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Some interesting thoughts on criticism


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Showing 1-25 of 86 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 13, 2012 1:18:03 PM PDT
The WSJ has an interesting piece today on the death of art critic Hilton Kramer:

Why, then, was this aspect of Mr. Kramer's long career overlooked when he died? Because bad reviews always make a bigger splash than good ones. And why should this be so? Because critics tend as a general rule to do their most memorable writing about works of art that they dislike. In the words of Anton Ego, the haughty restaurant reviewer in Brad Bird's film "Ratatouille," they "thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read."

So it is-but as any critic can tell you, it's also harder to praise than to pan. The reason for this is that the language of abuse is vastly more vivid than the language of praise. Evelyn Waugh, who in addition to being a great novelist was a superb book reviewer, neatly summed up this problem in a 1937 essay: "There are infinite gradations of blame, a thousand fresh and pungent metaphors for detraction, the epithets of dissatisfaction seem never to stale...but the moment one finds a work which genuinely impresses and delights, there seems no article of expression other than the clichés that grin at one from every publisher's advertisement."

Above all, it's inordinately difficult to use humor to praise a good work of art, whereas nothing is easier than to crack jokes about a bad one. The drama critic Kenneth Tynan was, like Mr. Kramer, a passionate enthusiast, yet it is his pans that people quote to this day, and the lines that get quoted are invariably the funny ones-very often, to be sure, because their wit is wrapped around a hard core of truth. When Mr. Tynan described T.S. Eliot's "The Family Reunion" as a "has-been, would-be masterpiece," or wrote in a review of "Antony and Cleopatra" that Vivien Leigh "picks at the part [of Cleopatra] with the daintiness of a debutante called upon to dismember a stag," you could hear the thunk of the arrow hitting the bull's-eye.

I think this article is free to all comers at:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304356604577338050699825764.html?mod=djemLifeStyle_h

Posted on Apr 13, 2012 1:36:56 PM PDT
C. Scanlon says:
I prefer the video review of strong works of great worth, as tears tell all.
You Will Be My Witnesses: Saints, Prophets, and Martyrs
if it has not yet been deleted.

Mr. Riley's video reviews of interesting kitchen technology meeting his discerning approval, on the other hand, successfully incorporates praise with humor, which is what makes him a Master Reviewer.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 13, 2012 3:02:43 PM PDT
There is so much modern art not to like. I much prefer most of the art at the Louvre.

Posted on Apr 13, 2012 3:28:00 PM PDT
Brent Butler says:
I don't know art, but I know that whatever art I like will cost more than I want to pay for it!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 13, 2012 5:27:23 PM PDT
Maybe you just have expensive tastes. You could always get cheaper versions which look just as good as the original painting. I have two Behrens paintings which I found fairly cheap at a discount store.

Posted on Apr 13, 2012 6:24:20 PM PDT
Bryan Byrd says:
That's an interesting snippet, Bob. It is easier to let the snark fly on something poorly written, but from the perspective of reader reviews, I haven't found it very productive. I do also agree, however, that one runs out of superlatives after a while, and it gets difficult to impart how much an inherently subjective item like a book or a piece of music has moved me.

One way I try to convey how much I enjoy a certain item is to reserve the five star rating for the truly outstanding stuff. I wasn't as discriminating when I first started reviewing, but somewhere along the line I started getting much harder on my grading. IF I had someone who was consistently following my reviews, I would like to think that if they saw that I had given it five stars, they would know right off the bat that this was something special. That way I won't have to feel that I have to tack on adjective after adjective to convince someone how good it is.

What I think is the hardest for me to review is the merely average. There are a serious dearth of good descriptors for "meh".

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 13, 2012 8:51:41 PM PDT
I give more and more four-star reviews as time goes by. I think I'm becoming a little jaded. I've even been saying negative things in children's kindle book reviews. For some reason people think you can read tiny text on Kindle book pages. Imagine taking a normal children's book and shrinking it down to nothing then displaying it on a Kindle. That is the problem.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 14, 2012 4:02:33 AM PDT
Bryan Byrd says:
Seems like legitimate criticism to me. If I couldn't read it, I would probably rate it even lower than four stars - perhaps those who format such things would work harder at making their product more visible. The older I get, the more important font size becomes, and now that I'm a grandpa, I read many more children's books than I used to.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 15, 2012 8:30:51 PM PDT
Ciaran says:
Bryan - I recently found myself at exactly that point. I looked back at some of my five-star reviews and realized that they were decent products/books, but not on the same level as the outstanding items I had reviewed.

Four stars is fast becoming my most used rating, unless something exceeds expectations and is at the top of its class.

Posted on Apr 15, 2012 8:45:32 PM PDT
I'm finding the same thing with the stars, when I started I luuvvved pretty much everything, now it has to be pretty close to perfection, and some still are, but I find myself giving more 3 and 4 star reviews.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 15, 2012 9:00:38 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 15, 2012 9:00:55 PM PDT
Ciaran says:
It's funny how you can start off almost sounding like a shill (even though I had no concept of what a shill was).

I've gone back and edited a ton of reviews because of this.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 15, 2012 9:30:13 PM PDT
Maybe you are just a really positive person. Your energy comes across that way.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 15, 2012 9:54:21 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 15, 2012 9:55:02 PM PDT
Ciaran says:
Thanks! Most of the time I am but in the past I would give 5-star ratings to products that had serious caveats - I have to consider how other people will receive the product also so as to not create false expectations for more realistic/less forgiving buyers!

Posted on Apr 16, 2012 5:35:54 AM PDT
Do you fear being labeled "a shill" enough to not give five stars?

Should we be able to change our star award after the review is posted?

Since five stars is the most common award, do you "hurt" a good product when you give less since five stars is the expected award?

Don't we expect to like an item we buy?

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 16, 2012 5:44:20 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 16, 2012 6:00:26 AM PDT
Ciaran says:
"Do you fear being labeled "a shill" enough to not give five stars?"
Absolutely not, but a product must deserve a rating that is used to denote the absolute best of products (i.e. 5 stars). I think my initial comment about this was poorly explained on my part, I wasn't going back to edit my reviews because of fear of sounding like a shill, but I was perhaps more enthusiastic about a product than it deserved from an objective stand-point.

"Should we be able to change our star award after the review is posted?"
Yes. We might both change our opinion of the product after testing durability, or we might gain more knowledge of the kind of product. Before I had a real understanding of 35mm film, I gave Kodak Gold a 5-star rating. After shooting almost every professional film available, I dropped the rating down to 4 stars because it was no longer "an incredible film", even in its own respect.

"Since five stars is the most common award, do you "hurt" a good product when you give less since five stars is the expected award?"
I wouldn't say that 5 stars is the most common award - where do you get this idea from? Even if this is true, I don't think that you would "hurt" a good product with a 4-star review, whose definition from Amazon is "I like it". This is still a positive rating, and I buy 4-star average products all the time. If I went around rating great products as 3-stars because they didn't make me coffee too or some other stupid reason, I would see your point, but rating a product with caveats at 4-stars is more than fair in my mind. Don't get me wrong, I rate products at 5 stars often, but they have to exceed expectations and show excellent quality for that product type for me to do this.

"Don't we expect to like an item we buy?"
Sure, but again Amazon's own rating denotes 4-stars as "I like it".

Make sense?

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 16, 2012 5:58:29 AM PDT
James, I still give five start to deserving products. There are some I absolutely love. But it used to be I either wouldn't review something I didn't like, or I was to generous because I was inexperienced. 4 is a lot of like, and 3 is the "C" grade of the review world. It's a shame (and I know Jason K addressed this earlier and much better than I can) that a 3 star is labeled as critical by Amazon, with critical having a somewhat negative connotation.

I'm not saying I don't still give out fives, I just give out a lot less, not because I care if anything thinks I'm a shill, but because I've matured as a reviewer.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 16, 2012 6:04:31 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 16, 2012 6:05:20 AM PDT
We do expect to like things we buy, James, a very valid point.

In fact there are a number of studies that show that we value objects we own more than objects we don't own. Some of them are fascinating -- the so called "endowment" effect. One such:

http://sds.hss.cmu.edu/media/pdfs/loewenstein/EffectOwnershipHistory.pdf

I've found it very interesting to re-read my Reviews systematically a year or two after writing them. Often I've deleted them -- sometimes for poor writing, more often because with time I've gained a better understanding of the subject matter -- or myself. :)

More often I've edited them for clarity, softening or more often hardening my judgments, and once in a great while modifying the number of stars.

One point: if there are lots of reviews, I don't do much -- usually just delete them -- one more opinion doesn't mean much. But I really like reviewing relatively unpopular items -- one or two or perhaps three reviews at the most, so that may have some effect on the decision making.

Thanks for a great insight.

Robert

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 16, 2012 1:44:22 PM PDT
Iola says:
"Since five stars is the most common award, do you "hurt" a good product when you give less since five stars is the expected award?"

Yes, five stars is the most common award - but it should not be the expected award. Three stars is OK or average, so in a perfect system, that would be the most common rating.

And do we 'hurt' a good product by giving it less than five stars? Maybe, but it's more likely that we 'hurt' a bad product, and in doing so, help someone who might otherwise have been suckered into buying said bad product based on the rave five-star reviews.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 16, 2012 2:36:18 PM PDT
Sheila (NJ) says:
I seem to skew toward the four star review, which makes sense since it means I like it. The 3 star "it's OK" seems so luke-warm to me, like "shucks, I guess it's OK, but it could be a lot better". I tend to start at a 4 and then give it a 5 if I love it and start deducting stars if it has issues. For a while there, I seemed to have nothing but 4 star reviews, of course I like the number 4 so maybe that is why.

Posted on Apr 17, 2012 8:56:38 AM PDT
H. P. says:
It's easy to write a review attacking a bad product. It's very hard writing a helpful critical review.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2012 9:56:39 AM PDT
C. Scanlon says:
yeah, Peace, but which is more fun? Which is read?

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2012 10:01:47 AM PDT
I find the opposite is true, the more I like the product the more I find to say about it

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2012 12:22:38 PM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2012 12:28:57 PM PDT
I don't even really like writing negatives, except on e-books that are cut and pasted because stealing is wrong, or if a product is so truly horrible I want to warn people. I really would rather write about why I loved something than hated it.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2012 12:41:33 PM PDT
It does give more pleasure to some to be positive. It is a lifestyle choice. I do however like writing
a three-star review with something critical in it. It makes me feel more professional.
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Discussion in:  Top Reviewers forum
Participants:  23
Total posts:  86
Initial post:  Apr 13, 2012
Latest post:  Apr 26, 2012

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