Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reviewing the Artist

A couple of years ago, I somehow chanced to see Britney's (first?) performance on the X-Factor. There had been some weeks of build-up to this event, it being a bit of a coup for Simon Cowell's monument to self. And so, we had this much-hyped event, and she performed.

The performance was pretty awful, even by her standards - it wasn't clear exactly what went wrong, but something just wasn't right, either because she wasn't really ready, or because there was too much pressure, or she just didn't care, or whatever. But whatever the reason, it was a bad performance.

After which, the four judges led a standing ovation, and queued up to fawn over the global megastar and her 'wonderful' performance - a performance that they would have slated had any of the contestants given it. But because it was Britney...

A few posts ago, I talked about Ed Greenwood's novel "The Wizard's Mask", which is the worst novel I have read this year by a long, long way. And the reviews mostly reflect that. But every so often you come across a five-star review praising it for "non-stop action", or something similar... but mostly praising it because it's by Ed Greenwood, and he's a legend in gaming circles.

Over on the Imaginarium, I've made some comment about the adventure "The Devil's Spine", by Monte Cook. Again, the reviews of this are rather mixed, but most note that it is deeply flawed. Every so often, though, you find one that assigns it five stars... because Monte Cook wrote it, and he's a star in the field of game design.

It's probably best at this point not to mention the initial reviews of "The Phantom Menace", or "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull", or "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", or the fifth book in "A Song of Ice and Fire", or...

(And, for an example of the same thing in reverse, consider "The Cuckoo's Calling". When it was written by Robert Galbraith, it received decent reviews, but very few sales. As soon as it was written by J.K. Rowling, though, suddenly it was a best-selling work of genius.)

I suppose it's natural for reviewers to do this. To get Britney on the show, ITV no doubt had to promise the most gentle of treatment. An artist who is slated in a review of one product is unlikely to give interviews when the next is released. And, of course, the internet has made many fan-bases utterly psychotic, so a bad review may very well incur death threats.

The problem is, it's really not helpful if the review is of anything other than the product at hand. I already like Bernard Cornwell's novels, so if your review is really about those, and not about his current novel, you're not helping me at all. But if his current novel is a stinker and you tell me that, then you're actually being useful. I may well ignore you and get it anyway (in fact, I almost certainly will), but at least then I'll know to trust you when you want me off!

(It works both ways, of course - if you hate BC's novels, then that probably invalidates your review just as much as if you're a mindless fanboi, at least from where I'm sitting. But the ideal is if you usually like them, but are prepared to say if one sucks.)

(Oh, and for the record, there's no particular reason I chose Bernard Cornwell for that last example.)

Unfortunately, the upshot of this is that I now completely ignore pretty much any review that talks about anything other than objective tangibles. As soon as you move into the area of storytelling, or quality of art, or pretty much anything intangible, and especially once you get on to the next item in an ongoing sequence, it becomes really hard to trust whether the person is talking about this thing, or if they're being influenced by past performance.

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