Reviews and why they matter

It’s been a little while since the last time any new book or product reviews (mostly due to some ridiculous issues with distributors on getting books ordered and paid for back last summer), but one absolute when I resume is that I pay my own cash for review copies or samples, and I never solicit responses to reviews. If a publisher or manufacturer wants to quote a review, fine, but I don’t expect a response, and under no circumstances will I ever accept or expect any kind of compensation for doing these. Not that my opinion is worth that much, but it’s a matter of setting ground rules early.

My insistence on setting these standards comes from my old film critic days, and exposure to the critics of Dallas and Fort Worth in particular. This is the area that brought us Michael H. Price and Todd Camp, two of the most forthright and honest film critics of whom I’ve had the honor to meet. This is also the town that brought us the television news film critic who’d stumble into a screening a half-hour after the movie started, and throw a tantrum because the projectionist wouldn’t rewind the film so she could see it at the beginning. This is the area that brought us the critic who’d throw fits about how he’d only review events if he got freebies, and then savage the events because he got everything he wanted. I won’t even start with the editor who’d rewrite his critics’ reviews because that director or that actress needed to be “punished” for early career choices, leave the original critics’ bylines on the review, and then hide when they understandably came for his head.

Nearly twenty years after the advent of the graphical Web browser, we really shouldn’t be surprised that just about any idiot can become a film critic, and many do. (One of the many reasons why I very rarely go to movies any more comes from the number of Web-only critics, all crying dark tears over the demise of GeoCities, literally tackling me in the hopes of snagging “review copies” of entertainment magazines now dead for the last decade.) It’s remarkably easy to turn one of these reviewers into a classic Roger Ebert quote whore: imagine slogging away on reviews and commentary, only to get a studio publicist asking sweetly “Would you be interested in attending a preview of this new movie?” A few previews, a few freebies, a couple of buffet luncheons at nice hotels where you might actually see the star or the director as s/he’s passing through, and the rationalizations begin. Oh, you don’t want to downplay the hard work that cast, crew, and publicity department put into a movie, and you’ll give them a break when they put out a dog. Oh, every movie that’s completed should be celebrated. Heck, there’s nothing wrong with giving blurbs based on early impressions, weeks or even months before the film sees release; in extreme cases, to plagiarize others’ reviews because keeping up with current releases is impossible.

The real reason for keeping up the charade, though, comes down to one basic instinct: keeping up “access” to that magic world. It doesn’t even have to be renumeration in cash, freebies, or escorts: you’d be amazed at the number of alleged critics who’d shiv their grandmothers just to see a long-awaited film two weeks before everyone else. (Or, in the case of one of the Dallas critics mentioned above, pitching a fit about not being invited to a super-special advance preview of a big film a decade ago, and namedropping that a family member was an employee at the publisher of the source novel.)

And how does this connect to horticulture? Only that with the increase in number and range of gardening and horticulture blogs, the glamour might not be as intense as with movies or television, but the temptation is still there to let one slide so as to keep up getting gifts in the mail. Most of these blog writers have never been within a time zone of a newspaper ombudsman, who lays down the law of what is acceptable and not acceptable in renumeration and compensation by and from reviewers. (That, of course, implies that many newspapers or magazines even have ombudsmen any more, as little things such as ethics and morality tend to get in the way of kissing up to big advertisers and friends of the editor.) It’s not that they deliberately decide “Hey, I’m going to grunt out blurbs for items or events I’ve never seen.” You can’t expect bloggers to stick with publication ethics rules when they don’t even know what those rules are. (Poor Todd Camp can appreciate that: he still doesn’t have full use of his feet after he and I attended one of my first critic’s preview screenings in 1989. I completely forgot that I was there as a member of the press, and when the publicists started a scavenger hunt contest for signed press stills, my having a roll of dental floss meant that I hit him and every other critic between me and the aisle like a charging indricothere. I very nearly crippled a good friend and compatriot solely for a Ghostbusters 2 publicity still: how embarrassing is that?)

Never let it be said that I don’t try to help. The folks at eFilmCritic just put out their list of the most obvious quote whores in film criticism in 2011, and I want you to study this list. Compare the names on this list to the big banner headlines on movie posters and TV ads, particularly for the films that made your eyes bleed. Note why they’re referred charitably as “benevolent blurbsters,” instead of merely enjoying films you detested and vice versa. Consider that it’s not enough to say that you enjoyed a new book or spotted a noteworthy tool at a garden show, but that you have to explain why other people should spend actual money on it. Most importantly, consider that if you’re giving out reviews solely so the flow of new swag continues, maybe you might want to quit doing reviews.

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