When I review a piece of media (e.g., a book or a film), I tend to approach it from two different angles:
- From an audience-oriented view
- From an author-oriented view
The audience-oriented part of the review should focus on whether or not the media under review provides the audience with a worthwhile experience. Depending on what the audience is looking for, this might mean that the media makes them laugh, think, or even cry.
When looking at media from the point of view of the audience, I think it is important to consider the characteristics of the target audience as well. For example, if a film is clearly aimed at children, it makes little sense to unduly criticise it for not appealing to adults. Likewise, it would be odd to mark an action movie down for not having enough romance.
That’s not to say that a piece of media cannot be judged against media aimed at a different audience. Although there are aspects of media that are subjective, there are also aspects that are much closer to objective. In films, this might include things like special effects, soundtrack, and cinematography. In books this might involve the quality of the prose (from a technical standpoint), the coherence of the plot, and the pacing.
It is because of the more objective factors that intense study of a particular form of media often results in the identification of several classics that are regarded as being superior. Consider fantasy and science fiction. Despite the enormous variation between writers, there are still several that are widely considered legends in the field (e.g., Tolkien).
In summary, the aim of the audience-oriented portion of any review that I write is designed to answer several questions:
- What did I like/dislike about the piece of media?
- Who would/wouldn’t enjoy the piece of media?
The author-oriented portion of any review that I write is aimed at providing the author with constructive feedback. In other words, what worked and why did it work? And what didn’t work and why didn’t it work?
The goal of this feedback is to help the author improve. Sometimes, this is relatively straightforward. For example, if a writer has very poor punctuation and spelling, then the solution is obvious: they should improve their punctuation and spelling. However, there are times when it is more complicated. For instance, if a video game has major flaws in key elements of its gameplay, simply stating that the gameplay is broken does not help. I need to identify exactly which elements are broken and then offer suggestions as to how they might be fixed.
Author-oriented feedback can be very complicated, especially if the flaws in the piece of media are in the less objective areas. Take humour. Even if I find something incredibly funny, there is no telling if someone else will find it funny too. Likewise, I might not find something humorous at all and say exactly that to the writer, only to find that everyone else finds what they’ve written hilarious. Similar situations can occur in film. There is no perfect way to depict combat on screen. The filmmaker may have a good reason to adopt more stylised combat, but I might want to make an argument that more realistic combat would be more compelling. But what one person finds compelling may be different from someone else. My feedback is likely to involve some subjectivity on my part.
As a final set of remarks, I want to say a few words about how reviews are written, particularly acerbic reviews. A cutting wit can be very entertaining. Indeed, tearing into a particularly poor piece of media can result in a review that is much more entertaining than the media itself. As a result, I may not always find it particularly tasteful for an audience-oriented review to rip into something, but I can at least understand why that happens. If the goal is to warn the audience away from something particularly bad, then a truly cutting review works well enough. The audience is forewarned and thus forearmed. They are also entertained.
However, when a review is author-oriented, then I feel that things change somewhat. It is true that makers of media require the ability to accept criticism. But if the goal is to help the author improve, simply heaping scorn and criticism upon them is unlikely to succeed. To be fair, there are authors for whom that works very well (and some may need a firmer hand than others). But the vast majority will simply bear the review as best they can before scuttling off to lick their wounds, more concerned with the cruelty of the review than with its message. Again, one could say that such authors simply need to develop a thicker skin, but the question could also be turned the other way: was the reviewer more interested in forcing the author to develop a thicker skin or did they actually want to help the author improve?
Reviewing is not easy, especially when the goal is to help the author. And there are certainly authors that are oversensitive, for whom even the merest whiff of criticism is enough to induce an apoplectic rage. Such authors truly do need to develop thicker skin, lest they find themselves breaking in a manner not unlike Humpty Dumpty. Nevertheless, I do believe that maintaining a certain level of civility is much more likely to produce results.
In closing, I think it is important to consider what you are trying to do when your review something. A review can vary quite a lot depending on whom you are trying to help: the audience or the author. The latter wishes to improve whilst the former wishes to know if they are likely to enjoy themselves.
If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.
I also write original fiction, which you can find here.