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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


 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.


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.


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.


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.


  1. According to this schema, therefore, Mastery is not a state that one can consciously attain, only something that is thrust upon the critic. It is a social or cultural situation, dependent upon visibility and luck. The highest one can ever aspire to is Expertise, but that is an affliction as much as an attainment: ‘An expert critic is unable to turn off the voice of their inner critic’.

    I don’t disagree with you on these rankings, by the way, but seeing them spelled out like this makes me wonder: why would we want to be a critic? Or at least, why would we aspire to anything above the relative mediocrity of Proficiency?


  2. Hi Paul,

    You’re quite right that ‘Mastery’ would be something conferred upon you by time and posterity and so it would mark a shift away from a model based upon how something feels. I guess that explains why Dreyfus’ original Mastery takes the form that it does (i.e. expertise + deep concentration). Dreyfus does specifically say that Expert is as high as we can go, I guess the Mastery stage would just be an added bonus… but you’re right, it doesn’t quite fit.

    I know that a lot of people complain about not being able to silence their inner critic and it’s certainly an accusation that people frequently level at critics when they disagree with their opinions (‘can’t you just read for fun?’) but I see it as being about owning something you take seriously.

    Becoming emotionally invested in any area of human undertaking involves costs both in terms of the time you might have spent doing something else or the changes it causes in your personality. Why would you want to become an expert critic? well I dunno… why would you want to become an expert at chess or cycling? It’s just something you do and something you invest in and if that means that your personality and outlook on life change as a result well… I guess it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to own that fact about yourself :-)


  3. I need to reread this. One point that did strike me is that there’s also an issue of the intended or expected reader.

    When I write for Videovista I don’t see myself as engaging in criticism. I see myself rather as advising a potential DVD purchaser whether a particular DVD is worth their money or not. Now, to do that I need to have a mental image of who that potential purchaser might be, and to an extent (and only an extent) I write to them.

    With Herzog then I don’t have proficiency because I haven’t seen enough of his films to make the point referenced above (and indeed I wouldn’t necessarily seek to hold myself out as proficient in respect of films if we apply the above schema). That said, even were I able to write meaningfully about how a particular Herzog fits in with his wider vision I would likely either choose not to do so or do so only in a passing reference (as with a recent Antonioni review where I mentioned some wider aspects of Italian cinema, but only in passing as that’s unlikely to be relevant to a potential DVD purchaser).

    I suppose where I’m going is that reviews aren’t necessarily criticism. I don’t see myself at Videovista as engaging in an act of criticism, but rather filling a consumer advisory role. By contrast at my blog I am attempting to be critical, which makes my many failures all the more painful. There the gap between competence and proficiency, or depending on the type of book between proficiency and expertise (because I know a lot more about some things than I do about others even if they all fit under the wider umbrella of fiction) is more apparent to me (particularly on rereadings – usually painful) and given the audience is myself rather than a notional other failure is both more evident and harder to ignore.

    With the Sam Roberts piece, is there any real reason to think he doesn’t know what those stock phrases mean? Couldn’t it simply be that the nature of his piece didn’t require expanding on them? I know exactly what I mean when I talk about a book being poorly paced, but I rarely expand on it as I assume any reader will know too. That may be a false assumption, but unpacking the phrase could lead to a review that hammered home a point already adequately made.

    More later.


  4. As a minor addendum, the fact that when reading a book I can often see how a particular effect is achieved or why a particular choice is made increases my enjoyment. I enjoy both at the level of intended effect, and at the structural level (and often that’s a wholly false dichotomy). There’s a certain defensiveness to those who suggest that knowing how something is done removes the joy of seeing it done – of simple experience. Like things that they’re liable, to say in the bible, it ain’t necessarily so.


  5. Hi Max :-)

    I think the strength of the Dreyfus model is that it applies to pretty much any skill.

    I used the word ‘criticism’ because that’s the word I apply to myself but one can also be a ‘reviewer’, an ‘advisor’ or simply a ‘book blogger’. It’s a dense intellectual ecosystem out there and there are many viable niches… each of these niches draws upon slightly different skills in slightly different ways but the process of improving at those skills is the same across the board.

    You are quite correct though that even my vision of reviewing is quite critical (hence the stuff about Herzog) and I think you are right that any complete theory of ‘how to become a good writer-about-stuff’ would involve some account of the various skill-sets and trade-offs involved in adapting to the various niches. It is, after all, an art rather than a science.


  6. Paul asked: “why would we want to be a critic?”

    One possibility is that while a finer appreciation for art forces us to nitpick work we would previously have enjoyed without reservation, our enjoyment of the very best art is heightened by those critical faculties. To put it concretely: The average reader can grab a novel off the rack at a supermarket and enjoy it. The critic might read a dozen better novels and enjoy them less, being more aware of their faults. But when the critic reads a Great Novel (whatever that might be, in their view) they enjoy it more than the average reader enjoyed their book. Indeed, they enjoy it much more than the average reader enjoys any book, including that very same Great Novel.

    That’s a theory anyway. I’m not sure if I believe it myself.


  7. I think it’s something that you have to enjoy for its own sake. You have to enjoy feeling yourself get ever so slightly more insightful and ever so slightly more articulate as time goes by. Once you start to lose sight of the enjoyment you get from the act itself and start looking to structural factors like “Oh, I’m raising awareness about great works” or “I’m contributing to a conversation” then the source of your enjoyment is out of your hands and you’re doomed.

    This is largely why I no longer review SF. I take more pleasure in writing about and thinking about film and the structural incentives to contribute to the field (i.e. be ignored, be used to sell stuff, get dog-piled by people who are over-invested in a book you didn’t enjoy) simply were not enough for me.


  8. Another point that strikes me with this is how, in the absence of criticism, the reviewer improves or knows whether they are improving.

    You mention becoming more insightful, but how does one know? Critics, ironically, aren’t criticised. If a review attracts few or no comments is that because the subject matter is uninteresting to one’s readers, the review was adequate but uninteresting or the review was poor and one’s readers are too polite to say?

    If someone says “great review” does that mean it was? All of it? What made it so if it was?

    I get feedback on my blog, but it tends to be positive or an engagement with the ideas in the review. I welcome all of that, but in terms of improving craft there’s no feedback mechanism by which I can determine (beyond my own instincts) whether a particular piece worked or not.

    Was a review good but repetitive at one point? Was it good but too detailed on a particular issue? Was it interesting but insufficiently detailed? Was it too descriptive? Not descriptive enough? Too academic? Too casual?

    Without feedback how do you get to that steady increase in articulacy?


  9. I find that when it comes to reviewing, this model of expertise applies somewhat separately to both reading and writing, although you’ve conflated them here, Jonathan. There are times when I feel expertise as I read (it varies by book), but then struggle to write–times when my feeling of expertise in reading, of noticing layers of meaning and method, makes me feel overwhelmed with possibilities when it comes to writing. On the other hand, one of the perils that combining this model with a separation between reading and writing reveals is that I think it’s easier to feel expertise in writing when my expertise in reading is lesser. That is, it’s easier to write something with a clear direction and good pacing when I have less to say about a work; easier to write in strong, succinct statements when I’ve noticed less of the work’s nuances; easier to spend time on my own cleverness when I’ve noticed less of the work’s. The feeling of expertise can thus be a trap. For a lot of people (myself included), being a truly expert reviewer may require taking some steps backward in terms of how we feel about our writing, may require re-learning how to write with expertise in order to capture our increased expertise in reading.

    This is difficult because, to Jonathan and Matt H.’s discussion, if the writing itself isn’t pleasurable–if I don’t feel a level of expertise some decent percentage of the time when I write–I wouldn’t be reviewing. So it can be tough to take those backward steps. Jonathan, maybe you’ve felt something similar as you’ve transitioned from writing about books to writing about film?

    Max, I wonder the same questions. Sometimes time and experience will do it, of course–but as often as not, I’ll look back at my “older” writings (I’m still quite new at this) and think, “man, that was way too long,” and yet still be uncertain as to what I should have cut. I will say that this is where working with venues that have hands-on editors can be of great value, because they will help answer some of the questions you list, and that in turn can help improve one’s own filters for those questions.


  10. That’s an interesting observation Matt…

    So: One’s ability to see stuff in a text is one skill and one’s ability to express one’s thoughts in a coherent and entertaining manner is another. When skill at writing exceeds skill at reading, the result is a set of clear ideas expressed very well, but when writing and reading skills line up (or reading exceeds writing), the result is a piece that flails with big ideas and fails to completely satisfy.

    One way of solving this problem then might be to ‘pull one’s punches’ and tone down one’s reading insights until one can comfortably say interesting stuff about something.

    Yeah… I certainly recognise those feelings and the need to occasionally murder one’s insight-darlings for the sake of a more readable piece.

    As for my own relationship with writing about SF, I think you could be on to something…

    I decided to stop reviewing SF because I realised that I was reading books that I did not enjoy purely for the sake of being part of a wider conversation or in order to appear in certain magazines. Those are both ‘cool things’ but the coolness was ultimately hollow because I was no longer enjoying the reading or the reviewing process for their own sakes. When you factor your idea in, the situation becomes even worse because rather than simply not being enjoyable, the act of writing becomes actively painful as I’d be killing my insight-darlings in order to gain access to an unreliable source of ‘cool stuff’.

    At the moment, I am still having to kill my darlings for the sake of doing cool stuff (some of my FilmJuice reviews have involved some brutal self-editing) but because the cool stuff is cooler and more enjoyable and because the process of viewing and writing is more enjoyable to me, I am happier with the trade-off.


  11. When skill at writing exceeds skill at reading, the result is a set of clear ideas expressed very well, but when writing and reading skills line up (or reading exceeds writing), the result is a piece that flails with big ideas and fails to completely satisfy.

    Well, I was thinking that having the skills line up would be the ideal, would feel the most satisfying. Otherwise yes: when writing skill exceeds reading skill, I think the result is clear and/or entertaining but somewhat vapid reviews; when reading skill exceeds writing, the result is somewhat directionless pieces that flail at big ideas.


  12. I’ve little to add to the debate thus far, in part because I’ve read this after two hours sleep but mostly because I don’t consider myself a critic (not for lack of lazy aspiration, mind). I am dimly aware that there is such a bar, most likely perched atop the black monolith that I spend my time dancing around waving a thigh bone. However:

    “I think it’s something that you have to enjoy for its own sake. You have to enjoy feeling yourself get ever so slightly more insightful and ever so slightly more articulate as time goes by.”

    That is exactly why I do what I do (overly verbose reviews with meandering personal tangents and occasional flecks of something approaching insight).

    Also, I do miss the old forum we used to use to discuss reviews and reviewing. It was rather useful to help identify some of the flaws in my writing.

    P.S. A stray thought that has just occurred to me: you identify the reliance upon critical cliché to convey a semblance of meaning that the writer may not themselves be able to unpack. Elsewhere Max argues that these clichés serve as shorthand for meaning and that readers will, like the author, understand what they mean. Given the issue of whether this nebulous meaning really is a shared constant between all parties, what interests me is how this use of cliché to invoke commonality – you imply and I agree that the use of cliché should be avoided – can be contrasted to the ideas you were discussing some months ago, concerning Bayard’s ‘How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’, specifically: “what it means to be cultured should shift away from being about detailed knowledge of particular texts to being about understanding where those texts fit into the wider histories of thought and culture.” Such an understanding, being essentially second- or third-hand (&c) knowledge, surely rests upon similar assumptions of shared knowledge and meaning as the use of cliché to invoke a nostalgic quasi-understanding of a concept, problem or facet of a work/text?

    I don’t think I’m going to attempt to explore this any further, as straining this connection through the sieve that is my sleep deprivation will only embarrass me further. Still, it’d be interesting to hear your thoughts if you agree there is a potential conflict here.


  13. Shaun, that’s a very insightful comment for someone functioning on only a couple of hours sleep :-)

    I agree that there’s a conflict in that, in this piece, I seem to be suggesting that people are using terms without knowing what they mean while, in an earlier piece I suggested that there is freedom and power in embracing the ambiguities of our conceptual arsenals.

    However, I think that the conflict can be partly resolved by pointing to the fact that, according to the Dreyfus model, abstract rules become less and less important as time goes by. For example, a complete novice at writing or criticism might talk about something being ‘poorly paced’ and be completely wrong while a more advanced writer might talk about something being ‘poorly paced’ and could explain what they mean and why they think it applies in this particular situation. However, a true expert might understand the rules about pacing on an intuitive level and allow enough flexibility and ambiguity in those rules to account not only for different approaches to the question but also attempts to subvert the rules to create a particular effect.

    I think this makes sense… it’s a bit like the people who moan endlessly about such and such a book winning an award despite it ‘not being SF’. I think that this reveals a less sophisticated understanding of genre than allowing for the fact that the concept of SF is actually quite flexible and open to interpretation.

    So what you have is:

    – People begin by applying rules without understanding.
    – People then apply the rules with understanding.
    – People finally realise that the rules are actually quite flexible and open to interpretation.

    I think that solves the conflict.


  14. Thanks for that Jonathan, that has resolved the issue to my satisfaction! ;)

    I suppose that also relates to the old fiction-writer adage of “learn the rules, /then/ break them”.

    (The problem of readers having potentially different understandings of loosely-defined or inherently unspecific concepts remains, but you could drill down through concepts and unpack meaning forever… at some point you have to just assume some knowledge. I suppose the important thing, when engaging with or connecting a text to a larger concept, is to try and define the debate as you see it. At least that was your prejudices or assumptions are made clear…)


  15. Absolutely… as I pointed out in the post you referenced, language itself has a good deal of ambiguity built in.

    I’ll also link to the post for the sake of internet posterity:

    Actually, I’ve been thinking about this very issue recently (when precision leads to strength and when it weakens what you’re trying to say) and a post may well be forthcoming.


  16. My argument is more that there may be cases where cliche is useful. It depends what a review is trying to achieve.

    If a review is trying in part to also be a work of criticism then cliche should be avoided. Effective criticism requires (obviously) critical thought and to be appreciated requires critical reading. Cliche serves neither.

    If the point however is to tell a reader about whether they may want to buy or see something cliche may have value. If I buy Empire (which I wouldn’t) I don’t buy it for analysis. I buy it for buzz and to pick films to check out. There cliche likely does serve a purpose and even if my understanding of a cliche isn’t quite the same as the person using it we’re probably close enough for both our purposes.

    So, if in a critical piece a reviewer says “this film is a rollicking romp” that’s pretty useless. If in a review aimed purely at those deciding whether to go see it or not though that same phrase might be perfectly acceptable.

    Most readers don’t want critical insight (that’s not a hostile comment, just an observation on what most people read reviews for), they want a consumer aid. That means in the majority of cases precision isn’t required but quick description is. Cliche there helps.

    Jonathan’s blog, and mine for that matter, isn’t about helping people decide whether or not to consume something. As such each use of cliche is a failure. Put another way, I think use of cliche in reviewing is generally not a problem, but when I do it I’m failing in my own objectives as a reviewer.


  17. Although I earn a few pennies from some of what I write, most of my output is for my own entertainment and enlightenment. Ah, now thereby hangs a tale. As I’ve grown older, I find myself overtaken by an increasing intellectual lethargy. I can offer an immediate intuitive reaction to the latest book, film or television show, but this superficiality frustrates me. I’m therefore spurred to produce a written analysis. That way, I reveal my thoughts to myself. Perhaps I should not publish these idle musings since I’m not intending to hold myself out as a reviewer of any particular competence or proficiency. But engagement with some who respond to the posts has given me the opportunity to continue learning, a good in itself. The notion I might amuse or inform others is also emotionally satisfying albeit that I make little effort to attract traffic to the site. I prefer the world take a serendipitous route to my work. Such is the diffidence of the incipiently geriatric.


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