What is Reviewing?
Magazine reviewing is all about products. The writer "views" a product, then writes a review to assist the reader in deciding whether or not to buy the product. When artistic works are involved, reviewing can delve deeper than immediate commercial concerns and use some of the objective tools of real criticism. This is a good thing. Criticism is not about making negative statements. It is about deepening our understanding and appreciation for good artistic work.
The Dreaded C-word
Good reviewing is challenging and rewarding work. But you may be a little uneasy about words like "critic" and "criticism". These words are often hissed from the clenched jaws of unhappy artists, marketers, and even art consumers, as if the critic were some know-nothing with enormous gall, whose sole purpose is to say nasty things. Where does the critic get the right to say such terrible things?
This attitude can be very daunting. Do you dare to write reviews? Will you become a pariah in this cozy, supportive little harmonica community if you write something that isn't all sunshine and lollipops?
It is true that if you write for the public, you will ruffle feathers now and then, and occasionally you will be misunderstood - it comes with the territory. But if you write well and fairly, if you offer valuable information and exercise a little diplomacy, you will probably make far more friends than you lose.
From time to time, negative statements are called for. But not as often as you might imagine. And there are good and useful rules for when and how - and whether - to make a negative statement.
Yes, reviewing has rules. And methods and tools. If you know the rules, and you know your subject, you can write reviews that use objective criteria, are fair, and are interesting. And you can write with authority and, for the most part, stay out of trouble.
What is the Value of Reviewing?
The value of reviewing lies partly in its commercial function of offering useful information to the consumer. But the best reviews also help to deepen understanding and appreciation of artistic creation. In this way, reviewing enriches all involved - the reviewer, the reader and the artist. It helps us as humans to make sense of the universe - or at least the part that creates and experiences art.
In a community of artists, good reviewing raises the level of the art. It helps us to recognize good work, and to appreciate it more deeply when we find it. Good reviewing encourages critical thinking and higher standards. The harmonica community needs higher standards if it is to advance.
Harmonica players often complain that the world doesn't take the harmonica seriously. But harmonica players are part of the problem when they write badly and uncritically about the harmonica. In trying to be "supportive" of harmonica artists, they excuse flawed work and gush about mediocre playing. They may quote extensively and uncritically from the artist's publicity material, or even print the press release verbatim without stating the source. Compare this to the level of writing in general music magazines and the differences will be embarrassingly obvious.
Good writing helps raise the level of the discussion. Harmonica players benefit directly from higher standards and a better quality of information. If outside observers read and hear a higher quality information stream, this can only improve the perception of harmonica players in the world at large.
The harmonica community needs good reviewers.
What is the Function of Reviewing?
The reviewer functions in a long chain of activities that involve the making and selling of entertainment products such as CDs, films, novels, and so on. But the reviewer isn't just another bee in the hive, and this is very important to understand.
The first step is production. This involves not only creative people like the screenwriter or songwriter and the singers, actors, best-selling authors or other "star" personalities, but a team of specialists - recording engineers, editors, special effects people, etc. Once they come up with a product, marketing people go to work to target an audience and package the work so that it will appeal to that audience. As the product is pumped into distribution in record stores, movie theatres, bookstores and so on, the publicity team goes to work to get the media engaged. They buy advertising, but they also get the reporting side of the media involved, with artist interviews, feature articles, and reviews.
It would be easy to assume that the reviewer is an extension of the publisher's media campaign. The reviewer gets closer than does the consumer to the publicity machine and its workings, the industry talk, the artist, and the creative process, and gets to experience the product without paying for it.
But with all that privileged access, the function of the reviewer is to take it all in, remain aloof, then report to his master - the reader.
Are there conflicts of loyalty, what with all this insider access, and with the publisher taking out ads in the magazine? Yes, there are. And there are ways of dealing with this. As with reviewing itself, there are rules that help the reviewer stay on good terms with all parties, do her duty to the reader, and sleep well at night. These are addressed in the General Guidelines.
Who is Served by Reviewing?
As a vehicle to fame and fortune, or at least to notoriety and fashionable parties? Only so long as he has something to offer the reader. If his words don't ring true, this can be short and sweet. If he truly serves the reader, he will cultivate authority by earning the reader's trust.
The artist doesn't buy all the copies of the paper or magazine, nor is a review written primarily to sell his soap or stoke his ego. A review may do those things as a byproduct, but only if people care to read it in the first place. If the reviewer serves only the artist, he is just a publicity flack in disguise. Eventually he will lose the trust and the interest of the reader.
The reader buys the magazine and watches the show. Without the reader, the magazine will fold and the show will be canceled. Both the reviewer and the artist can benefit from published reviews, but only if the reader reads it - and keeps on reading. The reader is King and Queen, and reviews are always written for him and her.
To be sure, a published review must serve the reviewer and her publisher in some way, or they wouldn't take the trouble. And it must serve the artist and his/her publisher, or they would not submit the work for review. But unless there's someone to read the review, what's the point? A review is nothing but the reviewer talking to the reader about the artist's product. If the reviewer has nothing interesting to say, the reader won't bother with it.
Why do you pick up a magazine and read reviews?
Is it to see how clever the reviewer is? Maybe.
Is it to read technical discussions in which the reviewer offers his wisdom and priceless advice to the grateful artist? Not likely. In all probability, you want to get an idea what the product is about, and whether you should buy it. Maybe, at the same time, you wouldn't turn down an intelligent discussion of how that product relates to other similar products and the general world of harmonica, or even a little treatise that might fill you in on a particular style or historical period related to the product. Not that artists never get useful perspective from the reviewers they respect. It just doesn't usually happen in print.
Some reviewers have tried to build their careers by savaging the work of even the best artists - after all, destructive behavior and scandal attract attention, and some readers ever get their rocks off watching a reviewer sink their canines into an artist they hate. Some magazines even encourage this behavior. But not HIP.
Where Does the Reviewer Get the Right to Criticize?
He or she earns it.
Word by word, sentence by sentence, a reveiwer earns the trust and goodwill of the reader. Not by pandering, but by being fair, thoughtful, insightful, entertaining, and informative. Sometimes by giving voice to things that the reader is feeling but hasn't been able to express. Other times by pointing out things the reader hadn't thought of at all, and even taking unpopular stands and challenging assumptions that may be masking a work's true value (or lack of it).
A reviewer can lose the trust of the reader by being high-handed and dismissive, by talking down to the reader, condescending, or by showing that he doesn't take the reader and/or the artist seriously enough to really deal with the work under discussion. A reviewer can also lose the trust of the reader by demonstrating a first loyalty to someone other than the reader, such as the seller of the product under review.
© 2000 Winslow Yerxa. All rights reserved.