On YouTube, the ultimate destination for everyone who has an opinion they want to share, there are many rants and ravings. Often the videos are like star ratings – people give something one, two or whatever number of stars, without explaining or justifying it. Once in a while though, I discover reviewers who logically and systematically analyze something, and it is refreshing to see how they use suitable criteria, comparing apples with apples – even when they are reviewing electric unicycles or firearms. So what, “zigackly“, as “Captain Haddock” used to say to “Tintin” after he’s had too much whisky, does a proper review entail?

There’s critics and there’s Critics

Looking at the most visited pages on this website, it seems that people really want to know how to analyze poems and books. This set me thinking about exactly (zigackly) what it entails and which reviewers get it right. (I’m referring to ordinary reviewers, not writers employed by literary magazines.) As a result, this post got written.

One such informed reviewer is a film critic called “The Critical Drinker” (don’t you love the pun? – critical – critique – get it?). He is the author of the Ryan Drake series of action thrillers, and his real name is Will Jordan. He has a delectable Scottish accent, and he really is very critical, and very funny.

Despite his very obvious likes and dislikes, when you listen carefully, you can see exactly why he thinks an aspect of a film is bad or good, and when you think about it, you have to conclude that he has a point. He talks about character development, plot, settings, viewer expectations, story arcs, etc. His main bone of contention with many movies is the poor storytelling. He should know what he’s talking about, considering how long he has been writing, and his carefully scripted videos demonstrate that. He ends each review with this delightful comment in his laconic Scottish burr: “Anyway, that’s all I have for today. Go away now.”

Highly recommended: The Critical Drinker

So what should be in a review?

So when you review a film or a book, what do you have to look at? I do take the opinions of reviewers whom I trust quite seriously. To get me to trust them, I need to know that they know what they’re talking about.

Typically, a review or a critique, as opposed to a rating, includes assessment of the majority of these 15 aspects listed below in the table. The long list can be simplified to seven aspects: 1) who, 2) what, 3) when, 4) where, 5) why, 6) in what way, and 7) by what means. These seven things are what the name of this blog refers to.

Each of the 15 aspects has specific criteria, in total more than 60. These aspects and criteria basically relate to creative products that involve story-telling – whether it is through a written narrative, poetry, song lyrics, or a screenplay. They are also specific to books. For film and music reviews, there are additional and different format and reception criteria that are not mentioned here.

Due to there being so many, most reviewers will limit their writeup to the aspects or criteria that show up the most obvious well-done or pleasing aspects, or the most obvious deficiencies or mistakes.

Would you die on that hill?

There is the idiom, “this is a hill I would die on”, meaning that something is an issue that you would pursue with wholehearted conviction or single-minded focus, with little or no regard to the cost. 

My kind of humor by xkcd a.k.a Randall Munroe (It reminds me of the gang from Bloom County having a sanity-checking lie-down in the nearest dandelion patch.)

Every writer has their “hill to die on”, in literary terms, and so does every reviewer. The longer I review books the more I tend to concentrate on the “hills that I would (somewhat) die be uncomfortable on” – for instance, purpose, main idea, writing style, and plot.

Basically, most reviewers focus on a couple of elements on which they base their recommendations to readers, which is why they write reviews in the first place.

This is a lot to consider for both authors and reviewers. I mean, when you give life to your little novel or your poetry collection, you surely do not expect it to be pulled to pieces and forensically analyzed like this? …Or do you? ….Or should you?

Wanna throw the whole kitchen and sink at me?

In my opinion, if you have been published before, you probably expect it and can handle it. If you are a debut author you will probably be devastated and weep into your oatmeal and coffee while you absorb the comments and reviews over breakfast (since these things are best dealt with on a full stomach). Becoming a published author is like being plunged head-first into a steaming cauldron of nastiness, humiliation, and condescension, and if you are lucky, a little blessed kindness, encouragement and praise. This is why, in my old age, I do tend to write positive rather than negative reviews.

The Inevitable Sprouts of Nonsense

But back to the central argument of this post: when you follow and read or listen to comments by whoever on social media, you should first figure out who these comments come from, and then whether they know what they’re talking about. They may be spouting nonsense, or even worse, sprouting nonsense. Yes, clever readers, the wording in the heading is a pun, since the correct expression is “to spout nonsense” – spout as in water spout. But much worse than spouting is sprouting, which is what you do when your brain has turned to mush and sprouts grow in place of your hair, like a Bob Ross “chia pet”.

Anyone is entitled to their opinion, but no-one has to agree with what they say, or like it, or even listen to it. One of the few writers who ever had the blessings of the very staid society in which he lived, to spout complete and popular nonsense, was Edward Lear (look at the end of the post).

What should be in a review

If they measure what they are reviewing against a set of criteria or established factors, then chances are you could get a balanced opinion. If so, you probably won’t go wrong taking their advice on books to read, films to watch, or music to listen to. If not, make up your own mind.

To get good books you need good authors, and good authors need good readers. A good reader is an informed, critical, appreciative reader. Be like that, not like some dumb schmuck sheeple that just goes ‘baaaah’ and follows the trend.

And that’s it, Book Worms and Lovers of Reading (the activity, not the place): I hope you find this little analysis useful and may you too find a decent reviewer with whom to share the good stuff out there.

Book reviews – Factors and criteria

Download a .pdf of the table below.

1 The author/creator/artist– Identity, pen name, artist’s name
– background
– mother tongue
– preferred genre
– book’s position in franchise or series
2 Purpose– reason for writing/purpose of creation
– demographic/intended readers or consumers
– foreword and afterword re. the purpose
– dedication in the book (to whom is it dedicated)
3 Main idea– what is it about? (concept)
– execution of main idea
– degree of difficulty or interest
– motif
– theme
– epigram
4 Plot– construction
– pace
– engagement (how quickly and to which extent does it grip the reader)
– suspense
– story arc:
1 exposition
2 conflict
3 rising action
3 crisis
5 climax
6 falling action
7 resolution/denouement
– storytelling elements:
– forms (fairytale, fable, myth, legends, etc.)
– historical references
– embedded narratives
– specific cultural elements (Japanese myths, Chinese folklore, German fairytales, etc.)
5 Setting– degree of realism
– creativity (e.g. quality of Constructed World)
– subject-specific/genre specific elements (art, war, space, music, sport, Bildung, etc.)
– description: period, location, appearance, history, population, etc.
– illustrations, graphics
6 Characters– type/life-form
– protagonist/antagonist
– illustrations
7 Characterization– description
– thoughts, feelings, actions, motivation
– expression (voice)
– dialogue
– language used by characters (incl. artificial language)
8 Point of View-1st, 2nd, or 3rd person narration
– degree of presence of author’s voice
9 Tone – Tone expressed through:
– author’s attitude
– author’s message
– author’s conviction, passion
10 Mood– atmosphere
– message
11 Writing style– flow, fluency
– length, detail, wordiness
– grammar, spelling, punctuation:
– syntax (grammar, sentence construction, length)
– semantics (word range, choice, meaning)
– pragmatics (using language to achieve a goal)
– personal preferences
– figurative language:
– allegory
– metaphor
– simile
– personification
– alliteration
– rhyme
– language representation (alphabetic forms)
12 Devices– devices and tactics used to create humour, suspense (plot twists), romance, etc.
– memes, tropes, insider jokes
Macguffins and derivative elements
– cross-cultural references
13 Translation and transliteration – inclusion/representation of multiple languages
– translation /transliteration of:
– one language into another
– one alphabet or writing system into another
– one medium (e.g. visual – written) into another (e.g. auditory)
14 Reception– reviews, critiques, ratings
– readers’ responses
– depiction in media
– author’s persona and media presence
15 Publication– availability and distribution
– marketing and representation (what it is being sold as)
– timing issues (e.g. books that will only be read in the far future)
– proofreading and editing
– book design including typography
– cover design and art
– quality of formats including:
– print
– audio
– multi-media
– print
– digital

About the featured image

The featured image at the top of the post was developed from an illustration by Edward Lear (12 May 1812 – 29 January 1888), who was a famous author, limerick writer, poet, writer of nonsense rhymes, and illustrator. His illustration is above, left. In my image, above, right, Mr. Lear’s head is sprouting nonsense like bean sprouts. His cat, “Old Foss”, looks cross-eyed with irritation in both pictures, as he should. The original illustration by Lear is for his poem “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear” in which he makes fun of himself:

"How pleasant to know Mr.Lear!"
      Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
      But a few think him pleasant enough.

His mind is concrete and fastidious,
      His nose is remarkably big;
His visage is more or less hideous,
      His beard it resembles a wig.

He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,
      Leastways if you reckon two thumbs;
Long ago he was one of the singers,
      But now he is one of the dumbs.

He sits in a beautiful parlour,
      With hundreds of books on the wall;
He drinks a great deal of Marsala,
      But never gets tipsy at all.

He has many friends, lay men and clerical,
      Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
      He weareth a runcible hat.

When he walks in waterproof white,
      The children run after him so!
Calling out, "He's gone out in his night-
      Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!"

He weeps by the side of the ocean,
      He weeps on the top of the hill;
He purchases pancakes and lotion,
      And chocolate shrimps from the mill.

He reads, but he cannot speak, Spanish,
      He cannot abide ginger beer:
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
      How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!

("How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear", from The Complete Nonsense Book, by Edward Lear, edited by Lady Strachey, 1912, pp. 420-1.)

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