Read an Excerpt
... And How to Write Them
By Celia Brayfield
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2008 Celia Brayfield
All rights reserved.
WHAT MAKES A GREAT REVIEW?
A review can be a 2,000-word, state-of-the-art epic illustrated with a glossy photo-spread and splashed over four pages in an upmarket magazine with an international readership. A review can be a 150-word near-haiku included in a round-up of summer beach-reads in a local newspaper. It is probably easier to attain a towering reputation as a reviewer if your work fits the first of these formats, but you will probably start with the second. Of course it's a challenge to shine in a space the size of an iPod Nano but writers do that. A great review doesn't need space; usually, however, it does need to touch base with the following six qualities.
Like all great journalism, great reviews grab the readers in the first half-sentence. Lord Beaverbrook, the legendary Canadian press baron of the mid-twentieth century, used to tell his reporters to 'Put your best strawberries on top,' meaning that they should lead every piece with the most attractive fact in the story. We will discuss the techniques of compelling writing later in this book. For now, let us just state that the No 1 attribute of a great review is its outstanding, upfront readability. It will stop you dead, grab your attention, tempt you, tease you, impress you and insist that your life will be poorer if you don't read the story to the very last word. As does this introduction to a television review by Nancy Banks-Smith of the Guardian:
It was like stepping on a cat. The reaction was instantaneous. The moment James Hewitt arrived at his shirt makers ('by royal appointment') and had his credit card queried, I knew who he reminded me of. Of course, this was Burlington Bertie, the charming but impoverished toff, who once had a banana with Lady Diana.
After a long, liquid, alfresco lunch, he affably explained the purpose of the programme to passers by. 'They're doing it about me because I'm a complete shit, and we're trying to make me less of a shit. And it's not working!' A fair enough summary of James Hewitt: Confessions of a Cad (Channel 4). He was fortunate in his producer, Mike Warner, who saw the funny side of Hewitt and, sometimes, the depression.
Well, yes. Obviously. A reviewer who has got the readers' attention must then work twice as hard to keep it to the end of the piece. 'You should entertain, amuse and touch people,' says Anthony Quinn of the Independent, considered to be the film critic's critic but also a respected literary reviewer who was one of the judges for the 2007 Man Booker prize.
Every publication tries to estimate the proportion of readers who are lost in the course of reading a piece. Web editors talk about the 'stickiness' of a feature, meaning the number of pages which a visitor will click through to after the first hit. Methods of measuring page traffic differ but the chilling result is always the same – the drop-out rate is huge. On my own newspaper the surveys showed that while 98% of readers would look at an article's headline, maybe 60% would then begin the piece, but only 3% would finish it.
So – how to be interesting? Do you have a sinking suspicion that if you need to ask that you must be a natural-born bore? Excellent. Worrying that you're being boring is where you start to get interesting. It's a tough quality to define but you know it when you read it: the previous quotation, despite its elegance and wit, manages to feature sex, royalty, shopping, a dodgy credit card and bad behaviour in two little paragraphs. For the majority of the readers in our developed world that formula would work pretty well, but it would be hard to apply to a recording of the Brandenburg Concertos. Worse, a bad writer can tick all those boxes and still send the readers to sleep in two sentences.
Reviews can be immensely entertaining, especially the bad ones. There's nothing quite as amusing as breathtaking bitchiness in print. You read one of the great pannings of all time, such as Mark Kermode's condemnation of Pirates of the Caribbean II, and because it flows as irresistibly as the Mississippi and sparkles like chilled Kristal you imagine that writing like that is easy. Then you set out to compose your own killer notice and find that you run out of words for 'boring' after the first paragraph.
That little word 'interesting' implies more than half the art of writing. To offer your readers prose that is glowing, supple and totally irresistible you need a rich vocabulary, a lyrical sense of language and the ability to build, refine and display an argument. You need to express strong feelings in a vivid vocabulary. You need to be able to educate your readers without them knowing it and win their sympathy while seeming not to care what they think. You need a well-developed sensitivity to their attitudes, for as many readers check out because they're offended, as give up because they're bored.
A reviewer writes as an expert. Even when a reviewer pretends to be responding as a simple, ordinary member of the audience, she or he is in fact writing with the benefit of privileged information, accumulated experience, and often with academic knowledge as well. These three attributes give a reviewer the special insight which in turn establishes his or her authority with the reader. A reviewer, by definition, knows more and knows better. She or he has a sharper perception of form, a more rigorous understanding of content and a sophisticated perspective on the artistic context of the work. Therefore, a reviewer's opinion has more merit than that of an ordinary person. As reviewing is increasingly democratised through interactive enterprises like blogs and review sites, so the premium on a critic's authority has risen; it's the one thing we can offer that the average representative of the cyber-rabble can't match.
How does a reviewer project this authority? In some fields, notably the visual arts, reviewers have almost developed an elite dialect of critical terms in which to discuss the works in question. They use a privileged vocabulary, often to the extent that a casual reader cannot follow their argument without asking for explanation. They refer to critical theories and assume their audience has a large body of knowledge from which to understand the context of the work.
These strategies are not necessary to demonstrate the writer's authority but in some fields they are customary. What is necessary is for the reviewer to make his or her expertise clear to the reader. Often this is done simply by offering readers the extra information that will allow them to appreciate the work more fully. It takes different forms in different media; a film review in a celebrity magazine will mention the latest gossip about the stars, a film review in a serious cinema periodical will refer to the director's previous work.
A great review is also a great work of journalism and stands the tests of accuracy, balance and concision. Accuracy implies not only getting the facts right but also including the essential information about a work. Balance presents a reviewer with a series of challenges which we shall explore in more detail later. Reviewing is more of a balancing act than any other role in journalism. A reviewer is always a servant with at least two masters and often more. Between the art and the medium, between artists and editors, between the simple passion of an aficionado and the complex responsibilities of a reporter, a reviewer needs to make difficult decisions. Every individual draws their own line. Some adopt extreme measures to maintain intellectual detachment; others plunge over their heads into the world of their art.
Concision is a hard discipline but one that a writer must learn well in order to be a good reviewer. An experienced journalist's first question is always, 'How many words have I got?' Beginning journalists often imagine that it is right to give an editor more words than they have requested. Big mistake. Editors like nothing better than copy written exactly to length. They do not like having to perform major surgery on a self-indulgent mess of writing when the edition deadline is 30 seconds away. If editors need a couple of extra paragraphs to have in hand in case their layout changes during the production process, they will ask for them by including them in the word count. Most copy is cut and the wise writer balances the piece carefully within the given length.
Objectivity has only a small place in criticism. In fact, the essence of great criticism is the writer's love affair with the art. As Norman Lebrecht says,
Great critics take their seats, whether in a Soho studio on a Monday morning or at the Metropolitan Opera on gala night – prepared to fall in love. They may despise the producers and question the credentials of every cast member but when the lights go down their breathing quickens like a child's on its birthday. Their verdict may amount to defamation and damnation in a brutal phrase that will resound for a generation. But the loathing they vent is the effluence of love, of an all-consuming love ... The echo of that love is the legacy of a great critic ... an unconquerable optimism, a faith without doubt that art can redeem the miseries of mankind.
A reviewer's response is essentially and inescapably subjective but a great reviewer manages to define an identity so precisely that readers can relate to the writing as they would to a person. Readers will not necessarily agree with a critic, but they will enjoy the vitality and precision of a well-developed critical voice and they will form their own judgement of the work in relation to the critic's stance.
As a new writer, nothing mystified me more than the emphasis that writing tutors place upon the 'voice'. I had written a succession of well-reviewed books without ever giving a single thought to my 'voice'. Telling a writing student to develop a voice seemed as unhelpful as asking them to think of a funny joke or name six famous Belgians. Just asking makes the mind go blank. In fashion, the equivalent impossible was 'style'. Style is something that models are adored for having but which you can't teach anyone to develop. Same with voice. A writer develops a voice by writing, by putting stuff on a page that pleases them and deleting stuff that doesn't.
Confidence grows with the voice. After a while, you get a sense of what pleases you. The next step is to find out what pleases your readers. Self-delusion is death at this point. One of the famous factoids about Marilyn Monroe is that she scanned her contact sheets and her rushes obsessively, seeing what worked for her and what didn't. Legend does not record that she looked over her pictures and decided that it was the photographer's fault that she looked bad with frizzy red hair. Similarly, a writer should be sensitive to how their writing is received and, if readers are bored, confused or offended, they should not place the blame for that anywhere but with themselves.
As we have already considered, reviews are carried by a very wide range of media and so presented to very different readerships. What is considered a good review in a venerable film magazine such as Sight & Sound will bore the readers of Hello! senseless.
Every medium has a conception of its audience and most have a strong imperative to deliver a target readership to its advertisers. Very few media are financed by sales; while the cover price may be a significant element in the revenue of a well-established city newspaper, most of a medium's income is derived from advertising and those who plan media campaigns choose to advertise in a certain medium because it has the right readership profile for their product.
This means that every journalist feels the imprint of the news values and editorial style of the medium for which they are writing. The subject, content, language and opinions of a review will all be appropriate for that medium. It is essential for beginning writers to understand this; the belief that the obvious brilliance of your writing will over-ride news values is misguided and will collect rejections as long as you hold it. In many cases the most successful journalists are natural partners for their publications, with the same values, interests and lifestyles as their target readers. Thus Toby Young writes effortlessly for highly educated, somewhat right-wing readers of London's Spectator magazine while Derek Malcolm was just fine with the leftwing cineastes reading the Guardian.
Appropriate writing immediately creates a bond with the reader. Here is the novelist Martin Amis reviewing a book about the fan culture of football for a rigorously high-toned literary periodical:
Readers of the London Review of Books who like football probably like football so much that, having begun the present article, they will be obliged to finish it. This suits me down to the ground. Pointy-headed football-lovers are a beleaguered crew, despised by pointy-heads and football-lovers alike, who regard our addiction as affected, pseudo-proletarian, even faintly homosexual. We have adapted to this; we keep ourselves to ourselves – oh, how we have to cringe and hide! If I still have your attention, then I assume you must be one of us, pining for social acceptance and for enlightened discussion of the noble game. This puts me in the happy position of not really caring what I write.CHAPTER 2
Arts reviews are carried by websites and blogs, national or local newspapers, magazines, television programmes or radio. Later in this book we will study the special demands of the different media and offer you strategies for adapting your performance for each. This chapter starts with the principles that hold good across the whole spectrum, the essential skills of writing a review. Whatever medium you work in, you will write something, even if it's only notes to fuel a filibuster on late-night TV.
The rules I'm about to lay down apply to any form of journalism, whether it is news reporting for a local free-sheet or writing an elegantly turned feature for an upmarket Sunday supplement. 'I'm not a film critic,' says Cosmo Landesman who reviews for the Sunday Times. 'I'm a journalist who writes about films.' The process, the challenges and the secrets of success are the same. Writing is only part of the operation; first you need to prepare, and when you've written a first draft you will need to revise.
One thing that arts reviewing can have in common with news reporting is time pressure. Daily newspapers still run rock or theatre reviews on their news pages, keeping the space in the layout for late copy filed from the critic's laptop in her car. In the theatre, there is a stately tradition that a press night performance starts at seven and runs for at least two-and-a-half hours, giving critics a tight half-hour to meet the deadline, which will be around 11pm. In rock music there is a fine tradition of performers being late on stage, so the rock critic with the same deadline can be plain stuffed. Thus reviewers learn to think on their feet and file from their Blackberry if they have to. This can be an extreme experience.
Andrew Collins, in the third volume of his memoirs, That's Me In The Corner, recalls covering Britain's biggest rock event, the Glastonbury Festival, when he was reviewing for the legendary music weekly New Musical Express, known as the NME. A new editor decreed that a skeleton staff of two should attend the three-day event, which is held on a farm deep in the mystical landscape of the South West of England; their mission was to see and interview every act there and write a four-page report overnight.
In 1992 ... I slept in the car. Worse, I slept in the car in the backstage paddock. I had crossed the line. My journey from punter to ligger was complete.
Was it a good Glastonbury? Well, it was dry. And for the NME, it was an experiment. One that went horribly wrong and had farreaching consequences.
This is how it worked. As the event had expanded over the years, more and more writers had to be dispatched to different stages and different tents on different days in order for the paper to boast full coverage. But with the festival finishing on the Sunday night it was impractical for the NME to get that coverage away in time for the following week's paper, which 'went to bed', to use the print trade parlance, on the Monday. It hit the printers on the Tuesday and came back in those exciting bundles tied with string on a Wednesday
So why not get the writers to file their copy on a Monday morning? Because it was considered too risky to rely on such a large ensemble of hacks to each come down off their festival cloud and deliver anything readable overnight ... By the time Glasto coverage appeared, a week and a half after the festival, it was the very definition of old news. End of story.
Excerpted from Arts Reviews by Celia Brayfield. Copyright © 2008 Celia Brayfield. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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