Thursday, July 26, 2007

Horse Buggies and Automobiles

One of many observations I’ve made since I began blogging is the circular nature of so much of the discussion. A topic gets hot, is talked about endlessly, dies for a while, and is resurrected again to begin the whole process anew. One such topic (and one that seems to always inspire a reaction from me) is that on reviewing in general, and specifically the quality of on-line reviews and on-line versus print reviews. I most recently mentioned this only yesterday, but dig deep enough and you’ll fine a lot of discussion around the time preceding Scalpel’s ill-fated launch, and another round some months prior, etc. Each of these incarnations may have a slightly different focus, but it all seems to be part of the same on-going discussion.

The latest entries in the newest round (which has been building in response to a panel at Readercon) are actually somewhat anomalous – these most interesting contributions seem to be voices of reason (at least from my admittedly biased view). Paul Kincaid dissects the argument that on-line and print reviews are fundamentally different, and then explains in detail what he feels makes a good review. Jonathan McCalmont follows up with a very good discussion on the quality of on-line reviews.

Really, I shouldn’t even be jumping in here – I don’t write the type of reviews that these guys want. I’m not a critic and I don’t even pretend that I offer criticism – I just offer my opinion on books. I go into detail in this explanation on my reviews, but it really boils down to me wanting to write a review for the average fan, a review that I would want to read. I’ve always just wanted a short idea of what the book is about (i.e. short plot summary), some commentary that says what’s good and/or bad about the book, and what makes it so. The ideal review length for me tends to be in the 600-900 word range. I do love the longer, in-depth reviews/criticisms, but not until after I’ve read the book.

From many discussions that I’ve had on various message boards and blogs, I found that there is a real demand for this type of review (as can be seen by the relative success of this blog and those like it). The more academic-minded reviewers out there chafe at this, but as I see it, it’s a simple fact. A large audience is really craving this, and there are a number people like me who provide. That doesn’t mean that there’s not audience for longer, more ‘professional’ type reviews – a street-level criticism to bring up a term that’s been bandied about. Of course there is – there’s room for all of us, and this is a point that is so often overlooked, especially when extreme, or at least narrowly focused opinions tend to get all the attention. However, one thing that will continue to annoy me (well piss me off may be more correct here) is the derogatory elitism and disdain shown to those like me by some out there (particularly old-school print reviewers).

Before I ramble on too far, I think I’ll sign off until the next time this all comes around…

On a side note – Jonathan McCalmont is looking to keep the idea behind Scalpel alive with a new (Gabe-free) project. My reaction: Excellent!


Jonathan said...

Thanks for the support on the son of Scalpel thing. I'm still trying to come up with a name. I considered "Bring me the head of John the Baptist" but that's arguably an even worse name than Project Meinong :-)

I think SF critics chafe at the idea of a)350-500 word reviews and b)reviews composed largely of plot synopsis (even if I think the real issue here is subject matter rather than type of writing).

An interesting fact is that aside from Abigail Nussbaum and I, there aren't that many critic-style reviewers who put stuff up on their blogs all that often. Paul Raven does from time to time and Niall occasionally puts up critical pieces about individual aspects of different works but there aren't that many critics who blog their criticism

Remy said...

Great post. I agree with your point of view about just writing what you liked and disliked about the book. When I read a book, I only care about how good the book is.

Your section on having a word count got me thinking about how short/long my reviews are (I have never checked). It seems I end up around 600 words for most of my reviews.

anyways, thanks for the great post!

Neth said...


It's true - I don't see many bloggers putting up true criticism. There is the occasional piece at The Mumpsimus and Eve's Alexandria certainly straddles the groud between good reviews and criticism - as does The Pearls are Cooling and OF Blog of the Fallen.

Jonathan said...

You're quite correct... I'd forgotten Eve's Alexandria. They're the type of thing I had in mind as they are a proper review blog but they produce criticism.

Mumpsimus is another example, though I'd class it more in the same optic as Niall's blog.

Niall said...

there aren't that many critic-style reviewers who put stuff up on their blogs all that often.

I plan to post quite a few more reviews when I no longer have to abide by Clarke Omerta, don't worry. :)

Neth said...

Doh! - Torque Control was a glaring oversight.

Myth said...

I love reading blog reviews on books from a readers point of view, simply because I want to find new and interesting things to read. Gives me ideas for my next buying binge, not that I cannot enter a bookstore without buying at least three books as it is. I don't tend to go for more in-depth reviews by critics, as what they find to be great and make a big hype over, tend to be books I rather don't like. All I really expect from a review is the basic summery (not too much details) and the reason they enjoyed it or not.

I only mention a book or author if I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it as a read or if it was unexpectedly disapointing.

Larry said...

Thanks for the kind mention, Ken, although I'd say that my posts are more slanted towards being a synopsis of longer critiques that I really ought to write more often. I think it's that pernicious grad school BDSM that I endured 1996-1998 affecting me still. I keep seem to be coming back to a model that's closely based on those 750-1250 word critiques (no more or less) that I had to write for my various history courses. Introduction with overview of broader connections outside of book, identify a few male points to critique and weigh, examine authorial intent and weigh effectiveness of the themes when compared to the story's mechanics and execution, sum up with "placing" said book in relation to what could have been achieved, wash, rinse, repeat.

Soon enough, I'll return to writing better critiques within my reviews. My intended "audience" is a bit different than yours, although there's some overlap: I envision myself writing to someone who's been around the reading book, someone who doesn't always give two shits about plot summarization, compare/contrast, and how one particular reader "rates" them - I'm more interested in "global" aspects. What is this work trying to accomplish here? What does the author seem to be trying to say and is it visible within the text? How am I reacting to the text? How would others of differing backgrounds relate to it? What baggage is likely being brought to the table (in my review of Emma Bull's Territory, I felt it was important to note that I came into the reading with a skeptical attitude due to years of disliking Western cinemas - due in large part to personal conflicts with my father, but that didn't need to be the focus and I didn't elaborate as to why I really disliked that form of storytelling/setting)? And so many more questions that deal as much with the reviewer's relationships with the perceived subtextual symbols and with the imagined author (the one who might have some form of subconscious connection to Marxist views of history rather than the person who was writing while consciously thinking about how to make enough money to be able to afford two-ply toilet paper).

There's a wide amount of space for various review styles and points of focus. I prefer reviewing the "underground" type of books - those that might have a some critics lauding it, but certainly not the types that are, for the most part, going to attract hundreds to a booksigning tour across the US and elsewhere.

Some of the best responses I've ever received were from authors who I didn't ever contact before writing a piece who complimented me for doing more than just relating the surface layer of a story. They didn't always agree with my stances, but sometimes just asking oneself questions about a text and its possible meanings can reveal a lot about a book without you ever needing to sound like a John Clute or a Nick Gevers (two reviewers whose approaches towards reviewing I study before writing my own, although I generally have different take and/or points of interest or focus).

Just write what comes natural to you, but don't be afraid to experiment with your approach. You never know when you might end up surprising yourself :D

J. Lyon Layden said...

I finally got around to responding to your response on the Untitled post. wasn't sure if you go back and check your old posts.

Tia Nevitt said...

Love the title of this post.

I'd have to say that I don't aspire to "literary criticism" either; I just give my opinion. I only read books that I think I will enjoy. If a book gets to where I don't want to read anymore, I stop reading. My plan, if I happen to be reviewing a book that I can no longer endure, is to put up a post explaining why I stopped reading. (I review my books as I read them.)

I find that blogger reviewers go into more detail than professional reviewers, which I enjoy. I also enjoy the humility of blogger reviewers. They just call themselves readers.

Roh said...

Thanks for the mention, Ken!

I get rather tired of this continuing argument, along with the literature/Literature one. I find I have little to contribute either way, aside from wanting to yell that there is a difference between a review and a critique, and the two can overlap but not be congruent.

I think that to push for a singular style, methodology, purpose and audience on reviews and/or critiques is a mistake. We are the better off, always always always the better off, for variety. Variety is good, staleness is bad. And that is why the What Reviews Need argument is boring. Throw out the bathwater, people, baby's getting wrinkled!

Neth said...

-I go away for the weekend and come back to comments - excellent!

Great points all.

Carl V. said...

This is indeed a very interesting phenomenon. Because everything put out on the internet is always essentially "out there" for people to discover, this cyclical nature of conversation can...and probably will...essentially go on forever. That is especially true with hot button items like these.


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