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.