The Proper Use of Reviews

by Tom Ingram

Reviews are a matter of personal taste. There is no absolute, objective way to rank a piece of fiction as good or bad. Even the lowliest piece of shit like Freddy Got Fingered or Epic Movie has its defenders. Many classics are plainly awful, or at least of debatable quality. And the word of critics is famous for being a poor indicator of what ends up being significant, as Orson Welles could testify, and of what the general public likes, as Michael Bay could tell you. Is the entire reviewing business a sham? Should we abandon all hope and shell out good money to see whatever happens to have a shiny trailer?

Obviously, since I’m something of an amateur reviewer myself, I don’t think the whole thing is a waste of time. But it is important that you take the review into account properly. Reviews are still useful, but different reviews will be useful for different people. How do you tell? Simple: read reviews of stuff you already like or hate. Do you think the reviewer’s talking out of his ass? Or is it more like he’s taking the words right out of your mouth? Personally, I find that my opinions tend to mesh with Roger Ebert’s, so I can usually trust his opinion on a movie I haven’t seen. For video games, I’ve trusted the Zero Punctuation reviews almost exclusively ever since the Metal Gear Solid 4 episode, which perfectly articulated all my problems with the series.

Also, it’s often helpful to pick a reviewer who is somewhat removed from their source material. There’s no pressure for Roger Ebert to express certain opinions on movies, as long as he writes something. Similarly, Yahtzee is overwhelmingly negative toward nearly every game that comes his way, but you can usually tell if he genuinely hates a game or if he’s just being negative because that’s his thing. Events like Jeff Gerstmann being fired from Gamespot can shake your confidence in the integrity of reviews, but reviewers who are big enough that nobody dares to bother them, reviewers who are small enough that nobody cares what they think, and reviewers who are known for facetiously accentuating the negative are probably safe.

This also conveniently sidesteps a common criticism of reviewers, which is that they put down other people’s work without doing anything constructive of their own. Reviewers give their own opinion of a work, and if you find that you tend to agree with them, you can take their opinion into account. Whether or not the reviewer can do better is irrelevant (and I could probably write a whole post about that issue alone).

So if you happen to find that you disagree with every single word of my reviews here, that’s great. It just means that you have a different taste in fiction than I do, and I wish you all the best with that.

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