The OF Blog: Why I write reviews

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Why I write reviews

Lately, there have been some comments posted in the Blogosphere about comments made at last week's ReaderCon 18. Neth posted a bit about it and at my urging, crossposted it at wotmania. As I was writing my belated response to it, I thought it would be a good idea to post it here as well. Below is Neth's question and my response to it:

What is the review you want to read? Do you like or dislike 'amateur' type of reviews (such as what I write)?

What do you like and dislike about them?


I believe that a lot of times, people want to read the types of reviews that would interest them the most. For me, I would want reviews that do much more than just address broad "flavor" or plot pros and cons, followed by the reviewer's opinion. I want (and often write, when I am motivated enough to attempt a "proper" review) to read reviews that also concentrate on themes, where the novel can be placed in context to the author's other body of work or other similar bodies of work, and what relevance it ought (or ought not) to have with me, the potential reader.

I think that too often these days, readers in spec fic get so damn hung up on the issue of "spoilers" that it's become almost like a group neurosis. While I try to be respectful to the potential audience, I have found that my best reviews have always taken direct references to the books themselves and have elaborated on them, twisted and prodded them a bit, kicked their tires - all to see if the whole body of writing works as a story.

I had two years' worth of grad school critiques that I had to write, at least 4-5 dozen short examinations of the 500-1500 word variety. A professor of mine gave me invaluable advice when it comes to reviewing, whether it be for non-fictional academic monographs or for fictional stories: Read the introduction closely, examine it for style (or for non-fiction, the approach the writer aims to take in exploring the subject being written about), then go to the last chapter and read that. See what has transpired. Then go to the introduction and read it again, followed by the main body of work. It saves time for the reviewer, as it allows him/her to already have questions to ask of the work - how is this scene working? What is the author trying to accomplish here? Does he/she succeed at his/her goals? Take notes if possible (I mostly do this for non-fiction, as my burden of critique is much, much greater than as a fiction reviewer) and then reflect upon it for a bit.

The review ought to reflect the reviewer wrestling with the Text. It shouldn't be a surface-level skimming of likes/dislikes or a plot summary. A good reviewer will dig deeper, challenging him/herself to view this from many different sources. Sometimes, that is going to mean exploring the themes of a work. I am currently contemplating how I'm going to write a review of Richard Parks' recently-released story collection[NB: Hopefully tomorrow or Monday at the latest], worshipping small gods. I enjoyed the stories, but I want to explore the themes I detected within some of them in particular, themes that moved me. To do so, I'm going to have to cite passages and explore connotations. Sadly, some are going to think of this as "spoilers." I disagree.

If one is reviewing a story, the review has to reflect as many of the elements contained within the story as is possible while keeping a unified structure to the review. It is not a "spoiler" to discuss character interactions or the basic themes of a story - those are the sorts of things that many readers (especially those outside of the spec fic circles) want to read. What is the story about? Why should I give a damn about what happens here? Can you tell me something...hell, anything that'll make me want to read this book (or conversely, drop it like a hot potato)? Too many times, I have to read very carefully between the lines to tell if the book being reviewed is written in this fashion or that, if there are any interesting themes to it, or if there are any dynamic tensions, either between a protagonist and an antagonist, or if internal conflict plays a crucial role. Revealing that such-and-such a story deals with issues of Loss and Anger is not a spoiler. Instead, it is a revealer, it gives us some insight into the novel and its themes. It makes many more likely to want to read a book.

So as to the original question, I like a mixture of reviews. Although I'm not paid for my reviews, I do not consider myself to be an "amateur" reviewer, since that phrase seems to refer to those who are self-taught in how to write a review. I have academic training, and my longer reviews reflect this. I believe I serve a purpose, just as others serve a purpose with their reviews. I'll just write about what interests me and if that appeals to others, then great. If not, no skin off my nose, as I was true to my own self and did what I could to relate what a book meant to me in a fashion that others could consider or disregard it as they desire. To be anything else is to be insecure and I'm all about self-confidence It is an attitude that many of us online reviewers ought to adopt, in addition to a deeper commitment to skewering everything that we read and displaying its bloody guts for all to peruse as they might desire. After all, aren't we dissectors of stories, slayers of unwanted hype, the teeming unwashed hordes of uncouth barbarians that put all presumptions and hype to the sword?

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