Reviewing

Reviewing

The recent stuff about Authors Behaving Badly reminded me that I wanted to write something on Mike Brotherton’s SFNovelists post about reviews and reviewers. A little while ago he put up some guidelines for what he thinks reviewers shouldn’t do from the perspective of a writer. The basics:

Guideline 1: Reviewers should stick to reviewing the kinds of books they like.

Guideline 2: Reviews should describe what the book is like, and not just represent a visceral reaction of the reviewer.

Guideline 3: Putting a book in context relative to other work by the author is great, as long as there is clarity in doing so.

Guideline 4: Review the book, not the author.

On the surface maybe these are good guidelines. But, as I read, I felt myself disagreeing with almost every one of them. I’ve been thinking about why ever since.

Guideline 1 comes out of many genre authors’ frustration with reviewers who clearly don’t “get” SF still being assigned SF books, to predictable results. Still, I don’t think the problem is reviewing the kind of books one likes, but the kind of books one is likely to understand or get.

I’m not a huge fan of horror, but I’m confident in my ability to tell if a horror story is good or not. “Not My Target Audience” is an excuse that can only carry one so far. If a reviewer is actively hostile toward a genre, that’s a different thing. But I think that any competent reviewer can read books that are outside her “favorite genres” and still deliver intelligent proclamations about them.

Guideline 2 strikes me as something that bothers writers of the books being reviewed, but not the readers. The last thing I want from a review is to describe the book. I have a jacket flap for that. I do want the visceral reaction, because that is a signal of what a book is going to do for me. Perhaps I am alone in this.

Guideline 3 I’ll discuss in a bit.

Guideline 4 almost, almost got past me until I read this supporting bit:

No reaction to the author as a person is appropriate (e.g., that apparently “racist story” might just be an attempt to understand a particular type of unsavory person, something that writers need to do effectively from time to time, rather than an expression of racism).

Oh here we go.

The problem with this guideline is that, on some level, you cannot review a work without taking the authorship into consideration. Certainly it isn’t useful to dismiss a book because you have something personal against the author. In fact, if you’re pissed at the author, you shouldn’t be reviewing that book at all. And, of course, you shouldn’t be going on about your perception of the author based on your own hangups or, need I say, their name and how stupid or fake you think it is. (Okay, I will admit, that still irks me a little. I am working to get over it.) However, it is perfectly valid to consider the author’s motives and question his process and reasoning concerning the themes, ideas, and characters in a book or story.

And, quite honestly, most people intelligent and brave enough to bring up how the racism in a story might reflect the (perhaps unconscious) racism of the author are usually smart enough to tell the difference between a story that is exploring racism and one that is based on the racist ideas/thoughts/tendencies. And if an author has to say, “No, I was hoping to EXPLORE that concept, not endorse it!” they have obviously failed and someone should point that out.

Which brings me back to Guideline 3. If a reviewer is allowed to discuss a book in relation to the other books that author has written, whether those books are related in any other way or not, then that is “reviewing the author” in a sense.

Now that I’ve just torn Mike’s poor post apart, I will say that I do recognize that everything he said comes from the perspective of the author being reviewed. And it’s perfectly fine for him to feel that way and want these things. Except that reviews are not for the benefit of the author. They might have that effect, sure, but reviews are there for readers. They are there to let readers know, in one person’s opinion, whether they should pick a book up.

What do readers want when they look at reviews? That’s what I’m mostly concerned about.

Comments

  1. Lori S. says

    I disagree with you very slightly:

    On Guideline 2, I think the key word is “just” I don’t *just* want the visceral reaction, although I want that too. I *also* want at least a sketch of what the book is like.

    And on the supporting bit of Guideline 4, Mike fucked up b/c he assumed calling something a racist story is a comment on the author and his or her state of mind. It’s not. It’s a comment on the story (that the author has taken offense at). A *valid* comment on the story.

  2. Lori S. says

    P.S. People ask if my name is “mine” all the time. Hell yes it’s mine, dammit! *And* it’s even the one I was born with, which should be neither here nor there. So I sympathize.

  3. says

    I don’t *just* want the visceral reaction, although I want that too. I *also* want at least a sketch of what the book is like.

    Maybe I’m interpreting “visceral reaction” in different ways. Or including more in VR than others might. Somewhere in that reaction has to be something about the book. Reviews that just say “God, this is a piece of shit, don’t buy it,” aren’t useful, but that’s hardly what I’d call “reaction,” that’s a “comment”. :) But then my expectation in that regard may not match up with what other people mean when they use that term.

  4. Josh Jasper says

    What do readers want when they look at reviews? That’s what I’m mostly concerned about.

    Depends on where the review is being done. Kirkus is different than NYRSF, is different than Romantic Times is different than the NY Times, which I suspect will always suck.

  5. says

    What do readers want when they look at reviews?

    I may bit a bit of an odd duck, because I want to know more of the reviewer’s personality in the review. If I have a good sense of the reviewer’s taste, I can more easily match it to my own and figure out if some of the things that bug them won’t bug me, or if something they thought was awesome will make me throw a book against a wall. This is why I tend to not read that many widely-posted reviews (NYRSF, etc.) and stick with LJ recommendations instead. A starred Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus review on the back of a book will boost its reputation in my eyes, but it in no way overrides reviews from people whose taste I know and trust.

  6. Josh Jasper says

    There are some pretty subtle variances on PW reviewers, but they’re all anonymous.

    On the far other end of the spectrum, there’s Jhon Clute, who I read just for the language.

  7. Neile says

    I find myself agreeing with both of you on Guideline 1, but tending more toward Mike’s POV. I agree that reviewers who don’t necessarily love a genre can understand it and its tropes and how well a book works within them; however, they most often don’t, or at least that’s not their agenda when reviewing. I hate reading reviews where it’s clear that that reviewer is complaining because the book isn’t something else, not because it’s not a good example of what it’s trying to be. I have read WAY too many of these–I would say that it’s the bulk of the negative reviews I have come across.

    I would say if the reviewer is not at least sympathetic with the genre of the work they’re reviewing, they probably should not tackle it.

    I also think that you and Mike are defining your terms for Guideline 2 a little differently. As a reader of reviews, I like a brief summary of what the book is about so I know whether or not I would be interested in the book enough to track down the jacket flap. I do want the reviewer’s personal reactions, but maybe not the visceral ones, which strike me as the I-loved-it I-hated-it both without much more discussion variety.

    I also disagree with you about Guideline 3, as it’s reviewing the books by the author and not the author herself. Sure you can parse this as talking about the author, but I think that’s splitting hairs. And I can never argue with a call for clarity.

    And for Guideline 4, why would you want to say that an author is racist rather than the book is racist? This is an honest question – I don’t know why a book reviewer would want to review the author in terms of their work rather the work in its own terms. As a reader I would be suspicious of that and suspect the reviewer of personal bias. Fine if a reviewer tells me there are issues with the book(s) though!

  8. says

    Well, I suppose I can chime in a little more. I did say I was giving the writer’s perspective, so it seems redundant to criticize me for doing that.

    These are guidelines, not rules. There are no rules.

    On guideline one, I have no doubt that some non-fans of a sub-genre can provide a professional review, but I also do not doubt that they’re going to do a worse job than they’d be capable of with something they actually love. There’s more to a book than just the craft. People without great love of science will get bored by parts of my books, and not properly appreciate how innovative they are in harder science fiction as they’re unlikey to read very much of it.

    I think there’s a tendency for some people to think of reviewing as pointing out flaws, and when you couple that with a failure to appreciate the strengths of a subfield, it leads to less helpful reviews.

    Guideline two is for the readers, and to help offset failure to follow guideline one. Sometimes I want to read a mindless, by-the-numbers quest fantasy for a bit of pure escapism. I wouldn’t expect such a book to get a glowing review, but at the right time I might want to buy it. And book jackets, assuming you have access to when when you’re reading the review to put it context (rarely), are not to be trusted in my experience. They’re not written by the author. They’re marketing.

    Guideline three is NOT reviewing the author. It’s again for the readers, some of whom who may well have read previous books by that author. I wouldn’t have put it in but for dwelling on the positive and negative aspects of seeing reviews discuss my previous work in reviews of the new book. My initial reaction was that it was a bad idea, that books should stand alone and that it did border on reviewing the author. On additional reflection I decided it really is useful to say whether or not the new book is more of the same, or a new direction for an author.

    Guideline four results from the tendency of too many readers/reviewers to project their own experience back on the author. Reviews DON’T KNOW what was in the author’s mind. This is a fact. A reviewer might guess, but they don’t know. Sure, writers usually get to chose what they write, and often put in plenty of clues to indicate why, but it’s rarely easy to say for sure unless they spill the beans in an interview. Sometimes stories call us. Sometimes we just want to show something that seems to be true from our perspective and let the reader interpret it. Sometimes the bad guys win, not because we’re saying it’s good to be bad, but because that’s how a particular story finishes, and the tragedy is more compelling than the happy ending.

    I’m deathly afraid of society of censors, where every story is inspected to see if the author politically correct, and that stories reinforce only a narrow range of allowed viewpoints. Good fiction should show us the full range of the human experience, good and bad, and reviewing authors rather than their work makes that less likely to happen. To say that a particular book seemed to promote a pro-racist perspective, and to justify that reading is okay, but to say that the author is racist implies mind-reading at the same time being character assassination.

    This happens, and it’s warped society already. Writers get to chose who are the villians in movies, for instance. That’s one of the arguments that you’re putting forward, that there’s a choice about what to write about. Fine. True. But it’s gotten to the point that when the villians are from a particular organized minority group, that minority group protests, sometimes calling for boycotts. Even when the movie is based on historical events. Iran claimed that ‘300’ was put out for political reasons and intentionally made Persians look bad, which is hogwash, but this and similar claims are made regularly about anything semi-popular, and it does have a negative effect on writers. You stop following the muse and start second guessing yourself. And whether or not that’s good for society, that’s bad for art.

  9. says

    I am highly amused by the icon my blog has assigned you, Mike.

    There’s more to a book than just the craft. People without great love of science will get bored by parts of my books, and not properly appreciate how innovative they are in harder science fiction as they’re unlikey to read very much of it.

    I submit that regardless of one’s background in science that a reader should be engaged in the story at all times. You can throw all the technical babble you want at me, even if it’s actual tech and not really babble, and I’m not going to care that I don’t understand the nuances f the science contributes to the story, deepens it, and keeps me interested. Now this may be where I differ from many who read hard science fiction for the geeky science bits, but that wouldn’t make my criticism of a HSF story any less valid. If I find something boring, I don’t think the author has done a very good job A good author should be able to keep me from being bored while still delivering some science.

    (Keep in mind, I have not read your book yet, so I am not talking in specifics.)

    I think there’s a tendency for some people to think of reviewing as pointing out flaws, and when you couple that with a failure to appreciate the strengths of a subfield, it leads to less helpful reviews.

    That I will agree with. I like my reviews to tell me what works AND what doesn’t.

    book jackets… are not to be trusted in my experience.

    haha! Okay, you’re right.

    With Guideline 3, I personally like when reviews do this because I like to think of books in conversation with each other along with being able to stand alone. It would be nice if the reviewer gave a sense if the book itself needs the author’s other works (or even some knowledge of the author) in order to be enjoyable. This is usually more an issue with well-known authors, though.

    I’m deathly afraid of society of censors, where every story is inspected to see if the author politically correct

    The problem with this argument is that it’s different from whether the author wrote a racist book/story. It’s not about political correctness. That’s a whole other conversation and, I feel, completely obscuring to the real issue.

    Yes, the reader or reviewer does not exist in an author’s mind. however, if you spend enough time being a reader of color or a person heavily involved in antiracist, antisexist, or similar work, it’s really not hard to tell when an author is engaging in bigotry and when they’re not. As I said in the post, if you have to say, “But that’s not what I meant to do,” you obviously failed at what you meant to do And getting defensive, or writing off your critics as the PC police, isn’t going to help. You’ll still have written something racist.

    The onus is on those with privilege (that would be you, in this particular instance) to recognize that you may not be able to see what’s up because that’s one of the aspects of privilege. And unconscious bias has a way of sneaking up on people, due to the unconscious bit.

    I can’t be in your head, no. But people reveal what’s going on in their heads via what they say all the time. And writers reveal themselves in what they write all the time, too.

    I’ll say again — there is a difference between being bigoted and committing it to fictional form and including bigoted things/ideas/characters in fiction in order to explore bigotry. And, no matter how you cut it, writing a racist book should be cause for people to run the author out of town, because that’s just not right to do. Bigotry, no matter how you cut it, is just wrong.

    If an author feels they’ve been wrongly accused of racism by a reviewer or whoever, the correct response is not to start yelling about how they’re not racist and no one can see inside their head.Instead, they should find the nearest person they trust who has a background in antiracist work and ask if they wouldn’t mind explaining why someone might feel that way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the reasons are due to that blindness that privilege fosters rather than any deliberate evil. But privilege isn’t an excuse, it’s a reason. And once it’s pointed out, it needs to be addressed.

    And let me again reiterate that I’m talking in general terms, not about you specifically!

  10. says

    Tempest, I’ve seen a lot of highly paid “professional” reviewers make fools of themselves trying to guess what the writer was thinking. You can’t do it regularly, and neither can anyone else. You’re not convincing me at all asserting that you can.

    We had the guy in Time magazine claiming that Anne Rice was writing about AIDS in Interview with a Vampire (when the movie came out in the late 1980s), even though the book came out years before AIDS was seriously recognized in the gay community. My own experience has been reviewers ascribing the wrong reasons for me doing things in my work. Then we have non-professionals, like easily misled parents, thinking that Mark Twain’s work was racist because he used the language of his era correctly.

    You can’t get it right with a high enough likelihood of correctness regularly enough, and you’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise. Mind-reading doesn’t work. Period. Prove me wrong and make a million, okay?

    There’s something called confirmation bias that leads people to think they’re right when they’re wrong.

    I think given this I’m totally supported by suggesting that people to tackle the work before them rather than the person behind the work. If someone is actually an ass, let them build a pattern over several books/movies/whatever. You’ve got hubris to think you’re right based on one work. Especially if we’re talking fiction, which is made of lies, on purpose. Otherwise, want to tell me my sexual fetishes, favorite color, or preferred presidential candidate, based only on my published writing? I steal from everything and everyone I know to make my characters realistic.

    And you’re being really unfair to assume the best response to a false accusation from a reviewer is not to react defensively but to ask friends if they’re an asshole. That’s assuming way too fucking much. Get over yourself. Readers/reviewers misread stuff all the time. I can give you a million examples, and I’ll start with the conservatives and you’ll agree with me on all of them.

    Story happens in the reader’s head. It’s a collaboration between the reader and the writer. A skilled writer does better there, but to blame the writer alone for what appears there is not at all reasonable.

    And yes, I was amused to see Suresh, too, although I don’t like him on HEROES. His “science” on the show is garbage, although I still like the show.

    There are some challenging shows on the science vs. fantasy spectrum (e.g., Northern Exposure, Battlestar Galactica), although I think they all play unfair.

    If your really think it’s okay to review authors rather than their work, I don’t think you’ve thought about it enough. The upside isn’t very up.

  11. says

    But Mike, once again you’re bringing in a whole lot of examples that are NOT what I was talking about to prove that I’m wrong. I’m not presuming I’m able to predict with 100% accuracy what’s going on in any writer’s head about just anything at all. However, we’re not talking about Anne Rice and AIDS, we’re not talking about some undefined reviewer who said some vague things about your work, and the Mark Twain issue is only barely on topic. We’re also not talking about trying to suss out your favorite color, sexual fetishes, or whether you’re an ObamaGirl or not.

    What we’re talking about here is being able to recognize bigotry when it walks in the room, be it in person for or book form or whatever. And quite frankly, it’s not hubris that makes me think I can recognize a bigot when I see one, it’s 30 years of living as a black woman in America. I don’t have to be Mentok the Mindreader to grok a biased mentality. All I have to do is listen or read the way words are used, attitudes are revealed, and situations unfold.

    And, if you must know, I have a pretty good track record on this. perhaps better than your average reviewer in figuring out if Interview with the Vampire was about AIDS or not.

    So I would invite you, actually, to get over your fucking self and imagine, just for a moment, that on this topic I might just know what I’m talking about even though I’m just a girl, and a black one at that.

    If you’re truly keen for people to tackle the work and not the author behind it, then I suggest, in the instance of writing books that engage WITH bigotry, that you not attempt it, since obviously you’re not ready to do so. the fact that you’re getting this worked up and going super nova at me on this issue makes me think that perhaps someone has accused you of racism because of a story before. Call me a psychic! And if you reacted to whatever this or these persons had to say with even a smidge of the bullshit you just brought in this recent comment to me, I’d be surprised if those people even talk to you any more. You don’t need to ask a friend, Mike, I can tell you now: UR BEIN’ AN ASSHOLE.

    But that’s okay, it happens.

    Yes, the best response when someone accuses you of saying/doing something racist IS to check yourself. because what are you, Mike? You’re a guy with white and male privilege. And just in case I did not make myself clear in my last comment, having such privilege sometimes blinds folks to how their actions and words are taken or even what they really reveal about us. If you’re steeped in privilege, then it’s real hard to be objective.

    And if we were playing White Bingo right now, that comment about seeing racism just because I want to see it would probably earn you a win right now. Come on, Mike, I would hope that you’d credit me with a little more intelligence than “I’m determined to see racism in everything — oh look,t here it is!” Or maybe not. It’s depressing to think that the writing you’ve done above reveals how little you truly think of me.

    Go calm the fuck down before you come back to this conversation.

  12. says

    Wait, are you saying John Ringo’s Paladin of Shadows isn’t a clever and judicious deconstruction of patriarchal heteronormativity in the technothriller genre? I’m shocked, shocked.

    For serious: Delany had it right, I think: if you don’t agree with what someone got out of your book, the only sensible thing you can say is: “That’s an interesting reading.”

    Strangers are going to form a picture of us based on our work whether we want them to or not — hell, whether they want to or not. We choose what we want to write about and how we want to write about it.

    We want the praise when people are happy with our choices, we’d better be ready to take the heat when they aren’t.

  13. says

    Tempest, I’m talking about my general guideline. That’s the topic I’ve been on the whole time. Review the work, not the author. It’s always a good suggestion for pretty much any situation. If you want to believe that you can, with perfect accuracy, identify a racist based solely on reading a story they’ve written, I guess I can’t change your belief. But I will say I’m skeptical.

  14. says

    Yes Mike, but I had already addressed your general guideline in the main post. And again in the comment replying to yours. It’s completely disingenuous of you to pretend like when I was addressing the racism/PC stuff specifically I was applying that to the general guideline. No matter how often you attempted to move the goalposts, I was still being pretty specific.

    Though I’ve already addressed this, I will attempt to again to make it clear to you. I think that a reviewer can take authorship into consideration when writing a review, but I agree that a review should not be “This book obviously sucks because Mike Brotherton can’t get it up.” There is a difference between considering authorship and going to town on an author. There’s also a difference between going to town on an author and attempting to suss out an author’s intentions, which I think can also be valid. If you don’t want reviewers or readers to discuss what they think you’re trying to say with a book, then maybe you should stop writing them? As you said, fiction is a conversation between the writer and the reader, but you don’t like it when the reader attempts to take part in that conversation out loud, it seems. Silliness, I say.

    Now I think we could both agree that reviewers should not review the author-as-individual, but I think “reviewing the author” includes reviewing the author-as-author, and that has some benefits for readers.

    So much for the general. As to the specific notion of being able to peg a racist based on a book, you can be as skeptical as you like. I don’t believe I ever said I could do so with perfect accuracy, but let me check. Nope, never said I was perfect. But I’m probably better at it than you. How many times a day do you think about racism, oppression, marginalization, sexism, homophobia, or general bigotry and prejudice? Less than I do, I bet. How many times do you directly experience it aimed at your person? I’m going to hazard a guess (which is not perfectly accurate!) that it’s almost never. me? I get it every day. Just this morning there was a lovely note in my email from some asshole calling me a nigger. Fun times! When you live with it 24/7, it tends to be easy to spot. I’m sure you can find parallels in your own life.

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