Reviewing reviews PART ONE

Personal opinion. The one commodity that the world will never run short of.

This is a three part series over the next three days.  It builds incrementally, so critical review is not really appropriate until all three parts have been read!  At which point all comments will be welcomed in public or private.

In Part One I consider the following questions:

What is a review?

What are we doing when we write/read a review?

Let me state at the outset, reviews are not personal opinion.  So while you can read all of the following (and dismiss it if you like) as simply ‘personal opinion’ I shall state quite clearly here that the purpose of this communicative action is a desire to move beyond the realms of personal opinion into the realms of critical discussion.

And here we come across our first lesson in written communication.  The importance of clarity and definition of the words we use.  At present, as soon as I use the word critical you have a number of possibilities of interpretation.  But I have only one intention.  Mutual understanding will be achieved if you interpret ‘correctly’ (or guess my intention).

In this context the word critical is not being used in the first definition you’ll find in any dictionary:

1. Inclined to judge severely and find fault but rather  

2. Characterised by careful, exact evaluation and judgment.

If you persist in reading the following with the definition 1 in your mind you will, I’m afraid, misinterpret all that I am saying and no positive or valuable communicative interaction will take place.

In this work I offer a communicative act – the discussion of the nature of a review and our engagement with it.  It only becomes a communicative interaction if you ‘interpret’ my intention in a relevant way. I mean something in the words I use. If you seek or impose other meanings then we will not have a fruitful interaction and this piece will certainly not be worth the paper it’s not even written on. Whose fault will that be?  Will it be mine for writing it in the first place? No, if my intention is both honest and my stated definition clear.  If you deliberately misinterpret my statements for some purpose the communicative interaction will fail because of the interpretation of the reader not the intention of the writer.

If I fail to explain myself clearly, then the interaction will fail because of me. So that’s my responsibility.  To clearly express my intention. Your responsibility is to interpret accurately what I’m saying. If we both stick to these tasks we should achieve the goal (or the intended goal) of communicating about reviews.

While we’re defining terms, the word opinion bears some definition in the context of this communicative interaction.  (Note, it’s only an interaction if you are still reading. Otherwise it’s simply a communicative act). And why doesn’t it surprise us that the word opinion has more than four possibly definitions. I dismiss the strictly legal one and offer the other four for your consideration:

  1. A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof.
  2. A judgement based on special knowledge and given by an expert
  3. A judgement or estimation of the merit of a person or thing
  4. The prevailing view.

This is a very difficult word to be sure you are using accurately. My intention is to use the word in the second and possibly third definition. I shall try to avoid like the plague using the fourth definition (unless I state very clearly that this is what I’m doing) because it’s not going to help clarity.  The first definition is what I’d suggest is a ‘given.’ Something we can all agree on. Though of course, that’s not necessarily so.  For me though, I’m working from the start point that belief and knowledge are fundamentally different things. You can believe what you like. But believing something doesn’t make it knowledge.  However hard you believe. Confidence does not prove existence. If you don’t accept this as our start point I can’t communicate with you.

So when I talk of, or offer an opinion, I am doing so as a judgement based on knowledge (which I believe I have but more importantly which we must agree I have in order to engage in communicative interaction) and which gives me the ‘right’ to estimate the merit of something (in this case a review) I’m more or less saying that an opinion is worth nothing to this debate unless it is backed by something more than belief.  We have to move beyond belief. Into knowledge. How will I prove that my opinion is worth more than just belief? By using relevant argument and communicative statements which show authority and deal in knowledge rather than belief.

Words are important. If you are reading this you probably agree at least on some level with this statement.  But why and how are words important?  It is not just the words themselves, it is the meanings that we derive from them.  How they are used. Words are used to convey thought and emotion, to build shared understanding. And in order to do this they need to work towards shared meaning.  To get anywhere we have to start from a point where we agree the meaning of the words and perhaps the goal of the communicative interaction.

So while we’re at it and before we finally begin let’s look at the dictionary definitions for the word ‘review’ There are 6 but I’ve narrowed it down to the most useful four .

  1. To look over, study or examine again
  2. To consider, retrospectively, look back on
  3. To examine with an eye to criticism or correction
  4. To write or give a critical report on (a new work or performance for example)

And interestingly enough I suggest we can actually be doing all four of these things at the same time!   Note that the first three definitions are about the process – study, examine, consider and critique/correct and the fourth goes a step further and suggests moving from action to interaction – writing.  We are concerned with writing a critical report.

So. We are about ready to begin. We are going to talk about critical reviews. What are they?

What do we have as a definition thus far?  A critical review aims to: 

a)       go beyond personal belief, towards knowledge based on (agreed) expert knowledge/standards and carefully examine and evaluate a work of literature/fiction based on these principles. And write this as a communicative interaction.

It is not:

b)      saying what I think about something,  particularly with an emphasis of finding fault with it.  Which is little more than saying it’s rubbish because I don’t like it.  Or striving to ‘prove’ knowledge and superiority by saying it’s wrong and I’m right.

If you can’t or are not prepared to accept a) over b) as a start point then there is no point reading on. We are not speaking the same language.

I will try to avoid using the word Judgement  (which you’ll have noticed in the definitions) because it can only confuse.  But for clarity I state that in terms of critical  review I am defining it as:  the cognitive process of reaching a conclusion, not as an opinion formed (can you see, if you just use judgement to mean opinion you are going round in circles.)

There are still plenty of loose ends, I’m sure you’ll agree. For example:

What are the agreed standards?  These will be discussed inPart Three.

How do we apply the standards and evaluate the work? This will also be discussed in Part Three. We must walk before we can run. Dinner before pudding.

So don’t worry about them yet. Like dogs, every definition will have its day.

We are still at the stage of finding out WHAT a review is. Until we know what it is we stand no chance of understanding HOW to write (or read) one.

And knowing what it is requires knowing what it isn’t.  I hope we have started to agree this. A critical review is not a personal opinion or belief whose aim is to find fault in the work of another in order to prove one’s own intelligence or viewpoint.

There is an interesting development. We can look at what a review IS and we can consider what it ought to be.

Because essentially, my definition covers what a review ‘ought’ to be.  And we have to agree to that to communicate. We can accept that many reviews are not in accordance with the ‘ought’ definition. But unless we agree that a review ‘ought’ to be something we have no way of distinguishing a ‘good’ from a ‘bad’ review.

Believe me, we could go on all day debating how and why one can or should derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ And if you want to do that you need to go and read some philosophy. There’s a good article called ‘between good and yellow.’ But it’s not OUR primary communicative interaction here.  We just need to agree that reviews have an ‘ought’ function as well as an ‘is’ function.

I’ll just state it baldly. A review ‘ought’ to deal with what is good and/or bad not just state what is.  A review, in my view,  in order to be critical needs to go beyond a simple statement of plot and into a critical appraisal of the construction of the work.

But what about ‘good?’ How did I just throw that word into the mix?  It will not surprise you that there are more than 20 dictionary definitions of good. I am using the following definitions:   Good means having the qualities that are desirable or distinguishing in a a particular thing and serving the desired purpose or end.

In the case of a work of fiction I argue that ‘good’ means a work that is internally consistent and expresses the aims/intentions of the author competently.  I am concerned with good as competent and complete not as superior, tasteful, attractive, pleasant , well behaved or of moral excellence.

So if we’ve got that straight, now we may really begin. Or start again.

Let me state that writing is a communicative act. Publishing is a communicative interaction. (as indeed writing may be) What does this mean?

An act is the process or performance of ‘doing’ something.  When you write, you do something. When you read you do something.  There is intentionality.

An interaction  is mutual or reciprocal action.  It requires two perspectives or people.  In our case a writer and a reader.  (The publisher is merely a conduit bringing the writer and the reader into a shared space.)

If we break down the communicative interaction into the constituent parts: The key features of the communicative act are intention (from the writer) and interpretation (from the reader) The goal is the same for both:  Mutual understanding. (There may be other ancillary goals such as money or pleasure but I’m leaving them aside for now.)

What is important to bear in mind here is the interactivity of the thing.  It is not about the imposition of opinion for dominance but about reciprocity to achieve mutual understanding.

If this is the purpose of writing (and reading) then it is clear that a review ‘ought’ to also strive for the goal of mutual understanding. A reviewer, in one sense, like a publisher, may act as a conduit between writer and reader. But while the publisher simply brings the physical goods to the party, a reviewer brings the communicative interaction to the fore.

So, can we agree then that a review (and reviewer) should not be about dominance but about promoting mutual understanding?  A reviewer is part of the communicative interaction between writer and reader. Bullying has no place in the system. However, a system which hangs its hat on five gold stars is perhaps ripe for a culture of the playground bully. Which is exactly what seems to have emerged. I shall consider this in Part Two : Why do we need/write reviews.

For the moment I want to take you what may seem to be a digression, but believe me it isn’t.  There are those who would tell you that the current review system (especially in the online world)  is just an expression of anarchy and chaos. That it’s bound to happen when you let anyone say what they like about anything.  I disagree.

First of all,  What is anarchy?  Lack of rule of LAW. Lack of government/governance. Not lack of any rules at all. In anarchy, rules are determined by the community/individual and based on epistemic authority.  This means you would get a plumber to fix your toilet stopcock but a cardiothoracic surgeon to fix your heart.  That’s not too difficult a position to understand is it?

What is chaos? ( I leave aside Chaos Theory definitions) Complete breakdown of order.  This could include communicative breakdown. If we cannot communicate with each other clearly it is hard to establish let alone maintain order since no one knows what is going on or how to interact.  Without some agreed ‘rules’ of communication it is very difficult if not impossible to achieve. We cannot communicate if we cannot communicate. Obviously. But we can ‘agree’ the rules, we don’t have to have them imposed. We can’t ‘agree’ rules until we ‘agree’ how to communicate though. You can’t put the cart before the horse.

At the centre of communication (and strangely of anarchy) is the notion of personal  responsibility.  And my argument throughout here is that in a communicative interaction we need to all take on relevant responsibility.  It’s not about shouting loudest, calling names, being smart, being heard, making a name for oneself, or establishing a reputation. It is about striving for mutual understanding.  We do not need imposed rules for that. We should not need gatekeepers and either moral, political  or financial arbiters but what we do need is to take on some personal responsibility for our interactions.  To learn how to communicate interactively and in meaningful ways.  Writing a review is an act of intentionality. It is also a communicative act. But more than that, it is a communicative interaction.

Which brings me towards an interesting conclusion: The reviewer is not just a conduit in the communicative interaction between writer and reader. When you write a review you become a PART of the interaction (or another interaction) because you transform from reader into writer.  And as such a reviewer becomes subject to the same rules they are ‘judging’ writers by.  If the reviewer places himself as writer as well as judge it will be most helpful.  You cannot judge writing without applying the standards of the writer. Which would suggest you know something of the standards of the writer before you write your review?

Or as Bob Dylan would say ‘don’t criticise what you can’t understand.’

A critical review should offer an evaluation based on relevant authority.  It is also a communicative act which requires intentionality, internal consistency and communicative efficacy.

So what is a review?  It is a person engaged in a communicative interaction in which their intention is to achieve mutual understanding specifically about the work of another writer – acting as a conduit or interpreter for one person’s intentions and communicating this to readers for their further interpretation.

Why do we need them or have them? That’s for Part Two and you’ll have to wait till tomorrow.  Like all good stories, I end each chapter on a cliffhanger!

I hope I have made myself clear. If so, believe me, it will get easier as we go along.

Cally Phillips  Visit my Festival Page