Well, that makes life easier

Well, I was mulling the idea of posting a response to all the posts about reviews that popped up in the last day or so, but then Cheryl Morgan wrote a post I almost entirely agree with, so now I don’t need to bother. Hooray! Pretty much all that’s left is for someone to talk about what they like to see in reviews, as opposed to what they don’t like, but as Cheryl points out that varies from person to person and audience to audience, and my preferences are somewhat on the record already, anyway.

So instead I will talk briefly about reading, specifically to say that the first installment of the Baroque Cycle Reading Group will be somewhat delayed. I’ve been racing to meet a couple of review deadlines at the end of the month and, having met them (bar reading the reviews through in a few days, polishing them up and sending them off), I now need to knuckle down and start my Clarke Award shortlist re-read. I plan to keep reading Quicksilver in parallel, but it may be a couple of weeks before I have a post to show for it, now.

Out of interest, if I couldn’t face writing eight posts about the Baroque Cycle myself, would anyone be interested in writing a guest post about one or more of the books? (Remember I’m treating this as a series of eight books collected into three volumes. It’s just too daunting, otherwise.)

19 thoughts on “Well, that makes life easier

  1. Man, where is the love for the snark? I love snark. I think I do snark (sometimes). Some readers love snark, authors almost never which is probably why I rarely take the “no snark!” recommendations seriously.

  2. Yeah, I don’t think there is anything unreasonable about Vandermeer’s advice but when an author’s advice to reviewers is “don’t be mean to authors” you have to take it with a pinch of salt.

  3. As a set of general guidelines that reviewers should take into consideration, I found Vandermeer’s suggestions less objectionable than I was expecting. The problem is, he gives the impressions that he means them to be hard-and-fast rules (though he says in comments to Morgan that he doesn’t), and any review that fails by his criteria is ipso facto a bad review. This is problematic, not least because, as Morgan points out, there’s no consensus about where one draws the line in the sand.

    So, I can see some merit in the general point about pushing agendas that have nothing to with the book. I myself gave up reading London Review of Books because too many of the reviews seemed to me to be the author writing about the same subject matter as the book reviewed, rather than about the book itself. But it’s apparent that the point at which Vandermeer thinks agendas become excessive is considerably more restricted than my view. Really, unless Vandermeer edits every review published anywhere, he’s going to have to live with that. And to suggest, as Vandermeer has, that Niall should give up being Strange Horizons reviews editor just because he holds a different view of what’s permissible in this respect, seems absurd to me.

    Related to this is the point about territorializing. Here I’m less in sympathy. This seems to be along the same lines as Larry’s comments in OF Blog of the Fallen that reviews should have the absolute bare minimum of references to other works. But I can’t see how one can fully engage with a work without engaging with the context in which it is written. One cannot treat books as if they are written in a vacuum. And where the work is itself territorializing, as with Vandermeer’s New Weird anthology, then it demands that the reviewer tackle it on the basis on which it is operating.

    Vandermeer is of course right that one cannot hold an author to the opinions they put in the mouth of a fictional character. But I think he confuses this with the notion of reading messages in the work. One can’t, for instance, infer that any author personally is a misogynist from their works, but one can point to potentially misogynist elements in that work. And suggesting that a reviewer should ignore remarks made by an author in interviews is just a bit silly.

    I also agree with him about avoiding ad hominem attacks and making snarky asides. Personally, I feel that too much of what passes for criticism, especially online, descends rapidly to playground name-calling. But if one actually believes that reviews shouldn’t be sarcastic, then one should also believe that sarcasm has no place in responses to reviews. And I can point to plenty of individuals, Vandermeer included, who have not adhered to that.

    Vandermeer concludes by saying that “most of [his set of guidelines] has to do with being fair, honest, and forthright.” I agree that fairness, honesty and forthrightness should be fundamental to any piece of criticism. Sadly, the default assumption all too often amongst those who respond to reviews seems to be that they are not.

  4. Hmmm. I think we have different definitions of snark. (Name-calling? Nu uh.) For example of what I consider to be snark see: http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com

    And to suggest, as Vandermeer has, that Niall should give up being Strange Horizons reviews editor just because he holds a different view of what’s permissible in this respect, seems absurd to me.

    He did what? *goes back to read post*

  5. That’s really out of order.

    Firstly, Tony’s review is well written, interesting and fine. It engages with a lot of the issues around the book, but I think that’s perfectly acceptable in a piece of criticism and if viewed as part of a wider body of critical reaction to a book, I think it’s a substantial piece.

    Secondly, singling Niall out for abuse like that is really unfair seeing as Niall’s one of the few SF review editors who actually edits and helps improve the works submitted to him AND does so in such a way that you can disagree with his proposed changes. Given some of the horror stories of editors making substantial changes to reviews without input from writers, I think Niall is undeniably one of the good guys.

    I also have an issue with authors engaging with reviewers in this matter as there’s a real power imbalance. Reviewers and critics provide a real service to SF fandom and frequently do so for no reward whatsoever. When an author goes toe to toe with a reviewer, the reviewer simply can’t win. If I believed in hell I’d think there was a special place there for authors who try to bully their negative reviewers. Remember The Alien Online?

    Jeff’s piece is phrased in terms of “here’s what I like to see in a review” and as such, I don’t think he’s trying to throw his weight around and give reviewers some kind of ultimatum. However, I think he’s coming damn close to it and the whole thing makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, especially as I have a problem with some of the rules broadly along the lines Tony suggests.

  6. Speaking as a reviewer and contributor to SH, I really want to second Jonathan M’s comments there about reviews in general and the excellence of Niall as an editor in particular. ‘Second’ doesn’t seem strong enough. I double-second them. I fourth them.

    Out of interest, if I couldn’t face writing eight posts about the Baroque Cycle myself, would anyone be interested in writing a guest post about one or more of the books? (Remember I’m treating this as a series of eight books collected into three volumes. It’s just too daunting, otherwise.)

    Well once-upon-a-time I reviewed two of the books at some length: reviews that probably broke all Jeff V.’s rules about reviewing, apart from the ‘absolutely loving everything one reviews’ one. So I’d better recuse myself from this.

  7. Thank you for the link, Tony.

    Hmmmmm. Funny how a critique can make sense on its own but when viewed in light of its inspiration looks less sensible. Which is probably why, rabid reader of lit mags that I am, can count on one hand how many authors I consider to be consistently worthwhile reviewers. (A finger actually, though I’m probably forgetting someone.)

    1. I thought Keen’s genre and history angles were legitimate. I can’t say that the prose flowed very well for me but if a book is a) genre work and b) an alternate history on what grounds can one reasonably demand it not be analysed in those contexts? Because the book is a unique flower sprung untainted from a singular imagination and every subject not directly broached is therefore “ancillary”? Please. It would only be unhelpful if the book’s alternate take was so distant from actual historical events that it would make such analysis superfluous.

    As a science fiction newbie I also found the genre discussion informative because I don’t consider alternate history to be fantasy so it was intriguing to see that there are SF readers/writers who have similar protests. I’m no expert in Roman history either so those bits also proved useful even though I have no interest in reading the book. This is, perhaps, why I enjoy lit mag reviews (which have far, far, far better examples of reviewers indulging in “ancillary” matters).

    2. All the protests about “omg he compared it to Tom Clancy” are based on the protesters own (apparently lowly) estimation of the man’s fiction. Even I flared my nostrils at the mere sight of his name. Didn’t see any dissing in the review. Not sure what “tone” some feller was referring to when Keen made such remarks. In fact, if I liked thrills and chills, books heavy on plot with lots of surprises Keen made the book sound excellent. I may be betraying my baser genre tastes. (I read Nora Roberts and am anxiously awaiting Emma Holly’s latest.)

    3. I agree with Zoe that there’s nothing in the review that strongly supports Tony’s idea that the author did not intend her work to be considered SF. Publisher, maybe.

    The piece had a few weak spots (how many don’t?) but nothing that warrants a drastic re-evaluation of an entire life’s work. WTF? I’m off to see how Niall botched the review of Robert C. Wilson’s “Spin” because I read it and I loved it. Hooray for free e-books.

  8. Tony,

    Interesting comments, most of which I do agree with there. But I do want to clarify my intent in that comment that was paraphrased above. When I said that references to other works ought to be avoided if possible, that was in context to a critique I did of a review in which other authors’ names were bandied about without being “grounded” in the review or with any real substantive discussion of points of comparison or of contrast. I was talking about reviews that go “well, it reminded me of Author X, Y, and Z” without those XYZ authors ever being mentioned again or why the reviewer chose to mention them in the first case. I believe such comments only detract from the book at hand.

    But if a review were to talk about how (to use two authors I’ve been reading recently) Julio Cortázar and Milorad Pavić use non-linear storytelling methods in order to explore new narrative motifs, then that would be a valid use of a comparative technique in a review. So I’m not being absolute in what I said there; I was thinking about a very particular type of review that barely reviews anything beyond the surface levels but expects to come off as sounding in-depth and comprehensive just because other authors were referenced in passing. One may quibble about how much background ought to be provided, but I’m not going to criticize any for supplying what ended up being necessary in fleshing out the story under consideration.

  9. I have the strangest feeling of deja vu …

    [clambers off of milkfloat and into building]


    This just in – a blogger’s review of the recently reviewed reviews of reviewing reviews, with respects to reviewing.

  10. I was thinking about the “filler” aspect of reviews that folks have been talking about: especially Larry and Jeff. These are the bits that they complain about taking focus away from the book under discussion. I was facing a review of a short story that is good but nothing special, as so many of them are. In figuring out how to approach the review, I thought of some aspects of the genre I could talk about using this story as a jumping off point. That way I’d have something to say other than “this is a perfectly good story but nothing special.”

    Given how many works fall into that category, and how hard it is to write about them, I’m betting that “filler” is mostly attempts to stoke interest (both for writer and for audience) in what would otherwise be an uninteresting essay if it focused solely on the work under review.

    How do you guys approach those kinds of reviews? It’s much easier to laud a truly brilliant book, or excoriate a truly awful one, than it is to find something interesting to say about a bland but good piece.

  11. I think referring to that sort of material as “filler” is the wrong way to think of it; in some ways you could argue, if you wanted, that thoughts inspired by a piece of fiction are as valid a form of commentary on the fiction as thoughts about the fiction directly. Obviously everyone is going to have a different point at which they think that sort of thing becomes excessive — see Abigail’s comments about John Clute’s review of The Dragons of Babel this week; I thought that review was fine but that his review of the Morrow’s SFWA European Hall of Fame was pushing it a bit. (Although that said, I can imagine a Clute review of a bad book that sums up and dismisses its subject in a paragraph and then follows a train of thought inspired by the book for another 1500 words. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve read it and enjoyed it at some point …)

    I would say this, though: if a piece of work is bland, is it really good?

    On a separate note — good on you for reviewing short stories. I hope to get back into doing that more seriously later this year.

  12. Thanks! I think it’s going to be quite educational for me. I realized that while I’m reading a whole ton of new short fiction, I wasn’t thinking about them properly if I wasn’t reviewing them. I’ve basically gotten to the point where I embody: “How will I know what I think until I’ve read what I wrote?”

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