Why I Write Reviews

If it weren’t for the existence of many fine writer-critics, I would sometimes be tempted to start believing that fiction writers just don’t get reviewing. A case in point: a post by Jason Sanford titled, “Why we write literary reviews“. It feels a little unfair to object to a post that concludes that reviewing is a valuable and worthwhile activity, but I can’t let that “we” stand, because while I’m sure what Jason Sanford says is true for Jason Sanford, it’s at best partially true for me; because I suspect the same is true for many other reviewers; and because the post as a whole traffics in assumptions about the nature of purpose and reviewing that I think undermine the whole enterprise.

To the point, in fact, where I could disagree with just about every sentence in the post that isn’t purely factual. For instance, on negative reviews, Sanford writes: “I basically refuse to waste my time reviewing bad stories”. The error here — beyond ignoring the fact that the decision, or assignment, to review is usually made before you know whether a story is good or bad — is to consider it a waste of time to review a bad story, when such a policy makes it impossible for a reader to form a full picture of Sanford’s taste (which precludes them from accurately weighting his judgments), and helps to bias the public picture of the sf field away from reality (which does more than theoretical damage). Moreover, negative reviews are apparently easy to write because “When you read a bad story, the flaws almost beg for sarcastic comments and ridicule”; the mistake here is to assume that sarcastic comments and ridicule make for a good negative review, when the opposite is much more likely to be the case.

But the central frustration of Sanford’s post is the assumed nature of the relationship between fiction and criticism, which colours everything else. I think it’s clearest in the fifth of his six reasons for reviewing:

A need to draw attention to the reviewer. This is another irritating reason to write a literary review. Reviewers who want attention should instead write their own stories, although that’s also a lousy reason to write fiction. While there is nothing wrong with critiquing from your own point of view—indeed, that’s hard to avoid because criticism and opinions are such personal affairs—reviewers should never forget that true criticism isn’t about them alone. Yes, it is their reaction to the story. But the story also exists apart from them. Only a fool forgets that.

This characterisation of reviewing — as, ideally, a pure and ego-less activity performed by willing supplicants at the altar of fiction — seems, at best, naive. Obviously, showboating should be avoided, as in the case of negative reviews filled with cheap snark noted above. But, equally obviously, of course reviewers want attention; reviewing is an act of communication, it takes a certain amount of ego just to stand up and say your piece in public, and we want to know that our communication is valued. I want to know that my communication is useful — less in the sense of persuading people to pick up a book, since although that’s always a pleasure it’s a limited if not illusory power, and more in the sense of prompting further thought, of contributing to or generating a conversation.

More importantly, critiquing a story from your own point of view isn’t just “hard to avoid”, it’s central to the entire project. Contra Sanford, I assert that “the story” does not exist apart from the reader, it exists in the interaction between the reader’s mind and the words on the page — if short story club achieves nothing else, it demonstrates that! — and that communicating a personal aesthetic experience is a vital element of a successful review, perhaps the most vital element.

The most irritating sentence in the paragraph, however, is the third. “Reviewers who want attention should instead write their own stories.” What’s objectionable here is not just the too-common canard that reviewers are frustrated fiction writers; it’s the suggestion that reviewers should want to write fiction, that fiction is in some undefined way inherently the superior activity, the true end-point of the urge to write, the only form of writing worthy of attention, that reviewing is but a stepping stone to that goal.

As I say, I’m happy to accept this is true for Sanford. It’s not true for me. Because I assert that reading is an inherently creative act, I also assert that reviewing is a creative act — which is to say I assert that it is inherently a literary act, worthy of attention and consideration as such. The notion that a review has no value as an independent work is easily dismissed with reference to the work of someone like John Clute, but the more nuanced argument that a review is lesser because it cannot exist without a prompting work is also something of a red herring; fiction hardly emerges from a vacuum, after all. To the extent that all reviews, in transcribing the experience of the reviewer, necessarily re-tell and mis-tell their subject, they are productively creative. And the other side of this, of course, is that to the extent that all fiction is a response to things in the world, it is usefully critical. (Consider Farah Mendlesohn’s definition of science fiction as “an argument with the universe” as a description of all fiction.) To cast reviewing as inherently a lesser activity than fiction because it is more obviously a secondary activity is, I suggest, to misunderstand the nature of both.

There’s much more to disagree with in Sanford’s post — the paragraph on “A need to pontificate” as a reason for reviewing could easily generate another post of this length — but almost all of it comes back to this view of the relative worth of the two activities. Even when Sanford is discussing “A need to expand the understanding of a story”, his reasons for the desirability of doing so have to do almost entirely with its potential utility for fiction writers: “if I, as a reviewer, understand what made one novel special then perhaps my own fiction writings will take a giant step forward. Or perhaps new writers who read my review will apply this understanding to their own fiction.” Perhaps indeed; but as a reason to write reviews, such a priority seems rather skewed. For my part, I can’t improve on Gary K Wolfe: “One writes reviews because reviews are what one writes: they are essays about literature, and literature is worth writing essays about.”

A couple of weeks ago, Jo Walton pointed out that there was once, and I think for one year only, a “Best Book Reviewer” Hugo category, and suggested reviving it. Most of the time I think this would be a bad idea: we have too many Hugo categories as it is. But posts like Sanford’s make me wish it did exist, in the hope that it might make people think a bit more deeply about the art of criticism, and its value.

72 Responses to “Why I Write Reviews”

  1. jonathan M Says:

    I wasn’t actually aware that Sanford wrote reviews but, according to his website, he has published a few over the years so one can hardly blame him for wanting to make the step that we have all made at various times and publish a ‘reviewerfesto’ of sorts. Setting things down on paper always helps to sharpen one’s aims and values.

    But I don’t see anything of myself in the motivations he lists. I don’t think that a single one of them applies to me. My own feelings about why I write criticism have varied over time but at the moment I think it’s a combination of enjoying criticism as an act of creativity in its own right and being a part of a wider community.

    Sanford’s reasons are so alien to me that they feel less like reasoned attempts at understanding the critical impulse than they do an array of defence mechanisms deployed by authors seeking to explain away negative reviews :

    “Oh you’re just a failed writer /jealous / a show off / a pompous arse” etc

    As a result, the piece feels less like a critic speaking for ‘his people’ than it does a passive-aggressive attack on people who are a lower form of life than writers of fiction. That may well not be the intent behind the piece but his psychological reductionism and value judgements do nonetheless come across as a little bit insulting.

  2. Abigail Says:

    Well said.

    I think it can be hard for writers of (primarily) fiction to understand that writers of (primarily) nonfiction, and particularly reviewers, are driven by the same need to express themselves through words. So they tend to assign us very calculating motives: we just want attention/money/to make a political point. These motives exist, of course, just as an author of fiction might tailor their work to suit a certain market, or in order to cause controversy. But they’re not the reason that I write.

    Or, to put it another way: it is absolutely true that writing (and publishing) reviews is an act of ego. But so is writing fiction.

  3. Niall Says:

    Jonathan:

    enjoying criticism

    Yes, that’s an obvious point I missed, isn’t it? It’s fun.

    Abigail:

    These motives exist, of course, just as an author of fiction might tailor their work to suit a certain market, or in order to cause controversy. But they’re not the reason that I write.

    Yes. And even allowing that they do exist, the way in which Sanford presents them is problematic: here are the noble motives and the base motives, and surprise! I’m driven by the noble motives.

  4. Martin Says:

    As a result, the piece feels less like a critic speaking for ‘his people’ than it does a passive-aggressive attack on people who are a lower form of life than writers of fiction.

    Yes, it is very hard to believe Sanford’s piece is written in good faith.

  5. Patrick H Says:

    I’ve written individual reviews for all those reasons, and probably others I could come up with if I was to spend some time in quiet reflection. The motivation is less important than the review itself, I think.

    The overarching reason for why I do it at all is surely just that I am an incorrigible nerd.

  6. Alison Says:

    I could not agree more with what you have said here Niall, and it’s nice to see it so well expressed. Technology provides a channel for people like yourself, Abgail, Martin etc to deliver reviews, of a professional quality, and which stand on their own merit both as commentaries on works, and as works.

    Reviewing uses social modelling: I model your mind (to some extent) using normal primate facilities, and then I hear what you say about a work, and that helps me in turn to model the experience of the work in your mind (because as you say, the experience of the story is created afresh). The better the review the richer the model I can build, but also the more I know about the reviewer, the richer the model I can build.

    So I argue that technology has enabled an additional process of ‘reviewing’ which is more diffuse and collaborative than the practice of ‘writing reviews’. The ‘know the reviewer’ half of the formula is richer, so the review does not have to carry all the weight, because ‘me modelling a story happening inside your head’ is supported by an ongoing modelling process, which is diffused across multiple communications.

    God I have no idea if I have communicated what I am trying to say. I just think my experience of works has been enriched as much by this diffuse reviewing activity than by individual reviews.

  7. Ian Mond Says:

    Thank you for that. Well said indeed.

    I decided in the last 15 months or so that reviewing was what I wanted to do. In a sense I am the frustrated fiction writer because that’s where my heart initially lay. But over time vie discovered that I get a real buzz from writing the review and for having the temerity (and the ego) to want to communicate my thoughts and taste to others. And, on a more conceptual level, I do think the dialogue is important.

    It’s why I joined the Last Short Story on Earth project and why I have a podcast with writer Kirstyn McDermott that reviews novels. But enough about me and my motivations.

    Like you, I also have an issue with this idea that we should avoid negative reviews. It’s this idea that we might burn bridges or upset someone or be known as that terrible critic who doesn’t like anything. It’s not new. This friction has always existed between the writer and the critic. But it’s a good friction, and one that Sanford does a disservice by disregarding.

  8. Jason Sanford Says:

    Niall: Thanks for the in-depth response. You are correct–I approach reviewing from the point of view of a fiction writer. That’s quite natural since I mainly see myself as a fiction writer. People should take or leave what I wrote based on that fact. But that is not to say reviews are secondary to fiction, or that I take reviewing as being less serious than fiction writing. As with all creative endeavors, there are great stories and great reviews along with bad stories and bad reviews and everything in between.

    When I said I refuse to waste time reviewing bad stories, I was very clearly speaking from my own point of view. As with all people, time is the one quantity we’ll never create more of. So we all make decisions on how to prioritize what we do with our time.

    However, rarely writing bad reviews doesn’t make it “impossible for a reader to form a full picture of Sanford’s taste (which precludes them from accurately weighting his judgments), and helps to bias the public picture of the sf field away from reality (which does more than theoretical damage).” I am extremely up front with the fact that I rarely review bad stories. In addition, there’s a big difference between a reviewer stating that he rarely writes bad reviews and a magazine editor only publishing positive reviews (per the post you linked to). Reviewing is a creative affair and the type of reviews I write are my concern–again, readers are free to take or leave what I say.

    Publishing reviews is a different beast, and an editor who only publishes positive reviews is indeed doing a disservice to not only literary criticism but also to the general reading public. Just as I wouldn’t read a magazine or anthology which only published stories by a single author, I also wouldn’t read a publication which only published positive reviews. And while I said that for myself negative reviews are easy to write, that was again only speaking for myself. There are obviously great reviewers who write amazingly well written negative reviews which are as insightful as any positive review. For an example of a magazine which publishes insightful positive and negative reviews, see the amazing literary criticism published in Interzone.

    As for the rest of what you say, I’m not sure you have truly deviated from what I wrote. As with all creative acts, literary criticism exists because it exists. However, my essay wasn’t an attempt to show that criticism isn’t “inherently a literary act, worthy of attention and consideration as such.” Obviously it is and I didn’t realize this needed to be stated. Instead, my essay was an attempt to explain why people write literary criticism. What is that FIRST STEP which causes reviewers to want to set their opinions to paper or electrons on a screen.
    The reasons you give for why you write literary reviews seem to fall under variations of the first and last points I made– the desire to bring attention to great or bad stories, and a need to increase the understanding of stories both in yourself and others. Yes, your reasons are extrapolated out from this. But I’d say they still fall under these points.

    You also raised the point about some reviews being written as “a need to draw attention to the reviewer.” I deliberately stated that there is “nothing wrong with critiquing from your own point of view–indeed, that’s hard to avoid because criticism and opinions are such personal affairs.” Instead, I stated that as a REASON for writing a review the need to merely attention to yourself is a poor excuse to engage in literary criticism. This same is true of writing fiction (which I also mentioned) and all other forms of artistic creation. This isn’t to say the ego isn’t wrapped up in all we humans do. But if your FIRST STEP toward writing criticism or fiction or taking part in any other creative affair is dictated MERELY because you want attention, then you are engaged in a bastard creation which will rarely create anything worth remembering. Much of the problem with today’s artistic world results from people being focused solely on drawing attention to themselves. As a result, the fiction or criticism or poetry or paintings they create fail to succeed beyond their desire to be an attention magnet. It’s like the entire world has decided that being a self-centered Hollywood superstar is the way a true artist should be. But the truth is that when you are totally obsessed on only drawing attention to yourself your art suffers. Yes, great artists have big egos, but they are also able to look beyond themselves and see the greater goals in life. That’s why I wrote this part of the essay.

    To close, I also can’t improve on Gary K Wolfe’s quote that “One writes reviews because reviews are what one writes: they are essays about literature, and literature is worth writing essays about.” Again, my essay was not speaking against any of that. Instead, it was an attempt to describe why people take that first step toward such a wondrous goal.

  9. Matt Hilliard Says:

    I think a book reviewer Hugo is theoretically a good idea, but for this medium preferences are stable enough that under the current rules I assume the same person would win every year (not sure who it would actually be…Clute perhaps, or else one of the popular author-bloggers like Gaiman or Scalzi, assuming one of them does reviews). Certainly, speaking for myself, I would vote for the same person every year.

    (On a tangent, it’s interesting that for me, though admittedly I am picky, it is rare for even my favorite authors to put out two books in a row I really like, but there are a number of reviewers that consistently put out reviews that really impress me. Perhaps it’s because fiction has greater expressive power and thus more room to either screw up or just fail to resonate with me?)

    A while back there was some discussion, I think around here, of having winners of the non-fiction Hugos (Best Editor, Best Fan Writer, etc.) be ineligible for some period of time afterward to keep one person from squatting in the top spot. That would probably work especially well with a hypothetical book reviewer Hugo.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure that the Hugo awards are a good medium for making people “think a bit more deeply about the art of criticism” unless you think people will do this thinking while writing blog posts about how disappointed they are in the book reviewer shortlist.

  10. John Scalzi Says:

    There is already a Hugo available for reviewers; it’s called “Best Related Work” (previously “Best Related Book”), and reviewers and critics are nominated for it not infrequently — John Clute and Gary Wolfe were recently nominated for collections of reviews. Likewise, it’s entirely possible for reviewers and critics to be nominated in the “fan writing” and “fanzine” categories, for themselves and their Web sites, respectively. So there is a decent amount of opportunity for reviewer/critics of science fiction and fantasy to clutch their own rocket, without having to carve out a specific award.

    I was a full-time professional critic for several years and still do it off and on even now. I write criticism because it’s fun, because I get paid to do it, and because I enjoy explaining a work to an audience. That it is a subjective view is axiomatic, and I don’t typically try to pretend that I’m attempting objectivity. What I do try to do is make sure my own biases are clear, so the reader can then calibrate for their own needs. I’ve had people tell me they only like the stuff I dislike, and I reply that this means I work for them, since they’ve figured out how my brain works in the context of their own.

    I also agree (of course) that critics are not to be seen as failed “creatives” or be required to attempt novels/movies/music/whatever. Criticism is a different sort of creative form, for one thing, but more importantly, a critic/reviewer typically focuses on output, not process, and a lot of the kvetching from “creative types” boils down to wanting to get credit for process. Knowing about the process can be useful, but ultimately the output — the art — has to stand on its own.

  11. Nick Harkaway Says:

    I’m intrigued by this discussion. The dynamic between stories and reviews fascinates me, as does the dynamic between writers of stories and writers of reviews – though, obviously, there’s a considerable overlap.

    My experience of myself as a reviewer is that if I know I’m going to review something, I read it (or watch it, or listen to it) differently from how I would if I was just enjoying it. I become more analytical, more choosy, and less able to enjoy the thing for what it is. I lose “buy-in” and find, instead, dissection.

    That obviously makes my reviews less useful to anyone who isn’t going to consume that bit of media in the same critical way. They’re going to hear me complain that “season 3 of Bones lacked emotional depth but tried hard to create the impression of it through relentless and almost sadistic suffering”, and the thing is that that is really not the point, even if it’s true, which it may not be unless you’re looking at the whole thing from under your ‘serious hat’. There’s an issue of arena-appropriate mindset: you probably wouldn’t dump a great rant about Historical Materialism and the nature of Capital’s relationship with the Proletariat on the dinner table over Christmas if someone mentioned the price of goose fat and potatoes. Or if you would, your house must be a really interesting place to eat.

    But it’s the same mismatch to take mass market TV to task for lacking the fineness of Fellini, and that’s basically what I end up doing.

    Equally engaging to me is the question of what reviews are for. Obviously, some reviews are consumer guides: if you like x, y, and z, you may also like p, q, or r. Others are analyses of the significance and place of a given text in (a) society. Some, in the end, are analyses of society through the lens of a text.

    That’s the good news. It’s also true that there are, sadly, reviews which are written to assert superiority over the author or the class of readers of a given text. There are reviews written to demonstrate the cleverness and rapier wit of the critic at the expense of a sitting duck target. And there are reviews which seem to be written from a deep well of rage and hurt, though at what is often hard to say. When The Gone-Away World came out, I was favoured mostly with the legitimate sort, both positive and negative, and I found the good ones delightful and the bad ones instructive and fair-minded. A very few writers around the net took issue with me on a personal level – despite having no personal contact with me (someone called me a “ginger-faced bastard”, I have no idea why) and one or two – oddly mostly those who had received a free review copy – announced that I was a charlatan with an inflated opinion of myself that I should dare to put pen to paper and charge people to read the result. I basically laughed those off. They seemed so mean-spirited as to be meaningless.

    Any review, though, can sting. I’m still raw about the (actually very positive) review of TGAW by Tom Holt; he said it was like a beautiful girl with a giant zit on her nose. Bad enough as an image, and it made me feel a bit ill, but worse yet: I grew up reading Tom Holt. Back then, if you wanted funny SF&F, it was Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and him. It was like getting dissed by Obiwan. I sulked for days.

    More recently, I’ve been reading some reviews by a critic I actually know a bit. She’s a sweet, vague person with a gentle manner who writes for a smallish paper. Her reviews are utterly savage. I hope to God she never gives me the treatment she’s given a couple of authors whose books I rather liked – we’d never talk again. I believe it’s her brand; she’s a contrarian and a beau sabreur (or rather, belle sabreuse, I suppose). On an intellectual level, I can see her argument in each case, though I believe many of her points are debatable (another interesting thing: if I were to debate a point with her and win, would she or anyone else change their mind about the reading experience?) On an emotional/experiential level, though, I believe it’s not just that she’s mistaken on points of theory: I think her approach is fundamentally wrong and conceptually (self)deceptive. She is making her own work the centre of the review. At that point she is not actually commenting on the work under discussion: she’s engaged in a fascinating statement of her own identity reflected in someone else’s artwork. Amazing, erudite stuff it is, too – but is it reviewing? Well, yes, in that that kind of writing is accepted as part of the meaning of the word, at least by the editors of magazines and newspapers. No, in the sense that she is not performing the consumer advice function I mentioned earlier.

    That sense that the reviewer is not reviewing but doing something else entirely is, incidentally, where that canard about ‘wannabe writer’ comes from, at least in my experience. It’s not – or not mostly – an attempt to put that reviewer back in his or her box, to dismiss the critique. It’s a bit of self-healing and an extension of the hand of peace to another person: “I see why you were unkind to my work – it has nothing to do with your feelings about me or what I have done; it is your own art.” It’s a desperate attempt at generosity, in order to avoid hate at what seems to be casual abuse. And yes, casual, because until she walked into a poet she had eviscerated a week before and he burst into tears, it had not occurred to her that her words had targets and consequences in the human sphere.

    So I don’t review except in retrospect, spontaneously, and I don’t judge competitions. There are people who can do both without losing their perspective and their sense of what the text is, but I’m not among them.

  12. Abigail Says:

    Jason:

    my essay was an attempt to explain why people write literary criticism. What is that FIRST STEP which causes reviewers to want to set their opinions to paper or electrons on a screen.

    In which case it’s interesting that so many of these putative first steps are described in negative terms and as the wrong reasons to review.

    More importantly, what I think Niall was trying to say in this post, and what I was definitely trying to say in my comment, is that leaving aside the negative slant you put on many of the reasons you suggest for reviewing, I don’t recognize any of them as my first step, nor can I put any face on my need to write about the things I’ve read or watched that is as calculated and rational as the reasons you suggest. I review, as I once wrote “because I have thoughts in my head that are clamoring to get out, and for the pleasure of being able to express them clearly and beautifully, and in the hopes of finding someone else with whom to discuss and develop them.” The reasons you list might influence my choice to write a specific review, or to write it in a certain way, but they are not the first step.

  13. Jason Sanford Says:

    I’m not sure why my point about understanding doesn’t cover you writing reviews “because I have thoughts in my head that are clamoring to get out, and for the pleasure of being able to express them clearly and beautifully, and in the hopes of finding someone else with whom to discuss and develop them.”

    Everything you described in that sentence I would place under a need to expand the understanding of a story both in yourself and others.

    As for the negative first steps I described, that’s life. People have many different reasons for doing what they do. Some reasons are good, some are bad, and some are neither.

  14. Jo Walton Says:

    I was mostly joking about reviving the category.

  15. Niall Says:

    Afternoon, all — thanks for the comments.

    Jason, thanks for dropping by and clarifying, although I still disagree on some points.

    People should take or leave what I wrote based on that fact. […] When I said I refuse to waste time reviewing bad stories, I was very clearly speaking from my own point of view.

    Fair enough. Your post did present itself as speaking more than personally, though — that undefined “we” in the title, and the speculation on other reasons for writing a review, that you yourself don’t indulge.

    there’s a big difference between a reviewer stating that he rarely writes bad reviews and a magazine editor only publishing positive reviews

    There’s a difference, but I think that if you’re choosing the books you review, rather than being assigned them, it’s a difference of degree, not kind. And it is a limitation on getting to know your taste; whether or not my likes line up with those of a reviewer is not actually that well correlated to whether or not my dislikes line up.

    Instead, I stated that as a REASON for writing a review the need to merely attention to yourself is a poor excuse to engage in literary criticism. This same is true of writing fiction (which I also mentioned) […].

    Indeeed you did. But you suggested that fiction driven by a need for attention is, even so, a better idea than reviewing driven by a need for attention. How is that not suggesting that writing fiction is more worthwhile than writing a review?

    Moreover, I just don’t see a lot of criticism that looks as though it’s written with the primary aim of gaining attention. I certainly don’t know anyone who writes reviews for that reason. This is not surprising, because criticism is not exactly a direct line to lucrative sponsorship deals or unassailable authority and influence! Or even moderate versions of those things. But it leaves your point, as phrased, either as a straw man, or as a broader criticism of ego in reviewers (which is, after all, not an uncommon feeling among fiction writers).

  16. Niall Says:

    On the Hugo point: I was, if not quite joking, mentioning it to illustrate the extremes to which Jason’s post had driven me. I think Matt is quite right about why it wouldn’t really do what I want done, and John is right to point out that in principle reviewers can get their rockets. Although I feel obliged to note that it is more of a principle than a practice; Best Related is an ugly grab-bag of a category that pits wildly disparate types works against each other, and that while many of the nominees for Fan Writer have done some reviewing in their time — most notably David Langford and Cheryl Morgan — almost nobody could be said to have clearly been nominated or won on the strength of such writing.

  17. John Scalzi Says:

    Niall,

    As regards the Fan Writer category, it was won for so long by one person that it’s not a lie to note that anyone who isn’t named Dave Langford is non-representational in the category. We’ll need a few more years before we can actually gauge what sort of writing the modern Fan Writing winner writes.

  18. Jonathan M Says:

    Nick — “It’s a desperate attempt at generosity, in order to avoid hate at what seems to be casual abuse”

    The problem is that while it can be an act of generosity it is a form of generosity that is not only quite self-serving but also quite simplistic in its underlying psychology. As a result, the canard — even when delivered with good grace and good intentions — comes across as quite intensely patronising.

    It is one thing to have a complete stranger speculate about the inner workings of your mind but quite another to have that stranger pick you apart using such dehumaning and self-serving cod psychology as ‘you don’t like what I do and so you must be jealous of me… there there’.

    Obviously, authors have had to deal with this kind of thing from critics for a long time but a) there’s a critical taboo surrounding imparting motives to authors b) there’s also a huge imbalance of power between authors and critics that makes such reductive psychological speculation really quite distasteful.

    You’re also wrong about good reviews not losing their focus on the work they are about… If you read the LRB, the TLS or the NYRB you would see that much of the best criticism being written at the moment uses books as simply the starting point for much more expansive forms of commentary.

  19. Niall Says:

    Nick:

    The dynamic between stories and reviews fascinates me, as does the dynamic between writers of stories and writers of reviews

    Yes. I stand by the thumbnail sketch in the original post, but it’s a complex relationship and there’s a lot that can be said about it. John’s comment about output vs process is part of it, and there’s also what you might call the direction of thought: fiction is more often (but not always) about synthesis, criticism is more often (but not always) about deconstruction. As a datapoint, I consider How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe to be, much like many of Adam Roberts’ novels, almost as much sf criticism as sf fiction. I have no idea if Charles Yu considers that to be part of what he was doing, although I have to say I’d be surprised if he said it wasn’t. As another datapoint, consider this fictive review of In a Strange Room, which I imagine is one of the sort of thing Jason was thinking of in his point about creative reviews. The overlap is, as overlaps always are, an interesting place.

    I personally don’t find myself with the two different mindsets you describe, but that may just be that I’ve trained myself to be in reviewer mode all the time… and there are of course the various kinds of reviews, and I suspect part of the communication breakdown between me and Jason is simply that while we’re both aware of the spectrum of different kinds of review, our Pavlovian responses to the word conjure reviews from different ends of the spectrum.

  20. Niall Says:

    John: A fair point. Abigail wasn’t that far off the ballot threshold this year.

    Jonathan: Well, now you’re getting into that distinction (to the extent that it exists) between reviews and criticism, aren’t you? I agree with you that the material in the LRB is both excellent and reviews, but for a lot of people, it’s not going to be the sort of thing they think of when they think “review”. And for that sort of writing, I’d agree with Nick that focus is important. I’m with you on the “wannabe writer” thing, though.

  21. Jonathan M Says:

    Yeah, but the boundary between those forms of writing is fluid to the point of being non-existent. Reviews are necessarily attempts at articulating a profoundly subjective reaction to a text and so even the most ‘objective’ and ‘consumer friendly’ review is going to be on a slippery slope that leads to LRB-style criticism.

    The lack of clear boundaries between these two categories makes it rather difficult to adopt a cut and dry methodological distinction between reviewing and criticism and so I find it difficult not to read reactions like Nick and Jason’s as statements of preference. Statements of preference born of their vested self-interests.

    ‘you critics are okay as long as you’re talking about me and my work in a fair way… but once you start talking about your own shit you really should reign it in’

    Part of the problem here is the imbalance of power and prestige between authors and critics. I’m reminded for example of Cheryl’s blog post from a little while ago about the lack of paying venues for non-fiction within fandom as well as the number of donation-based and generally impecunious websites and zines who go to the wall in order to publish more-often-than-not mediocre short fiction while the bulk of their output is provided by critics and reviewers working for free.

    That imbalance of power, as far as I’m concerned, loads the kinds of canards we’re discussing with a dynamic that feels almost class-based. As writers of non-fiction we are expected to stay in our box. To know our place. To be polite and well-mannered and to doff our caps when a real creative enters the room.

  22. Lois Tilton Says:

    What I prefer to emphasize is the difference between the review and the critique. It is a question of readership: to whom is the review addressed? A critique is addressed to and intended to benefit the author. A review is addressed to the reader or potential reader.

    Of course authors will read the reviews of their work, but they are not – of my reviews, at least – the intended readership. The reviewer isn’t and shouldn’t be working for their benefit.

  23. John Scalzi Says:

    Lois Tilton, et al.

    I tend to see reviewing as closer to consumer reporting and criticism as exegesis, for which consumer reporting is not a primary goal. Most reviewing/criticism falls on a line between those two end points. I disagree that a criticism need be addressed to the author or have the author as an intended audience; the author is a reader of the criticism just as anyone else (albeit with a different perspective on the critique).

  24. Athena Andreadis Says:

    The Sanford piece that sparked this discussion should have been titled “Why I Don’t Like Review(er)s” and left at that, especially given its level of sophistication.

  25. Abigail Says:

    Jason:

    “Understanding” probably comes closest to why I review, but as Niall says your construction of it tends to prioritize the review’s value to writers, and in general I find it quite utilitarian, to the point that it seems to devalue the creative aspect of reviewing entirely. It doesn’t leave room for the kind of reviews that Jonathan talks about, in which the work being reviewed is a jumping-off point for a broader discussion.

    People have many different reasons for doing what they do. Some reasons are good, some are bad, and some are neither.

    I’ll just point out, then, that the reasons you seem to find good are the ones that prioritize positive reviews and reviews that speak to writers rather than readers. Which, as others have said, seems rather self-serving.

  26. Patrick H Says:

    I don’t think the reasons or motivations of the reviewer are as important as the review itself. It maybe that certain approaches are less likely to yield an interesting review, but the proof of the pudding remains with the eating rather than the temprament of the cook.

  27. danhartland Says:

    As an enthusiastic writer of negative reviews, I’m particularly interested in Jason’s refusal so to indulge. Nothing pleases me more than finding a work which slots together just so, in which the resonances are perfectly pitched and the allusions sweetly seasoned; the fact remains, however, that most works do not manage this mystical balance. This makes only a few of them wholly bad, others merely wholly imperfect – yet a negative remove might proceed from both, and the refusal to address reviewing (and criticism) as the practice of investigation of failure seems to me precisely to place walls around such an examination, within which only the fiction writers themselves may sit.

    I agree with Nick and Niall that one of the most interesting dynamics in all of this is the relationship – the dialogue – between writers of fiction and writers of reviews. As Niall says, a review is not just a reaction – or even the solitary action of a frustrated writer; it is, of course, an original entrance into dialogue with a text, but also with that text’s contexts, its aims and expectations. Because works of fiction, too, sit on gradients of their own – Jason’s approach seems to demand justification of reviews, whilst implying reviews (or, more properly, reviewers) must not demand justification of works of fiction.

  28. Lois Tilton Says:

    Where the review differs from the pure consumer report is in being an art form in its own right, and a form of entertainment as well as information. A good review is worth reading for its own sake, not only as a guide, and reviews can be both well and poorly written.

    Anyone can have an opinion, not everyone can express it well. When I read Clute, it isn’t with an eye to choosing a piece of fiction to read, it’s for the sheer pleasure of reading Clute.

  29. John Scalzi Says:

    Lois Tilton:

    “Where the review differs from the pure consumer report is in being an art form in its own right, and a form of entertainment as well as information.”

    We disagree. A review doesn’t need to be entertaining in order to be a useful review, it merely has to cogently explain why the thing reviewed is worth/not worth the reader’s time/money. Beyond that, whether a review is entertaining is one of those subjective things.

  30. Lois Tilton Says:

    A review need not be entertaining to be useful, but I believe a review should be more than utilitarian. A good reviewer should attract and interest readers. It’s a subjective judgment whether a review succeeds in entertaining, but that’s a different matter.

  31. Paul Kincaid Says:

    John: ‘A review doesn’t need to be entertaining in order to be a useful review’

    Well, actually, it does. Because if the review doesn’t engage the reader, just as if the fiction doesn’t engage the reader, they are unlikely to go on reading it. (And yes, a review is so much shorter than (some) works of fiction, but that doesn’t really alter the point. Reviewing is a cumulative business, you establish a voice and the reader has to pick up on that voice, and to do that you need to keep the reader reading. Any review that goes unread, or where the reader will not turn to further reviews by the same author, is ipso facto a bad review.)

    As to the comments from various people about negative reviews, we have to be careful. It is very easy to write scathingly and amusingly about a bad book; it is very rarely a good idea to do so. It is very hard to write seriously about why a bad book fails, but that is the primary function of the critic.

    Any critic who resists negative reviews is failing themselves and failing their readers. You do not go out of your way to find a bad book or to write a killer review, but when a bad book is presented to you you need to go ahead and write the review. Because only by working out why a bad book fails will you come to appreciate why a good book succeeds (and vice versa). So if you avoid writing negative reviews, you are missing out on a vital part of your own training as a critic, and any future reviews you write will be the poorer for it.

    Finally, as a minor outbreak of pride, may I point out that I too am a critic whose collected reviews were shortlisted for the Best Related Book Hugo.

  32. John Scalzi Says:

    Paul Kincaid:

    “Well, actually, it does.”

    Well, no, actually, it doesn’t. Not every reader wants to be “entertained” by a review; some just want to know whether something is worth their time/money, and appreciate a reviewer not him or herself in the way of that information. I also disagree that “voice” is the thing readers necessarily twig to in a review; what is equally if not more important is whether the reader feels the reviewer is offering relevant information.

    Nor does “engaged” equal “entertained,” except possibly in a very wide and thus commensurately useless sense. I can be engaged by a review that has little in the way of style/voice but gives me an informed opinion to work off of, even if I’m not entertained. Conversely, I can think of reviewers whose opinions of work have been similar to mine, but whose attempts to “entertain” me have turned me off because I haven’t enjoyed their affect, i.e., “I agree with what you have to say, but I wish you weren’t such a smug prick about it.”

  33. gavreads Says:

    The power of the blogosphere is the that it puts personality front and centre – no longer is a review an Independent Review it’s a Speculative Horizons aka James Long review or which ever blog you tend to follow and read. This has changed the nature of assessment of work of fiction.

    I’m not convinced though that many of us – me included – write literary reviews. We aren’t interested in qualities that would be defined as ‘literary’. We don’t tend to look at wider significance or dissect and analyse.

    Part of that is the fact that mental pleasure and emotional pleasure are different beasts I think and you don’t want to spoil someones emotional connection by revealing too much on a mental level – spoilers in other words – most people are happy knowing enough a book to know if it’s interesting to them and if it’s any good.

    Reviews on blogs tend to work more like personal recommendations rather than full on analysis

    Plus literary criticism requires a certain type of book that will stand up to being held up to destruction.

    Jason Stansford has made some great points and started an interesting debate. In an ideal word those blog reviewers that are self supported and self taught should would have a feedback mechanism to show them how to expand and alter their focus in reviews to make them better. Who criticises the critics? ;

  34. David Moles Says:

    I have nothing very useful to add to all this, but I’d like to see someone (Adam, are you lurking out there?) clearly articulate the distinction between “reviewing” and “criticism.” I’m pretty sure there is one, as I’ve read plenty of the latter that definitely isn’t the former.

    (“Critique” — as, Lois, you describe it — is I think a third thing that doesn’t have much to do with either of the others, except insofar as fiction writers who are reviewing, or writing criticism, may sometimes mix either of those things up with workshop.)

  35. Jason Sanford Says:

    I’ve written a more complete response to what Niall and others are saying. My response is posted at http://www.jasonsanford.com/jason/2010/11/why-its-worth-expressing-opinions-on-literature.html

  36. Matt Hilliard Says:

    Whenever one of these discussions of reviewing breaks out I always find myself harping on what I see as the two possible missions for writing about some artistic work: helping readers decide whether to invest their time and possibly money in the work under review, and helping readers understand the work. I’m not sure if the former can be labeled “a review” and the latter be labeled “criticism” but if not, well, there ought to be an easy way to make that sort of distinction because they require very different approaches.

  37. Lois Tilton Says:

    What a gray, arid and one-dimensional place the Scalziverse, where only fiction is accorded the status of literature, and reviews, essays, histories, and other works of nonfiction are replaced by factbooks, lists and bullet points.

  38. Lois Tilton Says:

    David Moles: I mention the critique because it often seems to me that this is what some authors believe a review of their work should be, a kindly guide to help them improve their craft. The mistake is assuming the review is addressed to the author at all.

    Of course an author might well learn something that helps improve her craft, but that isn’t the point or purpose of the review.

  39. John Scalzi Says:

    Lois Tilton:

    “What a gray, arid and one-dimensional place the Scalziverse, where only fiction is accorded the status of literature, and reviews, essays, histories, and other works of nonfiction are replaced by factbooks, lists and bullet points.”

    A quick look at any of my seven published non-fiction books would reveal the irony of that bit of snark, Lois.

  40. Lois Tilton Says:

    No, John, I think it would reveal the inconsistency of your position.

  41. John Scalzi Says:

    Lois Tilton:

    That’s because you made a sloppy inference, I’m afraid. The observation that reviews need not be entertaining to be useful neither suggests that I believe reviews have to be (or should be) unentertaining, nor that I believe non-fiction in general has to be (or should be) written dryly or in an uninspiring fashion.

  42. Randomness « Writing Every Day Says:

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  43. Lois Tilton Says:

    Oh, I stand by my inference.

    The discussion derailed with the question whether reviews need to be entertaining to be useful. This is the wrong question. The real question, raised by the Scalzi remark, is whether reviews are written [entirely or primarily] to be useful or whether they are written for the reasons that other works of literature are written.

    This question goes beyond the manner of the writing or the vexations that may be aroused in some minds by the term “entertaining.” It’s the question whether reviews are properly a kind of literature, written for the same reasons that works of literature are written.

  44. Jonathan McCalmont Says:

    “It’s the question whether reviews are properly a kind of literature, written for the same reasons that works of literature are written.”

    This. Most definitely this.

    One of my favourite pieces of writing is David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. It’s an incredible piece about the humanity’s refusal to ever be satisfied with what they have. It started as a review of a cruise that DFW was sent on by Harper’s magazine.

    He was paid to do a review. He produced something insanely funny, clever, moving and insightful. He produced art.

    I pick up my copy of that DFW collection and then I read Jason’s distasteful and frankly misguided claim that criticism springs from fiction whereas fiction is causa sui and I am forced to mutter a complaint that is seemigly ubiquitous in the 2010s. A complaint of powerless frustration and sadness : “You just don’t get it”.

  45. Patrick Says:

    Jason Sandford’s original post was about ‘literary’ reviews, which I take (on John Scalzi’s line) to be something closer to criticism as exegesis than consumer reporting. Good criticism should help us reach a fuller understanding of a work, regardless of whether we agree with the opinions of the critic. If you merely wish to review books in the sense of noting their publication and giving a flavour of their style and plot, then by all means stick to only those you like. If you wish to write literary reviews, then you must at times be prepared to say you think a work has failed, and explain why it has failed.

    Lois Tilton: “When I read Clute, it isn’t with an eye to choosing a piece of fiction to read, it’s for the sheer pleasure of reading Clute.”
    Exactly the same thought went through my head as I read through this discussion. I too read Clute for himself, for the poetry and vigour of his language. (There may also be just the slightest hint of a desire to see if this time he’ll fall off the tightrope and slip into self-pastiche!) I read him because what he writes is art, not because I want him to shape my taste in fiction.

    Niall: “I want to know that my communication is useful — less in the sense of persuading people to pick up a book, since although that’s always a pleasure it’s a limited if not illusory power, and more in the sense of prompting further thought, of contributing to or generating a conversation.”
    Well said! If I’ve enjoyed a book – and sometimes if I haven’t – I want to know what others think. It may be I don’t want my dialogue with that text to end with the last page; it may be I feel there are things I’ve missed, points and subtexts that need elucidating. (Gene Wolfe springs to mind.)

  46. Nick Harkaway Says:

    Jonathan M. –

    “The problem is that while it can be an act of generosity it is a form of generosity that is not only quite self-serving but also quite simplistic in its underlying psychology. As a result, the canard — even when delivered with good grace and good intentions — comes across as quite intensely patronising.”

    Much depends on whether you view the relationship between author and critic as one of two disparate lifeforms struggling to comprehend one another, or as two cultural forces vying for supremacy. I tend to see the former, so any attempt at empathy delights me. In the context of authors and critics assessing one another’s work, though, I think getting into the issue of whether a statement is patronising is somewhat equivalent to mentioning abortion in a US political debate: shortly thereafter the discussion is liable to deteriorate. Useful and interesting dialogue exists only in the presence of a substantial investment of goodwill on both sides.

    “Obviously, authors have had to deal with this kind of thing from critics for a long time but a) there’s a critical taboo surrounding imparting motives to authors b) there’s also a huge imbalance of power between authors and critics that makes such reductive psychological speculation really quite distasteful.”

    The taboo is observed somewhat patchily, wouldn’t you say? Certainly, I’ve found it so. As to the imbalance of power… in whose favour? And ‘distasteful’ – to whom, and why? Are critics to be given immunity to inquiry? Of course not. So then it’s only a question of whether it’s *low quality* inquiry – a value judgment which surely depends on your perspective.

    “You’re also wrong about good reviews not losing their focus on the work they are about… If you read the LRB, the TLS or the NYRB you would see that much of the best criticism being written at the moment uses books as simply the starting point for much more expansive forms of commentary.”

    I fear you misunderstand me – which goes to my first point about the difficulties of communication. I quite agree that criticism should dilate. One of my favourite writers is Robert Warshow, the American critic who wrote compellingly about popular culture in the middle of the 20th Century. What I said (I believe this is the part you’re taking issue with) was that I know of one reviewer in particular – a friend, of sorts, hence I have rather heavily disguised her identity – whose work is above all else a statement of her own identity, reflected in what she reviews. I questioned the legitimacy of that as reviewing, because while one can learn a great deal about her from the reviews, one learns little either about society or about the work under discussion. Fascinating – but is it criticism?

    Niall –

    Charles Yu is so damn smart he makes my cerebellum bleed with envy. I love that book. I suspect he would acknowledge your point – you should ask him, he’s on Twitter – but in any case he’s the kind of person, so far as I can see, who swims in the analytical sea as readily as the creative one.

  47. Ted Says:

    Jonathan M.: “[David Foster Wallace] was paid to do a review.”

    I disagree. DFW was writing a type of journalistic essay, but I don’t think it’s useful to classify all journalism, nor all essay writing, as reviews.

  48. Cheryl Morgan Says:

    At the Dead Critics panel in Melbourne Peter Nichols made the point that writing criticism is not like writing for Which? (or rather the Australian equivalent, whose name I can’t remember). There are reviewers who do to try to do that sort of thing, and as Scalzi says such things don’t have to be entertaining. They have a market. I know that because I used to get complaints about Emerald City because my reviews were not more like that, didn’t have star ratings and so on. But, as Peter (and Matt above) says, such reviews are not criticism.

    One of the things that people often say when dismissing reviews is that they are “just someone’s opinion”. Well reviews, and criticism, certainly are someone’s opinion. Trying to pretend that they are not is, I think, foolish and futile. But if they are “just” someone’s opinion then they are probably not of much value (depending on how smart and entertaining that person is). Criticism, I think, ought to bear in mind that the writer understands that her opinion may not be the only opinion around.

  49. Cheryl's Mewsings » Blog Archive » More on Paying for Non-Fiction Says:

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  50. Patrick H Says:

    Well, “it’s just someone’s opinion” is a way of dismissing a review. If opinion is all we have, then there’s no “just” about it!

    Furthermore, many books fail for well understood reasons that have something more than opinion to them – plots that don’t make sense; flat or inconsistent characters; cliches laden on top of stereotypes; inconsistencies of setting. These things can be demonstrated in a rigorous way (although it’s hard and thankless work, hence the aversion to writing bad reviews, I think). There are obviously matters of taste, but good reviewers recognise them.

  51. Matt Hilliard Says:

    …many books fail for well understood reasons…

    Fail is a pretty strong word, isn’t it? In both iterations of the short story club, it was quite rare for a story to “fail” for everyone in the discussion, but I’m pretty sure there were exactly zero stories that didn’t fail for at least one person. Different people assign very different weights to these various issues.

    For fun, I thought I’d try to choose the best books I could remember that suffer from one of the reasons you cite. Needless to say not everyone loves these books, but they’re popular and I think each can be defended:

    Plot that doesn’t make sense: Man in the High Castle
    Cliches and stereotypes: Gardens of the Moon
    Flat or inconsistent characters: Snow Crash, Anathem
    Inconsistencies of setting: Harry Potter series

    The hardest one was the nonsensical plot, but that’s the one I personally dislike quite a bit so I tend to avoid authors whose strengths are in other areas. It’s been quite a long time since I read High Castle but if memory deceives me than the label applies to most of Dick’s other work. Jonathan Carroll is another very good writer who can often be accused of it.

  52. Patrick H Says:

    At best, those books don’t suffer overly from their faults. Do people say “I loved the inconsistency of the characters in that book! It really made it for me!”?

  53. Patrick H Says:

    Conversely, I passed my university entrance, but I still failed at maths. That’s okay as long as I’m not posing as Alan Turing.

  54. Nick Harkaway Says:

    Posing as Alan Turing sounds pretty thankless anyway. That guy got a really raw deal. Much better to pretend to be Marcus de Sautoy. Teh Internetz sez he is sexy. :)

  55. Patrick H Says:

    Posing as Alan Turing has been the start of many a whacky adventure for me. The restraining order put an end to all that though…

  56. Evan Says:

    Part of what makes literature so worth talking and writing about is that it’s impossible to perfect. There will always be trade-offs between character, idea, setting, pacing, prose, and time of delivery. If there were a theoretical ideal, we could get away with a metric, rather than subjective measures and debates about the various merits and failings a particular work.

    Similarly, critical reaction to a work is just as nuanced a set of tradeoffs. And both categories of work are entries in the larger cultural conversation that is always necessarily ongoing. So far, so banal, but I think that this speaks to the matters of opinion. ‘Just’ having an opinion is still, to some small extent, important, as it speaks to that larger conversation. So it’s kind of a moot insult, unless the author imagines themselves sprung perfect from the forehead of Zeus. This is unfortunately a common perception amongst artists, critics, and libertarians, but I think that it’s wise to council ourselves against it.

    Even the bald statement ‘I didn’t like this book’, contains important information about how the author failed to connect or communicate with the reader. Most of the time, it’s far more effective to spend your time, as an artist, paying attention the people who actually explain why they didn’t like the work in clear ways and especially those whose criticism presents a reasonable through-line of aesthetic preference. Additionally, being attentive to the larger conversation can enrich both art and criticism, although it’s perhaps the hardest aspect these days, when the totality of that conversation is so overwhelmingly large.

    Nick: What I think that Jonathan is trying to say is that authors, especially popular ones, have a larger audience than critics, and the enthusiastic goodwill of a portion of that audience, which can lead to an amount of abuse in the case of a bad review. Also, people often seem to take criticism of something that they themselves liked as a personal affront rather than as an entry point to a conversation about the relative merits of the work, and how things work for some and not others (Try telling fans of Deadwood that it’s intolerably false and mannered, and watch them respond as if you’ve insulted their mothers. Do this from out of arm’s reach). So a lot of ill will can be generated on both sides pretty easily in a form that isn’t easy to repair.

    I imagine that the savaged poet might have been a bit less injured if he’d known that your friend just reviews like that generally, and that it’s nothing to take personally (although, of course, it’s always hard not to take it personally). But the author only has to endure the slight on their talents, where the critic often gets to suffer an extended period of personal abuse for even relatively mild criticism of a well-loved author’s work, at least if comments sections are anything to go by. It’s easy to perceive this as a pretty steep imbalance in ‘power’.

  57. Sean W Says:

    I’ve just been to read Jason’s original article, and I really cannot understand what all the fuss is about. So he points out that some reviewers have less than noble motives for writing the reviews they do? That’s on a par with pointing out that some politicians are willing to ignore their manifesto commitments on education for a chance at power. It’s hardly news, and it’s not as if he said ‘The staff of Vector and the readers of this blog are the worst of these scoundrels.’

    I believe people have misinterpreted his words and thought he was saying ‘All reviewers have all six of these motives, both good and bad, for writing reviews, which means all reviewers are scoundrels at some point’. However, I took him to be saying something more like ‘Here’s a set of motives for writing reviews. Some reviewers have the good motives for writing reviews, some have the bad ones, and the latter are scoundrels.’ (The commenters on this blog would, of course, all fall into the former, virtuous group. That does not mean that scoundrels don’t exist elsewhere, of course.)

    It’s like the reviews in the Short Story Club – different people have different interpretations of Jason’s ‘story’ dependent on their own circumstances and biases. In this case I think if people go back and reread his article with my interpretation in mind they might change their opinions about what he was trying to say.

  58. Evan Says:

    I dunno, Sean. His tone is pretty exclusionary, as if he were defining the entire space available to reviewers. The oversimple dichotomy he creates in his series of points seems irksome and wrong-headed, to me. Niall captures this in his comments about the post being very ‘writer-oriented’, as Sanford’s optimal critical conversation sounds to me like a combination of writer’s workshop and some sort of mutual aid advertising cooperative.

    Inside of such a conversation, it’s difficult, or at least unnatural, to write towards broader points and themes that extend beyond a particular work. For example, I find the violence present in many if not most contemporary genre novels tired, and the borderline worship of violent ‘badasses’ a trend that borders on the pathetic at times. It’s hard, in the conversation that Sanford seems to label as virtuous, to stand up and say, “Here are 25 novels released in the last two months that have, whatever their other virtues, major elements that are harmful to their literary merit.” or “I think that SFF has lost its sense of dynamics. We have become the literary equivalent of thrash metal, all world-at-risk loudness all the time. Bad books X, Y, & Z exemplify this most particularly.”

    Which is not to say that Jason is wrong in ever wanting the part of the conversation he finds useful to occur. I think that it’s a valid and very valuable part of the conversation, but it cannot ever be the whole of it, and I think that his cutting off of options isn’t particularly helpful, before you even go into his treatment of the stereotypes about critical motives that frame the conversation here.

  59. Jonathan M Says:

    Yeah, despite Jason’s frantic back-peddling, he did write about “why we write reviews” and not “why some of us sometimes write certain kinds of reviews” and I see no reason for thinking that he sees critics as anything other than useful providers of feedback and/or free advertising. I think Sean is being a leetol beet over-charitable.

    BTW – I completely agree with you about action scenes Evan. In fact, I just finished a review of a book that falls prey of exactly that trap : first two thirds of the book are about the character and his relationships with his family and his co-workers and then all of that goes out the window so that everyone can have a great big punch up and save the world. It’s lamentable really.

  60. Jason Sanford Says:

    Wow! Next time I do some frantic back-peddling it’d be a great thing to know when it’s happening. :-)

    Seriously, my expanded thoughts on all this at http://www.jasonsanford.com/jason/2010/11/why-its-worth-expressing-opinions-on-literature.html were merely an attempt to address some of the issues people raised after my initial essay. I still believe the reasons I gave for why people review stories are valid, and none of the rebuttals here have changed my mind on that (although they have given me some great things to contemplate).

    As Sean stated, I never said all reviewers exhibit all of those reasons for why they write reviews. I suspect most reviewers engage in the art out of a desire to bring attention to stories and a need to increase the understanding about stories both in themselves and others. But I have also read reviews which appear to have been written for the other reasons. Yes, these are less frequent–and almost nonexistent among professional reviewers–but they do occur.

    As I’ve said, my essay was an attempt to describe why people take the first step toward stating a literary opinion. The examples I gave expanding on these reasons were, as Niall said, written mostly from a fiction writer’s point of view. That was a totally fair critique on his part and one I acknowledged. But the reasons themselves are more universal and are not fiction oriented.

    Once again, none of this was intended to insult literary reviewers, literary criticism, or any mix of the two. I have a ton of respect for people who are able to write great literary criticism and reviews. While I enjoy critiquing stories, I am nowhere near the level of great critics Gary K. Wolfe, Jonathan McCalmont, Matthew Cheney, Lois Tilton, and so on. However, I do know human nature and desires very well, and that was where I came from when I wrote the originally essay.

  61. Jason Sanford Says:

    Hmm. A few typos in that last sentence. It should have read “I am nowhere near the level of great critics like Gary K. Wolfe, Jonathan McCalmont, Matthew Cheney, Lois Tilton, and so on. However, I do know human nature and desires very well, and that was where I came from when I wrote the original essay.”

  62. Evan Says:

    It’s something for another thread, I think, but honestly I think that it’s more than lamentable. Over-reliance on violent themes and action/war movie plots diminishes both the reach and the relevance of science fiction and fantasy.

    This may have something to do with my own personal take on what SFF is and what it’s for, but this is my biggest issue with the field as it currently stands.

    Jason: I think it’s possible that what reads to me as a narrow and uncharitable reading of ‘human nature and desires’ is actually what’s raising the most hackles here, rather that critic/artist friction per se, and I don’t think that your response does a lot to broaden that reading. Most of the ‘reasons’ that you list, at least the negative ones, are more pitfalls to avoid rather than actual reasons for starting or continuing to do something. As I said earlier, I think that at base, both criticism and art is rooted in wanting to have a conversation and engaging with other peoples views and opinions.

  63. Jonathan M Says:

    That’s very kind of you Jason but I wouldn’t rate myself as anything even remotely approaching a ‘great critic’. I like what I do but as I said in response to Martin’s recent post about the quality of genre blogging, I think that I can do a lot better.

    Evan — The critic/writer friction is largely a product of my own sense of alienation and bitterness… you are quite right to set it to one side :-) You are, however, correct about the perceived reductionism of Jason’s account. One of the things that rubbed me the wrong way was the suggestion that criticism is reactive whereas fiction is necessarily independent. My feeling is that literature, especially of the genre variety, is just as much a reaction to others’ ideas as criticism… it is just that whereas critics frame their reactions in analytical and cultural terms, authors react through the medium of narrative. None of us are unique and special snowflakes.

  64. Jason Sanford Says:

    If we want to practice reductionism, every aspect of human creativity is reactive. No aspect of human culture can, by the nature of what culture is, be anything but in reaction to human language, ideas, memes, beliefs, and so on. All cultural constructs must be reactive if you want other humans to understand what is created.

    By way of example, an author could create a totally new story using a new language only the author understands. But if the author wants others to understand it then he or she must react to something by giving the readers a translation or something to understanding this creation.

    But that said, the creative process is also quite independent of anything but what the artist wishes to create. So while as a fiction writer I’m unable to write a story which doesn’t react to language, cultural expectations and norms, and so on, I can also create a story which no one else could have created. Yes, we’re all products of our culture and human background but we can also create something which never could have existed before without our individual effort.

    All of that is my way of saying that literary criticism being reactive is not a bad thing. Everything is reactive to one degree or another, and in my essay follow up I was merely stating that fiction can be created independent of literary criticism, not that fiction is created totally independent of everything. Obviously, that’s not possible. Fiction merely reacts to slightly different stimuli than criticism.

  65. Jeff VanderMeer Says:

    Pretty much–everything Nick H said. (Although I rather think your reaction would’ve been different if I’d made those points.)

    I like reading good literary criticism, good analysis, and I think it does add to our understanding and enjoyment of a work, and can also have more general uses. It in some ways can exist independent of the work(s) being studied and have value.

    Perhaps the problem comes from confusing reviewing and providing literary criticism. Perhaps some reviewers get caught in a middle ground, when, in fact, literary criticism, I would argue, requires time/distance from the initial readings in order to be of use. Reviewing is and should be largely reactive, literary criticism is something else.

    Jonathan M–all I can say is, this power imbalance of which you speak…I don’t buy it. Fiction writers have these huge lumbering targets called novels. Reviewers can, if they so choose, snipe from the sidelines as long as they like without any accountability and without repercussions. Reviewers on the other hand are often making novelists be accountable. If a novelist responds to a review, even to correct an error of fact, it’s seen as bad form. So…power imbalance. No.

    Most importantly, a review is not a novel any more than a turnip is an aircraft carrier.

    Cheers,

    JeffV

  66. Jonathan M Says:

    Jeff — It is considered bad form because of the power imbalance. Obviously there are times when reviewers step over the line but the difference in visibility makes it very difficult to distinguish between ‘setting the record straight’ and ‘bullying someone into silence’. the power imbalance can certainly be a double-edged sword but I don’t think that the fact that it can have upsides makes it non-existent.

  67. Jeff VanderMeer Says:

    Jonathan: And I’m saying that most novelists don’t consider the power balance to work that way–they see themselves as vulnerable and any position they have in the field as ephemeral. Besides, what do you think’s going to happen. You write a bad review of my book and suddenly my henchpeople have put a banana in your car’s tailpipe? What exactly, assuming I were a terrible person, do you think this imbalance of power would result in? As far as I can tell, putting on my Machiavellian glasses for a moment, you personally (at the moment) have no exposed parts. Novelists are *all* exposed parts, and also utterly aware, if they’re full-time, that they exist on a series of jackpots of varying sizes, which they watch get smaller and smaller over time until the next one, hopefully, comes in. Not exactly a position of strength.

    In general, I’d hope the reason we’re reviewing in the first place is because we love books. Sounds obvious to say, but it gets lost in the feedback, sometimes. If you don’t love books and, further, aren’t willing to try to inhabit the world of a book *as it exists*, then you (the general you) shouldn’t be a reviewer. Getting kicked out of a book or ultimately rejecting the author’s intent as not worth it, in your opinion, is perfectly valid, but not if you *went in* intent on *receiving* an altogether different sort of book than the author tried to give you. This is where issues of ego come in, because I believe a reviewer has some obligation to try to *give themselves up* to the book. Some reviewers are too arrogant to allow this (there’s a parallel in fiction writing, but that’d just be a tangent here).

    JeffV

  68. Lois Tilton Says:

    This discussion has come close to an issue of particular interest to me: whether working fiction authors ought to be reviewing fiction in the first place.

    I consider it ill-advised for a number of reasons, including the matter of the power balance. I believe Jeff V underestimates the ability of the novelist and the novelist’s publisher to retaliate against the reviewer’s fiction for an unfavorable review.

    The practice leads to a conflict of interest. The reviewer thinks: “I want Megabooks to buy my next book, so maybe I’d better not say that this novel from Megabooks really sucks.” Or: “I want Harvey Bigname to blurb my next, but he won’t do it if I give him a bad review.”

  69. Jonathan M Says:

    The problem is seldom with authors so much as with their fans. The wrong kind of comment in response to a negative review can easily result in a reviewer being dog-piled by that author’s fans. Obviously, such a dog-piling is not as unpleasant as being knee-capped or something in the real world but online bullying is a reality and can make people’s lives a real misery.

    For example, a while back someone started up a campaign to have me kicked out of genre. They put an anonymous comment on my blog and on a number of other prominent genre sites including those of people like Stross, Scalzi and MacLeod. Thankfully, because the authors involved were good people they came down hard on the attempt to ostracise me but had they gone ‘oh yeah… that guy’s review of my last book was totally unfair’ the results could have been ugly. The experience was unpleasant enough as it is.

    I agree with you that authors are never completely secure and that reviewers should be in a position where they can be held accountable (this is one of the reasons why I thought the presumed right to online anonymity that appeared during racefail was utterly wrong-headed — if you’ve got the won-tons to say something online then you should have the won-tons to put your name to it. Otherwise you’re no better than a troll) but there is a very real power imbalance and that difference in power levels mean that there need to be slightly different rules governing the actions of authors and the actions of critics.

    As for what kind of book an author tries to give people, my view is that once a book is out in the public sphere it ceases to be any of the author’s business what their book may or may not ‘mean’. Authors don’t have supreme authority over their own works and, correspondingly, critics really should try to refrain from trying to impart any kind of intent.

    Surely the last thing you want Jeff is an army of bloggers crawling around inside your psyche trying to work out what you meant by a certain sentence or a certain plot development? No good can possibly come of that :-)

    With intent off the table, all responses are legitimate (though obviously some are going to be better argued and more aesthetically pleasing than others) and with dozens of online reviews out there I’m sure that most review readers realise this and so take any review they read as ‘a view’ rather than some kind of objective assessment.

  70. Jeff VanderMeer Says:

    Lois: I can tell you–and would state for a lie detector–that I’ve never retaliated nor would ever dream of doing so–in fact, it would probably work the other way, in that I would be exceedingly careful to be more than fair–nor has any publisher I’ve ever had a contract with ever even thought to raise the issue or ever acted in such a way. If you go look at the NYTBR and WaPo, among others, you’ll see lots of authors reviewing other authors. Given that’s an order of magnitude above anything we’re talking about here in terms of most genre outlets, I think I’ll trust they know what they’re doing. Besides, do we really want to deprive the world of Adam Roberts? I don’t think so.

    Jonathan–Heh! No, no good could come of that at all. Just for the record, and especially having been blacklisted in the past (small press horror world, circa 1993), I might argue with you about an opinion of yours, but I’d defend to the death your right to express it and I’d shove bananas of the exhaust pipes of anyone who crossed you over it.

    Mostly, we all love books and we’re all trying to express that, and our disappointments are really that we can’t love something more than we do, sometimes.

    Cheers,

    JeffV

  71. Lois Tilton Says:

    Jeff – I’m sure that in the ideal world no one would dream of retaliating for a bad review, but in this one it certainly does happen. I have seen it.

    And while I have also seen a lot of novelists reviewing other writers’ novels, I have to wonder about the reviews I haven’t seen, the ones where the writers candidly expressed their negative opinions. I think there is always the inhibiting doubt, even if some writers do not succumb to it.

  72. Black Gate » Blog Archive » Perspectives on Reviewing Says:

    […] an interesting discussion (69 comments the last time I looked!) over at Torque Control about book reviewing.  The whole […]


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