Monday, 13 January 2014

How To Do a Review

From The Cocoa Exchange
Txblush PMed me a little while back, and in the most flattering accents, asked me how I go about writing reviews of the kind I recently dashed off about the FAWC3 stories. Well, I am keen for more people than just me to write reviews on my blog Feminist Erotica. I do write in a particular way on there, so I thought I better do a How To guide. 

I made the Feminist Erotica review blog chocolate-coloured. Can you ever have too much chocolate? Probably a good way to start doing criticism of erotica is to buy a really good box of chocolates - the kind that will never make you feel sick no matter how many you eat. Put one in your mouth. Consider the flavour. The texture. The way it makes tingly feelings go down your ... well, consider it. Then write it down. If you have finished the box of chocolates, read on ...

From the portfolio of Ajamu
I probably ought to say first that I have had a long training as a cultural critic. I started as an undergrad, on a degree in English Literature. I was very bad at it! mainly because I had not been well enough taught in my state school education to cope at the super duper posh university I went to, which was geared to over-educated private school kids. I moved on to other things, years later finally doing my PhD. (I do use my PhD knowledge of identity politics and postmodern philosophy in writing about erotica.) I began writing reviews in the gay press about black gay artists. They were desperate for critical feedback and very grateful, and I discovered I was good at it after all. 

As with the black gay and lesbian artists, there are many writers of erotic short stories, and many readers, but little critical feedback on where the art of writing about sex might go. My blog is not exactly designed to provide that, it happens as a nice by-product.

Review or Critique?
When asked to provide a critical review, people often latch onto the word critical in its popular meaning. They think this means they ought to lay into the piece of work they are criticising and tell everyone all the things that are wrong with it, and how brilliantly better they would have done it if they were not busy doing more important things. 

A critical review is a look-over of a piece of work which highlights both the good and the bad. It explores what the artist succeeded in producing, how they achieved that, and possibly areas where they might have done better. It also places the piece of work in context. That might mean the context of a body of similar work, or work written at the same time, or work which deals with the same theme. A critical review will compare the art work to other art works, and perhaps to real life events going on, in a way which brings out understanding of art, life and the universe. Maybe, LOL.

Get it from
Abe Books
If you want to figure out how to critique fine art or writing, you may find it helpful to do a course of some kind in art appreciation or literature. You can also read books like Gombrich’s The Story of Art, Linda Nochlin’s Women, Art and Power or something by Terry Eagleton, e.g. Marxism and Literary Criticism. (I like Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis too.) Stuff in cultural studies is good. The Cultural Studies Reader provides a nice sample of papers by lots of different writers. 

You do not need to do these things to have fun writing reviews, dahlinks. Just give it a pop. This additional reading about how to do critique is additional fun, if you are v. keen to develop your critical skills. 

Where Do I Start?
Well, I should start with something you like. On Feminist Erotica, my aim is to encourage people to read good fun erotica so I write enthusiastically about stuff that I think is a turn-on. I say: Whoopdidoo! This is a hot one, and talk a li’l bit about its specific hotness, e.g., "this is a science fiction special with knobs on. When Barbarella gets ‘punished’ in the Excessive Machine, all sorts of unexpected explosions take place."

I write in my particular voice, which is one with a lot of over the top enthusiasm, and in which I treat the innuendo less as a delicate tool and more as a blunt instrument. As with writing stories, when writing reviews you should do this in your own voice and style, which you will find develops as you do more reviews. 

I try not to give the game away. You do have to be careful not to put spoilers into your review, just give people a hint of what the story is about so they get an inkling whether it is their brand of feather tickler or do they want to go and cruise the one about the paranormal pamper parlour instead. 

Tools and Toys - Technical tips
I sometimes also write about the technicalities of the story. I say if an author has done something well, or – more rarely – if there is an area they could improve on. (As a rule, stories which need a lot of work on them don’t get a review on my site, I drop the author a PM and let them know I read it and what I thought could do with re-writing.) Areas I might comment on include: 
There should be strong, realistic 
female characters with strong appeal. 
And breasts. I mean brains. 
(Image from Wikipedia.)
Characterisation (especially if this included strong likeable women characters)
Dialogue (whether it was sparkling and witty, and ways in which it contributed to the characterisation or action in the story)
Point of View, or PoV (was there a lot of distracting switching about between different peoples' points of view? Could the story have been better told if one section had been from the hero's PoV, rather than all of it being from the heroine's?) 
Pace (did the story hum along, did it drag a bit, was the languid pace enjoyably appropriate?)
Background description (was the scene set so I could imagine myself there, was there too much scene-setting?) 
Figurative Language, as in: 
Imagery (some good words to flash around when talking about imagery are: simile, metaphor).
Word-play (things like alliteration or onomatopoeia ... excuse me, I am just going to lie down and say onomatopoeia to myself again slowly .... You can get some fun specialist things of this kind going, like the Welsh cyng hanedd, although TBH, these usually distract from the flow of the story so when they pop up I sometimes have to make a comment about fine writing (see below). 

From Blogpost reviewing 
Aeschylus's Agamemnon
Occasionally you get a good Classical writer; someone who has been influenced by traditions of writing like the Greek. Then you can find interesting structures to the story: tragic heroes who are brought down by the very quality which is most admirable in them, denouements which add a twist to the tale, catharsis. 

The start of the story is important and requires special consideration. Writers sometimes begin with some explanatory passage outlining background information. Better to get straight into the action so the reader is drawn into the story immediately, then offer the background information – possibly even do this as dialogue with another character.

Endings can often be abrupt in these erotica quickies; this is another area where you may be able to point to the need for some fine-tuning, or say how satisfied you felt - with the ending of the story, the way the ending was written! 

I notice these things which I often draw attention to:

Too much business – by this I mean when people are telling you something in the story instead of showing you.
Business: “Paige was a bright and lovely woman. She had recently been awarded an honorary degree at the University of Very Bright People. She was also shy and would become inarticulate around men. Particularly Ben....”
From Anhui Silk
Story: “Paige walked slowly across the room, her chestnut hair shimmering in the firelight, her curvaceous bosom and hips delineated by the Shantung silk gown she wore. Ben stood up immediately on seeing her. “Congratulations on the honorary degree,” he said huskily. “Oh uh ... thanks,” muttered Paige, lowering her eyes and fidgeting her hands awkwardly against the slippery silk of her dress. God! Why did she always have to be so gauche around men, and particularly around this man ...”
(I have no idea if ‘business’ is the right word for this. I just use it cuz it sounds good. If you are not sure, make it up. People will believe anything if you tell it to them with confidence.)

Fine writing. I am not too down on fine writing because authors need to try it out and see if it works. Sometimes, though, an author will come up with a really great metaphor or piece of writing, which doesn’t add to the story. It makes the reader go: “Oh what a fine piece of writing .... Now what was happening to the central character?” When it comes off, it is both beautifully done and depicts something additional in the story. Fine writing is a sort of authorial game, like an engineer making a little model of something fun on the side. It gets the creative juices going, but it often has to be cleaned out at the end, regrettably, if it doesn’t actually add anything to the story.

Other stuff 
As a postmodern thinker, I of course believe that sexuality is at the core of our beings. (This is a complicated thesis and I will explain it some other time if you are really keen to hear about it.) I am therefore particularly interested in stories which are overtly about sex and sexuality. What else emerges when sexuality is on top (er, as it were) instead of lurking under the covers ... I mean undercover? I find that many good erotic stories have another strong theme going on, frequently about humanity and the sorts of questions which humanist philosophers consider. I like to pick those themes out too and have a li’l chat about them, cuz I do love a good chat about humanism. You can find out about these things by reading philosophers like Michel Foucault and Judith Butler or Mary Wollstonecroft.

Is it real – or realistic?
A good piece of erotica has to be sexy. It doesn’t have to have sex in it (see Lusting for Dusting), or it might have lots and lots of different kinds of sex (see Wallpaper). It also has to be a good story. It has to encourage the reader to suspend disbelief. It doesn’t matter if the subject matter is realistic or not. Stories about werewolves, gods and goddesses, alien beings with many tentacles .... sorry, I was momentarily distracted. A good story just has to be believable during the time you are reading it, not realistic. Truth can often be stranger than fiction! Although not, one supposes, stranger than an alien being with many tentacles who might ...

Sorry, I was saying, people can tell true stories which their listeners can hardly believe. And authors frequently find that their readers get confused between the central character, the ‘I’ of their story and themselves. I used to set an exercise in which I asked students to discuss a poem about two gay men with AIDS/HIV. The students would invariably write as if the author was a white gay man with AIDS/HIV, when in fact she is Jackie Kay. I did this to get through to them that a persona in a poem or story is not the same as the author.

Feminist critique
In my reviews, I’m not just looking for a good story. I have no hesitation in making a moral judgement on the stories I’m reading. I look for stories which encourage young people to have confidence in themselves. It makes me feel kinda sad when I hear an eight-year old say: “I think I am too fat, I must go on a diet.”

The Black Widow. From 
Lego Superheroes wiki.
OK, acksherly it makes me froth at the mouth and get a bit snarly, LOL. Do not get in my way if I have been dealing with some tots who are already being crammed into trainer bras instead of being allowed to play with Lego, grrrrrrr!!!!

Anyway, I look out for and comment favourably on stories in which women are liked for their feisty and intellectually challenging characters rather than for being a bag of bones. I will give a boost to stories and shows with BBWs and Amazonian sporty types, short women, tall women, women in glasses (unfortunately no longer regarded as not sexy, as I have discovered now that I have at last got reading glasses, gah – No I will not read you a story while peering over the top of my glasses at you! these glasses are not sex toys, they are for postmodern analysis of race politics in the postcolonial context of the devolved nation state).

Such stories can be found in unexpected places. I am particularly fond of stories about feisty women written by men who do not normally think of themselves as feminists. I like to point to the work of TXRad and Peter Morgan, and say: “See gurrlzzz, those are men who are fucking MEN! And they do not like some wet-behind-the-ears sophomore type. They like a woman who knows her mind. (And has a mind to know, BTW. So you need not try to hide that you are an intelligent type and think ‘geeky girls’ are cute but not acksherly sexy, cuz men can find it very sexy indeed to be engaged in witty uh ... dialogue by someone with a bit of imagination.” (Wink).)

In the course of my research I heard that boyzzzz these days (I do mean boyzzz – lads of about 13), think it is very cool to bully some young girl into taking a picture of her boobs and sending it to them. They like to show their mates, and say: “See! I have got 20 pix of girls’ boobs on my phone.” And the poor girl has to deny she was ever so stupid as to be taken in by a line like: “If you loved me you would photograph your boobs and send me the pic.”

What I like about Peter Morgan’s blog is that he writes about women with respect and adoration. He would not dream of harassing anyone for pix of themselves – I know this cuz we have been in communication for some time; I reviewed a story of his way back when, and he has never even hinted about wishing for any pictorial representation of the MILF from Stepford. (Good job too, she adds hurriedly. Remember that I am an ex-rugby player with mommy fat. Yah, I was a hooker (wink) <snerk>.) In fact, he is besieged by lovely ladies inquiring if he would like to photograph considerably more than their boobs, and put the pix up - with suitable blanking out of eyes which might identify them – on his blog.

I guess that does not sound much like traditional feminism, and blokes like Peter and TX are a bit bemused when I say, "hey guys, can I review you on my feminist site," but I think they are a Good Thing cuz they have R.E.S.P.E.C.T. I think they are good role models, since they show that if you treat a lady with respect you may end up with a lot more than 20 pix of boobs you acksherly downloaded off the internet and are pretending were given to you by girls you know.

Tasty pair of handpainted 
maracas, available from DJMusic.
So when I write a review for my blog, I do pick these things out for the readers. I am aiming my blog at the younger person, who might need confidence-boosting, although I know it gets read by lots of experienced people. I say: “Oh here is a story about a woman who is fortunately not shy because if she had been, the love of her life would have got away from her. Next time you like the look of a bloke, I should go and tell him so. It will make a nice story if when you are both silver-haired and sitting chatting in your rocking-chairs, you realise you could have spent all your lives together instead of being alone. But it will make a much nicer life if you just say: “How about it?” and shake his maracas.”

There we are then. That is how I write reviews. I am very willing to have reviews written in other ways, s'long as they are about stories which subscribe to the rules of the blog. Those are v. simple. Condoms for penetrative; and people treated with respect. That would be it in a nutshell.

Mmm ... nuts .... 

Er, anyway. Do contact me if you are willing to review a good piece of smut ... I mean fine writing which celebrates getting down and dirty in a properly pure form.


  1. You're a teacher? Your punctuation is pretty bad and your grammar is iffy. No wonder kids are leaving school functionally illiterate.