Discussing the dynamics, structures, and techniques inherent to the artistic process heightens one’s ability to connect with work beyond “liking” and “disliking.” If you “like” something, why? What about the artist’s craft made that possible? Reviews can offer a rating, if the publication demands that (it’s a way to hook readers with bottom-line info), but they can also facilitate discussions that go beyond the particular work in question, shedding light on universal themes and methods.
Sometimes I regard reviewing as a commentary on my own reading, listening, viewing, etc. In this sense, I’m observing my process of engaging with the work in question: what thoughts come to me, what emotions? Is the experience bumpy, fluid? Am I resistant? Immediately onboard? As a friend of mine says, “whatever trip they’re offering, that’s the one I’m taking.” As a reviewer, I find this a helpful touchstone, as I consider it my job to let go of biases and engage with the work as it unfolds according to its own nature, as well as to discuss how the artist delivers (or not) on the offered experience. What about the piece, book, album, etc. helped to bring “the trip” to fruition? What impeded it?
I try to connect first with what seem like the essentials of the piece. If text, what is a major theme? What are stylistic signatures? What is the pace of the writing? Heavy on images? How about voice? Formal? Vernacular? With music, if there are vocals, what are lyrical themes? Is the melody compelling? (Numerous books have been written on neurology as it relates to the phenomena of hooks.) Again, I try to navigate the work on its own terms, then perhaps consider possible comparisons and influences, placing it in a broader context.
I try to keep in mind that the entirety of my listening, reading, learning, and life experience can often be relevant in a review context. There are times when a straightforward, objective piece is needed, other times it may be appropriate to reference existentialism, geometry, or your trip to Europe when you were a kid…in your commentary on the latest album from, say, Waxahatchee. Review in a way that engages you, so that you’re “doing the job” but also expressing yourself authentically and in a way that is creatively fulfilling.
John Amen is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Illusion of an Overwhelm (New York Quarterly, 2017). His poetry and reviews have appeared in various publications, including Rattle, Prairie Schooner, Los Angeles Review, Exclaim!, PopMatters, The Brooklyn Rail, and Colorado Review. He is a staff reviewer for the music magazine and website No Depression. He founded and edits Pedestal Magazine.
Learn the Art of the Review: John teaches “Writing Reviews: Curiosity Over Verdict” — October 13, 2020, at 6 pm. Info here.