Saturday, January 16, 2016

Quick Thoughts - Reading Reviews

I think it's safe to say that I have thoughts on reviewing. Much like I have thoughts on stories, I could write my own reviews of reviews and how successful I think they are at what I think they're trying to do. Obviously I don't think there's some metric of a good review, some eternal and objective guide, just as I believe that no such guide exists for stories. There is no formula and no approach that necessarily has more value than any other. But I do think that some reviews are more valuable than others just as I think that some stories are more valuable than others. But why the fuck should anyone care? Why am I bothering to say this when it might seem obvious given my philosophy on reviewing stories? 

The easy answer is that Lois Tilton leaving Locus got me thinking about reviewing. Thrown into this has been some general chatter falling out of that about reviewing, which opened up the old discussion of who reviews are for in general. Because, it is argued, no one pays attention or no one changes their habits based on reviews, or…well, there are a number of reasons why reviews exist in a strange place where they can be useful or useless, depending on whose complaining to who. Some said that reviews are really just for authors, that it's a sort of circle jerk of ego stroking. Of course, the same voices were sort of decrying the "state of short SFF" in the same breath, so I kind of think it has more to do with the reviewers perhaps liking stories that people don't think are worthy of time or attention. 

Now, okay, Lois Tilton has walked away from Locus, where she reviewing an awful lot of stories. And, okay, to review some reviews, some of the work she produced there was…questionable. And not just in the "there were some reviews I agreed with and some I didn't." There are many reviews I disagree that I still think are good reviews, because they are insightful and because they are well written and because reviewing is a form that does take some work. Are reviews bad because they are negative? No. Indeed, negative reviews can be both damned entertaining and damned important texts. Are reviews bad because they are glowing? No, for much the same reason. I love sharing in someone's joy at reading a text, and what they manage to pull out from the words and techniques. When I have a problem with reviews my biggest complaint is failure to engage the text. Failure to try. A review that is half about how the author of a work's name is like a different author's name and is therefore confusing=not trying. A review that is basically complaining about how the story isn't really science fiction but is marked as science fiction=not trying. 

Not that I'm trying to tell anyone their business, but I do think that reviewing and reviews deserve to be viewed with some measure of critical gaze and I just want to sort of go through how I look at and judge reviews. Because, more than anything, I want a review to help me think about a text. Either after I've read a thing and want to see other reactions to see if they help crystallize my own thoughts or before I read a thing in order to get an idea of what to expect. Now, there's also reading reviews to get recommendations on what to read and there's even reading reviews because reviews are fun to read. In all of these, though, I value honest engagement with a text. And if I see that a reviewer has two sentences to say on a text and they have nothing really to do with the actual work, I know to kind of stay away. 

But what I think I'm trying to say in all of this is that reviews have value. Perhaps I'm biased because I review, but I think that reviewing has value outside what it can do for publishers. It's about energizing readers and connecting with stories, with texts. It's about passion and it's about expression in many ways just as much as the works that inspire the reviews. Like fanfiction in some ways, reviewing can't really exist without the original texts, and like fanfiction there's a vast range of reviews out there. Some are incredible. Some are…not. Hopefully I manage to hit somewhere in between (to lean more incredible than suck is my goal). 

But mostly it would be nice to be able to talk about reviewing as one talks about texts in general rather than as glorified advertising. Just as I cringe away when people start talking about "the problem with short SFF these days is…" so too do I cringe when people start talking about "the problem with reviewing these days is…" We are living in a golden age of access to amazing reviews (unfortunately also a golden age of people not getting paid for them, but that's another thing entirely), with people being able to see review of stories and books and movies (via Amazon, Goodreads, etc.) from users all of the world. I would like to think this is a good thing, not just in order to make money for people and businesses, but to complicate how we talk about and approach texts. Because that is amazing. Thanks for reading! 

All the best, 

Charles Payseur


  1. Does anybody actually try to make critical sense of the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads? It would be an interesting project. What strikes me in those reviews is the great variation in what people appear to want from books.

    I haven't seen much meta analysis of professional reviewing either, and like you, I would like to. I have the feeling that in contrast to the Amazon and Goodreads reviewers, many professional reviewers share at least some criteria, and I would love to read a discussion of that. I'm also interested in to what extent reviewing contributes to people's impression of the field as a whole, and to what extent reviewers hope to influence the field.

    1. I will admit to being a bit weird and reading reviews on Goodreads and Amazon critically (partly because a lot of sites/blogs dual post there and it's easier for me to sort on GR than save tons of bookmarks). But it is true, there's a vast range of reviewers out there, tastes, etc. And still the same valuable vs perhaps not (for me as a reader, writer, reviewer, etc) as with most things. As for criteria, I feel like that sometimes can be as limiting to reviewing as the "free-for-all" reviews you can see on GR. I've reviewed for places that have a rather limited view of genre and what the reviews should be (mostly plot emphasis vs not much plot emphasis). And the idea of "pro" in reviewing is hard to really get down. But it would be interesting to see how reviewing impacts how genres/fields are defined and conceptualized, because many times reviewing gives people or guides people in critical discourse. would super neat to see how that would be measured and what the results would be. :)

    2. I think a starting place would be to identify the most influential reviewers, perhaps by something like their klout score. Or in the case of Amazon, can you access the 'most useful' ratingsfor individual reviewers? (You can tell I haven't much experience in this area.)