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.