What and Whom to Review

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Title: What and Whom to Review
Creator: Paula Smith
Date(s): October 1982
Medium: print
Fandom: Starsky & Hutch
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What and Whom to Review is a 1982 essay by Paula Smith.

It was printed in S and H, a Starsky & Hutch letterzine, issue #36.

For additional context, see Timeline of Concrit & Feedback Meta.

The Essay

Even though no critic can review absolutely everything in her field, some critics are more comprehensive than others. This is a reflection more on the individual's personality, and also how much money she has to blow on zines.

My own preference is to review as much of everything as I can manage. This gives my audience the widest use of my service, should they want it, as well as a broad baseline by which to gauge my prejudices. However, the occasional critic is more likely to be speaking from her enthusiasms (or peeves) and thus may be less mechanical in her reviews. Usually, people match up with critics whose tastes are most similar to their own.

Although the editor of a panned zine may not think so, it's useful to have more than one review of every zine. Where the reviewers agree, they are likely to illustrate common, objective standards the audience should know about, and where they don't, one can counteract the biases of another. This is assuming, of course, that both aren't totally wrong, but the more critics in the field, the less likely that is.

For my money the best reviewers are people who are also producing in the fields they're critiquing. An author-wtriter knows the miseries and joys of writing a story, and how it feels to be on the receiving end of someone else's review. It helps keep her honest. However, this does bring up the question of whether to review the zine one's own work appears in. Unless one's work is the entire or primary piece in the zine, why not? But, since it's difficult to review one's own work fairly—one either mocks it out of false modesty, or tries to explain what one meant, neither of which is a true review—the best thing to do is merely mention the name of the piece, with perhaps a short synopsis, and leave the criticise to another reviewer. This is another reason why multiple reviews are a Good Thing.

Since there is a limited amount of space for any given review, most reviewers comment on individual stories of a zine proportionate to the length or importance. Ideally, a critic should comment on everything in a zine, even the filler poems, but usually the minor bits get ignored, unless the critic saves up and does a cross-zine discussion on minor bits by type—a special section on filler poems, for instance, or on the works of a neglected author.

Whom to review? Everyone. But there are special cases. Most reviewers treat known neos with a bit of mecry, for mistakes made through honest ignorance can be cured. You don't housetrain a puppy with a .45 automatic, after all. A traumatized writer will still write, but she may never publish again. And that could be a shame. However, ye neos should realize that you can't plead your innocence forever—if you still haven't improved by your third or fourth story, expect both barrels.

Self-proclaiaed amateurs are another special case, that is, people who write only for the fun of it and don't give a fart about art. I waver on the treatment of these. Like bacteria, they perform a useful function in churning over ideas, and will never evolve no matter how much selective pressure is brought to bear, but also like bacteria, they can debilitate the developaent of more complex authors. What I seem to wind up doing is autoclaving them periodically, and otherwise leaving them alone.

Finally, there is the category of friends and enemies. Despite the reviewers' number one rule, "Review the Work, Not the Writer," it is a temptation to go easier on buddies, and press harder on baddies—or else to bend over backward and be rotten to one's friends and super-nice to one's fiends. Neither tells the audience how good or bad the work really is. This is complicated by the fact that reviewers, like anyone, enjoy making friends with people they consider celebrities, and shun those they consider clods. Nevertheless, it is necessary for the critic to put aside her emotions and review the work and only the work—and take the Iumps from friends she had to pan or listen to the crows from creeps she had to praise. If she can't do this, she probably ought not to review that particular zine. Better no review than a dishonest one.

Choosing to be a reviewer is rather an egoistical decision: it means claiming that one's tastes and standards are so developed and objective that one can legitimately influence the zine-buying of a hundred people. It is also not exactly the best way to accrue widespread popularity—nobody loves a cynic, sniff. Yet there is joy and honor in the job, whether sharing one's excitement of discovering a really neat zine, or naming others of a true cloaca, or simply learning more about one's craft through dissection and observation.

It is a proud and lonely thing, to be a reviewer.