I wrote this up ahead of time for my talk at WriteFest! which turned out to be more of a Q&A thing so I didn't actually use it. So here you go! Some thoughts on reviewing! (I mean, I did get to a lot of the material, but still...)
Hi everyone and thanks for showing up for this. Reviewing is one of those things that is rather near and dear to my heart, so having the chance to talk about it is something of a treat. I want to start by returning a bit to the description that I wrote up for this, because I feel that's probably what's going to give you the best idea of how I approach reviewing.
"Sometimes being a reader can feel like participating in a scavenger hunt held at a minefield—maybe you'll find something awesome, and maybe you'll be blown to bits. Within this landscape, reviewers can act as minesweepers, going ahead to give readers some guidance about what's out there. Charles Payseur, who publishes daily fiction and poetry reviews at Quick Sip Reviews, tackles not just the Hows, but also the Whys of reviewing, particularly in speculative fiction."
So that's…rather dramatic. But I think that it's the case for a lot of people out there. I find it difficult to watch television. Not because I don't like shows but because the popular media is so dominant-driven that it becomes an exercise in how much abuse I can stand. How much erasure? How much insensitive and awful language and storylines and "character development" can I handle? Part of why I like reading a bit more is because it's a bit less profitable and the barriers to entry are fairly low, so there are works being created that are just what I want to experience. That don't hurt. That I love. The problem is finding them. Knowing where to look. And that's where I find reviews are incredibly useful.
Let me say that there's a great many reasons why people review. Some want to become authorities on a particular form or genre. They want to be engaged in creating a canon or they want to help determine the boundaries of genres or any number of other things that essentially boil down to gatekeeping. They want to be able to say what is and what is not, what should and what should not be considered when talking about science fiction or literary fiction or horror. When they review they might refuse to look at certain works because they don't cleave close enough to what they expect and enjoy. This is not the kind of reviewer I hope to be.
And there are reviewers out there who just want to express their opinions as honestly as they can. They want to go onto Goodreads and Amazon and rank what they liked good and what they didn't bad and concentrate mostly on their immediate reaction to a story or work. This is actually much closer to what I do but it's not quite what I aim for.
For me, reviewing is about a few things. First and perhaps more importantly, it's about reacting. I'm very big on owning your opinions so my goal as a reviewer is to read a story and engage with it and react to it. I don't think there's anything wrong necessarily with people who stop there, because I do think that these reviews have value. But I do believe that there's a bit more to be mined when it comes to crafting effective reviews and an effective reviewing ethos. Because aside from just reacting to a piece (I liked it! I hated it!), I also want to examine my reaction and reflect on what about the story made me react the way I did. How was the story structured or executed that made me love it? What did I love about it and what maybe didn't work so well for me? I do this for a number of reasons and the first is purely selfish—because it's an act of self reflection that helps me to better understand myself.
The second reason is that as a reader this is the kind of review that I find the most helpful. And helpful, what's that? Well, for me this kind of review is the most helpful by…just about every metric. For looking for what I might want to read or enjoy, or for helping me to firm up my thoughts about a piece afterward, I think I personally want more than just a number grade and a sentence of commentary that might only be a genre description. A great science fiction story about a sentient cat jewel thief and the hard-drinking human detective tasked with tracking them down. 4/5 stars. Well, okay, that does tell me a few things. Like…genre. Like…maybe the mood of the piece? That reviewer seems to have liked it, so maybe I will? But it's quite possible that I'd pick up the story and hate it. Maybe the reviewer really likes misogynist garbage? Maybe three quarters of the way through there's a graphic torture scene that I'd find triggering.
When I approach reviewing, I try to live by the simple advice of "be the change you want to see in the world." So I try to be the reviewer that I want to see. I want to provide people enough information, enough of a map, to be able to avoid the mines that are buried throughout what is written and published. For me that map covers only a fairly small portion of what is produced at the short SFF level. It's about all I'm capable of physically keeping up with, though, and I try to approach and engage with every original story and poem that the publications I cover put out.
Which sort of brings me away from the Why of what I do to the How of it. There are many strategies and ways of reviewing. My how was to approach the field as widely as I could because I felt there was a lack of reviewing being done that covered complete issues. Or, a lack of reviewing that I found valuable. But it's by no means the only way of doing things. I also do a monthly review of my favorite stories, which is a lovely way to get into reviewing anything. Now, unless you're reading a lot of novels a month, this is perhaps a model that works better for short stories and poetry, but this is a way to engage with a number of stories and be thorough but also to be positive. To talk up the stories you like instead of talking down the stories you did not. It still provides a map, but more for people flying around looking for safe places to land. And there are a number of people doing rec lists and review roundups and they tend to go over well and are fun and are useful. I made mine into a tasting guide where I would pair stories with thematically appropriate booze. It's great. I love it. But there's a lot that you can do with that.
Aside from that, though, which does sort of require a venue to post your reviews (a blog or facebook or something), there's other ways of reviewing. You can stick to amazon and goodreads. I like reading reviews on both that are done well. And this kind of reviewing also has the benefit of really helping promote works that you like. I've heard from publishers and people writing longer works that getting reviews on amazon and goodreads is important. It really helps to sell things. Similarly, reviewing can be as brief as posting on twitter or facebook (twitter might require a thread to really get into a review) but it's also a great way to make reviewing communal and give you a chance to maybe engage with other readers. You can also become a reviewer for an existing publication, either for free or for money. I reviewed for Book Reporter for a few years and it was a great experience, not least of all because you do tend to get free ARCs and things like that of very recent books coming out. And there are review sites that will actually offer money in exchange for reviews, though that can be rather competitive and difficult to break into.
Or, if you're like me, you can take the show to Patreon and try to earn some for doing it all on your own. It has its own problems, and it's not like most people can just jump onto Patreon and be successful, but it is a route that you can go to try and ease the financial and temporal burdens associated with reviewing. Whether you're paid or not, though, reviewing can be a powerful tool, and a great avenue of expression.
Reviewing is, after all, its own creative endeavor. Reviews have value as pieces of writing that can be moving and beautiful and inspiring in their own write, completely apart from the works that inspired them. Which, maybe I'm weird, but I approach short SFF as a fan so I feel that in many ways what reviewers do is like what fanfiction writers do. We take this source material and we craft something inspired by it, something that both reflects back on the source and perhaps reveals something new as well. At least, in theory that's how I think of it, as fan-nonfiction.
So to close things up before I move to questions, I guess I just want to say that if you want to review, it's can be a wonderful and rewarding and artistic and expressive experience. If you keep at it and keep an awareness about what you are doing, you will learn so much about yourself and about the works that you review, and about how stories are effective. It has certainly made me a better fiction writer, I believe, and a better poetry writer, because you essentially are teaching yourself about how writing works for you. It's incredibly personal, but it's also something that can be shared and can be valuable to a huge number of people. It can also suck, and I don't want to ignore that, because it can feel like no one cares and no one is listening, because it feels like it's an impossible task and not worth the time or effort. But to really be successful at reviewing, just like anything, the work has to be worth it. You have to love it in some way. And as long as you do, it's pretty much impossible to fail at it. Thank you!