Monday, 6 December 2010

Reviews are Useful (I)

Aren't they? Most of them are.

Considering the multiple purges (forums and personal messages) that took place, I've resorted to backing up all of my reviews. I never thought this much of them after submission and found it odd that nearly everyone archives them somewhere. Now, I can't be sure the admins won't decide to "delete ancient stories that don't get enough page hits", taking those reviews on their way. It's been a difficult task, getting over a thousand of those off FFN. Apparently, I've reviewed a good 10% of Sonic the Hedgehog. News aside, I'm dedicating this post to feedback.

Most people will tell you this: critique is the most useful feedback a writer can get. In 10 times out of 10, that is true. However, my definition of "critique" is very lax for environmental reasons. Take the issue of how feedback is referred to on FanFiction.Net, reviews. An actual review (not one of those pop-art flicks about how you loved a movie) requires significant substance to exist. Real, full-fledged reviews depict not only a piece in question, its perks and weaknesses, but put it in context. The context is three-dimensional, which gives the reader of a review perspectives on: the artist's past works, comparison with others' pieces and historic benchmarks. Honestly, that takes more than five A4 pages and might as well be a part of your thesis statement (if you're studying philology). Things movie critics and show hosts dabble in a hurry, which fit on one screen do not qualify. Yes, they might call it a review, but it's not a genuine one.

What's the difference? It's like comparing bouillon cubes to soup made by your grandma. In essence, they are the same, but soup doesn't naturally appear in cube shape. Same goes for reviews that can be fish bone-thin or lavish like a four-course meal. The latter is genuine and most useful every time, but comes with three strings attached.

Writing a full-fledged review takes considerable amounts of time. This is why professional critics don't go into detail; they're not paid enough for it. Likewise, you can't expect such effort from people, who do it for free, online. Now, you may get freebies, but that usually makes you a guinea pig (young hairdressers cut your hair for free while they're studying, but results may vary). The second string is that few authors, few fandoms and generally exceptional individuals are eligible to receive a real review. Before someone cries "exorcism" or "discrimination", allow me to reiterate: a review gives multiple perspectives. To let it happen, there are requirements for the critic, genre and artist. If it's someone new, you can't have a comparison with the artist's previous work, no decisions of progress. If it's a small genre, you don't have outside opinions, fresh air to add to the review. Even if these exist, in terms of FFN, it's a large, active fandom with its history and experienced authors, a reviewer might not know of these details. Since Fan History closed to editors, it's doubtful little things about fandom history are even recorded, so you don't have anything ready. It forces a reviewer, when required to concoct a real review, to DIY and dig through seas of content.

However, that's not the worst thing. Most pieces of art can handle up to three real reviews. Think about it. How many different all-encompassing appraisals can there be? How many different perspectives one genre can give? If the review is only partial, the answer is "many", because several people can take a cut of the pie from a different spot, and have some left. When someone takes it all in one gulp and doesn't leave anything left to be said...then what? Even in large fandoms, most of the time you have some twenty schematics and plot device systems (not single devices, whole systems). An original story comes up once in a while, but if you have a decent memory, this originality gets one bonus point, and anything that follows already has a reference. Fandoms tend to grow in numbers, but these numbers only exist under influence of similar ideas, turning into predictable types. Given enough time to study a fandom and its submissions, things get predictable very quickly.

Same applies to reviews. It's actually a very large problem if you bear in mind a fandom's often limited potential and scatterbrainedness. How to remedy this? There isn't a way. You can't make a child grow in every sense of that word quicker than it's possible. The same way, you can't force creativity, which is then seen as a stable stream of plentiful, but repetitive ideas. A review might contain recommendations and out-of-the-box thinking, yet it takes an out-of-the-box mind to comprehend these thoughts and turn them in another direction. It's very easy to "give new ideas" to people, who didn't do research; they see everything as new. The only saving grace is their capability to make these ideas their own. Sadly, this rarely works out, and exceptions take dedication, time, to maintain. I really don't know anyone online, who could maintain an exception via reviewing. You can't guard a tree in the woods 24/7, so it's easiest, and most useful to give it a boost and hope it grows cherries, pineapples, something nice.

This also applies to reviews because a review is difficult to make more...scenic than the story it is posted on. In fandoms that have one problem, the issue is downright ridiculous. One could copy/paste the same advice to many authors in a row only to get "you said that to other people already!" Whose fault is it that one problem is shared by many? A reviewer can't invent something that isn't in the story (unless he or she is an idiot). Trying to say the same things differently every time is just as difficult as reading samey stories. Specifically, it's difficult to stay original yourself when originality is limited to a writer, naively believing his or her story is new, fresh, revolutionary. I don't think copycats are aware of their doings by default. If they were, I am unable to explain how they see what other people got in their reviews, but don't implement advice themselves. As in, car A drove straight on a curvy road, and ended up in a forest. Car B is hopeful that if it drives the same way, it will stay on the road. Rational thinking, anyone? When I joined, the first thing I did when reading review boards of my acquaintances is think "how could this help my writing?" I learnt a lot from others' mistakes, which saved me many a bother.

I digress. Summarising the points above: it's difficult to write a full-fledged review, and every author can only handle a few despite them being most useful. No new things to add are left. It discourages other reviewers because they, like the naive writers, feel they are original, and don't want to repeat what was said in another review. That would look silly to write in a review: "what she said..." It effectively reduces the review count (provided they are not ignoring reviews already posted), and we're huffing despite usefulness.

If you can have up to three real reviews per chapter/story (depending on content), how can rates such as twenty or even 200 be explained for every update? This is where the dog hid its bones. Most of those reviews are repetitive junk, yes. Like stories, these review bits can be classed, and you can say "five points for 'good story' team" with every passing bunch. Generally, it's difficult to find a real review in those numbers for the simplest reason, a critic is not an imbecile to waste time on repetition. Sure, nothing forbids one from writing five A4 pages about the story, but those 200 reviews, if written with good will and respect, would create one full review in summary. Each is only .5% of a real review, but they make up a big picture together, provided it's all done right.

Actually, the above is a principle I follow: saying what others have missed to say. There is no rational point in repeating what other reviews have mentioned because the author already got the idea, and it's more useful to concentrate on the untouched unknown. Sure, this doesn't exclude a person from behaving irrationally and adding a full review, accidentally or purposefully repeating the truths stated by previous reviewers, but generosity comes at a price of time and effort.

Generosity also comes from the heart. Or should. I don't know where a reviewer's inventions come from. Some people would rather falsify an opinion to reach some sort of goal other than improvement. Compensation. An example will make it easier to understand: a reader sees five reviews lambasting a story. Feeling pity (no euphemisms from me), the reviewer writes a false review, congratulating the writer on a job well done. Maybe add a "don't listen to the other five reviews". Such opinion wars are audacious because, ultimately, reviews on FFN are meant for the writer, not other reviewers. Yes, it is acceptable to disagree with a point of view and be generous when others are not, but it has to be genuine. To be genuine, one has to be well-informed.

In my experience as a critic, I've seen many reviewers disagree on subjective issues like "originality" or "respect to readers" with "style". In terms of originality, arguments happen because reviewers did not do enough research, so they can't agree on information they don't know is there. A solution is analysing trends to determine whether a submitted piece is extraordinary or an unintentional (or otherwise) copy. No resolution may be made if definition levels differ. For person A, a whole story may be original because it has the element X in plot C. For person B, element X would be seen as original, but the story as a whole, containing plot C, which was present in stories G, E and R, would not be. One applies the quality of an attribute to the whole, the other doesn't. Only one method works in rational, genuine conditions and reviewers would reach an agreement.

Respect to readers is more difficult to determine than originality because it is felt, not memorised. Also, readers have a different respect threshold. You may disrespect a king by coughing in the wrong place, but you'd have to kill a person to disrespect a peasant. Provided the standards are genuine, an agreement can be reached even for those two extremes. My preference is continuously raising the stakes as they do in the Olympics. This offers a challenge to most writers, or a set of challenges if they are tiered (applying standards of an average story to an average story, high standards for a serious and deep epic), so the writer can have something to look up to. Critics have a good memory for champions, several tiers of them, so newbies aren't compared to veterans by accident and have achievable goals. The essence of the system is not to let them look down. Chances of falling increase.

"I saw three stories worse than mine!" comes off as a very sad result of looking down. My response is always predictable (after a thousand reviews, what wouldn't be?). I just count the number of stories in the fandom, remove four and say something like "15,901 stories are better than yours. That's not even average."

We've touched the issue of averages. Here is where we can use the tier system better. It is my belief that the majority of works in any fandom is average. They make up the mainstream bulk, and can be graded further (upper-middle, lower-middle, the exact average). Below average stories are as common as good. Awful stories are as rare as great ones. From this perspective, it's just as difficult to write a horrible fanfic as it is to write a great one. By default, a story written in less than five minutes is not going to end up horrible. Below average, perhaps, but talent can be exceptional. Recall the originality issue? As people gather more experience and information, more and more things fit in the average section because it's difficult to stun someone with experience. Even if the story is illegal or plagiarised. So it was stolen from some poor sap. Nothing shocking there if you've seen it twenty times before. Sure, if the story contained missile launch codes and self-replicating viruses to format your computer, that would be shocking (for me), and I'd have to call it horrible with all honesty. Even trollfics receive a separate standard of "awfulness" over time; they stop being effective and just disappear (the admin doesn't care how awful a trollfic is, and even the "meh" ones are erased).

However, the placement of the average depends on the quality of stories. If a fandom gets worse over time, the average slowly (with a delay) moves down. Stories that were good 3 years ago might be excellent now, and what used to be sub-standard is now common-place, for instance. The opposite happens when the crank goes up, shunning those that used to be on the margin. Liberals would say this rise of quality is unacceptable because people are shunned, and averages should not move up, only down or remain stable. In reality, both of these are treacherous. Why? If a fandom is getting better at something, and you don't raise general standards because of a few imbeciles, you lose the edge in being useful, delivering obsolete truths. Averages also move with a delay, so making them stable will bring less relevance. Instead of reacting to change, remaining at the same point renders a review useless in short-term because fandoms are dynamic and need help in live. Advice you needed yesterday might be old facts next week. And it usually is.

That should conclude the first part of my essay about reviews. In part two, I move from discussing basics and averages to dissecting margins. For the curious, I will explain the flamer phenomenon.

If you're looking for additional help in reviewing, feel free to PM Lord Kelvin on FFN or drop in the Review Mastery thread of the LU forum.

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