Criticism as Attacks or as Reviews?

On a Tarot forum where I’ve reviewed a number of decks (the links are to the right), a discussion started about criticising decks – how much criticism and in what tone is acceptable, and where that turns into personal abuse.

This is an interesting point, and one that deserves being turned over carefully in my hands after I’ve had a cup of tea. However, in the absence of anyone else in the house to make me tea, and being unwilling to leave my desk …

Vitally involved in that discussion was Ciro Marchetti, a Tarot artist who once gave me a freely given gift of his Tarot of Dreams. This was a gift, no a review-copy so I had no obligation to do so, but I wanted to review it anyway. The vast majority of reviews I’ve written have been on decks I purchased myself rather than review-copies – it’s a valid way of getting my opinions out there into the public arena so that people can keep them in mind when choosing new decks. I’ve even reviewed decks which have been out of print for some time and are unlikely to be reprinted at any stage – decks move around on the second-hand market, and I find reviews of products interesting anyway, even when I don’t wish to buy immediately.

I don’t interpret “criticism” at all as picking a deck to pieces – I interpret it as pretty-much literary and artistic criticism, what happens when – say – a *reviewer* gets a hold of a product.  I don’t believe it is a reviewer’s job to unconditionally praise a deck (or book, or performance, or CD or whatever) to the skies, no matter how much the reviewer likes it. The publisher employs people to praise their products, generally. No, a reviewer’s job is to give the potentially-buying-public a fair and balanced view of the product, its style, whether or not it does its job, whether or not it is pleasing, where its strengths are (even if you don’t like it, it’s going to have strengths), and where its weaknesses are (again, even if you love it passionately, it will have weaknesses here and there). As a reviewer, you are not on the author’s team, and you are not the author’s enemy, either. You are on the potential buyer’s team – you are their scout, their advance-party to find out if they should progress to purchase or not, given their tastes and interests.

As a user rather than a reviewer, I don’t mind having a few lame-ducks in my collection. I have many decks that have been around for considerable time – in some cases centuries, and are still (or again) in-print, indicating a vital staying-power. I have one or two decks that are awful, which I honestly don’t mind having – aside from anything else, they make my other decks look better, and they are also a documentary of my Tarotical development, where I was in my mental and aesthetic journey when I bought them. I don’t hate them for being awful – I just don’t use them all that often, and hardly ever show them off <grin>.

I also have a larger number of decks which are artistically competent, but don’t seem to hold together very strongly as noble Tarot decks, some of which were obviously designed to cash in or by people whose own Tarot-knowledge was even further from complete than mine is, or just by people with poor artistic imagination. I don’t resent them, either.

And I don’t get angry at people for creating a “substandard” deck. They create what they need to create, what they’re driven to create, what they are capable of creating. They honestly do their best, and they may well do something else in a few years which is better. You can’t crush someone’s spirit for doing their best.

You know, I have time and fondness for one-hit wonders, for fickle decks, for decks that won’t end up stacking up through time. They are someone else’s view on the world. Everyone is entitled to their time and their view.

When I criticise a deck, I would hope that I’d mostly be fair enough to choose to do it in the nature of literary criticism, not of personal attacks.

It’s interesting reading your *own* review, or critical assessment, of a deck that you were only just getting to know when you wrote it, with some time and hindsight behind it.  I just re-read one of my reviews, and there may be comments that I’d add to it now, but in general I don’t think my opinions have changed. What I said I liked about the deck is still pretty-well true. What I said I disliked about the deck also still tends to jar a little even now.

I’m interested in how deck criticism works. In my last paragraph or two, I usually make some statements about the kinds of people I think might be drawn to the deck, and the kinds of people I think might dislike it, and in the nature of being even-handed in the review, I make no mention of which one of those groups I feel that I fall into. My whole critique of the deck is constructed so that people would get a fair idea of what I saw as its plusses and its minuses, so that they could make informed decisions about whether it would be worthwhile from their own personal perspectives and considering their own tastes, to buy the deck or not.

And I’ve tried to do this with every deck I’ve reviewed. I’ve even reviewed two decks that I personally find quite irritating and don’t choose to use unless I’m teasing myself or unless someone looks at my collection list and requests them, but hopefully I’ve identified the strengths of both these decks as well as what I didn’t like about them, and again have pointed to how other people might see them as useful or appealing because of x-y-z.

Deck designers *do* put a lot of themselves into a deck, but that doesn’t mean we should accept it uncritically as an automatic work of genius. And on the other hand, even the worst of decks have *something* about them that works, or that someone out there will like.

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8 Responses to Criticism as Attacks or as Reviews?

  1. Even if criticism do feel like pricks to decks designers at times but it is also a kind of motivation so that they can design something more to the liking of buyers in their future creation. As long as the criticism isn’t personal,unhealthy or spiteful, I think the designers will gladly receive them with an open heart. Before I started on tarot, I’d spun around immediately reacting to criticism(be it healthy ones or unhealthy ones) but through the years, I’ve learned that tarot appears to have many faces and expressions through the minds of the designers and the hands of the artists. Most of all, spending time with different decks and at different times opened me up to criticism as a motivation of improving myself to a better me instead. Nothing too much is considered good and nothing too little is considered bad. All we need is an accepting heart, isn’t it?

  2. Alec Satin says:

    Hi Nisaba,

    This (or a related) discussion carried over onto Facebook, where I became aware of it this week. There is criticism intended to shed “light” or illuminate, and there is criticism intended for other purposes. This latter often takes the form of personal attack, and can get ugly.

    Enlightening criticism is exactly as you describe in your post. “A reviewer’s job is to give the potentially-buying-public a fair and balanced view of the product, its style, whether or not it does its job, whether or not it is pleasing, where its strengths are (even if you don’t like it…), and where its weaknesses are…As a reviewer, you are not on the author’s team, and you are not the author’s enemy, either. You are on the potential buyer’s team – you are their scout, their advance-party to find out if they should progress to purchase or not, given their tastes and interests.

    It’s usually easy to tell which is which. If you come away from reading what someone has written feeling that your thought process has opened, the reviewer has been “enlightening”. If you come away hating someone or something, you’ve been “endarkened”.


  3. Quiet says:

    The purpose of criticism is important. ‘Criticism’ may be different from ‘Reviewing’.

    If you are reviewing a deck or a book for a public internet site, then your approach may be quite different from comments you make on a discussion board. The latter tend to be more off the cuff and often not as well expressed or thought through as a formal review.

    In my opinion, reviews can serve a broader view than ‘criticism’ ( a pejorative word if ever their was one! )

    And if a person submits a work for public discussion they have to expect what they get. There will always mixed reactions.

    The public formal reviews on ATF are generally fairly well done and thoughtful I go to them now when I am considering a new deck whereas once I would only go to ‘Tarot Passages’.

    The comments in the discussion forum are generally not all that helpful because they are too superficial usually, often just an off the cuff response.

    Obviously people on forums become friends and can develop a shorthand with each other and perhaps it is a little difficult to assess the quality of the views all the time.

    I read that discussion on ATF to which you refer and thought it was more about forum behaviour than anything else. As such it was of limited interest to someone wanting to know something about an artist or a deck.

    • nisaba000 says:

      I think it was, too, but it opened up a stream of thought that I wished to explore. And I don’t see why personal criticism and literary criticism should remain in splendid isolation: it would be beneficial, perhaps, if people “having a go” at someone were a little more civilised about it, whilst reviewers of any kind of media were also aware of the danger of regarding the task at hand as similar to personal attack.

      The whole thing really about, I think, the importance of thought.

  4. Quiet says:

    The stream of thought is an interesting one.

    The framework a reviewer uses is something I look for. I like to hear about the theme and structure of each deck and comments on the symbolism and the quality of the art work. How does the deck reflect the RWS, Thoth and Marseille types? What is the quality of the art and how are colours used? Of course there is room for personal values and bias in reviewing decks but I like the reviewer to be transparent about these.

    I’m also interested in any quirks or idiosyncrasies of the deck. Then I like to see scans so I can get a sense of all that as well.

    There are some reviewers on ATF or Tarot Passages that I look out for now because they generally include those elements, and they write well. I know that some of them are readers whom I respect so I am more likely to take notice but that is not essential.

    If a reviewer makes it clear what principles or standards s/he uses to review the deck it is harder for personalities and values to affect what is written. I think it is difficult for those things to be avoided in judgments but if the reviewer is honest about them I don’t mind.

    To be honest I have had quite difficult experiences with one deck designer and I just cannot use her decks. I actually gave away the decks that I had from her because the feeling was so strong. That feeling was as much about me and the times as her. As time passes, the personal association decreases and I can acknowledge her talent and her love of tarot. Thinking about this response to you, it occurred that I should actually review one of her decks as an aid to looking deeper than personal hurt.

    I have a small collection of 60 decks. Let me tell you a story of one.

    I love cat decks and was given a copy of ‘Tarot of the White Cats’. I love this deck but read comments from some ATF members about an apparent reference or symbol in the deck which to them indicated anti-semitism I had not noticed the symbol before but those comments gave pause for reflection. The critics of the deck were both respected tarotists of Jewish background. Unfortunately, comment from the artist couldn’t be obtained but the publisher showed some doubt as well although up to that point he had been quite unaware of the issue. I studied the deck in some detail and was able to put aside the ATF discussion for a whole lot of reasons which I won’t list in entirety now. People see what they see, and one has to make up one’s own mind about what matters. There are many irreverent views about the origins of the Marseille type but one can never really know. Once a deck is out in the ether, any meaning can be possible. The meanings for me come from a whole variety of experience and knowledge.

    I tend not to take too much notice of ATF discussion threads now (but there are other parts of the site that are really valuable).

    It was partly this experience which made me think again about the reasons I obtain decks so it was ultimately an experience with a good outcome. My own beliefs and understanding have changed with time . I see depths in some decks that were hitherto hidden or unreachable.

    I think your reviews are good, Nisaba.

  5. Quiet says:

    I’m posting this so that I can be notified of any reply via email!

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