Monday, July 09, 2007

A Report from Readercon 18

Matt Denault has written up a spectacular report on Readercon 18 for FantasyBookSpot. I highly recommend reading it as some real interesting things were discussed.

Ok, so I’m going to focus on something that actually applies directly to me and rant a bit – the panel discussion title “Reviewing in the Blogosphere” with John Clute, Kathryn Cramer, Jim Freund (M), Ernest Lilley, Tom Purdom, and Gordon Van Gelder. So, the first observation is that I don’t believe any of these people actually qualify to be on a panel titled “Reviewing in the Blogosphere” – these people are certainly qualified to talk about reviewing, but they review for publications and such. Ideally, this panel should been populated by half with some amateur blogger reviewers or message board reviewers – essentially someone that’s never received a paycheck for a review.

As a result, it seems that the discussion quickly turned into “Reviewing On-line” and the challenges that the Ivory Tower have faced as they transition from print to screen rather than anything about blogs. This was not a discussion about reviewing on blogs, but the same discussion on reviews that continues to occur with these Ivory Tower reviewers who disdain the likes of me. Matt sums up some of Clute’s responses:

Clute responded that these plot summaries plus reviewer opinion are not really reviews. Asked what a review should do, Clute replied that it should be just like any other piece of writing any writer might produce, something that deploys all the skills she or he can muster, that they are proud of, and that they can envision still being in-print (and still being proud of) 10 years from now.

I can agree with much of this – a plot summary is the worst kind of review. A plot summary plus opinion can be just as useless. Many blogger reviewers do suffer from either a ‘laziness’ or perceived need to get something out quickly – this certainly applies to myself at times. Putting some true time and thought into a review is important.

However, the latter part of the summation above is where I start to disagree. John Clute writes detailed critique-style reviews. This is not something that should always be strived for. A quick review like what I write here is often all that is needed or wanted. I write reviews the way I do because they are the type of reviews I want to read. I want a quick idea of what the basic plot is and a basic idea of what is good and bad about the book. For this to be too meaningful, I need to have some knowledge and trust of the reviewer. I really don’t look for the more detailed review-critique until after I’ve read a book.

Clute seems to stop short of implying that everyone writing reviews should write as he does – but does imply that it’s not a place for amateurs. I’ve been annoyed by ‘Clute-worship’ in the past and it still annoys me now. This isn’t because of anything that Clute does – I actually believe that he deserves all the attention and praise that he gets. But there is often this idea that if you don’t strive to write a review like Clute does, that you just shouldn’t bother at all. That’s what I don’t like.

Ok, so back from the tangent – I would have loved to read a nice summary on “Reviewing in the Blogosphere” – instead they presented an Ivory Tower perspective of reviewing on-line. That’s too bad.

Oh, and let’s not forget that I’m commenting on a second-hand account of it all – I could easily be way off base.

Matt – great reporting. I hope FBS sends you to all the cons.


Larry Nolen said...

Later, whenever the site is back up (weird quirks again, I see), I'd like for you to post this at wotmania for some discussion there as well.

As for my own personal opinion, you pretty much already know it, but for others that might be reading, it's pretty much like this:

Reviews are idiosyncratic things. They ought to reflect the reviewer's personality, but at the same time place the book reviewed in some sort of clear and understandable frame of reference. To an extent, I agree with Clute's comments, although I think critical pieces will often exceed the column spaces for most newspapers (and the usual limit for blog readers' patience - see Hal Duncan's blog for examples of interesting entries that often are too long for the format).

If the most effective online review format is a 750-1500 word column, it would seem to me that it would involve a stripping away of setup, unless the writer is talented enough to develop (over the course of many such reviews) a corpus of work that shortcuts through the introductory, plot-related issues and delves into characterization, themes, as well as placement in a wider category of books.

But it can't be formulaic, or else it'll just lack that "presence" or "vitality" about it that will persuade a reader if the review is positive or dissuade if it be negative. So many things to balance, which may be what Clute is attempting to say, but not quite going far enough to state it directly.

Or you can take author Matt Stover's approach, which is basically writing every word balls-out ;) Have you read his work yet? If not, I highly, highly suggest you look into it in the next 12 months, as finally the third "Acts of Caine" novel, Caine Blacknife is scheduled for a Summer 2008 release. It has been a book I've been looking forward to for over 3 years now.

Anonymous said...

My day job couldn't handle going to all the cons -- this one was tricky enough. But thanks! I would like to say two things:

1) Before anyone comments I'd request that you do read the whole report on the panel in question -- too often I see discussions where a single isolated quote is taken out of context, spawning all sorts of overly-defensive responses. Clute led off the panel by talking about how appreciative he was of being able to write online, for example, and how he's been doing so for a decade. Also please bear in mind that this "quote" is based on my notes and memories, and should not be considered a word-for-word recital of what Clute said (although I believe it does convey the essense, else I'd not have included it).

2) One of the things I admire most about Clute, even more strongly after hearing him speak in person, is his precision with language. If he says that plot summaries plus reader verdict are not reviews, what he likely means is that they not reviews, that they are something else. The point isn't necessarily that they are without value (although he clearly is writing for readers who think they are); the point is that they do not conform to the definition of a review that has been developed and agreed to over a long period of history. What is really needed is a new term for them. It works both ways, after all; it would benefit a reader like you, kcf, who prefers less critical analysis before you read a book, to be able to segment out the longer critical pieces when searching for a "review" of a book.

Neth said...


I'll see about posting it at wotmania. I'll be really busy for the next few days, so I'm not sure when or how much I'll participate.

As for you comment - I think I was mostly annoyed by what I expected after reading the title: "Reviewing in the Blogosphere". It sounds like they had a great panel for discussion of reviews and critiques. But they didn't have bloggers. To make what will probably end up being a shitty analogy - it's like wanting to have a panel discussion about coaching little-league baseball and getting 5 managers of professional teams together.

I wasn't there - I'm just going off my own impression that is filtered through the report Matt gave. As I indicated in the original post I could be way off base.

As for reviews - I know where you stand, you know where I do - for those that don't, I elaborate here. I just think that what Clute does and what most bloggers do are completely different things - and IMO at least, neither is any more valid than the other.

And of course there is the old standby that 95% of anything is shit (I think Matt said that in the response at FBS, so I didn't say it first in this context).

-Matt, I think your comments were likely addressed above. I hope I didn't step on your toes a bit here. I'm sure with it all being third-hand that I'm taking things out of context, but I felt the discussion was perhaps valid anyway.

Oh and I understand about other things getting in the way. I'd love to go to cons, but the Phoenix area isn't exactly a hotbed for cons and I really don't have the time or funds to travel (translation: my wife would kill me).

Carl V. Anderson said...

I agree with the idea of critical reviews and blogger reviews being different animals, but I also agree with your point Neth that one doesn't make the other less valid. Whenever I hear or read critics lamenting the effects of blogging on their profession it just irks me. They act as if they have never read a book because of the recommendation of a friend or someone whose opinion they trust. As if the only valid opinion about a book is that of a paid critic.

Jim Stewart said...

I was at that panel, and I agree with this post. If you are going to have a panel called "Reviewing in the Blogosphere," you should at least have one or two people who, um, actually review in the blogosphere (or for that matter even have a blog), which, by the way, is not the same thing as reviewing online.

I have a longer response to this panel here.

Neth said...

Thanks Jim - you got right to the heart of what bothered me most. I'm sure it was a great discussion on many things, but it wasn't what it was supposed to be.


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