Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Bad press vs. bad press (Or, why I don’t write reviews anymore)

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I first got published writing music reviews for a local magazine. The publishing schedule was infrequent and the gig didn’t pay, but it was a start, which is what I was looking for. The free CDs didn’t hurt, either.

I was a huge music fan and keen to get as much experience as a music writer as possible. I was also very young. Sometimes I think I was too young: too young to differentiate between critique and criticism and still too filled with the precious arrogance that so often takes hold of us in our early 20s. (I’m so relieved mine finally faded out of me years ago.)

I also was too quick in believing that my writing – whether it be wit or clever references or signature style – was as important, if not more, than the thing I was writing about.

How wrong, wrong, and wrong I feel I was.

I have long relied on reviews to help guide me to new books and albums, and now still, even in the crowded, noisy crush of a time we live in where we have a seemingly endless stream of voices chiming in to tell us what’s new, what’s good, and what’s forgettable. I like to find writers whose opinions I trust so that they can help keep me in the loop when there’s something I need to know about.

So when I started having my own work reviewed, I gained a whole new appreciation for these communications. But I also gained a new perspective, because not only have I been a reader and a writer of reviews, but now I’ve been a subject, too.

Even before my work started getting reviewed I’d been feeling some uneasiness towards certain reviews I’d written in the past. Not all of them, but enough. I started to question my approach in writing those reviews, and whether I portrayed the work, and my opinion of it, adequately. Not that I feel reviews, especially mine, are often make-or-break situations, but they can be the difference between making someone’s day and making it worse.

It’s important for critics to form a solid opinion and make it clear where they stand. That’s how their voices are developed, and how interesting releases are brought to our attention. It's also how we know which critics we want to listen to.

I don’t doubt that I formed solid opinions, but looking back, I realize I could have executed them better. For me, a poorly executed review is, in some ways, a bigger downer than simply being told, “you suck.”

I don’t know if anyone out there has ever had a crash course in writing a good review (even if what you’re writing about is bad), but I know I never had much guidance when I started out. All I got was a CD and a deadline and the word “go.”

Here are a few things I wish I’d known back then, which I learned when I started seeing my own work getting sized up.

Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean the artist failed

Now, I have to admit, I’ve gotten really lucky and had some great things said about my first book, Treat Me Like Dirt, and my first chapbook , Eleven: Eleven.

But, and this goes back to that early-20-something arrogance I was talking about earlier, I used to really believe that if I didn’t like something, it was reason enough for no one else to, either. And I feel pretty stupid about that. While I was honest about how I felt about the album, I know now that it wasn’t really my place to put my opinion out there. I’d interpreted an opportunity to write as an invitation to dish out my opinion as much as possible.

Artists don’t need constructive criticism from a reviewer, unless maybe that reviewer is a blockbuster author or guru or guitar god or something. They don’t need veiled condescension appearing in the form of pitying suggestion. They just need people to know that their work exists and what it’s like.

What’s the point in writing about something you’re not into? It’s a waste of your time, a waste of time for the person reading it, and it sucks for the artist it’s about. Unless you’re tasked with reviewing a bestseller or Top 40 record, why not take a pass on it and spread the word about something that inspires and moves you? We are bombarded daily with news of new releases. Does it really make a difference to get your opinion out there about why you think a new book is garbage, when there are fifty other writers already assigned to cover that same book?

Do your homework

When a local book reviewer wrote about Treat Me Like Dirt just before its big launch party, it ended up taking some hits because the chapter headings didn’t provide any analysis or timelines. I had overlooked this because of course I didn’t think they were supposed to. A comment was also made about how the people in the cover photograph weren’t identified. I guess people really do judge a book by its cover.

The impression was that the review was rushed, and that the writer didn’t read the book, only skimmed it, hoping for some footnotes or hints along the way to help inform the review. Not only did it seem like the reviewer didn’t care enough to read the book, but there was also no clear opinion about the book. It all came off as vague and shapeless.

Of course, I can’t assume what was going on with in this particular reviewer’s head at that time, and I certainly don’t want to come off as bitter or anything, because I’m not. In the end, that review didn’t seem to have much, if any, impact.

But I knew I had to find a lesson in this, and it made me appreciate the importance of writers who really get to know the material they’re working with. Sure, it can be tough to get up close and personal with a book you’re reviewing under a tight deadline, but knowing your subject should be a top priority.

It reminded me of the first show I was sent out to review. The band was prolific, and even though I wasn’t familiar with all of their songs, I didn’t sweat it because they had a new album out and I figured their set list would focus mainly on that. Wrong. Even though I’d come prepared with a pen and paper to scribble down details, my review would have been stronger if I’d done my homework and gotten to know the songs – all of them – beforehand.

I knew I’d messed up and made a rookie mistake, and I knew I would have to do better – and do more homework – next time. Being on the receiving end of such sloppiness years later was a strong reminder of the importance behind this basic but essential rule.

Comparisons

One of my biggest regrets about my time as a reviewer is how often I drew comparisons between bands. If I could back and re-visit some of the reviews I wrote, I totally would, so to anyone out there who I did this to: I’m sorry.

Now, I can’t assume that every band I wrote about hated that I did this, and I didn’t do it as an easy out. If I thought Gang of Four fans would like such-and-such’s new album, I would say so, because I thought that made sense at the time.

Now, I don’t even want to look back at some of those pieces. They seem lazy to me, even though, again, I didn’t feel that way at the time I wrote them.

If you’re writing about a specific piece of work, then the interview should be focused on that work and the artist behind it. Other names – whether they’re bands, authors, or filmmakers – shouldn’t get to share that space unless there is some reason it’s absolutely necessary – maybe if it’s a side project, or someone’s gone solo from an artists’ collective.

And if that work comes close to another artist’s project, especially a classic project, but the reviewer feels it falls a bit short when the two works are put side by side, pointing out those shortcomings isn’t fair game. If the artist is claiming to do better than that classic project, then that might be the exception, but otherwise, making an arbitrary comparison seems an unfair approach when the work itself should be given the chance to stand on its own.

It’s a matter of context. The artist behind the project you’re reviewing had a process, vision, and approach separate from whoever you’re comparing them to. Their work is singular, made to be experienced and consumed as it is, not as it is beside something else. Announcing that it’s a second-rate version of an existing classic, even if this is meant as a compliment, could instead imply that something about the project fails, that it doesn’t quite measure up because it can’t make it to an imaginary final stretch of greatness.

New vs. old

We’ve all been disappointed by follow-ups, whether they’re books, movies, or albums.

But just because something doesn’t meet your expectations doesn’t mean the artist behind it failed. It’s only a fail if the final result doesn’t meet the creator’s expectations.

When I read Never Enough, a book about one of my favourite bands, the Cure, I was surprised to learn that prolific frontman Robert Smith has been largely unsatisfied with his body of work. Even though the band’s produced several critically acclaimed albums and amassed a huge, dedicated following over the years, Smith talked about being most satisfied with the band’s more recent works – which happen to be the songs fans and critics have often been more lukewarm about.

So why the tepid response on the fans’ and critics’ part? Because there is an expectation for an artist to return to what we know and love. We believe it’s about us, and while it is for us, to an extent, it is unfair for us to write off an artist’s new material just because it isn’t the same as what they’ve done before. It’s not always about us and it’s not always about doing the same old thing over and over again. Some artists find a comfort zone and keep doing what works. Others take a more restless approach, preferring to move into new territory each time, even if it leads to mixed results.

Again, there is context to take into consideration here. The last story or song or script written is a separate entity, meant to be the way it is. Just like a new project is meant to be as it’s presented. While noting a departure in style or approach is an important factor to take into account in a review, it’s also important to have some objectivity towards the project. Just because it doesn’t pick up where the last work left off doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It only means it’s different.

But of course, this is all just my opinion.

What’s yours?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Liz Worth 2011

Liz Worth is the Toronto-based author of Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions, 2011), Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981 (Bongo Beat/ECW, 2011) and Eleven: Eleven (Trainwreck Press, 2008), a shot of surreal punk fiction.

Go to Liz Worth 2011’s Author Page