The OF Blog: An open letter to self-conscious reviewers

Thursday, March 20, 2008

An open letter to self-conscious reviewers

There has been an interesting discussion occurring in the comments section of this post. When I linked to it yesterday, I did so with the intent of showing how another blogger was justifying his approach in light of my post on muddled negative reviews. Points and counterpoints on that point were made early in Pat's response, but then he shifted into territory that made a few people uncomfortable:

I've told every blogger who has asked me for advice the same thing: Be yourself. You must have your own voice and not try to do what everyone is doing. Sadly, not everyone took this counsel to heart. The problem with a lot of the newer SFF bloggers out there is that they have no voice. You read their stuff, and it feels as though they are afraid to offer their honest opinion. It seems that they don't want their personality to shine through their words, as if afraid that the supply of ARCs and review copies will dwindle and die if they say anything wrong. Gabe Chouinard had a voice. Jay Tomio has a voice. William Lexner has a voice. Rob Bedford and Mark (Hobbit) from have a voice. The same can be said of all of those who helped start the Blogosphere phenomenon which took the genre by storm a while back. We didn't give a damn and we could be brutally honest. Passion for the genre was what fuelled us, not any promises for rewards. After all, publishers saw us as little more than turds back then.
Some of the newer SFF review bloggers felt a bit uncomfortable by this, as if they were wondering whether or not Pat was referring to them when he talked about a "lack of voice." Questions were raised and addressed in the comments. If you are curious about that, just click on the link above and read all of the responses. However, I want to address a few points not raised in the comments on Pat's blog.

I do agree that too often there is a sense of "sameness" about many reviews, which is part of the motivation behind my recent posts on what I believe ought to be part of a strong review. If one wants to get the sense of what book is being "pushed," all that reader would have to do is visit a dozen or so blogs over the course of 1-2 weeks and see if the same book is being mentioned and/or reviewed during that span on at least half of those. That is all fine and dandy; it is the nature of the publicity beast. "Buzz" happens for whatever reason and far be it for me to criticize people for reviewing what they've heard about and which seems to be closest to their heart.

There is that worrisome "but what if..." behind all this, however. But what if people aren't daring to be themselves in these reviews, especially those who are receiving review copies from the publishers? But what if these reviewers are writing with an eye for publicity or for the tangible rewards of review blogging? But what if these guys and gals aren't being honest with themselves and others? But what if they are just so damn self-conscious about everything that they don't dare to explore and to challenge?

I'll answer all those "but what if..." questions with one of my own: But what if I don't give two rat shits on a stick about what others are going to believe about my motivations? I take criticism, especially that of the constructive type, quite well. I love to hear from those who have different takes from mine or from those who are willing to take the time to point out weaknesses in my writing or in my analysis. I believe if you're positively self-centered enough to spend hours a week writing words about something that another has written, you better then believe in yourself enough to go out and do what you like.

I post about multilingual matters. One of my favorite authors is a dead, blind Argentine short story writer, poet, and literary critic. Another is a Serbian fabulist. A third is a dead 20th century Irish novelist and short story writer. While there are a few similarities between the three, they differ markedly in their approaches to constructing a story and in how they use language to create vivid mental landscapes. They dared to write things that differed from others around them, while still acknowledging the influence of others from disparate writing disciplines.
I believe reviewers can take something from that. Don't just read whatever gets the most "press." Don't just read what the publishers send you. Don't just read within a narrow definition of genre. Jeff VanderMeer recently wrote on this and his advice is quite good:

Read books you don’t like. You gain as much from understanding what you don’t like and knowing why as from reading work you approve of.
Some people online and in my personal life have this mistaken belief that I am well-read. I am not. While it is true that I have read thousands of books from dozens of time periods, nationalities, genres, and so forth, I have explored just enough to know that I barely have scratched the surface. Sometimes, an active search turns up a treasure trove of books, such as my discovery from Edward Whittemore and Ngugi wa Thiong'o after I read positive comments from a few trusted authors and fellow review bloggers. Other times, I have read mediocre-to-poor books based on recs, such as Scott Lynch's disappointing second novel. But in each case, I dared enough to go out and buy those books. Too often, all I see mentioned on the majority of the blogs listed in the Review Blogs section of my blog are only the "latest" and "best" books. Where are those hunts for the diamonds in the rough? Where are the critiques of the strengths and weaknesses of books that don't fit comfortably into any pre-defined niche?

I cannot help but to wonder if there is a missing of the forest for the trees effect going on here with many review blogs. Referring back to Pat's post, he makes a comment with which I disagree strongly:

I recently read about how many SFF reviewers felt that fandom had become fragmented to a degree which was alarming. From where I'm sitting, that couldn't be further from the truth. For the first time in the history of the genre, people have a choice as to where they want to go for reviews, articles, and related material. Which, in the end, explains the proliferation of blogs and websites everywhere. And that's as it should be. Instead of being forced to read John Clute and his ilk (which we had no choice to do for years and years and years), fans now have the luxury to go where they please. Some come here, while many others visit a panoply of blogs, websites, fanzines, etc. Fandom is driven by the same passion for SFF; the last couple of years have presented them with alternatives regarding where they can now get their information.
This belief in one big happy (and unified) community I believe demonstrates a lack of awareness of all of various subgenres and approaches out there. Taking a quick glance at the blogroll at Pat's site, the vast majority reviews only a small fraction of the books out there. Considering that some of the largest spec fic bloggers (many of whom are well-known authors), especially those who are not epic fantasists, are not represented at all, nor are their concerns and interests. While one teacup tempest rages in one part of the spec fic blogosphere, another section is calm, unaware of the "momentous" debates and discussions occurring elsewhere. Even today, going to Timbuktu takes some effort and I don't believe many on any side of this make that much of a conscious effort to explore and to discover new insights from people around them.

So while I really do want to agree with much of what Pat writes in his post, I just cannot help but to think that comments such as "forced to read John Clute and his ilk" demonstrate only a provincial attitude of self-satisfaction. After all, if one is going to dare to read what might be disliked or challenging for that reader, one ought to approach all of this with the attitude of "hey, maybe there's something of worth to be discovered there." Shit doesn't smell sweeter just because it came from your asshole, you know. Being convinced that one's style, approach, or likes/dislikes is "proper" or "hey, it works for me" without showing some regard for another approach (I'm not saying you have to agree with it, only that you have tried to be aware of other points of view) is quite hypocritical.

In closing, the majority of what I have said above can be boiled down to one simple maxim that Immanuel Kant had: Sapere aude. If that is followed, then self-consciousness ought to be at a minimum. And thus concludes this so-oh-self-important scribbling. I have things to learn now.


Joe Sherry said...

"Shit doesn't smell sweeter just because it came from your asshole, you know"

Oh, no, no. It may not smell sweeter, but I don't notice the stank.

I still don't really agree with Pat, though I do see *some* sameness, but I think that may also come from a sense of excitement.

Let's take Joe Abercrombie (or Scott Lynch, or any of the recent popular names).

Someone writes about The Blade Itself. Loves it. Someone else decides to go find the book, loves it. Writes about it. And so on and so forth. I don't think Ken at Neth Space is full of shit, so I go grab the book too. Hey, I think it is a highly entertaining read, a bit obvious at times, but thrilling. Exciting. So I write about it.

Sameness, but not from the intent to be the same, just because the zeitgeist is hitting and we're all writing about books and we all happened to like the same book within a 5 month period. So be it.

Granted, I'm just as happy to rip on some older Glen Cook novels because I'm disappointed, but I don't think like Pat seems to suggest, that the newer writers don't share the same sense of passion about the genre. I think that's bullshit. I also think that was a horribly written sentence. But, the idea is crap. Or, perhaps, my perception of what Pat is saying is crap and the line rubs me wrong.

Either way, folks are doing what they want to do, the cream rises to the top, and since none of us are getting paid for this in anything more than the occasional free book, it's an odd conversation about being self conscious in blogging.

Neth said...

oh dear - it's spreading. Now bloggers are obliged to weigh in on this. At least the discussion has finally turned toward the smell of shit ;)

I think it's time to bow out of the discussion (until it all starts again in a few months).

Larry said...

Well, I just try to get my shit together, ya know ;) That and I couldn't pass on the opportunity of expounding on thoughts I've had for a while now.

Joe, here's a question I've asked myself on occasion: What is it about "right then and now" that is so important about reviewing a book? Is there a limited "shelf life" before the review "window" is closed? I'll admit there's that temptation to be the first to comment on a book or to be part of a "wave," but what if such things come at the risk of writing a review that fails to address the book's structure, strengths, weaknesses, etc.?

There have been times that I've read back over some of my shorter reviews and have cringed, because the reviews were sloppy and (in cases that I re-read the book a year or two later) full of comments that I wouldn't have stated if I had been more careful.

You mention Abercrombie. I am in the midst of writing two reviews of his last two books, one for here, the other for elsewhere. I read those books last month and I really thought they were an improvement. But I decided that I would give it some "breathing space" and wait a few weeks, re-read with notation of certain quotes/events being jotted down as I did so, then I'd write the reviews.

Guess what? My formerly very high opinion of these two books is going to be downgraded somewhat, because I found certain flaws in the characterization that I had overlooked before. It's not enough to make me dislike the book or to note that a great many would enjoy reading it, but it is enough to ensure that there will be qualified, mixed praise/criticism in my reviews.

I earned a MA in Cultural/Religious History. For a historiography class, I had to give a presentation on the Annalist School and their concept of the longue durée, or the "long view." The Annalists' concerns were different from those who wanted to look at how contemporaries tried to capture the espirit du temps in their writings; they were interested in structures and how things evolved. While my own historical leanings were more towards the neo-Marxists and the poststructuralists, when I write reviews these days, I do try to look at it from that long view approach. "Is this book going to be as good on a re-read?" "Is it overly dependent upon plot twists, or will its characterizations allow for things to be gained on a re-read?" If the answer to these questions is a "no," then likely there are flaws in the construction of the story.

And as for the "not getting paid," well...I'm scheduled to be paid for an upcoming review, so I can't say that I agree with you there ;)

And Ken, you know how bored I get on occasion. Just another way of getting people to think/react rather than being content to read platitudes. I hate those damn things. Give me people who'll threaten to shove rusted, barbed objects up orifices (not that I'm into that, I ought to add!) :P

Lawrence said...

Holy crap, Larry, you just beat me to the punch. You've just listed one of the main reasons why I grew so fed up with review bloggers (not all of them, mind you). I was working on an "ending" post last night and pretty much struggled with the same things as you pointed out here. I made a choice myself and decided that I didn't want to be part of it or associated with it -- and thus I am winding down my reviewing activities on the blog.

A lengthier explanation will follow in the coming days, I imagine.

Joe Sherry said...

I don't think it is necessarily "right then and now", but for some (maybe just for me), I may be able to right a better review the closer to when I finish the book. I could wait a couple of weeks, but I may start forgetting some of the details I wanted to talk about.

So, I think it just depends on when the book is read.

A few weeks can still be part of that "wave", so putting off a review a day or a week or a month can keep a wave going. I just don't think the wave is meaningful.

In terms of review content, I think you're one of the reviewers who goes into greater detail and require more time to review. Despite wishes to the contrary, I just don't / can't see things the way you do when you write about books. I'm not sure what waiting another week before a review would accomplish on my end, though I do get your point about the initial impression changing over time, but that being the case I could wait a year and see if I still cared enough to write the review in the first place.

Robert said...

I was wondering if you were going to chime in ;) Interesting take as usual. Personally, I voiced my opinion on the topic a long time ago with CD review websites which had the same issues, so I'm pretty much done with the matter :) Basically, I'm just going to keep doing what I set out to do and that's keep covering new fantasy, science fiction and horror as much as I possibly can...partly because I love reading & writing, but also to help promote authors and their books...

Larry said...


I would suggest that you don't make any "absolute" decisions in regards to blog reviewing. Taking a break is fine and might be necessary, but leaving altogether just because of what others do is not a good reason in my opinion. Post whatever you want, but I would suggest that you post in hopes of discovering new things about yourself and how you interact with books. That's the main reason most bloggers blog...well that and being "seen" and "heard." :P I must admit that I do get some notoriety for what I post, but I do that more to work out thoughts in my head and to stimulate my curiosity about matters. I would suggest that you use your blog to explore things of interest to you without being concerned what I or others do.


I had to be trained in the techniques that I use in my commentaries and reviews. It's not something learned in a day or a month; it took me years to grasp the fundamentals and then to work on the specifics. Still learning, actually. That is why I want to be more sure of my own thoughts before I plunge into things, as I do tend to get irritated by sloppy, hyperbolic reviews ;)


I really like how you and Tia approach covering novels, especially those of newer authors. Although I don't always agree with your takes, I have noticed that you put more time and thought into writing those reviews and as a result, I usually garner a better sense of the type of book being reviewed from your reviews than I do from Pat's, to use a specific example. But as Pat has said multiple times, he's not into that sort of reviewing and since his base seems to prefer the broad-strokes style of reviewing that he appears to favor, more power to him. All I know is that the only reviewer whose reviews I can control is my own and that I like to challenge and to be challenged. If only more (or any) people would comment on that Derrida quote...

Robert said...

Well thanks for the compliments :) I think like a lot of bloggers, I try to write reviews that I personally want to read myself. In fact, that's how I got into the music business in the first place.

My number one resource for finding new music used to be Amazon and browsing reader reviews, but I just got so frustrated with one-two sentence reviews that didn't say anything, that I decided to write my own reviews and actually talk about the muscianship, the vocals, lyrics, songwriting, radio accessibility and so on.

And now I've tried to apply those same techniques to reviewing books but I'm still working on it. It probably took me a couple of years to really get comforatable with the way I reviewed CDs and as of now, I'm not totally satisfied with how I review books so we'll see what happens...

Larry said...

I'm always experimenting as well. I come from a very academic background and what I say in regards to what I believe are "good" reviews might irritate a few who don't understand my background and what I seek to find. I aim to write reviews that take a "middle ground" of sorts between the Amazon-type starred reviews and the pages-long literary critiques. I can write the latter and I do value them on occasion, but I'm more interested in trying to write 1500 word reviews that do a lot within those words. That being said, I finally got a bit of insight on what's troubling me about writing those Abercrombie reviews. Might get one written today at last.

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