How to Write a Good Review
1. Introduction: The Problem
I take what I do seriously. When I sit down to write reviews and longer critical pieces, I am not filling in the time before dinner, I am doing something that I am emotionally invested in. I am emotionally invested in becoming the best critic that I can possibly be, this is why I write and this is why I read books that add fresh elements to my theoretical arsenal. However, while I think that (all things considered) I am not doing too badly, I am very much aware that I am not yet Roland Barthes, David Bordwell, Nick Lowe or Adam Roberts. In fact, I am not even Kim Newman or Armond White. I know this because I know that these people write with a level of control and insight that I do not yet possess. I also know this because I have yet to be invited to write a column for the New York Times… or even the Kensington and Chelsea Times for that matter. But while I know that I am not yet quite there, I think that I could probably do a bit more cool stuff than I am currently doing. The problem is that every time that I produce something that I am particularly proud of, a hubris alert goes off in my head because I know that it is the easiest thing in the world to think that you’re brilliant when you are in fact shit. In fact, there are studies that prove it.
Back in 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning published a paper entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (pdf). In this paper, Kruger and Dunning argued that the skills that allow you to become competent at something are the same skills that allow you to evaluate your own competence. As a result, people who are shit at things tend to massively over-estimate their competence. As Kruger and Dunning put it in the article:
We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.
The article mentions two possible causes for the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The first is that the success or failure of a particular undertaking tends to be massively over-determined in so far as quite a few things have to go right in order for it to work but only one thing needs to go wrong in order for it to fail. However, because of the complexity of cause and effect, it is just as easy to take credit for success as it is to shift responsibility for failure on to other people. So if I get commissioned to write a column it’s because I’m awesome at what I do but if someone else gets approached to write the same column instead of me it’s because they know the editor personally or because the editor is an emotionally stunted alcoholic who wouldn’t know good writing if it pissed through their letterbox. The other possible explanation for the Dunning-Kruger effect is that our culture tends to lack sources of honest and reliable feedback. People are very good at being supportive and encouraging to people who are starting out but they tend to disappear when the time comes to tell that person that they have a number of weird tics in their writing that are as distracting as they are stupid and ugly. Given the massive online imbalance between the Demand For and the Supply Of opinion, I think we should just go ahead and make Kruger and Dunning kings of the blogosphere and have done with it.
Given how easy it is to fall prey to this sort of cognitive bias and given the fact that established writers and critics have better things to do than go around ‘fixing’ other people’s writing for them, I’ve been thinking about how to go about gauging my own progress and I think I may have encountered something useful.
2. A Possible Solution
Back in 1980, Stuart E. and Hubert L. Dreyfus produced an article entitled “A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Skill Acquisition” (pdf). The paper is a reaction against the psychologist Jean Piaget’s contention that you begin the process of acquiring skills by picking up concrete can-do expertise before then moving on to a more abstract understanding of your field. While the paper is a work of cognitive psychology, Hubert Dreyfus is actually a philosopher with a life-long interest in the school of philosophy known as phenomenology. Phenomenology is a philosophical school that emphasizes the primacy of conscious experience and so the paper reflects a desire to describe how it ‘feels’ to learn a skill. Indeed, much of the evidence cited in the paper is drawn from interviews with people such as pilots and chess players who describe what it’s like to feel oneself getting better at something. Because of this, I think the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition might be useful at helping critics (and anyone else for that matter) to work out where they stand without having to find someone to ‘tell it like it is’.
The Dreyfus Model suggests that we acquire skills by progressing through five different stages:
A – NOVICE
A novice is someone who has learned a set of abstract rules governing a general field of activity. However, while they may know the rules they do not know in which context to apply those rules and so they struggle in all but the most cut and dry cases. As Dreyfus illustrates:
A student, acquiring a second language, would be classified as novice when he learned the phonetic rules for producing and recognizing what seemed to him meaningless noises which got specific results when produced on specific occasions.
In other words, a novice is someone who knows that ‘Oo Ay Lah Garr’ can be used to elicit directions but they do not know what any of the sounds actually mean.
B – COMPETENCE
People become competent once they realize that there are certain contextual patterns and situations affecting which rules are best applied in a particular situation. While the competent person may not yet understand why these rules apply where they do, they will have formed a mnemonic link between certain types of context and certain rules. Again, Dreyfus explains:
A language learner has achieved competence when he no longer hears and produces meaningless streams of sound, but rather perceives meaningful phrases which, when used on appropriate occasions, produce effects by virtue of these meanings.
In other words, a competent person will not know what ‘Oo Ay…’ means but they will know that if you stick it in front of something you will likely get directions to that thing.
C – PROFICIENCY
In order to become proficient, people must not only know the differences between different situations but also the reasons for these differences and how those differences affect one’s choice of action. The link between context and behavior is frequently governed by a maxim or rule of thumb:
The chess player now sees aspects such as “unbalanced pawn structure” as either irrelevant or crucial to some overall strategic goal, such as “attack” or “play for a positional end-game advantage”. Given his particular long-range goal, he uses maxims to decide on moves whih change the crucial aspects of his position and that of his opponent’s to his advantage.
In other words, a proficient language speaker will know enough about the components of language to know not only how to apply different sounds and words in different contexts but also how to modify the use of words to suit a particular context. So rather than gurgling ‘Oo Ay Lah Garr’, a proficient French speaker might be able to say ‘Ou est la garre la plus proche et quel bus dois-je prendre pour m’y rendre?’ as a means of eliciting not only the location of the nearest station but also which bus to take in order to get there.
D – EXPERTISE
Experts are no longer reliant upon rules and maxims. Instead, they possess not only a profound understanding of their area of expertise but also an intuitive grasp of the application of that understanding that allows them to adapt to new situations without much effort:
After a great deal of experience actually using a language in everyday situations, the language learner discovers that without his consciously using any rules, situations simply elicit from him appropriate linguistic responses.
In other words, an expert at French knows how to speak French and does so fluently and without a second thought.
NB: While the Dreyfus Model is said to contain five parts, there appears to be some disagreement as to what ‘Mastery’ might involve. The original article allows that there is no greater level of proficiency than being an expert but it hand-waves the possibility that throwing oneself into a task with intense concentration might constitute some higher level of achievement. The weakness of the fifth level of the model has prompted some commentators to re-organise the model so that ‘Competent’ actually refers to the status of ‘Advanced Beginner’ and ‘Expertise’ becomes the fifth level. However, a better way of thinking about mastery emerges from some of the reactions to the Dreyfus’s original paper.
E – MASTERY
In a series of papers drawing upon interviews with the authors of the original paper, Bent Flyvbjerg suggested that adding a further stage to the model might allow it to account for the process of innovation. Under this interpretation, mastery is achieved when someone becomes capable of adding to or changing the rules that are first learned by novices.
In other words, a Master of the French language might have such an impact upon the way that people speak French that they change the way that people ask questions or refer to train stations. Another example of linguistic mastery might be to coin a phrase or a word so catchy that it enters to common language. Think, for example, of the number of words added to the English language by Shakespeare.
While the Dunning-Kruger Effect may make it easy for us to explain away our failures by blaming other people, the Dreyfus Model’s focus upon how it feels to be at a certain level of competence at least allows us to have some phenomenological basis for evaluating our own progress. It is easy enough to ignore the fact that one is rubbish when terms are not defined and goalposts are not erected but it seems intuitive that it would be a lot harder to ignore the fact that we are applying rules without ever knowing either what they mean or why they apply in a given situation.
3. Critical Skills
Everyone has some basic notion of what constitutes artistic success because we all know which books and films we like and which books and films we hate. These reactions are not only real but instinctive regardless of whether you think those instincts are socially constructed or grounded in some deeper neurological reality. However, it is one thing to know how one feels about a particular work of art and quite another to be able to articulate what that work is about and why you think it does or does not work. Rather than trying to describe the physiological reality of their reactions, many novice reviewers engage with their texts through a series of stock phrases or critical clichés. Read enough reviews and you will know what it is that I am talking about. Phrases such as:
- The characters are well-rounded
- The book is well written
- The pacing is good
- It is impossible to identify with the characters
It is my contention that many of the people who use these phrases in their reviews do not in fact know what they mean. Instead, they have read other reviews, noted that these are ‘the types of things that people say’ about books and films and so use these stock phrases as a means of articulating what are doubtless far more complex and nuanced sets of opinions. Rather than make sweeping generalization, I will point to a particular example of this type of thing. Consider Samuel Roberts’ review of the recent film Green Lantern (2011). Having not seen Green Lantern myself, I cannot comment on the correctness of Roberts’ assessment but I do wonder whether he understands what it is that he is actually saying. Consider this phrase from the review’s opening paragraph:
This is pure popcorn entertainment, a one-dimensional outing that is more in the ballpark of Thor and Fantastic Four than anything else.
Firstly, what actually constitutes a “one-dimensional outing”? How does it differ from a two-dimensional outing? Presumable a three-dimensional outing is a fully realized film of staggering cinematic genius but what do these various dimensions actually apply to? What do they mean? Secondly, what does it mean to say that Green Lantern is “pure popcorn entertainment”? Given (a) that Green Lantern is a big budget Hollywood action movie full of spectacle and (b) that most films aim to entertain and most cinemas show films in order to sell popcorn at grossly inflated prices, accusing Green Lantern of being “popcorn entertainment” seems to state the obvious in an entirely uninformative way. One could just as easily say that Green Lantern is composed of a series of still images passed at speed through a camera in order to create the illusion of movement.
Of course, it is easy to pick a sentence out of context and make it look silly because the English language is vague and impressionistic at the best of times. Take any sentence and submit it to an uncharitable level of scrutiny and its inexactitude will become painfully obvious. However, Roberts use of certain critical clichés like ‘popcorn entertainment’ and ‘one-dimensional’ without either explaining them or relating them to some broader opinion about the film does suggest that he is applying a set of rules and templates without necessarily understanding what they mean. This suggests that one might be able to map different levels of critical insight onto the Dreyfus Model.
4. A Dreyfus Model of Critical Skill Acquisition
A – NOVICE
A novice critic develops a lexicon of critical phrases that apply to the books, films of theatrical productions that they want to write about but they are not completely familiar with the correct context for applying these critical phrases to a particular work. As a result, their writing tends to be hit and miss with some reviews hitting the mark and others leaving their readers scratching their heads in confusion. Does Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep really lack strong female characters that we can empathise with? Is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life weakly paced and lacking in tension? Does Plato’s Republic possess an overly sentimental ending that seems undeserved? Hmm.
B – COMPETENCE
A competent critic notices patterns in the application of certain stock phrases to certain types of work but does not understand why it is that those phrases apply to those particular works. For example, a competent critic will know to praise the spiritual themes and the beautiful photography of a Terrence Malick film. They may also know to praise the scientific imagination of a Stephen Baxter novel whilst fretting about his characterization but when pressed on the details of these assessments they will struggle to unpack what it is that they actually mean.
C – PROFICIENCY
A proficient critic will possess not only a full critical lexicon but also a good idea of what those terms apply to and why it is that they apply in a particular situation. For example, a proficient critic will know that part of the appeal of a Werner Herzog film lies in watching him apply his vision of the world to a new context such as that of a deranged Conquistador in South America or an Antarctic penguin that somehow manages to get lost. They will also grasp what defines a particular genre and the difference between failing to follow the rules of that genre and breaking those rules for the purposes of a wider literary effect. They know these things because they know that, by and large, Werner Herzog tends to make films about people going mad on the edges of the world and because they know that some well-respected authors are well-respected because of their tendency to subvert expectations. Proficient criticism is dominated by the use of critical maxims that derive from broad critical consensus about particular issues and artists.
D – EXPERTISE
An expert critic is unable to turn off the voice of their inner critic. When they watch a film they cannot help but notice all the well-composed shots and the variations in pacing and emphasis that flow from creative decisions made during the production of the film. They grasp why a film works or where it fails to do so at an intuitive level and without even thinking about it. An expert critic cannot help but notice that Wolf Hall is a novel more concerned with capturing the ever-changing atmosphere and texture of the Tudor court than it is with telling stories or describing characters. An expert critic would also understand exactly what it was that Hilary Mantel would need to change about her novel in order to shift the emphasis and make it all about plot and character.
E – MASTERY
Critics attain the level of mastery once their writings acquire the power to alter popular tastes and so change the aesthetic rules that novice critics attempt to apply to the texts they write about. I suspect that few critics ever attain this level of competence and even if they do, their mastery is only a reflection of the part they played in a wider critical enterprise. For example, while Kenneth Tynan cannot be said to be wholly responsible for championing the realism of the Angry Young Men or kindling British interest in the works of Samuel Beckett, his influence on both of these aesthetic developments more than justifies us considering him a master of his craft.
Obviously, I am simplifying hugely because being a good critic involves a constellation of different skills including understanding the technical aspects of the form you are writing about, understanding subtext and being able to write about both of these things in a clear, accessible and occasionally humorous manner. I suspect that most critics are better at some things than at others meaning that some people can turn out beautifully composed but completely wrong-headed pieces while other people can happily pinpoint why it is that a particular character is unconvincing before ineffectually spiraling off into a mess of Theoretical limb-flailing and incomprehensible name-dropping. Similarly, I suspect that we all have good days in which we hit upon a set of subjects that we totally understand and bad days in which we wrestle unconvincingly in a hideously over-stretched position. This is not so much a theory of reviewing as it is a set of loose guidelines.
5. Conclusion: Don’t Hit Me
Cognitive biases being what they are, the simplest thing in the world is to assume that people see things differently because they are either stupid or mean. Because of this, I would like to make clear that this is not some extended exercise in sneering whereby I get to lord it over everyone as a Level x Critic (one more level and I get Fireball!). The truth is that while I may aspire to expertise I am very much aware that I have some way to go before I get there. I know that there are tics in my prose style leading to an over-reliance upon certain sentence structures (I knew I was in trouble when I caught myself pulling out a thesaurus in order to look up synonyms for the word ‘indeed’). I have also noticed a weird tendency towards constructing elaborate theoretical frameworks that allow me to write about interesting but entirely fictitious works that bear only a fleeting resemblance to the thing I was supposed to be writing about in the first place. I mean, look at this review of Mira Grant’s Feed (2010):
A cruise missile filled with venom and cynicism, Feed‘s satirical payload is only heightened by the delicious subtlety of its delivery vector. Read this book and despair.
That sounds like an absolutely brilliant book but it’s quite clearly not the book that Grant actually wrote. Similarly, while I read a lot of quite complex critical Theory and I try to apply what I have read to my understandings of film and literature, I am well aware that there are times when I force the subject matter too hard or hand-wave the areas where my understanding of Theory becomes sketchy. In other words, I am not an expert critic. In fact, I’m probably hovering somewhere between competence and proficiency as I am still struggling to rid myself of the training wheels of received critical opinion (a struggle that frequently leads me into being overly harsh). However, while I may not be an expert, I am mindful about wanting to improve and some of the ideas above have helped me to shed a little light on my own internal processes. I offer this piece up in the hope that it might help someone else to shed a little light on what it is they do and maybe get a little better at something they love doing.