Critics and Negative Reviews

It is the unspoken truth of any creative endeavor – if you release it to the public, someone out there will not like it. Sometimes, it may take form of academically written, grammatically correct, exhaustive analysis of everything that went wrong in the reviewer’s opinion. Sometimes, it may take form of a foul-mouthed Internet simian failing to string together two word sentences without constantly invoking obscenities and CAPS LOCK KEY (because it has a magic power of validating even the most asinine of opinions). Most often, criticism will be somewhere in between, and it is the author’s (or the artist’s, if that happens to be the case) job to sift through it, and to distinguish between valid critique and barrage of proverbial feces from the monkey cage.

I can see this debacle from both ends, as a musician and author, and as a reviewer. In all honesty, it is rare musician or author who does not get dismayed by bad reviews, but they can also be a good reality check. If I were to spend months of my life writing or making music, I am almost certainly going to have a strong opinion about its quality and merits. It is not hard for an author to miss things that he might have rationalized or consciously chose to overlook. And as such, it is the reviewer’s job to catch those things – this is why the rest of us read the reviews, right?

As a reviewer, I am also held to certain standards. More often than not, the music I am reviewing (and, eventually, the literature) represents someone’s hard work and dedication. Moreover, a reviewer rarely purchases what he or she reviews – in my experience, most records I have reviewed were provided to me free of charge by the artists or their record labels, essentially as a marketing expense. If someone is willing to give me their work for free in return for critique, I will spend time and effort to respect that person’s work, and to give them constructive criticism if any is warranted. It does not mean that I will give only positive reviews, but it does mean that even in my negative reviews, I will point out to where improvements can be made, and not be dismissive of the effort that went into creating the work under review. As a musician and a writer, I hope to receive the same treatment.

So, if a negative review states precisely what is wrong, what could be better, and what is right, then it has accomplished its goal. I may or may not agree with the points it makes, but I will give them serious consideration instead of acting like a delicate flower with hurt feelings. Let’s face it – hurt feelings alone do not contribute to artistic or literary development. A thick skin, and willingness to learn from criticism does. Therefore, an honest critic who holds nothing back is worth his weight in precious metal of your choice.

Even when the review is not ideal in this respect, there is something to learn from it, as there will be kernels of constructive criticism even in less flattering reviews. Sometimes it takes thicker skin to dig for it – and while considering oneself an infallible creative genius is good for self-esteem, it is not very conducive to successful creative endeavors.

And then, there are the people who completely miss the point.

Over my musical career, I have received several reviews that blasted my albums because they were not “extreme” enough. In my humble opinion, it is an equivalent of criticizing steak for not being made of chicken. That said, there is a valuable lesson to it: sometimes, the reviews are just sent to wrong people who are not the target audience for the work in question. Further, it stresses out the importance of doing your research before submitting materials for review, and only targeting the publications that actually cover the genre, and can provide useful feedback.

Finally, there are the troglodytes, hailing from troll-infested basements and studio apartments worldwide. You know the kind – them of perpetual CAPS LOCK, incomprehensible scribbling, and vocabularies limited to insults and obscenities. These are the critters who alternate between misspelled not-so-witty one-liners and verbal equivalent of diarrhea, the definite proof that a million monkeys given infinite time will never reproduce the works of Shakespeare. These are the freeloaders who actively solicit the artist or the author to send them materials for review, even when they are very clearly not the target audience, and when they have no intention of providing anything resembling constructive critique, or even any critique at all.

The absolute worst case scenario for any author or musician is when one of these critters manages to acquire your works, posing as a legitimate reviewer, only to post something very poorly written and incomprehensible (and sometimes, to boot, in a language the author/musician does not understand). For all intents and purposes, it is a waste of perfectly legitimate promotional materials that could have been put to better use somewhere else, and money thrown away on postage (if the troglodyte asks for a physical copy). It is these “reviewers” who are most frustrating, because while almost all other negative reviews have a point, the troglodytes go out of their way to break every rule of reasonable discourse.

But wait! Even these bottom-dwellers have a purpose. They serve to illustrate how important honest critics are, and how much any creative individual should appreciate true constructive criticism. So ultimately, a negative review is usually going to be pretty valuable; a review that misses the point might be telling; a review by a troglodyte is a reminder to appreciate your friendly (or not-so-friendly) critics who will tell you what is wrong.

Hail Critics!

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