Roundtable on Reviewing

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Good topic! I expect all of the answers we will be reading to your question to be containable within parameters only slightly more limited than the boundaries of the material universe.

As to why I review (and I speak very personally)–as a member of a community of steeped in fantastica, I like to steer readers in that community to books that I think are worth their while, and to deflect them from books that they might regret wasting time and money on. I consider any review I write to be the start of a conversation or dialogue that I hope will provoke a response from other readers. Sometimes, feedback from the rest of the community on a review I’ve written has helped me to see things in the work under review that I overlooked, and to change my opinion about it. (Of course, sometimes those responses have made me feel the lone voice in the wilderness, crying out unheard on the work’s merits or demerits . . . )

When I read a book or see a movie, I respond to it on both an intellectual and emotional level (and probably many other levels I’m unaware of). The act of writing a review helps me to synthesize those two responses, articulate my thoughts on it, and explain it to myself. There are occasions where I can’t do that–and that makes me go back and reassess the work.

Marie Brennan

I wrote a post about this a while back, so I’ll try to give the condensed version here.

I find it helpful to group these things into four categories: responses, reviews, criticism, and critique. A lot of the hand-wringing I see about the “state of reviewing today” seems, at least to my eye, like it arises from a confusion between the categories, expecting a given work to do one thing when it’s trying to do another.

To start at the far end: critique is what a writer’s group or workshop does. Criticism, on the other hand, is academic writing and other things in that vein, and it aims to dissect the ideas and put the story in the context of other stories out there. Critique mostly doesn’t happen publicly, but sometimes criticism does, and while it can help answer the question of “will I like this book?,” that isn’t what it’s there for.

“Will I like this book?” is the question that a review seeks to answer. Its intended audience is the potential reader, who wants to know a) what the book does, and b) whether it does those things well. To that end, it will ideally talk about the premise of the plot (but not the whole plot, with spoilers), who the major characters are, whether the prose is any good or the setting at all interesting, etc.

I think we end up with hand-wringing because the internet has fostered the rise of a fourth category, which is the response. This is a reader posting about whether they liked the book, often to an audience of other people who have likewise read it already. They may gush about the character they loved or the plot twist they didn’t see coming or how they think this author is going downhill and their work isn’t really worth buying anymore, though maybe it’s still worth checking out from the library. But a response doesn’t necessarily concern itself with context, the way a review does. It’s about one person’s reaction, not helping other people predict what their own reaction might be.

For my own part, I see absolutely nothing wrong with responses. I think it’s awesome that blogging and social media have made it easy for people to converse about the books they’ve read, recording their feelings for posterity and public consumption. I don’t feel the need to bag on them for “dragging down” the art of reviewing, the way I have seen some people do. Certainly the “reviews” of books on sites like Amazon range from thoughtful pieces that serve the actual function of a review, to responses that don’t communicate much more than the reader’s squee or disdain, to things that miss the mark entirely (like giving a novel a one-star review because the used-book seller the reader bought it from sent them a copy with a torn cover, and it was late to boot). I wish we could find a better mechanism than up-voting and down-voting to separate those things, so that we don’t have to wade through the chaff to find the wheat. But even if newspapers don’t have a dedicated book review section anymore, I think the art is alive and well, and still serving its intended purpose.

–Marie, who sort of failed to be very condensed there

Kathleen Ann Goonan

Lately I’ve been asked to do a fair number of reviews for academic journals, and, as a professor, I feel as if it is a part of my job to accept these requests. I enjoy writing them because to do so I usually read the entire oeuvre of the author, if humanly possible, in order to write about their present novel with greater awareness.

I have always consumed reviews with great hunger. I have years/stacks of Washington Post Book Worlds (um, yes, I’m a hoarder in that respect), which I began reading as soon as it sprang into existence in 1972. Wherever I lived, I made sure to get a Sunday Washington Post (either by mail or finding out, as in Honolulu, which bookstore carried it, usually the following Wednesday) and still enjoy reading them not only for the level of writing in the individual reviews–Paul was a frequent contributor–but because, somewhat sadly, if I run across a review of a ten-year-old novel I would like to read I can now get it for a penny plus shipping. I like to read reviews of books that I have already read; in that way I learn who I can trust as a reviewer and gain greater insight about a particular title. In a way, writing reviews was like listening to wolves howl and then raising my own voice in concert.

I began writing reviews, years ago, for the SF Eye and then for newspapers and other paying markets in order to earn money. It was ideal in that I was paid to read books I wanted to read anyway–pretty much a win/win situation. I simply did not review books that I didn’t like. There are many fine reviewers who can write negative reviews with elan; it seems a waste of time for me to read a book that I don’t enjoy and also spend time writing about the ways in which I think it is not good. Life is too short.

I also liked the idea of free books, but that can become a real March of the Dancing Brooms.

Cecelia Holland

I write reviews (for the historical novel society) because I get free books in my genre and I can keep up with what’s out there. The reviews are short, 200-300 words, and it’s an interesting exercise to distill something into that small a space. Every once in a while I run into a sensational book I wouldn’t have read otherwise. so I guess it’s all for me, selfish creature that I am.

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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