Yet More Readercon Reviewing Follow-up

Ernest Lilley clarifies his position on positive and negative reviews:

The only thing that we really try not to do is to run reviews where the reviewer rants from one end to the other and whose main objective seems to be to get even with an author for making them read a book they didn’t enjoy. My frequent comment to reviewers is that if it doesn’t grab you, put it down and we’ll get you another. On the other hand, if a book has flaws as well as strengths (and what doesn’t?) folks are welcome to point them out. Of course, what one person sees as a flaw may be another person’s strengths. Handled well, for instance, I like a bit of exposition in my fiction, and if a story doesn’t include new ideas I’m less likely to think well of it. I like plot too. For other reviewers though, the prose is the thing, and infodumps just get in way. I don’t think either is right or wrong, and part of the editorial job (handled ably and more often by Gayle Surrette than me) is to match book and reviewer.

See also John Berlyne’s comments, here and at SF Revu.

9 thoughts on “Yet More Readercon Reviewing Follow-up

  1. “Personally, I think that blogs are a great forum for literary criticism, but less so for reviews, because the nature of a blog is that it’s more about the blogger than the object of the post.”

    Is it the nature of a blog that it is more about the blogger than the object of the post? I’m not at all convinced. Even it that was the true though, does Lilley really mean that literary criticism should be about the blogger not the work under discussion? Not for the first time I’m confused by what is meant by “criticism” and what is meant by “review”.

  2. The only thing that we really try not to do is to run reviews where the reviewer rants from one end to the other and whose main objective seems to be to get even with an author for making them read a book they didn’t enjoy.

    In other words you don’t want poorly written, unfairly biased reviews that provide no insight for the reader. That’s fine and an aim of all good editors I imagine, but what does that have to do with negative reviews? Why is there this bogus divide where it’s either: positive reviews (that maaaybe point out a flaw or two) and crazy hand-waving bash pieces?

    I don’t even understand his take on literary criticism — it’s more about the writer than the book, eh? And shouldn’t an able reviewer be able to separate his preferences from what makes a book work in most cases? If one prefers exposition over style and doesn’t get it, that’s hardly a “flaw” in the book and a good reviewer wouldn’t deem it as such. That’s his idea of “negative criticism”? Ha ha ha….ha.

    I’ve never really bought that “no negative reviews” thing anyway. How is a reader supposed to get an idea of the literary sensibilities of any publication if you don’t have both? I read Boldtype which makes a point of only giving positive reviews but I’m fairly familiar with the writing of the contributors, which is what makes it worthwhile. (And the “reviews” are so short anyway…)

  3. Martin:

    Is it the nature of a blog that it is more about the blogger than the object of the post? I’m not at all convinced.

    No, me either. In fact, if this blog is more about me than about the things I’m posting about, I’d think myself a failure.

    Imani: well, exactly.

  4. Different people have different goals when they set out to blog. Here at NASFIC, I was on a blogging panel on which one panelist quite innocently said something along the lines of “why blog if not to promote our books?” That’s not why I blog. But there are a variety of motivations out there.

    Some people blog to promote themselves; some to promote their books; some out of a compulsive exhibitionism; some, because short ideas are easier for them to express; etc.

    One editorial decision I made is that sticking to theme (like reading slush) is something I get paid for, and if I’m blogging for free, the blog will be about whatever the heck I want it to be about that day. (Does that make it more about me or less? I don’t know.)
    Regarding SFRevu, Ernest’s stated policy seems to me quite reasonable and clear. There’s no reason to go after him with fingernail clippers, tweezers and a magnifying glass.

  5. My frequent comment to reviewers is that if it doesn’t grab you, put it down and we’ll get you another

    I’ve only been in the position once of reviewing a pile of poetry books for publication. My main challenge was seeing the merits and failings in each individual collection and explore what I was and wasn’t enjoying it and what might be the source of those issues. And all this to a 300-odd word count. It’s hard when you’re not into what you are reading. But a good lesson in criticism.

    Reviewers have several challenges. We all have personal biases – things we like or don’t like. I’m not keen on War stories but I read two in the last month -Resistance by Owen Sheers and Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley. Both totally different but both worth reading. And I’m glad I got through my bias for those, but I’ll not automatically be grabbing the next WWII novel I see.

    We also have to think a bit more about what we are reading than the average reader as we have to think of something intelligent to say afterwards which conveys both the content of the book and how well it comes across as well as working either with or against our own biases.

    We also have to be trusted by our readers. If they think we are just plugging book x, then book y, etc then we’ve lost our purpose.

    If you don’t get paid and are reviewing on your own back then it’s up to you if you persevere with books that you are not enjoying. If you don’t read an entire book it feels unfair to post a negative opinion based on half the picture.

    Maybe blog reviewers should say – I started x book it wasn’t working but then as a reader of that blog I’d still like to know why and as the reviewer I’d end up reading it all the way through to find out and wasting time I could be spending on books that I’m more likely to enjoy. I do have a list of books on the side of blog of unfinished reads, which I added recently, and readers can make up their own minds.

    I’ve only recently started including review copies on my blog and whilst I’ve been lucky so far that I’ve only had one unfinished. I think publishers, and blog readers are aware that not everyone can like everything and that reviewers are more likely to champion the books they enjoy and put aside those that they didn’t – that is the publishers gamble with any book they send to a reviewer – be it a National Newspaper or a niche magazine.

    I’m not just a reviewer but a reader and I only read what I’m interesting in either new or older books. On my blog I’m also carrying on reading and mentioning the books that are on my shelves or I’ve recently bought as they just happen to be ones that take me interest at the time.

    As a blogger I’m just adding to the conversation by mentioning what I’m reading and my hope would be that other people end up reading and enjoying the same books I have as well as giving me some pointers about what else I should be reading.

  6. I suspect that many here would agree that there are a lot of books that fail for a given reviewer for reasons that are interesting to write about, and that, if handled well, a review steeped in those reasons can do a better job of informing many readers about the book (and letting them make an informed decision about whether they’ll like it) than a pure plot summary-oriented review would.

    That said, I do think the SFRevu folks are being victimized by a trend where policies of a specific publication are treated as though they’re meant as prescriptions for all, when no statement to that effect has been made. Ernest Lilley says that SFRevu doesn’t publish negative reviews, and blog posts spring up that seem to be “debating” the question of whether all reviews everywhere should be positive. It’s not much of a debate when everyone agrees not, though. Indeed, SFRevu’s policy works much better as a badge of identity and as competitive differentiation if other venues do publish negative reviews, and longer reviews, etc. I may not personally hold with their policy, but unless someone is prepared to argue that it is bad (for the genre, for literature, for readers) for any venue to have their policy, I don’t see why its existence needs be construed as a challenge to all.

    In terms of reviews and criticism, it does seem to me that we’re really talking about three points on a continuum, not two. There are what might best be called a “book report,” a plot summary plus brief opinion; there is a “review,” which engages more with what the text attempts to do, and tries to present the potential reader with a path towards appreciating the text (or a reason why appreciating it is difficult); and there is criticism, that digs deeper into a single aspect of a text that the reader is assumed to be familiar with. So much discussion and debate occurs because the first two of these, probably irrevocably, have been joined — online and in print — under the term “review.”

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