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  • J Scott Lane

The Death of a Critic: a Review of Reviewing

[This was written for a Gotham Writer's Workshop.]

The Gotham assignment for reviews makes some assumptions that don’t align with the main body of review work being done in the field today. Reviews that get the most attention now consist of stars and – maybe – a one-line title followed by a brief paragraph describing the user’s/buyer’s experience with the product or service.

It is assumed that the expert reviewer knows a lot about the product or service into which they are pouring their opinions. While many people have ridden in or driven a car, do those experiences make them an expert at observing the behavior of the Uber driver or knowledgeable of their driving record? It certainly doesn’t stop them from offering up an evaluation of the ride and driver on their cell phone. What we have done is traded the quality of acumen possessed by a sole expert operating in quiet reflection for the quantity of amateurs hurriedly thumbing a cell phone about their latest consumer experience while waiting in line at a café for their next consumer experience.

This trade-off of experts and masses has other problems. Who is more likely to write a review, the person who got what they expected or the person who didn’t? The phrase “Arrived unbroken” now counts as an enhanced review on a consumer website, but that person’s five stars count just the same as a two-page, in-depth exposition with pictures and comparisons to similar products provided by the (probably far) more-qualified customer.

But is there really a conflict, or perhaps there are even positives of having real (inexpert) people reviewing all this stuff? There are movie buffs who expound on the scenery, acting abilities, directorial innovations with camera angles, and biting dialogue written by well-regarded writers that mean very little to people who aren’t sensitive to any of that. I really liked the nuanced performances and timely plotlines about conflating power with integrity in “Tar” but found the more Academy-approved “Everything Everywhere All at Once” to be a near-plotless, seizure-inducing, badly acted circus of a movie that exploits some non-traditional character roles to overshadow its identity as a marvel-less Marvel spinoff. Does any of that make me an expert in reviewing films? Hardly, and the Rotten Tomatoes reviewer and audience scores were both better for the second film, which goes to show what I know.

At the end of the day both types of reviews – by the experts and the masses – have value and may be best used in tandem to evaluate a product. But “having value” doesn’t always mean you’ll agree with the assessment, either. And sometimes value doesn’t even matter, especially when you can’t tell the difference between competing opportunities. I like wine, but my criteria for purchasing it involves a cork (sometimes) and a bottle of a recognizable shape. A friend of mine called the practice of paying a lot for an elite product you can’t differentiate from a cheaper version “outkicking your coverage.”

Five stars.

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