s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Bad reviews

Monday, January 05, 2009

Bad reviews

My name is Katya and I like bad reviews.

Sometimes I like them because they're funny, as in Eric D. Snider's review of the movie She's the Man:
During the occasional brief moments when Viola is remembering that she's supposed to be a guy, her behavior is so bug-eyed and jittery that there's no way anyone would buy it. The reason is that the director, Andy Fickman (making his theatrical feature debut), thinks that kind of overdone reaction will be funnier, so he's instructed Bynes -- who is no comic genius to begin with, I hasten to point out -- to play everything up big-time. "Don't just stammer 'er, uh,'" I hear him telling her. "Make a panicked face and flail your hands a little when you say it! Yes! Just like that! Only BIGGER! More ridiculous! Yes! Now do that over and over again for 100 minutes! Now go out into the audience and STAB ERIC D. SNIDER IN THE FACE WITH A FORK!!" Then I wake up, cold and sweaty and unable to sleep for hours.
As you might guess, he gave it an F grade.

I wouldn't call the editors of "Cooks Illustrated" funny, generally, but their reviews can be interesting in terms of what can go wrong in the world of cooking design. Here's their review of a $200 mandoline:
"Completely unintuitive," "uncomfortable," and "overbuilt," this brawny French model's only saving grace was its incredibly sharp V-blades. The spring-loaded guard "boinged" food across the counter.
FYI, their top rated mandoline only costs $50, and their second place finisher is a steal at under $30. So, price doesn't always correspond with quality.

There's something more to it than just "funny" or "interesting," though, because it's not like bad reviews have cornered the market on either of those things. So, if there were no bad reviews, no negative criticism . . . what would be missing in my life?

Knitty.com is a free online magazine for knitters which publishes patterns, articles, and reviews. It's a really great site in a lot of ways: It's one of the best resources out there for free, contemporary patterns, I like a lot of the articles, and I appreciate the reviews in terms of bringing new books and products to my attention. However — you guessed it — they don't publish bad reviews and it drives me nuts.

When I'm buying a knitting book from Amazon (or even considering doing so), I always check out the really bad reviews. I want to know the worst that can be said about the book before I buy it. If the worst that can be said is "I didn't like the patterns" or "The range of pattern sizes was too narrow," that doesn't necessarily affect my decision. But if the negative reviews say that the instructions are confusing or full of errors, I'll take that into account and maybe not buy the book after all. So, first, I want a range of opinions on any one thing so that I can get a better idea of its strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, sometimes you have to stick with just one or a few opinions on something. Happily, I know a few people whose opinions on various matters I've come to trust. Even better there's a larger community out there of people who've made it their life's goal to have an informed opinion on something, either as a paid profession (movie critics, taste testers, the folks at Consumer Reports) or as a personal interest (members of LibraryThing and Facebook and, of course, bloggers in general). But how do you know if someone's opinion is worthwhile? Well, looking at how many positive vs. negative reviews is a decent first approximation, because it tells you how picky someone is, which influences the weight of a positive rating.

For example, Eric Snider has reviewed 21 movies in the past 30 days. Of those movies, only 9 have been "graded" in the B-range or higher and only 1 (!) got an A grade. Because of this, I give a lot more weight to a positive review by Eric than I do to a positive review by the Knitty editorial board, where everything is just "happy, happy, nice" all the time.

Now, I recognize that there are social ramifications in giving out ratings and reviews. After all, I'd be very nervous to have a food critic over for dinner, even if I appreciate the work that he or she does. So, it's possible that the Knitty board wants to say only nice things because they don't want to make enemies in the knitting publishing world or hurt the feelings of knitting designers (since, after all, they're always looking for new designers to contribute free patterns to publish). That said, if they'd even tell me "We privately reviewed 100 books this year, and here are the top 20," I'd take that into account and pay more attention to their reviews.


At January 06, 2009 1:28 AM, Blogger FoxyJ said...

I always look at the negative reviews on Amazon as well. I find it interesting how many people will give something a very negative review because it didn't fulfill their own expectations of what they thought it should be. Like if they thought a book was about x and it's really about y, they'll mark it way down. Or I love the recipe reviews on cooking websites where people will give it a bad grade but they haven't actually tried the recipe or they massively altered it. Huh.

At January 06, 2009 2:09 PM, Blogger Melyngoch said...

I'm going to agree that I like bad reviews because they're funny, but the fact is, I've never been responsible enough to look to bad reviews to actually work out what's wrong with a book.

Then again, when have I ever needed a knitting book? I have you!

At January 06, 2009 7:40 PM, Blogger Petra said...

I just love reviews in general. My favorite part of going to see a movie is coming home to read some reviews and see where I agree or disagree.

Also, you read Anthony Lane, right? Because those are some seriously good bad reviews.

At January 07, 2009 9:36 AM, Blogger Katya said...

Petra - I have read him, but clearly I need to read more of his work!

Melyngoch - It's true — you don't need my advice on how to be me if you already have me around. (Which makes me wonder why I'm blogging at all . . .)

At January 08, 2009 10:58 AM, Blogger Thirdmango said...

The only time besides now I've ever been shown something from Eric Snyder was when he apparently saw me and my friends and made fun of us for some reason. We then made fun of him for trying to do an article on making fun of us. What a weird fellow.

At January 14, 2009 9:56 PM, Blogger Sonya said...

I think you should subtitle this post "Loving the Haters".

In thinking about being a reviewer, or for all the people who participate in Early Reviewers on LibraryThing, I think it's intimidating to review something badly. What if it's just you? What if you didn't 'get it'?

Luckily, I'm over that kind of thought, and happily criticize everything.

At January 15, 2009 7:32 PM, Blogger Katya said...

Sonya - That's an interesting point, and not one I'd really thought about. If I had to review for a living, I'd probably be more comfortable doing reviews based on testing (Cook's Illustrated-style) instead of based on opinion.


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