As we explained in our piece covering the basics of review writing, not only is an “I” point of view “allowed” in cultural criticism, it is essential. Writers often directly address their audience, explaining how their own backgrounds or experiences with an artist, work, genre or topic influences their perspective.
For example, this week, when the Times comedy critic, Jason Zinoman, took on the tricky task of reviewing Louis C.K.’s first tour since the comic admitted sexual misconduct, Mr. Zinoman devoted some of his piece to explaining his history with Louis C.K.:
Comedy criticism is never objective, but there is nothing more subjective than how funny you find Louis C.K. in 2019. That’s what makes writing this review difficult, and being transparent about my point of view necessary. Over the past decade, no comic had a greater impact on me than Louis C.K. While my relationship with his old work has changed — I can’t laugh at his rape jokes anymore, and the story lines on his FX show that touched on assault now seem like obscene rationalizations — I still regularly think about Louis C.K. punch lines and chuckle.
Now take a look at the first paragraph of Crystal Foretia’s review of “Counting Descent.” How does she address her readers? How does she set the stage for exploring the personal impact of this work — and invite her audience to experience it alongside her?
Imagine you were a black fifteen-year-old on Nov. 9, 2016. You woke up, having gone to bed before the election results came out. Your phone was buzzing all night with people reacting to the results on Twitter. You finally saw the headline: “Donald Trump wins 2016 Presidential Election.” Meanwhile, you heard reports documenting numerous incidents of vandalism. The one that hit home is graffiti reading, “Black Lives Don’t Matter And Neither Does Your Votes.” Despair, confusion, and fear creeped in and then crashed down all at once. If there was a book capturing the strife and anxiety that you felt in that moment, it would be “Counting Descent” by Clint Smith.
The review continues:
Smith’s poetry, published that same year, transcends the boundary between personal and universal by imbuing his parables with the realities of Black America through creative poetic form. If you’ve ever felt frustrated trying to uncover the literary purpose of a sestina or sonnet, don’t fret: Each poem’s unique structure directly feeds into its narrative. “Playground Elegy” resembles a slide as the act of having your hands up, which conveys a sense of freedom, shifts to a similar, but more desperate connotation in police confrontations. “For the Boys Who Never Learned How to Swim” extended the spacing between the final two words to symbolize a black man’s final breath prior to being killed, mimicking a fish’s dying gasp. The numbered format and blank space at the end of “How to Make an Empty Cardboard Box Disappear in 10 Steps” highlights the frequency and lack of progress made on police brutality; it warns that inaction will guarantee another Tamir Rice or Philando Castile incident.
The influences of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin reflect heavily in Smith’s work. “Counting Descent” echoes “Invisible Man” through its ideas on identity and power, as each poem strains against unfair expectations, violence and self-doubt that plague Black youth, despite the progress made since the 20th century. The epigraph from Ellison also introduces the relationship between protest and artistic expression. Smith explores this dichotomy in two poems alluding to Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” ultimately concluding that we cannot separate literature from political advocacy. This theme brilliantly unifies the collection, as Smith critiques the lionization of slave-owning presidents, microaggressions middle-class black students receive and the criminalization of black bodies.
Bottom line: If you loved “The Hate U Give,” “The New Jim Crow” or any work detailing modern-day struggles African-Americans face, then read this. “Counting Descent” lambasts the notion of “post-racial society,” which washed over the American populace after Obama’s triumph in 2008. The collection serves as a cathartic read for those who lost their innocence to systemic discrimination. “Counting Descent” is a poignant addition to the Black literary canon.
How does Ms. Foretia address her readers and help us understand and appreciate this work? What does she assume her audience already knows about and understands?
Poetry may be a harder genre to review than, say, pop music or television since many find it difficult to understand and appreciate. How does this writer help us make sense of Clint Smith’s work? Does she make you want to read it? If so, how?
How does Ms. Foretia show how this work fits in to a larger literary tradition?
In general, do you think she is successful in writing for a broad audience — one that, say, may not be poetry fans, or feel the way she did about the 2016 presidential election? What lines can you point to to make your case?
What else do you notice or admire about this review? What lessons might it have for your writing?
Now Try This: Have Someone Read Your Review and Revise
If you are submitting a review to our contest, you are writing for a general audience. How well is it tailored to offer something to everyone, regardless of how well they know about the medium or work? Is your own history with the artist, work, genre or topic relevant to explaining your take?
To test this, have someone who knows little to nothing about your topic read your review. Then ask that person to put it aside and tell you as much as they can about what they understood and remember from the review.
Notice where your reader gets stuck, asks questions, seems confused or bored by your review. Those may be the places where you need to make some revisions so that a general audience can better understand your piece.
Here are a few questions to consider as you revise:
What essential information does your reader absolutely have to know to understand the thing you are reviewing? Remember, you don’t have tell your readers everything (no spoilers!) — just enough so they can get the gist. What key context is important?
Who is the target audience for this? Would they like it? Don’t rely on stereotypes or your own experiences to answer this question. Do your research to find out what this group’s interests, values and needs are.
What key terms, phrases or events might be confusing to your readers if they haven’t encountered this work or medium? Be sure to explain them, or use words they will understand instead.
What references, analogies or comparisons can you add to make your review more relatable to a broad cross-section of readers? Consider other works in the same medium or with the same themes or elements that your readers will probably know about.
What about your own relationship to this work is important or interesting to include? What influenced the way you experienced this piece? Why might that be useful for your audience to know?
What background information might you need to provide to help your readers understand your piece? For example, what historical, cultural or political events might they need to know about?
What kind of tone is appropriate for this publication? Should it be serious, irreverent, sarcastic, reverential or something else? Read other reviews from this publisher to get a sense of the tone, style and word choice commonly used.