Sunday, December 27, 2009

On Reviewing…Take 1,764 and Counting

So, after a Twitter exchange between me, Mark Charan Newton, Neil, Aidan, and Gav, Mark has written something up on what he as an author would like to see out of review blogs and ultimately names three that he thinks best meet what he’s looking for. As with all articles of that get introspective on review blogging, bloggers have come out in force to add their two cents (and their defense). Response posts are starting to pop up – it seems that all of us must have some clever response (if this were a movie, insert awkward pause where I turn and look at the camera).

In general, I’m in agreement with what Mark says – he makes good points and gives advice that review bloggers should take to heart. However, his author perspective does come through, which does miss the point on review blogs are. I think very few review bloggers are blogging for authors – they are generally blogging for themselves and fans like them. Mark’s points are still valid and helpful, but should be taken into context.

So, I’ve taken his seven points and given my response to them.

1) There are bloggers who use the right tools, and those who are tools. If you’re expecting page-turning romances, don’t read Gene Wolfe and complain that his books are not page-turning romances. They’re not designed to be, they never intend to be. Likewise, don’t approach an entertaining romp expecting philosophical ramblings if it isn’t meant to be one. I wouldn’t say ‘I don’t like beer on account that it’s not whiskey,’ would I? This is not a valid complaint to make – it’s stating the bloody obvious, wrapping it up as your main concern. Judge a book on what it is, and don’t project your hefty genre preferences upon it.
Hmm…it is a good point, but I think that Mark is missing the reason that many (well at least me anyway) bloggers get into this in the first place – we are fans. I can’t speak for all bloggers, just me – as a fan this makes the reviews I write a bit different from someone who is a ‘professional’ reviewer. I’m not objective, nor do attempt to be. First, I think objectivity is a myth – an undesirable myth at that. I’m opinionated – that’s why I do this. I want to present these opinions and all my biases right out in front. I don’t have the pedigree to even attempt critical objectivity, so I don’t try. Heck, I don’t want objectivity, I want a well thought out and presented opinion, with all its inherent strengths and weaknesses.

To get back to Mark’s point – if I as a reviewer I read what is an excellent philosophical and stylistic force of fantasy literature and I am bored to death by it, then I’m going to write a negative review that complains about how bored I was. Likewise if I read a crazy romp that’s nonstop action and seems like little more than a bad video game turned into a novel, then I’ll complain about that too. I’m going to write about my reaction to the book, not reproduce how the writer wanted me to react to the book.

I’m not surprised that Mark’s take is what it is – after all, he’s a writer and has certain reactions that he wants impart on an ideal reader. He has layer upon layer of meaning wrapped up into his text and he hopes the reader sees this. I’m not an ideal reader, I simply am what I am. Maybe I’ll get it, maybe I won’t. Heck, maybe I’ll see something incredibly clever that he never actually intended but is there none the less. But the reaction is mine, and I will report it as it is.

Also, I do know what I like so I do read a certain kind of books. But I also like to take the occasional chance and challenge myself. Sometimes I’m rewarded by this with a book that I enjoy immensely. Sometimes I’m bored to tears. But I’m not going to stop taking those chances simply because I may get a Gene Wolfe when I’m looking for a Scott Lynch (or vice versa).

So, I guess I’m a beer-lover who respects his whiskey, but just may think that Macallan 12-year scotch just isn’t any good. At the same time, I may think that Hefeweizen beer sucks balls.

2) Slow and steady. An offshoot of the previous paragraph: slow books aren’t bad books. Get over it. And fast books can be intellectual too. Don’t make the pace mistake.
Please, please add the caveat. Sure, slow books aren’t necessarily bad books. But they can be. Also, some people simply don’t like slow books – and their opinion on the matter isn’t any less valid just because someone thinks the opposite. Opinions vary. Yes, I understand the point that Mark is making, but it is incomplete and awfully unfair to the plethora of valid opinions out there.

3) Prose & style. I’ve mentioned this before, but it needs flagging again. When people read a novel, and say that the ‘writing improved’ or the ’second half was better written’, there’s a good chance they mean that they themselves had become used to the different style in which the book was written. The prose doesn’t necessarily change – the reader’s interaction probably does. And words are just there, on the paper, so if you think they’re bad, explain why.
I’m not surprised that the author is quick to blame the reader on this point. Yes, readers often don’t realize that they can learn to appreciate something they are unfamiliar with, but sometimes books simply begin badly. As always, there’s a spectrum and the ‘truth’ rarely falls at one extreme or the other, but somewhere in the middle.

On the last bit, I agree – opinions should be backed up. This doesn’t necessarily mean a 2000-word review full of quotes and detailed analysis. But even a short explanation is much better than none.

4) The synopsis should remain on the back of the book. Please, don’t just describe the back of the book – that’s cleverly constructed marketing blurb, which has a secondary aim of making reviewers say what publishers want, and pushing all the right buttons. By all means give the blurb, but don’t make it the whole of your review. It’s lazy, and you’re then merely giving a reach-around to publishers. I certainly won’t link to it. Have your own opinion, write about what you got from the book.
I have no issues on this one – Mark is dead on.

5) Reviewers who are also writers (of the unpublished variety). It’s hard to tell, with some bloggers, just who is a struggling writer and who isn’t. It isn’t bad at all if you are, so you might as well be open about it. One of the things I got used to very quickly as an editor was not to approach a book with my own writing style in mind. So don’t read a book and criticize it by thinking, ‘If I wrote this, I would have done x, y, z differently’; or ‘The style isn’t like my own, so I don’t like the book.’ You’re not doing anyone any favors, least of all the writer, and it’s a tough realization to make. You write, you think you could do better, of course. But be careful if this mindset takes over.
I can’t really comment on this one – I have no aspirations to be a writer.

6) You can’t love every novel. Loving everything diminishes the power of what you say. There is no way of possibly knowing what is good or bad if you recommend everything. Do not feel pressured to do so by publishers – remember, by reviewing, you’re doing them a favor. And if as a writer I come across your review of my book, I’m not likely to think a lot of it if you’ve loved every single book out there. We’re egoists! We want to feel special.
This is potentially in conflict with suggestion No. 1. But, I agree – negative opinions are important and valid and should be shared as loudly as positive (but don’t be an ass about it). Of course, as I mentioned in my response to No. 1, many bloggers are fans and they tend to read and review books that they are pretty certain they are going to like (not many people set out to read a book they think they won’t like). This will generally skew a blogger’s reviews toward the positive, and there is nothing wrong with that.

7) Edit thyself. One thing that reviews don’t always receive on blogs is a thorough unbiased edit. So, once you type, put it down, revisit, rework, and spell-check. You’ll get a lot more respect if your review isn’t riddled with obvious errors.
Absolutely! The few times I have had an independent edit of a review I’ve written (
such as this one) it is eye-opening and ultimately makes the review stronger. My general rule is to write out a complete draft and let it sit at least a day before coming back to it with a clean mind. Admittedly, I break this rule almost as often as I follow it – but better editing and such can only make reviews better.

Of course, blogger generally are amateurs who are doing this a hobby rather than a vocation. Time is limited – if you work, have a family and a social life, fitting in reading alone can be a challenge, not to mention the time to write the reviews. So, if an ‘and’ remains an ‘an’, I’m willing to cut some slack, however annoying it can be.

14 comments:

Harry Markov said...

I plan on making a commentary on that one as well. He has some good points and I want to emphasize on them. There are so many ways on how to blog and what makes good blogging and I think James has a post on the same topic.

King Rat said...

Yeah, what you said about 1 through 3. Only I wouldn't have been so nice about it.

Carl V. said...

Nicely done! I hadn't read Marks article, but it was nice to see you include the main points with part of his explanation before you shared your opinions.

I cannot say that I disagree with either of you. I do think there is more of a middle ground between what he said about reading a book for what it is and your response. Maybe not a middle ground so much as looking at it a bit differently. I have found many reviews where the reader did not in any way take into account what the author was trying to do when they review the book. The reader may not feel the author succeeded in what they tried, and that makes for an interesting review. I don't expect every book I read to be a life-changing experience, but if I compare each book I read to those that have had a profound impact on me then I feel I am doing the book I am reading a disservice.

I was very glad to see you mention the idea that some bloggers have a good handle on the kind of stuff they like and that skews their reviews positive. I certainly am that way. Out of 57 books read this year I only marked 4 or 5 at a rating where it is obvious that I'm not really recommending them. There were only two books that I was really hard on in my reviews.

As you posit, I am certainly a blogger doing it as much for myself as anything else. My secondary purpose is to encourage others to try books that I myself enjoyed. If I pick up a book and am not getting into it then I usually don't continue reading it. I am not a professional critic and have no desire to slog through something just to do so and review it when I could be reading something I know will be pleasurable to me. I also have a pretty good intuition about what I'm going to enjoy reading so it doesn't surprise me that the majority of books I pick up to read at the very least merit a 4 out of 5 stars to me.

It is good to hear from an authors on this issue as well and I do think valid points were made. I'll have to go over there and read his post and the comments. It won't surprise me if bloggers got their panties in a wad over there. I hope not, but that is certainly what I am expecting out of some of the comments.

Carl V. said...

Okay, so I had to come back over and say that I am pleased to see my fellow bloggers, to this point, have not gotten pissy but actually shared some good points. Those who disagreed did so very constructively. I'm proud. Are we maturing?!!? ;)

Neth said...

Thanks guys

@Carl

I think that things like this are always on a spectrum with reality falling in the middle rather than at an extreme. And it's a different place that works for each blogger. Absolutes are scary - even for something as harmless as review blogs.

I hope I'm not maturing too much :P

Neth said...

@King Rat

Well, the original Twitter conversation was partially about getting a different perspective on blogging, specifically what authors (or at least one author) thinks of blogs and what he would like to see from them. Clearly a biased position, but Mark still makes interesting points that blogger would do well to consider (of course they should be taken in context as I point out).

Carl V. said...

I know I'm not maturing too much! ;)

Yagiz (Between Two Books) said...

Good points made! It's interesting to read people's opinions about this subject.

And about objectivity's being a myth, I totally agree. As Goethe said: "I can promise to be candid, though I may not be impartial". After all, a review, at least in our case, is the reflection of our opinion.

K.C. Shaw said...

Excellent points! I'm glad you said them so eloquently, because now I don't have to try to do it myself.

There's no such thing as an objective review. I think it's ridiculous for anyone to pretend they can be objective. Being fair, honest, and thoughtful is a much better goal.

atsiko said...

Mark makes some good points. And some incomplete ones. And some that just seem self-serving.

The point about not mixing your drinks up is fairly common coming from writers. But it's also fairly common coming as an excuse.

Yes, books may have different goals. But not all goals are equal. You may succeed at your goal with the book, and that can be the very thing that makes it bad. The same with style or pacing.

Yoyu shouldn't judge every book by the same criteria. Mark has that right. But you can't judge every book by different criteria, either. Or the judgements mean nothing,

Anonymous said...

Neth--I think you're misunderstanding Mark's first point. Because you're saying you do recognize beer as beer and whiskey as whiskey. And that's Mark's point.

JeffV

King Rat said...

So... how the hell am I, as someone not reading The author's mind, supposed to know what the author was "trying to do" except by what they wrote? If I didn't review taking this intent into account then either I am not smart enough or the author didn't write well enough. Sorry, but authorial intent is a concept that should be mostly disregarded.

Neth said...

@JeffV

I'm sorry if my use of Mark's analogy wasn't clear - but I do understand his point.

To stick with the analogy - I'm a 'beer snob', but I don't like all beer - some beer is simply bad beer. Continuing with it, I also enjoy Scotch quite a bit (and other whiskeys as well). But there are some Scotch's that just aren't all that good. It's more like saying - I don't like Stone beers because they overhop their beers and loose the subtle complexity of a mixing of flavors that I like best about beer*.

*In reality this is only partially true, but I chose Stone beer as an example since you enjoy it so much :)

Jo said...

This was an interesting thing to read, and definitely gave me some things to think about. As a new blogger, this was good to read.

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