How (Not) to Read Reviews

July 28th, 2010

Recently, there’s been some significant changes in the manga and anime industries. In a time of flux some people look to new models, some cling to old and lots of people choose to shoot the messenger. In the manga and anime world, blogger-reviewers are frequently the messengers. :-)

Fans are pretty bad at social cues that “normal” people have no trouble picking up on. For instance, when someone says to you, “Gee look at the time,”  it isn’t a hint for you to look at your watch – it’s time to let the conversation drop and let them leave. :-) Likewise, if you’re talking someone’s ear off and they say, “Excuse me, I have to handle this,” and turn away from you, it’s time to wave and move on, *not* to say, “I’ll wait” and pick up where you left off when they are done.

And then there are reviews. I’ve already covered the fallacy of the objective review in a previous essay. Today I’d like to provide some basic lessons in how to read a review. These rules apply here of course, but they will also probably apply to any review written by anyone anywhere.

1) Don’t assume the reviewer has an agenda…unless they say they do

Reviews are…well, reviews. Usually a review is a synopsis of a story, some highlights of key positives and negatives, opinions as to why those matter and a conclusion. A conclusion, or a point made within the context of the review is not the same thing as an agenda. A reviewer’s agenda is to review the item. Unless they state something like, “I will prove that the Emperor is really a bicycle,” they probably have no other agenda but to review. Way few manga reviewers are corporate tools, shills or stoolies. Their only agenda is to review things of interest to fans. Accusing them of having an agenda is typically an indication that the reader was the one with an agenda – one that was not met.

2) Don’t assume the reviewer watches things the same way or looks for the same things in their entertainment as you do.

A reviewer may not notice something that is critical to you, or may focus on something you don’t find important at all.  The reviewer’s criteria are theirs, yours are yours.  Just because you love something doesn’t mean the reviewer will – even if you explain to them how important it is. Language is super important to me, but maybe not to you. A reviewer is going to focus on what they like – not necessarily what you like.

3) Don’t assume the reviewer plays by your rules

Maybe you would never call something boring. Maybe you would never give anything a 10. The review you are reading- unless it’s one of your own – may not follow *your* rules. You have the right to not read it, of course, but demanding the reviewer conform to your standards misses the point of reading someone else’s review/opinion. Which brings me to…

4) The reviewer does not owe you external validation

Some reviews will be negative about something you like. That happens and, when it does, you have three choices – you can consider the alternative point of view and find it valid or not; you can stop reading; you can throw a hissy fit in the comments or elsewhere. Whichever you choose, it’s important to remember that the reviewer is not your therapist – they do not owe you external validation of your opinion.

5) Disagreeing with your opinion is not a personal attack

This one is critical in fandom. We get so engaged about what we like, we forget that people have the right to not like it – or worse, not care about it at all. Unless a reviewer says, “people who like this are doodyheads” they are not implying this. They might disagree with your opinion, but not your right to your opinion. Take a deep breath – both opinions can be right. At the same time. Feel free to share yours in the comments, in a sane and lucid manner. It’s likely that there are other people who will agree with you, too.

6) A negative review about something you like should *never* affect your opinion of it

Recently I received a polite letter asking me to retract a review, because it deeply upset the person who was writing. He asked me how I would feel if someone attacked a series I liked? I wrote back to say that I would not care, because 1) my opinion is mine and why would someone else’s opinion change that and; 2) oh, there are PLENTY of things I like that other people don’t – and, you know what? That’s okay. It doesn’t bother me in the least when people disagree with me. That’s what makes life interesting.

I should have also added – 3) it’s a freaking cartoon, get a grip, man. I really hope that if you’re about to launch a screaming frothy-mouthed attack on any reviewer that you sit back, take a deep breath and consider why them liking this thing is SO critical for you? Will it actually affect you? How? Why? Unless you are the creator – then you’ve got a good reason to be upset, maybe. But, you still have to deal with the fact that some people just aren’t going to like the same things you like.

And the last and most important rule is:

7) You will never change anyone’s opinion by being angry at them

My opinion changes all the time. I’m pretty open to new ideas and perspectives. My opinion changes over time, with new circumstances and information. I’ve definitely changed my opinion when confronted with an alternative reading of something. But throwing a hissy fit in the comments will just about never change my opinion of whatever I reviewed. It might change my opinion of you.

In a column on his journal, film critic Roger Ebert said that video games are not art. Thousands of angry fans wrote him to explain why he was wrong. He apologized but, as I read his apology it was very clear to me that his opinion has not changed. Sure, he gets that lots of people see games as art. He clearly does not – and thousands of lunatics yelling at him (many threatening him) about it, did not shift that at all.

If you’ve ever written a reviewer and told them that they don’t get it, or that they are stupid; if you’ve ever said, “Have you read it/the second volume/seen the anime, because if you had then you’d know…”; if you’ve ever told a reviewer that they are wrong (as if an opinion can be wrong/right,)…then you have already failed in understanding what a review is and how you can usefully read and respond to it. You probably failed in making a good argument for your case, as well. We all do this, by the way – I’ve done it myself and been called out for it. It’s not a crisis, it’s just human interaction. But you’re way more likely to get a shift in opinion without the histrionics.

In conclusion, if I have ever reviewed something you liked negatively, then I am not at all sorry. Because I am not you. :-) It’s not an attack. It’s just a review. I don’t owe you external validation, but I do owe you as honest a review as I can write. And that’s what you’re gonna get here at Okazu – an honest review.

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22 Responses

  1. Wow! Thank you thank you thank you! I wish I could get some people I know to read AND understand this!

    Love the blog btw… it’s the Highlight of my Google Reader!

  2. @Absolute Anne – I’m so glad to hear that! Thank you very much for being a part of the Yuri Network here at Okazu.

  3. darkchibi07 says:

    I should keep this in mind when an ANN review or a new Shelf Life column comes especially the latter. Maybe the regular users from the Mania anime forums should give this a look.

  4. I feel in the future I will just direct anyone who gives me a hard time about reviews right to this blog…

    Well said.

  5. Judy Justice says:

    Nice post.

    As a side insight on this, I think most people just don’t know how to debate things.

    As a manager, I came to learn that. It’s not so much about what you have to say than how you say it.

    Erica, I find your reviews very neat indeed. Cause the way you write gives a clear insight at your personality and it helps picturing the context in which your opinions are born and evolve.

    Plus, you’re funny.
    And funny is pacifying.

  6. @Judy Justice – I learned that from Dorothy L. Sayers. You can say anything you like, as long as you’re smiling. :-)

    I try to give insight so that my opinion have context. It helps a bit, I think, to know why a thing is.

  7. James says:

    I agree with you for the most part, in that people should always be polite to reviewers and shouldn’t lose their temper over reading something that they don’t like. And in general, I’m very happy to see courtesy being promoted on the Internet.

    I’m not sure I quite agree with you on the concept that a review is just ‘an opinion’ and that a reviewer can never be wrong, though. I think that there are plenty of ways that a reviewer can make inaccurate statements (for example, describing a series as ‘original’ when it has a plot and characters that are very stereotypical of its genre, or describing messy and rushed artwork as fantastic). Of course, someone’s review will always be guided by their personal opinion of the series, but I think it’s important when writing a review not to let one’s own opinion override what’s objectively good and bad about a series (and I think that you do a very good job of that in your posts).

    So I very much agree with the gist of your post, but I think there’s plenty of scope for respectfully disagreeing with what a reviewer has said, and plenty of scope for a reviewer to be objectively right or wrong in the specifics of their review, if not in their opinion as a whole.

  8. These are some very good principles to keep in mind, both for those who read reviews and also for those who write them.

    Personally speaking, I think the main thing that annoys me in reading reviews in general is when the author begins making negative judgements of a work’s fans or audience, typically in an attempt to justify their opinion. Sometimes this might start as a well-meaning attempt to explain how other people could enjoy a work the reviewer does not, but it almost invariably comes across as arrogant and conceited. I recognize this is embodied in point number 5, but I think some reviewers do little (or, in fact, do nothing at all) to hide their contempt for the audience who enjoys some of the works they choose to review (and sometimes they seem to select works to review based in part on the contempt they have for the target audience). And that’s when the question of having an agenda comes into play for me. Of course, I think it’s also true that fans can be over-zealous and can certainly perceive things in ways that weren’t intended, so it can go both ways.

    I wonder if some of this is about simple diplomacy. Sometimes simply phrasing things in a different way would cause less derision, but some writers feel that this sort of consideration shouldn’t be required and is in fact harmful to the integrity of their writing (as if this would be “less honest” in a way). But if the review process isn’t based on a foundation of respect — respect for the medium, respect for the creators, and respect for the audience/readers/fans — then I wonder if that’s when the review process looses some of this so-called “objectivity” (which I otherwise agree doesn’t really exist).

    At the end of the day, though, I certainly agree that there’s no sense in getting too upset over negative reviews. No matter how much authority the author presumes to have, it’s still just one point of view. As you so rightfully point out, the factors that lead to any given person’s enjoyment of a work are personal and we shouldn’t expect them to be shared. If the purpose of reading reviews is to help find works someone might enjoy, the best policy is probably to find reviewers whose tastes are most-easily correlated with one’s own (in either the positive or negative sense).

    Anyway, good post. :)

  9. @relentessflame – You’re right – in theory. I’ve handled it with respect and with not. And you know what? It doesn’t really matter.

    When I wrote my Maria+Holic reviews, people trashed me for taking it too seriously, “not understanding,” etc, etc. Even though 1) I was careful not to trash talk people who did like it and 2) I was honest about my reaction to it and why I had it.

    It didn’t matter, because fans don’t care whether the reviewer is respectful or not- they mostly only care that the reviewer agrees with them. I’ve seen it on other blogs as well. Respectful or not, fans want validation. And if I were to say I liked something (and make fun of those who don’t) I would be like 87% of the bloggers out there. Aren’t we so cool, liking this thing the plebes don’t. :-)

  10. I’m glad you raised the point about validation; I don’t read reviews because I’m hoping someone else will affirm my opinion of a work, but because I’m curious to see how other people have responded to it. For me, the interesting part of being online is seeing the conversation that develops around a provocative title. I’m really looking forward to reading your review of Peepo Choo *precisely* because your take on it will be so utterly different from mine, and because you’re likely to emphasize different aspects of the text than I did.

    The next time someone arrives at my site, guns blazing and demanding to know HOW anyone could possibly disagree with them, I’m steering them to this blog entry.

  11. @Katherine Dacey – I agree with you, but I was discussing this with a blogger we both know from Twitter and she strongly disagreed. One of her points about finding info about manga online was that it was so difficult to find someone whose tastes matched her own. I kind of boggled that anyone would expect reviews to be their filter for them, but I’m a triple Virgo with Aquarius moon sign and don’t look for external validation from other people. lol

  12. JRB says:

    “One of her points about finding info about manga online was that it was so difficult to find someone whose tastes matched her own. I kind of boggled that anyone would expect reviews to be their filter for them, but I’m a triple Virgo with Aquarius moon sign and don’t look for external validation from other people.”

    I don’t know if this is an “external validation” thing. There’s a lot of books published and only so many hours in the day to read them, so having someone whose tastes are similar to yours to point out things you might like but may have missed, or things that look interesting but you probably won’t like is quite useful.

    It’s always nice to see something you think is worthy be appreciated by others, so people reading reviews of something they already like may be looking for that boost. But many people do in fact use reviews as a pre-filter for their own reading choices, and in that case the degree to which the reviewer’s tastes align with your own is important.

  13. BruceMcF says:

    I agree with JRB … if reading a review of a title you are considering buying or a show you are considering watching, someone who’s tastes exactly coincided with your own would be tremendulous.

    Of course, such an exact match will never occur, since we are all unique individuals, otherwise the only things required would be a rating and a note on “watch it when you’re in a mood for …” Hence the good review giving insight into why the reviewer had their reaction, allowing a reader to guesstimate how close their own reaction is likely to be.

    The responses in question, though, seem to more often come from someone who has already seen the title or show and is trying to get as many other people to see and love the title or show … and views any negative review as a betrayal of their love and adoration. The author of the review then becomes the enemy in the fight to get the whole world to see and love the title or show.

  14. Dash says:

    I agree with everything said in this article and even referenced it when a reviewer at another website got a little frustrated at the reactions to her review of a popular animated TV show.

    I just wish… this wasn’t preaching to the choir. The types of people who don’t understand how to interpret reviews, I think are the same people who would resist the logic presented in this article.

    Still, I’m glad to see this formally written out. It’s a nice rallying place for future arguments with fanboys/gals.

  15. @Dash -Thanks for linking it there! I’m getting a surprising number of hits from it.

    The funny thing is that this article was, in some part, prompted by my exact same reaction to that exact same show and the exact same reaction from a fan. So you can imagine my surprise when that popped up in my incoming links. :-)

  16. JRB says:

    “The funny thing is that this article was, in some part, prompted by my exact same reaction to that exact same show and the exact same reaction from a fan.”

    OK, now I’m curious. Can someone provide a pointer to the review in question?

  17. Anonymous says:

    In a column on his journal, film critic Roger Ebert said that video games are not art…

    W-e-l-l they are either ‘artistic’ or ‘literary’ works … by law :-P (literary I think except for the actual game art,as are other computer programs)

    Wait, Roger… that Roger Ebert? Oh no, I’m about to break rule #6! (don’t let a review affect your opinion of something) ;_;

  18. Jade Harris says:

    Not trying to be confrontational, but I think your article on objectivity in critique is what may encourage this sort of purely subjective response.

    Is a review a personal opinion based on the reviewer’s life and media experience? Yes, but there is a difference between sharing observations and loading one’s opinions for bear. Being able to deliver one’s opinions and authority with some objective finesse is what makes a review or commentary somewhat artful and opens the avenue for reception in kind. A subjective delivery invites your audience to interpret your delivery and intent in whatever way they wish; that’s simply how the discussion has been framed by the review.

  19. Atarun says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with almost everything you said there.
    It never fails to amaze me how people try to convince/manipulate others with insults. Isn’t it obvious it CANNOT work?

    The only one tiny little thing I find myself disagreeing with in this post is about a negative review not changing anything for the fan. When I first watched Maria Holic, I enjoyed it a lot. Then I read your review of it.

    I could have just dismissed your review (or even your blog), but I’m glad I didn’t. Thanks to your review, I know why I never could stand the manga and I know why I still like the anime, despite things being there I wish were not. More importantly, I feel that your review opened my eyes and that makes it one of the most useful reviews I’ve ever read, despite the initial uneasy and unpleasant feelings it put me through.

    When I read a review I agree with, I just sit back and enjoy. When I read a review I disagree with, I try to gain something from it.
    One thing is sure : whether I can take anything from a review or not, I don’t see the point in attacking the reviewer at all XD

    Whew, that was a long comment. Anyway, I really enjoy reading your blog, even (or maybe especially) when I disagree with you. Thank you for putting up with all the crazy trolls out there ^^

  20. @atarun – I’m glad you enjoy the blog, thanks so much for being a reader! We actually don’t diagree at all, if you read #4 again, you’ll see I say that thinking about a disagreeing point of view and accepting it as valid – or not – is one of the three things you can do in response to a review. we don’t *have* to choose to have a hissy fit. :-)

    Thanks again for your comments!

  21. Mayi says:

    you crack me you. loved it.

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