The OF Blog: Trying to grasp muddled, poor reviews

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Trying to grasp muddled, poor reviews

I like to read reviews that others have written, especially of books that I have read. Sometimes, I learn quite a bit from reading a well-argued review that expresses opinions diametrically opposite to my own. There have been times that my opinion of a work improved (one recent example being China Miéville's Iron Council) after I examined what others had to say about it, while in a few cases (Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind) I had to admit there were certain structural weaknesses that I had overlooked in my initial commentary on it after reading what others had to say. A well-structured review, positive or negative alike, can be very influential in shaping, or in certain cases re-shaping, a reader's take on a novel.

However, a review that jumps all over the place and doesn't really engage the work at hand can muddy the waters a bit. When I read a review, whether it be full of ebullience or that it resembles the infamous "nattering nabobs of negativism,"and there isn't a consistent thread that ties evidence to opinion, I'm left going "buh?" There are three examples from the negative side (I may write a post in the future about the unsubstantiated hype reviews I've read) that I want to examine a bit:

The first is taken from a review that Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist wrote when he was beginning to do reviews. Since then, Pat has improved significantly, but this review of Caitlin Sweet's The Silences of Home has stuck in my craw for almost three years now, not just because I disagreed with his stance but more because it was so vague and disconnected.

Unfortunately, The Silences of Home doesn't deliver at all, basically on every level. So much so that I didn't even finish the novel. I went as far as page 318, and I was forced to abdicate. I can count on the fingers of my hands how many books I have not been able to go through in my life, so this is not something that occurs very often. Indeed, the last book I failed to finish was Weis and Hickman's Well of Darkness.
While I appreciate his honesty here about stopping roughly 3/5 into the novel, I began to wonder at his mentions of unconnected books (something that continues throughout the course of the review). I'm of the camp that believes that in most cases, a book ought to be compared only with its own self, with its aims/intentions and how well those are achieved, rather than to anything else. In this review, while Pat uses the blurb copy as a means of comparison, the analysis of aims/intents compared to results/conclusions never breaks the surface level.

The first point that needs to be made is that this novel should be considered a "Young Adults" book. Something for people who are a bit unfamiliar with the fantasy genre, who have yet to read the "powerhouses" such as Jordan, Kay, Donaldson, Williams, etc. I don't believe that any well-read person could get into this one. According to the blurb, Sweet's latest is «a saga of epic sweep.» Honestly, this novel has about as much depth as a Forgotten Realms book. The transitions are very awkward, and the entire tale doesn't flow quite right.
There is no further exploration of what "Young Adults" means to Pat and if Sweet's book actually qualifies. Again, a mention of other books without grounding the present book's themes and execution. While we get a mention of the transitions being awkward, there is no evidence provided to support his comments. To be fair, Pat has said time and time again that he isn't after a detailed analysis of a book, but rather to give a sort of "layman's take" on a book and to see if Book X stacks up with similar books that he's read. All well and good (and Pat's justified popularity bears out how much similar-minded readers appreciate this no-frills approach to reviewing), but yet I feel a great injustice has been done to Sweet's book here and to those who might not know Pat from Mork from Ork. There was nothing in that review that showcased these perceived shortcomings. No sample of the dialogue to show whether or not these characters were "one-dimensional." No discussion of the story arc at all. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. In the end, I was left wondering if we had read the same book, because there was nothing in that review that jibed with my take on it.

Back in 2006, a reviewer for Strange Horizons, C.M. Morrison, wrote a review of Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora that generated quite a visceral response in the ever-tempestuous SF blogosphere teacup, much of it dealing with this rather provocative opening paragraph:

Just like everyone else, I am rather suspicious of hype. As soon as I hear something is the best new thing ever I start to wonder what's wrong with it. Sometimes, as in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the praise seems warranted. Far more often I want to know how the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies. Which brings me to The Lies of Locke Lamora, a book awash in buildup. There's a movie deal and already a fair number of foreign rights deals, and the buzz surrounding it seems determined to convince us that it will be a best-selling novel.
While there is a time and a place for noting other reviews of a book, I felt that Morrison spent too much of her review concentrating on others' takes, not to mention focusing overmuch on the rumored deals regarding Lynch's book. I believe a review ought to be in some respects like the opening statements in a debate: present the argument, followed by evidence that supports the position. Morrison's review took too long to get started.

Unfortunately, what is within is not the next Strange and Norrell. The book opens with the following:

At the height of the long wet summer of the Seventy-Seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy. (p. 1)

Putting aside the excessive-capital-letter disease that Lynch apparently suffers from, it was clear from this sentence alone that my expectations for the novel needed to be drastically reset. This was not going to be the wildly original fantasy I'd heard about; rather it was going to be a hodgepodge of well-worn tropes. Think The Sting meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets The Godfather meets your average fantasy world.

While I can understand the reaction to the first sentence, what surrounds it is yet another case of a reviewer mentioning all sorts of other, usually unrelated, books/movies instead of discussing the story at hand. While the admission that hyped-up expectations played a role in this was honest, I believe that Morrison again focused too much attention on what others liked rather than on what she liked or disliked.

It's also the point when it was driven home to me that Lamora is not very interesting. How? When faced with being manipulated into assisting the Grey King, Lamora decides that he should do pretty much exactly as asked and get it over with as fast as possible:

"So we just sit back," said Jean, "and let him pull your strings, like a marionette on stage."

"I was rather taken," said Locke, "with the whole idea of not telling Capa Barsavi about our confidence game, yes."


"The coin involved has to be ... ludicrous. I doubt the Duke could keep a Bondsmage of rank on for this long. So who the fuck is this Grey King, and how is he paying for this?"

"Immaterial," said Locke. "Three nights hence, or two and a half now that the sun's coming up, there'll be two Grey Kings, and I'll be one of them." (p. 212)

That's right, he isn't going to try to find out the Grey King's plan or why he has been waging a war against the Capa or even who the Grey King is. No, he's just going to roll right over and do as he's told. (With the backup plan of possibly running away after.)

I enjoyed most of this, especially how she presents evidence to support her low opinion of the character. However, the review devolves more into a plot summation. There isn't as much analysis or presenting of evidence; Morrison sums up the story (including some "spoilers") and fires off a few takes without exploring this in much detail. In the end, her review read more like a school book report than anything that had a clear connection of introduction to conclusion with detailed analysis of the story.

The third such muddled, poorly-structured review I read this morning. It was a review of The New Weird anthology posted by Paul Kincaid on SF Site. The introduction in particular was just baffling to me:

I'm sure I remember a time when anthologies were basically just a bunch of similarly themed stories brought together: the best time travel stories, the best Eskimo stories, or whatever. No more. These days it seems that barely a week goes by without another anthology that has an agenda, that is meant to work as propaganda. We are being assailed with collections that are designed to convince us that something old has been revitalised (the new hard SF, the new space opera) or that something new has been discovered (the slipstream anthology, the interstitial anthology, the post-cyberpunk anthology). If we enjoy good stories in these books, it is secondary to being convinced that this totally fresh way of looking at the genre is valid, is going to take over literature.

Now we have another addition to the ranks of genre propaganda: The New Weird. If we have to continue with these desperate attempts to convince us all of some innovative take on SF, can we at least hope that the editors will follow the example of Jeff and Ann Vandermeer. I am sick and tired of anthologies which appear to imagine that just pushing together vaguely similar stories will convince us that here is an entire new genre. Even if half the stories don't seem to bear any relationship to the stated purpose of the book, if the supposed purpose of the book is never fully explained, if no attempt is made to say how these particular stories fit the overall picture.

Propaganda is such a loaded term. When I read it, I get images of goose-stepping soldiers saluting a dictator standing on a balcony, perhaps with the "Horst Wessel Lied" playing in the background. Images of purple Kool-Aid and hundreds of dead people beringing a failed prophet. Words that are convincing but yet ultimately prove to be false or misleading. It is not something that I would readily associate with genre literature. Furthermore, while Kincaid may have a point in arguing that there are anthologies that do seem to make the old into something "new," I believe he dismisses too readily the differences in style and editorial direction that occur in these anthologies. I am also finding myself questioning what substantial difference is there between "the best"-themed stories and what is transpiring today with collections that focus on thematic similarities. This opening paragraph of his is rather strange.

Then it gets stranger with his comments on the TNW anthology itself. The sentences in that second paragraph bear the strain of Kincaid's argument presented in the first paragraph. "If we have to continue with these desperate attempts to convince us all of some innovative take on SF, can we at least hope that the editors will follow the example of Jeff and Ann Vandermeer." Such a back-handed compliment, if such a thing were intended in the first place. "I am sick and tired of anthologies which appear to imagine that just pushing together vaguely similar stories will convince us that here is an entire new genre. Even if half the stories don't seem to bear any relationship to the stated purpose of the book, if the supposed purpose of the book is never fully explained, if no attempt is made to say how these particular stories fit the overall picture." Is he even talking about the anthology that the VanderMeers edited, or is this just a rant about something altogether? Again, I just wish reviewers would keep their comparisons of one book to others to a minimum, as there is a red herring presented here. I think many readers would be excused if they were to presume that Kincaid's article intends to criticize recent themed anthologies.

Perhaps the most novel thing about The New Weird is that the Vandermeers take their propagandistic duties seriously. They begin with a long, carefully thought-out essay in which they discuss the origins of the term, the possible precursors and characteristics of the style, and even whether "new weird" is an appropriate name. ("New Weird" appears to be coterminous with what Conjunctions 39 referred to as the New Wave Fabulists; one makes a link to the old Weird Tales, the other a link to Moorcockian SF of the 60s. Both linkages appear to be in equal parts suggestive and misleading.) The book also includes an extensive segment of the internet discussions that first explored the idea of new weird, accompanied by short articles giving different but generally positive views on the subject. (It is worth noting that the only voices questioning the idea of new weird are Ann and Jeff Vandermeer themselves, though that in itself is radical.) They bring together, under the heading "Stimuli," a selection of stories that laid the groundwork for new weird; followed, under the heading "Evidence," by a selection of contemporary examples, and the book concludes with "Laboratory," which consists of a round-robin story written by a bunch of writers not directly associated with new weird but influenced by it. It is a model of how such an enterprise should be undertaken. By the end, I understood what people were talking about when they discussed new weird, and I saw why these particular stories were chosen as exemplars. If I remain unconvinced, it is not a criticism of the book but rather a sign that it has done its job too well.
That first How offensive can one get without trying to be? I think it might have been better for Kincaid to have dropped that entire "propaganda" nonsense and to have concentrated on the "why is there a need for there to be a themed anthology on this?" aspect. The mention of the oft-maligned Conjunctions 39 is actually a fair one, since on the surface at least there appears to be similar ground being covered, but Kincaid does not go anywhere with that comparison, however. The last sentence of the paragraph is very intriguing, as it at first seems to run counter to the quasi-diatribe of the first two paragraphs.

It quickly becomes clear that this is a book to be dipped into, rather than read straight through at a go. It is, for instance, a genuine pleasure to re-encounter M. John Harrison's wonderful Viriconium story, "The Luck in the Head." But when, a few pages later, you encounter Thomas Ligotti's "A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing" you begin to think: I've been here before. And later still you come across "The Art of Dying" by K.J. Bishop, and again you think: I've been here before. In isolation, in the context of a more varied collection, both of these stories would stand out as brilliantly as the Harrison. But here, read in such proximity, you cannot help but notice how they are playing on the same narrow range.
Of course, when the anthology purportedly attempts to show the similarities between these authors and how there's an emerging style that runs through so many of these stories, one cannot help but to wonder if Kincaid's complaint is misguided. While I agree this is more a collection to be read a few stories at a time rather than straight through, I cannot help but to wonder if his complaint is justified.

There is the same sense of the city as the source of unease (in the most interesting of the non-fiction pieces here, "Tracking Phantoms," Darja Malcolm-Clarke equates the city with the distended body also typical of new weird), the same affectless voice, the same alienated characters responding not to emotion but to an odd metaphysic, the same sense that every accidental encounter is freighted with psychological purpose, the same way of looking at inexplicable incidents as if they do not need explanation, the same sense that the city's passing show has been arranged purely for the edification (or more usually mystification) of the protagonist, the same casual assumption that in the face of the irrational no-one would even consider trying to behave rationally. In Kathe Koja's "The Neglected Garden," for instance, when the central character discovers that the woman he was in the process of kicking out has somehow become incorporated into his garden fence, he does not even seem to consider the idea of rescuing her. Instead he simply watches her day by day, accepting, without trying to do anything about it, that his life is falling apart as she is claimed by nature. The symbolism is gruesomely effective, but to move from symbol to story requires the characters to behave as if they have no agency, no fully developed emotional life. Above all characters invariably approach terror or death, the usual if sometimes obliquely realised outcome of these stories, not with dread, anger or even acceptance, but with a strangely intellectual contentedness. As an unlikely journalist puts it in Bishop's story, capturing precisely the etiolated metaphysic that typifies these stories: "one apprehends a strangely exquisite unfurling of energies, an unravelling of reality and the expected". What does separate new weird from most horror fiction is that the horror is an almost purely intellectual experience, not an emotional one.
Here, Kincaid does an excellent job in exploring many of the elements that go into these stories, but he seems to have shifted course quite a bit from his opening statements. It would seem, based on these thematic elements of unease, of strange and shifting places, of odd cities and odder inhabitants, that one would conclude that there is much merit to their inclusion in this anthology. But Kincaid seems to vacillate in this section. Nowhere is there a hint of a "falseness" of a comparison of these stories; they are, if anything, cut from too similar of a cloth, according to him.

It is this feeling that we are revisiting the same tightly prescribed range of literary mannerisms, mannerisms which recur repeatedly throughout the collection, that convinces me that, yes, there is something distinctive about new weird. But no, it is not rich enough or varied enough or potent enough to grow into its own sub-genre. As an aside, I have often wondered why, for example, Christopher Priest's Dream Archipelago stories have never been appropriated by the new weird lobby. Now I understand. Dark and threatening as the sexual undercurrent of those stories might be, the dread is meant to be an emotional shock not an intellectual curiosity.
OK, now Kincaid seems to have settled on the idea that the anthology is justified in the sense that the stories do fit together, but he seems to argue that this isn't enough for it to grow into its own subgenre. However, I get the sense that outside of this particular collection and likely Miéville's stories, that he hasn't read too much "New Weird" fiction. There is quite a bit of a difference between a Jeffrey Ford and a Thomas Ligotti (to use two names that Kincaid singles out) and I would argue that if one examines how they approach telling their stories that one would find quite a bit of variance in style and plotting. Kincaid's point about the Priest stories is intriguing, but I would have to read those stories first before I could weigh in either way on that point.

Sometimes it seems that setting alone is sufficient to mark the story out as new weird. The models, of course, are Harrison's Viriconium and China Miéville's New Crobuzon (represented here by the story "Jack," which, lacking the space to uncurl the way his novels do, seems somehow thin fare). But there are plenty of other strange cities here, their by-ways, cafes and landmarks carefully named in a culture-free amalgam of European languages but generally not so carefully described. Here pale artists wander disconsolately, unable to take effective control of any aspect of their lives, while every festival, every eruption of life or colour into the city streets betokens some ill-defined threat.
While I'd agree with this to a point, I would argue that based on the stories and the novels that these authors have written, that much of the point is to showcase stories in which there is an underlying sense of unease precisely because the characters do not have much of an illusory control over their lives. Here it would have been nice to have seen a comparison of how these stories originated with the very real social and political climes that have dominated Western societies over the past 20 years or so, as I think it would have made Kincaid's point stronger, if he had been able to present and then dismiss those concerns. But at least he's finally engaging the stories themselves, rather than writing generalizations on anthology purposes and goals. Too bad it took him over halfway into his review to start doing this. As for his conclusion, I disagree with it of course, but I was more troubled to see that this review started out talking about one thing, went in a few other directions a few paragraphs in, and the conclusion bears very little to no relation to its introduction. I just wished Kincaid would have rewritten the first half of his reviwe to focus on the collection at hand and the very troublesome issue of the "New Weird" moniker. That at least would have made for a more compelling argument, regardless of how individuals such as myself would have differed on the conclusions.

I know there is much to discuss or to argue with my own interpretation of these three reviews. However, I believe that I have presented my problems with their structural approaches in a fashion that illustrates my comments in the first paragraph. There are many reasons to question the approaches that the authors have taken in their books, but when reviewers get sidetracked on other books and other authors, the focus is lost. I'd rather read a focused review that addresses a book's shortcomings than to read a review that negative or positive alike, fails to engage the text for the entirety of the review.


Cheryl said...

Fascinating post, Larry, but you'd be disappointed if people didn't take issue with it, right?

I guess the starting point is to talk about the gray area between reviews and criticism. What you find on the Internet tends not to be labeled as one or the other. Paul, I'm pretty sure, sees himself as a critic. Other reviewers maybe less so. Most people probably end up doing a bit of both. I'm inclined to disagree with George Turner's assertion that you can be one or the other but not both (which is in an essay in SF Commentary somewhere). But on behalf of those who see themselves more as critics I can quote from the New York Review of Science Fiction's writers' guidelines:

"Take the latest samurai vampire novel, for instance. A good NYRSF review should do more than simply report the reviewer's gut reaction to this particular book. It should place it in the context of the author's other work, and of the work of others today, and in the past in this esteemed and popular category. Indeed it should place this individual novel within the larger context of vampire samurai fiction as a whole. Where does this book fit in the grand history of the saumrai vampire novel? How does it compare against the great samurai vampire novels of the past. What are the essential virtues, expectations, and/or limitations of the entire samurai vampire genre? And does this novel imply whither goest the samurai vampire novel? This sort of context can make a good review all the more informative and illuminating."

If, on the other hand, we look at things from the review end of the spectrum then what we are often talking about is telling the reader whether she will want to buy the book. We tend to (rightly) recoil at marketing departments who promote books on the basis of "more like xxxx" (generally because they often get it so badly wrong). However, if you can accurately relate a new book to other books that your readers may well have read, then surely you are doing them a service of some sort.

I'd happily agree that a review that spends almost all of its length talking about other books, and hardly any on the subject in hand, is a poor review. But context can be a wonderful thing. Don't dismiss it out of hand.

Aidan Moher said...

Nice post, Larry.

Reviews are something I've always enjoyed following and finding a good reviewer is something to be treasured.

I'd be curious to see you take a look at the other side of the coin and speak about some of the reviews/reviewers who, in your opinion, write solid reviews.

A Dribble of Ink

Larry Nolen said...

You're right, Cheryl, I would indeed be disappointed if people didn't counterpoint much of what I said (grad school, it still is exerting its sadomasochistic influence on me over a decade later).

What you point out using the NYRSF guidelines is a good point. In a critique, it is very important to "center" the work at hand; however, I do not believe that Kincaid did a good job doing so in his article. The first few paragraphs were very disjointed and frankly, his indiscriminate use of the word "propaganda" could hardly have been more offputting. If Kincaid had started with an analysis of works written during the last two decades of the 20th century and then brought up questions about how each of the authors/stories included in the anthology really fit within that context, he would have had a stronger case. But when I read the article (and re-read it a few more times to make sure he was saying what I perceived him to be saying), I was left with the feeling that he was dissatisfied with the New Weird moniker and that he wasn't as well-read on the subject as perhaps he could have been. I may be wrong on this last point, but there were a few places in there that felt as though he were encountering many of these authors and their stories for the first time and that he didn't really feel comfortable with the direction of those stories (his bit noting the apparent differences between Ford's story and the others being one of those alarm bells for me).

So yes, I agree with you in that good critiques ground their subjects in a "historical" sense. But when one is not attempting to do a critique, it is best to concentrate as much as possible on grounding the review itself on the work at hand. That is where I had problems with Pat and Morrison's reviews. They were all over the place, especially in their beginnings, and the reviews just didn't feel substantive; all I got from them is that they did not like something about the books they had read.


I might do something like that in the near future. However, I first have in mind doing a critique of a few "positive" reviews that suffer from similar defects. One of those poor reviews will be an old one of mine from 2005. I re-read it lately after I re-read the book and I was grimacing quite a bit as I read it. Don't know if I'll write it this weekend, though. Have to help my sister with a project tonight and then it's Mass and basketball watching most of the day tomorrow. But hopefully by next weekend, I'll have something on that and then maybe I can tackle those reviewers who do a good job. I'll give you one reviewer whose reviews, even when I disagree with them, are generally spot-on: Jay Tomio's. More on all of this later, though.

Unknown said...

A big problem with the reviews you discuss (as well as my own -- I claim no special privileges here) is that they are unedited. The third review you talk about could have been shaped and revamped and turned into a very valuable piece, but it wasn't.

I've written for SF Site and for NYRSF, and I was never asked to rewrite, though I would have been more than happy to do so; how else to learn? I'm lucky that I'm married to an English professor, because at least I get a little editing for my blog when I ask for it (as I do on all my longer reviews). But serious reviewing seems to be something you have to learn to do pretty much on your own.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Very interesting post Larry. I had recently been flirting with the idea of going back and "reviewing" my reviews. All the way back to the first one I ever did.

It could serve two purposes. 1) take a look at the actual review 2) a reconsidering of the novel after time has passed.

But no matter the conclusions I wouldnt change that original review at all. It would all be done publicly as well.

Do you think this excercise has any merit?

Larry Nolen said...


Excellent point there. While most of my reviews and commentaries here are barely edited, if at all, I do believe there is something to be said for taking the time to have another parse the review for potential problems before it is published. In fact, I have a review I'll be working on this week that I plan on sending to another to read over before I revise it and send it in for publication elsewhere.

As for the learning on the job aspect of reviewing, I heartily agree. I got my training from being a grad student in History a little over a decade ago and some of my comments in this post reflect that training. Although for the most part, I haven't written anything yet in the style that I wrote my historiographical critiques, lately I've found myself starting to return to that approach to critiquing a book.


I'm going to be doing something very similar to that in the coming days. I wrote a review back in the summer of 2005 over Yuri Andrukhovych's Perverzion and when I re-read it recently, I thought it flat-out sucked. I recently re-read the book and I think I'm going to take the original review, highlight things I should have focused on, and then present material from the book to highlight this. As I said above in another reply, I plan on being more vicious in shredding my own earlier review than I've been in critiquing any other's here. After all, if it's good enough for the goose, it damn well better be good for the gander, no?

Blue Tyson said...


Just anecdotally, that New Weird piece (a book I am waiting for, so interested in) was so messed up I didn't bother going past the first part of it.

Larry Nolen said...

Yeah, that first half was so frustrating to read, because the second half contained elements that would have made for a good critique of the tales (something that I considered doing when I reviewed it, before I decided it would be better to concentrate on the structure of the anthology as a whole). Am curious to know what you'll make of it when you do receive it.

Anonymous said...

Intertextual comparisons are often necessary to provide exactly the sort of evidence you say you desire in reviews, Larry. If a reviewer calls a work "innovative" it may be useful as a matter of evidence to make comparisons in order to distance the work in question from those with a superficial similarity that a well-read reader may be familiar with. If a review calls something "unoriginal" then obviously a comparison is necessary proof of that. Then there are the matters of traditions and influences: it is often necessary to make comparisons in order to describe an author's goals and to evaluate whether they have been accomplished, because author's goals often take other works as their starting point. Consider the whole "Stimuli" section of the New Weird anthology (which is in its own way a "review").

That said, the "does the author accomplish their goals" question is nice enough but it only goes so far. If an author aspires to write a 1920s-style pulp adventure with all the implicit racism and sexism of the original form, then part of my stance is going to be to question that goal in the context of 2008, whether or not they're successful in achieving it. Likewise I'm not going to laud the successes of Terry Brooks and Dennis McKiernan in rewriting The Lord of the Rings because part of my stance is that originality is valuable. Whatever stance I take is going to try to provide a path towards understanding the book, which includes this sort of context.

(I tend to find reviews where the stance is only whether the reviewer liked or didn't like the book to be rather boring; reviews-as-recommendations are basically useless to me because there is no reviewer who I agree with all the time. If the review isn't trying to say something more interesting, thanks, but I'll just read an excerpt of the book. The function of reviews-as-recommendations like Pat's is really more fostering a sense of genre community among certain readers than conveying actual knowledge about a book.)

The Kincaid review will probably not win any "best review of the year" awards but I think it is at least trying to engage the anthology at the right level. An anthology devoted to a prescriptive movement (as opposed to a "best of" anthology) will be seen to represent assertions that the movement exists (or existed) and that it deserves attention -- and that it all works as an anthology. A good review should examine those assertions, and this examination defines the flow of Kincaid's review. In this sense any lack of familiarity with the new weird on Kincaid's part is immaterial or maybe even desirable, as he's discussing how well the antho alone conveys an understanding of the new weird without pre-existing knowledge of it (although he's obviously read at least more Miéville). That's not to say it's a perfect review: I agree, I would have liked more analysis of the stories and sections, not just that they helped Kincaid understand but how they did so; and there are points of vagueness, oversimplification, and misrepresentation -- not having read the antho yet myself, I can't tell whether these are due to the antho or to the reviewer.

Larry Nolen said...

Matt, you make some good points there. As I said above in response to a couple of others, I do understand there is a time and place for intertextual comparisons; but in the cases I cited, I believed that this was done poorly and in a fashion that detracted from the reviews of the books. I'm of the opinion that if another book is referenced, that there ought to be more than just a throwaway line or superficial comparison.

As for the goals part, I do agree that it goes only so far, but many of the cases you cite are extreme ones, I believe. In addition, if I were to review say a shared-world book (which I have yet to do), I certainly would want to place that hypothetical book not only in context with the other books in that shared universe (another place where intertextual references can be of use, if done properly), but with what the author/s set out to accomplish. But that is just a beginning, I'll agree. If Author X wanted to write a popcorn cookie-cutter series, I might note that while the author establishes a sense of familarity with his/her use of various plot tropes, for those who are expecting X, Y, Z, don't hold your breath, because s/he does not dare to explore the boundaries of _____.

As for the Kincaid review, my problems were with the first half of it and how it meandered and didn't really establish itself until the stories themselves were examined. While I disagreed with his takes on some of the stories, I thought his rationales were much better than the sweeping generalizations and the use of loaded pejoratives that are found in the first few paragraphs. I do agree with you that it would have been nice if he could have explained the "hows" and "whys" of his reactions a bit more, but I can hardly fault him on that, since I chose not to do so in my own review of the book and in part because I suspect he set out to concentrate more on the idea of the anthology than on the parts of the anthology. But by the time I realized that, he had made a few false starts and the entire article just felt as though it needed to be rewritten and revised to make the introduction more harmonious with the conclusions. But that is hardly an individual failing; it's rather widespread in reviews, including many of my own, as I've admitted before.

But I'm curious to read how you'll react to the anthology. I suspect you'll find points where you'll agree with Kincaid's takes and places where you'll have a very different reaction. That's the real beauty of substantive reviews; they reveal the idiosyncrasies of the reviewers in such a way as to make many reviews worth reading independent of the books themselves. But that still doesn't mean that anyone is going to be writing flawless reviews, naturally. It'll be interesting for me to discover what conclusions I'll come to when I get around to writing the second installment on flawed "positive" reviews.

Cheryl said...

I’d like to note, because the question has been raised elsewhere, that I did not intend my previous comments as being in support of the reviews that Larry neatly skewers. All I was doing was standing up for the right of reviewers to place the subject of their review in context. It looks like we are now agreed on that. If you are going to claim that a review is bad, I think you should do so on the basis that it is poorly argued, not on the basis that it contains inappropriate material (e.g. comparisons to other books).

Having said that, however, I really don’t think much good can come of discussing what makes a “bad” review. That’s partly because so many people seem incapable of distinguishing between the concepts of “a bad review” and “a negative review of a book I liked”. But also I’ve found that such arguments tend to bear a distinct resemblance to an argument about which car is “the best” when it is clear that one of the people involved is looking for flash styling and speed, one of them is looking for robustness and towing capacity, and one is looking to transport an entire middle school soccer team.

MattD, for example, talks about asking "does the author accomplish their goals". Personally I think that’s a good question for a review to ask. But I have been told very firmly by some people that a review should never try to second-guess what the author “intended” and should instead restrict itself to discussing the quality of the writing. And even if you agree on what a review should contain you are not necessarily safe. I’ve been told that, as someone who has never been paid for fiction in my life, I have no right to pass judgment on other people’s work and cannot possibly write a “good review”. I’ve also been told that I can’t possibly write a “good” review because I haven’t had any formal training in literary criticism.

Let’s not forget, either, the people who say that reviewers should refrain from all forms of intellectual posturing and should content themselves with simply saying whether or not they enjoyed the book. I’ve even seen one person recently state that the only “good” review is one that is a simple précis of the plot.

I have seen people claim that you should never write a review of a book unless you really enjoyed it. I’ve seen other people claim that positive reviews are dull and that they’d much rather read negative reviews. I’ve seen people claim that a “good” review has to be an entertaining piece of writing in its own right, and people who prefer their reviews to be coldly analytical. Some people have told me that a review must take an objective stand, while others hold that reviews can never be anything but subjective and should not pretend to be otherwise.

And if we are looking for a median opinion as to what makes a “good” review then I suspect we might find that most readers consider a review worthless unless it is written by someone that they know and trust. Certainly that’s the most common view I see expressed.

Or you could argue that all publicity is good publicity. For all I know, Scott Lynch might think that the Morrison review was the best he’s ever had because it got so much attention for his book.

I have, on occasion, argued that a good reviewer should be consistent. MattD says, “reviews-as-recommendations are basically useless to me because there is no reviewer who I agree with all the time”, but if a reviewer is consistent and detailed in her approach you should be able to learn when you’ll agree with a recommendation and when you won’t. I occasionally had people write to Emerald City saying that they profoundly disagreed with my taste, and as a result made a point of buying any book I panned in the sure knowledge they’d enjoy it. That was OK by me. I was providing a service.

Yet now I’m becoming increasingly aware that on the Internet there is no history – everything exists in a constant “now”. Consistency is all very well, but I think that reviewers should learn from experience. If all of your reviews are online then people are liable to complain that you are a “bad” reviewer because something you wrote 10 years ago contradicts something you wrote yesterday, and that's troubling.

We can, of course, have philosophical debates about which of the above definitions of “good” reviewing we prefer. However, I’m pretty sure that there is a market for all of them. A simple précis of the plot is what some people want, and if that encourages them to buy more books then I’m not going to complain.

Equally, one of the reasons that I don’t write reviews any more is because I came to the conclusion that I was wasting my time. Aside from those of us who write them, people aren’t much interested in reviews these days. They are far more likely to buy a book because John Scalzi decided to recommend it on his blog than if I wrote a long and reasoned explanation as to why the book was worth checking out, and I can do far more good for my favorite authors by spending my time earning money and buying their books than by reviewing them.

Sorry I’ve gone on so long, Larry.

Anonymous said...

From the point of view of someone who buys a lot of books, and many due to reviews, the most important thing I look is how the reviewer's taste meshes with mine. Mostly I judge books on style and tone and that's the hardest part to convey in a review. I do not mind flaws in execution if I like the author's style and characters, and a book can be technically perfect and still on my boring or even throw away list (Iron Council best example - loved PSS and Scar, hated that one)
When Emerald City was active, I bought tons of books especially UK ones which I cannot check so easily here in the US, due to the reviews there. But they were mostly sf since there I almost completely agreed with the taste of Ms. Morgan, while in fantasy it was hit or miss.

Now the one place I started to agree a lot with the reviews is Fantasy Book Critic, but again in sf or mainstream but fantastical books not in urban fantasy or cookie-cutter fantasy or YA which I avoid mostly anyway

Similarly on SFWeekly which is another great place for books, I almost always agree with P. di Filippo, while I find J. Clute boring and pretentious, and others so-so

So if you want to make readers of the reviews buy books, establish a "tone of reviews" and they will follow. This is why generally people follow say Mr. Scalzi's advice - many trust his taste a lot

From sff writers the one I always follow a recommendation is N. Asher (discovered through Emerald City as it happens)


Larry Nolen said...

Cheryl and Liviu, I'm going to address some of your points later this week when I write the second part on poorly-constructed "positive" reviews. Didn't want to make either of you to think that I'm neglecting your comments, but I've been away much of the day on Sunday and it's late now.

Robert said...

As usual, another very interesting article Larry. In fact, it should be a regular feature :)

For myself, I like to have a week or twos worth of book reviews completed in advance before I post anything. That way, it gives me time to go back to an earlier review and catch any errors I might have made or finetune the review. I rarely have anyone else edit my reviews though, unless my wife finds the time :)

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Excellent post. I wish I could do what Robert does, and have them a week in advance. That's becoming more and more the case now, but I still need a bigger amount of time from writing to posting.

I can tell straight away when I begin writing whether or not it's a "hard" review to write. The best ones I write will have been stewing for a while.

Occasionally, though, I'll almost try and reflect the style of the book. If it's humorous (and I liked it!), I'll mess around more, like in this part of my review of Already Dead :

"What a difference between the two books -- Once Bitten, Twice Shy was like finding a baby polar bear on a mountain-slope, thinking, "wow, this is cool", enjoying the time spent with it, thinking "I need more polar bear" ... and then stumbling across its big daddy (Already Dead), who promptly kicks you in the face, chases you, and then tries to ravage you as you ski away screaming...

Which is not to say I didn't enjoy it. (The bear analogy really fails here). Just that Charlie Huston's take on the vampire novel, is grittier, more direct, sharper and more original. But clearly, not as nice."

Now, I look back on that and grimace -- it's waffle, ramble ... but I still kind of like it.

I suppose I just write a review that would make me pay attention to the book, and a review that does what it's meant to do.

Sorry to go on!
The Book Swede

Blue Tyson said...

I have The New Weird now, so hopefully get to it soonish, will see what I think again then.

Blue Tyson said...

On the New Weird - the propaganda line is just rubbish, I think.

Given there is no hard line taken in the introduction, and there is even a discussion with multiple people disagreeing about various things, or the existence, even.

Not many propagandists do that sort of thing, I think. :)

Larry Nolen said...

Well, only the most inept of propagandists would, but in this case, I wouldn't say it is propaganda at all.

Anonymous said...

Your limited knowledge of the multiple uses of the word propaganda is astonishing!

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