First, this premise: Reviews are a genre.
Most people tend to think of reviews as a discrete and specific form that really only has one product: the review. Whether it’s a movie, book, play, music, or restaurant, the review has a length, purpose, and tone that everyone can easily recognize.
But that easy identification is part of the problem when it comes to evaluating reviews as a genre, because it cuts out so much. Reviews run the gamut (I love using that word) from one-line recommendations and denigrations to book-long analyses of an author’s life work. Reviews can be straight yes-or-no statements of what to buy and why or works of criticism that don’t enter into the topic of commercial value at all.
Based on this belief, I once taught a class on reviews. It was a basic level English class on argument, sure, but what better way to show of your rhetorical prowess than with a review?
In this class we did those normal, basic reviews that everyone expects. I also assigned reviews that involved reviewing emotions, press releases, and alien invasions. I had students read the Onion A/V Club and the Ad Report Card, the first to get an idea of how to write a historically-informed review in a small amount of space, the second to demonstrate how reviews can be written on subjects we don’t normally see as needing reviews (or, frankly, being reviewable).
An obituary is a review of a person’s life.
History is a review of the past (and, like any review, biased by the reviewer/historian).
Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War is a review of, well, a war.
But how is it a review? (You might ask.)
What is it selling? (You might wonder.)
It is a review because it is an analysis of the choices made. When talking about products, those choices are involved with design. With performances, those choices involve the actors/musicians involved (Why were they chosen?) and those made by the actors/musicians (Why did they perform that particular way?). In a war, those choices are the general’s tactics.
It is a review because it is an analysis of the results of those choices. A review that simply list what was done is simply a description. A review needs to make informed assumptions about why certain choices were made and what effects those choices had.
And what is it selling? What is any review selling? A specific point of view.
And what does a reader look for in a review? Two things.
1. A recognizable point of view, i.e. a bias. This is most evident with products, whether we’re talking about Consumer Reports style analysis of pros and cons or a review of a movie. If you are deciding whether you would like a product, you need to understand the point of view of the reviewer. And, actually, this doesn’t mean that you have to agree with the reviewer, you just need to understand them well enough to judge how relevant their opinion is for you.
2. An entertaining voice. This has nothing to do with whether or not the reader agrees with the reviewer. A review is a piece of writing and like any piece of good writing (outside of technical manuals or accounting reports) it needs to focus the reader’s attention. The best way to focus a reader’s attention is through gripping writing – that way, even if they’re opposed to what you’re saying, they will be hooked by the way you say it.
Of course, a class that treats everything as a possible review subject is the same as a class that treats everything as art: it leans towards infinite regressions.
Because you can write a review of a review, and a review of that review, and a review of that one, on and on, each with important things to say, points to make, and oh god why doesn’t anyone write anything original nowadays!
p.s. your review of this review of a class on reviews will be reviewed in the morning.