Roundtable on Reviewing

Michael Dirda

I review for a number of reasons, some high-minded, some not (money). Bear in mind, too, that most of my reviewing is outside the field. In many ways, I review because I’ve never quite abandoned a youthful Faustian desire to read all the great books, to know something about every aspect of history, literature and culture. I think this sort of attitude may be indigenous to smart working-class kids.

In general, I try to avoid writing about the season’s “big” books, or those that will become best-sellers. preferring to spend my time and the newspaper or magazine’s space on titles that people might overlook. I implicitly encourage readers to look beyond the best-seller list, to recognize that terrific books exist in every genre, and that many of the best books of all, those that might speak to them with real power, are older or overlooked classics from the past.

In my younger days, I was much more attuned to new books, new authors, literary experiments. Nowadays, I prefer to write “rediscoveries” or to review biographies, largely because these permit me to discuss writers I’ve always meant to read and never quite gotten round to. These days, I feel time’s winged chariot drawing near and realize that if I’m ever going to read “South Wind” or “The Hill of Dreams” or “The Centaur” or “The Blind Owl” or Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, well, I’d better do it pretty soon. I think it was Thoreau who said, Read the best books first, lest you not have the chance to read them at all.

It still shocks me that so many younger people only know the 40 or 50 books and authors of the moment. I hope that my reviews/essays/reconsiderations lead them to try a work outside the fashionable moment. Sadly, I suspect that there are now a good many sf and fantasy fans who’ve never read City or Slan or Last and First Men or Titus Groan or Lud-in-the-Mist or even Lord Dunsany. Tolkien and Phil Dick may be the only “old” authors they bother with.

Sorry about that rant. But 30 years ago when I attended my first cons, I was always impressed by how widely read sf fans were in their canon. That’s not so true any more. But maybe I’m wrong about that.

Despite my currently retrospective bent, I still manage to write about a lot of new books. It’s essential to be connected with the literature of one’s own time. (Reading Sartre’s What Is Literature? was an important milestone in my life.) I file weekly reviews for The Washington Post and write pretty frequently for half a dozen other places, and in all of them I try to treat the all kinds of books as simply works an intelligent person might want, should want to read. If you enjoy good writing and good storytelling, you really should read Paolo Bacigalupi, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Maureen McHugh, Gene Wolfe, John Crowley, Guy Gavriel Kay, and a dozen others fantasy and sf writers. Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin and Jonathan Lethem and Terry Pratchett are terrific, but they certainly aren’t the only terrific writers in contemporary fantasy and sf.

Happily, many of the prejudices against “genre” have broken down in the past decade and more and more people do in fact ignore the old boundaries. Happily, too, sf is blessed with wonderful reviewers–people who are fun to read and know their stuff and–as wasn’t always the case– avoid announcing that every other new novel is the greatest thing since The Time Machine. Gary W. is the best regular reviewer in sf. (Clute is, as in many ways, a special case.) Stefan D and Paul Di Fi possess an appetite for new work, and an ability to write well about it, that is the envy of us lesser mortals–and they build on a knowledge of horror and science fiction that is as broad as it is profound. I’d read any essay or review that Darrell S, Liz Hand, Graham Sleight, Ellen D., Gardner D. or David Pringle write. And there are doubtless others I should be mentioning.

Enough rambling. The early comments on this thread by Marie seem to me an excellent taxonomy of the varieties of literary response.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I agree with Michael’s “rant” (Michael, you’re a very gentle ranter [which would be a great title for a column]) about how under-read a lot of younger readers are–though I suspect that, since I’m getting older, that’s a steadily enlarging chip I will be carrying on my shoulder. Part of why I review is to establish a historical context for contemporary fiction, or show how it extends a tradition. In several of my recent reviews, I’ve evoked the names and fiction of Machen, Blackwood, Lovecraft, M.R. James, and other classic weird fiction writers, in part to show that some contemporary writers are finding interesting ways to explore ideas from their fiction in ways that speak to contemporary experience. In doing so, I hope to nudge readers who might not be familiar with the classic fiction in that direction.

As a reviewer, I prefer to point out the good books (which, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I always find harder to write about than the bad books), but I have no qualms about pointing out bad books. When I first started reviewing in the horror field, I was appalled at how overwhelmingly positive the review pages were in genre magazines. The 20 or 30 paperback originals published in the genre that month all seemed to merit gushing praise, Sturgeon’s law notwithstanding. It’s not the best mission to have, but I guess part of why I became a regular reviewer was to try and re-set the balance.

Brian Evenson

I agree with Stefan that good books are somehow harder to review than bad ones (at least for me), or at least harder to review well and substantively. There are a lot of bad positive reviews out there. Then again, I’ve always admired the thoughtful and incisive bad review that manages to express the reviewer’s position but still makes me realize that in fact this is a book that I’d probably like and should at least try. Don’t see those reviews very often, but you do see them. On the other side, I hate good reviews that read like puff pieces–though I can often tell from those too that I’m not likely to like the book that’s being inordinately praised.

I think as a reader I’ve come to trust several reviewers (many of whom are participating in this forum), partly because I more often than not agree with their likes and dislikes, partly because I like the way they context a book, partly because they present it in a way that makes me know whether I personally will like it or not regardless of what they think, and partly because I think they’re a pleasure to read. I do think good reviewing is an art, and the reviewers I like most understand this.

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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