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Positive Feedback ISSUE 1
june/july 2002


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Auroville 3
by Srajan Ebaen

Reviewing the reviewers

Recently, a long-time manufacturer and I exchanged a few e-mail riffs. We improvised like jazz cats on diverse tangents, circling ‘round and ‘round the central motif—audio—and my recently-launched ‘zine. This dictatorial venture, with myself as main writer, editor, and publisher, is accountable exclusively to the muse and my own questionable judgment. With what strange, new, odd-order harmonies could one distort the same old reviewing song from an unconventional perspective? My new pen pal brought up a reviewer rating system.

Crashing cymbals blasted through my upstairs cobwebs, the rim shot just about dislocating a dental filling with its transient crispness. Rate reviewers? He didn’t outright suggest that I should swallow my foot and bite down hard. The idea was more or less hinted at, but I could see myself choking on some dusty boot leather if I followed through. Did he really think I was nuts enough to stick my head out while the sharks were circling? Rate reviewers! Sign my own death warrant?

Then I thought about it more. After all, he was right, you know? There should be such a rating system, preferably with an 800 number and attached menu–"If you know the name of the party under investigation, please enter the first three letters of the first name. If you’d like to file a complaint after hearing the rating, press pound. Your call will be routed to the next available interrogator. Please wait for the Inquisition to commence…"

If only one could avoid the mudslinging and accusatory agitation that the anonymity and freedom-of-speech policy of a certain website occasionally gives rise to. Could such a prickly beast be fashioned to serve as a valuable and kind-hearted feedback loop for the writers to learn more about their audience? Who is deemed outstanding, and why? How are others felt wanting? Is there an overall trend or pattern that ties popularity to distinct qualities? How can a writer broaden his appeal? Lamentably, human nature is such that even sincerely delivered and well-meaning criticism is misread for finger pointing.

Then an old proverb knocked on my cortex like a long-gone friend. I forget the details, but not the overall admonition: Do not keep pouring concrete into a hollowed-out tree doomed to die. Instead, plant a new seedling and water it well. What’s implied, of course, is that attention is a powerful force. Its solar energy feeds weeds and roses alike. Turn it away from the weeds and they’ll shrink of starvation. Focus it on the roses instead. This walks a non-violent yet effective path of deliberate action. It avoids granting time, energy, and effort to the subject one wants erased or at least removed from one’s life. It’s a path that extends a live-and-let-live invitation by monitoring our habitual addiction to negatives—like flies stick to shite and pesky insects burn on light bulbs. The extent to which negatives impact us is readily managed, and it doesn’t automatically (or even necessarily) mean eliminating the adversary. It simply means to focus elsewhere. After all, the apparent offender might perform a vitally important service for others that we’re merely too dense to comprehend. Who are we to render high and mighty judgment?

Shrewd words to live by if applied with intelligence. Ignoring a shark doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll ignore you. But as I’m told, audio isn’t a life-threatening disease, it just seems that way. I could now begin to think of the reviewers I read, and why.

Sam Tellig

The master of efficiency. Saying more with less. More there there. I’d read him even if it weren’t about audio–which it often isn’t. His writing is conversational, witty, self-depreciative and anecdotal. It’s easy, yet substantial. He’s opinionated and unafraid to take a stand. He screws up on occasion and delights in it. He championed low-power SETs when the official party line decried them as tone controls. He condones tone controls to risk public persecution. He thinks that price matters.

You can agree or disagree with Tellig because you always know where he’s coming from. That takes guts, clarity, and consistency. Also, he practices a life’s-too-short-to-waste-bad-ink policy. He goes after what interests him. If it doesn’t perform to his liking, he returns it to the manufacturer with a short explanatory note. I should know—it’s happened to me twice in my past life as a national sales manager.

Chip Stern

He’s got the passion, baby. His crib’s stacked to the rafters with music. He whacks a full-blown drum kit in a New York apartment with gusto and abandon. He calls various guitar amps his brides, and knows all their in and outs. He’s diligent in chasing the dragon’s tail of subtleties, and agonizes over finding the perfect expression to describe them. You just know he sweats the details. His music reviews and Stereophile quarter notes reveal colossal chops. The guy knows his music by heart. His deep love of the subject matter is as tangible as an addict’s need for the next fix.

Art Dudley

He’s got perspective. His writing remains lucidly transparent to life beyond audio. I read his Naim reviews even though Naim isn’t my game. I read them to find out what he’ll say, and how. At the end, I have a very clear idea of what it sounds like. He’s irreverent without being pompous like the late, likeable Gizmo. He knows what he likes, yet can give a fair, balanced account of something he doesn’t. His opener for the Shigaraki DAC write-up was an instant classic. "Consumer Alert!" What a brilliant piece of prose. No pretentiousness whatsoever. Clear, concise writing that’s fun, informative, and entertaining.

Ken Kessler

In person, he might be a bit full of himself, but it’s rather well deserved, so it slides off my oily mink coat. He’s profoundly good at what he does. I admire his sheer skill. He’s polished, suave, cosmopolitan, and well groomed. Like Tellig, he’s an economist, but he adds a certain elegance of prose. Unlike Tellig, he has a penchant for the expensive, yet is gifted with the requisite experience to weigh it properly. He’s prolific. When I think "working writer"–highly paid if audio paid decently–he’s the one that first comes to mind.

Jim Saxon

My virtual penman of choice. Humorous, off the charts, exploring unconventional angles conscientiously enforced by playing both sides of the retail/writer fence. He’s fun to read, and mostly unpredictable. He brings normal life back into audio, and expands the narrow focus that strangles so many others. Through him, non-converts can relate to the hobby and see themselves in it. Too bad he’s found a home. If etiquette didn’t forbid it, I’d send a grizzled headhunter down south to have him jump a moon or two.

And that’s it

There are others, of course, yet for the purposes of today’s rant, these five gents are all the stand-ins required to demonstrate why I read reviews. I know exactly what polishes my huckleberry. I read to be entertained, first, foremost, lastly, and in the middle. Then I read to learn about new stuff, to stay in touch with the greater goings-on in the industry. I read to come across tweaks and setup tricks I’ve never thought of. Sometimes, I simply enjoy the finely tuned, innate rhythm of a well-conceived cadence. It’s akin to admiring a perfect bow on a handcrafted sailboat, or the curve of a lover’s neck.

By inference, you can now extrapolate why I don’t read reviews. It’s not to agonize over what to buy, like a Consumer’s Guide devotee. What I despise most are paint-by-numbers reports, the kind with so little personality invested that the author’s credit at the end might as well be interchanged with that attached to hundreds of other reports. If I needed extra toilet paper, I’d have my computer print out last year’s tax return. What lubes my chain is the human-interest angle, the people behind the product, the personality behind the pen. I relish sudden detours and how cleverly and unexpectedly they return to the main highway. But what overwhelms all other characteristics is overt, enthused, contagious passion. Even repeated missteps on the part of such writers are forgiven, the very moment they occur. That’s why crimes of passion are judged less harshly than coldly premeditated ones, isn’t it? Let’s face the music—what kind of real or imaginary crime could an audio writer possibly be accused of, in earnest?

What does rattle my chain are outright technical violations of the language. For every Clive Barker or Norman Mailer, there are the rest of us also-rans. Still, we should be expected to master at least the bare bones of the craft–it leaves less to pick on. This is hardly ever an issue in print. Behind-the-scenes copy editors massage content to minimum spec before it ever sees the light of day. But on the web, it can run rampant indeed. True, professional copy editing is costly to procure, and a skill only few possess. Still, the onus remains on the publisher. If he can’t afford a proofreader and copy editor, he must practice selectivity. He can’t just accept content indiscriminately, to fill his server and puff up his chest. My five pfennig on the subject, and aimed sparingly.

But more importantly, how about you? Why do you read reviews? What’s important to you? Don’t tell just me or your lonesome, let your favorite writers know. I remember playing the clarinet, performing as well as competing. The differences were profound between playing before judges with their pencils sharpened and an audience handing me the keys with a "take me somewhere" gesture. And both differed yet again from playing with only myself for a witness.

Though more or less invisible, writers also perform for an audience. Like music, response is vital, be it applause or the friendly backstage dissing from one’s fellow band members. Think about your favorite reviewers. Why do you like them? Then let them know, in private or a public chat room. It’s part of the endlessly revolving circle of give and take that enriches everyone. It’s a lot more satisfying and nurturing than going after perceived weeds with a howitzer or poisoned gas. Should you subscribe to the latter path, don’t be surprised when the occasional live grenade of hissing anger flies back at you.

Trust me, it’s not for the money that audio writers spend countless hours laboring over words. Unless you’ve sat down and put pen to paper, repeatedly, consistently, with deadlines to meet and obligations to honor, you don’t quite appreciate the discipline involved. You may heartily disagree with a published effort. Still, much effort was involved just getting it there. Why shit on it? Pass on. Better yet, rise to the innate challenge. Prove to yourself and the world that you can do better. Hand in an unsolicited submission and see what happens. Just opening yourself up to private rejection or blunt criticism will serve as appetizer for the gut buster of public discord and verbal violence that’s repeatedly heaped on writers that truly deserve better.

When I huddled in front of my Indian teacher Osho many years ago, to receive my new and present name, which was to signify an attempted break from the past and serve as reminder to grow into a human being, he extrapolated the name’s meaning as a future road map to ponder and orient myself by. One of the things that stuck with me was his personal admonition of creativity as an active collaboration with the Great Spirit. To value one’s unique gift, one had to develop it. This required putting it out in the open for all to see, through an ongoing act of courage and confidence. He compared the effort of gestation, not only of a creative endeavor but the process of birthing oneself, to the casual knife slash that can forever ruin a masterpiece painting.

How much labor and time is involved to create? How little effort does it take to destroy or ridicule? Osho called such destroyers creatively impotent, needing to disguise their flaccid dicks through acts of sabotage and violence. Looking at a recent on-line brouhaha involving this topic, I’m inclined to agree. Now you can shoot me. Just aim poorly so I don’t lose my head. A small limb should do, no?

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