Sunday, September 18, 2011

What Makes a Good Review?

I got a very flattering e-mail, earlier today, from a woman who wants to review books but isn't quite sure how to get started. She has specific concerns -- particular pitfalls she already sees and is determined to avoid -- but anyone who wants to publish opinions and criticism will have much the same issues. She wanted to be aimed towards good resources on the art of reviewing, not just to get my idiosyncratic advice, such as it might be, but I'm not sure there is any such body of knowledge.

I did a few Google searches, and a little poking around, since my correspondent clearly put some time into her letter to me, and I wanted to show the same consideration to her. But I didn't necessarily agree with any of the articles I found, and they didn't really agree with each other in the first place. I'm sure there are people who will teach you how to review books -- or to write criticism about any media or art you could mention -- and their methods could be excellent for their purposes, but there's nothing universal. Publishers Weekly can give you a great crash course in how to write a PW review, and I taught a dozen or so readers how to do a useful SFBC reader's report in my years there -- but neither of those things are the same as a Gary K. Wolfe review, or one by John Clute, or by Michael Dirda. The more complicated the intent and more deep the coverage, the more difficult it is to write that review "right," and the less likely -- I think -- that there's a specific, teachable skill there.

It seems to me that criticism is something that you learn by doing. The tricky thing there is that it's also something you do in public, which can make the learning more painful than you'd like. These days, we can all be critics -- blogs and Twitter and Yelp and Zagat can all amplify our individual opinions on the things we read and see and eat and do -- but none of that makes us good critics. Some of us are better critics in general than others, and all of us have some things we know better than others. And practice always helps, as does having good examples -- and, sometimes, having bad examples to steer away from.

I can only really talk about my own history, if I want to stop giving windy, useless generalities. I started off in "book reviewing" by writing internal book reports for the SFBC; I did six of them my first week at the club, back in April of 1991. I was very eager, and incredibly willing to read almost anything my boss put in front of me -- I recognize that same eagerness and enthusiasm in a lot of young bloggers now, and wince to remember when I was like that. I was lucky in two ways: those reports had a clear structure (one phrase to define a book in genre and style, several paragraphs of plot description, and then a short personal evaluation at the end), and they were internal; no one outside the company ever read them.

I wrote hundreds of those over the next few years, learning to boil down complicated plots to their essences, to take good notes on books as I read them, to keep track of characters, and lots of other mechanical skills. More importantly, I learned to read actively, to think about a book as I was reading it and to start making hypotheses and guesses about the shape and course of a book while in the middle of it. That's one of the core necessities for a critic of any kind: you need to engage with the work directly, to think about where it seems to be going (rather than where you want it to go, or where it does eventually go) and get a sense for the shape of those works.

That critical facility needs to be related to, but not subservient to, your personal tastes. An honest critic is one who can say "This is a damn good example of a kind of thing I really don't like," and mean it. I'm grateful to my years at the SFBC for a lot of things, but one of the most important ones is having to spend a lot of time, over many years, thinking about what the audience for a particular book is. Sometimes you can define that audience demographically -- girls from 12-25, for example -- but, more often, what you're really looking for are touchstones, that a particular book will appeal to Darkover fans who want some real science, too, or to urban fantasy readers who are ready for vampires to be the villains again. If you can define a work's audience that way, you can set the work somewhat apart from your own reaction to it, and that parallax gives you space to think critically.

This is all still very vague, I'm afraid; as most writing advice is. The best advice on writing anything boils down to: read as widely as you can in that area, thinking about what you like and don't like, and then write as much as you can, also keeping track of what you think you're doing well and what you can't quite manage to put into words the way you want to.

Some of my reviews come out nearly as I think they will, but that's the exception. I find that I write about books largely to find out what I do think about them, to explore my reactions and try to justify my opinions as best I can. Sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn't. One that still bugs me, several years later, is my review of Charles Stross's Saturn's Children, where I thought I had an interesting insight about the ways Stross's Hard SF pessimism and that particular book's rampant sexuality reinforced and amplified each other. But I was much less clever, and much more snickering, than I thought I was, and that buried the insight I thought I had -- most of all, the mistake I made was getting personal, and attributing something to the author rather than the book.

(Authors often have thin skins, so they can take things that way even if you don't mean them, but I always try to consider a book as an object that stands on its own. I fail at that, I'm sure, but it's an important goal to keep in mind.)

But we all find our own pitfalls; we write to find the places where we're weak, and then do our best to avoid those areas, or dance around them, or build them up from sheer repetition and force of will.

Another of my particular flaws -- I'm concentrating on those because I know them all too well -- is that I'm much too binary; my reviews fall into praise or blame most of the time, with relatively few mixed pieces. Most books deserve mixed reviews; as the saying goes, a novel is a long piece of prose with something wrong with it. An honest reviewer honors that, dredging out the clumsy bits in the books she loves and talking about the elegant moments in the books she loathed -- and, again, most rules of criticism, like all rules of writing, are aspirational, since we all break them far too often.

But that's most of it: the way to be a better critic is to read more, and write more, and think more about both of those things. And, most importantly, to never be completely satisfied with either -- no book is perfect, and no critical article is, either. There's always something that could have been done better.

I've completely ignored the usual distinction between "criticism" and "reviews" here, because I think that any review that doesn't engage in at least a little criticism is useless. Any thoughtful opinion about a work of art must contain a discussion of strong and weak points, and that's criticism.

I've also ignored the usual question of audience for your criticism, because the real audience that matters is the critic herself. We're on the Internet; we're not getting paid for this, and we have no editors to please. If you are getting paid for a review, you need to take the opinions and guidance of your editor into account, which makes things more complicated. But, if you're reading this, you probably aren't: you're your own editor, and publisher, and ad-sales department, too. So write it to satisfy yourself -- as long as you can get into the appropriate critical mindset, and never be quite satisfied with anything.


Alex C. Telander, BookBanter said...

Great post! I've be reviewing books for ten years and there's definitely a fine art to it, and as you say, you have to at least be a little critical with books, to give readers reading the review a real point to wanting to read the book. And then there's the balance of giving away enough story to get the reader interested, but not giving too much away to spoil. I actually did a couple of posts on writing a review on my blog: "How to Write a Book Review" ( and "Fiction vs. Nonfiction" (

Mo said...

Thank you first, Andrew, for this post. You've given me some things to chew on, areas to improve and items I completely missed. I can see a re-write is in order.

Thank you, as well, for your comment, Alex. I have looked up your first link and will be adding your site to my bookmarks. :)

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