The State of Reviewing (An Essay)

By Curtis Cole

(An essay I wrote for a directed study undertaken in the 2017 spring term.)

Reviewing is all around us: it is on our favorite websites, we hear classmates talk about it after a particularly harsh class, and we see it in the newspapers. Some reviews are product reviews, other professor reviews, while others yet the short and sweet classic newspaper review, so condensed and small that only the bare bones is allowed. Reviews are like the ultimate celebrity, they are everywhere yet seemingly nowhere; people talk about it without really knowing about them.

In such an atmosphere, what can we really know about reviews? Are all reviews the same? Is reading an eighteen-year old’s Meninist screed against his Womens Study professor on RateMyProfessor.com, the same as reading a couple thousand word piece in the nation’s leading literary magazine? Probably not, but we could argue that a couple hundred word newspaper article reviewing the latest Stephen King book is similar to the lengthy blog post which deconstructs the same book. So the question becomes this: how does reviewing change from medium to medium, genre to genre, and why is this change important?

This essay cannot answer such a loaded question in full. The honest truth is that reviewing is too diverse to really pin down one definitive answer. But, this essay can at least provide glimpses into the reality of reviewing in a few key areas and why the practice of reviewing in those areas has been influenced lately by the state of the economy and perception of the craft itself; in the minimum, why the art of reviewing has been articulated in an age so awash in reviewing that we, as a society, do not even know what a review is supposed to do.

Literature

Book reviewing in the United States has always been a marginalized practice; Gail Pool relates that the industry is akin to a lowly regarded journalism which nonetheless garners all the negativity when a review inevitably goes wrong (2 Faint Praise). Part of this is cultural: between manifest destiny and economic development, few people felt that keenly written observations of literature was needed.

And so, as the industry chugged along faithfully into the modern era, the practice was always seen as second fiddle. Reviewers were rarely seen as journalists, they were paid little, often in need of second jobs, while having to compete for those jobs which existed at all with literally thousands of others all vying for the same position (34); what did not help the industry, Pool recounts, was how review editors saddled reviewers with books they knew nothing about while placing them on time-tables which pushed the credible into the absurd (39-40). What does not help is the bias in the industry which effects a wide range of how books are published, why they were published, and how they are reviewed; in sum, Pool lists a hefty sum of qualities which pervert the book industry and make reviewing an art form in crisis.

One of the points which effect it most in today’s age, is the internet.

Anyone can write a book review. This is a fact. The internet is testament to this fact where a quick google search will reveal all variety of articles on how to review literature, usually from authors themselves looking to cash in on their positions of authority.  Nonetheless, the information conveyed in these articles only cover the basics, and thus, Pool’s assertion from Praise remains correct that authors themselves are perhaps not the best sources on how to review literature.

Part of this has to do with reviewing itself; as Bill Asenjo writes in one such online article, it is easier to find information on bomb-making than book reviewing. And this is true. So because of this difficulty, what we see is a rehash of the basics of books reviewing: describe the basics of the plot, mention what you liked and did not like, consider your audience, and, of course, what you want to say in the space that you have been allotted. It is easier imagined than actually done and panders, furthermore, to merely the online self-published crowd; this sort of book reviewing is for amateurs, not the semi-skilled paid professionals which Pool is concerned about when writing her treatise.

Whether it is a Christian blogger (Tim Challies) informing his audience on his standard modus operandi or giving teens a few quick tips (Luisa Playa), the point of online reviewing is to act less as intellectual endeavors and more as product reviews; ergo, why we see the devaluation of reviewing in the contemporary age. Ultimately, when we see millions of product reviews on Amazon.com we begin to feel that anyone can review, and when anyone can review, the practice itself starts to become devalued in itself and seen as unskilled labor; hence, it is labor not meant to be taken seriously.

In the end, reviewing for literature requires a dedication to the medium and an awareness of the genre itself. This is why understanding one’s audience is so important; one needs to read the review in full, understand that you are trying to talk about one or two intellectually edifying ideas within a certain context, and that your audience will need to be ready to respond to those ideas (which means, you need to know the specifics of the niche you are writing for). It is a lot to take in and harder to make into a living. Even so, in the end, Pool believes that literary reviewing can be saved if review editors, the book industry, and the public at large are open to making some changes and learning that reviewing is more than an opinion.

Music

In the practice of reviewing music, many of the practices from reviewing literature are observed, yet, there is also divergence.

A piece on Freelance Writing.com, for instance, says that it is also helpful if the reviewer avoids the use of cliches, and generic, non-specific terms such as interesting, and accumulates a list of colorful adjectives that can be used to describe the music. Other low-key amateur music reviewers follow suit with similar advice: a student writing for his peer group, for example, lists that prospective reviewers should provide background details on the artist(s), compare the acts current work with their past efforts, and refrain from quoting more than a few lines as there focus should be on having the review work in describing the song for them. Such advice will recall Gail Pool suggestions, insofar as it reminds reviewers that when confined on space, it is best to be direct and straightforward in their opinion. However, these website divest of Pool when they recommend that the reviewer use colorful adjectives though a component to many reviews, Pool recounts that many reviewers only resort to such tactics because they are working with an overly restrictive word count; overloaded with such adjectives, reviews do not always lead to cogent statements and can tends to favor the melodramatic over the realistic.

But divergence is to be expected: after all, music is not the same as literature. Whereas books, commodities which have a certain structure and protracted intrinsic meaning” and, hence, can be discussed in certain ways” music is more abstract and its meaning harder to pin down. Not only does the format change over time, but, as Ally-Jane Grossan references when writing for The Guardian, the internet age’s rhizomatic revolutionization has transformed reviewing; thanks to “There no longer [being] strict word count restrictions when writing for a website; the possibilities are endless and that’s daunting”. This means reviewing music online is fundamentally different from reviewing literature in a magazine or newspaper.

To this end, Grossan, listing some helpful points about what experts say about music reviewing, has several innovative points which simply do not apply to an engagement with literature.

For one, Grossan recounts that one should try “listening in the wild” and listening often but not with an ear to overthink; reviewers should try to construct a narrative about the tracks which fits into this period of listening. Finally, research on the band and genre should serve as the stepping stone to cap off the review. Taken together, and with the various pressures of reviewing, especially under pressure of a word count and deadline, inexperienced music reviewers should find a decent path to reviewing and find the base in which they are to develop.

Videogames

Videogames are reviewed in fundamentally different ways than literature or music.

Why videogames are reviewed different is due in part to their length. Most videogames take hours to complete. Even shorter games, such as the First-Person Shooters (FPS) games like Halo or Call of Duty, have a runtime of around 7-12 hours for the single-player campaign. If you consider multi-player, then, online gameplay included, then this runtime increases by at least another six or seven hours.

All of this indicates a medium which demands a heavy time investment. Even more so than literature; often times, reading several hundred pages will still not take as long as completing the latest Role-Playing (RPG) game from Square Enix, which can take anywhere from 30-50 hours, and can go as high as a 100+ hours for a “completionist” run which aims to complete all of the objectives and content in the game. Of course, most reviewers will not need to aim for a completionist run when reviewing the game, but even if you simply need to finish the primary story mode, such will still demand dozens of hours.

Since videogames take a substantial commitment to review, one would believe that developers would help accommodate reviewer’s labor by sending our review copies as early as possible. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Major game developers send out review copies only a day or two before the game is sold to the public. As Kyle Orland remarks

 

To be clear, there are still plenty of companies that offer long lead times to critics working on early reviews of games. Still, Bethesda and 2K are probably the leading edge of a developing new status quo in gaming-media relations. The biggest companies in the game industry are realizing that limited previews, always-enthusiastic streamers, and mountains of marketing hype can drive healthy preorders and sales for their biggest titles better than early reviews.

The reviewers, accordingly, is left out. But this moment, if it reminds the reader of anything, is the same struggle that Gail Pool faced when she struggled with maintaining her enthusiasm for writing worthwhile reviews book after book, the struggle of simply reading making is hard to write; the videogame industry, then, clearly faces similar issues, albeit ones unspoken, which developers have taken upon themselves to solve by simply creating entirely new modes of public engagement.

Part of this migration to new modes of engagement, though, is also due in part to piracy.

Keith Stuart, for example, writes how

 

Things are different now. For a start, publishers don’t send code out weeks in advance anymore – that would be too risky in an age of bit torrents. Instead, publications determined to get a review out on day one will be asked to attend special events, where access to the review code is strictly controlled and monitored. You get two or three days with the game in a hotel or office, and if there’s a multiplayer mode, you’ll play it on a local area network. Furthermore, most modern console and PC titles are released in an incomplete state: publishers can rely on the ability to provide post-release patches and updates because our contemporary machines have broadband internet connections. So that’s what they generally do. This is why at the Guardian we rarely publish reviews on launch day. Our writers play the games at home, with standard internet access, and on public servers. Or else, what are you actually reviewing?

 

Stuart brings up a good and often maligned point: if you as a reviewer are not playing the game as it will be played by the public at large, then can you even say to have played the same product? Consider the fact, furthermore, that to review the game and get out the review when it releases to the public, reviewers must attend special events hosted by the developer; assuming the developer is even hosting such an event, many journalists, especially from smaller publications which lack the resources to travel to such events, will be unable to attend. Hence, the odds of a review appearing on the same day of its release, is slim.

All of this, of course, are challenges which only present themselves if you, as a new reviewer, manage to get your foot in the door. Dean Takahashi, for example, in reviewing a book on videogame reviewing, mentions numerous challenges which new reviewers must overcome. Some are simple and related to the craft of writing, such as: be concise, edit other reviews down to a hundred words, write positive and negative reviews of the same game, brainstorm at least five different headlines, and so forth. But other advice is more concrete in that they must be thought of ahead of time; an example he gives is not to trash your potentially future employer, as if those comments surface, you can face the consequences. Obviously, this presents its own problem. After all, developers and certain publications, do often make and write bad games and bad reviews. Your job as a reviewer, and to follow Pool’s much ignored logic of maintaining a critical stance which rejects overly praiseful sentiment for the sake of industry standards, is to make a critical review. What does it mean to refrain from trashing your potential employer? Takahashi does not say. In sum, though the review of this book on game reviewing has promise, it reads too much like what Pool resents in the art of reviewing, i.e., a manual on how to provide soft, workaday reviews not meant to rustle feathers.

What does this mean for the future of reviewing videogames? As Keith Stuart reminds us

 

No contemporary review, then, will ever capture more than a fragment of the whole experience, bent through the prism of personal understanding and expectation. Even the most objective review, just like the most impartial news report, brings in a myriad of basic assumptions and preferences about what has been seen and felt. But unlike books or movies, games are now evolving platforms, open to updates and improvements. Today, you could buy an old Nintendo Entertainment System and review Super Mario Bros, it works just as it did 30 years ago. But in 30 years time, will we still be able to review Destiny? Or Witcher 3? Or anything on Steam? Most current titles rely on some sort of connectivity to a server. One day those servers will be switched off. All art forms are subject to erosion, but with games, that impermanence is now built in like a self-destruct mechanism.

And, truthfully, this is an important question. As Stuart remarks at an earlier point in the same article, what about Indie games which will often be released in a pre-complete package at a reduced price, usually as part of a player-developer initiative? Should those games be reviewed in that pre-complete state or should the reviewer take the seemingly impractical route and wait potentially years for the final product? Stuart does not have an answer and this is fine. Videogame reviewing was once, like many kinds of reviewing, a specialist form of criticism which straddled the girth between art and technical skill; now, thanks to the apparent democracy of the internet, this is no longer the case, but despite this shift, we still are no closer to understanding how a videogame review functions in an age where boundaries are increasingly challenged.

Conclusion

As we have seen, reviewing is a diverse and complicated field. No single method is correct; furthermore, the practice of reviewing is always evolving, changing, and undergoing renovation. Some people hate this change while other people adore it. Regardless of one’s personal views, however, reviewing remains a vital part of American society despite the industry facing challenges and even the occasional existential crisis. From Pool to videogames to rate my professor, reviews permeate all aspects of life and to ignore this in favor of some abstract, hatred directed at so-called elitist reviewers is to fall into an anti-academic mindset.

Works Cited

Pool, Gail. Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. University of Missouri U.P., 2007.

Challies, Tim. How to Review a Book. Challies.com. March 17th, 2010, www.challies.com/articles/how-to-review-a-book. Accessed 27th April 2017.

Asenjo, Bill. How to Write a Book Review. Writing-World.com. 2002, www.writing-world.com/freelance/asenjo.shtml. Accessed 27 April 2017.

Playa, Luisa. Tips for writing book reviews. Booktrust.org.uk. www.booktrust.org.uk/books/teenagers/writing-tips/tips-for-writing-book-reviews/. Accessed 27 April 2017.

Freelancewriting. Five Tips for a Successful Music Review. Freelancewriting.com. www.freelancewriting.com/creative-writing/how-to-write-a-music-review/. Accessed 27 April 2017.

Petridis, Alexis. How to write the perfect album review. TheGuardian.com. August 2 2011 14.04 EDT, www.theguardian.com/music/2011/aug/02/alexis-petridis-writing-album-reviews. Accessed 27 April 2017.

Grossan, Ally-Jane. How to Write an Album Review. Writersandartists.co.uk. www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/819/dedicated-genre-advice/writing-non-fiction/. Accessed 27 April 2017.

Oreland, Kyle. Why early reviews of video games are getting rarer and rarer. Arstechnica.com. October 26 2016 8:44 AM, www.arstechnica.com/gaming/2016/10/why-early-reviews-of-video-games-are-getting-rarer-and-rarer/. Accessed 27 April 2017.

Stuart, Keith. Has video game reviewing become an impossible task? TheGuardian.com. November 25 2015 06.37 EST, www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/nov/25/video-game-reviewing-critics-industry. Accessed 27 April 2017.

Kain, Erik. The Real Problem with Video Game Reviews. Forbes.com. July 28 2012 11:52 PM, www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/07/28/the-real-problem-with-video-game-reviews/#28d44b6f4b37. Accessed 27 April 2017.

Takahashi, Dean. How to break into video game writing: Advice from an expert. Venturebeat.com. July 1 2012, www.venturebeat.com/2012/07/01/how-to-break-into-video-game-writing-advice-from-an-expert/. Accessed 27 April 2017.

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