see if we can change that!

Jen said...

Adrienne -

Yes, it's very freeing.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Dawn mentioned this post in her blog about a weird review Ripples got, and I can see why she sent us all scurrying over here.

My first published work is being released in an anthology in November and I am ready.

Banana sorbet.


J M McDermott said...

there are only two kinds of reviewers.

first, there are the reviewers who like my book. they are brilliant. they are smart. they are clearly the best of the best.

second, there are the reviewers who don't like my book, yet. they may say they don't like it, but soon enough, they'll wake up one day and feel ashamed that they gave my brilliant book a bad review. they will publish retraction after retraction. they will champion my book even louder than the first kind.

there are no other kinds of reviewers in the universe.