The Review, The Critique

The over-democratization of reviews and critiques in venues such as Amazon and Goodreads, far from opening up a space of popular discourse, has resulted in the crudest forms of populism. While it is indeed the case that we ought to build a culture of popular criticism, it is also the case that when such popular criticism is overdetermined by capitalist ideology the result is the valorization of the lowest common denominator. The average Amazon and Goodreads reviewer, paradigmatic of reviewers of art on other popular sites, has proven to be compromised by a bourgeois subjectivity that is disciplined by the capitalist culture industry.

What we find in these so-called “democratic” review spaces is the domination of impression over substance, the conflation of personal opinion with objective standardization, and the a priori assumption that one’s feelings about a work of art are tantamount to an objective critique. The “star” rating mechanics are not helpful in this regard since the encourage readers to rate a work of art based on their subjective apprehension of this work rather than a consideration that is anterior to whether or not they personally “enjoyed” the work in question. A reader-reviewer is thus encouraged to rate, in a positivist/mechanical manner, a work according to whether they personally “enjoyed” it, and thus to collapse personal opinion with objective critique, rather than to think through the work outside of the realm of opinion.

(This is to say nothing of “brigading” review practices where individuals on platforms such as Amazon or Goodreads decide to “punish” an author they dislike for dubious political reasons by one-starring them en masse.)

There is indeed something odd about Yankee-influenced discourses of democratic critique. There is a weird populism that treats personal opinion as existing on the same level of objective assessment. USAmericans, and those devoted to the USAmerican regime, are weirdly invested in the conflation of opinion with fact. An entire species of thought regimes are based on the assumption that every opinion is equal, and those expressing these opinions should have the right to treat them as truth even if they are in opposition to science. USAmericans pat themselves on the back when they defend the right of anti-science weirdos to treat their opinions about six day creationism as fact. This understanding is translated into the so-called”democratization” of literary criticism: USAmerican subjects, and those with the same magical thinking, are rating works of art and literature based on their own ‘sacrosanct’ opinions which they have been taught to see as objective. “Every opinion is valid,” is the liberal claim when this is, in fact, not the case.

This opinion-review practice can thus result in reviews that should not even qualify as proper reviews of a work of art in that they undermine the reviewer’s very ability to speak coherently about the work in question. One cannot provide a thorough accounting of a work of art, an aesthetic interpretation that tries to understand what it means as a work of art and its importance in the history of artistic production, if it’s being treated like a choice between a banana and bowl of cereal.

For example, I’ve encountered reviews that admit to not finishing a book because they found it “difficult” and then one- or two-star the book that they did not read because they did not finish it. You would think that finishing a book should be mandatory to writing a review that possesses the right to rate. You would also think that a reader’s inability to understand a piece of literature says more about the reader than the book: it is not the book’s fault, unless it was thoroughly obscurantist for no good reason, that an individual reader lacks the attention or care to try to understand it; that one- or two-star review should apply to the reviewer’s reading comprehension and not the book. Ulysses is difficult. Hopscotch is difficult. 2666 is difficult. It is entirely laughable to imagine that the worth of these great works of literature should be decided based on their difficulty. Conversely, does the fact that the same someone can mindlessly consume a Harry Potter novel and give it five stars mean that pulp fiction possesses a higher literary quality than works that are one-starred because of their difficulty? The very idea is ludicrous and, again, speaks to the collapse of the categories of personal taste/opinion and critical assessment.

The culture industry’s reconfiguration of reading comprehension and literacy around commodification and patterns of consumption has encouraged and valorized the insipid opinion-review. The idea of thinking through a work of literature, film, art according to its own terms – its aesthetic qualities, its relation to the social-historical context of creative production, the best interpretation of its meaning as a work of art – is excluded from a practice of thinking that has been cultivated by bourgeois ideology. While there was a time when bourgeois art critics could pat themselves on the back for their understanding of culture, those days are long gone: the logic of the bourgeois order, which only cares about art and literature insofar as it can be commodified, now militates against the very culture it once pretended to represent. Bourgeois cultural education is no longer an education that teaches an appreciation of the arts (this is the residue of a time when it opposed the dregs of feudal society, when it was generating creative thinkers), but an education of commodification and mechanization in every sphere of life: Transformers movies are its apotheosis.

But to review something rigorously, to engage with a piece of art in a manner that gives your review (and even your mechanical rating) justification, requires effort beyond the one-dimensionality of personal taste. That is, critically reviewing and engaging with a piece of literature or art is not represented by the insipid populism that is centered by the Amazons and Goodreads of the world. The idea, here, is very simple: it is possible to review a work of literature and art you don’t personally enjoy and still understand and celebrate its artistic/literary merits. And this is precisely what a “good” (meaning honest and critical) review should do: suspend personal taste, recognize that consumptive patterns are the result of socialization, and attempt to think through a piece of literature, art, or film according to artistic/literary standards that, though historically inherited, lurk outside of my personal tastes.

To review critically is to suspend your personal taste and opinion, to transcend the opinion-review practice. For example I do not enjoy reading Proust but I understand that the artistic importance of Proust transcends my personal taste. If I was ever to write a review of his work I would treat it with the gravitas it deserves: I would read it fully, I would engage with it as a work of art outside of my own enjoyment of the work, and would not dare to fire off an asinine review based on my inability to actually read the text in question. I never finished Swann’s Way (though I made it halfway through), let alone the other books of Remembrance of Things Past, because I found it entirely boring – and this is why I refuse to review Proust according to my personal experience of trying and failing to read his literary output. And if I had read him thoroughly, and had still failed to personally enjoy his work, I would still be wrong to review his work solely based on my personal experience. It is possible to understand the importance of a work of art without liking it… Unfortunately the populism of reader reviews in sites such as Amazon and Goodreads encourages the opposite.

If we are ever to transcend the mechanical appreciation of literature and art that is cultivated by these populist review sites we need to also recognize that thinking through a work of art/literature requires a suspension of personal taste as well as the requirement that the reviewer fully engage with this work. I don’t have to personally “enjoy” a particular work to recognize it as important; my opinion and taste should be suspended if I aim to write a review that matters, that can speak beyond the infantile category of subjectivism. Otherwise it is the celebration of Transformers and Harry Potter all the way down.

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3 responses to “The Review, The Critique

  1. This is giving me a lot of thoughts but i don’t know if I will be able to put them together in a coherent way… whatever, I’ll try!
    I guess most of the “reviews” on Amazon/goodreads (and I would add, though it pains me to admit it, on some parts of Booktube) is because they are not really meant to be reviews made by professionals (or at least people trained in literature) talking to other professionals (or passionate readers), but rather they can be summed up by “shoud you buy this book? yes or no” so obviously it becomes quite simplified and subjective. Also they are often spoiler-free (which, as a potential reader i am grateful for, but obviously you cannot get into depth if you can’t discuss the plot)
    also, in terms of style, i think these thought-pieces/coments (to not call them “reviews”) are not meant to be very academical, they are a mix of random thoughts about the work/ attempts at objectivity/ probably failing at being objective.
    Personnally I had a training in talking about paintings/sculptures and other fine arts a few years ago so I guess i could try and analyse as objectively as possible a canvas, but when it comes to books (or movies) i comment on using the website “sens critique” (French equivalent of Goodreads) I am aware that they are not really a review, but more of a collection of ideas, goods things and problems i had or saw while reading. Though i try not to stay superficial, I am aware that they are not really a review.
    so i guess the problem is two-fold :
    -we need to be taught (in schools, typically) how to write a proper review, to try and make the difference between the objective and the subjective (which is far from easy when it comes to art tbh)
    -the name we give to these thought pieces. websites features have imposed on us the term “review” even when it is undeserved. maybe we need to start using different words for different types of writings that may not have the same purpose (to go into depth about a book VS to say whether you liked or not personnaly and subjectively VS whether you encourage the reader to buy this book (or even : VS a very short rant about how it’s shit lol)) so as to leave “review” for, well, proper reviews

    • Thanks for these comments. Yes, I agree that the “reviews” (or whatever other label we want to call them) on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads aren’t the same as critical reviews written by trained professionals. And I am not even trying to argue for the over-valorization of the professional review at the expense of the popular review. The deeper problem, to my mind, is the way that the culture industry and the one-dimensionality of capitalist thought has created a positivist response to literature where even a modest amount of thoughtfulness, trained or no, is reduced to “should you buy this book” and a positivist starring. Even if we were to use different wording, or even if proper review writing was taught in school, the very platform of these sites encourages vapid rating and engagement. And as for teaching it in school, I really do believe that the kind of thinking represented by these reviews is precisely what is taught, by-and-large, in the ideological state apparatus that is the education system.

  2. I agree, and i would say unfortunately almost ALL participative websites (except some forums that don’t follow the reddit-like structure of upvotes or downvotes) are built on this agree/disagree Buy/don’t buy dichotomy that is harmful to debate (also the anti-intellectualism that has somehow become cool(?!!) is clearly to blame). Sometimes i also think about making a series of articles about how social media in general is both an opportunity for the left and also A FUCKING CATASTROPHY in many instances, in great part because of the binary thinking imposed by the platform (when i get over my imposter syndrom i might do it, who knows lol)
    Interesting what you say about schools. I don’t know much about the Canadian system, but from my week in a US high school and what my friends told me about it, it is based on “every opinion is valid” nonsense (is that the same in Canada?)
    In France it’s quite the opposite, in French classes you are taught formal analysis of novels, historical texts etc following different methods, but you have to always be as objective as possible. Even outside of written exams, teacher never ask you what you thought of the novel you had to read, whether it was good or not and to argue your position one way or another. I guess this sort of teaching is useful to see the rhetoric in a text and understand the historial context as well as the point the author was trying to make, but it doesn’t teach you how to form an opinion at all (except for that one year of philosophy that not everybody gets anyways!)
    And even with this we still get bad reviews (or should I say “non reviews”) on goodreads and the like but maybe these two methods of teaching are actually two faces of the same coin? i don’t know.
    or maybe you meant something different in your critique of the educational system?

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