The eternal debate pertaining to book reviews

Hi there!

The endless discussion concerning the worth or lack thereof of online book reviews has been resuscitated yet again. Gabe Chouinard wrote a post on the subject while reviewing Sean Williams' The Crooked Letter. If you frequent most of the big fantasy message boards, you are probably aware of this ongoing debate. But since many people here are not active members of any message boards, I thought that this could be of interest.

Ken (The Neth Space) has done a good job coming up with all the links. If you are interested in learning more, check it out here. As for me, this thing was old months ago. So I feel no urge to jump in and add my two cents.

Personally, I review books based on a set of criteria that make or break novels for me. Am I better than anyone else? You tell me. I have no pretention to be. I do my own thing, that's all. And considering the number of people stopping by every week, I believe it's safe to assume that a vast number of readers have come to enjoy my style and trust my judgement. To me, a review should tell me if the book is good or not, and elaborate on exactly why that's the case. I understand Gabe Chouinard and Larry's (Dylanfanatic) point of view. They would like reviews to go beyond the novel, beyond the story. They want reviews to explore the underlying themes, reviews that break down the plot and put its components under the microscope. Finally, after undergoing that process, reviewers should write an eloquent piece that will expose what they have unearthed. A worthwhile endeavor, no doubt. Why can't there be more reviews like this? they wonder.

The truth is quite simple. Because 99% of readers basically don't give a fuck. It's all about the books and their stories. It's about the characters that come alive. It's about tales that capture our imagination. It's about the reading experience. I think that some reviewers suffer from self-delusion when it comes to their apparent self-importance.

At heart, although publishers consider me an "official" book reviewer, I'm still just a fan of the genre. I've been a fan for more than two decades, so applying a new label on my person won't change that. I'm still one of the guys. And as such, I write reviews for the fans. This blog's objective has always been to spread the word about all that's good in the fantasy/scifi/speculative fiction genres, and to raise awareness in books and authors that deserve to get more exposure. It's never been about me. Who am I, anyway? It's the books and the authors who write them that matter.

What do I consider a good review? Something that let's me know the strengths and weaknesses of a novel, for one thing. Something that will hopefully pique my curiosity. Something that let's me know if this book is worth buying or not, or if I should just wait for the paperback. Reviewers who ramble on about underlying themes and write a piece that is akin to a philosophical essay lose me by the second paragraph. This stuff just makes me want to commit suicide. If you read my book reviews, you are aware that I always attempt to break down a book based on worldbuilding, characterization, pace, prose, storylines, and overall quality. It might not be the case for everyone, but that's what I look for in a book.

I can't stand John Clute. Sue me. Also, I can't read a review by Harriet Klausner without feeling nauseous. In the end, I think that it's the readers who decide what they're looking for in a reviewer. I'm persuaded that it's all about the style of his or her reviews and, more importantly, in the trust they have in his or her judgement. I enjoy Rob Bedford and William Lexner's styles and I have come to rely on their opinion. Because they're better reviewers than the others out there? No. Simply because we have similar tastes in books and because their reviews scratch my itch.

As for "fan" reviews having no credibility, I beg to differ. While it's true that a majority of them are not necessarily well-written and could be a little more concise, I always enjoy discovering what people have to say about books I've reviewed. Why? Because these guys and gals didn't get a free copy or an ARC from the publisher. They don't have access to the author or his or her editors. What gives them a credibility that no "official" reviewer possesses is the fact that they have paid 30$ and more of their hard-earned money to purchase a book, oft-times based on one of our "official" reviews. Book reviewers don't move books. Fans, however, do. Some of us would like to think that we play a major role in the process, but do you sincerely believe that people like Jay Tomio and I created that enormous buzz surrounding Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora on Westeros? Sure, along with Ran we got the ball rolling. But it's when the fans got on the bandwagon that things began to snowball. Hence, fan reviews have their place, and I encourage fans to keep posting their reviews on every message board. Just a suggestion: you might want to run a spelling and grammar check before posting it, though!;-)

Hmmm. . . I did say I wasn't going to say anything about this debate. . . So I figure I better shut up now! Click on the link at the beginning of this mini-rant to see what the noise is all about!:-)

6 commentaires:

Neth said...

Nice to see you jump in - my favorite parts of your response:

So I feel no urge to jump in and add my two cents.

After this line you went on for 7 more paragraphs ;)

Just a suggestion: you might want to run a spelling and grammar check before posting it, though!;-)

ahh...does caracter pass? ;)

Ok, I'm done being an ass - I generally agree, as I've stated elsewhere. It's nice to see that I'm not alone in the John Clute world - I've started many of his reviews, but I don't think I've ever been able to read one all the way through - useless literary jargon to me.

Patrick said...

You want to know something? I knew if I put that bit I'd screw up somewhere. That's karma for you!;-)In my own defense, I did say I was a fan, first and foremost!

Took care of it, of course!

As for John Clute, well his stuff is not for me. No disrespect intended, but he just doesn't write the sort of reviews I want to read. As for Klausner. . .;-)

I started this blog with the intent of writing the sort of book reviews I'd find informative. And that's what I keep focusing on.

Like it or leave it, I say! Those who are looking for something a little "deeper" will find it elsewhere. . .

Robert said...

As someone who has reviewed CDs professionally for over five years, before my current break, here are my two cents: I personally prefer reviews that come from an objective point of view – personal reviews tend to be too biased and focus more on why this particular author or story is so great, rather than the specific book at hand. To me a novel, like an album, can be broken down into certain components as mentioned by Patrick: writing style, character development, pacing, etc. Also, like an album, there is no such thing as a perfect book, as each has its own strengths and weaknesses, which should be noted. After that, comparisons to previous novels written by the author, or preceding entries in an ongoing series, is preferable, if applicable, but a reviewer has to be careful not to let their opinions become dictated by earlier works. I also do not mind the obligatory comparisons to popular authors. After all, if I prefer reading a certain author, should I not be made aware if a newcomer or relative unknown falls in a certain category, if that comparison is justified? Finally, I feel that the exploration of thematic issues & ideals should be left to the college professors, etc. In the end though, all reading comes down to is one’s own personal tastes, and the same can be said for reviews…

Ran said...

There is almost certainly a school of thought which will say that your views, Patrick, signify a real problem with reviewing on the Internet...

... and that problem are the readers of these reviews, the fans who want nothing more than a basic idea of what the book is about and the judgment of the reviewer as to whether it's worth picking up or not. By becoming an audience for such things, they create the atmosphere for the sort of thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews, and create a self-perpetuating circle...

:P I know there are people out there who think this way, both in the academic world and in terms of Internet reviewing. Its a shame.

I see from reading on, at least, that many people have clarified their views to some degree, and are more aiming at paying SF/F sites on the web not wringing out more quality criticism from their reviewers.

There ought to be people who satisfy the desires of readers who want deep analysis and criticism of books before they go and read them. But the Internet's a big place, and there's plenty of room for everyone.

Patrick said...

Ran said:

«There ought to be people who satisfy the desires of readers who want deep analysis and criticism of books before they go and read them. But the Internet's a big place, and there's plenty of room for everyone.»

Amen to that!

I believe there is room on the web for countless types of book reviews. Those who wish to do just that can create their own niche, and all the more power to them.

My opinion remains that in the bigger scheme of things, very readers actually care about that sort of deeper analysis and criticism. In a way, I've always looked at message boards as the perfect vehicle to do just that. At least that's where I'm headed if I want to discuss R. Scott Bakker's THE PRINCE OF NOTHING and Hal Duncan's VELLUM at length.

If the first few reviews I read about VELLUM had delved into the intricate tapestry that this novel truly is, it would likely have put me right to sleep. And chances are I never would have picked up the book. To me, a review must pique my curiosity, catch my interest in a variety of ways. Then I can appreciate the novel for what it has to offer.

But that's just me. And from all the replies generated by this debate thus far, it's evident that there is a multitude of disparate tastes out there. So it's just a question of everyone finding the kind of reviewers they like and stick with them.:-)

Lsrry said...

I have a few extra spare moments to browse elsewhere due to wotmania being down for whatever reason and I see my name is being referenced in this discussion? I guess even when too busy to think about much besides my job-job for the past couple of weeks still isn't enough to keep my opinions out of a discussion! :P

I'll just say that my opinions are merely what I desire and not of what I would like to force upon others...if anything, I've become less and less visible recently as my new job and my interests are starting to diverge more and more from what others would consider to be the main areas of speculative fiction.

And since I've more or less stopped being an "official" reviewer over the past year or so (no ARCs since TTT last October), I've felt more "free" - not that I was writing what others wanted me to write, but that I don't feel any obligation to go out and hunt down the next so-and-so - I just browse through some lists and read what I'm in the mood for reading and if I have the time/desire to write a review, I'll write a review. And mind you, I'm one of the first native English-speakers urging people to look forward to José Saramago's pending translation of Las intermitencias de la muerte - I've been mentioning this book for almost a year now and it probably won't be available in English translation until late 2007 or 2008 at the earliest. But when I feel like it (after a re-read in a few months), I'll review it at length (en inglés, por supuesto ;)) and explain why I enjoyed it so. Of course, I'll have to translate a bit, I suppose, but those are the breaks.

But in the meantime, this storm shall blow over soon enough...until the next season of book releases arrives ;)