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Saturday, March 20, 2021

Critical Reviews: Why They Matter and How to Spot a Good One

 Critical reviews are important but are often misunderstood or maligned, particularly in communities which emphasize harmony or focusing on the good over the bad. While I can understand this desire the truth is that a critical review can be an important way to address misinformation presented in nonfiction books or various issues in fiction. These issues are important to address because without a fair counterpoint being offered many readers, particularly of nonfiction, may not be aware of issues that are significant such as radical factual errors. Critical reviews are also important to authors, because they allow an author to see where they may have misstepped, been inaccurate, can be more clear, or where particular demographics may have been offended or ignored. A critical review should be a learning tool for the reader and the author, highlighting things that needed improvement, editing, or revision. 

No book or author should be above or beyond criticism and the idea that anyone is should be a red flag for people that things are edging into personality cult territory. Fair and balanced criticism is essential and should apply to anyone.

The following are of course entirely my own opinions and suggestions.

Basic Guidelines for a Nonfiction Critical Review

  • A good critical review should critique content. If a review is attacking the author personally then you aren't reading a review of the book you are reading a review of the author, which is an entirely different thing. Criticism of content is valuable and can help people learn to distinguish good information from bad or see where errors are occurring which they may not have the knowledge of the subject to spot themselves. It can be important to frame a book in the context of the author's biases but ideally this shouldn't feel like an attack but rather give context to the wider review. For example pointing out that an author doesn't come from the culture they are writing about isn't an attack but can be important context for a review. 
  • A good critical review should not be a vehicle to attack an author, viewpoint, or group. This one is fairly obvious but if the entire point of the review is just to have an excuse to write an attack piece aimed at something besides the book itself then it isn't a good review. If the book opens up the author, perspective, or group to criticism based on the content of the book that's a different story, but if the two are largely unrelated then they should be treated separately. The only exception to this would be if the author has a known history of blatant harmful behavior or opinions which readers should be made aware of. For example if the author is a known neoNazi or pedophile; even in those circumstances however it should be presented as a caveat emptor [buyer beware] not attack.
  • A good critical review should align criticism with the subject. A book on folklore should be discussed based on folklore, for example, just as a book on witchcraft should be discussed through that lens. Criticizing a book on folklore based on personal experiences is never going to result in a solid review, just like criticizing a book on witchcraft through the lens of, say, modern American Protestantism won't result in a good critical review. 
  • A good critical review should offer solid examples of what is being criticized. Ideally this should be in the form of quotes from the text being reviewed which are then discussed, with counterpoints or better information offered. Vague mentions or hints of what might be the issue that are never well defined do not make for a good review.
  • A good critical review should have no logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are, quite frankly, a huge issue in many of the arguments people put forth even though they actually don't support what the person is trying to say. 
  • A good critical review should be clear on what the issues with the book were. After reading a good critical review a person should have a clear understanding of what the criticism was, how it was supported, and how the issues affected the book overall. 

Basic Guideline for a Fiction Critical Review
  • A good critical review should be aimed at content. Just like with nonfiction the point is to critique the book not the person's feelings about the author. Although there are some circumstances where an author's personal history or background may come into play that should ideally be tied into examples from the book itself. 
  • A good critical review should look at things like: pacing, plot holes, repetition, character development, dialogue, and believability. Some of these things, like pacing, will always be a personal preference by the reviewer but others like plot holes are more objective. 
  • A good critical review should warn about spoilers. If the review is going to give away key plot points or character's fates its important to warn the reader before they get to that section; some people do not want that sort of advanced knowledge if they are still trying to decide whether or not to read the book. 
  • A good critical review should be honest. If a person is criticizing something that bothered them personally they should acknowledge it. In contrast if they are critiquing something that has a factual basis - say the author radically misrepresented how quickly travel riding a horse is - that should be addressed on that basis. In other words it should be clear if the reviewer is saying "I didn't like how this was handled" versus "that's not how that physically works".
  • A good critical review shouldn't shy away from addressing issues of prejudice. Its entirely fair to criticize a book for falling into problematic tropes like the Magical Negro (or Magical Jew or Magical Queer, etc.,) or failing the Bechdel Test or similar. Good reviews shouldn't feel like they are trying to find these issues to point out however and should be able to offer clear examples.
A final note: criticism of grammar and spelling. In my opinion grammar and spelling should only be criticized if the mistakes are blatant, constant, and distracting to the reader. 

one of the more important critical reviews I have written was for Matthews' 'Secret Lives of Elves & Faeries'

1 comment:

  1. I think critical reviews are becoming more necessary than ever. Thank you for having the courage to write this!