Reviewing reviewing

Dr Moya Costello
13 March 2015
Reviews, while fact-based, are a form of creative nonfiction. Image: Geof Wilson/Flickr CC
Reviews, while fact-based, are a form of creative nonfiction. Image: Geof Wilson/Flickr CC

Reading a book and watching live theatre can be as private and intimate an experience as sex. Truly. While reading or watching, I tell myself a story of the story I am absorbing – providing a review of sorts.

I admire those who write eruditely and engagingly about the experience of reading or viewing. I am touched by fandom for those whose opinion I trust – James Ley on books, for example – who write with flair in word choice, sentence formation and satisfying structure.

While I wanted to write the book or piece of theatre, I also wanted to write about the book or theatre. I wanted to write, if not for payment, then for the book, the theatre ticket, but really for the opportunity for those private stories to be made public. So I reviewed theatre for the communist newspaper, Tribune; adult books for the feminist magazine, Womanspeak; and children's books for Magpies magazine. Volunteering is still a successful strategy for starting out.

This was certainly a tactic of Southern Cross University's own graduate, Max Quinn, now a music journalist with ABC Radio's triple j. He wrote on music in his undergraduate years for Rip It Up, on his own blog and for the SCU-managed Pulse Project, publishing reviews and features in the local newspaper. Max's writing is marked by the energy of quirky wit, superbly matching his youth market. He's a professional.

Exploring the review form

Reviews are written impressionistically to a specific short word count within a limited time. Reviews (of books, music, theatre, art, food and wine) can de distinguished from criticism, which is often longer in word count, less 'newsy', more detailed, is theoretically or historically enhanced and written after some consideration. But any smart literary critic or theoretician will tell you that genre is a pliable, bendy thing.

Reviews can potentially cross genres such as life writing, travel or place writing, history, and art writing. But while genre can be expanded into 'diversified areas', it can also be 'rigorously regulated', according to literary theorist Gian-Paolo Biasin.

Reviews are a form of creative nonfiction, a broad genre category that has fact as its base but uses the fictional writing strategies of creation of setting and character, heightened or descriptive language, and a sense of narrative through voice and structure.

So, for example, a restaurant review may represent the chefs and front-of-house staff through characterisation, and the restaurant through place or space creation. Character and setting can be created through image, detailed description, and rhetoric such as language-based rhythm and pattern; and structure via returning to the opening gambit at the end, for example. 

Read: Moya Costello's review, ArtEating: The Loft Restaurant

The principles of writing reviews are common across the arts: familiarise yourself with the publishing outlet; tell your audience who, what, where, why; make judgements or enable your audience to make their own; and engage your audience.

Why write reviews?

Reviews can add to cultural generation and sustainability. They are capable of creating knowledge. They can contribute to developing a critically thinking, intelligent civil society. For a review is inevitably about the personal and local as well as the global, and about class, gender and ethnicity, and about politics, economics and society.

A review should function to keep its audience informed about what is happening in the area of interest. As noted by the late Helen Daniel, a former editor of Australian Book Review, a review can be a form of news – the announcement of something new for example, whether it's a place, a thing, a person or an idea. Reviews, therefore, can be entertaining, engaging and informative.

A review should be an interesting piece of writing in itself. It should not be perfunctory or slipshod. Factual summaries can be boring and counterproductive. The best illustrate, quote, describe. A sense of narrative can be woven through praise and critique. Through rhetorical strategies, the writing announces itself as energetic, surprising, avoiding predictability, dullness and banality.

The audience for any form of review is not in a cultural vacuum. A reviewer has some responsibility to be knowledgeable about the subject. The subject matter comes alive when it is placed in context – that is, for example, things similar or dissimilar to the subject are acknowledged, as is what has come before or what is circulating contemporaneously, or what might come in the future.

Although the review is about particular subject matter, it is also about the voice of the reviewer, one we hope to be engaged by and trust. A distinctive voice can generate a following. So, while keeping it restrained, reviewers can also talk about their own experiences in relation to what they are engaging with.

If you passionately love what you are reviewing, usually you revel in the reasons you love it, and if you loathe it, you rationally analyse all the reasons you loathe it. But a reviewer should not 'show-off' to the detriment of foregrounding the subject of the review.

Reviewers have to consider ethics. They might decline the opportunity to review if they are offered something whose context they have little knowledge of, or if they have nothing good to say about it.

For food and wine reviewing, reviewers can be journalists, culinary experts – or enthusiasts. An enthusiast is someone who has concentrated on the qualities and aesthetics, processes and production of, really, what are everyday, common experiences. An enthusiast is also a consumer of reviews.

As a restaurant reviewer, you may have to also eat out a lot! Taking notes throughout the meal is common practice, and in writing about the food, examples are given from the menu as well as a sense of the restaurant (its look and feel, location, cutlery, staff etc.).

Getting started as a reviewer

Reviewers usually have a limited amount of time to write and a limited number of words. They need to be professional about reviewing as an activity: editors are usually under tight schedules themselves and welcome punctuality and reliability. Failure to keep a deadline means a reviewer may not be asked to review again.

Reviewing is labour-intensive and time-consuming. But if you review regularly, you build up speed and expertise in the genre and knowledge of context. Often it’s not especially well paid. In some cases, it may not be paid at all. However, you may be paid in kind, or the experience may be tax-deductible once you start publishing.

You may have to start in a voluntary capacity, but opportunities are there for anyone on the lookout – again, you'll have a sense of potential openings if you are a consumer of reviews yourself.

Moya Costello teaches in the Writing program, School of Arts and social Sciences, Southern Cross University. She also teaches Food and Wine Writing for the School of Tourism.