The OF Blog: So what goes into making a review a "good" one?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

So what goes into making a review a "good" one?

About three months ago, I wrote a post about "poor, muddled reviews" that generated some discussion on a few sites. I then followed that up with one on "bad positive reviews," but despite mentioning my plans to write about what I felt constituted examples of "good" reviews on Abigail Nussbaum's blog, I never really got around to it, until now.

There were a few reasons why I waited so long. One was that soon after I wrote that post, I began a new teaching job at a local residential treatment center and I didn't have all those free hours that I did the first two months of the year. Another is that I wanted to shelve it for a bit, let my subconscious work things out. But to be honest, the main reason why I didn't write a substantial post about "good" reviews is that it is simultaneously an extremely simple matter to state and a dauntingly difficult task to complete to my satisfaction.

"Good," or well-written reviews don't usually share many obvious characteristics with each other. One such review might laud a book, while another will rip that same book to shreds; each having their own well-thought out processes. But if you delve a bit further, there are a few common traits that well-written reviews have.

1) Explication of opinions - It is one thing to say that Author X is great or that Author Y sucks donkey dong. It is a totally different thing when a reviewer not only comes to these conclusions, but writes a credible "thread of evidence" that allows the review reader insight not just into the book's strengths/flaws, but also into how the reviewer was processes this data.

2) Daring - It is easy to write a few platitudes or fire off a few verbal jabs at everyone's favorite punchbag. It is another matter to go down the road where you might be ripped for having an opinion contrary to another's. If something feels "wrong" about an author's work, explore it. Question why that passage didn't work or how this characterization approach works better than other examples you have seen. Push further, or as Samuel Beckett used to say, fail better.

3) Honesty - Related to #2, honesty is really a key. Most of us pay lip-service to being honest in our reviews. But often, even the best of reviewers will half-ass it on occasion. There are many reviews that I've written in the past couple of years that I wish I had been honest enough with myself, with the text, with the reactions that text was inspiring. Leaving things unsaid that could have been stated openly usually weakens the review.

4) Sui generis - This is a matter of "voice" and it is related to all three of the previous points. There is no "perfect model" for writing a well-written review. I enjoy many of John Clute's reviews, for example, but too often people get caught up in the superficial elements of his style and said people fail to push things, to develop their own "voice." Having a "voice" is a hard-earned thing; it just doesn't happen automatically, but usually takes a helluva lot of trial and error to develop. One blogger who I think is an excellent reviewer and interviewer is Robert of Fantasy Book Critic. Although he and I have different styles and approaches towards reviewing books (not to mention he and I often review different types of books as well), I have noticed that he constantly has pushed himself to improve his review writing and to make his reviews his. That is a very valuable trait to have and one that I believe is underdeveloped by too many attempting to get into regular blog reviewing.

I believe that if these four elements are developed by the reviewer and that the review reflects an honest attempt to grapple with the text in order to wrest something from it, that the review will be a thoughtful, worthwhile read, even when the conclusions might be drastically different from one's own. But yet, simple as these points sound, it is just so damn tempting to take those shortcuts, to scrimp on the textual analysis, to fail to explore possible reasons why the author chose to develop a story in a certain fashion, to fall short of what could be accomplished if just a little bit more effort had gone into evaluating one's own self and how that might affect the reading. This is certainly something that I need to work on and perhaps writing this out will allow me to check myself to make sure that I put the proper commitment into making my reviews true reviews and not shallow regurgitations of plot summary followed by half-baked opinions.

19 comments:

Dark Wolf said...

Very nice post, Larry. It helps me a lot in my attempt of improving my reviews. Even though the blogs are ment as a personal blog, I know that like the authors I review I'm too under the watch, from my readers. I know that sometimes I try not to offend an author with a very virulent opinion, but I try to write all the honest opinions that I have.

Before starting my blog I read many blogs that wrote reviews and even though there are many very good ones, my favorites were and are Robert's Fantasy Book Critic and Chris' The Book Swede. Those two were my inspirations and the impulse in starting my review blog. In the meantime I discovered other great review blogs and I know that I can't name all and with the risk to sound flattering I will name yours. For example, your reviews of books outside my main genre readings and for the great review of Joe Abercrombie's "Last Argument of Kings".

And thank you for this article and for making me want to be better.

Liviu said...

I agree with all these points. In addition I think there are 2 more things that I think important.

What is the purpose of the review? To whom is it addressed?

What is the context awareness of the reviewer?

For me, context in reviewing a book is of extreme importance - honestly I cannot see how you can review a book like Enchantress of Florence by S. Rushdie the same way as say Bloodheir by B. Ruckley, or for that matter Earth Ascendant by S. Williams, the latter 2 being middle volumes of trilogies, but of considerable different scope, purpose and execution, just to give some recent examples of books I put some thoughts online.

And while I thought the SH review of LAOK was very well done, I thought that conclusion "never transcends its setting", while definitely true, a big positive rather than the negative implied - or more precisely, I just do not see how you can transcend the epic settings and stay within the epic constraints.

Tolstoy's War and Peace is still a popular epic, does not transcend anything in my opinion at least - and I would strongly recommend people to give it a try if they love epics since it's a roaring read, while its "philosophy of history" is as pop as "heads on spikes never go out of fashion" of Abercrombie - and it achieved its hallowed literary status by the passage of time - as may JK Rowling for that matter 200 years for now...

Cheryl said...

That's good stuff, Larry. And you are also right that it is way too easy to succumb to crank something out, especially if you are under pressure.

However, I suspect I can, without too much difficulty, find examples of reviewers being yelled at for writing "bad" reviews precisely because they followed one or more of your guidelines. Your advice would lead to the sort of review I would want to read. It may not lead to the sort of review that other people want to read.

Mark C Newton said...

I think online reviewers - actually, individual blogs - find their own readership over a period of time. The internet is so vast that everyone's taste is met. For example, a forum-type reviewer may well attract like-minded readers; more academic-style analytical bloggers will find their own unique niche.

Things become more complex if the reviewer is an aspiring fiction writer, something that is very common. It can either go two ways. One, they understand how a writer operates, how they're trying to convey various elements of a story, and can bring unique things to our attention. Or two, they subconsciously - or even consciously - compare everything to how they would have written it. The latter is more dangerous of course, when good books are spoiled by bad egos.

Alex said...

I agree with the gist of what you're saying here, these elements should be included in a good review. What I want to add may be slightly off topic, but so be it.

One of the things that irkes me is the almost complete lack of negative reviews in the blogosphere. By that, I don't mean that reviewers should intentionally review books they hate just to balance things out, but that reviews are written about books they read that were disappointing. It seems to me that noone is bothered to write anything at all about bad books, unless it's Goodkind-related, and I'm sure all major reviewers receive lots and lots of mediocre, poor and outright rubbish books, many of which they read.

I realise that writing about bad books may be a chore, and that rubbishing a book may cost the reviewer some ARCs in the future, but never reading a negative review makes most me think that the reviewer is shirking his duties.

Neth said...

-alex

I can't speak for the other reviewers around here, but I think that one reason there is a lack of negative reviews is that I still choose what books I read. I know that I have a pretty good idea if I'm going to like a book or not from the blurb and other sources of info - and generally if I don't think I'll like the book, then I won't read it (that doesn't mean I don't take chances from time to time, but I have a good idea of what I like to read).

Also, I don't think negative reviews would deprive a reviewer or ARCs as long as they were fair reviews. It's part of the business and even (or especially) publishers appreciate an honest review.

Dark Wolf said...

Neth is right. Even with my blog I still choose what I read so that's why the lack of negative reviews. And I think if some reviewer finds a book that he really dislikes he stops reading it, I know I have done this once. One interesting point of view I've seen on asoiaf forums that said that the most reviewers read for fun and if they would read only bad books where will be the fun?

Larry said...

Quite a few comments to respond to, with many points I'll doubtless overlook here. But here goes:

DW - thanks!

Liviu,

I didn't include those two because I thought I had addressed them in passing in the two March posts. But those are indeed important things to remember. As for my review of the Abercrombie, that comment was my subtle response to those who were claiming in their blogs that LAoK was greater than sliced bread. It was good, but it certainly wasn't "great" and definitely not "change your view of epics."

Cheryl,

Yeah, it's a tricky matter. I tried to keep this short list as general as possible (because style is such an "individual" matter), but I've had some poo-pah some of my reviews for being specific in its praise and criticism! Amusing, which is why I don't take critiques too personally (well, after my MA Orals, who can?)

Mark,

That is an excellent point that I hadn't considered because I have little desire to be a fiction writer (non-fiction, that is still a remote possibility). I recall all too well reading books (and reviews) where the historian's ego got in the way of giving a fair shake to the work being critiqued/reviewed. And as for time/voice, 100% agreement here.

Alex,

As Neth/Ken says below, there are some pragmatic reasons why there aren't many negative reviews. In my longer reviews, I rarely just praise a book; there are some critiques of its perceived flaws. However, since I choose over 90% of the books I review (I've been assigned a few in recent months and am open for more commissioned reviews from paying sites), I tend to follow these guidelines:

If I have something substantive to say about a book, I'll review it.

If I believe a book deserves a greater audience or consideration, I'll review it.

If the book isn't appealing to me, I rarely will review it, since any publicity is good for the book.

If the book is bland and I'm left feeling lukewarm, I might review it, but it'll be difficult to do, since I won't be motivated to write the review.

Publishers and ARCs barely influence my reviewing decision. The only effect they have is perhaps sending me a book that I wouldn't have thought to request (say, my review of Mr. Fooster) but which I ended up enjoying greatly. Negative reviews don't deny me ARCs. If anything, in recent months, I'm getting more and more ARCs. I think I bought about a half-dozen books last month and received around 30 as review copies.

Fábio said...

As an apprentice reviewer in English language, I must say I also go to great pains in order to convey exactly what I mean - for instance, I´m avoiding the use of humor (not toliet humor, mind you, just plain, good old wit, which is accepted in Brazil), because I tried it once and the author felt offended by it (later I could explain to him what I meant and he understood it, though I´m not so sure he forgave me).

Even so, I´m trying constantly to improve my reviews. When I began writing reviews as a journalist in Brazil, I tried to follow a lesson my late aunt Herminia always told me: "If you can´t say anything good about someone, don´t say anything at all" (I´m quite sure you also have a similar saying in English).

Now, however, I´m beginning to see things in a different light. I concur with Larry in one thing: I still won´t review a book I didn´t like at all. If, however, I see the book isn´t great BUT is entertaining, I make a point of telling my readers what to expect, both negatively and positively.

But I still draw the line on one thing: I don´t write virulent-or-violent opinions at all. If I feel this sort of thing can happen when I´m reading a certain book, then I just don´t review it.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Excellent post. I'm always trying to improve my reviews and improve my "style" :) I'm trying to balance speedy reviews with quality, and it's a bit difficult sometimes.

I have no idea how Robert reviews as many books as he does -- nearly a book a day at his current rate, organise all his interviews, features, et cetera -- he's made a pact with a blogging demon and should be burned, I say. ;)

~Chris

Mark C Newton said...

It seems online reviewing has reached the stage where it is being reviewed itself - it's more exposed and less insular than the world of magazine reviewing, certainly. This can only be a good thing, and for me they're much more interesting that print reviews, especially since they're open for comments afterwards.

Fábio said...

Excellent point, Mark. Not to mention that online reviews can be updated at will, and you don´t have to wait a month or more to read a review, which is the case with paper magazines.

Larry said...

Good points, each of you. The interactive nature of online reviewing certainly is a key attraction, but I want to introduce something that I was discussing elsewhere.

One weakness of most blog reviews is the lack of an external editor; what we write is what we edit, if we edit at all. I have had only one of my reviews edited (the Abercrombie one for Strange Horizons last month; working on another for them which I'll hope to send in a week from tomorrow) and the review was much stronger for the suggestions made and accepted. Often the difference between an OK review and a well-written one will be the degree of (self/external) editing done. Should have added that to my original post, but I'll mention it here.

Mark C Newton said...

That's a good point re: editing. The interesting thing is with edited and unedited text is generally, the average reader (one who isn't trained in those ways) doesn't notice an unedited piece of writing, so much as think it's just a little rough at the most. It's very essential, you're right - but I wonder if it's the nature of the Internet that people just accept it? Text can always be improved of course, but in the fast-paced "lets see how many titles I can read in 200X" world, does it get noticed as much?

But once you see work being edited you know how much it is being made better (I should know, I'm currently suffering from Peter Lavery's pencil!). People may just read badly unedited text as a reviewer's unique style. Perhaps it's something certainly worthwhile for a prestigious site such as Strange Horizons?

(This was a badly rambling comment that could have benefitted from an edit!)

Fábio said...

Couldn´t agree more, Larry. Since I started reviewing short fiction for The Fix, Eugie Foster´s pencil has been doing wonders for my writing. I always compare the text I sent her with the final text published in the site, trying to learn where I was wrong and what I could do to improve my writing and my English (see, I have one more thing to worry about). :-)

Elena said...

RE Cheryl's point about negative reviews

I think most people who review for fun rather than with a serious readership in mind or for money (I'm thinking of myself here, when I review on my personal blog for its readership of about 5), tend to discuss books they felt something for. I read a lot of books I don't bother to review because I sort of liked them but they didn't impact me much, because there didn't seem to be much to say in the aftermath. They entertained me for an afternoon but didn't give me a new perspective on anything, didn't make me want to read it again or make a friend read it so we could discuss. However, if I am disappointed in a book, I will talk about that. And I think a lot of people into the same style of reviews will do that, too, because looking forward to reading a book (either one anticipated before release, or that simply seemed so great at the bookstore) only to read it and find out you were bamboozled...well, that's a feeling. But I read maybe 6,8 books a month as opposed to a week, so I have more time to finish things I'm not liking and hope they improve at the end...But overall I think most people read carefully, and either don't finish bad books or don't dislike them quite enough to spend more time on them by talking about them. It's an interesting criticism on reviews, however, so I will make a personal effort to change my ways. :)

Larry said...

Mark,

Having had hundreds of short reviews and essays edited the hard way (i.e. the "crimson marks" of a professor's grading), I have noticed something about my "unedited style" that usually doesn't survive the editing process: My tendency to write grammatically correct yet extremely complex dependent clause-laden sentences. It's become worse the past few years, after immersing myself with the Boom Generation writers, especially García Márquez! Thank God for editors when they're available!

Fábio,

I've done something similar with a friend of mine living in San Salvador. He and I have worked together on MSN IM hacking out how to translate English phrases into Spanish and Spanish into English. I guess it's getting easier for both of us, since most of the discussion is about the le mot juste and not what the particular word means in the other language. Bet you've started to see that on an even more nuanced level than what my friend and I have been working on!

Elena,

It's a very natural thing for readers (especially those who aren't commissioned to review something for an online or print magazine or newspaper) to review things that only affect them strongly one way or the other. The lukewarm-feeling books involve much more effort to write. That was a problem I had to face when I was commissioned to review Joe Abercrombie's Last Argument of Kings for Strange Horizons last month. After I read it and let it set for a bit before trying to start the review, I found myself feeling more and more "blah" about the book and its mechanics. But eventually I wrote a draft, had it edited, and the final draft was much, much better for the entire experience; it is one of my best-written reviews, I believe.

gav(NextRead) said...

Thanks Larry, and everyone, for lots of food for thought.

Mark has a good point about writers being reviewers. I don't think that egos do on the whole get in the way. The majority of print reviews in the UK papers are written by authors as they are seen as having the calibre to understand and evaluate work. I have a 2:1 degree in Creative Writing and experience in evaluation and criticism of the works of others.

So I’d consider my self qualified if push came to shove but I’ve never claimed any real agenda with my reviews or my blog apart from championing the books I liked, mentioning the books I don’t enjoy and why and informing people of all the wonder books they have to choose from. Oh and pointing them to other peoples opinions. I don’t think you can really just take one persons word for it.

I do give as honest as I can reviews, which is hard when you are self-editing, without venturing too much into analyse which is more criticism (in the complete sense) than a review.

Yep, and you’re not going to see too many negative reviews from me either. If I can make it to the end I’ll like it enough to review it which has to make it a 6/10 at least unless the author really messes up the ending. There are too many books to read books that you’re not enjoying – being challenging doesn’t mean that I won’t read it. I don’t go for easy reads I just won’t go for books that lack at least one driving factor to read keep reading. And if they’re making my inner editor shout there is no hope.

Larry said...

Good points, Gav. I'm qualified to review a certain type of specialized book, the historical monograph, for peer-review places, but that hasn't stopped me from wanting to become as accomplished in reviewing fictional works. Ambition isn't always a bad thing, right? :D

 
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