Don’t Tell Me How to Feel. Make Me Want to See.

My pal Ron Reed posted this quote over at I’d read it before in one of my favorite C.S. Lewis volumes, Letters to Children, but it’s always a good reminder for writers, whether they’re beginners or not…

In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you’re describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was terrible, describe it so that we’ll feel terrified. Don’t say it was delightful; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read your description. You see, all these words ‘horrifying’, ‘wonderful’, ‘hideous’, ‘exquisite’, are only like saying to your readers, “please, would you do my job for me?”

Clearly, Lewis is talking about storytelling. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much this applies to the art of criticism as well.

Over the last year, I’ve been sorting through and revising old film and music reviews, and I can chart my progress as a critic by how hard I’ve worked to give readers a sense of a film or a recording. I’m appalled by how I’ve often settled for superlatives instead of specifics, or how I’ve rushed to announce the importance of something by announcing how it rates in comparison to the rest of films released that year. What good does that do? In a year’s time, no one will remember what other films came out that year anyway, so the review becomes dates and unhelpful. Better to consider a movie’s style, themes, strengths, and weaknesses. Even in my music reviews I’ve relied far too heavily on language I learned from advertising blurbs: “BRILLIANT!” “TIMELESS!” “THIS IS THE ROCK RECORD TO BEAT IN 2008!”

I am worn out with reviews that just announce the greatness of something by using lazy labels like “the best ___________ of the year” and “an instant classic” and “absolutely brilliant” and tags like that. There are a few critics whose reviews I can’t bear to read anymore, simply because I get so tired of being clubbed by dramatic, celebratory terms. It’s like composing an email in all-caps to make a point… it makes the reader shrink back from the shouting.

It’s not unusual for a rave review to make me want to avoid the work in question; in fact, I’ve postponed listening to a few albums this year for that very reason. I want to have a chance to discover it without being distracted by wild claims of their surpassing greatness. How can I have an authentic, meaningful experience with that film or that recording if I’m just sitting there waiting for it to live up to such claims?

I much prefer personal essays or accounts that paint a picture or that employ creative language to give me tantalyzing details about the character and quality of a work. I’m fond of Andy Whitman’s music reviews and the film reviews of Anthony Lane, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Roger Ebert, Steven Greydanus, and Kenneth R. Morefield (who guest-writes for this site from time to time), because I almost always learn something that helps me appreciate the film more fully, even if I disagree with their final judgment on those films. I don’t come away feeling like I’ve been told how to feel about something.

So… as I work out the bugs on the new Looking Closer site (with the help of the resourceful Dave von Bieker), please bear with me as I re-post an archive of reviews that is full of unnecessary superlatives. Sure, I’m proud of a lot of those reviews. I learned a lot about the art of criticism in writing them, and I’m still learning (or at least, we should all hope so). But some of them I’m re-posting merely because they’re part of the history of this site, not because I think they’re Grade-A film reviews.

And if you catch me throwing superlatives around again without any substantial content, send me a note. I want to enable listeners and viewers to enjoy and appreciate the good stuff, not rattle them with adjectives that complicate their experiences.

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  • Great post. Lots of good stuff to think on–

  • I thought that was a brilliant post! ;-)

    As a reporter and film critic, I find myself succumbing to the same temptation. And I think the reason is something that Roger Ebert alludes to in his recent blog post, “Death to Film Critics…” Word restrictions are so insanely tight that we critics no longer have the opportunity to tell someone why something was brilliant…we simply must say it’s brilliant in order to meet our space requirements. Plus, writers are now told to dumb it down because actually explaining something to an audience and letting them make their own conclusions will only confuse them or make them think something is too smart for them. Of course, there’s also the problem of screenings that are held so close to deadline–I find that I often walk out of a film that needs digestion only to have to immediately write a review; at the time, I may know that something is brilliant, but I can’t exactly tell you why until I’ve had time to mull it over. That’s why blogging and online writing, I believe, may be the future of true film criticism. There’s more time to digest a film, use examples and–possibly most importantly–discuss the merits of a project with other film lovers, which is where so much true learning begins.

  • One thing that you mentioned here is something that I had to think about when I put together our anthology this summer–the ability of art criticism to transcend a particular time and place. Outside of those pesky adjectives that you mention, I hadn’t really thought about reviews (or edited them) in this way before. Anyway, good luck with your continued quest to make art of art reviews.

    Perhaps I’ll see you at Over the Rhine tomorrow night…