A few thoughts on reviewers and critics

One of the most interesting aspects of being in any creative field is watching the reviews of your work come in.

Last weekend saw the arrival of two new sets of observations on Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce.

The reviewer for Seattle’s Elliott Bay bookstore, one of America’s premier independent booksellers, called it “…a commanding work that paints the legend of this misrepresented chief with fresh and startling brushstrokes.”

The reviewer from the Washington Times, the major Washington D.C. daily that is the print equivalent of Fox News, called it a docudrama with invented dialogue and prose that “comes in shades of purple.”

Clearly, I prefer the glowing praise of the former assessment and take requisite umbrage at the petulant tones and false claims of invented dialogue in the latter. But one must look beyond the ultimate “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” of a reviewer in deciding whether or not listen to his or her judgment.

I did a fair amount of art reviewing a number of years ago, and what I learned is that the good review illuminates, the bad review judges. You, as the reader of a review, have a right to know the preconceptions of the reviewer, even if they are sketched in only a few sentences. And you have a right to expect a reviewer to walk you into the center of a work and give you the eyes with which to look around.

The very best reviewers are those who can craft sentences that illuminate with almost epiphanic brevity and clarity. They align your thinking on an entire work. They are the literary equivalents of Zen teachers who can, with a word or gesture, put everything you are seeing or thinking into a larger context.

As a writer, I look for the same thing in an editor. An editor who can help me see my work with a fresh eye is a thing to treasure; an editor who critiques and niggles the specifics is more of an obstruction than an aid.

You, as a reader/viewer/listener, need to be selective in taking in the words of reviewers. Reviewers are usually folks who either have too much on their plates to ever go as deeply as they’d like into a work, or are hired guns doing piecework for a newspaper or magazine and are trying to make their bones, grind a particular intellectual ax, or curry favor with a particular author,painter, composer, or whatever. With such odds stacked against them, it is small wonder that reviewers’ opinions can wander all over the map.

You need to learn to look upon a reviewer as a teacher. Did he or she illuminate a subject for you? Did his or her comments prepare you to more fully understand a work when you go confront it? Or did the comments just tell you whether a work was good or bad, with a few selected passages to buttress the reviewer’s opinion?

A good review takes you on a journey into the work or whacks you over the head with an insight that will illuminate your own journey through the work. If it does neither of these things, take it with a grain of salt.

Here’s the simple rule: If it deepens your own experience of discovery, it is a gift. If it tells you what to see or how to think about what to see, it is like going on a drive through unfamiliar country with a boor riding shotgun.

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