On Reviewing

Posted: October 19, 2009 in Braak, poetics, reviews
Tags: , ,

Over at the Black Gate Magazine website, a fellow named Bill Ward has put up an article about the difference between a book review, a book summary, and book criticism.  There are some interesting and important distinctions to be made there.  One of the things it’s done, though, is got me thinking about the nature of reviews and reviewers:  how reviews get propagated, who reviewers make their living, what kind of media can support effective reviews.

So, onward!

(First let me say:  yesterday I was talking to Jeanine about why I think things like the reflexive and transitive properties of mathematics are fascinating:  they’re obviously true, but that doesn’t mean you can just go ahead without saying that they’re true.  Some of this is going to be like that, just so we’re all on the same page.)

When I was a kid, I didn’t have much time for reviews because, frankly, I didn’t care what I read.  As long as the cover of the book had a picture of a) a guy with a sword, b) a sexy lady, or c) some kind of monster, and the book itself could be found in the SF/Fantasy section, I would read it.  I guess I wasn’t what you’d call “discerning”:  a review that appealed to me would have to basically just be an assurance that someone gets stabbed and/or chopped, and that at least one fireball is thrown.

I imagine that there’s still a fairly substantial block of people that read fiction–especially genre fiction–with that same lack of discernment.  Maybe they like spy thrillers, or whatever.  Maybe Dan Brown can write the same book three times, with his clunky prose and catastrophic misunderstandings, and people will keep buying it.  What is a review for that kind of reader going to look like?  The new Dan Brown book had sold a million copies before the reviews even hit–and, honestly, even if the critical mass had gotten together and decided that they were going to universally pan the book, how much of a difference would it have made?  People read it because Dan Brown wrote the Da Vinci Code, and because there’s a secret conspiracy in it.  No matter how vicious your review, it’s impossible to describe that book in such a way that it does not include those elements, and therefore your review will make the book seem appealing to the kind of people that like Dan Brown.

But where does this lack of discernment come from?  Ironically, I think it comes from not reading enough reviews.  You need two things to start being critical in choosing your books:  the first is a weighted exposure to better books, the second is the critical structures to recognize what’s good about them.  That is, if you read a wide spectrum of books, and nine of them are shitty in their own ways, but one of them is good, how do you know which one is the good one?  We’ve got to learn what good is, the way we learn everything else, and if our exposure is unweighted, no mechanisms are emplaced to sort the good from the bad.

Good reviews–the kind that you read, remember, and then refer back to when you read the book–sort out the good books from the bad books, but also provide a critical framework for evaluating them.

So, interesting.  But let’s consider a reader who is already discerning.  I am, for example, a little more discerning now than I was when I was a kid–primarily, this is because I have to buy my own books, and I don’t have math classes during the day that I can ignore while I read.  I can afford fewer books, and have to spend less time reading them, so I necessarily have to be pickier about the books I read (more irony:  the time I spend being picky is time I could spend reading).

So, let me tell you what I see when I read reviews, and maybe you guys can tell me if this is typical.  If a review is really positive, I will likely read that book if the opportunity presents itself.  If the review is only mediocre, I will not.  (Exceptions abound:  Simon Green’s books rarely get rave reviews, but I like him and so will read those books–same with Steven Brust, lately.)  This is important–the quality threshold for books that I pick up based on reviews is very high.

Since I won’t buy a book based on a mediocre review, a particularly scathing review seems pointless, and sometimes needlessly cruel–I’m already not buying it, there’s no need to be mean about it.  But with genre work, it’s pretty rare that you run into a scathing review; possibly because of what I just mentioned, possibly because of a tacit understanding among reviewers and publishers of reviews that genre work needs to be encouraged, so it’s better to say nothing if you can’t say something nice.

What value does a bad review have at all?  The only times I notice a bad review are because 1) it’s a bad review of something that I feel good about hating (Dan Brown), 2) it’s a bad review of something that I might have been going to purchase.  The first instance is interesting; it’s certainly a valid reason to publish a thing, and a valid reason to read a thing (because there are no invalid reasons to publish or to read), but it’s a little mean-spirited and I’m sometimes ashamed of it.

The second instance seems to suggest that the only books for which it is practical to write extremely negative reviews are books that are riding a wave of popularity and marketing–in short, books that are unlikely to be hurt by those reviews, anyway.  (Also:  those books are pretty rare.)  For lesser-known or less important books, just not writing about them is enough to achieve the same effect as writing something bad about them:  it’s not like we readers can not buy something EXTRA HARD because we’re mad about it.

Moreover, science has proven that people–even people who think they’re logical and rational–are actually huge fucking idiots.  We will not only believe something even though you disproved it, we’ll believe something even more strongly BECAUSE you disproved it.  And since we’re convinced that “good” is a matter of taste and not quantifiable structure and elements, criticizing something we like will, rather than make us like it less, actually cause us to like it more.

All those fancy-pants Times critics that think they’re elevating the level of the discourse or educating Dan Brown readers so that they’ll read Umberto Eco instead are wasting they’re time–telling someone that Dan Brown is stupid will only make that person feel like they’re stupid for liking him, and so that person will just stop reading your reviews.  There’s a handful of books in a narrow window–just well-known enough that people might give a crap, but not popular enough that they can afford to ignore your criticisms–that can be deleteriously affected by a harsh review.  But this is a very small number of books and, of course, the review-writing game is a non-zero one.  It’s not like I make more money as a reviewer because Dan Brown made less money.  My reviews have to be an object of interest in and of themselves.

That means that the only time you can gain and maintain an audience with negative reviews is for the purpose of mean-spiritedness.  Now, I’m not going to deny that this is sometimes quite satisfying.  Among theater critics, certainly, there was a tradition of vicious wit that was so satisfying, so inherently entertaining, that the critics were more fun to read than the plays were to watch.  We don’t do that with theater anymore, because theater isn’t the medium of mass communication–TV is.  And, interestingly enough, there’s a lot of clever TV criticism that I’ll read despite a complete lack of interest in the material that it’s criticizing.  (Richard Lawson’s TV recaps on Gawker were a great example of this.)

So, what about mediocre reviews?  (That is, well-written reviews that describe their subjects as being mediocre?)  It’s true I’m unlikely to buy any mediocre books–but I come to the review pages to find things to read, not to find things not to read.  There are, after all, vastly more books that I won’t like then there are ones that I will like; it’s a fool’s errand to try and find what I want through the negation of what I don’t want.  This means that a magazine that consistently publishes “honest” reviews–reviews of new books that acknowledge the fact that, yes, most new books are pretty mediocre–is one that won’t hold my interest.  Not as a measure of the quality of the review, but because consistent mediocre reviews aren’t useful to me.

Of course, you do find reviews that can describe a book as mediocre–often in the pages of magazines or on websites whose primary focus is some other content (Black Gate, again, is a good example).  Here, the reviews can afford to be purely unbiased, because they’re chucked in as a kind of value ad–yes, a whole section full of mediocre reviews might not be useful to me, but it’s not like I’m going to feel cheated for having bought the magazine.  I paid for the short fiction, and got the reviews for free.  (Alternately:  you guys read TQP to bask in the glory of my presence; you get the occasional book or movie review gratis.)

Now, what about good reviews?  Here’s the thing:  as a reviewer, it’s in your best interest to only review books that you can be gushingly positive about–or, at least, can say mostly positive things about.  Positive reviews of books get passed around–by the author, the author’s friends, the publisher, the publicists.  Quotes get pulled and stuck on marketing materials, &c.  Your reviews will get continued attention because of it, because your creating a kind of parasitic network on top of the network of people that the author and publicist have already tried to build.

Obviously, you can’t be too dishonest–though, as science insists on reminding us, people are huge fucking idiots, so you can get away with being pretty dishonest.  The handful of people that give a shit aren’t generally enough to matter.  Who care if a bunch of elitist Manhattanites think you’re a sell-out?  The millions of people that read the Davinci Symbol or the Demon Code or what the fuck ever think you’re right on the money.

So, obviously there are significant advantages to reviewing books positively, and not a lot of advantages to reviewing books negatively.  I think this is double-interesting because!  Having accurate reviews of books is more important to civilization than having successful book reviewers.  Some people seem to take a contrarian position against the positive-pressure–they err on the side of negative as a way of establishing their credibility.  “He must be honest,” we think, “because he’s being negative, and he’d be so much more successful if he were positive.”

Whew, this is getting on in words.  I haven’t even gotten to the Amazon feedback system, yet.  And I don’t know if I ever will!  It’s not like I have a thesis, here–I’m just interested in talking through the idea.  Anyway!  That’s all for now.

  1. Moff says:

    But what an accurate review of a book (or of anything else) entails is hard to pin down, especially when you consider it in the context of the review’s value to civilization, as you do here — i.e., its value over time and therefore in different times.

    Like (not to toot my own horn, but just because it’s relevant and on my mind), I can see why Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man probably got, or would have gotten some great reviews (at least in the SF community) back in 1953. It really does break some ground for what I would say are superior future works, and at the time, I could see it BLOWING ENOUGH MINDS to justify positive reviews.

    At the same time, I think my own take on it on io9 this weekend was totally fair (and not just because I am, as my mother put it, “a man whose redoubtable intellect is exceeded only by his breathtaking good-lookingness”): There are plain old structural elements that seriously weaken the book.

    Now, yeah, you could write a review that mentions both sides of this coin, but that still doesn’t allow for the fact that TIME DOES NOT STAND STILL (annoyingly, especially since I should be working right now). It’s not intuitive, but one could conceive of a future where the structural forms in storytelling rank as far less important than they do today, or where rather arbitrary plot twists are viewed as a mark of quality. Or, OK, maybe not — I am not convincing myself as I write this; but that just means that maybe The Demolished Man isn’t the best example. I think we can still imagine that a hundred years from now, people may well have a different take on books written now and before now.

    Anyway, isn’t this sort of what I.A. Richards and the early-20th-century lit critics were trying to address? Like, they were looking for objective qualities in a work — saying not “This is a happy book,” but “This book does X, which evokes a happy feeling in readers because Y”? I’m not sure and I’m sort of rambling now.

  2. braak says:

    Well, I don’t know that evaluating a review in terms of its relationship to civilization necessarily is concomitant with how that review will age over time, or even with how the book will age over time–I think that you could do so equally well with an awareness as to what kinds of things seem to be the product of the book in context and what kinds of things are inherent to the book.

    So, maybe I’m reviewing The Demolished Man in 1950 whatever–and maybe I say that, structurally, the book contains these elements, and it contains this ideas which are interesting because they’re new, and I’d never heard of them, but I’m hesitant to suggest that this is actually the best way to explore them.

    I don’t know what I. A. Richards and those guys were doing–my degree is in Bronze Age epic literature, so I don’t fucking know anything. But that stochastic aesthetic theory I’ve been working on takes a similar line: there are no static qualities of a book, but practical mechanics designed to achieve practical effects. Some of those (first domain considerations) are about the internal consistency of the books, and those ought to be relatively stable–as much as taste and standards change, the basic human mechanisms of analysis and prediction suggest that our appreciation for the function of “plot” and “character” ought to remain about the same. But some considerations (third domain stuff) are about the elements of the book in context with its environment, and those things will change–would almost have to.

    And, really, we actually are positing a millieu (50s SF) where basic storytelling elements DO rank lower than the ideas or concepts embedded in the work; and, in that case, it’s vital for the reviewer to do his duty to civilization and review the work in terms of that civilization’s context. At the same time, you and I aren’t reading it 50 years ago, and we CAN’T read it fifty years ago, so we’d be dishonest if we reviewed it in any context but our own: “Yeah, I can guess that maybe 50 years ago no one gave a crap about outlandish plot twists, but we value story structure a little more highly these days, and The Demolished Man doesn’t live up to that standard.”

    That’s not dishonest or non-rigorous or anything; it’s accurate, and more accurate because it includes the standard according to which the book is judged.

  3. Lord Wackadoo says:

    I’d like to see Dan Brown write a book all about the secret language and network of conspiracies surrounding the babble that gets printed on the inside flap of new hardcovers. On second thought I also hate Dan Brown.

  4. Hsiang says:

    Obviously, as a newish book reviewer, I was very interested this post and the Bill Ward piece. Thanks for your insights!

    I agree that attack reviews should only be done for books with artificially pumped up hype. But you’re right, a scathing review never going to prevent crappy books from being published in the future. I’ve done pieces on mediocre novels and try to put the best spin on the authors’ efforts, but honestly it’s not very fun to write or read them. And let’s be honest, my reviews are definitely meant to be infotainment. I don’t want to be John Clute, hell I can barely follow his critiques.

    I am not terribly prolific and for this I apologize to both of my fans. If it were to be compared to biological reproductive output, my writing is more panda than lemming. Most of this is due to the fact that I AM VERY LAZY. There has also been a lack of new books that really excite me. Maybe I’m just getting too damn picky.

  5. Moff says:

    @Hsiang: I will reiterate my request that — especially due to your admitted (and UNFORTUNATE) unprolificness — you create some kind of Twitter or Tumblr or other RSS-subscribable feed for the sole purpose of advertising your sporadic contributions.

  6. Hsiang says:

    @Moff: Urk. So the Facebook isn’t good enough? Blasted technological progress. I will investigate doing something like that.

  7. Hsiang says:

    @lso Moff: Really liked the debut of your Hugo roundup column, great idea. I’ve been wanting to do more posts along the lines of “Here’s some old stuff I like that you may not have tried yet.” But once again…VERY LAZY.

  8. Moff says:

    @Hsiang: I just checked, and it looks like you can’t plug a Facebook profile into Google Reader. And I only check the actual site, like, every other week. So yeah — what I am really hoping for is a way to be reminded that fits into the system I have already established. Besides, it’s not very time-consuming and it’s good self-promotion!

    I found myself thinking many times as I pitched and worked on that first installment, “This is right up Hsiang’s alley.” I would have given the idea to you, but I’m in desperate need of more glowing rocks and string.

  9. Moff says:

    That is: “Besides, tweeting/tumblr isn’t very time-consuming…” But what I meant was obvious, right?

  10. braak says:

    Hey, Hsiang–make sure you keep me on your e-mail list; I’ll start posting notices here when you’ve got a review out.

    It’s like we’d be pooling our resources.

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