I completely agree with Paul, here–it’s a great way to keep abreast of what’s going on in the field (I end up teaching in my fiction workshop books that I haven’t read yet but have heard good things about for similar reasons, though very occasionally that ends up being disastrous).
I’d also add that there’s a selfish reason (besides the paycheck) for some of the stuff I review, particularly stuff I review that’s taking a different tack from the current trends in fiction: discussing, praising and calling attention to good work like that helps to open a space for certain kinds of writing and can help shift the perception of what good writing is slightly in a way that I hope can open up a different understanding of my own work. Of course it’s a long and incomplete and frustrating process with no guarantee of success, but it still strikes me as very worthwhile to praise, say, Lutz Bassmann’s very odd We Monks & Soldiers (to mention a book I’ve just read and which I think is terrific) if it’ll bring attention to the book and shift a few readers’ understanding of what a certain kind of fiction can do.
Gary K. Wolfe
I suspect my attitude toward reviewing has changed over time, and I described some of this in the introductions to my three reviews collections, but in general I agree with Brian and Paul that it’s an excellent way to keep up with changes and new writers in the field–in fact, it almost forces you to do so. I remember that was one of the arguments Charles Brown used (over 20 years ago!) when he talked me into reviewing for Locus. I’d been feeling at the time that my reading in SF had become desultory at best, and Charles argued this was a good way to bring some order to it. (Of course, initially that meant reviewing the books that he wanted to talk about, but that changed.)
I also agree with Ellen and Kathy that the role of a critic is not necessarily Interceptor of Bad Books, though some people seem to do that quite well. Of course, if you’re assigned a particular book by a particular publication and then decide not to review it, you may risk losing further assignments, and sometimes the book may be a genuine stinker. I suppose one of the advantages of a monthly column is greater freedom to choose, so if a book seems to be going nowhere–unless it’s a high-profile book that simply needs to be covered–I’m always aware of a waiting pile of other, potentially rewarding books. It may be fun to write the occasional killer review, but I’m aware that for every mediocre or inept book I’m spending my time on, there’s likely a good book that I’m not bringing to the attention of readers. In general, I don’t much like the categorization of reviews into killers or raves, or even thumbs-up thumbs-down; the reviews I most enjoy reading and writing tend to be more mixed.
Consistently, the most rewarding aspect of reviewing has been the occasional real discovery–coming across a book (or manuscript or ARC) about which you have absolutely no preconceptions or context, and having to make some sort of critical judgment in a complete vacuum. Two fairly recent examples were Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice, from an author I’d previously known only from one or two stories, and Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, which came as an ARC with no blurbs, no description, no cover artwork, an author I’d never heard of–only the name of a publisher I respected. Both felt like finding gold, and trying to pass along that sense of discovery to other readers was exhilarating. It’s also happened a couple of times this year, but those reviews haven’t appeared yet.
I started out reviewing for fun, for my own enjoyment, then moved on to reviewing for money, though I tried to keep the fun somewhere in the mix. But I did find, over the years, that earning a living by reviewing, or at least earning enough by reviewing to help pay a portion of what I needed to survive, was enough of a grind to slowly wear away a lot of the fun. Which is one reason I’m currently not reviewing. But the fun never entirely vanished. The fun of finding a new writer and bringing him or her to the attention of a wider audience. The fun of engaging on a critical and artistic level with the work of other writers and critics. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated Gene Wolfe’s work, for example, until I started to review it. The same with John Crowley and many, many others. I liked feeling that I was part of a lively conversation going on in the genre — and I tried to take the opportunity to broaden and deepen my familiarity with the genre’s past and present. A lot of writers came to me that I might not otherwise have come to on my own quite so quickly: Karen Lord, K.J. Parker, N.K. Jemison, Robert V. S. Redick, Brian Evanson, and many more. At the same time, though primarily it was about my enjoyment, I did feel an obligation to try and give something back to the genre I love, so that my reviews were often not just about the books to hand but about where those books fit in the ever-shifting spaces of genre. I do miss that conversation now, I must admit — though the lack is more than made up for by my newly rediscovered freedom to read whatever the heck I want, when I want.
I’ve always enjoyed sharing the books I really love – that’s an aspect of reviewing I appreciate much more than the random slice of the industry doing regular assigned reviews can provide (although that’s certainly useful too). It’s tough to write a review about a book that is serviceable but just doesn’t excite you, though. The ones you love (or hate!) are infinitely more fun to write about.
For me the hardest book to review is the ‘just-OK’ book–not particularly bad at anything, not particularly excellent at anything. Just ‘meh.’ Trying to find 500-1000 words to write about one of those, without falling back on ‘people who like this sort of thing will find it to be the sort of thing they like’ can be a challenge.