The OF Blog: Reflections on reviewing

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reflections on reviewing

Over the past eight years (or 5.5 years, if you want to start with the blog reboot of May 2007), I have written close to 500 reviews for this blog, Gogol's Overcoat, and a couple of online and print magazines.  This month alone, I have written almost 40 reviews, book and cinema alike, as part of a 30-in-30 challenge that I set myself back in October (this does not count the reposts of earlier 2012 reviews of William Faulkner novels and short fiction that were originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat).  I will write either one or two more reviews by the end of tomorrow, likely L. Annette Binder's Rise and/or Mark Helprin's In Sunlight and in Shadow.  It has been a challenging review time, but hopefully there has been something of interest for at least some of the readers here.

Yet there are a few things that I've noticed while doing this review project that I thought might be worth exploring in an essay.  The first thing I've noticed is that I have to be careful not to write a review to fit a format.  Sometimes books demand more than just 850-1200 words (my typical review length, including quotes) and there are times where it feels that I have flattened the discussion of a book's merits and weaknesses in order to fit the review into a certain slot.  I think the poetry reviews for the five 2012 National Book Award finalists in that category largely avoided that, as I had to work somewhat harder to explain just what it was that I noted in the verses that was worthy of praise and which needed a more critical eye turned upon it.  However, I am more of a "layperson" when it comes to poetry (despite my nearly life-long love for the form and my experience in college having to translate portions of Books I and IV of Vergil's Æneid) and there certainly is not as much of a focus on technique as there could have been if I were reviewing a history or a fiction.

In terms of viewership spikes, the blog traffic has been relatively flat over the past four months, whether or not I was writing dozens of reviews that month or going almost a month or two without writing a single one.  This is not surprising, as with few exceptions there have been few retweets or links to my reviews from other people.  Some of this is likely due to the books being reviewed, even if they are 2012 releases, being of little interest to those who may wish that I would have read/reviewed the latest Joe Abercrombie novel (which I have little interest in reading) around its release date instead of reviewing Clair Vaye Watkins' excellent debut collection, Battleborn.  When I decided two years ago to forego soliciting review copies and to read/review what interested me more than the latest crop of epic fantasies that many other online reviewers cover, I knew that there would be a steady drop of traffic.  I honestly expected it to be a 33%-50% drop at least, but it seems that it's more in the 15%-20% drop range, with 2012 actually being about 10% stronger than 2011.

If I were concerned overmuch with stats and traffic, perhaps I could have ditched my plans and gone back to promoting "the latest and greatest" genre fictions.  However, that would run counter to my reason for reviewing and blogging.  The value in online reviewing isn't always in being the first (or one of the first) in a herd to review a book/series that has a good marketing budget.  At times, readers are searching for that singular review of a book that they heard about years ago or which they might want to read if only someone had written a review of a work that didn't receive the huge marketing push.  In addition, sometimes readers want to read more than just SF/F fiction.  It seems for those readers, those who use Google or Yahoo or some other search engine to find a review, that this blog and the others I've written for (Gogol's Overcoat, the mirror blog Vaguely Borgesian) are filling a niche.

In the future, I do not know what all I'll be reviewing or blogging about.  I have given some thought to resuming interviews, but focusing on writers and editors from outside the Anglophone sphere.  There probably will be some current SF/F being reviewed, but I think there will be a greater focus on translated/literary/weird fictions for the foreseeable future.  I have noticed that I am (slowly) receiving queries regarding my interest in reviewing literary fictions and I may accept a few of these, as these fiction types (I do not consider it to be a unified genre, regardless of what some SF/F apologists might argue.  Hilary Mantel and Blake Butler, for example, couldn't be more heterogenous in style, content, and focus if they tried.) do interest me these days and I hope some of the readers here will consider some of these.  Regardless of what I choose to review, I choose with with the knowledge that some will not be pleased with my choices, that they (if they haven't already abandoned reading this blog) will go elsewhere for the content that they desire.  This is fine; I seek to draw an audience that wants reviews of certain fictions that are rarely found outside of certain print/online outlets.  And if I were to review Diego Marini's New Finnish Grammar next to Victor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror, perhaps there would be some who would be interested in both.

But in the meantime, it's back to writing about what I have grown to love and perhaps this will inspire a few others to read something that they otherwise would not have been aware of, much less interested in reading.  The time for discovery has not yet passed nor shall it for quite some time, I hope.


Juan Manuel Pazos said...

Bravo everything! I usually buy second hand books except in a few cases, notably books in series I have been following. I'm trying not to start series that haven't been published in full so as not to have a long waiting period between books and because the older the book the cheaper (often). In consequence I am not particularly up to date with new releases or hot authors, neither in genre nor in literary fiction. I find it quite liberating to be honest. The only drawback is not being able to take part in a discussion about whatever is fashionable or famous at a given moment but ultimately that's not a big con.

Larry Nolen said...

Sometimes it's for the best not to participate when a group rushes to get the "hot new number," as that can prevent a better perspective being gained when so many are rushing to present theirs.

I also love buying used books, as most of my book porn posts are of books I find in a local used bookstore :D

Juan Manuel Pazos said...

I like it very much when I just buy a book I know nothing about on a whim and it turns out to be a great read. That happened to me with The Piano Tuner for instance.... or A Conspiracy of Paper. They might not be the best books ever written but the feeling was that I was the only person on earth who knew anything about them, I had no references or preconceptions so the experience was of absolute discovery. That's an immense joy. Book porn is the best kind of porn, by the way. The cleanest in any case. ;)

Larry Nolen said...

I don't know, I think I almost contracted a fungal infection from a BTD-infected used book; it did smell a bit funky and I did have a runny nose a day later...

But yes, discoveries are wonderful things :D

Anonymous said...

I have only been reading this blog for the past couple of years, having discovered it while seeking reviews of Jeff Vandermeer and Gene Wolfe books. While I have read my share of epic fantasy (mostly in the late 90s), my tastes have shifted towards various pretentious literary fictions and the areas in which they overlap with other genres. As such, I find your blog covers more range among my interests than others. I like the direction the blog has taken during the couple years I have read it.

Larry Nolen said...

Glad you enjoyed it! Don't know if I'll write 1-2 reviews/day for December like I did for November, but there are a few other recent releases that I'm planning on reviewing that hopefully will be of interest to you and others.

Juan Manuel Pazos said...

I would be happy with 2-3 reviews a week.

Larry Nolen said...

That might be more feasible, as I certainly didn't like trying to write reviews during college football games these past few weeks (writing one an hour after returning home from a 3.5 hour drive to my alma mater, then the game, then food and another 3.5 hour drive back was exhausting).

Need to get final reading prep done for a holiday-related 2012 notable books list. Hope to have it up by the 10th or 11th.

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