Eastercon and Reviews

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.

39 thoughts on “Eastercon and Reviews

  1. You have my permission, if you want, to use my Blindsight piece here but I suspect you’d also want to ask the IZ folk. I was also a little surprised that Blindsight was the example Jetse de Vries chose to use, but I don’t want to get into public discussion of the merits or demerits of a magazine I write for.

  2. To be honest, I’ve always thought of wordlengths for reviews as being solely related to space in the magazine. When I was reviews editor of Vector I started with 400 words and gradually increased it as increased pages and smaller type faces allowed. Though I was always open to longer reviews where the subject dictated.

    As for 350 words being in any way an ideal length for a review, balderdash! It’s fine for some reviews, not for others. When reviewing a collection of Jack Dann stories for Interzone, I only needed 250 words to say what I wanted. But when reviewing John Crowley’s Lord Byron’s Novel, 350 words was a severe hindrance, and I think damaged the review accordingly.

    Though in fairness to Interzone, they were open to devoting two pages to reviews of Julie Phillips’s Tiptree biography from Maureen and myself. Those reviews were around 1,000 words apiece, and we got a good response from the editorial team to them.

    I find when I’m writing reviews without any word-length prescriptions, my reviews tend to come in between 800-1,500 words. And that seems to be a fairly common length, the equivalent of what you’ll find in a featured review in a national newspaper. Much more than that tends to require extra work. But much less than that also requires extra work, because it is neither easy nor straightforward to limit what you say. Something inevitably gets lost along the way.

    (Though again in the interests of fairness I should point out that when I was a reviews editor, I found that people just starting out as a reviewer had really difficulty writing anything as long as 400 words. But I don’t suppose we’d want to see Interzone as the natural refuge for the wanabe reviewer?)

  3. Paul: yes — ideally, the answer to “how long should a review be?” is “long enough to say what needs to be said.” Which is essentially an aesthetic judgement that gets influenced by practical considerations, including audience and the space available. I’d temporarily forgotten about the (very good) Tiptree bio reviews, so it’s also fair to say IZ isn’t as hard-line about this as they may appear from my post (and, to be honest, Jetse’s post).

    The question of “natural length” is an interesting one. The first reviews I wrote tended to come in at 750 words or so; these days, my first drafts usually end up somewhere between 1500 and 2000, and then expand or contract in revision.

  4. 350 words (approx) is a perfectly reasonable length for a standard review in Interzone, all things considered, and is a good base from which to start. In actual fact the book reviews are occasionally shorter, quite often longer and sometimes much longer than that. Some reviews have interviews or sidebars attached. And John Clute has a few thousand words in every issue to review two, three or four titles, having been asked to return to the magazine to do exactly that.

  5. I noticed Clute’s column didn’t actually appear in the 25th anniversary edition. Was there a particular reason for this?

  6. I should have made it more clear that the 350 word limit is not hard, certainly not for Interzone, but indeed a very good target to aim at, especially for beginning reviewers (not that I’m calling anybody here beginning reviewers).

    But, roughly speaking, it’s like getting the basics straight before getting to the next stage of your craft. As most of you noted: there is more space in Interzone if that is required, or if one has a track record (like John Clute).

    Also, for reviewing, I (personally, not necessarily Interzone) am of the opinion that shorter almost always is better, and that a reviewer should aim for that, and cut out excessive verbiage. Aiming at those (roughly) 350 words does wonders for that.

    There is also a difference between aiming at a broader audience, or aiming at the lowest common denominator: the latter will review *only* the highly popular books, while the former can review both popular and quality books (not that the two need to be mutually exclusive, of course). If that means we are partly entering SFX territory (of which I didn’t say they were *not* professional), then so be it. Their circulation numbers exceed those of all the short fiction SF magazines.

    Not that I’m saying we should cut fiction and blatantly copy SFX. But we should look at what works, and what doesn’t in looking to expand our audience. For example, the latest incarnation of Amazing Stories was very interesting: a mix of 40% fiction/60% articles (running to 50/50 later on), glossy, full colour, full of ads. Paizo terminated it after six issues because it was making less money than its gaming magazines (similar to the way SF Age had the plug pulled because the *other* magazines of its then owner were making *more* money). But it was making money, and had a very healthy circulation, one that was increasing (I have this from one of their former editors).

    Or do you all like the way circulation is falling for most *fiction* SF magazines?

    Maybe I’m drifting a bit off-topic here, but reviews are part and parcel of a magazine, and — roughly speaking — the fans want long, in-depth reviews of their favourite books (or movies, or games, or comics, or whatever), while the more broadly interested reader rather wants to check out, at a quick glance, which books will be of interest and which not.

    So, again roughly speaking, if you want to go in-depth, mostly aimed at the already converted, then by all means write long reviews or critical essays for the BSFA or the New York Review of Science Fiction. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    However, a magazine that aims to expand its readership may wish to aim more for a larger audience through a broader array of short reviews rather than discuss only a few books at length. And even then, there is (limited) space for longer reviews, as Andy and Paul Kincaid already mentioned (and for John Clute, if he delivered his copy in time before the deadline).

    So while I admit that the 350 word limit is rather the point to aim for then the hard limit, I stand by the main thrust of my argument that for magazines, both print and internet, that aim to expand their audience (or keep their large readerships), shorter reviews are highly preferred to longer ones.

  7. Or do you all like the way circulation is falling for most *fiction* SF magazines?

    I believe this is what is know as a strawman.

    No one has yet found a way of combating declining circulations for fiction magazines. I am extremely sceptical that shorter reviews will have any effect on this whatsoever.

    Fiction magazines are a niche market, SF fiction magazines are an ultra niche market. Interzone cannot enter “SFX territory” because it is an entirely different beast. Making the reviews concise to give broad appeal seems irrelevant when the majority of the magazine is fiction, which is neither concise or has broad appeal. The sort of people who are going to sit down to read short stories are exactly the sort of people who are likely to read longer, in depth reviews.

    It is good that Interzone wants to be more attractive to the SFX market – and it has done so already with its greater emphasis on design – but it will never be the same type of magazine or appeal to the same type of person.

    Out of interest, have you considered a “books received” section?

  8. I had an agreement with Interzone to write column reviews of three or four books at a time. I pulled out when cuts were made arbitrarily without either the courtesy of informing me before publication, or the intelligence to check that the remaining review made sense.

  9. I had a great response to this, but it was over 350 words, so I figured it was pretty much extraneous and didn’t post it.

    Instead, I’ll simply comment that Jetse indirectly raises an interesting issue when he says:

    There is also a difference between aiming at a broader audience, or aiming at the lowest common denominator: the latter will review *only* the highly popular books, while the former can review both popular and quality books (not that the two need to be mutually exclusive, of course).

    Interestingly, I think 350-word capsules not only reflect the lowest common denominator reader, but also… perhaps this is the ONLY way to review *books* that are ‘highly popular’/commercially-oriented. I mean, just how much can you say about Novik’s TEMERAIRE on a critical level, anyway?

    There’s a link here, somewhere, and to find it, I think I need to go read some ‘reviews’ in Entertainment Weekly, or People Magazine….

  10. Or do you all like the way circulation is falling for most *fiction* SF magazines?

    …because obviously their problem is that their reviewers are too long winded. Nothing to do with the quality or character of the stories for example.

    I wonder if there’s a link between Farah’s mistreatment by her Interzone editor and Clute being AWOL from the magazine for a while now. After all, if Jetse’s post seriously does express the views of the IZ reviews department then I struggle to see how Clute would fit in. Especially as they’re apparently aiming at the “low attention span” that apparently afflicts everyone online.

  11. I may have a short attention span online, but if I’m going to sit down and crack open a magazine, I want to see some meat.

    Not as much meat as a novel.

    But certainly more meat than a blog entry.

    Which reminds me… whatever happened to The Third Alternative/Black Static?

  12. In the interest of keeping things friendly, Jetse *isn’t* IZ’s reviews ed; Sandy Auden is, and where she doesn’t blog much, she’s probably unaware of this little debate – which is why I’ve emailed her to let her know what’s happening, as she should have the chance to say her piece, too.

    Bloody hell. This is going to be a lively panel for a first-time moderator. I hope they issue me with a megaphone. And maybe a tazer…

  13. My personal opinion on this is that short and to the point is far better than sprawling out of control. I want to see personality but not so over powering that it’s off putting. I need to get a feel for the book, but if every minute detail has been dissected then what’s left for me? If I wanted a massively in-depth study then I’ll buy a critical guide.

    As someone who has only ever had music reviews published I can only say what I know about the lengths of those – the editor seems to care more about my personality showing through than anything else. I agree with what Niall said “long enough to say what needs to be said” is really the best way.

    I usually stop at 500 words where my reviews are concerned.

  14. I always seem to end up defending Interzone on here… and here I go again. I think some of the criticism of Andy, Jetse and the gang in this debate has been a little harsh.

    Most of the complaints have come from critics or people who read a lot of criticism – of course you’re going to want more from a review than 350 words. And of course you’re going to consider it important that the reviewer has the scope to express themselves and develop their voice. But Interzone isn’t a critical journal and my guess is that, if Interzone can break out of the narrow confines of fandom, the majority of its readers won’t buy the magazine because of its incisive criticism. The reviews are nice but they’re window dressing around the main selling point of the magazine – the fiction.

    As a working journalist, I think most of my colleagues will tell you that writing intelligently and accurately in a short form is much more challenging than writing longer pieces. That’s why so many fine writers came out of the popular press in the days before tabloid journalism became an insult. Broadsheet and academic authors have the freedom to ramble, to digress and divert but a good writer in the tabloid style has to sharpen every word to a point.

    I like both types of reviews for different reasons. The best long form reviewers are interesting for as much about what they reveal about themselves as for what they reveal about the material under review. The worst can be po-faced, self-indulgent and elitist. Good short reviews tell me why I should be interested in a novel/cd/film quickly and with economy but also with style, humour and intelligence. Bad short reviews are insultingly facile. I don’t think I’ve read any reviews in Interzone that have fallen into the last category, but over the years there have been more than a few that belonged in the self-indulgent camp (and I say this as a reviewer who has been known to witter on a bit himself).

    [As an aside, however, I know that as a book publisher I’d much prefer my publication to appear in a stand alone review with it’s own headline, it’s own cover image and it’s own clearly defined space than I would see it buried in the Locus style in a review that rambles on for pages and pages across the magazine that you have to follow like some demented treasure hunt.]

    Whether critics like it or not, the first job of a professional publisher is to sell magazines and if a publisher has an ambition to sell a lot of magazines then it would be perverse not to pursue a populist style in the presentation of content. Now for some people populism will always equate to pandering to the lowest common denominator, but this is nonsense. I once had the privilege of spending several weeks in the archives of The Daily Mirror – in the 50s and 60s before the Murdochisation of the UK press (and very occasionally afterwards) the Mirror managed to produce story after story that mixed tight, concise, populist prose with intelligent and insightful commentary – certainly the equal of most of what passes for journalism today in broadsheets or online where there has never been more space for writers to wibble endlessly to ever less purpose.

    Whether 350 or 500 or 1500 words long, a review and a reviewer’s qualities are not going to be decided by size but by the clarity of his argument.

    But here’s the main point. Interzone is Andy’s magazine – he’s the publisher and the editor and he’s the one taking the financial and personal risk in trying to extend the life of an institution of UK sf. And sometimes the editor’s decision has to be final (as the editor of trade union journals where every comma is the subject of a committee decision and motions to congress, I say this with some feeling) – if you don’t like what he’s doing with the magazine you’re free not to read it. If you think you can do better, then put your money where your mouth is and set up your own magazine in competition.

    If Interzone were the only source of reviews of sf – or if there was no one printing reviews of more than 350 words – then I’d be concerned that the magazine had changed its policy. But look around. There are more reviews, more criticism, more chatter about sf books now than there’s ever been. There are so many outlets that even markets that pay for criticism like IROSF have trouble finding enough contributors to fill their pages.

    Indeed what’s really missing in British sf isn’t in-depth critical analysis (and occasional bouts of navel gazing) but a willingness to engage the populist market in an intelligent way. Much though I love PS Publishing and its short run, high quality publications, wouldn’t it be brilliant if someone in the UK was willing to do what Lou Anders is doing in the US and take serious, good quality sf (much of it written by UK authors) and attempt to find ways to take that work out to a mass audience and batter them over the head with it.

    Now that’s way over 350 words – do as I say, not as I do and all that.

  15. I don’t think anyone’s been attacking Interzone as such, more saying they’d personally like to see something different. The trouble with a scene this small is that everyone’s very attached to what they do at a personal level, and I think it’s hard not to take things to heart when they’re meant in a discursive way. I’m proud to write for IZ, and I hope I always will be, and with a brief background in music reviews, I understand the wordcounts thing very well – to the point my first editor would simply remove sentences from the end of my work until it was below count.

    I don’t think this was ever meant to be about IZ in particular, anyway – Jetse defended short reviews, other folk defended longer ones, but then the unconscious battle-lines got drawn and it’s all got a bit two-pitbulls-in-a-park. The way I see it, we’re all on the same scene, but we’re working for different parts of that scene. Not *against* each other, but overall for the benefit of the genre as a whole. I certainly don’t want to preside over a slap-fight on Friday – that was never my intention. My intention was to try to work out what the readers, writers and everyone else *actually wants* from the reviewing system. When we have that data, we’ll be able to debate until the sun goes out. Until then, let’s not forget that we’re all part of what is essentially an outcast nation. Debate is fine, dissent is fair enough, but warfare is self-defeating. We have too many enemies outside the fence to need to form bitter factions within.

  16. As a working journalist, I think most of my colleagues will tell you that writing intelligently and accurately in a short form is much more challenging than writing longer pieces.

    I’m coming into this out of the middle of nowhere–I don’t even read SF–but I’d like to challenge this statement because I think it’s ambiguous. Of course it is likely to be more “challenging” to write intelligently and accurately in short form. But this could as well be because, on average and certainly for books displaying noticeable depth and ambition, it is too limiting, forces easy simplification and offers meagre servings that are about as exciting and informative as a book blurb but not much more. In other words, the challenge is as likely work to the detriment of the writer and the reader. There is nothing about shorter form that makes it inherently, generally superior or demanding. As the poster asserted, it requires a different set of skills.

    It may be superficially easier to write longer pieces but is it easier to do so coherently, intelligently (ie no navel gazing allowed), engagingly in a distinctive style?

    And I have to say that if a magazine that features short fiction publication is aiming for bite size journalism in their literary reviews then, to me, that’s a major problem right off the bat. I don’t see why “incisive criticism” should be left to critical journals. (But that’s a personal preference.)

    Whether critics like it or not, the first job of a professional publisher is to sell magazines and if a publisher has an ambition to sell a lot of magazines then it would be perverse not to pursue a populist style in the presentation of content. Now for some people populism will always equate to pandering to the lowest common denominator, but this is nonsense.

    I think many people feel that way because professional publishers interpret “populism” in precisely that fashion. And I think your comment on what is missing from British sf bears that out. The casual reader is forever underestimated, forever seen as uninterested in “incisive criticism”, only interested in blurbs that give them a book synopsis, done wittily, with a thumbs up or down at the end. (This is a general comment btw, and not aimed at Interzone, which I’ve obviously never read.) Again even I think that such “reviews” have their place, and critical journals usually have a page or two with brief reviews, but having only that sort in a fiction magazine?

    (And I really doubt that the TLS, the London Review of Books, and other such publications are uninterested in moving a lot of copies.)

    It seems to be as if both you and niall want the same thing. The suggestion of four books covered in 3,000 words hardly sounds like the perfect opportunity for irrelevant ramblings and overly long indulgences in geek.

    …sometimes the editor’s decision has to be final (as the editor of trade union journals where every comma is the subject of a committee decision and motions to congress, I say this with some feeling) – if you don’t like what he’s doing with the magazine you’re free not to read it.

    And also free to criticise it as often as one wishes. ( I’m not sure why this would be a main point of yours, unless people were considering…I don’t know overthrowing him and force-feeding the magazine to themselves in crazy protest? Have readers been whingeing about this for ages and ages? That would get tiring.)

    I re-emphasise the fact that I’m coming into this blind, but I found your response curious because you expressed a need for “a willingness to engage the populist market in an intelligent way”, yet nothing in your comment supported the idea that Interzone was doing so.

    And thanks to the folks here who blogrolled me, which is how I found you and presently pushed my nose in where it didn’t belong. :)

  17. Martin:

    The reviews are nice but they’re window dressing around the main selling point of the magazine – the fiction.

    I agree with this, but I also agree with t’other Martin when he says that the audience that wants to read short stories is the same audience that’s likely to want a bit more meat in their reviews. What counts as window-dressing is different for different audiences.

    As I said in the main post, I don’t agree with “write short is harder” — purely on a personal level, I know that writing short and writing long challenge me in different ways.

    if you don’t like what he’s doing with the magazine you’re free not to read it. If you think you can do better, then put your money where your mouth is and set up your own magazine in competition.

    Well, of course. But I’m a little busy editing other things at the moment … I think my source of disappointment with Interzone specifically comes from the fact that it seems to me to occupy a unique position. It’s a serious sf publication you can find in British bookshops. IROSF and other online venues are quite hard to find if you don’t know you’re looking for them; Interzone is right there on the shelves. (Well, some shelves, at least.)

    Indeed what’s really missing in British sf isn’t in-depth critical analysis (and occasional bouts of navel gazing) but a willingness to engage the populist market in an intelligent way.

    Hmm. You mean, like Gollancz’ SF4U promotion last year, or the “modern masterworks” (or whatever they’re going to call it) later this year?

    Imani: hi! I think I clicked through to your blog from litlove‘s place a little while ago. Thanks for the comment, which i basically agree with top-to-bottom. To answer your question about whether people have been whingeing about this for ages — I’ve only seen occasional grumbles here and there but I may have missed something. (Although at this rate, I suspect I personally am going to get a reputation as an Interzone hater, since elsewhere I recently criticised the fiction content.)

  18. Right…

    So this audience that IZ are supposedly going to explode into don’t care about criticism and as a result they prefer short criticism to long criticism and would most likely not buy a magazine devoted to publishing fiction simply because it contained longer critical pieces… that they wouldn’t be interested in reading anyway.

    My problem with the whole “Ah but writing a 350 word review is harder” argument is that manifestly it is simply nonsense. Yes, it is harder to express a certain number of points in less words rather than more but if you look at pretty much all the reviews in SFX and a large chunk of IZ’s current review output you’ll not find perfectly crafted 350-word versions of 1000 word critical pieces. You’ll find pieces that are substantially less ambitious, less interesting and, because there’s no room to present an argument let alone a proper analysis, tend to revolve around plot synopsis and crude thumbs up, thumbs down evaluation.

    350 word limits simply do not result in better reviews, it results in shallow reviews.

    I can only echo the sentiments of Niall and Martin, I think that the type of audience likely to hunt down an SF fiction magazine that is largely composed of up-and-coming authors are exactly the type of audience that might be interested in looking a little deeper into their fiction and IZ is perfectly placed to satiate those desires.

    Interzone should be a shop window for the British SF scene, show-casing not only the best young British authors as well as the more established ones but also showing the real intellectual depth of SF. You simply don’t get from 350 reviews.

  19. My first post here. Mind if I sit down?

    Why do readers like reviews? Is it for the in depth criticism of the works under consideration, or is it to enable them to make an informed decision when considering their latest purchases? Most likely it’s a combination of the two – the balance of which determined by the style of the magazine they are reading.

    I read criticism for information. I read reviews to help inform my purchases. When a magazine has limited space available for reviews it needs to make a decision – does it publish more in-depth opinions (which are, admittedly, generally more satisfying to read) or does it publish three times the number of reviews, offering more bang for your buck?

    When I read the review sections of IZ and SFX I’m after a summary – is this a book/DVD I’m likely to want to buy? I don’t need to consume an entire meal – a bite is enough to tell me if it’s a flavour I’ll enjoy…

  20. “Interzone should be a shop window for the British SF scene”? Really? That isn’t why I buy it. I buy it to be entertained. Am I being shallow? Or Irish? Or both? I don’t understand. Why should Interzone be more than just another sf magazine? Why are some people so insistent that is should be some sort of symbol of British sf?

    And why Interzone? Do you make the same demands of Postscripts? Is it just because Interzone is more popular or older or because it has some emotional baggage I’m mssing?

    Do Americans demand the same kind of rigour of Asimov’s or F&SF?

    Why does one magazine seem to carry so much expectation?

    While, of course, you’re all entitled to your opinions, I think it’s ridiculous to lumber Interzone with the burden of carrying the whole weight of British fandom’s expectations. One magazine can’t be everything to everyone and shouldn’t try. I’d rather see Interzone (or something like it) selling bigger numbers through High Street shops by pursuing a more populist stance and pointing readers in the direction of other good, intelligent, sf through short, sharp, modern reviewing than worry about its credentials as a critical journal.

    If magazines like SFX (and, hopefully, one day Interzone) can sell a bazillion copies and do a little to direct a small fraction of those readers towards good sf and more indepth criticism, then it seems to me they’re more than doing their job. I don’t want SFX to publish peer-reviewed critical essays and I don’t want Foundation pursuing huge circulations by putting the latest piece of Californian eye-candy on their front cover. But I’m content for both to do their thing and judge their success by the standards they set for themselves.

    Every “movement” needs a popular edge and a hard core, they feed each other.

    There is surely space in the world for both types of review – the populist and punchy and the academic and lengthy – and there are places that produce both. Why such uncompromising standards for one market and not for others?

    I know this is going to come as a shock to the critics on this blog but not everyone cares about your carefully nuanced arguments and your precise placing of books in historic context in relation to literary traditions. And even those of us who do care some of the time, don’t care all of the time. Sometimes all I want from a review is an idea of what the book is about and whether it’s any good. There are times when I don’t want a review that goes into too much depth on a book because I use reviews to help me decide whether I’m going to read a book or not, and I don’t want to know more than the minimum. Quite often, even in short reviews, I skip to the end and just check out the conclusion.

    Does that make me a bad, shallow and/or stupid person?

    Oh well…

  21. And why Interzone?

    Because, like it or not, Interzone comes with history, and part of that history is its place in the British sf community. It used to occupy one particular position; it has been and is attempting to move to another position; and I have reservations about that change. In fact, I could sum up by saying that I feel that Interzone is trying to be all things to all readers — it’s trying to maintain its established base while reaching out to a wider audience, and in the process, as is entirely predictable, causing some dissatisfaction within that established base.

    I would love to see other prominent British sf magazines, and to see them publish criticism of the order of the work that Elizabeth Hand does for F&SF and Norman Spinrad does for Asimov’s — but at the moment, there’s nothing else with as much visibility and weight as Interzone.

    I’m going to skip over your conflation of “modern” with “short, sharp”, and respond to this:

    I know this is going to come as a shock to the critics on this blog but not everyone cares about your carefully nuanced arguments and your precise placing of books in historic context in relation to literary traditions. And even those of us who do care some of the time, don’t care all of the time.

    Heck, I don’t care all the time. I enjoy browsing through SFX every so often as much as anyone else. But I’m not going to apologise for being disappointed that one of the venues I used to turn to in the times when I do care — in fact, Interzone was the first place I encountered serious reviewing of sf — has, to all intents and purposes, gone away. And to be blunt, if I want that fix of short, sharp reviewing I’m still going to go to SFX; unlike Lee (hi! Welcome!), I don’t naturally bracket the two magazines together, I think of them as doing different things.

  22. Martin —

    If TTA didn’t want the baggage that comes with the name “Interzone” then they shouldn’t have taken it over or they should have rebranded it. As such, judging the current incarnation of Interzone by the yardstick of its own history is not only perfectly fair… it’s absolutely necessary. What other yardstick for Interzone could you possibly have but Interzone?

    The reason why TTA didn’t rebrand or just launch a different more populist magazine is precisely because the Interzone name means something. It’s a recognisable brand and any recognisable brand, whether it’s toothpaste or magazines is all about expectations. When I pick up Interzone, I have a certain set of expectations regarding the content. TTA are, simply, not living up to those expectations at the moment. Particularly in their reviews department.

    They’re perfectly justified in thinking “the base aren’t enough, let’s find some new fans” at which point a complaining base should be taken with an accepting shrug. They’re dumbing down and it’s tough titty for those of us with subscriptions.

    But the thing that strikes me as the weirdest in all of this is the demographic that TTA are going for. They seem to believe that there’s money to be made in an audience that is interested enough in short fiction to hunt down a magazine devoted to it, but are so horrified by the idea of longer reviews that they instantly lose interest in any magazine that has them.

    Who are these people?

    Presumably they’re SFX fans but SFX fans tend to… you know… read SFX. If they’re buying a short fiction magazine, it’s not for the reviews. The reviews are a bonus. Given that, is it not reasonable to think that if they’re interested enough in SF to want a little more from their non-fiction than plot summaries? might they not want to read about how that book they really liked was in fact a reaction to another book and that that weird ending was actually all about some other idea that they didn’t pick up on?

    There’s a reason why criticism tends to come out of the SF scene in a way that it doesn’t from movie or TV fans and that’s because the type of people who are interested enough in SF to become more than passive consumers, tend to be the same kind of people who are not only interested in intelligent SF writing but in writing some themselves.

    Nobody’s suggesting that Interzone should become like Foundation or NYRSF but I really don’t think it’s too much to ask to want a little more from the reviews that the magazine actually does print.

  23. This is all getting a little vociferous … and while I’m all for lively debate, I think it bears repeating that the origin of this debate wasn’t specifically an attack on Interzone, per se, but more of a general lament on the lack of outlets for more in-depth reviews and criticism in the scene as a whole. If this gets too personal and partisan, we’ll have done ourselves (and the genre as a whole) a great disservice.

    My mother would be astonished to find me acting as the mouthpiece of harmony, but let’s keep it friendly, eh? :)

  24. The odd thing about this argument for me is the irony that IZ is eefectively accused of dumbing down by its use of shorter reviews and yet the most recent issue I have seen (IZ250) features M John Harrison and Gwyneth Jones amongst others. You can not have dumbing down and Mike Harrison in the same context. And if you expect people to read such intelligent fiction why assume (on no evidence that I can see) that they want the opposite in reviews?

    Now I was a vociferous critic of some of the things Interzone did about 15 years ago, things that seemed to me to betray a basic arrogance on David Pringle’s part, that and the seemingly guaranteed presence of either Eric Brown (who I never really took to) or Greg Egan in every issue for a while. The new IZ doesn’t seem to have those faults, but I don’t like the look. Too cluttered, too fussy, and just jarring with my tastes but maybe that’s just me.

  25. I agree with Paul that this is turning into something of an IZ bashing, which gets us nowhere. Indeed, that’s where reviews come in handy — if you want to discuss IZ, write a review of it!

    Except, I have a legitimate complaint specific to IZ, and specific to the argument here, so I’m going to exempt myself. Bwah hah hah ha!

    What goads me is Nick Lowe’s column. Don’t get me wrong; I like his criticism, I like his writing, and I have nothing against him. However… I can get that content anywhere, including SFX. To me, if IZ is going to be a fiction magazine focusing on bringing short sf to the reader, wasting space on movie/TV reviews is kind of dumb. I read IZ because I’m interested in literary sf. I like short stories. And I like reviews of other fiction with my short stories. They go hand-in-hand. Movies and TV? I’ll look elsewhere.

    So in my book (and I speak only for myself), I’d much rather see Mutant Popcorn dumped, and replaced with either more fiction or more reviews.

    And finally, if what Farah says above is accurate, then I’d be a bit on the pissed-off side. But that’s an entirely different kind of issue.

    Oh, and Pigeonhed? IZ250 is in no means representative of what IZ has been publishing of late. If you ask me, IZ250 is much more closely aligned to what I’d hoped IZ was turning into – the substance of past IZ coupled with the modernization of the magazine.

  26. I think this is it in a nutshell. Is the audience for a story like Harrison’s ‘The Good Detective’ really the sort of audience that wants capsule reviews? Maybe it is.

  27. I’m going to repost the comment I just made at Jonathan’s place, because I think it’s pertinent here as well:

    Jonathan, I think you’re missing about 2/3 of the point.

    Jetse is saying that Interzone wants to bring SF to the masses. The people *beyond* the ghetto boundary.

    That is a laudable thing.

    We, the critical contingent, disagree with some of the methods.

    Jetse seems to be saying that the short reviews in IZ are going to appeal to the non-genre readers that might pick IZ up on the strength of its design, fiction, etc.

    We (you & me & the cabal) think the opposite tact would be more effective; longer, more insightful pieces are better equipped to explain SF to non-insiders.

    And therein is the argument.

    You, unfortunately, are seemingly talking from inside the ghetto walls, saying that IZ is *only* for the inside crowd. And much as I dig what you’re saying about crit, I can’t get behind that stance, because I’m aiming for outside of the ghetto.

  28. Gabe: Maybe I250 is atypical of recent issues but it was a landmark issue so surely represents how the editors wish it to be seen. I can only add that a magazine like IZ usually only gets one chance to grab the casual buyer, so every issue has to be representative of the whole regardless.

    History is important here though: IZ was founded and funded by SF fandom and whilst it has to move on, it can’t deny its roots to do so. This is why it perhaps faces different criticisms to F&SF say. It has a core audience which overlaps with SF fandom but needs more to be an economic success. There have been several attempts to acheive this, sometimes uncannily echoing a certain earlier British SF mag in approach and results. Wheels have been invented several times and fallen off as often but much of that core fannish-tinged audience remains it seems. The risk is that going for massive popular appeal will alienate that core whilst only acquiring at best a transient fashionable status. This is not the in-crowd seeking to protect their clique but a sensible recognition of the dilemma faced by the editors. It is an unenviable task but they will make it easier if they listen to their critics and avoid weak and irrelevant policy defences of the ‘350 word reviews are harder to write’ approach. (They may be harder to write but its whether they are worth reading that should matter.

  29. There are two seperate types of boundary here: literary/non-literary and SF/non-SF.

    I don’t see how what is fundamentally a literary magazine can cross over to a non-literary audience (the SFX reader, for example.) I do see how a literary SF magazine could cross over to a non-SF literary audience (such as, Christ, they are thin on the ground aren’t they? Um, Granta?) This would be a great achievement and one Andy Cox has made great steps towards with the philosophy because it underpinning The Third Alternative.

    Shortening reviews might appeal to the former new audience but I can’t see it appealing to the later. Quite the opposite. I can see why the former audience is more attractive: the non-literary SF fan is a decent sized market (it can at least support one mainstream magazine), the non-SF literary fan is not. Go into a newsagent and you will see plenty of magazines about music, films, sport, computer games, etc but none about books. It is a niche. I think that is just something we all have to live with.

    Oh yeah, and Nick Lowe is one of the principle reasons for buying Interzone.

  30. I apologize in advance for my violent reaction here. Please recognize I’m not trying to attack you in particular, Kev… but unfortunately your view seems to coincide with the views of a large portion of SF fandom, and therefore I’m afraid it’s coming out in response to you.

    This ‘sense of history’ and the idea that fandom is somehow ‘owed’ is such a nattering line of bullshit that it makes me break out in hives. My response to such claims are a hearty “Fuck you!”.

    The core fannish audience should be just that: an audience for SFF. Period. End. For any magazine to raise hackles because they attempt to do something different, something non-traditional, is the pisser attitude that keeps the ghetto so small and utterly intact. “How dare a magazine break with tradition in order to appeal to a new audience? Now we basement-dwellers are alienated!”


    Fandom needs to get over itself. IZ faces different criticisms than F&SF? OF COURSE! Because F&SF hasn’t changed one lick in decades! F&SF *can’t* piss anyone off, because they’re still exactly the same magazine they’ve always been. And that’s what doddering reject fans want, that same-old-same-old.

    Change is good. One huge dilemma the field faces is that the industry doesn’t have *enough* business experience. If I go flipping through 99 percent of the magazines, I see a bunch of tired out models that haven’t been updated since pulps were sold on grocery store racks… but hey, out here in the real world, we’ve moved on. Clinging to roots, clinging to the ways and wants of fandom, is sheer blind idiocy… because fandom is an itsy bitsy irrelevant niche that does nothing for speculative fiction as a whole, other than ensuring that its voice is heard enough to keep the field from moving in any direction AT ALL.

    And I just will not condone that kind of self-serving bullshit. It’s the wrong attitude. End of story.

  31. Last point.

    I didn’t “conflate” modern with short and sharp, I placed them adjacent to each other.

    Second last point.

    I still don’t buy the fact that because Interzone meant one thing 20 years ago it must always mean the same thing. I wouldn’t dream of putting it quite as bluntly as Gabe (well not until after a couple of pints at Eastercon) but there does seem to be an element in this of people not liking things being different from the way things used to be in some “good old days” — I remember some very weak stories and some very dull criticism amongst the good stuff. Of course the preservation of the thing they love is a fan’s perogative but it is also bordering on the depressingly conservative.

    Third last point.

    I think a major thing that separates us here is how we view the potential audience Interzone can reach. There are, if you’ll excuse the term, the pessimists who believe that a fiction magazine can’t hope to reach beyond a narrow audience and so shouldn’t try so leave things alone. And there are the more optimistic – who see short fiction in all sorts of places these days (women’s magazines, juice boxes, even SFX) and think that maybe it’s worth a gamble, even if it means challenging what people think Interzone should be.

    Fourth final point.
    350 words isn’t a “capsule” review – at least not where I come from. 50 words in the Daily Mirror or a Women’s Weekly is a capsule review. Vector has discrete reviews that start at around 600 words – are those bad? Would 550 words or 450 words be acceptable?

    Really my final point.

    I come back to the point I made above. If there are people out there who believe that they can do better than Interzone or Postscripts or whoever, start your own magazine and show them how its done. I promise, I’ll subscribe.

  32. “Fourth final point.
    350 words isn’t a “capsule” review – at least not where I come from. 50 words in the Daily Mirror or a Women’s Weekly is a capsule review. Vector has discrete reviews that start at around 600 words – are those bad? Would 550 words or 450 words be acceptable?”

    If I can swallow it without finishing a cup of coffee, it’s a capsule.


  33. Martin, I don’t think it’s about optimism and pessimism. I see no reason why an SF magazine couldn’t have a decent circulation, but I don’t think that short reviews are the way to get there. If you lack the attention span for a 600 word review, you’re not the kind of person who is going to take up reading SF short fiction magazines.

    Vector’s reviews are good. I think 6-700 words is a perfectly acceptable word limit for a dead-tree publication. There’s some room for individual expression, a bit of analysis and some context. That’s a good length and a good compromise between a capsule review and a longer critical piece.

  34. Gabe: I am not averse to change, if its the right changes. Change is not good, it is neutral. It can be bad or good. Good ideas can be badly implemented. etc. I don’t particularly like a few of the current wave of changes that Interzone has gone through but it may acheive its goal, time will tell.

    I don’t expect Interzone to be the same as it was twenty years ago when I first read it, (I’m not the same person for a start.) I certainly wouldn’t want it to be how it was a decade ago when I got bored with it. The question is, how should it change. David Pringle tried many different things: The Aboriginal swap issue, the Million crossover and Nexus merger. He brought in a designer who made changes similar to those that same designer had roundly condemned Vector for making a few years previously. He tried hard, sometimes misguidedly, to make Interzone work. I’m sure the TTA people are also trying very hard, but are they making change for change sake? Are they bringing anything new to the table? Are they repeating the mistakes and unsuccessful experiments of the past?

    As for the bullshit, it is relevant that Interzone was set up by fans with the proceeds of a convention, and that fans sustained its early years as subscribers and as contributors. If Interzone becomes a big success but leaves those people behind then that may be sad but it will also be a case of ‘Well Done Interzone!’ However, if Interzone leaves the fans behind but doesn’t acheive a sustainable customer base from beyond fandom, what then? That isn’t self-serving bullshit that is a valid question any magazine should ask itself. What if change goes wrong, will it be possible to go back and try plan B, C, D or will it kill the whole thing off?

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