Let’s Do The Panel Right Here

I’ve just spent about an hour I should probably have spent doing other things reading Matt Denault’s thorough, and impressively timely, Readercon report, then looking for other Readercon-related posts. (Having done a Wiscon, Readercon is my next US con target; I’m hoping to make it over next year, though I suspect other things are going to get in the way.) Inevitably, what snagged my eye was the notes on the “Reviewing in the Blogosphere” panel. Here’s the description:

A guide to what’s online, and a discussion of the ways in which online reviewing differs from the print variety. What are the good and bad aspects of the more personal and informal tone of much online criticism?

John Clute, Kathryn Cramer, Jim Freund (M), Ernest Lilley, Tom Purdom, Gordon Van Gelder

While accepting that Matt’s comments are paraphrases of what was said, and that 500 words is necessarily going to leave a lot out, I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed with the way this panel apparently went. You could say the fact that the title doesn’t match up to the description is one warning sign; the makeup of the panel is another. Let’s review.

John Clute needs no introduction. In the online world, he writes a column for Sci-Fi Weekly, occasional reviews for Strange Horizons, and has even posted reviews on his blog … sort of. Kathryn Cramer blogs, and is an editor at NYRSF. Jim Freund is the host of a long-running NY radio show, Hour of the Wolf, in which sf writers and professionals are interviewed; the shows are archived online. Ernest Lilley is Senior Editor at SF Revu; Tom Purdom is a music critic, and writes online for the Broad Street Review, but is obviously better known around these parts as a writer. Gordon Van Gelder is, of course, editor of F&SF, but also wrote a fair number of reviews for NYRSF in its early days. (I have the issue with his piece on “Kirinyaga” in; it’s good.)

This is, in other words, a panel that reads online science fiction reviews more than it writes or edits them, and probably a panel that reads print science fiction reviews more than online science fiction reviews. This is not a problem per se, since it’s a panel of smart people who have written or edited reviews (or both), but you do get the sense that there’s a side of the debate missing. In a comment on the FantasyBookSpot forum, Matt notes that he would have liked to see at least one “respected advocate of blog reviews” on the panel, and I can only agree. Of course, by raising the panel topic here, online, I’ll probably get responses biased in the other direction; but such is life.

On to the specifics of the report:

John Clute led off by saying that he found writing for online publications to be enabling and freeing, in that he could take as many words as needed to convey his review, and his work was less likely to be edited to suit the knowledge and expectations of a singular imagined readership (because online websites are still trying to determine their audiences).

I think freedom is the first thing most people would point to as an advantage of online publication. There is, admittedly, a risk of writing long because you can, rather than because you need to, but it’s a tradeoff worth having. The point about audience is more interesting. Having an audience in mind makes it easier to write — I assume people reading this, for instance, have a certain level of familiarity with the sf field, which is why I said that John Clute should need no introduction; if I assumed my audience was the entire internet, John Clute would almost certainly need an introduction. But this is, perhaps, one way in which online writing is different to print publication: it is possible to write just from a need to say something, and let the audience find you. Or at least, this is possible with blogging; I think online magazines still need to know their audience, if only because the act of calling something a magazine assumes an audience, while a blog, to start with, is an individual.

Gordon Van Gelder commented that the lack of editorial presence at most online websites has led to a proliferation of bad reviews. Tom Purdom agreed about the value of an editor. […] Ernest Lilley mentioned that at the website of which he is the editor, he exerts a high degree of editorial control, hardly ever publishing a negative review and keeping reviews to a limited word count.

Oh, how I wish they were naming names. Or, if they were naming names, how I wish that Matt was reporting them. As you might expect, I strongly disagree with Lilley’s positive-reviews policy. I think constant praise is meaningless, verging on dishonest. As for limited word count, well, we’ve been down that path before. I do agree that brief reviews fill a need, but (a) I think they have to be firmly edited (Rose Fox has some good points on how to write short reviews effectively), and (b) I don’t think they take advantage of online publishing’s strengths, to wit the freedom mentioned earlier. And there are people who take advantage of that freedom. I have some sympathy with Kathryn Cramer’s argument that blogs exert a selection pressure in favour of short, regular posts; but, you know, this is also a world with Eve’s Alexandria and Asking The Wrong Questions in it. Will their content pass Clute’s test, to be worth reading ten years from now? I suspect some of it will, yes.

The other strength of online publishing, of course, is interactivity, and the speed of that interactivity. Which brings me to some of the most baffling of the statements attributed to the panel (not counting Clute’s statement that “contextual links ‘violate the contract of the sentence'”, which just makes it sound like he’s never heard of tabbed browsing):

The panelists talked about the ability that online reviews often grant readers to quickly comment on reviews; the panelists saw this as a negative, as leading people to write reviews in order to have a personal audience.

I would love to get some expansion on this from those on the panel, because I can’t see that it makes any sense at all. One: who else should reviewers write for, if not an audience? Reviewing is about advocacy, about saying “read this book,” or “don’t read this book.” Two: did the panel really think, as this summary seems to indicate, that there are people up there who start review-blogs as a path to internet fame and fortune — or that there is a goldmine of potential serious critics lured away to be superficial bloggers? Because I can’t see much evidence for either position, but I can’t see other ways of interpreting “in order to have a personal audience” as a bad thing. Three: what’s wrong with quick comments? To paraphrase Martin, a review is dead until someone reacts to it, and I don’t see the difference between a comment posted to a blog (or to, say, the reviews published at Locus Online) and a comment emailed to NYRSF.

I’m going to end by quoting the panel description again —

A guide to what’s online, and a discussion of the ways in which online reviewing differs from the print variety. What are the good and bad aspects of the more personal and informal tone of much online criticism?

— and throwing it open to the floor. What’s out there? What’s good and bad about it? Let’s do the panel right here.

67 Responses to “Let’s Do The Panel Right Here”

  1. Andrew Wheeler Says:

    I was at that panel, and it pretty much was as bad and biased as reported. The sense of the panel was that “bloggers” (meaning people who review books on their blogs, not Kathryn, their token person who knew anything about blogs) were uniformly ill-informed amateurs who knew nothing and could only hurt more serious critics. They did seem to think that reader feedback was a bad and pernicious thing, perhaps because critics must be seen as infallible.

    They spent much of the time, as I recall, wrangling about the differences between print and on-line reviews, somewhat confused by the fact that Clute seemed to be talking about the fact that he had greater freedom from on-line genre publications than he did from print generalist publications and only making the on-line/print distinction clear.

    I greatly disagree with the “only happy reviews” idea myself; I think it’s too common already, and does nothing to help the field. All novels are flawed — some more than others — and those flaws should be considered honestly and openly.

  2. 6346 Says:

    I don’t agree that you are writing online either for people with ‘a certain level of familiarity with the sf field’ or for the entire internet, (I consider myself to be firmly wedged between the two classes), but you are in fact writing for a subsection of the internet who are interested enough to read your blog and follow links and search elsewhere to fill in unfamiliar details when the interest is sustained (and will bugger off and play World of Warcraft if an article proves disinteresting). I actually think when you write in a blog that you are writing for an audience of perfect yous (let us face it, blogging started as an online personal journal system, hence was intended for one to write to oneself). I further think that in writing to oneself in the knowledge that others will read it, you are making a statement about your own expertise in a field; when I read your blog I am, at least subconsciously, comparing your knowledge and assumptions about the sf field against my own, and am thus secretly rating myself against you. I think that this level of personal challenge which manifests as an undercurrent in online blogging most sets blogging apart from printed matter where, as asserted in the ReaderCon panel, an author adjusts his assumptions to match those he perceives of his audience, and tends to write more patronizingly.

    It is also a fact that an author writing in a printed publication has already won the ‘prize’ for being a champion writer by dint of the fact that he got the commission in the first place, whereas when one is writing online the ‘prize’ has to be won – the writing is worthless until somebody comments, nay challenges, the integrity of the work online, and so the author makes a conscious effort to make sure that points left deliberately debatable are also intrinsically defensible.

    In short I think that online writing is much more provocatively defensive than the more passive voice used in writing for print, as the potential for a challenge is much more imminent. I think it is this fact which the ReaderCon panel were most ignorant of, hence that nonsensical passage about quick comments being a negative. It is insightful also that there is no discussion of the merits of not-so-quick comments.

    I find it curious that you wrote ‘John Clute needs no introduction’ without so much as a link to his Wikipedia entry in a paragraph full of illuminated references, when you seem to be an advocate of the hot-linked medium. Even if you think that your audience has the requisite familiarity with the field, excluding those that do not runs the risk of alienating newcomers to your blog. Or perhaps you are subconsciously stamping your authority…

  3. Kate Nepveu Says:

    Readercon has what I believe is a deliberate policy of only putting “pros” on panels. So its pool of panel participants is unlikely to include people like, well, me, who writes book reviews on her own site and has a subscription to _Locus_ but is much more likely to pick up books through blog reviews by her friends.

    My book log dates from 2001, and here’s what I think is good about it:

    * Because I’m writing on my own site, I feel free to write as much or as little as I have to say about a book, in as formal or informal a tone as feels suitable.

    * By knowing that I’m going to write about everything I read, I am a better, more observant, and more thoughtful reader.

    * Especially since I know that the Law of Internet Invocation means that an author could show up in comments at any given time. If I don’t like a book, I’ll say so, but I try to give reasons and be fair, which makes for better reviews.

    * I have obsessively organized ways for people to find stuff in just a few mouse-clicks, which makes it easy for people who’ve just discovered my site to calibrate their tastes against mine.

    What’s bad? Well, nothing I do is bad, obviously. => But really what I think the bad parts boil down to is, some bloggers write lousy reviews. So what? Some bloggers write lousy blogs. Some authors write lousy books. Sturgeon’s Law, baby–this is no surprise. The mechanisms for finding good stuff among book blogs aren’t as well-established as for finding good stuff among unpublished fiction, but they’re there. (Word of mouth and links. If you’re not already reading things that provide that, search up some reviews on your favorite books and see if the blog posts you find calibrate reasonably with your tastes.)

    Also, I’m baffled by the comment about reader feedback. I know perfectly well that I’m not infalliable, and that there are nearly infinite ways to approach texts. Hearing from other people at best gives me a new and useful perspective on a text; at worst, it just proves another truism, YMMV.

  4. Kate Nepveu Says:

    PS: all your Readercon post needs can be met by this link roundup (she says, modestly).

  5. MattD Says:

    “Oh, how I wish they were naming names. Or, if they were naming names, how I wish that Matt was reporting them.”

    I think the only purveyor of bad reviews that was mentioned, if this is what you mean by naming names, was Amazon (other than Clute saying that SFRevu’s contents were “not reviews”). Sorry to disappoint! I should better have written, “Gordon Van Gelder commented that the lack of editorial presence at most online websites *and blogs* has led to a proliferation of bad reviews,” as he was speaking of both in a general sense, without specifics.

    “I can’t see other ways of interpreting ‘in order to have a personal audience’ as a bad thing.”

    The sense I had — and this is very much my own expansion of a vague sense and what are now even vaguer memories — is that the panel saw this as a bad thing because writing in order to have an audience and gain feedback should not be, the implication was, the reason in itself to write reviews. That is, it should not trump reasons such as being a thoughtful advocate for the genre, giving back to the world of literature, or helping to cultivate better readers — these examples are entirely my own, but some similar “higher” purpose was implied.

    More later on your final questions, after I’ve had a chance to get my thoughts in order.

  6. 6346 Says:

    Testing – where did my comment go?

  7. Niall Says:

    where did my comment go?

    Don’t know. I can’t see it in my spam filter, I’m afraid.

  8. Jonathan M Says:

    Ouch… something of a train wreck. I can’t help but be reminded of that terrible John Sutherland piece in the Telegraph last year.

  9. Niall Says:

    Kate: thanks for the link.

    Readercon has what I believe is a deliberate policy of only putting “pros” on panels.

    That seems a bit short-sighted, but I can understand it. Certainly in my con-going experience, sercon panels tend to be more satisfying with pros on them. (And I agree with what Matt said about it being good to have a critic on a panel, as well as authors.) However, given that the panel is (in a sense) about a pro/fan divide, it seems like it would have been a good idea to have at least one person from the fan side.

    The mechanisms for finding good stuff among book blogs aren’t as well-established as for finding good stuff among unpublished fiction, but they’re there.

    Yes, exactly.

    Matt:

    I think the only purveyor of bad reviews that was mentioned, if this is what you mean by naming names, was Amazon (other than Clute saying that SFRevu’s contents were “not reviews”). Sorry to disappoint!

    Pah! Call that excessive candour? ’cause I don’t. ;-)

    “Gordon Van Gelder commented that the lack of editorial presence at most online websites *and blogs* has led to a proliferation of bad reviews,” as he was speaking of both in a general sense, without specifics.

    That’s … even weirder. And there seems to be this sense that readers are unable to distinguish between a good review and a bad review, which I’m pretty sure is not the case.

    because writing in order to have an audience and gain feedback should not be, the implication was, the reason in itself to write reviews. That is, it should not trump reasons such as being a thoughtful advocate for the genre, giving back to the world of literature, or helping to cultivate better readers — these examples are entirely my own, but some similar “higher” purpose was implied.

    You know, I’m getting the feeling they needed to establish a clear definition for what a review is — beyond Clute’s test, I mean. That seems to me a marker of a good review, or a good review of a certain kind.

    I think the definition they seem to be unconsciously using would exclude an awful lot of book blogs — and I can see an argument that they’re doing something different than traditional reviewing, so that wouldn’t bother me too much. But I don’t think people write book blogs specifically to gain an audience, I think they write them because they like books and want to talk about them. Sure, sometimes the immediacy of blog-comments means that talk is hot-tempered and unconstructive but, as Kate said, Sturgeon’s Law applies everywhere.

  10. Niall Says:

    Since the trackback doesn’t seem to have come through, here’s a link to Jonathan’s post.

  11. Niall Says:

    Response to Dale, since I’ve now found his comment:

    I don’t agree that you are writing online either for people with ‘a certain level of familiarity with the sf field’ […] I actually think when you write in a blog that you are writing for an audience of perfect yous

    In the case of Torque Control, isn’t this the same thing? I’m writing for people that I assume have at least either a similar interest in, or knowledge of, sf (or both) as me.

    However:

    when I read your blog I am, at least subconsciously, comparing your knowledge and assumptions about the sf field against my own, and am thus secretly rating myself against you. I think that this level of personal challenge which manifests as an undercurrent in online blogging most sets blogging apart from printed matter where, as asserted in the ReaderCon panel, an author adjusts his assumptions to match those he perceives of his audience, and tends to write more patronizingly.

    Interesting argument. I’m not sure how much I agree, if only because I can’t really identify much difference in my writing for NYSRF and my writing for Strange Horizons (or here). NYRSF does feel more secure, more insulated from challenge, but I try not to let that feeling lull me into saying things I wouldn’t say online. If anything, then, I guess you could say my online writing style has affected my print writing style — I recognise that “provocative defensiveness” you mention in both.

    I find it curious that you wrote ‘John Clute needs no introduction’ without so much as a link to his Wikipedia entry in a paragraph full of illuminated references, when you seem to be an advocate of the hot-linked medium.

    Well, I thought that (a) he didn’t need an introduction, and (b) if he did need an introduction, the links to SFW and his website would probably do the job. :)

  12. Kev McVeigh (Pigeonhed) Says:

    I think that any of us who write for any kind of publication have a certain arraogance that what we have to say is worth reading, tempered with a certain level of needing reassurance that we have been read. SO the argument that blogs are an attention seeking device is perhaps a red herring. Of course I want my reviews to be noticed. Why would I not?

    The relatively rapid response to online publications adds a different element, that of working ideas out, clarifying my own thoughts as people respond. I’ve just posted an off the cuff response on another blog which I think has an element of truth about it which may be smothered in a lot of nonsense. I’m hoping somebody will see some sense there and help me work it out so that, eventually, the significant point will emerge. I’m not sure that’s a good thing to do in a specific review but within the general blog context that is a useful tool for me.

  13. Kate Nepveu Says:

    6346: I actually think when you write in a blog that you are writing for an audience of perfect yous

    Mmm, not in my case. I am writing for a future-me, to remind myself of what I thought, and for an implicit audience that’s made up of the people who I know read the blog and the people who might (like the authors).

    I further think that in writing to oneself in the knowledge that others will read it . . . [there is] this level of personal challenge which manifests as an undercurrent in online blogging

    This, I’ll agree with, and I take it into account when I’m writing for my implicit audience (“I really liked this, but if you can’t stand X, you probably won’t”; “lots of other really liked this, but I couldn’t stand X and here’s why”).

    In short I think that online writing is much more provocatively defensive

    That I think is a personality and a style thing.

    MattD: writing in order to have an audience and gain feedback should not be, the implication was, the reason in itself to write reviews. That is, it should not trump reasons such as being a thoughtful advocate for the genre, giving back to the world of literature, or helping to cultivate better readers

    Whee, false dichotomies. Because, of course, writing for those reasons means that one’s more like to write good reviews and thus is more likely to have an audience. Don’t people realize that by and large, the way to get readers is to *write things worth reading*?

    Niall: my definition of a review is something that gives me an idea of what to expect.

  14. Kate Nepveu Says:

    I have since been corrected in non-public discussion about the policy of only pros on panels at Readercon. (It just sure *looks* that way from outside.)

  15. MattD Says:

    I’m getting the feeling they needed to establish a clear definition for what a review is

    Clute I think said something general about engaging with the text — combine that with Cramer’s comment on bad vs. negative reviews and the working definition I sensed from the panel was that a (good/true/valid) review is something that meets a text on its own ground and engages with what the text is *trying* to do as much as with what it does do. But yes, it was never explicitly stated, and it would have helped if it had been.

    In terms of suggesting some topics for discussion of the sort that I wish the panel had engaged in…as someone fairly new to the reviewing world, both reading and writing, a lot of what I wonder about is what I perceive as conflicting drives towards fragmentation and aggregation, towards community and towards professionalism.

    Locus Online for example has the functionality to support reader comments, but hardly anyone does comment on their reviews. Same with Strange Horizons, and the SH forums — and the forums at SFSite — are fairly dead. Reviews posted on blogs (even the blogs of the same people who write for those publications) seem to generate more feedback; why is this? Is it a matter of technologies used, different readerships between online magazines and blogs, or perhaps different expectations and interaction protocols when visiting each type of site?

    If there is a separation, is it good or bad, necessary or cultural relic? I actually think the “informal tone of much online criticism” is over-stated. Much of it is poorly written, but that’s not the same thing. We’ve all seen more and more “professional-quality” reviews on blogs; is there room for the reverse? I think Strange Horizons is great, but what I’d enjoy seeing to complement it is Strange Horizons’s evil twin brother of a site, something edgier, more informal, that isn’t afraid to take shots from outside the penalty box. Is there a place for something that bridges the gap between the professionalism that most online magazines seem to aspire to and the sense of more personal, community-affirming genre enthusiasm that right now seems better conveyed via blogs? Or is that made difficult by the conflict of protocols?

    And also, regarding the online audience factor and the value of knowing your audience: does the ease of creating content and linkage on the web eventually favor niches for review content like personal blogs over any sort of generalist magazine? What is the prognosis for sites like SH and SFSite in a blogging world? Where does something in-between, like the group blog, fit in the future for online reviews?

  16. Jonathan M Says:

    Actually, I’m not so sure I buy into the lack of professionalism in blog reviews. I remember when I cast around looking for reviews of stuff like Roadside Picnic I found the standard to be quite high. In truth, the intelligence of the subject matter goes some way to determining the intelligence of the review as the Hamilton reviews I read really were synopsis plus barely articulated thumbs-up. However, there are few intelligent reviews of Laurel K. Hamilton’s work at all.

    Similarly, if you take a look at the reviews I did of the mainstream SF mags, you’ll see that I found the quality of “professional” reviewing there to be very low indeed. Not only poorly written but frequently missing the point spectacularly.

    So in truth, I think there’s very little correlation between medium and quality of review. Some venues are better than others but according to any yardstick you feel like waving around, quality varies wildly within a medium and, in many cases, within a venue.

    Matt is bang on right about the weird disjointedness of the online SF community. a) it’s intensely tribal with the largest message boards focusing on particular writers, b) there are cliques within the community and most people don’t have much contact outside their clique, c) it’s not clear at this point what the most influential venues are. SH has the most kudos and SFSite’s has shrunk but is SFsite better read than SH? are blogs better read than SH? A lot of the cliquishness is determined by technology too… if you’re not on LJ then chances are you won’t follow what’s going on there and I have no idea what’s going on on the various forums right now.

  17. Chad Orzel Says:

    What’s bad? Well, nothing I do is bad, obviously. => But really what I think the bad parts boil down to is, some bloggers write lousy reviews. So what? Some bloggers write lousy blogs. Some authors write lousy books.

    And, really, some professional reviewers write lousy reviews. “Lousy” here defined as “I can’t figure out whether it’s a good book or not.” Locus is good for two or three of these a month.

    Sturgeon’s Law applies regardless of whether you were paid for the product.

  18. Niall Says:

    Another post on the panel. Interesting quote:

    The most interesting statement was when another panelist (Gordon van Gelder, I believe), suggested to Clute that in fact everything he does is a blog, because people are going to his columns not to find out “Is the next Charlie Stross any good?” but to find out what Clute’s view of the world and scifi market is.

    In other words, it might be that what John Clute does, and thinks that other reviewers are all doing, is more like what a good blogger does than what a mediocre reviewer does.

    Back to the discussion at hand. Matt:

    … what I wonder about is what I perceive as conflicting drives towards fragmentation and aggregation, towards community and towards professionalism.

    Locus Online for example has the functionality to support reader comments, but hardly anyone does comment on their reviews. Same with Strange Horizons, and the SH forums — and the forums at SFSite — are fairly dead. Reviews posted on blogs (even the blogs of the same people who write for those publications) seem to generate more feedback; why is this?

    As you might expect, I think about this a fair bit! I actually think people are gradually starting to use the comments more. As the archive has grown, there’s started to be a healthy trickle of comments from people who’ve clearly been googling for discussion of a particular book and want a place to add their thoughts. And there have been a few present-tense discussions, if fairly brief ones (e.g. those on Black Man, Ysabel and The Execution Channel). And of course, TV and film reliably attract at least some comments. But yes, in general it’s not the liveliest of places, and I’d be surprised (though not unhappy) if something like this discussion sprang up there.

    I think there are two main reasons. The first is the one you suggested: differing expectations. To start with, someone reading a blog expects that the person who writes the blog is going to be there to answer back if they post a comment. SH doesn’t have a clear personality in that way, and I don’t think someone who reads a review necessarily expects the reviewer to be hanging around. (Though for the record, I do try to email authors about any comments. The “recent comments” sidebar was installed to help with that problem, although with the amount of spam SH gets I realise it’s not always useful.) In addition, I think someone reading a magazine review is usually looking for information about a book, while someone reading a blog is usually looking for an opinion. These are not the same thing; a review posted here is much more likely to get people engaging with the arguments it makes (whether or not people have read the book in question) than is a review posted at Strange Horizons. (Though I have some hopes for the review coming up on Monday …)

    The second reason reviews at SH and Locus don’t get many comments is simply: most people haven’t read or seen the thing being reviewed. Even at SH, where in-depthness is prioritised above timeliness, most people haven’t read the books. It’s very noticeable that films and tv are the most reliable comment-getters at SH; at Locus, it’s Graham Sleight’s “Yesterday’s Tomorrow” columns. The size of audience (I’m guessing, but I’d be surprised if Locus Online didn’t get more traffic than SH) doesn’t seem to figure into it, really. There isn’t really a way around this, except the archive effect I mentioned earlier.

    I think Strange Horizons is great, but what I’d enjoy seeing to complement it is Strange Horizons’s evil twin brother of a site, something edgier, more informal, that isn’t afraid to take shots from outside the penalty box.

    I’m not completely sure what this would look like (other than, well, Scalpel, I guess) … can you pin it down any more than that?

    Where does something in-between, like the group blog, fit in the future for online reviews?

    And this sounds like a question for the Eve’s Alexandrians. ;-)

    Jonathan:

    So in truth, I think there’s very little correlation between medium and quality of review.

    Yes. It can be a little humbling to see what Google likes, mind; search for reviews of Brasyl, for instance, and do you get Gary K. Wolfe’s take from Locus? Do you get Adam Roberts’ take from Strange Horizons? Nope; the first hit for “brasyl ian mcdonald review” that isn’t Amazon or a competitor is this. Which I guess ties in with:

    c) it’s not clear at this point what the most influential venues are. SH has the most kudos and SFSite’s has shrunk but is SFsite better read than SH? are blogs better read than SH?

    To which I can only say: your guess is as good as mine. I mean, I don’t even know whether what you say about SH vs. SF Site is true — sure, I’d like it to be true, but let’s be honest, I link to SH more than I link to SF Site, so if you hang around here you’re likely to be a biased sample.

    I suspect this is where Paul comes along and tells us all to do better at tagging and digging and del.icio.using our content. :)

  19. Jonathan M Says:

    That comment about Clute is spot on. For every in-depth review he produces he produces a couple of entirely subjective and rather informal “reaction pieces” he’s definitely more of a blogger than a traditional reviewer stylistically.

    You’re also right Scalpel. SH’s naughty younger brother was definitely the vibe we were going for in the long term.

    You’re also correct that your guess is as good as mine when it comes to readership. The problem with stuff like technorati is that it’s easy to game the system. My Elves are Different had an authority rating in the thousands the last time I looked and I think it was rated by technorati as one of the most important blogs on any topic anywhere. In truth, it spiked and probably has a decent readership but I doubt it’s vastly superior to yours here. Digg, on the other hand is just plain terrible for books… there’s no book section and the Digg people generally have quite a narrow field on interest that doesn’t include geeky Sf writing.

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  21. Karen Burnham Says:

    I was also at that panel, and afterwards when I was talking to Gordon in the bar there was no way that I was going to tell him I reviewed stuff on the Internet. I was surprised about how negative they were on the subject.

    On the other hand, they have a point about the critical importance of editing. All my best pieces have been in SH, largely thanks to the gentle intervention of Juliana and Niall. Reading good reviews and being edited are the most crucial ways for me to improve as a writer. In that way I feel that the blogosphere is almost like a farm team for up-and-coming reviewers and critics. The bar to entry is very low, lower even than the fanzines of days gone by, and the cream can rise to the top into places like SH and beyond.

    I’m not sure I would characterize SFRevu has having a strong editorial hand, though. Most of the pieces I submit to them have only been formatted, not edited. Maybe what I was writing was good enough not to need it, but I sort of doubt it. However, they are obviously aiming for something a little different with their ~500 words, plot summaries and cheery tones than what most of us seem to be aiming for.

  22. Martin Wisse Says:

    I started my booklog at roughly the same time as Kate Nepveu, purely out of a desire to be able to know what I had read last month and whether I liked it or not. This sort of mutated into being more of a review site.

    What I think it does well is to provide reviews of books nobody else will do reviews of, because they’ve long gone out of print. Professional reviewers mostly review current books after all.

    Also, it’s completely independent, reviews only books I bought myself (or got out of the library), isn’t dependent on the goodwill of publishers, so it can afford to be honest in its appraisals and have more than just positive reviews.

    Incidently, if you want to talka bout godawful reviews, Locus is the biggest culprit. No matter who writes them, no review is as likely as to put me off a book as a Locus review.

  23. Paul Raven Says:

    I suspect this is where Paul comes along and tells us all to do better at tagging and digging and del.icio.using our content. :)

    Beat me to it! ’tis true, though; a lot of the better review sites and blogs are hampered by the poor SEO of their platforms, at least as far as organic discovery through search is concerned.

    But I’m not sure that sort of ‘stumbling’ is the problem; someone casting around for a review like that is just looking for a general ‘thumbs up/down’, more often than not. It’s the geeks like us who track down the more insightful stuff, because we want to read it – and so we go the extra distance to find and filter the wheat from the chaff.

    I’m privileged to write reviews for both print media and internet platforms, although I’m not paid for any of the print work. So maybe I’m lucky in that I am able to say I don’t really care what the ‘pro’ reviewers think of the internet as a platform. If people read my reviews and find them useful and/or entertaining, that’s enough for me.

  24. Kate Nepveu Says:

    Karen: I’m a firm believer that editing generally improves nonfiction writing. And yet I’ve never bothered to submit my reviews to another site, where if they’re accepted they might get a wider audience, editing, and maybe even some pay.

    There are a couple of reasons for this. One, it’s rare for me to review new books in a timely fashion. Two, I’ve put a fair bit of effort into *my* *own* site, and I like reading reviews by individual people whose tastes I know, so I’m not very motivated to participate in a joint project.

    Martin: the thing I find about _Locus_’s reviews is that I glaze over in the long plot descriptions. Perhaps it’s because of the tiny type–I’m suddenly very conscious of this, which is why I bothered putting user-selectable style sheets over on my own site. But also, long plot descriptions make me wary of spoilers.

  25. Oyce Says:

    (I am going to be totally biased and self-involved, given that I am an online book blogger and because my experience book blogging seems to be fairly different b/c it’s concentrated on LJ and not on online sf/f magazines.)

    Huh. This is very interesting, particularly because I haphazardly fell into being a book blogger and also because while my blog has many posts on sf/f books, the audience reading my posts generally isn’t sf/f fandom. Some people are, and I think I am getting a few more people from sf/f fandom after going to Wiscon twice, but by and large, I picked up readers from media fandom who were also into sf/f.

    I’ve attempted dipping my toes into the world of more formal online review publishing (Broadsheet, you) to rather dire results because I am too lazy to write long reviews about books I feel lukewarm about, and because I’ve found that I tend to prefer discourse on my LJ. I like the casual nature of reviews there, I like having a group of people I read for reviews, and I like that I feel like I know my commenters fairly well. Also, I’d like to think that regular readers get a good sense of my taste, so they can calibrate it with their own, because that’s one of my favorite things about the casual book blogs I read.

    I’m a bit amused by the notion that online book bloggers do it for the attention. If anything, I’ve found that most book posts get fewer comments that my posts about other topics, unless I happen to hit on a book that’s very, very popular. Otherwise, generally the posts are met with resounding silence. It was rather disturbing at first, but after putting up a few informal polls, I figured that a lot of people did read the book posts but just couldn’t comment because they hadn’t read the book.

    On the other hand, comments are a huge part of why I’ve continued to book blog. It didn’t start that way, though.

    I started writing books up because a) I wanted to keep track of what I was reading and record my own reactions to remind myself of them (I’m still somewhat disturbed by how quickly I forget what I thought of a book) and b) I like talking about books. Having people there to comment back was a bonus.

    Now, the parts I enjoy the most are when things take off in the comments, not because I like the ego stroke (though admittedly, I like that too), but because it’s awesome watching lots of people talking about one particular book. It’s especially awesome when people start talking to each other in the comments, because it’s like being able to geek out with a ton of people and revel in being in the company of fellow geeks.

    Reviewing is about advocacy, about saying “read this book,” or “don’t read this book.”

    I didn’t even generally think of my book posts as reviews before, because the overall purpose of them isn’t to get other people to read the book. This was particularly true when I first started blogging: I had an audience of maybe ten people tops, two regular commenters, and I was trying to catch up on my reading after discovering an entire community that had read tons of good books that I hadn’t. Most of my earlier posts were written with the mindset that most people would have already read the book in question; I read and blogged to catch up with those people, so I would be able to talk to them.

    These days, I still blog to find other people who have read the book so I can talk to them about it. Because of this, when I rec a book, I’m doing it partly because I think it’s good and want people to read it, or because I think a specific person will enjoy it, but honestly, the largest motivation is purely selfish — I want to be able to talk about it at length with as many people as possible.

    This is particularly important to me because a lot of my RL friends don’t read the same things I do, so having LJ and having people to talk to books about was like striking gold. So — in a sense I blog for comments, but I feel it’s more about a search for community as opposed to “fame and fortune” or whatnot.

  26. Oyce Says:

    Argh, sorry for spamming you, Niall! Feel free to delete the first comment; I made little edits to the second and didn’t realize I had already posted the first -_-;;.

  27. A Progressive on the Prairie » Readercon wrap up Says:

    […] a bit of a dustup here and there over a Readercon panel on reviewing in the blogosphere. I attended that panel and, […]

  28. Niall Says:

    OK, first version is gone.

  29. Kev McVeigh Says:

    Ok I confess to needing attention and you all ignore me huh? boo hoo!

  30. Dale Says:

    LOL Kev. It is a curious thing that when we post online we crave feedback, and then when it comes it usually irks us more than it satisfies. Either way (feedback or no), it seems like an anticlimax (except in the unusual circumstance it kicks up a genuine debate, as in the top posting but not yours ;) It irks us even more if a) it wonders off topic into meaningless meanders, and b) the pointlessness never seems to end, but goes on and on and on….

    Or do you just enjoy hijacking topics?

    Satisfied or irked?

  31. Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Roundup Says:

    […] Harrison on the Readercon “Reviewing in the Blogosphere” panel. Again, we get more of the same “Internet is bad/print is good” nonsense without […]

  32. MattD Says:

    And there seems to be this sense that readers are unable to distinguish between a good review and a bad review, which I’m pretty sure is not the case.

    There was sense some of that on the panel, although I can also generalize from an example of one and say that all the various types of content that do get called “reviews,” plus the sheer quantity of them all, can make it hard for the casual fan to know what is out there. A year ago I had no idea that Strange Horizons existed, or the NYRSF, Interzone, etc., to say nothing of all the quality blogs out there. I think I had bumped into SFSite once or twice, but I had no idea it was a semimonthly publication. It’s not that I wouldn’t have been interested if I had known, but it never occurred to me that such things might exist, it never occurred to me to Google for a book review because I had no idea there was so much out there.

    Yes, I’m an idiot. But I have to wonder how many other idiots are out there.

    The second reason reviews at SH and Locus don’t get many comments is simply: most people haven’t read or seen the thing being reviewed.

    Good point!

    I suspect this is where Paul comes along and tells us all to do better at tagging and digging and del.icio.using our content.

    Yes, although as Kate said, “the way to get readers is to write things worth reading.” The FantasyBookSpot admins are very tuned into search engine optimization, and, while it’s resulted in what is quite possibly the ugliest site on the web (every time we make a suggestion about making it more elegant or user-friendly, it gets shot down because it would harm the SEO), it does work. But only to a degree. If you Google “marusek getting to know you review” there’s my recent review, right under Amazon. However if you Google “hamilton harlequin review” Jonathan’s has risen above the pack; and if you Google “lies locke lamora review” the infamous SH review is high on the list. So there is clearly something to be said for writing content that strives to be good enough (well, and/or controversial enough) that other people will link to it.

    I’m not completely sure what [the evil twin brother of Strange Horizons] would look like (other than, well, Scalpel, I guess) — can you pin it down any more than that?

    Scalpel was certainly in my thoughts, although more the discussions that preceded it than the finished product (we never got to see what it might have become, but the reviews that were published would largely have fit right in at SH or SFSite). As for pinning it down more than that…I’m not sure. Essentially what I was wondering, since (I agree with Jonathan) we are seeing more professional-level blog reviews, was what a good “informal and personal” online magazine would look like. I suppose you’d see more pieces where the writer was given reign to discuss the relevance of a work’s ideas to the outside world and agendas, more pieces that focus as much on connections between different works, and between works and other movements and medias, as on the works themselves.

    Concrete examples off the top of my head will necessarily be of lesser quality that what the reality might be, but I could imagine content ranging from a review of Black Man/Thirteen that really gets into questions of race (brief sidebar interview with whoever decided to change the title in the USA) and the dichotomous sense of identity that exists in America — something that takes the very good SH review as only the first half of what needs to be said; to a comparison of the swelling popularity of both fantasy fiction and hip-hop music, and the fantasy the later often represents; to a survey of all the pirate-related SF&F that is suddenly out there, and what it says about our culture; to a review of the new Harry Potter film focusing on its have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to current politics; to a conflict theory analysis of the literary criticism world, suggesting in conspiracy-theory mode that the disdain for SF among mainstream literary critics arises from a structural desire to keep certain classes of people from thinking about the future.

    (I call dibs on all those articles, BTW! ;-)

    I’m a firm believer that editing generally improves nonfiction writing. And yet I’ve never bothered to submit my reviews to another site, where if they’re accepted they might get a wider audience, editing, and maybe even some pay.

    This gets into the conflicting impulses of online reviewing that the panel discussed: if freedom is one of the excellences of online reviewing, then elements that get in the way of that freedom (an editor, dealing with someone else’s schedule, etc.) will be problematic.

    I like the idea of having an editor, because if I’m going to review at all, I want to get better at it any way I can. However I also like the idea of being able to produce first drafts on my own that are worth being edited. Right now I do a lot of self-editing: I do a first draft; let it sit for a couple of days; print it out and review it with an acceptance that dramatic re-envisioning may be necessary; write a second draft; print that out; and make final adjustments in sentence balance, precision of language, etc. When I find myself needing to do complete re-writes less often in order to satisfy my own standards, then maybe I’ll feel comfortable sending a few reviews to edited publications.

    I am writing for a future-me

    I suppose, to give some contrast to what other people have written, that I write reviews for a younger version of myself. I had tried to read Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun in my early teens and just couldn’t make heads nor tails of it, then years later an online review helped me realize how much was going on below the surface that I hadn’t realized. I tried the books again and loved them. That insight, that there are SF&F books worth thinking about in an adult way, really re-launched my enthusiasm for SF&F. I write reviews to give some of that enthusiasm back to the community, in the hope that someone else may be affected in the same way I was.

    Writing to give back to the community means trying to produce works that are worthy of the community. I disagreed with many parts of the panel, but I really wanted to cheer when Clute made his statement about the level of content and quality that a review should strive for.

  33. Niall Says:

    On the subject of archive comments:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article and thought I’d leave a comment to tell you so. Tonight I read the story “The Days Between” in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Nineteenth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois. I thought the story was great, searched online to find out more about it, and came across this article. I can’t believe this article has been posted for more than a year and received no comments. Thanks.

    Which is nice.

    Also somewhat relevant, although it seems to come from a strange parallel universe where nobody was blogging about sf before 2005, and where a technorati ranking of 43,000-ish makes you the most popular sf blog, is this.

    As to your comment, Matt, I agree with pretty much everything you say. Particularly on self-editing — after a dry spell of about two months, I finally managed to make myself write a review this past weekend, but I don’t plan on letting anyone else see it until I’ve let it sit for a couple of days, then gone back and revised it — and on your last paragraph.

  34. Jonathan M Says:

    I think that there’s a generational element here. Blogged reviews and writing about SF has a certain style to it that doesn’t necessarily completely fit with the standards and values of more traditional venues of publication.

    I think an online publication can afford to be more discursive, more experimental and be more happy about being only one part of the picture and being entirely disposable in many ways.

    Scalpel saw a middle-ground between blogging and dead tree SF journals and was going after it and our aims in the long run were very much about the subjective, the confrontational and the discursive. The problem is that it takes time to get a gang of writers capable of producing this style and you do need to be able to do the belt and braces reviewing stuff too.

    I am currently thinking about a child of scalpel project (largely due to the support I got following Scalpel’s shut down) and I want to occupy that kind of territory but I’m still unsure of the format (other than the fact that I’m happy actually paying people for their work) as well as the technical stuff so the gestation period is only just now really kicking off.

    But one thing that this readercon panel has really shown me is that there is an orthodoxy to the world of reviewing that needs a good challenging. That tends to focus attention :-)

  35. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    I’m not sure if I’m just getting old, but I wasn’t delighted with any of the panels I was on nor most of those I went to. I don’t know why the discussions in general tended not to catch fire the way I had hoped. The one I really liked was the Angela Carter panel, which I ended up at because I was tagging along with Sarah Smith, a panelist.

    There is a lot of good and thoughtful material above, which I have only skimmed while making dinner, but I suppose I say in a couple of things, though I have not gone over all this carefully (but intend to).

    1) When I talk about the pressure on bloggers to write quick and short, I’m talking about ME. I assume others have the same feeling of responsibility to feed their what-have-you-done for me lately audience as I do, but I have not done studdies of how long it takes people to write what they post online.

    2) I decided to take my own comments to heart and try to shift myself to a more essay-friendly blog format which will encourage me to go back to writing things that take days or weeks or months, not just hours.

    3) I am in fact writing an essay on sf intended for first publication on my blog. (Usually NYRSF gets those.) I like what I’ve written, but I’m three days in and the end is not in sight. Can I really blog this way? It is a noble experiment.

    4) In the blog-write-ups of one other panel I was on, concerning gender and the Singularity, the audience seems similarly disappointed, but seems to think the reason they didn’t get the panel they wanted was . . . me. And so the essay I’m working on fills in the gaps of what I thought was an obvious argument. That having been said, maybe some of the panelists who disappointed you had more to say than you think they did.

    I’ve got to get dinner on the table now, but hope to read though this and comment more specifically tomorrow.

  36. Niall Says:

    Hi Kathryn — thanks for dropping by. Point taken about making too many assumptions about what the panellists thought, although the disappointment with the panel does seem to come from several people independently. If you want to forward this link to your co-panellists, be my guest!

    At any rate, I look forward to your other comments — and that essay. As I said in the original post, to a certain extent I do agree that blog format exerts a pressure to post regularly, and that posting regularly usually means short posts. But I think the other virtues of blog format (no length restrictions, syndication) can work in favour of longer, less frequent posts.

    Jonathan: child of Scalpel, you say? Intriguing…

  37. Here is the News « Torque Control Says:

    […] is the News Your daily dose of sf reviewing commentary: in response to that Readercon panel, James Nicoll muses about negative reviews, while Elizabeth Bear suggests we need someone to review […]

  38. Rose Fox Says:

    I missed this panel and kicked myself for it repeatedly. Reading this recap, however, makes me reconsider the kicking. Perhaps I didn’t miss much other than a chance to ask annoying questions, and I had plenty of other chances for that at Readercon. Look, a positive response to a negative online review!

    As with most panels at Readercon this year, I think this one could have used more people who disagreed strongly with one another, and especially could have used someone who has a book commentary blog. The questions here are much more nuanced than online/print, and it sounds to me like those nuances weren’t fully explored. The idea that the book reviews I write for SH and the book posts I write for my LJ are not only the same, but also equally suspect attempts to boost my ego, is laughable. The idea that online reviews are totally different from print reviews but print reviews can all be lumped together is equally laughable. Online venues are as varied as print venues. PW and the New York Times Review of Books and a photocopied fanzine are all print publications that publish book reviews, and that’s about where the similarity ends. Like the panel on protagonist point of view that could easily have gone on for three hours, this one tackled a topic far more complex than could really be covered in 50 minutes, and clearly no one really put much thought into those complexities and how to at least attempt to address them.

    Incidentally, I’ll be helping out with Readercon programming next year, so it’s very interesting to read these discussions of what people think does and doesn’t work. More feedback is good feedback!

  39. Blue Tyson Says:

    Interesting discussion.

    For me, an avid reader, I pretty much never go looking for print reviews.

    Reviews done for major media with advertising to be satisfied, or publishers to be happy, or whatever, have serious problems with trustworthiness, I feel, at a base level in this day and age. This would be case by case, or reviewer by reviewer, but having an editor can hamper the cause of the reader in this case. ‘No, you can’t write the product placement in this is absolutely ridiculous, they are paying for it’. etc. Or perhaps worse, they never say ‘this book is crap, don’t buy it’, or just don’t publish the reviews that would say that, to keep the various interests happy.

    Likewise, eight pages of academic discourse (or waffle, depending on how you want to look at it) that doesn’t tell you what the book is about, or if it is any good, is absolutely a bad review to a lot of people.

  40. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    A few remarks:

    1) In a comment on the FantasyBookSpot forum, Matt notes that he would have liked to see at least one “respected advocate of blog reviews” on the panel, and I can only agree.

    My feeling, upon reading the panel line-up is that is sort of what was expected of me. I approve of people using the Internet as a review medium, but I am not the advocate that should have been there.

    While I do from time to time review books or stories on the Internet, it’s often not sf. If I do what I consider a real substantial review of a spec fic book, the hungry maw of NYRSF awaits and needs to be fed every month.

    On the other hand, I am a major consumer of online short fiction reviews, which we use as research for the Year’s Best volumes. David finds online reviews a lot more useful than I do. So, no, I wasn’t going to argue for the unique virtues and high quality of online reviewing.

    But yes, the panel needed someone to take that position. But if I were staffing the panel, no one in particular would come to mind.

    2) I think freedom is the first thing most people would point to as an advantage of online publication. Some of the freedoms involved in online publication are illusory. Yes, you are freed of finding your way through the submission process, and of official wordlength constraints (and often of the burden of being paid for your work). But the web brings with it other constraints: Avoiding saying anything that will bring in roving bands of nasty bullies, reaching the wrong audience because your target audience may not read blogs, writing about a topic that uses words that will draw comment spam forever, etc.

    The freedom from deadlines is the most illusory of freedoms, because your web readers would most like to be fed several times a day and I feel a real pressure to produce to that appetite. And liberation from proofreading and copyediting by real live human beings is not all that liberatory. (David sometimes calls me from Tor to tell me when I’ve really screwed up.)

    3) Oh, how I wish they were naming names. Or, if they were naming names, how I wish that Matt was reporting them. I don’t think we were naming names. If I had thought the problem was with specific low-talent individuals rather than with a social and technological surround, I could have gone through our Year’s Best notes and pulled out examples of individual reviews that I thought were useless or way off base. But why? I don’t think online reviewing needs a purge; but rather I think it needs to cultivate the idea of spending enough time in composition to make high quality reviews more common.

    4) I would love to get some expansion on this from those on the panel, because I can’t see that it makes any sense at all. One: who else should reviewers write for, if not an audience?

    You need to think about what a blog audience really looks like. First of all, my audience doesn’t really want me to write book reviews at all. They want to be fed clever bits every few hours. And what the mass blog audience wants from me is to come up with some new way of visualizing something and then post it on the web (I’ve pulled this off a couple of times). Or my audience wants things on topics that mostly have nothing to do with SF. The top searches that brought people into my site in the last 4000 hist were: go fast boats, breast milk for sale, fake yugioh cards, rosemary kennedy, retrocausality, fake yu gi oh cards, islamic creationism, blackwater security, new orleans levees, sea creatures, go fast boat, dropped baby. About 10% of my traffic this week comes from visits to one brief post about fake YuGiOh cards found in my son’s collection. Another 6% comes from my post in September of 2005 about the New Orleans levee breaks. Sure, there’s an audience out there. But their desires are as much to be resisted as catered to.

    If what I got when I reviewed books was considered comments by an informed audience like panel audiences at readercon, I might review more. But I think what my SF audience would like more of from me is gossip rather than reviews. I write a lot less about sf than I might, because I have too much access to gossip, and don’t know the levels of confidentiality involved. (I found out about Ellen Asher’s dismissal from the SFBC from David, who has known her for 30 years, who ran in to her on the street half an hour afterwards. Was this blogable or not? I left it alone.) So mostly I talk about something else on my blog.

    As I think I said above, what I would like to try is writing sf-related essays for publication on my blog. But they take a while and I’m sure that will work.

  41. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    My last line “I’m sure that will work.” should have read “I’m not sure that will work.”

  42. Niall Says:

    I’ll come back and post a proper response later, but I wanted to note Paul Kincaid’s response to the discussion.

  43. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    Kincaid also remarks on the audience issue: The online response, it is said, turns the review into a dialogue in which the reviewer is writing for a particular audience (some see this as a negative, others see it as a positive – to be honest I can’t see it as anything other than neutral). Writers always write for an audience, how clearly or foggily defined that audience is, is down to the individual writer and the individual circumstances. I have to say that I’ve had a far clearer idea of my audience in some of the print media I’ve written for than I have in any of the online media. But really these two points are disguised ways of talking about a third …

    I have devoted a bit too much obsessive effort at learning who my online audience is, both those who speak up and those who simply lurk. They are who they are. But collectively, they are not an ideal audience for book reviews. NYRSF’s readers are a much better audience fot that.

  44. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    Kincaid says: Someone else has suggested a canon of maybe 10 central works and all critics should be invited to review those works so that readers can do a compare and contrast.

    How about online Reviewing Slams, where reviewers compete to do the best review of an important new book? That might work.

  45. MattD Says:

    Rose: yes, one of the key problems with the panel was that while they did try to distinguish between different forms of online writing (instead of making the panel “print vs. online”) there weren’t enough people, or the right people, there to grasp the nuances. The areas of discussion were very much those you’d expect to hear in a print vs. online panel, and there wasn’t much in the way of debate even on those areas.

    Is there a mailbox where one can send program comments and suggestions for the next Readercon? I listed a few on my feedback form, but ran out of space!

    Kathryn: But the web brings with it other constraints: Avoiding saying anything that will bring in roving bands of nasty bullies

    Not at all: talk to Jonathan. This is one of the best ways to bring in traffic, and (if you handle it well) can also be a great way to generate meaningful discussion.

    First of all, my audience doesn’t really want me to write book reviews at all.

    Yes, but (notwithstanding that you create, and can re-create, your audience by what you write) there clearly are blogs where the audience is inclined to read reviews. And for them, for blog readers like me, I’d suggest that the pressures you cite are largely in the other direction. There are already places — like Amazon — where I can go for “short summary plus opinion” reviews, so to differentiate a blog, to attract a readership beyond one’s immediate friends, an online reviewer often must do more, go further. And there are so many SF&F blogs out there, nobody can read them all; it is thus in the interest of bloggers to write thoughtful, interesting posts that will filter up through the blogosphere (via link roundups at more widely read blogs) to attract notice and discussion.

  46. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    The 2003 New Weird discussion I just posted is not exactly a model of civility. (You have to choose your battles with people you expect to know the rest of your life.)

    I was really amused to discover, posting about physics, that there are physics troll, and yes indeed, tehre are even math trolls. No subject mater is truly immune.

    People in general are willing to say insulting, bullying things online that they would never say in person.

  47. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    Islands of civility on the Internet are carved by exerting careful social control. The Patron Saint of this is Teresa Nielsen Hayden who has such an excellent comment section because of her expertise at dealing with Internet misbehavior.

    For reasons similar to my own, the Nielsen Haydens write a lot less about SF than one might expect.

  48. MattD Says:

    Two things re: Paul Kincaid’s response…

    1) I didn’t get the feeling that the panel was about the differences between print vs. online reviews (Gordon was really the only panelist who tended to lump everything online together). The impression I had was rather that the panelists mentioned points that have arisen in past print vs. online review debates because (very much in line with what Paul wrote) they couldn’t think of much to discuss that was specific to online reviewing (the comments on contextual links were perhaps the only online-only quality mentioned). I’m afraid that the widespread impression that the panel was about print vs. online reviews is probably the fault of my write-up more than anything. There is, though, also a defensiveness in many online reviewers stemming from past arguments, that leads to the assumption that the print people are always criticizing the online people (even when the people are often one and the same). It’s led to some funny posts, if nothing else; to quote Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist:

    Anyway, in terms of online reviewing, everyone [in NYC fantasy publishing] seems to believe that they represent the future of book reviewing. So John Clute and the others who sat on that panel at Readercon should perhaps look a little more into this. . .

    …when of course Clute has been reviewing online for more than a decade.

    2) The above said, I agree with pretty much everything in Paul’s post, as far as it goes, except that I do wonder if there is a difference in the means of content discovery and access in the online world compared to print. I don’t know if there is a Google-equivalent in the print world, that catalogs all reviews published in both fanzines and pro-/semi-pro publications and presents them as the same, ranked according to a highly gameable mechanism. Combine that with the suggestion that there may be, not different elements (as Paul covers), but different trends in those elements that may be media-driven, and I think what the members of the panel were most concerned about was how easy/hard it is to find a certain type of review, matching a given set of Paul’s elements, online.

  49. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    I sincerely don’t understand what’s being said here: to quote Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist:

    “Anyway, in terms of online reviewing, everyone [in NYC fantasy publishing] seems to believe that they represent the future of book reviewing.”

    Huh? Can you unpack this?

  50. » Paul Kincaid’s book reviewing credo gets my vote » Velcro City Tourist Board » Blog Archive Says:

    […] the Readercon panel on book reviews seems to have generated a lot of dicussion around the issue … kind of the inverse of the Eastercon panel, which took place after the […]

  51. MattD Says:

    Katheryn, file the quote under “humorous aside” rather than “key point.” It was just a funny example of someone misunderstanding the panel to be about print vs. online reviewing, rather than about the qualities of online reviewing.

    Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist is one of the most trafficked SF&F blogs. Pat recently took a trip to NYC to meet with some editors and publishers, and I suppose he asked them about online reviewing.

    Beyond that, you’d need to ask him…

  52. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    I got the part about him meeting editors, but couldn’t find the context of the quote.

  53. MattD Says:

    Sorry, “Katheryn” should be “Kathryn.”

    The panel should have addressed the lack of editing capability in blog comments. ;-)

  54. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    One thing that I don’t think was covered on the panel but lurks in the background of all this is that SF has its own ethical codes for dealing with conflict of interest situations, and part of that involves (with rare exceptions) knowing the identity of the reviewer. The sf field is so tightly knit that if many common conflict-of-interest rules were applied, nothing much would get reviewed.

    One difference between online reviewers (on average) and print reviewers for the usual venues is that online reviewers are less tied in to the publishing industry. But on the other hand, if they follow Internet fashion and review pseudonymously they don’t fit into “our” conflict-of-interest evaluation system since you can’t tell who the heck they are, they are less trusted.

    This is a conflict between the sf subculture and the Internet subculture that has already lead to significant conflict in, for example, the case of WIkipedia. Perhaps I’ve missed a good fight or two, but my general sense is that this is mostly an accident yet to happen in the sf online reviewing community, since online reviews are not yet influential enough for it to be worth fighting about, and a number of the online reviewers behave according to the social codes of sf rather than the Internet.

    For better or worse, a review venue like NYRSF is very tightly tied to the publishing industry. We don’t get grouched at about it much because we try hard to behave. Theoretically, online reviewing could be more independent, but it would need to follow the long-established social rules of the sf critical community for that to work.

    This is why I hate LiveJournal. I don’t like to wonder even for a minute who the heck is speaking in a conversation about sf or people and events in the sf field. Sure, sf also has the tradition of fannish personae, but they are not used for the most part to conceal relationships in situations where conflict-of-interest matters. And that kind of situation is much too easy in LJ, so I mostly don’t go there.

    Potentially, online reviewing could be a big improvement in the current reviewing situation by disentangling reviewing from publishing, but there are some significant social obstacles to be overcome before we get there.

    Over lunch in a pizzaria, I was reflecting on the fact that we were even disucssing the extent to which one Kathryn Cramer reviews online, given that I am married to a man who acquires over 30 books a year for the largest sf publisher and the overwhelming majority of my travel to cons is at least partly subsidized by Tor.

    Beyond limiting the extent to which I gossip, there are many other social strictures this places on what I can say online. The group editing of NYRSF is, among other things, designed to protect those of us who are plugged in all over the place from the appearance of commercial bias in the face of all this ovious commercial connection. I can’t publicly publish half-assed reviews because of the level of caution necessary.

    Above it was suggested I follow Jonathan Strahan’s example. I can’t. Early on when Jonathan started blogging stories he read for his Year’s Best, I asked David if I could do that too. The answer was NO. While I myself don’t acquire books, our Year’s Best is at least partly viewed as a possible way in to being published by my husband. Writers can be extremely sensitive about what David chooses to publicly appreciate. For example, a decade or so ago, he published in NYRSF a checklist of what he considered the most important books of a particular decade(the 80s?). He lost an author he was publshing over that because he hadn’t put what she thought was her best book in the list. I am not David, but when I talk about joint projects, I am perceived as speaking at least partly for him. This is also why we don’t publish a list of storied we liked but didn’t put in the book.

    Every once in a while, I’ll sneak into my blog remarks about a story I think is expecially cool. But mostly, I shut up about what I’m reading and save it for the story intros and our private notes.

    And then there is the general matter of literary politics. I didn’t like M. John Harrison’s WHITE LIGHT and thought about reviewing it on my blog. Harrison is at least as connected with The Establishment as I am, though on the other sie of the Pond. Read the New Weird Discussion and it should be apparent why I think that publicly savaging that book would have been a Very Bad Idea on my part. So I didn’t. No need to declare culture wars when I don’t have to. We are all in this business together.

    Perhaps we tie ourselves too tightly in knots in order to behave well in situations of close connection to the subject. But I would like to think that online venues will produce a crop of brilliant voices that can operate without these strictures.

  55. John Berlyne Says:

    I have been the UK Editor at Sfrevu for over eight years and in that time have posted many, many reviews – some positive, some negative, but every single one of them an informed and honest appraisal of the work in hand.

    I was a little surprised at the reported comments that Sfrevu has a policy of avoiding posting negative reviews. This is news to me! I’m one of their longest serving commentators and have _never_ found myself subject to this or any kind of restriction in my review work, not in tone, content or word length. Not that I’d want to publicly disagree with any stated editorial policy, perhaps it is a matter that the UK side of things has more autonomy. I do use far fewer reviewers than the US team, preferring instead the views of a few trusted reviewers than open house. And I always closely read, and if necessary, correct and clarify any reviews that are submitted to me – not to force them to conform to any house style or policy, but rather to make sure that their critical viewpoint – whether positive, negative, or indifferent is clarified and qualified.

    My main “brief-to-self” has always been ‘is this book worth, a) my time? and b) my hard earned cash?’ – if I can answer those two questions in a review, then I have achieved my intended purpose. Further analysis of the work; its importance to literature and the genre; its place in the grand scheme of things; deep and incisive commentary outlining its relevance to politics, philosophy, social conscience and the order of the world, though I may occasionally dip into, I generally leave to other commentators.

    I hear (second hand) that on this Readercon panel Clute allegedly stated “..that SFRevu’s contents were “not reviews”” – if he did say that, he is sadly misinformed – certainly where my own work is concerned. True, they may not be the often impenetrable, lofty critiques that he might prefer, but not everyone wishes to wade through a thesis when deciding which new book they should take on holiday.

    I’m not interested in reading or writing reviews that subscribe to some pre-ordained opinion. If something is poorly constructed and poorly executed, if a publisher has no business asking us to shell out for sub-standard work, if a writer has clearly lost his way or is being formulaic or is simply regurgitating works we’ve all seen before, then I count it my duty to identify this flaws and report them to readers. Likewise if a novel merits praise, then that praise should be duly given.

  56. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    I don’t remember whether Clute uttered the line that was reported to you or not.

    In general, I think the question of whether a book is worth someone’s time is much more important than whether it’s worth their money.

  57. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    I guess I should expand on that last bit. It never ceases to amaze how low publishing can go in providing God-Awful tie-in crap to willing; repeat buyers of that kind of processed book product are for the most part happy satisfied customers.

    That is the quicksand that awaits reviewer who dedicate themselves in insuring consumer happiness.

  58. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    I guess I should expand on that last bit. It never ceases to amaze how low publishing can go in providing God-Awful tie-in crap to willing readers; repeat buyers of that kind of processed book product are for the most part happy satisfied customers.

    That is the quicksand that awaits reviewer who dedicate themselves in insuring consumer happiness.

  59. John Berlyne Says:

    That’s an interesting point Kathryn – and raises a couple of further points. Firstly if there is (and we _know_ there is) a strata of readers who enjoy a certain kind of low brow tie-in novel, then savvy publishers are understandably pushed by market forces to cater to them. No business can afford to ignore such slice of the pie. Perhaps the revenue raised from, I don’t know, fifty thousand sales of a “Buffy” novel could help the same publisher fund the launching the career some new writer of more “serious” work. Genre fiction, to me, has always seemed an inclusive hobby, encompassing a extraordinarily wide range of works. Not everything that is high-brow is good. Equally not everything that is popular is bad.

    Additionally some people have more time available to them than money, and others, more money than time. Both criteria are equally important. Some folks are happier to pay twenty pounds for a book because they see it is 800 pages long and they may be tempted to think that they’re getting a lot for their money. But if it’s 800 pages of derivative mush, then they’ve wasted both their money _and_ their time. Surely the reviewer exists to act as a preventative.

    It may sound quaint, but I like to suppose that anyone reading my own reviews has a budget for their monthly book buying. If a person could afford only to buy, say, two books in the month of X, which two books would their money best be spent on? Which two books would they get most entertainment or pleasure from? If I were on that budget, given the overwhelming number of products available to me in month X, I would be grateful for some guidance in making my choice.

    And, let’s say the only books available were crappy tie-in novels, well even in that scenario, the reviewer has a duty to try and filter out the _really_ crappy ones from the less crappy ones! It’s those reviewers who are willing to offer that service whose opinions are probably worth taking notice of.

  60. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    I don’t know if a reviewer has the duty to grade the low end of the field for consumers, any more than restaurant reviewers have the obligation to tell us which is the best McDonalds. But it is certainly possible to distinguish levels of quality within franchise material, and it is occasionally possible for good writers to do interesting work within such constraints.

    But what both writers and publishers of such material usually want is for reviewers to focus on whether such books are good of their type, rather than how they measure against the classics of speculative fiction. This is a desire that should be for the most part be resisted.

    There was a real danger of aesthetics going totally down the drain in the face of lowest-brow paperback commerce back in the 80s, the day when the hardcover edition of a book (if there was one) was considered as merely an advertisement for the paperback. Ironically, what saved us from that dystopia was the collapse of the paperback distribution system in the US.

  61. John Berlyne Says:

    >>I don’t know if a reviewer has the duty to grade the low end of the field for consumers, any more than restaurant reviewers have the obligation to tell us which is the best McDonalds.<<

    Ha! Brilliantly put, and of course, you are quite right. There is a point at which quality control falls off the radar. And you’re spot on with your “of their type” observation too. This essentially, is one of the main differences between a critic and a reviewer – though I could certainly offer up the opinion if asked, I leave such learned questions as to where a novel lies in the SF pantheon to those who have more time to consider such matters. And longer deadlines!

  62. Yet More Readercon Reviewing Follow-up « Torque Control Says:

    […] also John Berlyne’s comments, here and at SF […]

  63. John Clute Says:

    Not entirely sure I said everything attributed to me in this long interesting conversation, but — this fyi John Berlyne — I am sure that I did not in fact say SFRevue reviews were not reviews, or anything about SFRevue at all. But there was a lot of talking going on — easy to mishear or misattribute in a crowded theatre…..

  64. MattD Says:

    It’s certainly possible that my memory or subconscious was playing tricks on me; Readercon was the first time I attempted this sort of event reporting so I have no objective sense of how accurate my memories are. My apologies if I misheard or made a misattribution. There are other posters here who attended the panel, perhaps they can comment on what their memories are. What’s interesting is that Ernest Lilley himself appears to remember the statement in question:

    “We [at SFRevu] tend away from negative reviews and don’t go in for a lot of literary criticism. Clute pointed out that to him, that’s just not reviewing.”

    (This from Lilley’s August editorial in SFRevu.)

  65. John Berlyne Says:

    Sadly I wasn’t there to hear (or not) things first hand…. but I sure wish I had been!

  66. Massaging the Medium « Through the dark labyrinth Says:

    […] between print and online reviewing seems to have generated an awful lot of hot air, most notably here and here. Some of the comments have been sensible, a lot haven’t, and the discussion as far as I […]


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