The OF Blog: Yet another post on reviewing epistemology

Friday, November 30, 2007

Yet another post on reviewing epistemology

Before I resume writing the New Sun reviews, I thought I'd just make a brief post reiterating and perhaps expanding upon prior comments I have made in regards to reviewing. Some of the motivation for this comes as a direct result of my preparations for reviewing Wolfe's book, while other motivating factors come from my experiences having to write short (750-1250 word) reviews of historical monographs when I was in grad school.

Reviewing a book is an inexact science. In many ways, reviews are idiosyncratic and they reflect the reviewer's personality and his/her take on reading. While some might argue that reviews are a take 'em or leave 'em affair, many have commented on what they call a "bad" review. When I say a "bad" review, I am not talking about whether or not a book was well-written or not, but rather whether or not the work being reviewed ever really was "reviewed."

One thing that I do before I set out to write a review of any book is to do a search for other reviews of the book (especially for those that have been out for years). This is due in large part to my background in history, where I had to demonstrate an awareness of other reviews and if needed, to refer to these different interpretations when I did a review of another historian's work. In a sense, I am reading and occasionally "reviewing" the other reviews before I ever begin writing a single word of my own review.

Being aware of others' takes and the reasons why they wrote the review and what they wanted to address helps me (and hopefully, others) to focus my attention a bit. But yet sometimes, I discover reviews that do not seem to address the book at all, but instead comes across as being a plug-in template consisting of A) Plot Summary, B) Liked it/Disliked it, C) Short Wrap-up, with nary a citation for those opinions. Earlier this week, I did a search for reviews of the New Sun books. Among many fine ones (Peter Wright's review being an outstanding example, although I disagree with some of his conclusions, which I'll address at the end of my New Sun reviews) that used textual evidence to support their assertations, I came across one (no, I will not link to it, as there are many of this type out there) that gave opinion without ever citing anything from the book to support this reviewer's opinion that the work was devoid of character development.

While I certainly could provide citations to the contrary (namely, focusing on the lacunae that hints at the narrator's unreliability, the shift in style that indicates another presence within the character of Severian, etc.), that is not the point of this post. When I read the review, it was as though there was nothing there that I could readily identify as being related to that book; it was too generic. In a day and age where "spoilers" are abhorred more than ever, have we gone too far and have decided that most anything cited from a text to support the reviewer's stance on its worthiness/unworthiness constitutes "spoilers" and thus ought to be avoided?

I have caught myself falling into this trap on occasion myself. I am one who is more interested in theme than in plot (because a book with interesting themes is more likely to be re-read by me than a book with a linear plot, for example), but yet I too have found myself not tackling the books at hand vigorously enough. While there are certainly many readers (perhaps you are one, yourself) who claim that they want nothing more than just a "well, did you like it?" from a reviewer, I believe that giving an opinion without supporting that opinion with evidence is doing a disservice to the reader, not to mention to the book being reviewed.

Before I began writing this post, I did a search for tips on how to write a good fiction review. Linked here is an article that I believe contains some valuable suggestions. In particular, I want to focus on the tips at the bottom of it:
  1. Do not attempt to write the review unless you have read the book carefully and completely.
  2. Do not make general statements about the book without supporting them with specific examples or quotations.
  3. Ask a friend to read the review. A fresh eye can often catch problems with the review that you might have missed.
Too often when I have read other SF-oriented blogs, I see the second tip not being followed. I would love to see more quotations, followed by an exploration of that quote. It doesn't necessarily have to be a quote that you agree with, but it ought to be one that gives at least some "flavor" of the book being reviewed. If, using the New Sun books as an example, an author has his character reflecting upon things such as the role of symbols in shaping our lives and the character repeatedly claimed to have an eidetic memory, something in the review ought to reflect at least an awareness of whether or not that the author addresses those issues in the course of the book(s). If the book is about the subtle manipulations of perceptions and the unreliability of the narrator and the reviewer focuses on a "lack of character development" without citing examples, then something has gone wrong with that review. A straw man has replaced the novel (with its warts and all) in that commentary.

But I am not guiltless here. I too have, on occasion, failed to present the book, instead falling back on a few truisms and general statements without ever really treating the book being reviewed as sui generis. But I shall at least endeavor to do better and to approach the level of reviewing that I had to do a decade ago. A story, good or bad alike, deserves no better than to be presented on its own terms and not as a shoehorned product.

18 comments:

Renay said...

Oh man, if we weren't strangers and if it wasn't 200% creepy, I would totally offer to make out with you for this point alone: "But yet sometimes, I discover reviews that do not seem to address the book at all, but instead comes across as being a plug-in template consisting of A) Plot Summary, B) Liked it/Disliked it, C) Short Wrap-up, with nary a citation for those opinions."

I see this so often with all blogs I read; it isn't limited to SF-blogs. I might just be lucky in the SF blogs I read (I only have a few) in that the ones I spend time on back their opinions up. I think it's the whole "I liked this" versus "I didn't like this" thing that gets me. Some books just aren't for some people, and that's fine, but when someone is going to downplay a book, say they didn't like it and encourage others not to waste their time, I want something a little more tangible than "I didn't like it."

I wish reviewers would start citing, start discussing in detail, and let everyone else control what they see and have spoiled for themselves. It's called personal responsibility! I miss those days.

Joe Sherry said...

I have that problem in my "reviews" (such as they are). Frequently I don't put quite enough time into writing / preparing the review and certainly don't get into more critical analysis. I think I'm figuring out what kind of reviewer I want to be and how I want to write them, but entries like this remind me of what I did learn in college (undergrad)...namely to use examples from the book. I'm certainly guilty of not doing so.

Niall said...

" I would love to see more quotations, followed by an exploration of that quote."

Yes. Yes, yes, yes!

Ben said...

A) Plot Summary, B) Liked it/Disliked it, C) Short Wrap-up, with nary a citation for those opinions.

Personally I'm quite interested by short opinions. I see that as something different than reviews, and it's useful too. So I would be ok with this A/B/C template, but the problem is that people doing it usually write blog posts as long as full reviews. These kind of reviews could (and should) be summarized in 3 paragraphs (the A/B/C above) that should be made of 3 sentences at most. Because they're just opinions that are not detailed, not analyzed, not backed by citations. It would be clear from the length of the post that it's just an opinion, a matter of taste.

If the blogger really feels he has much more to talk about, then in this case he should try to do as you say. But probably sometimes there's no need to do more than a short opinion.

Gav's Studio said...

Is a book review a criticism of the work or is it there to give the reader a flavour of the contents? And how much enjoyment do you want to take from the reader?

When you start quoting, citing, and generally justifying yourself then you move into an essay on the work in question rather than mearly a review.

And do potential readers want to know have the work broken down into little bits?

SpecLit said...

What do you think of John Updike's rules of reviewing? I've often thought he pegged it well, and I had them partially in mind when I came up with my own rules of engagement.

Tia Nevitt said...

Thanks for posting this. You had some good suggestions. I followed the link and read it; I definitely need to take more notes when I read! I've been marking pages with sticky notes as I read, but often my daughter will come behind me and mischievously remove all the sticky notes. (Not to self; put page number on sticky notes.)

Since I get some advanced galleys, I could take advantage of the wide margins and thick paper to take my notes -- horrors! -- directly in the book. The galleys always look like they've been through a wringer after I'm done with them anyway; why not go ahead and mark them up?

Occasionally, however, the author will send me the book, and they always send me an autographed copy. I'd rather not mark those up.

One thing I always do is write the review and then let it peculate for a day or so before posting it.

You've given me food for thought. And thanks for linking Fantasy Debut!

Larry said...

Wow, my first almost-stalker/fan! :P

Sorry if I keep this short, but I'll try to address at least a few of the comments in general here:

I believe all book reviews are essays that reflect the reviewer's degree of engagement with the text as well as his/her purpose in writing the review. Due to space/time concerns, some reviews by necessity are little more than blurbs, while others often come close to being review monographs.

But yet regardless of length, a good review ought to review the book as it was written, not just give unsubstantiated commentary. A good percentage of those who visit my blog find it by googling for reviews - they have little to no idea what sorts of books I like/dislike, so for my review to be effective, I would have to present at least something from the book that gives them at least some idea of what the book has to offer besides general "it sucks" or "it is clunky." People at certain forums are fond of overusing the "show, not tell" maxim, but in the case of reviews, it isn't a bad thing to keep in mind.

As for Clute's rules, I agree with them, especially the last one. I do not write many "negative" reviews here, or rather, I do not write reviews of books that I know I'd more than likely detest (thus only Goodkind jokes and no reviews of his work). I review the books that I think are worthy of being discussed. Some, like Scott Lynch's Red Seas Under Red Skies, were underwhelming to me, but yet there were elements in it that would appeal to others. Lynch didn't write that book for me as much as for those who like that style of storytelling. I should have addressed that more at length, instead of giving that "fuzzy precis" that Clute mentions.

Shall be interesting to see how my reviews develop the more committed to a traditional format I become.

S.M.D. said...

This is a very very good post. You make a lot of valid points. I'm really new to reviewing books. I've been doing it for a year, but I think reviewing books is sort of like writing--you're always learning. I'll take a lot of what you said here to heart for when I write my next book review.

Thanks!

Lawrence said...

I have to say, inspired by this post plus reading some resources on "literary book reviewing" I have been experimenting a bit with the latest review I wrote (not sure if I succeeded in pulling off it entirely with regard to the 'reviewing rules'). At the very least I used some citations that I thought illustrated the point I was trying to make, whether I truly explored them, well I don't know. By the way, while I was looking through some reviews on the particular book (Red Seas Under Red Skies), I came across your review of the book and noticed that you didn't make use of citations there neither. Seems a bit of a shame, since I would love to see you explore some parts of the work more in depth. I guess the time one has to spend on a review is actually one of the important factors that determine whether he will review it thoroughly.

MattD said...

A good -- by which I mean carefully written and "useful" rather than "positive" -- review is of course not going to "take enjoyment" from a reader no matter how detailed it is. In fact I find that a good, detailed review can help me enjoy a book more, by revealing aspects of a work that I might not have noticed myself or by giving me an avenue to appreciate a difficult work.

It's worth noting that the word "view" is synonymous with "statement of personal opinion": a "review" implies a greater level of engagement. That said, we all try to write the kind of reviews we enjoy reading, I suspect (and I too find shorter reviews valuable, although more in bulk than taken individually).

Yes, time is definitely a factor. I only have time to write one or two of the long, detailed reviews I aim for each month, and I'm still trying to figure out how to maximize that. The maxim I'm working towards is to only review a book when I feel I have something interesting to say about it that hasn't been said already.

I don't see anything wrong with negative reviews in that context. Publishers are getting very good at targeting ARCs to bloggers who like certain sorts of books, which means the initial word on the web for almost every new book is very positive (never mind the Klausner factor). There are times when reading a voice of dissent can be very valuable, as long as (as per the various guidelines suggested already) the dissenting review uses enough evidence that the reader can decide for themselves whether the criticisms presented matter to them.

The "understand the author's intent" item is likewise generally laudable but occasionally problematic, especially as it applies to genre fiction. Genres are often described as conversations. It may be the goal of an author to write an homage of, say, the pulp SF adventures of the 20s -- but if their work also includes the sexism and racism that often figured large in those works, I think it's both fair and useful to criticize the work for its failure to live up to the current genre conversation. In the alternative "what would I think of the book if I was among the audience who it was intended for" relativism, the reviewer ends up with the essentially useless task of reporting a hypothetical, imaginary reviewer's reaction rather than reporting their own authentic reaction.

I don't enjoy writing negative reviews, though, and certainly my goal is to be writing a great many positive reviews for every negative one I write. But I'm finishing up a negative one today, so some of these issues have been on my mind.

SQT said...

Including quotes can be a problem sometimes if you're reading a galley. If it is an uncorrected proof you are not allowed to use quotes without permission from the publisher. I find that I don't have enough time to go through that detailed a process.

I consider my blog to be pretty informal. I make no pretense at being a professional reviewer nor do I get paid for it. I think it's enough to give a summary and opinion; it's certainly all I have time to do.

Larry said...

Lawrence,

I read/commented on your Lynch review. It certainly is a step in the right direction, as it gives evidence for your opinions regarding the novel while still allowing those who have yet to read the book to be able to form their own conclusions while still keeping your points of criticism in mind. It's a very difficult thing to accomplish, but very valuable for the readers.

Matt,

Hard to say much more than I agree with virtually everything that you said. A well-argued "negative" review is worth a lot more than a handful of vapid "positive" reviews. I remember reading Jeff VanderMeer's blog sometime in the past year or so and reading where he commented that he wanted to read the negative reviews of his novels, or rather the considered critiques, in order to get an independent evaluation of some of his weaknesses so he could address those later. All too often in this world, it seems we value only the praise and not the critiques that could have pointed out to us things that we could have done better.

When I say "consider the author's intention," I mean in the sense of trying to keep other perspectives in mind while making statements of one's own opinion. For example, when I get to writing the review of Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, I plan on noting some of the deficiencies that others have pointed out, but also noting the possibility that Wolfe had intended to address something else. I had it almost beaten into my head in grad school that if I do not present another side's (or the author's) arguments accurately before addressing/shooting them down, then all I've done is critique a straw man and not the actual point being made.

SQT,

In regards to advance galleys (I have a few, but I mostly am reading/reviewing the final copy versions), what you can do is paraphrase the quote or note that it is from the uncorrected proof. For example, you could say something like this: "There is a key point in the middle of the novel where the narrator(insert name and specific details in place of my generic model here) elaborates on the characteristics of being "human". This narrator argues that "humaness" is not just something innate in each of us, but is also something that we have to earn by our actions and our devotion to one another and to our own selves. Over the course of the next several chapters, the narrator's argument is tested by (fill-in-the-blank)..."

That's one way that a discussion can be done without using quotes in such situations where the final quote material may change. It gives the sense of what is to come without spelling out every single plot detail.

But as for your defense of your own blogging style, write as you feel. This post of mine refers to what I find to be more informative and also refers to things that I need to improve upon in my own reviewing. It's not a style for everyone, although I do believe that the more I learn about how the story is structured, the better the picture I'll have in regards to whether or not that story is worth my time reading.

Neth said...

Ahh this old stuff again - Larry, it's a very good post and right-on in so many respects. And at the same time it doesn't interest me at all.

I suppose I have short attention span, short on time, or whatever - but I don't want to read a lengthy review. I want 400-700 well chosen words that get to the point - if I start seeing quotes in a review I tune out and become not interests, and usually just skip to the last line or two.

Basically, the review I'm most interested in is like the reviews I write.

Larry said...

Ken,

While I understand your viewpoint, I cannot help but wonder if it's "healthy" for the 500-750 word summarization/opinion review model to be the dominant one when it comes to reviewing spec fic. If there's nothing to substantiate our claims and respondents fire back with accusations of being little better than say a Harriet Klausner, is that something that reviewers ought to be risking?

One can do a thoughtful, helpful review ("positive" or "negative" alike) without needing to write thousands of words. One can provide evidence of things to consider without citing pages of quotes (although obviously there is a time and place for that as well, as I hope my New Sun reviews have shown), but it takes effort and commitment to stand out. If five reviewers review five books and each uses similar language to describe each book, what service has been done by reviewing even a single one of them?

It's questions like that which ought to be nagging us like hellhounds on our trail. The style can vary, but the commitment to writing a quality review ought to be there.

S.M.D. said...

Well, I think the difference is that that Harriet woman doesn't actually read the books. She just posts blind reviews of things.
I read a lot of review blogs and most of them do the typical 700 words or less review, but each of them has been very different when the same book has been read and they do address things in the story, just not with quotes. Most people aren't interested in the longer reviews. They just want to know if the book is good, what makes it good, or if it's bad and what makes it bad. I don't think you do a disservice to anyone so long as you're honest.

Neth said...

Larry,

I actually agree with what you are saying - right now, the review model I happen to favor is dominant for fan-review blogs. And this is unhealthy. All too often, these reviews all look alike, especially when so many of the same books are reviewed close to one another. I try to do what I can to make the most of my short reviews given the time and effort I can realistically spend on writing them, but even so, they often get lost in the see of (mediocre) reviews out there. I think it's unfortunate.

There is definately room for more thurough reviews out there - which is why I would have loved to have seen Scalpel suceed (BTW - I still believe very strongly that ___ is Gabe back on the scene). I have written a review of that quality (Brasyl), but realistically I don't have the time (or desire) to do that with each review. And, it's not the type of review I'm most interested in writing.

So, are how much are addressing the 'quality' of reviews you see most often on-line and how much are addressing the very real problem that the majority of reviews out there are of the same 'quality' (I quoted quality because I don't feel it's a very complete word for what you are getting at, but it's all I could come up with at the moment ;)

Larry said...

A bit of both, Ken. I was just asked a related question for a post that SF Signal is doing in the near future and I talked about my concerns about there being too much of the same type of reviews that might lead to problems down the road. As for Scalpel, I was skeptical because of some of the personalities involved, as you well know from prior discussions. However, there is indeed a place for more in-depth reviews. It just takes a lot more effort to do so and since most of us were not fond of writing that level of review in college/grad school, I certainly can understand why many would eschew it. I just believe that there's a danger of writing LCD-type generic reviews that end up (if positive) being little more than near carbon copies of the press releases. I still haven't forgotten the furor over the Strange Horizons reviewer who half-jokingly asked if people were bribed to review Scott Lynch's first novel so positively, since she had a less-than-enjoyable time with it.

It's a fine line we all have to walk. Yes, as s.m.d. says, honesty is very important. But when the audience is an impersonal one and many might be searching for something that goes further in discussing the book at hand, having the ABC model that I listed in the main body ends up being detrimental for their needs. Not saying people must change, but rather that it never hurts to consider why we're writing the reviews that we do.

That being said, these Gene Wolfe reviews I've been doing - they've helped me as well to understand better what has transpired in those New Sun novels. Sometimes, review writing helps with personal understanding of a book, no? :D

 
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