Friday, November 10, 2006

art critiques

I wrote this as a response about the book Spanky and Rocko but decided to create a new discussion ... if possible!

This is what I said--

"I do have one thing to say upon viewing the SLJ review of this on amazon.(this being the book someone posted a link to) What are those reviewers talking about? He/she said this-- "The illustrations are bland and dully colored" The book clearly looks retro on purpose. That isn't an appropriate criticism for something like that. AAAA! REVIEWERS! They always try to critique art when they don't know art! Stick to what you know folks!

rant over."

Yes, I'm weird, I'm quoting myself....

Anyway, I notice this all the time. Reviewers write very odd critiques of art. They always leave me scratching my head. People who aren't trained in art probably don't know how to properly express themselves when it comes to visuals. I'm not saying ALL people, but a lot. I'm I being snobby?

Artists... non artists...what do you guys think?



Anonymous said...

I also find reviews like that really frustrating. Of course non-artists are most of the audience for picture books, so their response to art has to be valued. But a REVIEWER, I think, has an obligation to do more than just state personal preferences. A reviewer should at least be able to speak articulately about how the illustrations could affect a reader's experience of a book.

Anonymous said...

My mom's an artist, and I have a horrible time trying to critique her work. It's not only that I don't have the words, but I'm not trained like an artist -- my eye doesn't even see what's there and not there. All I can do is give my thumbs up or down, and when she asks why, then I fumble around, struggling to find anything meaningful to say..."the light hits that side of the painting nicely...there's nice movement in the water...?"

Meghan McCarthy said...

When I'm not sure about something I often like to poll non artists. They usually right away say "yes" or "no." They have no idea why they like or dislike something so it's the artist's job to figure it out.

But again, a reviewer should be more careful.

alvinaling said...

I agree that a reviewer should be more careful--unlike a personal review from someone you know, we expect reviewers to give a more measured and educated reason why they like or dislike something--not that this review did this necessarily, but I hate it when reviews say "the art was ugly" or "the colors were all wrong" or "Chowder himself is not a particularly appealing character. He has mean eyes and a scary countenance." I mean, clearly these people have no idea what they're talking about (ahem, Kirkus, cough cough).

Just kidding---kind of. I know this is a subjective business, and reviewers are paid to give us their opinion. I just feel like sometimes they're mean for the sake of being mean, and also aren't really thinking everything through.

Anyway, what do you reviewers our there have to say?

Don Tate II said...

I keep promising myself I won't read my own reviews, but I do, and I end up fuming, sorry. I'm embarrassed to say, my first book, I posted a rebuttal to the nasty comment on Amazon, and then shot off an email to the editor of the journal. I won't do that no more. They're children's books, not shoot em up movies, so I don't understand why they have to be so nasty. Grrr.

Linda S. Wingerter said...

Everyone is entitled to their opinion about art of course, but anyone reviewing art for publication, even children's book art, should have some education in conveying that opinion in the language of art, because there is an actual language of art as there is a language of literature. A lot of children's book reviews have blatant errors like incorrect historical art references. I've always wondered why that is.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to consider that one does not have to have any particular qualifications to be a reviewer. Just opinions.

I think Linda put it very well. There should be a language of art employed. An understanding of historical context.

The Northern Californian Librarians use a mentor program to train their reviewers. Sounds like a good plan to me. Credit Nina Lindsey and her colleagues.


Anonymous said...

Not really on topic here, did you read this amazon review?
"perhaps reminding the little girl of her childhood in Cambodia."

"Her little creations have all the appeal of Curious George PLUS the animals of BABAR, lacking only the unique charm of the first and the majesty of the second." ?

Plus a Winn-Dixie connection:

Anonymous said...

Would y'all expand on the "language of art" idea? Are you talking about what kind of media is used? (oils, watercolor, etc.)

In defense of paid reviewers (and I haven't seen the Amazon review that's mentioned), they are often writing for a general audience who may not be familiar with a lot of artistic terms. Reviewers should be responsible, of course, with their language.

Nancy said...

Here's my 5 cents (started out as 2, till I saw how much I had written):

I don't agree that reviewers need any sort of special training or need to understand the language of art in order to express an opinion about it. That is like saying they need to have studied writing and need to understand the language of writing to say "I thought the story was boring." Some people love Hemingway, some think his writing is torture to read. How is art different? And why should we set requirements such as those suggested above for someone to express an opinion?

Also, the original comment above "they always try to critique art when they don't know art!" strikes me as a tunneled view of things. I am not an artist, but does this mean I don't *know* art? I may not know what goes into creating a certain illustration, but I can definitely judge whether I like it or not. And I SHOULD judge, because I'm one of the many in the audience. If an artist (or writer) doesn't want their work judged... well then....

But back to my original point, I just don't see that art is any different than writing. And if we agree with the original "rant" then we'd have to extend the argument out to any/all forms of creative endeavor I think. Art. Writing. Music. Film....

In respectful disagreement.


Meghan McCarthy said...

Nancy, I respect your opinion.

It is my opinion, however, that if you're going to write reviews for national publications--whether it be for music, writing, cooking, or anything else, that you know what you're talking about. I would NEVER write an article on architecture because I know nothing about it. Can I judge for myself whether or not I like the look of a building? Of course! But that doesn't give me the right to write a criticism about it that can be accessible to everyone in the country. This is what blogs and customer reviews are for--to give the masses their say.


Libby Koponen said...

I agree with Meghan...and I think the more you know about an art, the more you can separate your own likes and dislikes from the quality of the work. When it comes to the visual arts, I can only express subjective opinions. But I've read enough literature (and studied enough) to be able to say WHY and how something is good or bad, and to know why and how that's different from what I personally like or don't like. Jane Austen writes well, I like her; Virginia Woolf and Proust also write well and both bore me. But that doesn't prevent me from seeing all the ways they are good writers.

I don't think you need to have studied this in school to be qualified; but I do think that if you're going to be paid to write book reviews you should be a good reader and an experienced reader, and, I think, an open-minded readers -- someone who (as one blogger put it someplace) "tries to find the soul of a book." A person who isn't is not qualified to review books professionally, any more than someone who rarely drinks and has never tasted great wine could review wine.

Libby Koponen said...

PS (Libby again) I think it has to do with objective standards. Any aesthetic judgment is somewhat subjective, but people trained in the arts, with lots of experience reading, looking, listening, develop a common vocabulary, set of standards, common references....and I don't think it's expecting too much, or being elitist, to expect a paid reviewer to be aware of these!

Anonymous said...

But, take someone like Alessandra Stanley, one of the NY Times' TV critics. As far as I know, she does not have a background in TV production. She was a Moscow correspondent for the newspaper for a while, if I remember correctly. She writes with intelligence and wit. Terry Teachout is the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal; his background is in music, not theater. He writes terrific reviews. And he's a blogger. (Which brings up another question. Are we bloggers really part of "the masses"? I don't think that's a it? :) )

I know it must be frustrating when critics don't understand your work. I am completely sympathetic.

Anonymous said...

For me, this issue hinges on the place where the information is published. School Library Journal, for instance, is a professional publication for people with experience reading, evaluating and educating people about books (both the writing and the art). Thier reviewers should reflect this level of expertise in my opinion.

A blog, or a web site, seems like a great place to express the full spectrum of people's opinions, regardless of their backgrounds or expertise.

A review in, say, a newspaper for me falls somewhere in the middle... the reviewer should have some knowledge of the genre in which they are working, though since the reader could be just about anyone, it should be very accessible.

Anonymous said...

I'm still stuck on the question of why we would set a different standard for the art in a book than for the writing?

Wouldn't it sound strange if I said... "AAAA! REVIEWERS! They always try to critique writing when they don't know writing!" or "People who aren't properly trained in writing probably don't know how to properly express themselves when it comes to writing."

Sorry Meghan, not meaning to pick on your original post, just using the phrases to illustrate my original resistance. I think it's an interesting question and I'm glad to be part of the conversation.

Meghan McCarthy said...

No, see I didn't mention THE WRITING because I think a lot of the reviewers DO know how to talk about writing! I mention the art because those critiques usually stand out for me as me as being odd.

Believe me, if I saw a badly expressed review about writing I'd whine about that too!

What I'm saying is that these reviewers are usually literary people who happen to get chosen to do books with art in them. Make sense?


Greg Pincus said...

I think there's a big difference between saying "the illustrations look bland and dully colored" which is a strict opinion (and that's what reviewers are paid for) vs. saying "the book clearly looks retro on purpose" which is ascribing motivation... and that is motivation the reviewer probably doesn't know. For that reviewer, the book looks bland, and it looks bland no matter if they can tell you the stylistic choices or not. It's a visceral reaction.

Let me ask a different, hypothetic question. How would you react if the reviewer had said "I love the washed out look of the illustrations."?

Does anyone know what qualifications a reviewer for SLJ must possess? I can't imagine they take anyone off the street. I don't have an art degree, but as a volunteer librarian/writer/parent would you think I have qualifications to review a picture book? How would you define what is needed to present an opinion for SLJ?

Meghan McCarthy said...

To write for SLJ you must be a librarian, I believe. The problem is that to write kids' reviews you don't need to be a kids' librarian! I noticed a review a while back done by a librarian who, coincidentally enough, worked at the private school I went to for a year. This school is for ages 9-12. The librarian reviewed a picture book. I think my aunt has done one and she's an adult librarian.

As to the question-- would I love if the librarian wrote this--"I love the washed out look of the illustrations." the answer is not really. I wouldn't never say that they looked washed out either. I would describe the illustrations as deliberately faded looking with muted colors. Even the paper used is mat. The art is clearly trying to mimic books from another time period when there was a 3 color printing process, etc. My problem isn't that the comment was negative but that the reviewer didn't know what he/she was talking about.


p.s - librarians out there -- please correct me if I'm wrong about SLJ!

Elaine Magliaro said...

I am quoting from SLJ: "SLJ reviewers are volunteer practicing librarians." Individuals interested in writing reviews for the journal can request their guidelines. You can find a reviewers' checklist for picture books at

Elaine Magliaro said...

Sorry about the end of that URL. It should be html--not htr.

Anonymous said...

I think it's kind of nice that it's open to any librarian, regardless of area of expertise. My proletarian heart says, "down with authority."

Meghan McCarthy said...

The idea seems nice until you get a review that is completely out to lunch... then you may find yourself questioning the system. I think there are some reviewers like that out there who are dying to be published themselves. It is those who spell trouble. And... eh-hem... I hope I'M not making trouble by saying it!

I must thank the SLJ reviewer for aliens. YOU are a genius!

p.s - yes, I only complain about the bad ones!

p.p.s - I shouldn't talk. I would LOVE to write reviews myself! I'm sure there would be some Meghan haters out there if I did. I don't, though, because I"m an author and it's bad karma.

Greg Pincus said...

Again, Meghan -- for you to describe the illustrations as "deliberately faded looking" means that either you did them or you asked the illustrator (or read the illustrator's blog!). No matter how much art knowledge you have, I don't think you can review intent, unless you know.

I also wonder, and I don't know the answer here, but I wonder if it matters to any child or even any school librarian what the intent was, if the reviewer feels like something just didn't work and wouldn't work for the target audience. I'm not sure art expertise (or storytelling if it's about the story) is what matters here. They just plum didn't like it. Stinks, no matter why, though!

Anna Alter said...

I would disagree with you Gregory. I think it is the reviewers job to ponder the motivation of the author/illustrator and not merely describe the book. I don't think it takes too much art history knowledge to see that those monkeys are done in a retro style, or to notice that this is a big trend lately in chidlren's books.

I think it would be more fair if they said something like "The color of the illustrations mimic a retro 50's style that may be too subtle for children." That, at least, is a critique of the illustrator's choice, and implies some knowledge of the genre.

Meghan McCarthy said...

See, I would absolutely accept Anna's criticism! That's all I want to see in a review!

What is CRUSHING to an illustrator is when he/she must wonder if the reviewer UNDERSTOOD. Criticism is much easier to stomach if it’s understood that the reviewer did indeed GET IT. Then it’s all fair game.

Greg Pincus said...

Again, to me there's a difference between pondering motivation and ascribing it. There's also a key difference, Anna, between what you wrote about the illustrations and what the reviewer wrote: the reviewer clearly didn't like the art, whether it was retro or not, and made their opinion known. You gave your opinion about how OTHERS might react. Perhaps that's more valid, but it's a different style of review. Neither of you, I'd note, discussed why the illustrator might have chosen the style they did which I would think would be the entire point of analyzing the choice to begin with.

Now, here's a question... what if the review had said:

"The color of the illustrations is an attempt to mimic a retro 50's style, but the art looks bland and unappealing and, worse, falls into a tired trend in publishing." Does the understanding of intent (still without giving context) allow for a strong opinion (even if we all happen to think the opinion misses the mark)?

Another problem is that the whole pondering/ascribing motivation question can be just as horrible a slippery slope as a bad opinion alone. The reviewer, no matter how trained and knowledgeable, puts motivation in your mouth, so to speak, unless they ask you directly. I've read my own reviews and learned the horrible things I've attempted to do (per the reviewer, but not per me!), so believe me, I share your review frustration. But I just don't happen to think the problems in most reviews come from a lack of understanding or technique or intent. For me, the problems come from the fact that no matter what I hoped I had done, it ultimately didn't matter: the reviewer didn't like it.

Bkbuds said...

Meghan is absolutely 110% right and I say that as a blogger and reviewer. Most of the reviews on blogs say "the art is gorgeous" or "the pictures are cute". Yawn.

I had a hard time encouraging one of my co-bloggers to talk intelligently about the pictures in the books she was reviewing. It just wasn't her subject. Tough, I said. Read up on it.

I was lucky -- I took art history in college (a zillion years ago) and it's served me well. I can honestly say I'm one of the few who can spot when an artist is paying tribute to an Expressionist (as with Uri Shulevitz' "Sleepy Sleepy") or is channeling Milton Glaser (Annette Simon's "Mocking Birdies").

I provide links to show people what I mean, and that helps too. My newest co-blogger also has a background in art history, which I consider a prerequisite now to writing for me.

As for newspaper reviewers, they often start out as journalists, and maybe they took a j-school course in it or not. At a smaller newspaper, they'll wander into the features editor's office and offer to do a book review for a little extra dough. If they don't make a hash of it, they're invited to do it again.

At bigger papers, it's a cushy retreat from a more heated beat, say, when your best buddy and most reliable source is jailed by Alexander Putin. For a resourceful reporter with good analytical skills, a reviewer's job should be a natural progression from objective to subjective writing. That's not always the case, but it's how journalists see it.

For bloggers, however, everyone seems to have lower standards and that's a mistake, imho. Most of the bloggers volunteering at Cybils want to be taken seriously, and want their own writing to improve.

One of the goals of the Cybils contest is to form a non-profit and raise money (probably through licensing fees to publishers) that will go toward professionalizing kidlit and YA bloggers. Online workshops or regional conferences on the art of reviewing and the reviewing of art are definite possibilities.

Okay, 'nuf said. Sorry to take up so much bandwidth on the subject. :-)


Anonymous said...

Wow, I wandered away from this discussion for a few days, and it got even more intense after I left!

Libby says: I think the more you know about an art, the more you can separate your own likes and dislikes from the quality of the work.

Anne says: I can honestly say I'm one of the few who can spot when an artist is paying tribute to an Expressionist (as with Uri Shulevitz' "Sleepy Sleepy") or is channeling Milton Glaser (Annette Simon's "Mocking Birdies").

Greg says: I wonder if it matters to any child or even any school librarian what the intent was, if the reviewer feels like something just didn't work and wouldn't work for the target audience. I'm not sure art expertise (or storytelling if it's about the story) is what matters here. They just plum didn't like it.

I'm with Greg on this one.

There are so many things I can appreciate about children's books now, as an adult, that I simply didn't see when I was a kid. There are books I read as a kid that I loved that would not stand up well to critical scrutiny today. And books I hated that I'm sure I would appreciate more today.

What do I expect from an SLJ review? Mostly, to tell me if the book will work for kids, not if the language, or the art, achieve some sort of mastery that the adult would appreciate.

This review in question wasn't as well-worded as I'd like. Anna's suggestion ("The color of the illustrations mimic a retro 50's style that may be too subtle for children.") would have been brilliant. But that doesn't mean the reviewer in question didn't get it, or wasn't qualified to express the opinion he/she did.

Anna Alter said...

"The color of the illustrations is an attempt to mimic a retro 50's style, but the art looks bland and unappealing and, worse, falls into a tired trend in publishing."

I think that kind of analysis would be fine too. Again, it acknowledges what the artist was trying to do, and criticizes it for being what it is. It means the reviewer thought about why the illustrator was making their color choices, which implies at least a little bit of fluency in talking about visual choices. They don't have to go into a lot of detail about why the illustrator made that choice for it to be an informative, satisfying review in my opinion.

Greg Pincus said...

To use an analogy-sorta-thing, I read movie reviews in Variety for a very different reason than I read movie reviews in Entertainment Weekly. Where SLJ falls in that spectrum in regards to children's books, I cannot say, but I'd like to think that if their reviewers aren't offering what their readers want, they'll make a change. It's a business, after all.

I agree with Anne (and all of you) in that I personally prefer meatier reviews (and hence a Variety subscription but not a similar one for EW). But lots of folks simply want to hear the opinion of someone/something they trust (or grow to trust), and I'm not sure they care much how that opinion was arrived at. Sad, perhaps... but true.

Anonymous said...

Having been reviewed as well -- I think the reviewer read my website and made assumptions based upon that -- having come from a commercial background the reviewer said my illustrations were too "editorial" which was the same word in my bio on my website. Clearly that could be an easy coincidence but
I have taken down that reference -- if they want to call me editorial they are going to have to come up with it themselves. WORD TO THE WISE be careful on bios -- be careful how you percieve yourself because others will percieve you the same way...

and dont listen to them... :)