Review Summer: What is the purpose of a review?

Over the next few weeks, I will take you around to many of the murky corners of reviews. But before we embark, there is something we need to establish first: where are we going? When we are writing reviews, what are we trying to achieve? A review that is good at being a review does what? In other words, what is the purpose of a review?

A famous (in critic circles) Danish critic called Poul Borum wrote thus (my translation):

The purpose of a review is to annoy the author, and to prevent the reader from buying bad books

This carries an ounce of truth, even if it is an exaggeration. The first insight is this: a review is not written to please the author. Not that it should be a goal to insult the author – but the critic’s audience is not the author. It’s just as much the art consumer, the art community, the people who just read the paper in question. Besides, again in Mr. Borum’s words:

Every time you praise a bad book, you slight a good author

This quote I’ll return to

The second insight is this: the review should definitely tell you something about the quality of the reviewed object. This seems intuitive: if we read a review, we feel cheated or confused if we are left with no idea about the merits and demerits of the work reviewed.

Qualifying Qualities

So the review has something to do with qualities. Fair enough – but this spawns the next question: what kind of quality are we talking about? You could easily imagine someone saying: “It’s a masterpiece!” “Well, did you enjoy it?” “No, I really struggled to sit through it.” On the other hand, you might also hear someone say “Wow, that was a blast!” “Was it good?” “No – it’s a piece of stereotypical trash.”

It would seem we are dealing with at least two kinds of quality here: one has to do with the enjoyment someone derives from a text, the other some other kind of quality.

The shrewd reader will already have gathered what I’m getting at: I’m actually trying to sneak in a distinguishing between narrow “art,” and other “popular” fiction. And yes, that is the point I’m trying to make: that something can take it’s audience by storm, and still not be good, and something can be reviled by everyone, and still have something that redeems it from immediately going to the wastebin in the sky.

Not that these two types of quality are mutually exclusive – the best works do both. In fact, when reviewing, I believe you ought to separate them into two different considerations: What are the artistic qualities of this, and how enjoyable is it – or rather, who would enjoy it?

The third spice

But that’s not enough. Many people will not be considering watching the film/reading the book (though, if you post a review online, it’s far more likely that someone will come via Google exactly to find out if they should invest in this object or not). If you want these people to read till the end, and to feel your text was worth the time, you must provide them with something else.

Now, this is where we come back the two kinds of quality we were talking about above. Just as a film or a book can be enjoyable or not, so can your review. And if it is enjoyable enough, people will read it, even if they have no interest in what you’re actually reviewing. I watches all of the Zero Punktuation reviews, even if most of the games are some I’d probably never even consider trying.

And just as there can be something in a work of art that makes it worth getting through, your review can have something extra that makes it worth reading for it’s own sake. This could be a certain insight into the medium you are reviewing, or sharp, well formulated opinions that provoke people into rethinking their own opinions.

In short

All in all, I believe that the purpose of a review can be summarised in three points (neat, ain’t it?):

  • A review should guide the reader when he chooses whether to spend his precious time and money on something. In other words, the reviewer should consider what kind of consumer would benefit from this product, and maybe tell him what situation it would be appropriate for.
  • A review should fuel a debate about art. It should outline how the object fits within it’s genre, how it relates to the society around it, and what the state of that art form is today.
  • A review should be an experience to read. It can be hilarious, it can be a small poem in its own right, or it can just be well written and pleasant to read.

That’s not saying that all good reviews do all of these things. Zero Punctuation is notoriously bad at consumer guidance: he is so sarcastic and so critical, it can often be hard to tell if he likes a game or not. But he more than makes up in entertainment. Besides, if you listen closely, you can actually hear his passion and his strong opinions about where he wants video games to go. And two out of three? That’s not too bad.

Have I forgotten something? Am I just plain wrong? Then, by all means, tell me so.

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