Friday, April 24, 2009

Rightly Reconsidering (Book) Reviews

Are book reviews (and by default, book reviewers) so sacrosanct as to be above reproach?

Authors -- and yes, editors and publishers as well -- are taught at a very young age in their professional careers to ignore reviews, to not take them personally, to turn the other cheek, so to speak. And why is that? Why can't we respond to reviews?

Because we will give the impression that we are unprofessional, that we are whiners. At least that's what our peers -- and possibly readers of the review -- may think. But from our own perspective, we also have to worry that we'll piss off the reviewer by our response, and then that reviewer will take it out on us a hundredfold in the next review, if in fact there even is a next review. And then others may not want to review our work for fear of receiving such a response as well. And as
Cheryl Morgan (a book reviewer and critic) just pointed out to me: "...if an author challenges a review, his fans will go after the reviewer, whether he wants them to or not."

Reviews/reviewers and authors are sort of like the separation between Church and State. Yet the incoming president takes the oath of office with his hand upon a Bible; and the coin of the realm all proclaim "In God We Trust."

So where does that leave us?

Some authors I know truly don't care about reviews, reviewers, or what others think of their stories. Once they've completed a work of fiction and it's been accepted by the editor, they then move on to the next project and never look back. While other authors are deeply concerned -- and affected -- by reviews and what others think of their fiction.

I worked with an author on her short fiction collection, and after the book was published we stayed in contact with one another for a bit. The following year her next novel was published, and it was reviewed in Locus magazine -- a mediocre review at best, but at least it wasn't blatantly negative. (Locus, though, doesn't typically publish blatantly negative reviews; I assume if the book is that bad, they simply choose not to review it, so a mediocre review in Locus, when all is said and done, is definitely not a good review.) What upset the author the most, however, was that the reviewer missed a key element of the story -- and that key element would have explained the reviewer's primary issue with the novel (and maybe then the review wouldn't have been mediocre). Locus, at the time, was considered a highly influential publication (though not so much anymore, now that we are solidly in the digital age, and readers, book buyers, and book collectors get the majority of their information and reviews online), so even a mediocre review could have a strong, negative sales effect on a book. But we'll never know, will we: missed opportunities -- aka sales -- cannot be measured.

But the question(s) remains: Did the reviewer blow it big time by missing that key element of the story? Or, did the author -- and, let's be honest, the book's editor shares responsibility in this as well -- blow it big time by not communicating that key element more effectively to the reader/reviewer? If every review of the novel contained this same "omission," then yes, we could agree that the fault lies with the author, and the author's editor. But if only one review were guilty of this oversight, then the finger would indeed point to the reviewer. If the review was on Joe's Friendly Neighborhood blog, then I don't think the author (and editor and publisher) would be particularly concerned; but when that mediocre review shows up in the Washington Post Book World or Publishers Weekly (before Reed Business Information tried to sell the publication, and, to reduce costs, began paying freelance reviewers $25.00 per review; read more about
PW's freelance fees), then we know sales will most likely be affected.

Unfortunately, given the Church and State dichotomy, the author has no recourse but to grin and bear it -- or to hit his [the generic use of "his," implying both male and female authors] head against the wall and scream, if he tends to not be the silent type.

And yet, I'm encountering more and more reviews of late where the reviewer just doesn't seem to get it! Why is that? [Notice I keep asking this same question a lot.] Is it the reviewer's lack of experience and knowledge in the genre? It's difficult to say, unless one knows the reviewer personally, or the reviewer provides a professional bio alongside the review. And all of this places even more pressure on the author who cares about what others say of his work.

Here's my take on the three main issues with genre reviews; they are like the plague, and they are spreading...

1. The reviewer is unable to -- or forgets to, or chooses not to -- separate the writer from the characters.

The story being reviewed is just that, a story; it is fiction. An author creates characters and then creates a world in which those characters exist. Often those characters are despicable: racists, misogynists, homophobes, whatever. Again, let me repeat myself: these are traits of the characters in the story the author has created; and these fictional people tend to view the world in stereotypes. That's not to say that people like this do not exist in the real world, but we're talking about fictional characters written by an author who is paid to create a fictional story. And yet, how often have you seen a review in which the author is criticized and chastised for creating stereotypes, for being racist, or misogynistic, or homophobic. Reviewers: your attention, please: Try reviewing the world presented in the story through the eyes of the POV character, not the author!

2. Reviewers who surrender to their preconceptions of the book before they've even picked up the book and begun reading.

A sequel is panned because the story didn't feature the reviewer's favorite character from the first book; the reviewer was disappointed, and didn't enjoy the story as it dragged all the way through because he was waiting for his favorite character to appear, which eventually occurred toward the end of the book. Once again, reviewers, your attention, please: Try reviewing the creation (aka the story) the author has given you. (It's sort of like giving your newborn a bad review because you wanted a blonde with blue eyes and ended up with a redhead with hazel eyes. Maybe you shouldn't have had the child in the first place!)

3. Reviewers who don't do their homework in preparation for a review, including reading the accompanying PR material (as well as the book's introduction, afterword, and story notes).

In a previous
blog post on George Alec Effinger, I specifically referred to a review of Budayeen Nights by John Clute. In that same review, Clute also said this about "The Plastic Pasha," one of the included stories: "...a very late story fragment which goes nowhere..." The title of the "fragment" isn't even mentioned in the review. Had Clute read the mere 211 words (less than a page) that made up the preceding story notes, he would have learned that Effinger had just begun this story when he passed away. And as editor of that book, I, probably more so than anyone, was especially sorry that the "story fragment" went nowhere; had Effinger lived to complete it, well, we can only speculate. But a wee bit of reverence from Clute for the last words that George Alec Effinger was ever to write would have been appreciated. I wrote a lengthy letter of clarification to Mr. Clute -- a letter that I thought to be very professional and on-topic -- which I sent to the publisher to forward to John Clute, but the publisher chose not to do so. I suspect he didn't send that letter for the same reasons I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Wouldn't it be a wonderful world (strains of Louis Armstrong wafting in the background) if we, as authors, editors, and publishers, could open a dialogue with reviewers to discuss key points in the story, iron out perceived misunderstandings, hypothesize and speculate, etc. Such a dialogue would bring more attention to the book, the goal being to encourage readers to purchase the book, read it for themselves, and see what conclusions they themselves come to -- and possibly even return to the discussion with their own input.

With blogs, and bloglike websites, now hosting book reviews, most sites now allow reader "comments."

But then, once you open a review to feedback, there is no guarantee as to what that feedback may yield. And since responding to a review of ones own book remains a professional indiscretion, those who do comment may not always have the best interests of the reviewer, the website, or the book in mind. Certainly no mutual dialogue between author and reviewer will result.

Addendum: Before posting this blog entry, I decided to share it with my friend
Judith Moffett, author of the recently released novel The Bird Shaman. I greatly respect Judy's opinion, so I asked her to read this and let me know what she thought. I tweaked a couple things based on her response, but I was most intrigued with her concluding comment (which she has allowed me to share with you): "In the best of all possible worlds, there ought to be a forum for authors and let's call them critics to address one another, responsibly and with respect, and maybe this could be it. Or somebody could start one, and see if it gets abused. Or maybe I'm thinking of writing workshops and student conferences, and live in cloud-cuckooland?"

And your comments are most welcome as well.

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  1. In Clute's review of Bruce Sterling's latest novel, The Caryatids, on, Clute incorrectly identifies the island of Mljet as Cyprus. I've seen the same mistake in a couple of other online reviews of the book.

    During a recent conversation with friends at the UK eastercon, we speculated that reviewers such as Clute deliberately include errors in their reviews in order to determine if they are copied by others - in the same way that dictionary publishers allegedly include made-up words in their dictionaries.

  2. My big fear, especially when reviewing recently published works (about a quarter of all reviews I do), is missing an obvious point the author tries to make or a plot element vitally important to the book. Keeps me on my toes I suppose but I am sure I have done so on occasion. It's hard to get everything out of a book in one reading, that is something a reviewer should be aware of. Added difficulty for me personally is that I read most of them in a second language.

    On the rare occasions I have gotten comments by authors they have been positive. I guess most authors are very careful about defending their work or responding to negative reviews. I think an interview is probably a better way for an author to go about that than comments on a blog or forum.

    Rob Weber

    Associate reviewer @

  3. Ian -

    Thanks for your response. I can't speak to specific content errors, as in the example you give; they may or may not be intentional. I guess you would have to ask Clute about this instance. (Though I suspect a reviewer will say the error was intentional even if it wasn't!) What I was referring to was making incorrect assumptions and statements about the book within the course of the review. Those have more impact on the book and author -- and potential sales -- and cause editors like myself to go screaming into the night (as I'm not the silent type). Though I am glad you brought up Clute's review of The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling; I did so enjoy the reader feedback to that review!

    - marty

  4. Rob,

    I appreciate your reviewer's perspective; and reading books in a second language has got to be difficult, given the nuances of many languages. When I edit an author's manuscript, I try to read the book through once as a "reader" so that I can get a feel for the plot, the characters, and the author's style and rhythm; then I read the ms. at least a couple more times while editing/copyediting -- and yet, I still occasionally miss inconsistencies and such. That's why I feel an open dialogue between reviewer and author could be so beneficial.

    You make a good point about interviews, as I hadn't thought of that while writing this blog entry. But who would conduct the interview -- the book reviewer? Tricky...

    - marty

  5. As a Blogger Reviewer, I agree with all three points above. Anyone worth his salt should e sure to read any additional material provided, and do their utmost to dive deep into the tale, trying to see both what the story is and authorial intent.

    But lets be clear what you are asking, by asking a reviwer to GET IT, you are asking them to understand the authors' intent. But this is fiction, and there cannot by any sort of guarantee of this type, because every reader's experience is different.

    I'm not saying a reviewer shouldn't try (I know I do) but there simply is no guarantee they will GET IT.

    As yo your idea about authors and reviewers talking together, you are calling for one of two things. One, the writer reviews a review before it comes out and changes any mistakes. Or, two, you simply want more open dialogue about reviewing, and to be allowed as an author to take part in reviewing.

    If the latter, I think that is already taking place in many forums, on blogs, and elsewhere, you just haven't found it yet. If it is stuff that should be private, i can say that on many an occasion I have had a discussion with an author about a review I wrote and posted. Some said thank you, some took issue, and one self-published author even redid his whole publishing scheme (turn 1 book into 3) based on dialogue we had. So these conversations are taking place.

    As to the comment about interviews - well, in many cases the amateur reviewers and blogger ARE conducting interviews as well as reviews, so I'm not sure why you see that as tricky.

  6. I very much agree with John above on the points you make about reviewing. Regardless of anything, each book should be taken on its own merits and it is the content that is reviewed, not the author. One thing that really grates me is when I read a review where the author is slated because of the subject or characters within the novel.

    Regarding your comment about not getting it - I can see where you're coming from, although sometimes, at least in my opinion, there really is no way of expanding on that too much. A book that I'm currently reading is a great example - it has pretty much hit the mark wherever I turn, some saying that it's the author's best work and others that it will no doubt be on the awards lists next time around. I just don't see this - not that the writing isn't good, but I can't put my finger on why I'm not enjoying it. I'm hoping by the time I finish I'll have some firm thoughts in my mind...

  7. Grasping,

    Always good to receive feedback from another reviewer; thank you. My "get it" comment was really linked to the three points I stated, and if that's not clear then I take full responsibility for that. I also realize that, whether it's books, movies, or music, there is much that is intrinsic in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, which affects one's interpretation and enjoyment -- and thus any review.

    I'm actually pleased to hear that a behind-the-scenes dialogue has had a positive effect on how an author published his books. But as I said, this background discussion doesn't add anything to the book being reviewed, or the review itself. If my publisher had sent that letter of "clarification" to John Clute, I doubt that Clute would have gone back and added or changed anything in the review. It's all conjecture on my part, of course; though possibly it may have affected Clute's future reviews.

    Lastly, my "tricky" comment referred to a situation in which a person publishes a review of a specific work and then that same person interviews the author of that specific work. Does the author and/or the reviewer refer to the previous review during the interview? If not, then there's that separation again; and if so, then yes, we have the potential for a good public diaglogue.

    - marty

  8. Mark,

    Your comment about the book you are currently reading -- the one that is the author's best work and is expected to appear on awards lists -- reminds me of my attempt to read Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. The book won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and is considered to be one of SF's classics. And yet (and I'll probably catch a lot of flack for this), it was one of the most boring books I have ever read; I had to force myself to finish it because I knew it had won these awards, and I hoped it would improve before the end (but it didn't). Maybe the book you're reading is like my Rendezvous with Rama!

    - marty

  9. Marty,

    As a reviewer I know that sometimes (hopefully only infrequently) I miss a salient point required to fully appreciate or "get" a work. Or, that the review is just not up to standard.

    In either case I would have no problem with an author or commenting on the review and pointing out what I got wrong and why I was mistaken.

    This would, of course, be with the understanding that I would try to understand the author / editor's perspective but still may not agree. Or that in the end, the author / editor would agree with where I'm coming from.

    The conversation is worthwhile if done with civility / professionalism (from both sides).

    I think it's a good goal, Marty. I really do.

  10. Good to hear from you, Joe. I know that you've reviewed a few of my edited Golden Gryphon Press titles over the years! And I appreciate your words of support on this issue as well.

    As you say, that "civility/professionalism (from both sides)" is essential, but it is a very thin line, unfortunately, and is easily crossed. Both reviewers and authors have an emotional investment in their creations, and it's often difficult to discuss/explain them without becoming defensive.

    I'll continue to read your reviews, and hope for such a dialogue.

    - marty

  11. One of my pet peeves is a reviewer who just states what they don't like in a book without ever saying why. A mediocre or even a bad review is not necessarily harmful as long as the person reading it understands the reasons behind the reviewer's impressions.

    Lets say, for example, I have a serious issue with love at first sight. In the book I'm reading everybody keeps falling head over heels in love with the first member of the opposite sex they talk to for more then 5 seconds. I hate it with a passion, it ruins the whole book for me. You could say I didn't GET IT.

    But, you happen to be a hopeless romantic and you love that sort of thing. As long as I explain in my review that I hate the whole concept of love at first sight, and the fact that it happens in the book frequently, my review is actually going to pique your interest and make you run out and buy the book. As they say "One man's trash is another man's treasure."

    Of course the same thing applies to what I did like. Just saying that the book was great does not really tell anybody anything useful.

    The main standard I strive for in a review is honesty with explanation. I do not ever want to say "I hated the book" without explaining exactly why, or atleast my best guess. (I've been where Mark is, didn't like it but could not put my finger on why but I did try to guess at a possible reason.) This way, the person reading the review can decide for themselves if my tastes might, or might not, mirror their own.

    Meanwhile, I do not want to live in a box. If an author wants to politely question my review, correct a salient point or even just say thanks I welcome it. It just does not feel fair or right to me that I can voice my opinion and yet he/she is considered unprofessional if they express theirs.

    But, just like my reviews, that is only my opinion :>)

  12. Mulluane,

    Thanks for your input. You make a good point, that it's not fair that reviewers can voice their opinion, and yet the author/editor/publisher is considered unprofessional if they voice theirs.

    Maybe instead of "review" websites and blogs, we need more -- for lack of a better term -- "book club" websites and blogs, where a book can be discussed rather than reviewed.

    And, in fact, maybe there are (genre) sites like this and I just haven't found them yet.
    - marty

  13. The book club idea is one of the ideas behind the forums on the site I review for. With the review as a starting point to kick off discussion. These threads remain open but most posts are made right after the review is posted.

    People don't all read the same books at the same time and it is hard to convince them too. Even if someone does remember we ran a review, can be bothered to find it and post a comment half a year later, or even a year, do you go back and get into a detailed discussion of something you read months ago?

    Getting people to read the same book at the same time and more or less the same speed to discuss things chapter by chapter is even harder. I tried that once and I thought it was rather a frustrating experience because I had to wait for other people to catch up. During the wait my attention inevitably drifted to other books, which unfortunately proved more interesting. The discussion while it lasted was very interesting but we didn't make it to the end of the book.

    As for interviews... A lot of review sites do interviews as well. Usually even a review and interview in short succession. This seems to work well enough, with the interview providing information that doesn't really fit into a review of a single book. It's always possible to slip in a question on the reactions to the authors last book without it dominating the discussion or making the author look unprofessional. I'm not sure how authors and/or editors view this though.

    Rob Weber

    Associate reviewer @

  14. I’ve gotten into several conversations with Authors about their short stories. I think that it is fun. I for one don’t tend to review stories that I don’t like. I just let them fade into the abyss. I have had one author comment on almost every post, asking questions or pointing me in another direction. ( I think that the feedback is interesting, but I respond to what intersects me at the time.

    When an author puts a piece of fiction, or any writing into the world, it is free of the author. The author cannot sit down next to a reader and poke and prod and lead a reader to the author’s intended message. The reader will bring to the author’s text their own baggage, which color’s the reading in a way that the author could never have expected. On some level, the reader’s interpretation is the most important, but that is not to say that if a reader was willing to do the legwork that the depth of their understanding would not change.

    Example: I love the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. His work is amazing. One of my favorite stories is “Arthur Jermyn” ( I’ve been reading Lovecraft’s letter and have recently discovered his racism and praise of Hitler. Re-reading “Arthur Jermyn,” in the light of this new discovery deepens my understanding of the horror that Lovecraft was trying to convey to his readers: the horror of finding African descendents in the family tree.

    So, I guess that hearing and discussing stories with author’s is interesting and fun, but ultimately the author’s message is either in the text or it isn’t, or the reader understood or didn’t.

    This is a great post! I will add this blog to my reader!

  15. Hi, Rob,

    Appreciate your follow-up to my "book club" comment. I think this idea could work if a schedule were published in advance -- *and* your review website had a large enough following. Let's say you published a schedule today for the books that you will review/discuss between June and August -- three to six books, depending on their length. This would give readers sufficient time to obtain the books and read them prior to the discussion. And maybe after the second month, you could post a "follow-up" piece on the book(s) from the first month and just query readers if anyone had since finished the book and had additional comments. Further, the author(s) could be invited -- and hell, even the editor(s) for that matter! -- to participate in the discussion as well. I recall author Jeffrey Ford doing something similar: I don't recall the exact details, but a Lit class was reading his stories and the students were required to post comments and such from their reading online to which Jeff was invited to respond. Very cool opportunity for everyone.

    - marty

  16. Aaron,

    It's great to hear that you've had such success conversing with authors about their stories. And yes, readers/reviewers do indeed bring their own unique "baggage" to the book, but I still believe this "baggage" differs from what I referred to as "preconceptions." The "baggage" we may not always be aware of, whereas the "preconceptions" tend to be more overt. Regardless, both color the experience of reading the book.

    I'm glad that you enjoyed this post in particular, and thanks for adding my blog to your reader.

    - marty