Roundtable on Reviewing

Karen Burnham

Reviews and reviewing. Why do we do it? Who is it for?

As always, this discussion is broken up into multiple pages for ease of reading. If you’d like to read it all on a single page, select ‘View All’ from the drop down menu above. If you don’t see the drop down menu, please click here.

Paul Di Filippo

I personally review for two reasons: 1) to keep abreast of the field and to keep my own fiction-writing skills sharp, by critically examining the skills of other writers; and 2) as a kind of pay-forward gesture in thanks for all the great fiction I’ve read which has shaped me. If I can alert other readers to good stuff, I’m spreading the joy. Oh, yeah, and a paycheck doesn’t hurt either!

Alan Beatts

Speaking as a bookseller (and being honest), the biggest reason I review is to sell books. Which is not to say that I’ll positively review a book that I don’t think is a worthwhile read. Given my position and audience, a positive review is a de facto recommendation and so I’m not going to suggest that people read something that I don’t think is good. By extension, I don’t write bad reviews because it’s not a productive use of my time.

A secondary reason that I write reviews are to draw attention to an author or work that I think is worthy of note and may be a bit under the radar.

Finally, I write reviews to draw attention to my business by adding content that interests people (I hope) to our blog and website.

In terms of what reviews do for me — again, being honest, they allow me to talk about books that I haven’t had time to read. There are so many books out there that it’s simply not possible for me to even read all the ones that get a lot of attention, let alone all the ones we stock. Reviews give me a fair idea of what a book is about and help me know what books to suggest to what customers. It’s certainly more accurate than publisher’s catalogs or, gods help me, back cover blurbs and flap-copy.

Ellen Datlow

All my reviewing (and my editing) is an attempt to impose my taste onto readers. Let me clarify.

I write mini-reviews in my Best Horror of the Year. Some of those go into my Cemetery Dance column: “The Last Ten Books I’ve Read.” When I started co-editing The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror I was way more negative about the books I thought were awful. After a few years, (and some negative feedback from those whose works I obviously disliked, the packager of that series (Jim Frenkel) asked me to reconsider what I was doing. His point was that 1) I was editing a “best” of the year so why include works I thought were awful in my limited space and 2) –note that this was before everything appeared and was saved on the web–that unlike a magazine, a book will last forever and that those negative reviews would be accessible for a very long time. I took his words to heart and don’t write killer reviews any more.

I’ve also come to realize that I enjoy pushing what I consider great work on readers rather than even mention the work I hope will die the death of obscurity.

Peter Straub

When I began to review books, I did so absolutely for the money, such as it was. Later, I did it for two reasons: to draw attention to a book or writer I loved and wished to support; and to continue to take part in the ongoing cultural discussion, to add my voice to the endless argument.

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4 thoughts on “Roundtable on Reviewing

  • November 13, 2012 at 2:46 am

    Spot on, Stefan: “Booksellers used to rely on PW, Kirkus, and other sources when making their decisions about whether to buy a book, and in what quantity–they now get all of the information they need, often as far in advance as is necessary to make their decision, from non-vetted reviews.”
    A new landscape I recently learned anew when I published BOWL OF HEAVEN with Larry Niven and found that some opinionaters follow Larry around on Amazon and elsewhere to trash any collaboration he does. Maybe they want him to go back to writing novels alone?
    In any case I’d never seen such a pile-on before; quite disquieting.
    Thanks for this discussion of an area more important than you may know. You reviewers are still the primary way those of taste navigate these chaotic days in literature. There’s a lot of great news in the liberation of genres, and a lot of turbulence too.

  • November 13, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    Greg: regarding bad reviews by readers on Amazon John Scalzi takes a certain amount of perverse joy in them:

    One thing I would ask of reviewers: if you liked the book … please for the love of Cthulhu have something quotable in your review! One of the things that drive publishers of all sizes are those positive reviews that have essentially nothing quotable in them.

  • November 17, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    There are reviewers on Amazon whose sole purpose is to be the “guy at the bottom”, and trash everything they encounter. And there are the right wing relgious who slam anything that smells of liberalism, and the opposit extreme also ferments too.

    I do reviews because often I find I have information to impart no one else has (like for my review of Simon’s DEAD NAMES.) or to pass on that I really enjoyed something. Or there are a few things that are really awful.

    You can just pick a classic title on Amazon and read the negative reviews. I suggest to go with CATCHER IN THE RYE on ON THE ROAD.

  • November 19, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Russian author Boris Strugatsky passed away yesterday. Boris and Arkady Strugatsky were among the most famous Russian writers in SF and all of literature. One of their novels could be considered among the best in the 20th Century.


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