Reviewing the Reviews

There's been a slew of blog posts just recently discussing what makes a good or bad book review, and obliquely touching on the phenomenon of online book reviewing and the question of professionalism, its meaning and existence, in that field. Niall has a roundup at Torque Control, but the most interesting entries to my mind are these two by Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen, which attempt to dissect reviews he considers poorly written to determine just at which points they fail, and this post by Jeff VanderMeer, in which he spells out some guidelines for writing a good review (or rather, for not writing a bad one). In both cases, I can't help but feel that the writers' personal preferences are being restated as objective truths. Larry thinks reviewers shouldn't reference other works when discussing a novel. I often appreciate a review which places a book in its context or provides me with a frame of reference for it. And, as Cheryl Morgan says, most of the prohibitions Jeff lays down can be broken to great effect. It's not just, as Jeff says in response to Cheryl, that every rule has its exception, but that most of his rules are guidelines which can be just as useful when broken as when adhered to, and are best considered on a case-by-case basis.

In fact, what seems to be missing from this discussion of how reviews ought to work is any example of, well, reviews that work. Larry pointed out reviews he didn't care for, and at least some of Jeff's strictures seem to be directed at specific reviewers, but neither one of them gave any example of what they consider a good review, or any explanation of why they liked it. With that in mind, I trawled through Strange Horizons's archives and came up with a list of reviews that excited me either as a reader, encouraging me to pick up one book or delivering a well-deserved slapdown to another, or as a reviewer, showing me ways in which my own writing could and should develop. (For the purposes of this discussion, I've concentrated exclusively on book reviews, though some of my favorite reviewers do their best work writing about television or movies.)
  • 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill, reviewed by Graham Sleight - I'm fond of this review because it's an excellent example of how to review a short story collection. I've written reviews of collections several times, for Strange Horizons and here, and I've always found it difficult to balance discussions of individual stories with an overarching view of the collection. The former are obviously the meat of the review, but there's a danger, when concentrating excessively on the pieces, of creating a bitty, list-like piece that ignores the whole. On the other hand, most single-author collections are accumulations of pieces published over a long period of time and don't necessarily have a unifying theme. Graham's review achieves that balance, giving serious consideration to selected stories and, through that consideration, discovering a theme that ties the collection together. Another good example of this kind of review is Dan Hartland's review of Farah Mendlesohn's anthology Glorifying Terrorism. Reviewing anthologies is even trickier than reviewing single-author collections, as the different stories usually don't have much more than a vaguely-worded theme in common, and this review would have been even more problematic given the collection's political aim, but Dan manages to give both the political and artistic merits of the collection equal weight, and to create a thoughtful, interesting review.

  • James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips, reviewed by Farah Mendlesohn - this review was part of Tiptree week on Strange Horizons, in which Phillips's lauded biography was reviewed alongside Tiptree's collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever and two Tiptree award anthologies. As such, it was published long after everyone and his brother had had their chance to (justifiably) praise the book to high heavens, and it seemed hard to imagine what yet another voice might add to the discussion. Perhaps out of a recognition of this fact, Farah gets the praise out of the way quickly and then discovers a new approach to the biography, highlighting an aspect of Sheldon's personality that Phillips, in her opinion, misread or at least failed to properly highlight. The result is not so much a review as yet another addition to the ongoing discussion of Sheldon's personality and the forces that shaped her writing.

  • The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang, reviewed by William Mingin - it's still unusual to find essay-length reviews of short fiction, but a new story by Ted Chiang is clearly worthy of the effort. The broad canvas and short subject matter give Mingin the chance to conduct a close reading, to highlight interesting passages and conversations, and arrive slowly but definitively at his analysis. It's a perfect companion piece to the story, and one which caused me to appreciate it even more.

  • Two Views: The Road, reviewed by Victoria Hoyle and Paul Kincaid - I love this (double) review not as a reviewer (though I appreciate it on that level as well) but as a reader, because it persuaded me to read a book I had previously been dubious about. The Road had been gaining acclaim in mainstream circles for some time before Strange Horizons reviewed it, but my cynicism about outsider SF, and my aversion to post-apocalyptic stories, had me hesitating at the Buy button. Victoria and Paul's reviews, however, were so effusive, and so eloquent about the ways in which The Road moved and excited them, that they put me over the top. One of the fundamental jobs of reviews is to get people to read books, and this piece is an excellent example of how to do that.

  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien, reviewed by Adam Roberts - at first glance, these two books--a modern, well-received epic fantasy, and a 'rediscovered' work by the putative father of the genre--don't really belong in a single review, but Roberts takes the combination and uses it to discuss the very meaning of the sub-genre, the ways in which Tolkien dominates it and the ways in which modern authors have moved away from his examples. I'm particularly fond of this review because it discusses writing--something that Roberts is prone to do, but which other reviewers, myself included, don't touch on often enough. On a sentence-by-sentence level, Roberts compares the two books and talks about the two authors' styles, and more fundamentally, about what makes good prose.

  • Streaking by Brian Stableford, reviewed by John Clute - I admit, even I don't always get along with John Clute's reviews. I (mostly) love his writing, but I can't always be bothered to care about what he's saying, which on occasion is only tangentially related to the book being reviewed (see, for example, his review of Michael Swanwick's The Dragons of Babel from today's Strange Horizons). When he's on his game, though, there's no one who can match him, and here he has a perfect subject for his profuse, florid style--the utter awfulness of Brian Stableford's Streaking, which any other reviewer might have categorized as indescribable, but which Clute is more than capable of tackling. This review is funny, sharp, and precisely as irate as Stableford's horrible, horrible novel deserves.
It should be noted that this is by no means a definitive list of my favorite reviews. I chose Strange Horizons because I read it regularly, and it was therefore easier for me to recall those reviews from its archives which I found particularly impressive, but there are plenty of other venues--other webzines, mainstream publications, blogs--in which I've found excellent reviews. Nevertheless, if you're looking for examples of how reviewing should be done, you could do worse than to start with one of these.


Larry Nolen said…
Good post. In my defense, I just haven't had the time/energy yet to write my planned post on reviews that I thought were excellent, although many of the ones you cite I would also consider examples of excellent reviews. Also, a tiny point of clarification: I don't hold it to be an absolute that there ought not to be a refraining of referencing other works, only that such referencing ought to be constrained and limited to focusing directly on the book being reviewed. The reviews that I critiqued almost a month ago I believed lost their focus when they relied too heavily on "name checking" other books without providing any substantial reason for mentioning those works in the context of that particular book review.

But this is just a minor quibble. When I have time later in the day, I'll read through the reviews that I've missed out on before now to look for those qualities that you mention.
Anonymous said…

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

I'm not quite sure how in a subjective world anyone can lay out an objective truth about anything other than, say, making a table with four even legs. But I think it's pretty clear from my post that I was saying this was *my* approach. (Obviously, when one follows an approach, you think it might in fact be one that others might find useful as well.)

Any rules or guidelines about nearly anything, except, for example, nuclear launch codes, can be broken to great effect. I didn't really think this needed stating, although I think I implied it.

I was not targeting any particular reviewers. That's the kind of supposition that fascinates me, frankly. I don't list examples because I was talking about my approach. I could've listed some of my reviews, I suppose. But it's reaching, IMO, to read that into my post. My approach does not automatically mean I think someone else's approach doesn't work--that's a black-and-white view of the world that's not realistic.

I don't think anything in my post would be at all harmful or useless as a practical baseline--as I portray it--for most reviewers. I think you more or less say this in your post. (In fact, and I'd have to look at your reviews again, but I can't think of a review of yours that significantly violates any of the 8 things I talked about--all of which I could also have inverted to couch in positive language.)

Your post also seems to me, as Cheryl's post seemed to me, kind of a "yes, but I'm a reviewer too, and I'm somewhat unsettled by another reviewer setting out potential 'rules'" response--except for your examples of reviews.

Another practical question would be simply: do you know of a book on "how to review books"? I don't. And yet there are tons of books on creative writing. Why would it be less useful to have a book, or internet materials, that talk about different approaches to reviewing?

It wouldn't. That's why I'm adding your post to the list of resources at the end of mine. That way anyone who reads it in the future will get several different perspectives.

Ed S. said…
As it happens I had just read John Clute's review of Michael Swanwick's The Dragons of Babel over at Strange Horizons earlier today which you mention. I was impressed with what a steaming pile of unintelligible crap it was. Unreadable. Everyone should at least glance at it and use it as a baseline against which to measure all other reviews.
Larry Nolen said…
Nice to see that Ed has brought the Readers' Comments-type review format to the fore here. Sharp, incisive, with no subtlety at all. Penetrating lack of analysis, bundled up with an invective that sticks in the craw longer than any nuanced words ever could. A sure-fire winner!

But as for the Clute review itself, while it certainly isn't a style that I personally would use, I do have to agree with you, Abigail, in how it does work. In particular, I did note the adroitness in which Clute manages to use references to other works to highlight Swanwick's book. This is one of the few times in a short (less than 3000 word essay - yes, I once was in academia and am slowly recovering) review that referencing other authors' stories helps with the focus instead of detracting from it. While I don't always agree with Clute's arguments and how he phrases them, in this case, his review has made me more curious about Swanwick's latest. Don't know if I'll buy it, but I'll certainly look into it.
Ed S. said…
I apologize for your confusion larry. My intent wasn't to analyse the Clute review but rather to encourage everyone interested in the subject of reviews to go to Strange Horizons and read his review and form their own opinion. Specifically:

You seem to have understood what Clute was saying and thought it a good review(?). I on the other hand thought it an incomprehensible mess. But, as stated, I encourage everyone to read it carefully for themselves. Read it sentence by sentence and at the end of each sentence ask yourselves if you have any understanding of what you've just read. And then at the very end, you can form your own opinion of that review overall. Perhaps I'm mistaken in my assessment. Feel free to post your own opinions here. I'm sure Abigail can spare a few electrons.

The reviews that I critiqued almost a month ago I believed lost their focus when they relied too heavily on "name checking" other books without providing any substantial reason for mentioning those works in the context of that particular book review.

Fair enough, though I think there's something to be said for assuming a common frame of reference with your readers, within which it is possible to use this so-called name checking effectively. It's obviously a tool that can be misused, but the difference strikes me as being a more general distinction between good and bad writing.

I'll look forward to your list of favorite reviews.


I can't think of a review of yours that significantly violates any of the 8 things I talked about

Really? It seems to me that many them violate at least one, if not more, of your rules (you'll have to be the judge of whether they do so significantly). John Clute's skewering of Streaking is both wordy and sarcastic (it also falls foul of your exhortation to respect the effort involved in writing a book regardless of the outcome). Farah Mendlesohn clearly had an agenda when she reviewed the Tiptree biography (an agenda which she brings to all of her reviews, and which to my mind makes them sharper and more interesting). Adam Roberts could be said to be engaging in a territorial debate when he tries to work out what exactly epic fantasy means.

do you know of a book on "how to review books"? I don't. And yet there are tons of books on creative writing.

I've never read any of these books (unless Stephen King's On Writing counts, and I think of it more as an autobiographical sketch), but isn't the consensus opinion that they don't really help? Those works can teach you technique and help you polish it - but then, so will observing other writers - but in the end you just have to write and hope that you have a voice. Which is pretty much the process through which I started reviewing and am still learning how to do so well.

It should be said, though, that I don't think any of your rules are bad (though there are some that I'm less inclined to follow than others). I just think there's a danger of boxing oneself in with guidelines, and that learning from examples is a better way to go about it.

Ed S.:

I singled out the Dragons of Babel review not because I don't like it but because it feels unrelated to the book (and from the comments to the piece it appears I'm not the only one to think so). I like it as a piece of writing and a rumination on an aspect of fantasy, but it feels as though Swanwick's novel was not much more than a jumping off point, rather than the focus of the review. I've written pieces like that myself for this blog (not in terms of language, alas/fortunately (circle applicable term)), but if I were reviewing for someone else I probably wouldn't give myself that amount of leeway. But then, I'm not John Clute (again: alas/fortunately).
Larry Nolen said…
Coincidentally, I'm working on a review for Niall that will include a bit of a "history" referencing a couple other books before I delve into the book being reviewed (Joe Abercrombie's Last Argument of Kings). So it's not as though I'm allergic to discussing other books in relation to the book being reviewed, but as you aptly put it, the reviews I signaled out did not adroitly work them into an exploration of the reviewed books' themes. Hopefully, what I have to say will be concise and will strengthen the points I'll be making. With any luck (which I haven't had to date with this damnable review), I'll have it ready for editorial review by Sunday.

As for Clute, I've always read him more for the essays than for the book reviewing mechanics. There just aren't all that many review essayists these days. Regardless of my own take on the books he reviews, I do agree that there's something about Clute's writing that makes me pay closer attention to what he's discussing than what I'd find if the review had been more tightly focused.

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