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.