Why Review

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Title: Why Review
Creator: Paula Smith
Date(s): June 1982
Medium: print
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Why Review is a 1982 essay by Paula Smith.

It was printed in S and H, a Starsky & Hutch letterzine, issue #33/34.

The Essay

Why review a zine? Why should some self—appointed critic presume to stick her two cents in at the back end of the Letterzine, pronouncing judgment right and left? Who appointed her God? And why on earth should anyone listen to her?

Well, the function of the critic is this: to encourage good writing and discourage bad. The function of the reviewer is to be both a critic and a consumers' advocate on the worth of the zines she reviews. A reviewer points out in public whether a story works as a piece of art on bases such as craftsmanship, freshness of ideas, clarity of insight, depth and range of emotion, and unity of theme. A reviewer is usually the most vocal member of any writer's audience. There would be small reward in an author's striving after excellence, without the reviewer to laud publically her efforts and to point out that she succeeded. There would be little point in expecting a mediocre writer to improve her work, without the critic yapping at her heels for her mistakes. A reviewer with an eye on her standards is a selective force for better writing, a goad for authors and editors to produce better quality, and for readers to appreciate good quality when it's given them.

Everyone has sometime or another recommended a book to a friend, or said that some movie wasn't worth seeing, save your money. In a small way, this also sorts out the good from the vile. Within writing circles, when one person functions as an editor for another writer, she commends good writing and bluepencils the bad. Philosophically, the friend's recommendation and the editor's critique are the same — a rating and selection in favor of what the critic considers good. The difference lies in the criteria, and how aware the critic is of them.

Let's call an analytic reader someone whose standards have to do with the quality of a story's plot, character, setting, style, and tone, and who is aware of her standards. Then an analytic reader is someone who either "likes" or "doesn't like" a story. Most people are unanalytical readers. They are usually not aware of the criteria by which they decide they like or dislike a piece, and their criteria are often highly subjective, that is, based mostly on the individual's tastes and personal preferences. Neither attitude is wrong; the mistake is in assuming that one's own way of appreciating a story is the only one, and the problem in our fandom is in readers and reviewers not allowing for both attitudes.

I've heard this complaint several times: why should a reviewer's opinion be considered worth more than anyone else's? Well, when you're sick, do you listen to your doctor or to, say, your garbage collector about what ails you? Or if you made a big fancy dinner, would you be more impressed by a compliment from a chef of a four-star restaurant, or one from your sister-in-law who's never dined in a place classier than the local Big Boy. There's such a thing as informed opinion.

Jo Phan may recommend a zine to all her friends because, in her opinion, it was enjoyable. However, should Jo know her friends' tastes quite well, she might realize that some friends would like the zine, and others wouldn't care for it. Therefore, she could then recommend it to the first group based on informed opinion. But a reviewer can't know the individual tastes of all her audience, and must become informed in a different way. By becoming an analytical reader, by forming objective, non-personal standards for judging a zine, a reviewer can offer an in formed and informative opinion. If a reviewer simply wrote "I liked this zine" or "I didn't like it," and didn't say why, her audience would not find this particularly useful, for they'd have no way of gauging whether they too, would or would not like the zine. Certainly, a critic's person al tastes can sneak in — no one is so totally analytical as not to have any, and a personal reaction can highlight the critic's standards for the audience. But both the audience and the reviewer should be able to dis tinguish the reviewer's analysis from her personal reactions.

A critic is a sieve: she screens out the good from the bad, the worthwhile from the trvial. True, for some people, a critic is a reverse indicator — what she likes they know they'll hate, and what she pans they rush out to buy. It's her consistency and adherence to her known stand ards that makes a reviewer useful. Many fans can't afford to buy every zine that comes out, and they count on the reviewers to warn them about a stinker, or to locate a goodie they might've missed.

Of course, there are quack critics, just as there are quack doctors, and shyster lawyers, and bunco garage mechanics. By their fruits ye shall know them: by their lack of objectivity or consistency to a set of standards. or inability to communicate their standards. Watch for symptoms of "expertitis," like a perverse delight in talking over the heads of your proles — I mean, the audience. An irritating or harsh critic is not necessarily a quack, in fact, is probably less likely to be one than the cheerful, friendly, isn't-everything-just-wonderful reviewer. A quack is someone who wastes the reader's time with disingenuous , or uninformed, or uninformative reviews. A quack plays favorites, lauding a friend's bad pieces, or disparaging an enemy's good work. A quack refuses to stick to, or to divulge, her standards.

Because standards are what criticism is all about. A good critic recognizes when a piece comes up to her standards and when it doesn't. A better critic recognizes when a piece that breaks her rules still works and reformulates her criteria to include the rule-breaker.