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A little bit about reviewing

peake makes an interesting point here about reviews (and the link in his post is also very good, if long). Like peake, I will read a review just to read the review itself; it's not so much about the book, in that case, but about the quality of thought and understanding that goes into the review. I actually agree with much of what he's said about reviews, the shrinking review market, and the lack of respect granted reviewers who are good at what they do.

But I am definitely in that class of reviewers or bloggers who write reviews that I am absolutely certain peake would have no interest in reading.

My reviews are the progeny not of the review as literature or critical theory, but of the bookstore review. The bookstore has always had little hand-written notes with the opinions of various staff members in front of books they've read and either liked or disliked. The advantage to that? Customers can figure out what each staff member likes (or dislikes), and can judge their own likes or dislikes against those; if I dislike a book, at least one of our customers will always buy it because he usually dislikes what I like. Or they can just ask; most do a bit of both.

The best part of the job, hands down, has always been matching books with readers, or readers with the books they will love. Really. Even if it's military SF, a genre in which I don't read. Or horror. It is more fun, I admit, if I adored a book that someone else reads on my recommendation and also adores – but only a smidgen more fun. There's just something deeply satisfying about finding a book for someone to love, and this is strangely independent of the book itself, although in the latter case, I'm usually recommending a book that another staff person loved (and that I didn't read).

Most of what I try to do in my print reviews is essentially the same thing: I want to couch a review in terms that the readers who (I think) will like the specific type of book I'm reviewing will recognize, without unduly pissing them off when I have too many spoilers in the review itself. I find it difficult to discuss a book in any depth if I have to avoid talking about what actually happens in the novel itself. I know that other people are more adept at this. I know it's a skill. But it's not one of mine.

I don't, in the end, care all that much whether or not the book I'm reviewing would generally be considered a novel with literary merit, possibly for that reason – It doesn't matter to me if they'll bear the weight of rigorous critical examination or not; it only matters that I think other readers will like them as much as, or more than, I did. I'm not really interested in making readers see existing text in a new light, although I'm not against it if it happens; I'm interested in encouraging them to read that text because I think they'll enjoy it. And, frankly, some of the books I do enjoy are not books which will bear up well under the weight of thoughtful, critical analysis. Some of the books I enjoy will. But that's not my criteria in selecting them.

(In some months my only criteria is: Did I like this enough to finish it?)

I'm aware that my mood and my state of mind do influence the way I perceive books; there are whole months when I cannot finish reading a single chapter of anything. While I could blame the books' authors for this, I've come to understand that it's usually just me. There are times when I can barely find two brain cells to rub together. And I will frequently start F&SF columns with exactly that information. Yes, it's personal – but I consider it useful information for people who are reading the review to have when the try to decide whether or not the book I'm discussing is something they want to take a chance on. I'd do the same if I were in the store and someone asked me my opinion on a book that I'd read. Only I'd probably use more words in person because, well, me.

Having said all of this, I think that the reviews I do write serve a purpose – but they're not the same purpose as the reviews that peake finds so vital or interesting as discourse in and of themselves, and I'm fine with that. It would probably help if they were called something other than 'reviews' (maybe 'buyers' guide'), because they're very different beasts.

Feel free to ask questions, or to tell me why you think this is wrong.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 29th, 2008 01:47 am (UTC)
Oddly enough I think I picked up your first book because the reviewer disliked some things about it that I knew I would like.

Working in a library I find it's a very valuable skill to step back and say "I don't like this book, but I know that other people will" and then recommend it to those people.

(I don't remember if I've ever commented here, but I used to hang out in your GEnie topic and we've met a few times, years ago.)
Feb. 29th, 2008 01:56 am (UTC)
(I don't remember if I've ever commented here, but I used to hang out in your GEnie topic and we've met a few times, years ago.)

I was wondering! (I thought, is that Hilary? Which a) may be my faulty memory and b) be my crappy spelling), and I definitely remember you coming to coffee klatches when I was even more unknown and dying of nerves.

Hello :)

Feb. 29th, 2008 02:00 am (UTC)
It is. :D

I think I got active on LJ right about the time you went into hibernation for a while. I blame rediscovering my love of Doctor Who.
Feb. 29th, 2008 09:20 am (UTC)
The best complement I ever received as a reviewer was from a friend who picked up a book I'd given a bad review, because he said there was enough in my review for him to know that though I hated the book, he would love it.
Feb. 29th, 2008 03:06 am (UTC)
Feel the same way about reviews. (I like to read Peak's type, but I don't write 'em.)
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 29th, 2008 10:29 am (UTC)
The problem is that a review requires at least some judgement, but also some sense of why the judgement is being made.

I've seen 'reviews' that just say: 'This is a great book. I loved every minute of it.' But that tells me nothing. What makes it great? Why do you love it? If the reviewer just went on to say: 'This is a great book. The romance between the main characters really worked for me. And the scene where they blow up the death star is hilarious. I loved every minute of it.' - that would be a review. Not a great review, but a review.

Similarly, half the capsule reviews you get in most papers these days consist of nothing more than a plot summary. That's a blurb, it might as well be ripped off from the back cover of the book. It does nothing as a review.

I don't mind being told that I'll love a book or that I'll hate it, but I want to know why you think I'll love it. It's that sense of context that I want.

And when you say: 'I want to couch a review in terms that the readers who (I think) will like the specific type of book I'm reviewing will recognize', that is precisely the provision of context I'm talking about.
Feb. 29th, 2008 12:09 pm (UTC)
Similarly, half the capsule reviews you get in most papers these days consist of nothing more than a plot summary. That's a blurb, it might as well be ripped off from the back cover of the book. It does nothing as a review.

Ah, okay; I actually seldom see capsule reviews here except as a mini-review that's essentially an excerpt of the longer review that ran earlier. But I have some sense of what a good review is, as a work in an of itself; I really admired your review of Ian McDonald's book -- I think it was River of Gods. I think in my tenure at F&SF I've written only 2 such reviews. One for Hannibal (which was somewhat accidental, but for which I read all of the Harris and also watched the movie, Silence of the Lambs, and one for Warchild by Karin Lowachee.

I will often read the weekend edition of the Globe, and all of the review section, frequently with no intent to read the actual books being reviewed, because there is something about a perceptive review that is entirely its own delight, and on occasion, there's something in the review itself that will make me go and pick up the book I had no interest in at all.

But I will say that in the store, if we could rate each book on 3 scales: Thoughtful & chewy, Requires Kleenex, and Fun, it's the books with hit the high end of Fun which would benefit most from reviews, and frequently all you can say about those is "I had a lot of fun with this" or even "This book was more fun than it had any right to be."
Feb. 29th, 2008 03:03 pm (UTC)
A friend of mine linked me to this entry, and I really appreciate some of the points you're bringing to light.

It seems to me what the average person wants and expects from a Book Review is to know whether or not it's worth their time to read it. While English Majors might have different criteria for what defines a "worthy" book, most people just want to know a few simple things.

1: Is the story plausible, given the characters and setting?
2: Does the pacing and plot keep me interested?
3: Are the characters and their actions believable?
4: At the end of the story, do I feel satisfied with the resolution?

And personally, I'm willing to overlook 1 and 2 in favor of excellent, well-written, very believable characters, and a "happy" ending. A lot of casual readers aren't looking for the next "Book that Defines an Era," they just want to pass time in an enjoyable fashion. Fifty years down the line, it's incredibly unlikely that books currently popular in the Romance section are going to be studied in high school, but from my own bookstore stint, I clearly recall the ladies who'd buy one each of the monthly Harlequins and Silhouettes.

It doesn't matter much if people *enjoy* reading trashy drivel; at least they're reading something! It takes more imagination and attention and thought to read than it does to watch similar "trash" on TV. It also takes a lot more time, which is why good book reviews are so important.

There are so many books I would *never* have bought if I could have found a good, honest review ahead of time. It frustrates me that the series I'm reading now--which I love--is something I've known about for years, but the only review I'd seen was from an author who has lost my trust.

And I'm tired of seeing reviews for anything that are essentially: "Gripping!" "Compelling!" "Excellent!" "A masterpiece worthy of Tolkien!" "I couldn't put it down!" "It keeps you on the edge of your seat!" "A tense nail-biter" ... I mean, I see those quotes all the bleeping time attached to everything from horror movies to psychological thrillers to the latest John Grisham or Oprah Book. I like when the caption blurbs show a bit more original thought, but it's so rare to see non-gushing excerpts.
Mar. 4th, 2008 08:06 am (UTC)
Hmmm.. reviews.
It's so hard to find a good review. I don't rely on them, at all. My tastes tend to run opposite of popular opinion - usually because I hate being seen as 'jumping on the bandwagon'. Which is why I have yet to read the Dan Brown novels. I agree with Rayinte:
"Gripping!" "Compelling!" "Excellent!" "A masterpiece worthy of Tolkien!" "I couldn't put it down!" "It keeps you on the edge of your seat!" "A tense nail-biter"
^ I see on every book I pick up. And the naming of the people/organizations which give those quotes? Don't matter a fig to me.
The first book I read by you (Lady of Mercy), I picked up in a used book store in Vermont. The good majority of the books in the store were fantasy/sci-fi, and the store owner, when he noticed which book I was looking at, had nothing but good to say of the book.
.. Though he failed to mention it was in a series... I found that out just last year...
But. The point of all this rambling is that if I bother to read a review printed on the book cover, it has no bearing on whether I choose to buy the book: it's the opinions of actual people that I listen to at all.
Mar. 4th, 2008 10:36 pm (UTC)
I read reviews for fun. I write reviews for money and for the satisfaction of turning other people on to books that are worth reading. Interestingly, a majority of my writer-friends are people I met by reviewing their books, so it's also a great networking technique. (It's the sending copies of your review to the author and publisher that makes that part work. Used to be the norm, but now it seems to be rare.) I try to give a clear idea what the book is like. Sometimes I get a little tongue-in-cheek.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )