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Talking About Reviewing, 2006 Style.

sirius2canopus left a comment in my blog about the purpose of reviews. She said that one of the things she hoped that a reviewer "will point out my strengths and weaknesses without making a meal of my deficiencies so that my hackles will rise and I won't see commonsense and therefore not appreciate the valuable feedback this person of authority has gone to the trouble of giving me."

Now, as far as I'm concerned, taking any kind of writing advice from a reviewer is ridiculous. You would no sooner take the advice of some drunk if he or she came up to you on the street and gave you writing advice, so why would you take the advice of someone you don't know who, by simple occupation, has been put into this position of authority? (Bare in mind that a reviewer only has authority if you allow it.) That doesn't mean that you can't get some insight from a piece of critical writing, or even have a thought gel for you, or whatever. But a reviewer's job is not to educate an author about writing, just as an author's job is not to tell a reviewer how to do their own writing.

Also in this discussion was the argument that a reviewer should not be mean and cruel, but take everything very seriously, which is of course what an author would like to see. As an author, I like to see my work taken seriously. But as a reader, I enjoy the funny, nasty reviews that tear into bad things. Not always, just sometimes, mind. It just appeals to me as a reader. Of course, with that said, that led sirius2canopus to fire back this, which I decided to drop here and make a blog comment out of, because, well, why not?

sirius2canopus says, "What motivates a person to write a review? Some altruistic desire to tell the reading public about his experience of reading a certain book? Or a personal desire to make a few dollars on the side or a name for themselves by showing others what they can do?"

Why does it have to be either of those things?

Why do you write? Why do I write? Why is it that your question seems to naturally assume that fiction occupies a more important position than critical work? I'm going to assume that we're not talking about those three hundred word reviews that appear on Publishers Weekly and Amazon, and which are essentially rundowns of the plot, and a thumbs up or thumbs down, and I'll skip using the word review and go to the work critique, which I think is more apt. But: taking a critical work as a piece of writing, why is it that you naturally assume that the writer is motivated by love, money, or jealousy (see later)? Sure, these things can be motivation--all three of them can be, in fact, just as all three can be a motivation in any piece of fiction. A piece of critical writing is a form of writing--it has its own set of rules, guidelines, and ways in which it judges merit and worth, and is it not possible that the people who write it actually enjoy writing reviews?

sirius2canopus says, "When someone writes a review, they are doing it on the back of another writer's work. No work, no review. No review and the reviewer has to make their money and their name all by themselves."

How ridiculous. I wonder where John Clute is? Michael Dirda? Maybe they made their names doing secret black op specialist missions during the sixties. Hey, maybe I can get Frederic Jameson to come over here. I wonder if he'd be insulted to be considered a reviewer? Well, still...

To start with, there exists a body of critical work within a genre, and this critical work is independent to the fiction that has been written. It forms its own thought. A good critical piece will actually bring you an awareness of where a work sits within this field. A good critical voice will have a knowledge of the field that they are in that, due to its dedication to the art of critiquing, will have gone deeper and further than an author would, perhaps. A good critical voice will write about things that steps out of that simple duality that is 'no work, no review'. Critical writing is its own art form. Appreciate it or don't, it's no skin of my nose, but the idea that a reviewer ought to be grateful to an author for providing a work in which he or she can make a bit of coin is a bit... well, simple.

sirius2canopus says, "Often that reviewer is a writer who is in competition against the author they are reviewing."

No, they're not. I would probably even argue the 'often' part, to, 'there are a small bunch of authors who write fiction and reviews.' But even then I wouldn't say they were in competition. Writing is not the kind of thing where you rate yourself against other authors, and so you say, "Well, X did this, and so did I, but I got better reviews than X, so I am the winner!" or even on a smaller level, where authors are submitting to the same areas. The idea that authors are in competition is, really, just ridiculous, but if you somehow manage to put some saddles on a bunch, and race them, then please let me know, cause I want to go and ride Dan Brown for a while, whipping him into a gallop.

sirius2canopus says, "Therefore, shouldn't there be some kind of 'ethics of reviewing'?"

In other words, can't we all just be friends?

sirius2canopus, says, "If someone wants to make money or a name for themselves by bagging my work, don't they at least owe me the courtesy of bagging it in a professional manner."

Why?

No, seriously, why do they owe it to you?

Last time I checked, we all enjoyed our time ripping the shit out of Tom Cruise, or Hillary Duff's big new teeth. Scientology is a favourite of many people. Christianity. The church. I particularly like kicking Dr Who, just for a thing you'd like to pick. There are magazines and websites dedicated to printing lies, to being unprofessional, and we all say this shit, we all have our turn, for whatever reason, and no one ever stops and says, "Hey, guys, you know what, lets leave L. Ron Hubbard alone. Sure, he was a crazy fuck of dude who dodged tax and lie like fucking shit, but people get something out of Scientology. It nourishes them just like a religion. Shit, lets just call it a religion. Lets be fair to them."

So, why, all of a sudden, must reviewers be kind and nice and ethical towards authors? Because authors want that? Of course they do. Just like Scientologists.

sirius2canopus says, "Isn't constructive criticism a whole lot more useful and trustworthy than destructive criticism? Mind you, the latter probably requires a lot less thought on the reviewer's part?"

Why, because you think cruelty comes easier? Getting those little barbs just right is an art form in itself, I assure you. So, no, I don't think one requires less thought than the other, or that you can put a universal worth on the writing, just because. They both serve their purpose and their audience, and both can be as useful as the other (or not).

sirius2canopus says, "Is destructive criticism really a form of entertainment? Entertaining for who?"

Well, me. For starters. I imagine you won't have to look hard for some other people who enjoy it. I'm particularly fond of those television without pity write ups, myself.

Anyhow, here's an interesting little thing. Not so long ago, my opinion of writing reviews was simple, "If you're an author, don't do it." I had come to this opinion, of course, because I'm from Australia, and a scene that is, as I think Jonathan Strahan said once, "One phone call deep, one phone call wide." I figured that just not reviewing meant that you could avoid all the compromise and problems that come with it, but then, you know, the truth is I spent a lot of time writing reviews on this blog, and I spend an entire year writing a thirty thousand critique of race and the use of imagined environments in various books and theories... and I just came to this conclusion that, really, it was a bit of a cop out to say that. And it was. So now I touch a bit of critical work every now and then, and I kind of dig it, and as I go along, the more I find that it has its own rewards and merits, its own drawbacks, and my mind, while not as quick as it is with fiction, and while it doesn't enjoy critical work as much as it enjoys fiction, still possesses a few ideas regarding critical work.

But the one thing I can assure you, is if the motivation for this work was money, jealousy, or making my name... I think I'd have come up with a better scheme. No one gives much of a shit about critical writers. Certainly not enough that cute goth girls will ask for your phone number at one in the morning in a quiet bar after they find out what kind of stuff you write.

Comments

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coalescent
May. 27th, 2006 12:18 pm (UTC)
"Isn't constructive criticism a whole lot more useful and trustworthy than destructive criticism? Mind you, the latter probably requires a lot less thought on the reviewer's part?"
About a decade ago, I was a witness in a legal action, and it became the opposition lawyer's duty to try to destroy my credibility as a witness. One of his first approaches was: "In addition to being a writer, you are also a critic, are you not?" I admitted this, but something even more damaging was to come. He next asked, "Both constructive and destructive, isn't that right?"

I admitted this too, but I shouldn't have done, for I've since come to realise that there is no such thing as destructive criticism. It is just a cliche people use to signal that their toes have been stepped on.

After all, the whole point of telling a man he is doing something the wrong way is the hope that next time he will do it right. Simply saying that a given book is bad may serve the secondary function of warning the public away from it, if the public trusts the critic. But if you do not go on to say in what way it is bad, your verdict is not destructive criticism, or any other kind of criticism; it is just abuse.

--William Atheling Jnr, introduction to More Issues At Hand
"Therefore, shouldn't there be some kind of 'ethics of reviewing'?"

Yes. It could be called excessive candour.
benpeek
May. 27th, 2006 12:57 pm (UTC)
that atheling quote is pretty cool.
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ratmmjess
May. 27th, 2006 12:39 pm (UTC)
"When someone writes a review, they are doing it on the back of another writer's work."

Except that, to some degree, large or small, the writer's work gets read or not read because of the review, and so the writer's success can be said to come from the back of the reviewer's work.
benpeek
May. 27th, 2006 12:55 pm (UTC)
yeah, it's nowhere being a simple relationship. though that said, some writers score their success without reviews...
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sirius2canopus
May. 27th, 2006 01:04 pm (UTC)
Wow Ben. Thanks for all those interesting comments. If only all reviews were as helpful. Can't say I'm convinced by everything you said, but I guess it's not de rigueur for an author to answer back to a reviewer (unless I'm invited to), because I really really do want to hear what people think. Already I have learned something. And that is that I didn't think carefully enough when I was trying to figure out why reviewers review. I missed out the majority: all those dedicated people who do it out of love and a desire to contribute to the field. Of course John Clute falls into this category, and also Jonathan Strahan, Bruce Gillispie, Van Ikin, Russell Blackford, Frederic Jameson, Robert Jordan, Damien Broderick and probably even Ben Peek I think, if only he didn't use the word ridiculous so often, but I guess that's his style of the year. I apologise to those people for my stupidity. But that's the risk one takes when one is learning. If you don't open your mouth, you never find out.
sirius2canopus
May. 27th, 2006 01:09 pm (UTC)
If my kids weren't breathing down my neck trying to take over msn, I'd have checked that last post before I sent it. That list of my favourite reviewers was far from complete. Too many to list them all
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Reviews - sirius2canopus - May. 27th, 2006 03:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Ridiculous Ideas about reviews - sirius2canopus - May. 28th, 2006 12:49 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Ridiculous Ideas about reviews - benpeek - May. 28th, 2006 04:08 am (UTC) - Expand
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mme_publisher
May. 27th, 2006 03:01 pm (UTC)
All the world's a writing workshop, isn't it?
Part of what you're pointing to here is a way of thinking that has swept through the internet writing communities, especially among new or essentially unpublished writers, namely, that the world is their writing workshop. So you get this view that reviewers, readers, even editors and publishers who reject their work ought to be trying to help them grow as writers. It used to piss me off, but now I just find it kind of sad that people can so completely lose perspective.

I regularly get comments when I do panels to the effect that it would be so much more helpful to the writers if I would send personalized rejections that explain something about where their work fell short. I usually dodge the real issue there by saying I don't have time to offe that kind of service, which is also true. The thing is...and it's early here so I may not be articulating this well...While it's true that you can learn more about writing from almost any source, it does not therefore follow that anyone out there has an obligation to teach you.

sirius2canopus
May. 27th, 2006 03:15 pm (UTC)
Re: All the world's a writing workshop, isn't it?
No I don't think a reviewer has an obligation to teach me. Ben asked me what do I look for in reviews. That's one of the things I look for. It's one way of learning among many and it's a shame to waste it if the opportunity is there, and I'm too busy to be interested in the review if it isn't.
bodhichitta0
May. 27th, 2006 09:06 pm (UTC)
There are a lot of interesting thoughts here, both in the post and in the comments here and in the other entry.

My thoughts--well-written reviews make me smile, laugh, grimace, want to read them again, whatever. I respect the review as a piece of writing. But as for me personally respecting it as much as I respect that someone came up with a whole different thing (well, mostly, let's leave the rash of recent plagiarism out of this comment for now :-p)? No, I don't. I don't respect the critic the way I respect the artist. I can say "This critic has tastes similar to mine and I enjoy reading him/her" but I don't have the same type of connection that I do for someone (either awful or wonderful) who tried to build something different. Not just check a building for code and ease of use and whether the elevators are in the right places, but the someone who drew the plans and laid the bricks.

As for whether reviews influence my personal buying. Yes and no. I primarily rely on word of mouth and my own browsing and I have gotten some surprising things from amazon's "if you've bought this, you may like this" (I discovered David James Duncan that way.) A review can sway me one way or another if I am on the fence about reading a book. If the review is by someone who is steered me toward other books I like, extra points for that.

benpeek
May. 28th, 2006 04:27 am (UTC)
man, that amazon recommend list is completely useless to me. heh. i've never gotten a good thing out of it. not once. bastards.
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ex_benpayne119
May. 28th, 2006 12:12 am (UTC)
It's an interesting debate, and something I've been thinking a lot about lately...

Myself, I'm less a fan of the overly derogatory review, mostly because I suspect (though I'm not sure) that oftentimes the reviewer in such cases has sacrificed intellectual honesty for entertainment value.

I doubt this is the case with your good self, of course, but then, I've read enough of your writing on your blog to be able to contextualise it...

But most of the time, when I read that sort of thing from a reviewer who I don't know, I tend to suspect them... I think "you're pushing this line too hard because you want to entertain, to get a laugh" or whatever...

Which is fine, if that's what you're after. But it's not really what I look for in a review. I want the reviewer to be straight with me. To me, pushing the negatives for entertainment value devalues the criticism's intellectual honesty just as much as pushing the positives out of politeness does.

Another thing, and a completely separate thought I had is that there seems to me to be a difference between slagging off a bestseller or a million-dollar Hollywood movie, and slagging off a story by a first time author in an unknown anthology. I'm not sure what my opinion is on this, entirely, but I do think there's a kind of different power dynamic in play there...

benpeek
May. 28th, 2006 04:24 am (UTC)
there is a different power dynamic to a newbie and a multi million dollar hollywood star, or so iw ould think. but maybe it's not true--i actually don't know any hollywood stars,a nd how they deal with being slagged on constantly. some well, and others badly, from the looks of it. but even with the power dynamic, i do find that there's a bit of a contradiction in people when it comes to public work that they known intimately, and work that they will never know as intimately.

i tend to agreew ith you that sometimes the intellectual honesty does get sacrificed for the funny line, but it needn't be that way all the time.
crankynick
May. 28th, 2006 01:21 pm (UTC)
On reviews (and the review of Troy in particular)
So now I touch a bit of critical work every now and then, and I kind of dig it, and as I go along, the more I find that it has its own rewards and merits, its own drawbacks, and my mind, while not as quick as it is with fiction, and while it doesn't enjoy critical work as much as it enjoys fiction, still possesses a few ideas regarding critical work.

But the one thing I can assure you, is if the motivation for this work was money, jealousy, or making my name... I think I'd have come up with a better scheme. No one gives much of a shit about critical writers. Certainly not enough that cute goth girls will ask for your phone number at one in the morning in a quiet bar after they find out what kind of stuff you write.


But surely there's a point to a review?

I haven't read either of the works which seem to be the start of the discission here, and I've only only read the review of Troy - but the discussion has been interesting.

My question, Ben, is why do you review?

You don't do it for the money or for the kudos, and you accept (largely) that a critical review doesn't have much of an impact on sales.

I read reviews for a number of reasons - to be entertained, to help me decide if I want to buy a book, to see if reviewer's opinions about a book are similar to my own, and to help provide a context and a commentary on a book. But most importantly, I read them to help me find a book which is like other books which I have read.

I have a criticism of your review of Troy, it's that there didn't seem much purpose to it. The review doesn't provide much context for a person who hasn't read the book, and I'm not sure it would add much commentary for someone who had.

The review listed the stories that the reviewer thought were the strongest, and ended criticising the book for what it was not. The section of the review which was the strongest was the historical context for the book, and the publisher and the section beginning -

Brown's work has never been considered that of a stylist. He is not pushing the boundaries of sentence structure, narration, or character design. Instead, what the reader will find in Brown is a traditionalist...


But aside from that, there wasn't much to the review, and I'm interested to know where you were going with it.
benpeek
May. 28th, 2006 01:31 pm (UTC)
Re: On reviews (and the review of Troy in particular)

My question, Ben, is why do you review?

You don't do it for the money or for the kudos, and you accept (largely) that a critical review doesn't have much of an impact on sales.


because i can, because i enjoy the thinking about a book and writing about it, because i just like writing, because i'm still playing witht he form and seeing how it comes together for me. there's a whole heap of reasons. since i do it mainly for strange horizons, the money isn't worth being an issue for it, but that said, if someone offered me high paying review gigs, i'd maybe be swayed by the cash. that said, i'd likely have less choice in what i wanted to write about.

as for your criticisms, man, what can i say? if you didn't dig it, you didn't dig it. way it works.
sirius2canopus
May. 29th, 2006 03:10 am (UTC)
Last time I checked, we all enjoyed our time ripping the shit out of Tom Cruise, or Hillary Duff's big new teeth.

Um Sorry. I didn't. I don't even know what Hilary Duff looks like. Why would I bother?

So, why, all of a sudden, must reviewers be kind and nice and ethical towards authors?

All of a sudden? I've seen lots of reviewers behave ethically. Even if they don't agree with everything that is said.

I find it odd that you see ethical behaviour merely as being ‘nice.’ Back in the old days the philosopher, Immanual Kant went to great pains to argue that ethical behavior was most certainly not a personal inclination (or an inferior, feminine propensity to be nice). Morality, he argued, was a duty to one’s fellow man -- a product of rational thought. If you treated people well just because you were a nice person, you weren’t necessarily behaving ethically. If you were a man who was not inherently philanthropic , but behaved morally because you understood it to be your duty, then that would be the highest form of morality. (see: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals).

Personally, I find that an odd way of thinking as well. But…as far as Kant was concerned, being ethical wasn’t necessarily being nice. Some people reckon Tit for Tat is ethically correct. Tit for tat isn’t always nice. In 'Billions and Billions' (or was it 'Demon Haunted World'), Carl Sagan talked about a modified form of Tit for Tat, where you gave people a second (or maybe a third) chance before you retaliated. (Yikes I hope it was Carl Sagan. It could have been Peter Singer. But this is a blog comment, not a PhD and I hereby inform you that I get my sources confused sometimes. If I was writing a PhD, I’d go to the trouble of looking them up). (But I did look up Kant when I paraphrased him)

My opinion is that anyone who publishes a review of another person’s work is assuming a position of authority. What’s the point of writing it if readers are not supposed to find it credible? One of the greatest compliment a writer can have is to have their work taken seriously. Humour can be taken seriously too, but not if it belittles people. (That’s a generalisation based on my own assumptions of what I like, but what the heck, you do it). Plus I'm too busy to mess around with this spell cheque thingy.
sirius2canopus
May. 29th, 2006 03:16 am (UTC)
,i>Humour can be taken seriously too, but not if it belittles people.</i>

Oops. I missed out a word there. I should have said. Humour can be taken seriously too, but not if it belittles *little* people. Little meaning someone who is doing their best to learn

benpeek
May. 29th, 2006 03:28 am (UTC)
well, the problem with that is when and where do you sto learning?

but, y'know, really, i'm trying to figure out what your point here is. you've got some kant references--that's nice, but i'm not up on my kant, i got to say.

but the problem here is that your ethics for reviewers is only going one way. sure, show respect for the book, don't make fun of it. so on and so forth. but what about respect for the author of the critical piece? don't they deserve it? or is it that the reviewer must realise that the author's work is sacred, and therefor they come secondary to it? cause again, with this stand, you're putting a judgement value on one work being worth more than another.
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