Roundtable on Reviewing

Gardner Dozois

Like Paul, my own primary reason for reviewing is that it helps me keep up with all the reading I have to do for my Best of the Year series; without the spur of that monthly deadline, there’s probably stuff I’d fall behind on. The money’s really only a secondary motivation, as it’s not enough to really be cost-effective, considering the time I have to put into it; keeping up with what’s happening in the field, and keeping track of who the hot new writers are, is the primary motivation. I’m not really a critic, and I’m not erudite or astute enough to get deeply into abstract critical or academic theory. All I try to do is tell people whether I liked something or not, and give them some indication of the reasons why I liked it or didn’t like it. (If I really hate it, and I don’t have anything useful to convey by explaining why I do, I usually won’t review it at all; killer reviews are usually a waste of time, and leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.)

Fabio Fernandes

I stopped reviewing books a while ago (more or less a year) for reasons of my daily job, but I’m seriously considering getting back to it. As Paul, Brian and Gary already said better than me, it’s excellent to keep abreast of what’s going on in the field (I also teach fiction workshops, for the general public on an irregular basis and for my university students every other semester). In my case, it’s also pretty good because, also being a translator, I end up acting as a consultant for Brazilian publishers. Next Monday, for instance, I’m going to have a meeting with an fiction editor who just got this job in a big publishing house and wants to be in the loop regarding what’s going on in the Anglo-American science-fiction market. As a consultant, I write professional reviews for a fee, but I have the freedom to choose what to review (usually from a batch of books the publisher gets). As a reviewer for venues, such as SF Signal, I don’t make any money but it’s much more refreshing to me because I can write about WHATEVER floats my boat (and I can choose the books!). Like Gardner said, if I find a book I don’t like, I’d rather not review it – better not to give it any unnecessary mediaspace than to create polemics. I violated this personal rule a few times in the past, and the results were so awful I’m really willing to write only few and good reviews from now on. Avoid polemics, write well and grab the money and if there’s something to be gained from it. But, above all, have fun.

Russell Letson

I’ve reviewed all kinds of things over the years–software, computer gear, fax machines, even copiers–but books and music are the most interesting, perhaps because producing a buyer’s guide or functional evaluation is only part of the reviewer’s job in the arts. The rest is to locate a given item in a cultural space and to account for it–not only describe it but make some sense of it and of one reader’s responses. The buyer’s-guide angle (accurately described by Marie in her “Will I like this book?” paragraph) is unavoidable, but unless it is linked to some larger context it might as well be a thumbs-up/down glyph accompanied by a handful of bullet points. All that extra copy is there to account for the pleasures (or disappointments) of a book or move or CD, to compare them to other pleasures, maybe even to ask why they are pleasures at all. And in moving from mere description to analysis and context-setting, reviewing moves toward criticism, which is accounting-for writ large.

As for why I keep at it–I might say that the voices in my head are the books talking to each other (at least, I hope that’s what they are), and I get to eavesdrop and occasionally add a comment or two of my own. Or that reviewing gives me a chance to make sense of something that matters to me and to articulate ideas that I might not otherwise, unless encouraged by a deadline and the promise of a check to do so. Or that it’s fun, of a strenuous kind, to wrestle a headful of responses into a reasonably coherent form that fits within the limits of magazine column–the pleasure of exercising the craft, not much different from the various other kinds of journalism or scholarship or even PR copy I’ve found myself producing over the last four decades. And, of course, reading and listening to music are good-in-themselves in ways that putting a fax machine through its paces can’t match.

Paul Graham Raven

I read books to find out what I like, and I write reviews to find out why I like — as well as to be part of a conversation with other critical readers, part of an emergent and somewhat anarchic discourse. It’s not about being right, it’s about groping collectively toward an idea of what “right” might look like. It’s a game, but not a zero-sum game. (Though there are many who play it as if it were, of course.)

As for who reviews are for, I suspect every reviewer will have a slightly different answer, which is as it should be. Personally, mine are written for an audience who understand that one can criticise a book without implicitly bashing the author or its fanbase, who value a discussion of theme or style or context over a plot summary and an arbitrary rating out of five, and (most importantly of all) who realise that any book which can be “spoiled” by too deep a discussion of its contents before a first-hand reading probably wasn’t worth reading the first time round. (And as much as it can feel like that audience is vanishingly small and shrinking fast, I suspect that’s an illusion born of the increased ability of the uninformed to demonstrate their uninformed-ness to the world at large.)

Mark R. Kelly

As a reviewer, my intent was (past tense, since I wrote reviews for Locus Magazine from 1988 to 2001, but haven’t published reviews anywhere else since, aside from my blog) to explain why I thought a story was worth reading, without giving away too much. (I was mortified to hear Connie Willis, on a radio talk show in LA way back when, express consternation that my review of “The Last of the Winnebegos”, a story I adored, had given away too much. I kept that in mind forevermore.)

As a consumer of reviews, I have two observations.

First, I only skim reviews of books (or stories) I think I might want to read, but haven’t yet. I read the first paragraph, and glance carefully at the last paragraph; I only want to know if the reviewer thinks this is something I should read. On the other hand, for something I’ve never heard of and don’t have any opinion about beforehand, I will read a review more closely. This accepts the premise of many reviewers that their mission is to reveal to the world books their readers might not otherwise have ever heard of.

Second, I come back to reviews of books (and stories) I’ve read, after I’ve read them. The greatness of reviews by Gary Wolfe or John Clute is that they place books in context of past books, revealing aspects of the works (which their authors may or may have not intended), which a casual reader may not have noticed. That, for me, is the primary worthiness of reviews — to help a reader understand why a new book, or story, is worthy of attention, and ultimately what it means in the broad context of the past history of the genre.

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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