On reviews and not reviewing

I watched El Camino at the weekend, the Breaking Bad movie that follows the aftermath of the final episode by focussing on Jesse Pinkman after he escapes from the neo-Nazis. I enjoyed it but this isn’t a review of it.

If I review something I do one of two things:

  • Read other reviews first
  • Avoid reading other reviews first

Generally, I’ll read other reviews if I feel I don’t have a good grasp on the thing. I avoid reading other reviews when I think I’ve got a good sense of the thing and my reaction to it. Then sometimes I just read other reviews before hand because I feel like and I’m not the boss of me.

I didn’t feel like I had good sense of what to say about El Camino, so I did read other reviews. On review I thought was particularly pertinent was this one by Abigail Nussbaum http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2019/10/el-camino-a-breaking-bad-movie

Unfortunately, it was a bit too good i.e. I felt I had nothing to say afterwards. This is one reason why I’m always impressed by how people like Charles Payseur or Greg Hullender manage to review so many things, even if the reviews are short.

There are two things I find very difficult to review: things I had complex reactions to and things I didn’t have much reaction to at all. In both cases it is the issue of how to go about writing something that stops me. I know that I’m most comfortable writing things that in essence arguments i.e. have the structure of:

  1. I think this
  2. Here is a chain of facts and reasons
  3. See, I was right

But what I’m actually writing is more like:

  1. I felt this about a thing
  2. Here is what happened in the thing
  3. My feeling are now validated

And I’m not so sure about that and it makes me want to write reviews differently but I’m not sure how. And that is enough introspection for today!


5 thoughts on “On reviews and not reviewing

  1. As someone who is more of an amateur at reviewing (I think), I tend to try to read one or more reviews of a book before I write a review, unless I really really don’t have any feelings about the book. In which case, my own review isn’t likely to be very long, and will generally note that the book is kind of just there – I can’t remember the last time a book I didn’t really have much feelings about was either good enough or bad enough for it not to fall firmly in the middle of my review rankings, so I can at least say that much.

    That said, I don’t have as much trouble reviewing works I have complex feelings about….unless those feelings are positive, because I find it really hard to express those feelings in a way that seems to make sense and truly expresses why I feel that way. When I have complex feelings about why I did NOT like a book, I just try and vent and feel less concerned about if my rant makes any sense – since I’m not trying to get others to read the works anyhow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The best things to review are things that are bad in a particular way. Just overall bad and mediocre is too vague, you need something deeply flawed but in a way that is comprehensible yet not obvious.

      There’s a parallel universe that is a utopia for critics and a dystopia for everybody else, where all media is just right for writing bad reviews.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I hate saying “this just didn’t work for me” though sometimes that’s all I’ve got.
        I do read reviews, sometimes, because they sometimes help me nail down why I liked/didn’t like a book.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The first year I was writing reviews (2015), I started in September, but I went back and read and reviewed all the short fiction in six different venues back to the start of the year. For the older works, I could simply do a web search for the full title plus author’s name and usually find four or five other reviews. In the beginning, I did that before writing my own reviews, and those other reviews greatly influenced what I had to say. After a couple of months, I took to writing a draft first and then looking at the other reviews. Then I got to where I only looked at other reviews if I had some doubts about what the story was about.

    Now, though, I’m often one of the first to review any given short story, so there are few or no other reviews to look at when I’m writing mine. But I’ve written over 3,000 reviews now, so I’ve developed a set of principles that help a lot.

    For some stories–ones with 3-star ratings–I don’t feel I need to write a lot. Just enough to jog a person’s memory who’s trying to remember what the story was come nomination time. I can usually find something of interest to say about it (something I liked and something I didn’t like), although the occasional story is so lukewarm that even that’s a challenge. “It was well-written with natural dialogue and transparent narration” works, but only when that’s actually true.

    It’s easy to write a lot about a bad story, but these days I force myself to keep those short. I just need enough to make it clear why I found the story unpleasant to read (not just mediocre); anything beyond that just hurts the author’s feelings to no purpose. I try to be extra careful with authors who’ve attacked me in public, since I don’t want to create the impression I’m trying to get payback. (It’s actually a perverse pleasure to give a good review to such an author. Not sure if I can explain why.)

    With practice, it’s also easy to write a lot about a story I want to recommend. It comes down to being very introspective and figuring out what I really value in a story. For a really good one, I’ll often reread it and take notes on the reread.

    Liked by 2 people

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