Monday, January 26, 2009

Writing is Hard: Ebert's Rules for Reviewing

Since I do a lot of reviewing, I found Roger Ebert's thoughts on Review Ethics fascinating. They're all about movies of course, but just about every one of them applies to books and comics with a tiny bit of adaptation.

I especially like this one about whether or not it's okay to receive free product to review. I keep seeing this discussion over and over again about whether or not it's ethical for a reviewer to critique books he or she got for free. Some critics have even gone to the extent of disclosing in their reviews whether or not they paid for the book. I think that's unnecessary.

Ebert says:
Of course movie critics get tons of free DVDs, just as book critics get books, etc. You may review those you want, even going so far as to pay for those you don't get for free. Recently I ordered the complete Werner Herzog documentaries from Germany, for example. Herzog would no doubt have been happy to supply them, but I would have felt like a creep for asking. If I admire him so much, I should be willing to buy them. Your unwanted DVDs must never be sold, unless you are a starving critic, in which case you are exempted under the La Boheme amendment. Technically, you should put a scissors to them before discarding, but I don't think the FBI will come after me if I give some to our grandchildren, or donate them to a veteran's hospital.
Amen to that "don't sell your unwanted comp copies" bit. I know some critics see it as deserved payment and I'm not going to argue with them, but a) I'd feel icky doing it and b) Ebert backs me up, so that's where I stand personally.

I also love Ebert's thoughts on being prepared to give negative reviews even to friends. Man, that's hard to do. The best I can usually do is just not review something if a friend wrote it and I didn't like it. Ebert's bravery is inspirational.


Siskoid said...

I'm incredibly critical to my friends, but it's a long-earned reputation. If you're prepared to ask, you're prepared to take it.

Obviously, it's got to be CRITICISM and not CRITICIZING, which some people have trouble separating.

Michael May said...

I've gotten pretty good at that as a one-on-one endeavor. I can usually tell when someone wants honest feedback and when they just want encouragement and can tailor my comments accordingly.

Where I still have a challenge is when I'm reviewing the work of a friend in a public forum like a blog or web site. I've found that Ebert's right on when he says that if they let a bad review wreck the friendship then there was never really a friendship anyway, but knowing that doesn't make it any easier.

(Having said that, most of my friends have been absolutely cool with anything negative I've written about their work. But even in public reviews I take very seriously your comment about criticism without criticizing. That's so key.


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