Who said …?

Intriguing post by Roger Sutton arguing that a publication shouldn’t run two reviews of the same book:

I was most intrigued to find out from George Woods’s piece that he once ran dueling reviews on the same page of the New York Times Book Review. […] Woods explained this gambit in his essay “Reviewing Books for Children”:

There is no objective yardstick that one can place against a book and say, “The good stick says this does not measure up.” Good or bad, success or failure is measured largely in the reviewer’s responses and mind. I think of John Donovan’s Wild in the World, which was reviewed intentionally in The Times by two eminent critics in two separate reviews running on the same page on the same Sunday. One said it was the worst book ever written for young people; the other said it was the finest book ever written for young people. Who was right? Who was wrong?

While granting Woods’s point about informed subjectivity, I would in fact turn the question over to him: was it right or wrong for the Times to refuse to take an editorial stance on a book? It’s true that the Times’s daily book critics are often at odds with the Sunday reviews, but that’s a long-standing distinction, and no one thinks of Maslin’s or Kakutani’s weekday reviews as being “what the Times thinks” the way the Sunday reviews stand alone, apart from their reviewers. If anything, Woods’s experiment demonstrates the need for dueling publications, and an audience that knows it can’t find everything in one place.

We regularly battle within the office about which books are going to get reviewed and how. But one side always wins, if with a victory tempered and informed by the debate. We work out the stars, and the annual Fanfare list the same way. Certainly, a book that doesn’t do a thing for me can still get starred, because its proponents had the better argument than my “if I have to read one more intricately chess-game-like fantasy novel I’m going to scream” point of view. I’m less concerned with readers knowing what I think than I am with them having a grip on “what the Horn Book thinks.” I definitely don’t want them to feel like we couldn’t make up our mind.

I am inclined to be more sympathetic to Woods than Sutton, largely because I can’t imagine seriously referring to a given publication’s opinion of a book, rather than a reviewer’s opinion. I might colloquially say “Locus liked it”, but what I would mean, if I were to stop and be more careful about my phrasing, is probably “Gary Wolfe liked it”. In fact, Locus fairly often does run more than one review of a book — not in direct opposition, as Woods apparently did in the NYTBR, but just in the nature of things, in Rich Horton and Nick Gevers’ short fiction reviews, and across the various book columns. Maybe there’s an element of ego in wanting publications to acknowledge their reviewers as individuals, but I do also think it makes the magazine more interesting and useful, not less.

There’s probably something about The Horn Book‘s editorial process that I’m not quite getting, but taken at face value I feel uncomfortable about Sutton’s remark that they battle internally about not just which books are going to get reviewed, but how they are going to get reviewed. Perhaps it’s just that it makes the Horn‘s reviews sound awfully tame: what I want to read are those passionate backstage arguments, not a moderated consensus view.

11 thoughts on “Who said …?

  1. As far as I can tell, Horn is a bit like Publisher’s Weekly for children’s books. In which case, I can understand not wanting to run two reviews of something, but am baffled by the comparison with NYTBR, which surely has entirely different goals for its reviews.

  2. I wish Locus would run multiple reviews more often. Their official policy is one review per book. When Gibson’s Neuromancer came out, each of the Locus reviewers tackled it. Each had different points to make, but each found the book remarkable. Neuromancer was published in an addition 5000 copies with a hideous cover and no budget for publicity. Without Locus’ multiple reviews the book would have sunk like stone.

    I wish Locus would run more reviews period. As it is now: Gary Wolfe reviews the more cerebral books that I might like, but suspect I won’t. Faren Miller reviews an interesting mix of books; Carolyn Cushman reviews the series fantasy that I don’t want to read; Russell Letson reviews the space opera that I don’t want to read; Graham Sleight reviews the books I’ve already read; Nick Gevers reviews a couple of interesting books; and Divers Hands is a crap shoot.

    Locus reviews about 20 new books each month (not counting Graham’s column). That’s 240 books a year in a field that produces 2500 books. Not enough reviews by a long shot. And I still have trouble figuring out which are the important books that I need to read, the new Neuromancers with their crappy covers and print runs.

  3. Hmm I don’t agree with your sentiment about attributing the review to the publication – other than the featured editors and columnists I rarely even remember who reviewed the book in venues like the Times or the Washington Post because they rotate so much and most reviewers don’t review for them regularly so you don’t get a feel for how X reviews a book, but more how the newspaper operates as whole.

  4. I can’t claim to be any kind of official voice on Locus policy – maybe Jonathan will be along for that at some point – but a couple of responses to Miggy. First, I’ve never been discouraged from reviewing a contemporary book just because someone else was going to do so elsewhere in Locus. Certainly, I’ve never seen it articulated as official policy, or any other kind of policy, that each book gets at most one Locus review. That said, there are constraints on what Locus (or any other print publication) reviews: space, cost, readers’ attention spans, etc. So the magazine has a set of reviewers with non-identical interests, and aims to cover the waterfront that way. Unless (eg) you want to suggest that Locus carries twice as many reviews at half the length, or has a big price hike to accommodate more review coverage, I don’t think there are any other solutions to this except incremental ones, which’ll never address your 2500-books-a-year problem. What I guess the magazine would claim is that it attempts to review all the important books in a year (for some broad-church, but necessarily editorially subjective value of “important”) and that it also provides other tools for pulling out the good stuff, most obviously the Recommended Reading list.

  5. Miggy: Surely Neuromancer was always going to be noticed because of who it was by and where it was published? Gibson had already started to make a name with his short fiction by then, but more importantly, his debut novel was published as part of the Terry Carr Ace Specials series following acclaimed first novels from Kim Stanley Robinson and Lucius Shepard (and I seem to remember reading, bumped up the schedule because of missed deadlines/re-write issues involving at least one of Howard Waldrop and Carter Scholz/Glen Harcourt’s volumes.) and just ahead of Michael Swanwick. That’s a significant line-up and strong enough that many would have a look at one book on the strength of one or two others in the list, I know I did.
    So Locus giving Gibson multiple reviews certainly didn’t harm its profile, its unfair to suggest it would have disappeared without those reviews.

  6. In the January through May issues ofLocus this year, I count two reviews each for Carnival, Brasyl, Sixty Days and Counting, Portable Childhoods, The New Moon’s Arms, Ysabel, and Logorrhea.

  7. Chance: and of course, the blurb industry goes almost entirely by publication, which doesn’t help. It’s probably true that for most venues I know some of the reviewers, and then the rest are a generic mass in my head; but I have almost no sense of what books “The Guardian” (or “The Times” or “The Washington Post”) would like, so I do try to remember individual names when I read a good review.

    Note to self: next time I make a post about reviewing, do not mention Locus.

  8. Actually the Ace Specials were an afterthought as far as their publisher was concerned. They had short print runs, no promotion, and some of the worst artwork imaginable. What they did have was terrific writers and a crackerjack editor in Terry Carr. Terry Carr was also good friends with Charles Brown and Locus went all out in their coverage of the books. No favoritism. Not nepotism. The books were really that good and deserved that much attention. But William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Lucius Shepard, Michael Swanwick were all first time authors with a handful of stories back then. All would have been successful eventually, but their first books were all setup to vanish without a trace if it wasn’t for the attention they received in Locus. Other people may have jumped on the bandwagon, but Locus got it moving. And frankly, I’d like to see Locus do that more often.

  9. Agree with Tony’s comment above. Vector’s also run more than one review of the same book in the same issue (I think the last one was possibly for Vellum). But you have to be creaful. If it’s not usual policy, it tends to give the impression the work is somehow out of the ordinary (either important, challenging, difficult to pin down, or just plain maddening.)
    They don’t have to be opposing views – f’rinstance Locus rarely trash a book; if it’s a clunker you get the impression the reviewers don’t waste time and ink in the first place – but you sometimes get interestingly different perspectives on the same work from different reviewers.

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