A Review of Reviewing

Betty Friedan, American feminist and writer.
Betty Friedan. Image via

In my MBA program at NYU, I got to take two unusual and enlightening classes that changed my outlook substantially. The first was on the issues faced by women and minorities in the business world, taught by famed author and activist Betty Friedan.

The second was a class studying management through reading literature, which taught me an important principle about judging success: you have to know the goals to judge success. Among other things, we read Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, looking in it for clues about each character’s intentions and judging from the text how successful they were. [Brutus doesn’t fare too well, from this perspective. While he manages to get rid of Ceasar, the result doesn’t give him the Rome he is after. Instead Ceasar becomes a martyr and Brutus becomes a pariah. The new Roman government fights Brutus’ forces and kills him.]

The principle of judging according to the goals occurred to me as I read Tyler’s post last week, The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, and the comments that accompanied it. There, he discussed a play review and what some of the reviewers comments implied about Mormon attitudes and tastes.

One facet of the discussion that interests me is the unstated assumptions about the role of a reviewer made by Tyler and by some commentators. As I see it, there are three general views of what a reviewer should do.

First, many people, especially consumers, believe a reviewer should tell readers whether or not they will like the book or play or product (I’ll assume book from here on, but I believe my points can equally apply to any cultural product). In this view, the review should consist of enough information so that the typical reader of the publication can understand what he or she will see or read or get from the book. Reviewers then are responsible, under this view, to their readers.

This approach seems to be used more often in newspapers and other popular reviews, and I can certainly see why. All of us are consumers. We want to know if the books we are purchasing are really worth the money. We want to know if the book reviewed will accomplish whatever we need it to.

But there are also real problems with these kind of reviews. Not only is this standard of “reader’s tastes” quite fickle, changing sometimes as often as fads change, reviewing to this standard also reinforces those tastes, pushing every product to be similar. These reviews make it harder for different and revolutionary books to get attention from readers. Think of how the Book of Mormon would fare (and has fared) even today (to say nothing of in the early 1830s) given these kinds of reviews. Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique would have also fared poorly if reviewers were judging whether or not audiences would like the book.

In contrast, the other view of reviewers says that the review should compare the book to some more or less objective standard. These reviews not only give information about the book, but also analyze the text, giving the reviewers arguments for why the book fits or doesn’t fit that standard. Reviewers in this case are responsible not to readers as much as to the standard they are applying.

Academic reviews tend to follow this approach. Such reviews are often more objective and “fair” to the author. They are less liable to change and more likely to be internally consistent and consistent with an ideology.

But they also lead to positive reviews of books that many readers simply don’t like or may even find unreadable. And they can be somewhat fickle too, since the standards used fall in and out of favor over time, as if most readers even agreed on what standard to use.

In the Mormon context, you would think that reviews would try to judge according to some gospel-based standard. But no such standard is applied by anyone that I’ve seen.

Another possible approach that I think is used to a degree is to judge a book according to what the author was trying to accomplish. The review then consists of not only information about the book, but a judgment of the author’s goals and an analysis of whether or not those goals were accomplished. The reviewer is then responsible to the author, not to readers or any particular standard.

Academic reviews also sometimes use this approach. A review written in this way is the most fair to the author. There isn’t any suggestion that the author should have done something he or she didn’t have any knowledge of or that the author should follow a standard with which he or she disagrees.

Unfortunately, these aren’t easily accomplished. Its hard to get inside the author’s head, when often the only clues are what was written in the book. And even if you can understand the author’s purpose, is judging according to that purpose useful to anyone but the author?

For example, when I first started reading science fiction, one of my favorite books was Robert Heinlein‘s Podkayne of Mars, in which a young girl gets caught up in interplanetary espionage. For me, as an early teen, Podkayne was an admirable character, a strong person who didn’t let others control her. But as an adult, when I read the book to my children, I was surprised to find that Heinlein intended an anti-feminist message in the book! That message had been completely lost on me as a young teen, and even now I’d say that Heinlein didn’t accomplish his goal of showing dangers in feminism.

Of course, the above analysis doesn’t leave us with any obvious approach for reviews. Each of these approaches have downsides, and none of them alone offers everything–nor can they because each approach answers to a different audience.

I think the issue of reviewer responsibility may be the key to reviewing reviewers. I don’t claim to know all the responsibilities that a reviewer has. I’m sure some who comment here will help with that. But I’m sure of a couple responsibilities. First, to make sure that the approach used is clear to readers. And second, to have figured out the approach being used and thought about its implications.

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5 thoughts on “A Review of Reviewing”

  1. .

    To rephrase you (and possibly misinterpret you) I think we can also split reviews into two simple camps: commercial response and artistic response. Most reviews are of the latter, talking about, mm, temporal concerns. Is it good? will I like it? is it worth the money?

    The latter type of review, however, is art in itself. It’s a direct response to the work, but it is striving to engage the work, to treat it not as an end of itself, to be purchased or rejected, but a launching point for further artistic response.

  2. I do a fair amount of not-exactly-professional reviewing for LDS people (on LDS Readers and at my books clubs and, now, even here!)and I would say there is a definite Mormon standard but it isn’t from the artistic viewpoint. It’s from the audience. When I review a work for and LDS audience I automatically think of how many cuss words there were and which ones are used. I think of any violence or sex and what context it is in. I think of any testimony moments and how genuine they feel. I think of how the character’s knowledge intersects with their knowledge of “the gospel”. I also think of how intellectual the language is and how applicable the work is to a person’s life. And probably the biggest thing I think about is think about what kind of conversation I would have with my children if they were to pick up the book and read it. Would the questions I had to answer be uncomfortable and unproductive? I also think LDS people are always looking for the “virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy” aspect. I keep these things in mind because those are the things most of the readers I talk to are interested in. I also try to couch any “artistic” work in its artistic legacy and educate people to what an author may be trying to say. Now maybe I review things that way because those are the people I associate with. If I associated with academics maybe I would be more academic and author centered in reviews. . .Anyway, my point is that I think there is an LDS standard for reviews but it has yet to be formally articulated.

  3. You bring up some good points, Kent, and I think Theric and Laura give some good input as well. It’s extremely interesting that we (meaning both Mormons and humans) like to divide things into camps, to see things as either/or, and I think you’ve captured that here with your brief discussion of reviewers and reviewing and the ways reviews are generally written and received. You also capture some of the underpinnings that motivate the dichotomy between “academics” and “non-academics” in American society. We have reviews written by and for “intellectuals” and reviews written for others (the assumption being that anyone who thinks critically about things [literature, film, etc.] must be an intellectual–which has unfortunately become, in many instances, a derogatory term–and anyone who just reads things at face value is, well, non-intellectual).

    It seems that–and I’m probably oversimplifying things–the lay reader tends to distrust or may not even have access to the reviews written by a university trained critic, while said critic may not care much what the lay reader things about such-and-such a text; they’re simply writing to impress their fellow academics. In reality, I know things don’t fit so nicely into these packages, but a recurring question in my own personal and academic pursuits is why we insist (myself included) on propagating the dichotomy, especially in the Church where we should be hospitable to others and their ideas; should be looking for and reading from the best books, no matter who’s written or written about them; should be seeking the good and the “good report” wherever we can find it?

    I don’t have an answer (as I don’t have answers to many of the other questions I have about similar issues), but I’m just throwing it out there.

    *****

    As for reviewer responsibility, might some reviewers and critics see themselves as gatekeepers trying to keep the evil out? Maybe it would be helpful to view them (and ourselves as critics/reviewers) more as mediators, as someone who can go between us and any text and open new ways to think about it, to help us endure whatever “evil” may be portrayed in personally and culturally redemptive ways…

  4. Laura (2) wrote:

    When I review a work for and LDS audience I automatically think of how many cuss words there were and which ones are used. I think of any violence or sex and what context it is in. I think of any testimony moments and how genuine they feel. I think of how the character’s knowledge intersects with their knowledge of “the gospel”. I also think of how intellectual the language is and how applicable the work is to a person’s life. And probably the biggest thing I think about is think about what kind of conversation I would have with my children if they were to pick up the book and read it. Would the questions I had to answer be uncomfortable and unproductive? I also think LDS people are always looking for the “virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy” aspect. I keep these things in mind because those are the things most of the readers I talk to are interested in.

    This sounds quite conventional. You’re reviewing according to what your readers like.

    While I can’t connect you with any particular review I’ve read (so please don’t take this as a criticism of your reviews), I have a general problem with this approach — it doesn’t include any responsibility to tell the reader when he or she is wrong. Mormon Culture, even if it doesn’t fit the gospel, gets a pass under this approach.

    If you would, take a look at my post What Trip’s Up Mormon Lit, where I tell about my own experience with an LDS novel in this regard. In that case, under the standard of reviewing according to what the audience will like, the book I read get’s a positive review. No one cares about its egregious error and perpetuation of unjustified stereotype.

    Doesn’t a reviewer have a responsibility in this case?

    I worry that these things get overlooked, while we strain at the gnat of whether or not “damn” is a curse word and should have been used in an LDS text.

    Now maybe I review things that way because those are the people I associate with.

    That’s possible. I would not suggest that all reviews be academic reviews. As I pointed out in the post, academic reviews can have their problems. Both reviews have their roles.

    But regardless of which type of review is written, I do think the reviewer’s responsibility is larger than just telling people whether or not they would like the work.

    Anyway, my point is that I think there is an LDS standard for reviews but it has yet to be formally articulated.

    I agree that there is a kind of standard, but I would argue that it is a standard that comes from Mormon culture, by a particular view of the gospel. But, IMO, the view we get from Mormon culture is, in part, deficient. Isn’t it the reviewer’s responsibility to point out where we are going wrong? Shouldn’t the reviewer say something when a work satisfies the culture, but forgets basic gospel principles, like “love thy neighbor?”

  5. Tyler (3):

    In reality, I know things don’t fit so nicely into these packages, but a recurring question in my own personal and academic pursuits is why we insist (myself included) on propagating the dichotomy, especially in the Church where we should be hospitable to others and their ideas; should be looking for and reading from the best books, no matter who’s written or written about them; should be seeking the good and the “good report” wherever we can find it?

    All dichotomies have this problem. They both aid understanding and exclude. My point here was mostly that reviews from both perspectives have problems and strengths.

    I think that popular reviews can be quite useful in many cases. When I want to read a novel to escape, I don’t much care about whether an academic reviewer thinks that the use of metaphor in the work aids or detracts from character development. But I am also suspicious of a popular review that relies solely on the cultural standard — whether or not the average person in the culture will like the work. Doesn’t that approach dodge responsibility?

    As for reviewer responsibility, might some reviewers and critics see themselves as gatekeepers trying to keep the evil out?

    I’m sure that’s true. But the devil is in the details (so to speak). What is the definition of evil? Are we principally worried about curse words? or morality? Are we more worried about an incidental portrayal of evil? Or the message that the book presents?

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