Reviewing and critical thinking

I find it funny that the outcome of every unit, every assessment I did at uni was ‘critical thinking’. As if thinking must be taught. As if we can’t even be trusted to learn how to think on our own. Once upon a time I might have even found the idea insulting – after all, all it takes is to read two different accounts of the same thing and you’ve got to be thinking critically in order to sort between the facts and the chaff. But as gossip columns get longer and literary reviews shorter, I’m not so sure I can find the idea that we’ve lost the ability to think, really think, insulting.

In the discussion about the place of reviewing that raises its head every few months, one writer buried this question in his article: is negative criticism really only useful to those who’ve read the work, or is this opinion simply an extension of the fact that most reviews are so shortened that they’re basically yes/no recommendations?

For myself, I much prefer reading book blogs rather than newspaper reviews because bloggers have the time and the space to go into the sort of detail that I want from a review. I don’t just want to know if a book was ‘compelling’ or ‘witty’ or any of the other catchphrases of the super-short review. I want to know if it had soul, if it stacked up to the author’s other works, if it was historically accurate and well-written and even though I hate this character will I still understand him after it’s all over?

In the article which (from what I can see) started this whole discussion, Jacob Silverman claims that “Reviewers shouldn’t be recommendation machines, yet we have settled for this role.” In a world where books editors are struggling with shrinking column inches and readers are looking for a rating out of ten, it’s hard to say anything worth saying in an article that’s only 180 words long. We want information, and we want it now, and stuff her biography right up your alley. Who cares if it’s her fifth in a string of amazing novels – is it worth my $20?

On the other hand, I’m much more likely to read a book if I don’t know anything about it. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five recently made it to my to-read-ASAP list, and you know why? Because so many people have literary tattoos inspired by the novel. I don’t know a thing about it, but if ten people love it so much they’ve immortalized it on their bodies, it must be good.

Whereas if I read a good review, that goes into the biography and history and gives a really clear analysis of the weaknesses and strengths of the novel, I probably won’t buy it. I’ve read about it, and that’s good enough for me – until someone tells me how much they enjoyed it.

Long-reviewing is about knowledge; short-reviewing is about opinion. A long review gives the reader a sense that this work fits in somewhere; a short one gives them an idea of whether it’s worth their money. For me, I’m so interested in the placement of things and how literature fits together that I love long reviews. Short reviews aren’t useful to me at all –  but they give the white-noise masses the simple yes/no that they crave.


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