Don't shoot me, I'm only the reviewer

Critics, Ratings and Society
April 27, 2007

How do you review a book about reviews? With a good deal of self-consciousness, of course. Here is a work that purports to tell us about the nature of reviews, which means I have to ask myself: is what I am writing a proper review? Does it conform to the characteristics that Grant Blank attributes to reviews? You decide. Reviews summarise and evaluate. So let's proceed in that order.

This is the first full-length study of reviews. It focuses on different types of review, their credibility and why we read them. There are two basic kinds of review - connoisseurial and procedural. The former depends on the judgment of the reviewer, the latter on testing and comparing a number of similar products to see how well they do what it says on the tin, so to speak.

The connoisseurial review is more concerned with culture, while the procedural review is more concerned with commodities. People therefore read connoisseurial reviews partly to enhance their image as "sophisticated, cultured, well-rounded individuals", though not in Britain, surely.

Those who read procedural reviews have no such pretensions; they simply seek "information and direction". Restaurants are an example of a connoisseurial review and software of a procedural review. The word "restaurant", incidentally, comes from "an intense bouillon broth, called a restaurant or restorative". A restaurant review covers not just the food but the decor, service and value for money. It can also be a mini-novel. Blank quotes one review of a person being taught how to eat and appreciate sushi.

How are restaurants chosen for review? The negative answer is by not being part of a chain. The positive one is that they call attention to themselves because they are run by chefs who specialise in particular types of cuisine. You might think being a restaurant critic is an easy life, but it isn't. Typical problems include trying to remember "the name you reserved under", manure being dumped on your lawn and trigger-happy chefs. One shot and killed a critic who had been less than fulsome in his praise.

No such dangers attend procedural reviews. Perhaps because computer software, the example offered here, doesn't inflame the passions in quite the same way. Blank describes the review process of PC Magazine . It compares similar products by looking at their features, their performance and their suitability to task. Does this product have "multiple regression"? Whatever that is. Some form of radical hypocrisy? Numerical testing is a major component of procedural reviews. These provide objective and quantified comparisons of a product's strengths and weaknesses.

Other features of a procedural review include a discussion of target audiences and which products have won awards. Yes, there are other elements, but they don't make this sort of review any more interesting to read. Tables, methodologies and sidebars are dully but dutifully functional. They tell people what is the best buy for their money. I know one person who researched mobile phones for a month before making a purchase. Even then he had reservations. It was a lot easier when we just had to choose between good or evil.

Reviews are rhetorical because they try to persuade readers that the author's judgment is the right one, but they are also ethical. If it gets out that a reviewer has been bribed then readers lose faith in the review process. How is trust built up? For connoisseurial reviews it is by repeatedly reading the same reviewer, and for procedural reviews it is by pointing to the tests a product undergoes, which anyone can, in principle, duplicate for themselves. And if we are still suspicious, we can always ask a friend.

Critics, Ratings and Society is a fascinating interdisciplinary study that suggests that reviews have replaced traditional criticism and we need no longer be vexed by the relation between them. Blank's style is relatively free of sociological jargon, and where he does give into temptation, he is quick to explain what he means, though he extends this habit to simple terms, which can be a little trying. Do we really have to be told that "service" refers to diners' interactions with the restaurant staff?

Blank makes a very good case for taking reviews more seriously. He sees them as being part of the production and distribution of knowledge, as status markers and as guiding us in our choice of everything from, well, meals to computer programmes. But do they?

The claim that we depend on reviews implies that we have lost the power to make decisions for ourselves, that we have handed over to the reviewer the responsibility for choosing what we want. So, drunk with the power, I suggest you buy this book. I wouldn't want Grant popping round with his gun.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

Critics, Ratings and Society: The Sociology of Reviews

Author - Grant Blank
Publisher - Rowman and Littlefield
Pages - 245
Price - £46.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 9780742547025 and 47032

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