The OF Blog: Some Problems I See With Reviews

Friday, August 27, 2004

Some Problems I See With Reviews

The recent entry regarding Fan Love has generated plenty of discussion, with some of us raising the issue of how one goes about evaluating an author's work. I thought I'd take a few minutes and expound upon the position I took in that discussion.

Book reviews are by their very nature a difficult beast to tame, much less master. In addition to the almost countless personal differences between authors, there are just as many idiosyncracies that reviewers reveal in their commentaries on the books they have read. Some might employ a direct comparison model, examining one book based on another author's work. That approach can work for those familiar with both, but the possibility of reader confusion is greater, especially if that reader is not very well-read on the other author being compared in the review.

Other reviewers tend to focus on the book itself, but without providing much in terms of a frame of reference. One review that bothered me recently was Michael Dirda's review of China Miéville's Iron Council. In his review, I found a few flaws that rendered this review very unhelpful for me. Now I had already read the book by this time, but what I observed not only failed to persuade me to consider the book from his vantage point, but it also made me wonder if he detected any weaknesses at all in the story.

First, I noticed that he uses almost hyberbolic language to describe the author. Adjectives such as "dazzling," coupled with non-contextual comparisons to Nabokov and Alexander Theroux made this occasional critic wonder if Dirda was writing a press release or a balanced review of the book. Sometimes, a little more pedestrian language can go a long way with certain readers trying to decide whether or not a book is right for them.

Secondly, Dirda jumps back and forth from discussing the book and the author, giving the review an uneven feel to it. Is his purpose to discuss the merits of the book or to convince others that Miéville is a cool author? One or the other would be very valid approaches to take, but I was left feeling that his combination of the two weakened his case.

Another thing that bothered me about his review and this is a common complaint I have (and one that I myself have been guilty of in the past) is that of too much plot exposition. While Dirda is not nearly as bad as other reviewers in repeating a book blurb (Harriet Klausner being infamous for doing this), there are still too many comments that resemble a plot synopsis rather than a critique of a book's merits and weaknesses.

But the thing that bothered me most was that Dirda did not seem to address any possible weaknesses in the work. A reader who had read only Dirda's review might be misled into believing that Miéville was a practically flawless writer who wrote universally praised stories. Now I'm not implying that I think Miéville is a bad writer (I happen to enjoy his scenes more than I am frustrated by his buildup to them), but sometimes a brief examination of the problems that many have had with his earlier works would have made a positive review of Iron Council all that much more compelling in comparison.

To be fair to Dirda, however, it is very difficult to write a review that is going to meet most reader expectations. It might be that he expected those reading his review to be unfamilar with China Miéville and that he believed that he needed to introduce the author. However, one could then argue that most neophytes would be better served reading his earlier Bas-Lag novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar) first, but that is beside the point. Sometimes readers want to be sold on the author before committing to buying the book.

Another problem reviewers face is that of reader expectations. Do they expect to be wowed by the review, or do they want just to know the gist of the plot? Or would they rather know more about how the author constructs his/her sentences and characters and not to have the main focus of the review be on plot exposition? Very difficult set of questions to answer indeed.

So what do reviewers do about it? The answers are as numerous as the number of those reviewing. Some might be unapologetic for coming across as cheerleaders (or for being catty), while others might strive painstakingly for a pros/cons approach to a book. There is no "correct" answer, although it can be argued that for those such as myself, reviewers in general should try to focus more on balancing book description with an analysis of what works and what does not work.


Anonymous said...

Well, I 've done my fair share of reviews at OF, so I'll give my insight. I disagree with some of the things you brought up.

I think it's perfectly fine to talk about the book and the author in general in a review, though I'd probably handle each in their own paragraphs and go on with reviewing the book.

Likewise I PREFER some plot synopsis in the reviews I read. I've read too many reviews using "dazzling" language or talking about "Depth" in a story or whatever, and they never say what the basic plot is about, or what themes I can find in the story. That's why I shape my reviews usually the way I do. I mention the basic opening plot and a theme or two you'll be able to find in the story. My reviews are basically the reviews I'd like to read. But I agree they shouldn't dominate the review. I handle all that in a paragraph or two.

There should also be a discussion of merits and weaknesses of a story. If you are familiar with an author's previous works, I'd even like to see conversation about his weaknesses in context to his other stories. Thus why it might be important to talk about the author in general.

So, yes. I prefer a small plot synopsis over "no" plot synopsis because in my opinion, that's even worse. And I also like to hear about what themes or messages I might encounter in the book.

The secret is to give a taste without giving it all away That to me is the perfect review.

Lsrry said...

True, but when the vast majority of the "review" is just a summation of a book and little analysis as to why that book worked/didn't work for the reviewer, wouldn't you agree that such recapitulations of book blurbs aren't all that helpful in determining how that book is being viewed by the critics?

I was trained in college and grad school to critique a book by first giving an overview of where it falls in a more general body of literature and then to explore that particular book's strengths and weaknesses. I got ripped for the times when I tried to get by with just summarizing the book. I had to dig deeper and not just say that the author goes from Point A to Point B, but instead exploring the pitfalls of that travel and if he/she made that journey as swiftly and as smoothly as possible.

Now the vast majority of my OF reviews have been shallow affairs, I'll admit. Looking back, I probably should have devoted at least 750 words to the review, preferably 250-500 more, just to place that work in context with the general literature as well as exploring why the various plot/character devices employed worked or didn't work for me. I do plan on doing this in the future, however. I might not get paid for my reviews, but I think it's about time that I wrote reviews as if I did.

That being said, can you tell what else I was talking about when I referred to the idiosyncracies of reviewers?

Anonymous said...

Well, like I said. I've also come across reviews that offer no plot synopsis. So the entire review is about the person's strength of prose, and slight weak points in the setting, or even how well they handle Utopian ideals, yet I don't have a freaking clue what the book is about plot-wise. So I'll read the review, go that's nice, and move on. But I also agree there's the other extreme that offers all plot synopsis and that's what a book blurb is for.

One of the things I thought you were hinting at in your post was that the reviews seem to be "Press-conference" blurbs rather than actual reviews. I've noticed this too. That's why when I reviewed Third Alternative and Amazing Stories I was presently surprised to find "negative" reviews of books they didn't like, and weren't praising to the high heavens.

At Clarion, Gordon Van Gelder told us he gets soooo many books for review. He sends them off to his reviewer...Charles De Lint? And he picks, which books he wants to read and review. I have a sneaky suspicion they often chose the ones they are going to like. I noticed the same thing in Realms of Fantasy and their reviews. They only really had books they liked. I saw no negative reviews. But they seemed to onlyhave 3-5 books reviewed and dedicated a lot less room than Third Alternative gives to reviews. Or say the newly ressurected Amazing Stories (even though rumor has it the editor might have stepped down, already), which is like ALL reviews and takes the reviews more seriously than their fiction.

But I agree that a lot of reviewers come off as cheerleaders more than neutral eyes of observation.

mapthis said...

"One of the things I thought you were hinting at in your post was that the reviews seem to be "Press-conference" blurbs rather than actual reviews."

I think this is the case far more often than a writer giving an honest opinion. There will be varying motivations behind this (I would think) like: cozying up to the publisher/author; wanting their blurb to make it to the paperback cover; lack of an actual opinion; lack of talent; or even the fear of confrontation.

I think it's also the case that just because you write a review, doesn't mean it's well written, just as a writer sitting down and typing something out doesn't make it a perfect story. Sometimes you write something perfect, sometimes you hit the wall. The reviewer marketplace is just as over-populated as the author marketplace.

For me, balance is the key. Give me a synopsis, tell me your opinion of the premise, examine the writing style, and tell me how it fits with the author's other works, as well as other works in their field/genre/etc.

Anonymous said...

Some interesting questions…
PR prostitute or baleful critic, which is better and is there a happy medium or does good reviewing have nothing to do with either?
How do you read a review? Is that more important than how it’s written?
Is a it a case of less is more (or more is best) where other peoples opinions are concerned? What makes a better review comments on quality or synopsis with commentary? Something else?

IAYF (wotmania)

Anonymous said...

Rob Bedford ( from SFFWorld ( here...

Like the blog so far, keep it up!

I've been writing book reviews for SFFW for a couple of years now and I find myself walking a thin line most of the time. I want to provide a summation of the book, the strengths of the book, and my reaction to the book.

I know some of my reviews have been mediocre at best, but some of them, I feel were very strong efforts.

I think in writing a review it is important to place the book within the genre most of the time. We all want a measuring stick to judge something by don't we?

I like to think I'm giving the reader of the review either a reason to read the book or not to read the book.

Often enough, though, encapsulating my thoughts about a book I enjoyed is tough. Let's take IRON COUNCIL since it was mentioned above. I liked the book, but was a bit daunted to review it considering China's been labeled the next big thing all over the place. Would my review stand up to other reviews of his work? Would I do the book justice?

On the other hand, I also like Greg Keyes BRIAR KING and really felt up to the task of writing the review, and it wound up being one of my longer [and stronger]reviews, between 750 and 1000 words.

I approach each book review I write differently in terms of pro/con, cheerleader. Basically, I try NOT to do what Harriet Klausner does.

Lsrry said...

Hey Rob, sorry for the lateness in replying back. Work has been keeping me very, very busy, plus Blogger's been messing up on me today.

I understand exactly how you feel about writing reviews over "hot" authors such as China. I had a difficult time trying to decide what to write without giving too much away and ended up deciding that I'd give an impression piece rather than a substantial review of the book itself. Wasn't very happy with the result, so I understand how you feel.

Hopefully, I'll have more to say in the near future. This blogging gig might become addictive!

Anonymous said...

Rob B again...

Actually been corresponding with John Birmingham, author of WEAPONS OF CHOICE, published by Del Rey books, with my review of the book posted earlier this week. I had a bit of a tough time with the review because I found one substantial flaw in the book and wanted to balance my criticism of with the good I saw in the book
...Well, he e-mailed me to inform me that my criticism was spot on and may help him in the subsequent sequels to the book, so I guess I'm doing something right.

I plan on setting up a blog myself, waiting on DSL and a router so I can be online on my laptop anywhere in my house.

Lsrry said...

Cool, Rob. Let me know when it's up and I'll be sure to read it. And isn't it great to learn that authors appreciate constructive criticisms and are thankful for them being pointed out?

Anonymous said...

Heres the review of Weapons of Choice:

4 of my other *official* SFFW reviews posted earlier this week, too.

Lsrry said...

Thanks, Rob. I'll give it a read very shortly!

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