Standards and practices

I’ve been enjoying the xxxHoLic roundtable at The Hooded Utilitarian, and I have to confess that most of that enjoyment comes from the back-and-forth about critical standards that has blossomed in the comments of various posts. I quoted Ng Suat Tong yesterday, and I’ll do so again:


“For some reason, I’ve found that western readers seem to be far kinder to commercial dreck from the shores of Japan, lacing their reviews with only the mildest of reservations. Is this representative of a certain indifference to the qualities of commercial manga or is there some sort of cultural forbearance and variation in standards at work here?”

And add a bit of an expansion from the comments here:

“It’s something which I notice in manga reviews throughout the web (there are exceptions of course). It may have to do with the thrill of the “new” or it might just be that manga reviewers in general are just ‘nice’ people…”

If you’re me, all roads eventually lead to Sondheim, and I can’t help but hear the derisive purr of Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods… “You’re so nice… You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.”

Now, if you suspect that I’m going to launch into some defense of online manga criticism and decry these observations, let me hasten to assure you that I’m not. In fact, I’m going to cop to their accuracy, at least as they pertain to me. It’s not just comics from Japan, though. It has more to do with context and creator intent.

Not too long ago, there was some discussion on Twitter of tips for manga bloggers, and I remember the development of a consistent rating system (numerical, alphabetical, stars, what have you) coming up in conversation. I don’t use that kind of system due to a combination of laziness and, I frankly admit, inconsistent critical standards. What I almost always try to convey when reviewing a book is how much I enjoyed it, which I know is not a particularly rigorous or ambitious approach to criticism. But when it comes to comics, enjoyment my first priority as a consumer, so it makes sense to me that it’s also my first priority as a reviewer.

It’s entirely possible that, if I had a one-to-five-stars rating system, five being the highest, I could give both Red Snow and Kimi ni Todoke five stars. Should you conclude from that that I think that these books are equal in quality in terms of the pure mechanics of their creation, their respective levels of artistic ambition, and their impact on the medium? I hope not, and I hope (really, really fervently) that the reasons I enjoy a given book are sufficiently evident that people who read my reviews can tell the difference between the reasons behind an enthusiastic evaluation of Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu and an exuberant review of The Lapis Lazuli Crown, or for Asterios Polyp, or for Underground.

A lot of comics are created with the simple intent to entertain, and I think that’s fabulous. It’s one of the reasons that I read so much manga – it’s a functional, diverse entertainment industry that allows me to cherry pick the kind of stories and styles I enjoy and that provide the kind of enjoyment I seek when I pick up a comic. And since it’s a large enough industry, I can also enjoy comics created with less of an obviously commercial or populist intent, books that were conceived and executed with ambition and daring. But for me, it’s important to accept books from the various ends of the commercial spectrum on their own terms. Some comics are conceived in hopes of taking their places among fine works of literature, and some are created to help you pass the time while you’re riding the train. And this is true of comics industries all over the world. Even individual creators can move along that spectrum, and to me, those are the most exciting creators of all. There are those creators who, no matter how disposable and commercial the venue for their work is, demonstrate remarkable ambition and craft.

Should I apply equal levels of critical rigor to every book I review? I don’t really feel any obligation to do so, to be totally honest. For one thing, that’s not really why I got into blogging. Aside from the fact that it’s just a hobby, my desire to blog stems from a general enthusiasm for comics, an enthusiasm for writing and conversing about them, and a desire to identify the ones that give me pleasure as a reader and to find others that might yield the same results. I certainly admire critics who apply that level of effort to everything they write, and I’m hardly averse to trying to engage a challenging work on its own ambitious terms, but that’s never been my default setting.

13 Responses to Standards and practices

  1. Shelly says:

    I actually admire critics the most who judge books on what they mean to be, and not all on the same standard. Ebert reviews movies like that. So did Pauline Kael. Star Wars wasn’t Mean Streets, nor did it want to be. But both are great in their own way. Same with manga. I love my fluff, and a lot times it’s just what I need. And it takes talent to write it well. So when it fulfills me, it becomes a favorite.

    FWIW, I usually come away from your reviews understanding why you enjoyed something, or not, and it tells me if I’m likely to. That’s pretty much all I ask for.

  2. David, I’ve been enjoying the roundtable too, as you know, and I think this is a terrific response to Suat’s comment.

  3. Katherine Farmar says:

    To tell the truth, I’m not sure this kindness to highly-commercial/not-terribly-artistic works distinguishes manga readers/reviewers/bloggers from the reviewers/bloggers/et cetera of Western comics. Some Western-comics reviewers focus solely on the more arty end of the spectrum, but there’s a much larger contingent of bloggers who focus on superhero and superhero-alike comics, and then you have people like Douglas Wolk, who will happily swing between the two extremes.

    Ratings/number systems are kind of a touchy subject among reviewers, I’ve found. And I’m a bit of a hypocrite: I like it when reviewers use them, but I hate using them myself! I had to give all the titles I reviewed for Manga Village marks out of 10, and it took me a good long while to come up with a consistent system, which means that my early reviews aren’t consistent with my later ones. And I never explained my system anywhere, so I don’t know how much good my consistency did anyone…

  4. David – I’ve talked about this as well, on Okazu. We, and our readers, just have to accept that reviews are organic, irrational and subjective. Are “fans” nice about things they are fans of? Well…duh. But also – are uncritical readers/watchers who make up the lowest common denominator uncritical? Well..duh? :-)

    The mass market appeals to the masses. It’s not surprising that the audience for which say, Haruhi is intended, approaches Haruhi with fanatic loyalty.

    I do rate what I review, but not to make it *easier* for the reader. I rate on a variety of qualities, so a bad book with great characters might get the same overall score as a good book, just as you said. In fact, my ratings confuse and annoy those people looking for simplicity, which convinces me I’m on the right track. ;-) My ratings are also not consistent in *any* way, so today my rating on Story might be “6” out of 10 and tomorrow it might be “Yum, cupcakes.” lol

    In light of the fact that reviews are subjective, requiring standards not only seems silly (and impossible,) it feels very much like uncritical readers want things simple so they can continue to be uncritical and led by the nose. Feh on that. Read up and you’ll be a better reader, I say. Who benefits if we all write down?

    Cheers,

    Erica

    Hungry for Yuri? Have some Okazu!

    http://okazu.blogspot.com

  5. James Moar says:

    There’s probably a tendency for manga reviewers to walk away from series they don’t like early on, and keep going with ones they do, which inclines their reviews to the positive. Superhero reviewers are much more likely to be invested in series with rapid changes of creative teams and crossovers with things they dislike, and reviewers of art comics are likely to be the toughest critics.

    Painting with a broad brush, I know, but I think there’s something in it.

    • the moon in autumn says:

      I agree, James. When a reviewer only has limited time, it makes sense to write more about what is liked than disliked. What you say makes clear sense to me. :)

  6. Judi says:

    When I read this in your post”my desire to blog stems from a general enthusiasm for comics, an enthusiasm for writing and conversing about them, and a desire to identify the ones that give me pleasure as a reader and to find others that might yield the same results.”,I said “ah, a kindred spirit”. This statement expressed exactly how I feel about comics/manga.
    I read reviews hoping for the same feeling of joy that I get when I read. I don’t have to agree with a reviwer, to enjoy a review.

  7. davidpwelsh says:

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone! I was thinking I might have to start every review with “This book is not as good as Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms,” which is probably almost always true but might get repetitive and annoying.

  8. Judi says:

    You could say, “Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms” is better than “insert manga title here” for variety. XD

  9. [...] of comics criticism as a whole and the state of manga criticism online. David Welsh offered up his personal take on the subject at The Manga Curmudgeon which led me to think about my own critical standards a bit [...]

  10. Jason Stuart says:

    What a poignant essay, if I may use that term. Seriously, heheheh, I really appreciated your thoughts. I “recently” started a comic review blog (did that just work? Never did html before) and have had an internal wrestling match over what a review should be like. Is consistency always appropriate? I think sometimes it might be a hindrance.

    Kudos for writing out of your sheer love for the comics–that can be an easy thing to lose sight of, but what other reason is there? None. You love it; you want to share it.

    RE: numbering systems… Gotta say I don’t like ‘em myself. To me it seems like you’re just telling the reader when to pay attention. A low number is tantamount to “don’t read this review, it isn’t really important.” Personally, I prefer to spend time talking about comics I think are worth reading anyway, why rank them?

    Haven’t read any of your reviews before, but after reading this, I plan on checking them out. I feel like I will learn something.

  11. [...] tips, and this week has brought more discussion with a roundtable of xxxHolic.  David Welsh pulls some quotes from the discussion, specifically about how western reviewers deal with manga.  We seem to be [...]

  12. In my case, it’s because I’ve gotten pretty choosy about my manga reading, often only reading if I had it recommended to me by someone else. If I had been doing reviews in 2003-2004-2005, oh my would there have been some reviews that began and ended with “this sucked.”

    I’ve noticed that my reviews have gone a bit on the side of being mostly positive, but I think a lot of that has to do with abandoning things I know I’m not going to like (James Robinson’s JLA, for instance) and only reading stuff I expect to enjoy. It doesn’t take long to catch on to my (or any comics blogger’s) taste, so I think folks reading will quickly know if they’re going to like the same things I do or not, even if mine tend to be positive.

    How much of the positive reviewing comes from those who are primarily buyers of their source material? I mean, I’m not likely to buy a manga without being pretty sure I like it.

    Just a few ideas on the concept of a positive review. Great topic for discussion, David!

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