Ruminating on Reviews

I have been reviewing in one form or another since high school. I honed the craft while working on the college newspaper, Pipe Dream, and became a regular reviewer for the local Gannett paper, the Binghamton Sun-Bulletin during a wonderful internship. As a result, I think I have developed pretty good critical skills for books, comics, movies, and television.

Despite my no longer being on staff, I continue to contribute to ComicMix, mostly via reviews and enjoy keeping my hand it. Writing reviews helps keep me sharp and thinking about the works before me.

When reviewing, I assess the project, the intent of the creator(s) and the audience being addressed. I try and avoid the navel-gazing, long-winded philosophy of some reviewers and try and focus on the project in a critical way unlike, say the New York Times Book Review which spends more time on the subject matter than on the review. My intent is to evaluate the work and determine if it has achieved its goals and why or why not.

With the holidays at an end, my doorbell began ringing in earnest as more graphic novels, books, and DVDs have arrived, hoping to garner a review or some kind. In working through the stack, I’m struck by how negative I have been this month.  Eight reviews have appeared to date, with three more in the pipeline. Of the twelve, I really liked three of them, really disliked four of them, and was mixed to favorable on the rest.

It’s not like I’ve been cranky all month but I am surprised at how deeply disappointed I am that that these projects make it through the production system come out and don’t work. There are many layers of approval, editing, commentary, and review that can stop a graphic novel from being totally derivative or a film from tackling ambitious ideas and failing to explore any of them. Given how many people work on a movie or television series it never ceases to amaze me that utter crap makes it the screen when someone, somewhere in the system should be raising their hand and bravely saying, “this isn’t working.”

Now, everyone has an opinion and just because I find something to be lacking, doesn’t make me right and the creator wrong. But when the vast majority of reviews for a project are negative, then something went wrong and no one stopped it. I’m sure that no one sets out to produce crap, but sometimes time pressures, or budget, or studio interference or a confluence of events details the most noble of intentions.

Still, I get the feeling that the checks and balances in place to make things the best they can is not working. Not in publishing and most certainly not in Hollywood.

I try and take the lessons I’ve learned from deconstructing works I like and don’t like and try to apply them to my own writing. Do I succeed each time out? Of course not.  I fully recognize that some of my fiction works better than other books and my non-fiction may not be as satisfying as I had hoped. The same with the creators I’m working with, but at least I can proudly say I have listened to the feedback I’ve received and worked hard to improve my game. And thankfully, I’ve avoided utter disasters – I think.

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