Given that there have been several recent posts in the blogosphere about reviews, including on OF Blog of the Fallen and, just today, Mumpsimus, I thought Iâ€™d weigh in with my two cents, for what itâ€™s worth. (These thoughts aren’t responses to either BoF or Mump, just FYI, both of which seem to me to contain clear and cogent arguments, most of which I agree with.)
As readers of this blog know, Iâ€™m primarily a fiction writer, but Iâ€™ve also reviewed books, off and on, for almost twenty years. This gives me a twinned perspective as a giver and receiver of formal opinions about books. As might be expected, the same things that bother me in reviews of my work that I think are unfair or poorly written, beyond simple errors of fact, are also things I try to avoid in reviewing other peopleâ€™s books.
By a â€œreview,â€ I donâ€™t mean two paragraphs I post on this blog or some of the capsule summaries of 200 or 300 words that appear on Amazon and elsewhere. I mean a â€œreviewâ€ in the sense of an attempt by a person, whether formally identified as a reviewer or not, to fully engage a published text at a length of anywhere from about 500 words to 2,500 words.
So, that said, here are eight things I try to avoid doing as a reviewerâ€”things that also bug me as a writer being reviewed, to a greater or lesser extent. Some of them are easy for me to avoid as a reviewer. Some are less so. But with every review, I think seriously about these issues.
1) Bringing an agenda to a review that makes it impossible for the reviewer to appreciate what the writer intended with his or her book. In most of these cases, the reviewer proceeds to hang the book on a gallows not one timber or thread of which came from the book itself (or, conversely, piles on undeserved praise). Thus, the review is a kind of closed system displaying certain aspects of the reviewerâ€™s mind–a psychological portrait of the reviewer, not an analysis of the actual book: a kind of alternate reality; ironically enough, a fiction. Since this is perhaps the number one or number two most annoying thing to encounter in a review of one of my own books, it is something I work hard not to do when reviewing.
2) Making a (veiled) personal attack on the author. The easiest way for a reviewer to launch a personal attack is to imply base motives to the writer–to insinuate through word choice. Sometimes, of course, there are outright personal attacks, but these are usually so roundly denounced that the stealth attack has become the norm. As a reviewer, the easiest way to avoid personal attacks, if you have some issue with the writer that you cannot overcome, is to not review the book. The most ethical approach, however, is to recognize your bias, your particular weakness, and do your best to see the book as independent from the writer. This is the approach I try to take, although, admittedly, this sometimes leads to me being too easy on a book, perversely enough. As a writer, I find the personal attack bewildering, mostly because I could think a particular fiction writer is a jerk and it wouldn’t affect my review of their book one iota. So, I wonder, â€œWhat did I do to piss this person off? Why’d they do this?â€ A personal attack makes a writer less sure of their place in the world and of their relationship with other people in the field. Itâ€™s an awful thing to weather, although if youâ€™re in the business long enough you learn to live with it.
3) Placing yourself at the center of the review. Overuse of first person and cloying personal anecdotes in lieu of penetrating analysis typify the kind of reviewer who believes, for whatever reason, that imposing their persona is more important than actually reviewing the book. In the case of an overblown ego, the reviewer tends to see reviewing as a way to garner leverage and power (however limited in scope). As a reviewer, I try, for the most part, to be nowhere in sight, unless as in my review of Ericksonâ€™s Zeroville for The Washington Post Book World, a personal anecdote lends itself to discussing the book or easing the reader into the review. As a writer, though, I just find this approach hilarious–like watching a campy bad movie–and Iâ€™ve parodied it several times in my Ambergris books. It can be entertaining, especially if it happens to someone else.
4) Engaging in territorial debates. Every area of writing has Gatekeepers of the True Way, people who insist on engaging in territorial debates over whether something fits a particular genre or subgenre. This tends to involve generalizations about other territoriesâ€”for example, a genre reviewer making generalizations about the literary mainstream, or vice versa. But beyond the fact that generalizations are usually false, the real problem with this kind of reviewing is that it clutters up the review with material that is ancillary to the book. As a result, such reviews tend to be less comprehensible, and readers often come away from the review having either no idea what the reviewer actually thought of the book or a sense that the reviewer liked or disliked the book for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual book itself. Every time I find myself drifting in this direction, I also tend to find the review harder to write, and, ultimately, writing the review becomes simple as soon as I strip away anything of this nature. As a writer, this kind of review is exasperating because Iâ€™m left with the feeling of a wasted opportunity–that the reader of the review will get no sense of the book at all.
5) Employing inappropriate/self-important diction and approaches. Of all bad reviews, the worst, in my opinion, are those that cloak a core emptiness with â€œacademicâ€ terminology and references. The reason for this is that a poorly realized review in this guise has the appearance of authority–it trades the real authority of engaging a book honestly for the false authority of elevated vocabulary. It can be very difficult to unravel the language to get to the point where itâ€™s possible to see that the review actually has very little to say. Itâ€™s for this reason that, except in analytical essays, I donâ€™t employ elevated prose. I believe writing a good review is an art, but, unlike in fiction, the range of prose styles is more limited by the need to be purely functional. As a fiction writer, I canâ€™t say this approach does more than give me darkly humorous amusement, although it makes me take the reviewer less seriously in future.
6) Making snarky, tangential asides. Sarcasm is not a welcome thing in any review, except in those rare cases where the book is itself sarcastic, thus opening the door (and even then itâ€™s not recommended). However, the worst kind of sarcasm or snark is the aside in a review that doesnâ€™t pertain to the book except in a tangential way. In these cases, the review writer cannot refrain from barking out some personal prejudice or pet peeve. Such a concern may be legitimate, but a snarky aside is not a legitimate way of expressing it. Whenever, as a reviewer, I feel the need to engage in this kind of behavior, I instead try to deal with my concern head-on by writing about it as the actual subject of a review or article. As a fiction writer, I hate this kind of zinger because it gets under my skin and colors the world around me. Itâ€™s in a sense another form of personal attack.
7) Encountering the profound every time out. Some reviewers feel the temptation to make a profound general statement about every book they review. These reviewers will never be content with engaging intimately with the book at hand. Each book is instead an opportunity to display an understanding of the Big Picture. Sometimes, this means the reviewer begins to have a thesis written before even reading a particular book. Sometimes, this means the reviewer believes he or she is more important than the book. The result is, oddly enough, a vast simplicity–a reduction of the book before the all-mighty altar of the Idea. Most good books, however, are complex, contradictory, contrary things. The best are not reducible to profound general statements. Admittedly, I can be as taken with my own pomposity as the next person, and so Iâ€™m on the look-out for this kind of thing as a reviewer. Which isnâ€™t to say that sometimes a grand, far-reaching approach isnâ€™t warranted, but a reviewer who does so every time out begins to seem oddly…desperate. As a writer, my reaction to this kind of review, whether positive or negative, is simply to parody it in my fiction (when the opportunity presents itself).
8) Trying to intuit personal details about the writer from the fiction. Some of the very worst reviews, in my opinion, attempt to guess things like the writerâ€™s political motivation from evidence in the book itself. Obviously, when reviewing certain kinds of nonfiction this is unavoidable, even desirable. But when analyzing fiction, reviewers who make statements about the writer based on the actions of character or the machinations of plot or what they think they know about the writer are making a terrible mistake. The mistake they are making is a fundamental misunderstanding of the word â€œfiction.â€ They also make a fundamental mistake about the relationship of a writer to, for example, even the text of an interview. I know from personal experience that during an interview a writer may say anything that comes into his or her head, may make things up with a kind of innocent honesty of wanting to be interesting–or simply do not want to engage some aspect of the book publicly, and thus misrepresent or change their real intent. Which is why reviewers should ignore most public statements by the author about their book. Just as they should not apply their own attempts at playing amateur psychic. There is the book and there is you, the reviewer, and any positive context or experience you bring to the experience. (For example, you review a novel set in 1800s India and you have a background in the India of that era.) That is all, and that should be enough. I donâ€™t believe I ever make this mistake in my reviewing because, as a writer, knowing my own motivation for things and the effects Iâ€™m going for, it drives me nuts when I see it in other people’s reviewsâ€”in either a positive or a negative context.
In addition to avoiding these kinds of mistakes, there are a few other things I try to keep in mind as a reviewer.
First, I always try to tell the truth as I see it, regardless of how others may perceive me or the review as a result. Admittedly, there are good reasons sometimes for revealing the truth gradually, or allowing the reader of the review to do some work in interpretation, but you must tell the truth.
Second, telling the truth doesnâ€™t require me to be mean. A good negative review should be written with respect and affection–and even praise where it can be applied. The fact is, writing any book is a gargantuan accomplishment, a huge application of time and resources on the writerâ€™s part. That some turn out to be lesser than others should not be a cause for a tone of triumph, elation, or smugness on the part of the reviewer. (My major flaw as a reviewer would be an unwarranted over-enthusiasm at times; my mixed reviews tend to be more nuanced.)
Third, writing a positive or glowing review is as strenuous a task as a mixed or negative review. Nothing is worse than a positive review where the reviewer, for any number of reasons, manages to misunderstand the book. Most writers hate misguided positive reviews more than negative reviews.
All of this is simple. All of it is straightforward, and most of it has to do with being fair, honest, and forthright. In my opinion, reviewing a book ought to be a simple thing. You read the book. You think about what youâ€™ve read. If you have time, you re-read the book. You think about it more, take notes. Then you report back to the reader your thoughts about the book. In doing so, you make sure to tell readers enough about the book to give them the context to understand your opinion…but not so much summary that readers feel theyâ€™ve read the book after reading the review. In your review, you analyze and synthesize what youâ€™ve read, taking as your cue, your foundation, (1) what you think the book was trying to do, (2) whether it was done well or poorly, and (3) whether what the book tried to do was worth doing. In a skillful review, nothing in the middle should come as too much of a surprise after reading the opening. The writing should be clear, clean, almost invisible, and follow logical progressions. These things must be accomplished before a reviewer can think about going for more complex effects. I do often try for more complex effects and approaches, but only after I’m sure my fundamentals are sound.
Finally, I would like to challenge the conventional wisdom and urge new and established fiction writers to do more reviews. In the past, especially in the mainstream, there was a rich history of discourse and often raucous argument about books between various authorsâ€”in print. This occurs less frequently now because conventional wisdom says that writers who review hurt their careers by sometimes expressing negative opinions of their fellow writersâ€™ books. I canâ€™t say this isnâ€™t true, in that I knowâ€”have had concrete evidence in front of meâ€”that reviewing has hurt me in certain quarters. However, the world is too various and too diverse, due in part to the cross-pollination and inter-connectivity of the Internet, for anyone to be wounded too badly career-wise by reviewing books. More importantly, the health of any field requires open, transparent, honest, affectionate disagreement and discussion in order to strive to become better, more ethical, and more human.
L. Timmel Duchamp on the reviewer’s hardest task
Torque Control points to Strange Horizon’s review guidelines
Cheryl Morgan with exceptions and worst-case scenarios (note: “open season on reviewers” is an unfortunate mis-characterization of all of the posts she mentions in her blog entry.)
Abigail Naussbaum on reviewing the reviews.