Roundtable on Reviewing

Russell Letson

By some happy happenstance, on Friday my wife sent me this link, which I only clicked on today:

Mendelsohn’s early reading of reviews as things-in-themselves echoes my own experience–I have always read magazines from the back forward because the back of the book is generally where the reviewers live.

He is also on the money about lots of other things.

Kathleen Ann Goonan

A wonderful piece. I particularly enjoyed his point that reviews are links to expert exploration of wildly various erudite worlds that we might not otherwise glimpse, jostled together in one publication, and that, as a kid, he read reviews for this reason: to learn about the world, and worlds.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Terrifically interesting piece, thanks Russell! He attaches more ‘value’ to a hatchet-job than I would, but my disagreement may resolves into semantics. The essay reads, as Russell implies, I think, like a backgrounder to some aspects of this discussion.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

It’s interesting that Mendelsohn talks about the “reviews” he grew up reading in the New Yorker in terms that we have been using to distinguish criticism from reviews in this discussion.

I didn’t realize that one of recent negative reviews that stirred up controversy was Ron Powers’ review of a Dale Peck. Owing to his reputation as a literary bag man, Peck may never get reviewed well by his peers again.

If you haven’t already done so, scroll down the list of other articles that sidebar this piece and read Richard Brody’s “Should Critics Be Cruel.”

Guy Gavriel Kay

The Brody piece ran a few weeks back. I had that partly in mind when I mentioned needing to distinguish (or try to) criticism from marketing … his response to a piece about benign Twitter norms, as if it were a piece about criticism triggered such thoughts, for me. Brody is good on the weirdness of a desire to take down someone’s work, and his starting point (that a film or book may have taken years to do, the review will take — days, a working week?) is strong, even if he may oversell it. “(“sick feeling of bad faith” “damned and doomed”?)

I have a question: why has this all so suddenly entered the zeitgeist as a discussion topic? Why this thread? These essays? At least five of them have been referenced in a day. What’s been tapped?

I am aware that this is a narrow, dark-end-of-the-bar corner of the cultural zeitgeist. In the better-lit parts it is Bieber and ‘Glee’. That, I gather, is Laura Miller’s point — there aren’t enough people around for a literary culture to exist any more, so just find good things and steer readers to them. John will take out his guitar and sing ‘Cold Irons Bound’ again if that is where we’re at.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I have great respect for Laura Miller, and more often than not follow her approach in my own reviewing. But if ALL reviewers were to follow her approach, the review landscape would be one of considerable sweetness and light. And perhaps undistinguishable from the landscape of non-critical boosterism on Twitter. When genuinely negative reviews in high profile publications erupt through that landscape, as they did with the two reviews referenced in Mendelsohn’s piece, it’s likely to provoke self-examination and assessment of what the function of reviewing is, and whether the reviewer culture is providing it.

Ellen Datlow

I see that more as criticism than reviewing. But yes, they can be quite enjoyable once the book has been read. I read reviews for different reasons—do I actually want to pick up this book? And in that case, I don’t want to learn too much about the book’s content but if I trust the reviewer, what her take is on the book.

Peter Straub

I could be completely wrong about this, but it seems to me that what has been “tapped,” in Guy’s terms, is a general uncertainty about the unraveling of previously accepted and understood standards,however variously nuanced, as a consequence of Internet reviews in blogs, Amazon customer comments, and other social media. The piece that involved my daughter’s reputation (that is, her notorious “niceness”) was directly related to this issue, although in itself it appeared to me and I hope many others as a naked attempt to raise a cloud of comment and thereby secure a bit of fame for its author. Laura Miller almost always seems sane and smart to me, and her obvious fondness for fantastica makes her generous in ways other reviewers may not be.

I am thinking, alas, of Maureen Corrigan, an NPR book critic, who reviewed a book of mine in the Washington Post and slit its throat because she discovered, some 100 pages in, that it Invoked the supernatural, and therefore betrayed itself as worthless trash. Poor Maureen, I say to myself,to suffer such a nasty shock from a book sent her by the usually trustworthy W.P. What troubles she must have had, attempting to keep writing the review in the face of her growing dismay. Me, I would have given up halfway through and sent my regrets to the editor.

Hmm, I digress. But Corrigan’s disdain may have aroused interest in some readers who did not share her prejudice. I do not suppose I can complain that her revelation amounted to a nasty spoiler. More seriously, I think the question of “spoilers,” that elementary school term, is clarified from book to book, on the merits and nature of the individual cases. The reviewer can tell what he can reveal without damaging anyone’s initial reading of the book in question.

Guy Gavriel Kay

I think Peter and Stefan are probably both right. Stefan narrows it to the negative views that appeared together, I think it is likely those are a subset of the wider anxiety Peter mentions. Gatekeeper reviewers vs open range blogging. Laura Miller’s thought that literary culture is too small to signify. The emergence of stories of faked online reviews (either anonymous by authors or bought and paid for, or solicited – with instructions – by authors from their fans). The offloading of marketing to authors and whatever persona they create that feels ‘authentic’. It has all been around for a little while (some of it for a long while) but recent events and exposures seems to feel like an acceleration.

That’s my guess, anyhow.

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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