The Reviewer’s Fallacy is a different sort of phenomenon, less premeditated than baked into today’s critical enterprise. One of the root causes stems from Sturgeon’s law, named after its originator, science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who once observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” The “It can be argued” part usually isn’t quoted, and the figure is very ballpark. But it’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse.
It would be tiresome for critics to constantly be counting the ways that the work under review is crap, nor would their editors and the owners of the publications they write for be happy with a consistently downbeat arts section. The result is an unconscious inclination to grade on a curve. That is, if something isn’t very good, but is better than two-thirds of other entries in the genre—superhero epics, quirky or sensitive indie films, detective novels, literary fiction, cable cringe comedies—give it a B or B-plus.
I’ve been reviewing stuff for more than two decades: music, books, software, hardware, theater, and more. If something is really crap, I generally don’t bother writing a review. But I’ve spent my time trying it out; time that is unpaid. Occasionally – just very occasionally – I’ve published bad reviews, and they are intended as warnings to the public who might be interested in purchasing the item in question.
One such example is this 2006 review of Sting’s album of songs by John Dowland, one of my favorite Renaissance composers. I said:
Next is Flow My Tears, based on the melody from Dowland’s “hit” instrumental, Lachrimae. Stings sounds like a mediocre singer in a shower. His voice is terrible, his tone is slightly off, and it makes me want to howl at the moon. He basically massacres this song – though you don’t hear him gasping any more – and his braying is a sorry sound indeed.
But, I also concluded the review saying this:
Now, I have to admit that it is entirely possible that Sting’s performance is closer to actual Elizabethan performance than we in the 21st century can imagine. Shakespeare scholars, for example, have shown that no Shakespeare play was met with the same awe and respect that we modern theatre-goers show; it is very possible that this performance accurately reflects the majority of Elizabethan minstrels. Well, all but the part with the processed voices.
Here’s another record I panned, which earned me an angry email from the musician question. My criticism was his questionable choice of tempo:
The liner notes mention something curious that motivated the guitarist’s playing. He “tried to keep an ideal ‘tactus’, that of my heartbeat at rest (53 on the metronome) throughout the Variations.” This is one of the most questionable reasons to record at a given tempo that I can imagine. Whatever motivated this odd decision certainly ruined this recording.
I ended that review saying:
It’s rare that I hear a recording that is this lugubrious and disappointing. I strongly suggest avoiding this disc.