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Saturday, November 22nd, 2008 | Posted by Soyka

Well, resistance is futile.  I had little interest in being absorbed by the Blogging Borg (I mean, really, if everybody including your grandmother is doing this, how hip can it really be?) and had so far successfully remained contentedly absent from the blogoshphere.  (Well, not entirely, I do post playlists I do for a radio show on WTJU 91.1 FM in Charlottesville, VA called Vagabond Shoes, but I don’t really count that as blogging.)  But when the good folks here asked if I’d be a weekly contributor to the BlackGate blog, I figured, well, what the hell, I’d join the multitudes.  

Which brings me to a recent essay by Joe Queenan at the NY Times in which he argues a fawning book review is as bad as a poor review. Which, in turn, reminded that a little while back there was some discussion in the genre blogosphere about the lousy quality of on-line reviewing, with some attempt to correct it that proved largely unsuccessful. Now, I’ve got a regular short fiction review gig here, and I’ve been reviewing books (on-line and in print) for quite awhile. And I have to say it’s easier to write a review about how bad a book is than how good it is. If anything, I think sometimes people who specialize in panning what they’ve read have an agenda in advertising their own good taste. Not that I’ve ever not written a negative review, but for the most part I tend to review what I’m interested in, and even when it falls short of the mark in my opinion, I always wonder if the fault is my lack of understanding rather than the author’s art (which is not going to happen if you pick up your average Tolkien rip-off and go for the easy targets).  Actually, I think I’m less interested in writing a positive or negative review than to convey a sense of what I think the author is getting at, and how successful it has been, at least to me.  

 

Now, who really cares what I think one way or another is a whole other issue.

 

6 Comments »

  1. I’m looking forward to the reviews here. I agree that it is much easier to tear something to shreds than to come up with credible positive statements. Even then, as you put, a glowing review sounds like you have a check in the mail. So what is the trick to showing a good book has merit without sounding like you’re best buddies with the author?

    I’ve reviewed a few books on my blog, and the worst one, I had to refrain from naming because it was that bad. Lately I’ve read some really good stuff and just wrote what was on my mind. Oh well, I’m not getting a check from the NYT, or anybody for that matter.

    Any hints on what you’ll be reviewing first?

    Comment by NewGuyDave - November 22, 2008 3:17 pm

  2. As a reader of reviews, it always comes down to evidence for me. If a review just says, “This sucked!” (or “This was great!”), that doesn’t mean anything to me unless I’m sure that the reviewer’s taste and mine agree (and I’m never sure of that). But maybe they say, “I hate the book because it reminds me of x, y, and z; plus the writing is terrible: here’s a sample.” If I like x, y, and z, and I think the writing in the sample is actually pretty good, I may end up looking for the work in question based on the “bad” review. And it can work the same way with “good” reviews: evidence lets me form a judgement independent of the reviewer’s.

    Blogging may result in less negative reviews, because you have to want to finish a book, and then write about it, with little or no reward in sight except having done it. It’s easier to get up the steam for that when one likes a book than if one thinks it’s not worth bothering with. (Then there’s the Law of Internet Invocation, but few people seem to think about that before they hit the “post” button.)

    Comment by James Enge - November 22, 2008 8:56 pm

  3. I’ve read all the advice about how to format reviews but in the end, I just sit down and write my thoughts, no formula, no outline and very little editing. I figure that I can’t go wrong by following my heart and my gut and relaying how I felt about the book. If I like it I say why, if I don’t like something I explain what bothered me but in the end I always find something I liked, after all, I did read the book, or in my case series, from start to finish.

    I’ve always thought honesty is best, so as long as I am honest, even if my opinion doesn’t mesh with anybody else, I feel like I have written a good review.

    Comment by Mulluane - November 22, 2008 11:33 pm

  4. Well, I’m not best buddies with any authors, though I have corresponded with some and I do occasionally hear from someone who I’ve reviewed; usually to thank me for something nice I’ve said, though sometimes to call me an idiot. George Zebrowski once called me an idiot, but I think he ended up looking a little silly. It’s one thing to challenge you on the merits of your argument, it’s another to try to just dismiss you as a jerk.

    BTW: The story in question appeared in Fast Forward 1. I’m just finishing up the second volume of the series edited by Lou Anders and hope to have a review up here shortly. Also coming up is a review of the Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and a collection by Colin Davies. It’s been in the hopper quite awhile, but various issues related to the transformation of BlackGate’s web site have held things up. Better late than never…

    Comment by Soyka - November 23, 2008 1:46 pm

  5. Hey Dave – boy, sure George was ticked off at your review. I’ve had plenty of authors challenge me on my reviews (frequently thoughtfully); in your case, I think George stumbled badly, and it came across as hurt feelings, pure and simple.

    On the broader topic of positive vs. negative reviews… when I ran the SF Site, I had a general policy against negative reviews. Who wants to come to a website to hear about lousy books? We wanted to be the site that pointed you towards the best in the field, not the worst.

    I discovered gradually that there’s a real art to the negative review, of course – and that negative reviews (esp. VERY negative reviews) are vastly more popular than positive ones. Tells you something about human nature, I guess.

    – John

    John O’Neill
    Editor
    Black Gate

    Comment by John ONeill - November 23, 2008 11:29 pm

  6. (wow, very late comment from me, but…) I think another reason professional reviewers may be more commonly negative could be because they take in such a huge amount of source material. And it may be that it hardens them, as well as refines their tastes, so that they have less tolerance for items that don’t rise to the top of that very big pile.

    Comment by David Munger - December 17, 2008 8:54 pm


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