Wednesday, 1 June 2011

On reviewing

Last night I went to see a play - and I was working. The review is already up on Northings, here, by one of those miracles of ezine-publishing. Increasingly I seem to be going to arts events with my reviewer hat on. I wondered if it would reduce my enjoyment of such events, but I'm reaching the conclusion that mostly, it enhances the experience. Because I know I am going to have to communicate about it afterwards, I really pay attention, and as a result I think I notice a broader range of what is happening. I am tuned to think about how the art is being presented. To put it bluntly, I make more of an effort. Instead of waiting for it to wash over me, I go to it, I reach into the performance and tug what I can from it. And, surprise, surprise, I'm getting more out of these experiences than I used to.

I review as a lay person who can write. I am not a professional theatre person. I am certainly not a visual artist, yet I've reviewed a few art exhibitions recently (for example, here and here) and found it deeply rewarding. Having to respond in words to a wordless artform is a challenge, and it's enriching. (It needs to be, it's not exactly well-paid!)

Reviewing books is, of course, a bit closer to home territory. Here I am quite conscious that I would like to do unto others as I'd like people to do to me. I know what it feels like to have a reviewer fail to understand the text I have slaved over for years. I consider it my duty to look for what is admirable, what is there to be appreciated, what the writer does best.

The bottom line is that I love getting involved in conversations about the arts and I revel in having the opportunity to enthuse, in public, about the pleasure I have found in an exhibition or a book or an event. I guess that makes me a rubbish critic. Tough. I don't want to be negative reviewer. I'll point out a weakness if I think it stands out and I'll question something if it really furrows my brow. But on the whole, I am more interested in appreciative enquiry than criticism. I have no time for slagging things off. If something is so awful there's nothing good to say, I won't review it. I won't waste my time, or yours.


  1. I agree, reviewing can really add to the experience of seeing an event or reading a book. Often my reviews on my blogs are more short enthuses rather than proer reviews and because (mostly) i choose what I review on my blog then i only review things that i have overall positive impressions of, though i may make the occasional negative comments

  2. But isn't the whole point of being a reviewer to give your opinion. By denying your readers an honest assessment of the good, the bad and the ugly you aren't really reviewing. I like the concept of always finding redeeming qualities in everything but I can't do everything, read everything, see everything. I depend on reviewers to help guide me both to the good stuff and aware from the bad. And the person you are reviewing has missed an opportunity for getting what could be some very valuable feedback from his/her audience.

    Just saying.....

  3. I can't agree that unless some of my reviews are negative, then I'm 'not really reviewing'. Like I said, 'I'll point out a weakness if I think it stands out and I'll question something if it really furrows my brow', but if I think something is utterly dreadful I'd rather stay quiet in public. I certainly don't want to be paid to slag something off.

    I suspect a lot of bad reviews are the result of reviewers not making the effort or not having the experience or knowledge to understand the work. There are plenty of Nobel Prize for Literature winners that I have groaned my way through, and those are groans of ignorance. If I hate something I'm prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt that this failure says more about me than it says about the work, and in such situations I don't think it's ethical to be paid to express a position of ignorance.

    Perhaps this is fear - maybe I just don't want to look stupid by rubbishing a very, very clever artwork, which I don't understand. But I hope it's not just that. I believe that matters of taste are subjective, and therefore someone else may be able to see, and express, the merit that I'm not noticing. And if no-one can see any merit, then let's not waste our time talking about it.

    On the feedback point, two comments. First I don't think doling out big red crosses in public is a remotely effective way of giving feedback. And secondly, for published books in particular, once it's in print it's too late for the kind of feedback that I could give that might be useful to the author - surely the role of a reviewer of books is to talk to readers, not the writer?

    Anyway, the upshot of all this is that if you want to know what I hate you'll have to ask me in private :-)

  4. Nice to see you as a play reviewer. For what it's worth, I think the best theatre reviewers can disentagle the various threads of script, direction, acting etc, which is much harder than it looks.

    On the small world desk, Greg (Powrie) was one of the actors at my London workshop just before Glencanisp. Keep well and working.