What makes you stop reading a review?

Once again there’s a conversation in the reviewing blogosphere (via OF Blog of the Fallen) of whether the online reviews ought to conform to some standards. Which is a perfectly reasonable conversation to have, considering that we all expect different things from reviews. I do an occasional informal write up of a book or two, but I do not call them reviews mostly because they lack rigor – it’s just some thoughts that occur to me after reading, and I feel free to limit myself to talking only about certain aspects of a book or not do plot summary or whatever. However, once someone claims that what they are doing is a proper review, it seems to me that there are some things that would be best avoided. I am talking as a reader here, not a writer, and about other people’s books, not mine. Yes, I read review blogs looking for reading material. What follows is the list of statements that make me personally discount the entire review as invalid; your triggers may vary.

1. “Pretentious” – Hal Duncan and many others discussed the meaning of this epithet in great detail. However, to me it means one thing: a reviewer’s inability to differentiate between auctorial intent and the reviewer’s impression of said intent. It is a useless descriptor that only shows me that the reviewer is not a very good one.

2. “Style over substance” – the assumption here is that style is separate from a story, and that an artless narration of exciting events is somehow superior to complex language; a strange belief that language in literature is commonly used to obfuscate and not much else.

3. “Agenda story” – all stories are agenda stories; it’s just some agendas we tend to agree with or are used to. Tolkien wrote agenda stories. If the reviewer sees Tehanu but not Lord of the Rings as an agenda story, they have blinders on.

4. “Attempt to be PC” – look, if the reviewer can think of no reason to put women/protagonists of color/religious minorities in a story besides pacifying some imaginary PC police, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the world feels the same way.

5. “I expected X but instead it was Y” – while a reviewer’s expectations are important to them, they are not important to me. Not to mention, that people usually form expectations based on other people’s reviews; penalizing the writer for someone else’s review giving you a wrong impression is silly.

6. Confusing opinion with fact – such as overlooking something present in text and then arguing that your interpretation is just as valid as someone else’s. Sorry, but there are objectively existing things, and saying that it’s all opinion rather misses the point – for example, one cannot very well avoid the eugenics subtext in Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons”, even if one prefers to pretend it’s not really there.

Well, that’s about it. What things annoy you in reviews?

19 comments on “What makes you stop reading a review?

  1. Niall says:

    What things annoy you in reviews?

    “Perfect for readers of X”, or its ilk, is a big one, because it’s both pointless and presumptuous. Different people will like the work of X for different reasons, so you need to specify what characteristic of the book under review is reminiscent of X; and if you’re doing that, you’re providing enough information for the reader to make up their own mind about whether your comparison is apt.

    3 and 5 raise interesting issues, I think. In general I agree with 3, but I also think the distinction between a story written in (probably unconscious) agreement with a dominant social agenda and a story written in conscious disagreement with a dominant social agenda is important. To my mind, Tehanu is perhaps not the best example to illustrate the point, since we know it was deliberately written by Le Guin to revise elements of the Earthsea mythology, and pretending that it wasn’t is to ignore an important aspect of the work.

    As for expectation, I agree that talking about how outside influences — reviews, the cover, whatever — prejudiced a reviewer’s expectations of a book is usually pointless, but I think it can be useful to talk about the expectations a book itself establishes, and whether it meets them or fails to meet them or subverts them to some way. The difficulty there is distinguishing between whether something that influences a reviewer’s expectations is a bug or a feature of the text in question; but again, providing specific details should allow someone reading the review to make their own mind up.

  2. Hello, Jeff:

    I’d add one more thing. I get really annoyed when a reviewer makes illiterate comments on how the readership will react to the story. I’ve had this happen with one of my kids’ books where a reviewer objected to my use of words like “ambrosial” and “prosaic” as being too difficult for kids. He also objected to the subject matter of my story, saying these concerns were unlikely to be of interest to children. It was obvious that he hadn’t been a child for a long time.


  3. Paul says:

    When a review begins to stray away from the book or characters or author and into the reviewer’s personal life or agenda beliefs, I begin to grow red under my skin. I don’t want to read about that. Save it for a blog post. Tell me whether the book is interesting, whether it is trite, whether it is worth ordering online or picking up at a brick-and-mortar. Don’t tell me about the one time you and your BFF were smoking pot and contemplating the universe…

  4. The worst example is this: Reviewers who don’t like a work and proceed to insult the intended audience.
    Example: “Only a spoiled emo kid would this this crap.”

  5. Vandana–thanks, but Kathy Sedia wrote the post. Although I agree with it quite a bit.


  6. Great post. My bugaboo is plot summary, no question. I can overlook many flaws, but not a mere repetition of the central events of the book. All the flaws you cite fuel to the pit of rage that bubbles inside me, but I can at least laugh at them. The ability to snark internally with a “Look at that idiot!” or “Somebody’s flying the bigot flag today!” or the equivalent can redeem the reading of a poor review. But when major newspapers or magazines call a synopsis a review… it depresses me, leaving me in the dumps about the culture of reviewing.

  7. Sorry, Kathy, Jeff. I didn’t read the small print at the top of the post. (Kathy, I’m just starting to read The Secret History of Moscow and thoroughly enjoying it).

    I have a question for those more knowledgeable than me. As far as I can tell, there is no such thing as a completely impartial review. I can’t imagine that a review would not be influenced by the reviewer’s own beliefs and life-experiences. So do you think that people who review should reveal something about themselves (without making the review all about them)?

    There is an analogy I have in mind. Dora Goss wrote a series of wonderful critical essays on three female poets (“Voices from Fairyland” just published by Aqueduct Press). These essays aren’t “dry and academic” but enlivened by Dora’s insertions of her personal reactions, and those of her students, and thoughts about what these poets meant to her own work. These reflections are few but telling, and serve, in my opinion, to enhance the narrative rather than to impede its flow. Is it possible to do this sort of thing in a review?


  8. Niall — “In general I agree with 3, but I also think the distinction between a story written in (probably unconscious) agreement with a dominant social agenda and a story written in conscious disagreement with a dominant social agenda is important.”

    Of course, they are not the same (also, let me note that I think that Tolkien wrote in conscious agreement) — and in case of Tehanu this disagreement is absolutely the point. However, treating stories with dominant agendas as agenda-free is to my mind a mistake. And good point about the expectations set up by the book itself — but this should be easily sorted out, as in ‘it begins as a noir novel but quickly morphs into bubblegum romance’.

    Vandana — it is helpful to know the perspective from which a reviewer operates and I agree that objectivity is impossible. Reviews that refer to the reviewer’s experience or perspective don’t bother me per se, as long as there’s something being said about the book in question.

  9. David Keck says:

    You want a perceptive reader, first of all. A review is compelling if the reviewer can draw intriguing connections, consider motivations with some objectivity, and has a feel for how well a book succeeds on its own terms. (Who might like it more — or less?)

    Of course, the quality of the reviewer’s actual writing is hard to ignore. (Effective, even handed, and stylish writing goes a long way to establishing the reviewer’s credibility, at least with this reader. While it might be true that some highly intelligent readers are incapable of putting their thoughts into a review, it’s easier to believe that reading and writing go hand in hand).

    And perhaps I don’t care about rigor at all… A powerful impression of the work may sell me before a thoughtful analysis ever does.

  10. SMD says:

    I know some folks really like the deep, heavily analytical reviews, but I’m not a fan only because when I’m reading a review I’m trying to determine if I think the book in question is something I’d like to read. I want the review to get to the point. Is it good? Is the writing style readable? Is it entertaining? What’s wrong with it? What’s great about it? etc. If the reviewer offers a rating, cool, if not, oh well. I usually skim reviews to look for the high and low points and make a decision. Sometimes even a bad review will get me interested in a book and I’ll buy it.

  11. Richard Parks says:

    When it’s clear the reviewer is more interested in showing off than in reviewing the book, that’s when I stop reading.

  12. n.fonseca says:

    What I find most irritating is finishing a review without getting to know simple facts like “After all the talk, did this person liked or disliked the damn story?”, and knowing too much of the storyline, which is a major bummer – one of the reasons we all like reading is the story, right? getting to the next page to find it out…not reading about it beforehand.

  13. Larry says:

    I swear when I read your post, Kathy, that one particular fan reviewer came to mind as one who does virtually all of those things in his reviews. Not that I’m going to name names here, though :P

    You pretty much named things that are bugaboos for me as well. I’d also add this: Reviews in which the criticism/praise do not match the concluding statements. I’ve read reviews by a certain few where it seemed that he/she was really dogging the writer’s story, characters, etc., only to see a praise-filled conclusion. Baffling.

  14. Larry — as a disclaimer, I didn’t mean any specific person, but rather the sorts of things that tend to appear in reviews frequently, regardless of venue. And again, these are just things I personally find unhelpful — I mean, they ARE useful for other readers (for example, if a reviewer always describes feminist work as ‘agenda-driven’ then it will be helpful to those readers who want to be warned away from such work.) Same goes for ‘entertaining’ label — I don’t understand what it means, but others apparently do.

    And yes, good point re: mismatch between the review and conclusion. It can be quite baffling.

    And everyone — thanks for great points! It’s always fascinating to see how people go about reading reviews and selecting their reading material.

  15. Larry says:

    I know you weren’t pointing any figures, Kathy, it’s just that I was thinking of someone in particular even before I read your points :P Agreed on how certain reviewers, despite committing those things you point out, will usually end up finding a “fan base” that has similar outlooks and expectations.

  16. SMD says:

    Oh, goodness, Larry. I might have been guilty of that at one point. If I ever did such a thing I sincerely apologize. Generally I like to point out flaws in a novel and sometimes I spend more time pointing those out than the good so it seems like I hate the book :S. Hopefully I haven’t done that recently. Ha! It actually takes a lot to make me hate a story, to be honest. I’ve only disliked two books to the point where I couldn’t finish them and I “reviewed” one of them (and that’s a whole different argument). And I’m rambling about crud that doesn’t matter.

    I’m quite partial to short reviews, to be honest. Though I do like the occasional literary reviews (like what Larry does), but it really depends on the subject. If it’s a fiction book, I want it short and sweet, give me the good and the bad and tell me if it’s good overall and what it’s about. If it’s something else, such as the awesome SF/F criticism books that Larry has been reading, I like a deeper look into the work. But I’m also weird.

  17. Ian Sales says:

    “… a reviewer’s inability to differentiate between auctorial intent and the reviewer’s impression of said intent.”

    Eh? Unless the reviewer has spoken with the author, how can they know their intent? They can only go with what is in the text – and that will be the reviewer’s perception, or impression, of the author’s intent. Another reviewer might perceive something all together different. But that doesn’t invalidate the first reviewers’s perception.

Comments are closed.