Open Season

It appears that it is open season on reviewers again. Yesterday saw posts from Matt Cheney, Jeff VanderMeer and Timmi Duchamp all speculating about what makes a good review, and a response from Jay Tomio that sounded a little tired and grumpy. I suspect I know how Jay feels. Sometimes it seems like the poor reviewer can’t do anything right. And you know, that doesn’t surprise me. Pontification follows.

I guess I should start by saying that I’m probably in no position to pontificate here. Since I closed Emerald City it has been made clear to me by many people just how bad my reviews were, and how fortunate the community is to be rid of me. Then again, other people have told me that they miss my reviews and wish I would start writing them again. The world can be a bit schizophrenic at times.

Timmi illustrates some of the reasons for this in talking about how she can read reviews with multiple different hats on: the reader, the publisher and the author. Those three people want very different things from a review, and a reviewer will have a hard job pleasing them all. But that isn’t the end of it. I’ve seen lots of readers commenting about what they want from a review, and they vary considerably amongst themselves. I’ve seen everything from a desire for an in depth analysis of the book, to wanting an entertaining piece of writing (that may or may not say anything much about the book) and even one person who said that all a review should contain is a brief synopsis of the plot. I can assure you that it is impossible to satisfy all of those people with the same review.

Nevertheless, people keep writing about what makes a “good” review. Part of this, I suspect, is a need for self-justification. Reviewers get so much flak (and so little praise) that there is an inevitable need to prove to yourself that you are doing a good job. So you come up with a whole pile of justifications that show why what you are doing is right (and therefore, inevitably, what some others are doing is wrong). Part of it is also a welcome desire for self-improvement. Much of what is happening right now was sparked off by some fascinating posts by Larry on OF Blog of the Fallen. I applaud Larry for wanting to learn to write better reviews, but what is better for him may not be better for everyone. Finally, of course, the Internet is drowning in reviews these days. Setting yourself up as a book reviewer is ludicrously easy. Even if you can’t be bothered to start a blog, you can always write reviews on Amazon or one of many other book-selling sites that solicit customer feedback. I’ve encountered a number of people in publishing who, when they talk about “online reviews”, mean Amazon reviews. The fact that rather better reviews exist on other, much less high profile, web sites is irrelevant to them: Amazon reviews are all that matter, and many of those are surely in need of improvement.

What all this leads to is a lack of precision in the prescriptions. You can take an existing review, postulate a target audience, and say whether that review meets the needs and desires of that audience. But setting out a blanket prescription of what makes a “good review” is much harder, and is way too prone to misinterpretation. As an example, I’d like to look at Jeff VanderMeer’s recent post. Jeff, I am sure, meant well, and I’m also sure that his rules work for him, but what happens if you try to apply them in a wider context?

All of Jeff’s rules are couched in the form of things a reviewer should not do. Rule 1 is about “Bringing an agenda to a review that makes it impossible for the reviewer to appreciate what the writer intended with his or her book”. The “makes it impossible” is key to this rule. If the reviewer is so deeply inside a belief system that he is unable to see the book in any other context then the review may not make much sense to others. I’m thinking in particular of Marxist reviewers. As I recall I once said about an academic reviewer that his objective was to promote Marxism first and review the book second, which for me made for a less interesting review. But hey, if you are committed to Marxism, that is what you do (and as it turned out he was pleased with the description of his work).

More widely, if you are writing a review column for a Feminist web site, or a Libertarian magazine, then of course you will bring an agenda to the reviews. Matt Cheney might talk about how you should write for yourself, not for an audience, but that is the creative writer in him speaking. Reviewing is often more journalism than creative writing, and writing for an audience is what journalists do. Certainly if you want to sell reviews you have to think like a journalist.

Finally, while I’m sure Jeff didn’t intend this, some people are going to simplify that rule. Somewhere down the line, someone is going to write a review from a Feminist or Libertarian or Marxist or Christian or whatever viewpoint and get told “your review has an agenda and Jeff VanderMeer says that is bad.” Every reviewer has an agenda of some sort, it is just a question of how strong it is, and in what context it is applied.

Rule 2 is about “Making a (veiled) personal attack on the author”. This is indeed a bad thing. If I were to start a review by saying “X is a complete arsehole and I hate everything he has written” that would not make for a good review. But I also know from experience that even a mildly negative review of a book may be taken as a vicious personal attack on the author by a fan of that author. That fan will then write to you and tell you what an awful person you are. There are people out there who apparently believe that my entire purpose in writing Emerald City was to launch vicious personal attacks on authors. It didn’t seem that way to me, but it obviously seemed that way to them.

Rule 3 is about “Placing yourself at the center of the review”. It is entirely true that a review that is all about the reviewer is unlikely to be of any great interest except to fans of the reviewer. But as Jeff himself says in comments on the post, that doesn’t mean that you can pretend that your reviews are objective. There’s no such thing as an objective review. So whether your review is too subjective or not is a matter of degree, and possibly a matter of who you are and who your audience is. It may irritate a writer to find his book being “reviewed” by a self-centered celebrity who talks more about himself than the book, but the chances are that review will sell more copies of the book than a much more objective piece by a less well known.

Rule 4: “Engaging in territorial debates”. Arguing over whether a particular book is authentically Interstitial or not is generally silly. But review readers want to know what a book is like, and comparing it to other, similar works is often a very powerful way of getting the message over. Authors tend to hate this, because they like to think that their work is unique, but readers are generally looking for “more like this” recommendations, where “this” is something that they have read before and enjoyed.

Rule 5: “Employing inappropriate/self-important diction and approaches”. Forsooth! Does’t yon VanderMeer seek to restrain one’s diction? Methinks he does. Probably that’s very sensible of him. You certainly shouldn’t use academic jargon if you don’t understand what it means. But take heart from Mr. Cheney. Find your own voice. If it doesn’t go down well with the audience you’ll soon find out.

Rule 6; “Making snarky, tangential asides”. That’s nicely precise. It is also pretty good advice. That said, snark is entertaining and people like it. You may also find a book where you just can’t write about it without descending into snark. In such situations the best thing to do might be to not write the review at all. But then again, Dave Langford built a career on pointing out errors in books, and look where it got him.

Rule 7: “Encountering the profound every time out”. Hurrah! At last a rule I can wholeheartedly agree with. Few things are more likely to irritate me than a reviewer who absolutely loves everything they review. But in order to avoid that, you have to say less than enthusiastic things abut some books, and you know where that will get you, don’t you?

Rule 8: “Trying to intuit personal details about the writer from the fiction”. Authors often hate it when a review tries to talk about what a book “means”. Knowing what an author actually meant in writing a book is, of course, very difficult. Even if you ask the author, he might lie to you. But note that this rule is in direct conflict with Rule 1, because if you can’t know what an author intended by a book, how can you know whether you are misinterpreting it?

In addition, this is another rule that is really a question of degree. Jeff is entirely correct in saying that an author may create a character who is thoroughly reprehensible in many ways, and it would be wrong to assume that the character speaks for the author. On the other hand, if you have in front of you a book in which the good guys are all fair skinned and blond and come from “the west” whereas the bad guys are swarthy, bearded, swear by “the Prophet”, come from “the east” and are all thoroughly unlikable then you might just come to the conclusion that the author is betraying a small amount of prejudice here. Equally if the only black/gay/female/Christian/whatever character in the book is also the number one bad guy, you might at least wonder what message is being sent by the book, even if the author didn’t intend it that way.

The point I’m trying to get over here is that while Jeff’s rules are all very important and well worth bearing in mind, they are all a matter of degree, and they should all be applied in context. I also expect to see them all be applied as absolutes out of context. And that is because every time someone sees a negative review of a book they really liked the first thing they want to do is prove what a bad review it is. Even if you say nice things about every book you review, you will still fall foul of Jeff’s Rule 7, and you’ll get attacked by people who disliked some of those books and think you are an idiot for praising them.

The bottom line is that when you publish a book review you are painting a target on your forehead and you should expect people to shoot at it. Which is why it is so often open season on reviewers.

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14 Responses to Open Season

  1. Larry says:

    Cheryl, I agree with most of what you say here. I would only add that this from all sides-type of attack is endemic and isn’t limited just to reviewing or to the writing of books (in many ways, I believe the two are closely related). We all have our own motivations and preferred courses of action and it’s only natural to question others from time to time. Sometimes, it’s done with respect to others and other times it is unrestrained, untempered negativity that is spewed forth. But for the most part, it seems those within the reviewing community are nowhere near as bad as those who post on ESPN.com’s comments section or who call in to radio talk shows.

    I concur with what you said about how my motivations and goals are not going to be conducive for many others. I would add, however, that being open and sharing such goals and expectations (as well as making respectful and honest suggestions to others) has the potential to do more good than ill, presuming of course that people don’t take prescriptive advice personally.

    As for Jeff’s rules, I think they are a good starting place, but that there will indeed be occasions in which it might be necessary to break them. But in the breaking, it ought to be kept in mind that there needs to be good reasons for doing so. However, that’s a topic for another time.

    Just wanted to add one little bit, since you raised it: While we don’t always agree 100%, I do respect your opinion and I have tried to consider it at least. That’s about as much as any of us could hope to receive from another, right?

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  3. Cheryl says:

    Larry, you are absolutely right that just as much invective gets heaped upon authors, actors, sportsmen and so on. On the other hand, those people have fans too. Not only do reviewers generally not have fans, but I for one would be quite concerned if I did, because it might lead me to breaking Jeff’s rule 3.

  4. Larry says:

    I think Jeff’s #3 applies more to those who place themselves higher than the book being reviewed. There are times and places in which a “personal touch” can make for a better review. Matt cites the example of Borges doing so with some of his reviews, but then again, Borges is around the apex of reviewing. I think as long as we keep in mind that there ought to be a focus on the book at hand and that anything which adds to that focus ought to be considered and anything that detracts from that ought to be deleted, things ought to be fine.

    And considering how many reviewers online and in print get to know each other, there might be more of a support group (if not outright fandom, although I get the impression that some reviewers have done so without compromising their focus on the books – despite my occasional disagreements with him, Pat of Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist is one example) for reviewers than what we first realize.

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Jay Tomio’s post was not a response to my post, Matt’s, or Timmi’s. That’s an assumption on your part.

    Yes, any rule has exceptions. Going too far with anything is bad. Yep. True true.
    JV

  6. Cheryl says:

    Larry:

    My point was that people who have lots of fans are liable to place themselves above the book. And actually they might be right to do so, because their fans will be more interested in them than in the book under review.

    A support network is, of course, very valuable. In particular I found it very useful to be able to meet up with people like Clute and Gary Wolfe and Jeff at conventions and talk to them. But that’s not the same thing as having fans.

  7. Larry says:

    Ah, okay, I understand better what you meant by “fans” then. I have seen a few whose “voice” tends to drown out the book at hand. It’s their shtick and that’s what they’ve aimed to do, albeit at the expense of a careful consideration of the books on occasion. Sadly, in many of those cases, I seem to recall a bit of self-caricature that sets in after a while, perhaps due to the commentator keeping him/herself stuck in that one “place” and not pressing on. Not quite your point, but it is something that occurred to me as I was writing this.

  8. Jay Tomio says:

    Jeff’s right, I wasn’t aware of his comments until Larry pointed them out to me in my own post. I was tired and indeed a little grumpy like any self respecting fan of any Matt Millen led club is this year.

    Does anyone thing how prolific someone is has a lot to do with how we perceive ‘voice’. I’m working without incredible access to various print publications who may run reviews, but I can can easily (for my own taste) see that most reviewers/reviews I personally prefer tend to be written by people that are only putting out a few a year and when you are online what we have seen is not only unlimited access but a crop that generally is reviewing more than once a month on a regular basis (sometimes much more).

    I see a couple implications here. One, we have what seems to be a race by people to get a first review of a hot – be it mainstream or niche – book. This inevitably causes for questionably edited reviews and at least allows for a brow raised in terms of motivation to come into play. While this certainly serves a publisher’s motivation (the proof is in the pudding – look at the access and proliferation of ARCS and galleys) it always used to strike me as odd when I used to land an interview with new writer X – that 7 others would follow in that month. So what we get is not sharing of information/knowledge etc – we get overkill and Larry is talking about uniformity in that manner I agree. I was always motivated to interview people who I thought seemed damned interesting and I couldn’t get enough info on – like a Matthew Rossi, Bishop, Hughes, Bowes etc. Now, writers are not – and should not complain about this – but it is a trend. I realize that interviews are more of a straight marketing tool and what I see is the review becoming much the same – it always has been, but now I think at times there isn’t much difference between the two and I think that’s unfortunate.

    While, it is obvious based on certain unique factors like how fast one reads, comprehends, edits, and how much time one has in general (as we are mostly speaking on non-paying or low paying venues – at least I was) I was wondering if anybody had any insight on what is a solid range, in terms of number of reviews a quality reviewer can hope to put out in a given year?

  9. Martin Wisse says:

    All of Vandermeer’s silly rules are wrong, wrong, wrong. As a reviewer he makes a good writer.

    Reviews can only be good if the reviewer does put themselves and their agenda at the centre of review, because if you don’t know who the reviewer is and what their belief system is, how can you judge whether or not the review is any good?

    And while authors all think they’re inscrutable entities, you can and should draw conclusions about the author based on the text when supported by evidence. Turns out authors are often remarkably clueless about their own books.

    Rule 4 and 5 of course express the usual Heinlein “beer money” ideas about writing, that it can’t possibly matter enough to be approached seriously.

    Rules 2 and 6 meanwhile are evidence of the usual American puritanism, that supposes that everything must be serious and any frivolity is suspect.

    The conflict between these two rules and number 4 and 5 ypical for the conflicted, dualist attitude of many sf/fantasy writers towards their craft: scared that people dismiss it out of hand, but also scared to fail.

    Which leaves rule 7, on the surface the least objectable, because nobody likes reviewers that like everything they read. However, why review books, even bad books, if you can’t say anything interesting about them?

  10. Martin says:

    But then again, Dave Langford built a career on pointing out errors in books, and look where it got him.

    That is a bit of a backhanded compliment, Cheryl! He built his SF reputation (not career) by being a witty and perceptive writer and critic. With a bit of judicious error pointing on the side.

  11. Cheryl says:

    Jay:

    Thanks for the clarification. Having been pointed at your post by Larry I read it and a bunch of the comments straight through and appear to have conflated the whole thing in my mind.

    I’m not sure that it is possible to come up with a rule about how many reviews anyone can produce, because the numbers are pretty small and heavily affected by things such as how quickly one reads and how much free time one has. All I can say is that I ended up writing too many.

    As for the level of competition, I suspect you are right that it is getting a little crazy. That’s what happens when a product has a very low production cost and zero price. I’m not sure that there’s a lot that can be done about it, other than try to write the best reviews you can and hope that people recognize that. Being first isn’t much advantage. You have to be timely, but that doesn’t mean being first, particularly if you end up putting out a review weeks before anyone can buy the book.

  12. Cheryl says:

    Martin:

    Thank you for proving my point. I knew someone would take Jeff’s advice to silly extremes.

    You are, of course, welcome to write reviews in whatever way you want. However, I suspect, from what you say above, that I would find yours uninteresting. Destructive reviews can be entertaining. If you look through Up Through and Empty House of Stars you’ll see plenty of reviews in which Dave rips books to shreds, but he does so with pinpoint accuracy and tremendous wit, and interestingly he sometimes ends up saying that he really enjoyed the book despite its flaws. The authors will no doubt cringe, but Dave supplies superb entertainment, which is why he’s so popular.

    If you can do the same sort of thing, great. But I get the impression from what you write above that your reviews would less amusing and more vituperative (and probably shot through with a strong streak of anti-Americanism). I’m sure there’s a market for that, but it doesn’t include me.

    All I think reviewers can hope to do is present their impressions of a book in an honest and informative way, but that impression will always be a personal impression. If it is arrogant for an author to claim to know what his book is about, how much more arrogant is it for a reviewer to claim to know better than the author what the book is about?

  13. Larry says:

    Reviews are like books, in that like authors, reviewers review (with variable quality levels) at different rates. I’m probably well on the far end of the spectrum when it comes to reading comprehension rates, but far from that in review output, especially lately. Right now, I just had to admit elsewhere that it was going to take me more time to finish writing a review of Joe Abercrombie’s third book because I was struggling with identifying just what it was about that story that touched a raw nerve. I fear that when I do force myself to write through that “block” that’s in the way that the review will not be as clear and concise as I would desire. This contrasts with most reviews I write, which take only about 1-3 days of thinking and then about 1-2 hours of writing time to complete.

    It’s so difficult to find a “happy medium” when it comes to my own approach to reviewing. I wrote those posts as much for myself as for any who’ve read it to date (and I must admit that I was somewhat surprised at the “legs” this has grown over the past month) and I still have this blasted review to finish writing! So yeah, I can see where it’d be frustrating for others to see people who seem to churn them out in assembly line fashion. There have been times that I’ve found myself asking, either to myself or in response to their reviews, “Did you really cover anything here, or is this just all a glossy surface?” Not always the best of things to do, but it’s a fait accompli now.

    I do agree with Jay’s apprehensions regarding the ARC deal, as at first I did feel a tiny bit of pressure to increase the output. But after I realized that my desire for writing something that was meaningful (at least to myself, for others it’s up to them to decide) outweighed any external pressure, I moved to covering books that I found I could say something that wasn’t banal. It may be in the coming years that publishers retrench a bit and not send out as many ARCs. If so, I doubt that alone would influence my review output, although I suspect it might for many. All I know is that being “first” or covering just the “new” doesn’t cut it with me – there is a shameful lack of discussion regarding the late Julio Cortázar. I hope I can persuade a few to give him a chance. I’m such a shill, ain’t I? 😛

  14. valashain says:

    I’ve been following this discussion for a while now and I think I broke just about every rule for a good review that has been proposed, save the one about personal attacks (at least I like to believe that). It’s probably more important to stick to whatever personal standard you develop for writing reviews than trying to please as large a crowd as possible. At least that way people know what to expect.

    I also feel a reviewer shouldn’t believe their review is going to make a difference in helping a reader decide whether or not to pick up a book. When I do read reviews myself (and I usually only do so after having read a book) I read a lot of them. Anything from Amazon and Librarything to fantasybookspot and Pat’s Fantasyhotlist. Why limit yourself to one source when there is so much available? I very much doubt I am alone in doing so.

    We do paint a target on our foreheads and that is the way it should be. After all, what do you prefer? A bland review with a nice summary of the book and a few general comments or something that provokes discussion? The one thing I aspire to is writing down my opinion is such a fashion that it does make people consider what I wrote. A trick I clearly haven’t mastered yet but I’m working on it.

    Make that target nice and bright, if you stick to a respectful way of dealing with someone else’s writing, it will always be smaller than the target the author paints on his/her forehead.

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