It’s Eastercon this weekend, and I am on one programme item:
What makes a good book review? What makes a good book review? Do you read book reviews? Do you take any notice of them? Do writers and publishers take notice of them? Do they serve the reader, the industry, or no one at all? Do you give a flying squid? (Friday, 18:30–20:00, Edward 1)
The website doesn’t list the other participants, but I know Paul is moderating.
I mention this in part because, with impeccable timing, Jetse de Vries (one of the current Interzone editorial team) has posted in defence of Interzone‘s policy of using 350-word reviews, instead of the longer, column-review format favoured in the Pringle era, thus giving us at least one starting point for discussion. The criticisms of the current reviews policy that he links to can be seen on Urban Drift, and specifically (though he doesn’t attribute them), they’re comments made by me and by Jonathan. So I feel obliged to expand on my thoughts a bit.
I think Jetse’s post raises some valid issues, but hides them behind smokescreens. He asks:
Maybe people could wonder why there is such a 350-word limit on book reviews. It is, after all, the industry standard. Not only SFX is using it, but the utmost majority of professional publishers. Like, in the UK: New Statesman, Spectator, and the Independent. Or, for reference, check out this overview of the National Union of Journalist, where most reviews mentioned are also 350 words or less.
Looking at the linked overview, I see a wide range of word counts; there are indeed several that give a 350-word limit, but it doesn’t leap out as an obvious standard, since there are also plenty of publications that use other lengths. The Scotsman, for instance, has entries for both 200 and 1600 word reviews. And if we look at what the Independent, say, actually publishes, the “latest book reviews” at the moment include 400 words on The Red Princess, 800 on On Chesil Beach, and 900 on Welcome to Everytown. I’d also query Jetse’s use of “professional”, since (a) it implies that SFX isn’t a professional venue which, for all its faults, seems a little harsh, and (b) I’m not sure what criteria are going into his definition — it can’t be payment, since Interzone doesn’t pay for reviews. Later Jetse mentions Sci Fi Wire as an online venue that enforces word limits — which they do, not to mention enforcing a strict formula of summary in the first half of the review, value judgement in the second half. But even Sci Fi Wire allots 700 words to a book, twice what Interzone allows.
Of the two guides to reviewing that Jetse links, one doesn’t mention length at all (though it does recommend noting effective passages for quoting, which would seem to be a bit of a squeeze in 350 words), while the other notes that “in newspapers and academic journals, [reviews] rarely exceed 1000 words”. Both guides emphasise the need to give a full response to the book at hand, which is as it should be. So my first objection to 350-word reviews is, as you might expect, not that they are short but that they are too short. Too often they end up being little more than glorified blurb. Sad to say, I think the review Jetse offers in his post, of Peter Watts’ Blindsight, fails on this level: there is almost no context for the book (Jetse tells us that Watts is a biologist, but nothing about what sort of biologist or how that might be relevant to the book at hand; and Blindsight itself is treated in a vacuum), and precious little evidence to back up the value-judgements he makes (saying that Blindsight is “Definitely not a novel for escapists or the occasional reader” comes across, to me at least, as somewhat patronising, in part because I get no clear idea of why that might be the case).
Jetse also says, of what he learned from a reviewing workshop:
The gist of it is that a 350-word book review is more challenging to write than a lengthy one, and if done well is – in general – better for both the reviewer and the reader, and also better from a publicity point of view.
This strikes me as being about as fallacious as saying that a short story is more challenging to write than a novel. Writing short and writing long are different skills. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write a useful 350-word review — indeed, the review Interzone actually published of Blindsight (IZ207, by Graham Sleight), does a perfectly reasonable job. The first paragraph (you’ll have to take my word for this, since I’m not going to quote the whole thing online without permission) sets up what’s distinctive about Watts as a writer; the second paragraph establishes how Blindsight fits into Watts’ canon, as well as into the larger sf canon; the third describes what’s interesting about the book’s subjects, and how Watts makes it interesting; and the fourth sums up, relating the value-judgement of Blindsight back to Watts’ other works and other sf. Jetse argues that “We expect fiction writers to be sharp and concise, and not waste a single word,” and suggests that we should expect the same from reviewers — which is, of course, absolutely true. But it’s a principle that applies as much to a 2,000-word review or a 10,000-word critical essay as it does to a 350-word summary. As for this:
When limited to a 350 wordcount, reviewers must write only about the essentials. It forces them to concentrate on what they really need to say, to get to the heart of the matter. No roundabout reasoning, no self-important side remarks, no bloated blathering, no snarky references for the incrowd. No excess baggage, not a single gram of it. It compels reviewers to develop and hone their craft to perfection. First learn the ropes, the basics before one is allowed to do lengthier essays. Show that you’re a professional, build a track record and an outstanding oeuvre before you’re allowed more leeway. As mentioned, we expect the same of fiction writers, so why should non-fiction writers be exempt to this?
I can only say that I like reviewers to have a personality. As in fiction, I find voice incredibly important in non-fiction, including reviews. I’m all for tightening up arguments, and cutting bloat, and keeping the focus on the reviewee and not the reviewer; but the very last thing I want to read (or, let’s be honest, write) is a review that aspires to some perceived “default” tone.
There is another issue, though, and that’s the question of who the reviews are for and what they’re trying to achieve — which brings us back to the Eastercon panel. Audience, in fact, is probably a more important consideration than length. Interzone reviews, Jetse makes pretty clear, are aimed at the casual reader, intended to quickly give them an idea of whether they would like to check out the book. That’s a valid choice, in the abstract; but I think it’s a shame that Interzone has chosen to go down that route. Interzone used to do something different and, I think, valuable — and note that I’m not talking about the words-per-book specifically. What my original comment on Urban Drift was arguing for was a return to review-columns, covering maybe four books in three thousand words. That, it seems to me, would achieve the best of both worlds, giving Interzone‘s non-fiction contributors (who are, more often than not, a knowledgeable, articulate bunch — although Clute seems to have gone AWOL recently) room to say something meaningful without the reviews section becoming a home for the “prolonged protractions from a geeky pedestal” Jetse is so critical of. Aiming for the lowest common denominator is all very well, but SFX already exists; there’s no need to re-invent it.