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Book reviews have been as contentious since the days of mimeographed fanzines. In the age of the Internet and an explosion of blogs, Amazon, and more, reviews are more important than ever. But what makes reading and trusting a review worth it?

So we asked this week’s panelists…

Q: What does a good review of a piece of genre work do well? Where do reviewers fall down on the job? How can reviewers improve their craft for the benefit of readers, writers and fans?

Here’s what they said…

Rachel Caine
Rachel Caine is the author of more than twenty novels, including the Weather Warden series. She was born at White Sands Missile Range, which people who know her say explains a lot. She has been an accountant, a professional musician, and an insurance investigator, and still carries on a secret identity in the corporate world. She and her husband, fantasy artist R. Cat Conrad, live in Texas with their iguanas, Popeye and Darwin; a mali uromastyx named (appropriately) O’Malley; and a leopard tortoise named Shelley (for the poet, of course).

Most often where reviewers go astray for me is when they forget their core mission. I’ve read a lot of reviews that were more about the reviewer’s wickedly sharp language skills than about what they were critiquing … it becomes form over substance, and while it may be entertaining, it isn’t informative, and it doesn’t help the reader decide whether or not the book (or film, or music) would be right for their needs.

Every book (or film, or concert, or album) is a personal experience, so it’s fine to talk about how the work moved you, and why. But please, reviewers, if you consistently have a burning, fiery hatred for what you’re seeing in the genre (or medium) you’re reviewing, maybe you’re just burned out, or the style has moved past you …(it does this for writers, too, you’re hardly alone). Rather than just become the surly curmudgeon, find another thing to be passionate about — in another genre maybe. You’ll feel better, and so will your readers.

And on the flip side, if you love everything you read/see/hear, maybe you’re not quite critical *enough.* Being a critic isn’t about making friends, it’s about telling the truth even when it’s a harsh truth. Don’t be faint-hearted. You won’t last long if you are.

Justin Landon
Justin is the writer, editor and tyrant of the Staffer’s Musings blog. He reads, writes and lifts weights. He works in politics, but never talks about it. You should follow him on Twitter right now (@jdiddyesquire)…or else.

Just like a good piece of fiction, a review should make the reader think. It should engage on a level beyond a simple recounting of the action. If I’m only reading a review to figure out whether it’s worth my time, a simple star rating would suffice. An actual review should provide context. It should also be as interesting after reading a novel as it is before.

Personally, I also like them to be funny, at least when I’m reviewing a novel of dubious quality.

Unfortunately, my reviews don’t always do what I wish they did. Sometimes they turn into self-indulgent rants about some minor point. Other times I end up complaining about the marketing hack job perpetrated by the publisher. And other times I find myself trying to put together 800 words about a novel that frankly only needs 250. And lastly, I think all of us reviewers are often guilty of talking about ourselves more than the novel.

What to do? The truth is we’re just like authors. Every review is another notch in the belt. Another chance to get better at our craft, such as it is. I imagine our reviews get better the same way their books do — practice and meth, or coffee (you know, depending).

Stefan Raets
Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he
isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. He reviews for Tor.com and his own site, Far Beyond Reality.

I love seeing all the different review styles out there. Reviews full of animated gifs, reviews in comic book form, reviews written as a dialogue between fictional characters. As long as it’s respectful of the reader and the writer, and as long as it gets people talking about books and reading, it’s all wonderful as far as I’m concerned. Still, the purpose of a review is to hook up the right reader with the right book. You occasionally may have to review a book you don’t personally like. Maybe you’re not into space opera or vampire fiction or epic fantasy. Fine. You should still be able to place the book in the context of its sub-genre and explain why someone who likes that genre may want to read or avoid that book. If you can’t do that, maybe let someone else review it. That’s why I don’t review paranormal romance or alternate history.

Also, you’re writing about someone’s baby. Yes, sure, we write reviews for readers and not for writers, but still — don’t do snark for snark’s sake. I prefer reviewers who focus on the book they’re covering, not on their own voice or on being snarky. If people end up talking more about your review than about the book you reviewed, you may be doing something wrong.

Finally, the best reviews strike a balance between description, interpretation and evaluation. Description is straightforward: some facts about the author and book, a brief plot summary. Interpretation is assigning a meaning, which could be anything from discussing themes or characters to placing the book in the wider context of the author’s work or the genre. And evaluation means assigning a value: is it worth reading? All three of these don’t need equal space, but if you ignore or overemphasize one of them, your reviews will feel unbalanced.

Pamela Sargent
Pamela Sargent has won the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and has been a finalist for the Hugo Award. Her historical novel about Genghis Khan, Ruler of the Sky, is available in trade paperback and in electronic formats for e-readers at E-Reads. Her Venus trilogy, also out from E-Reads, is in audiobook format from Audible. Her novel Earthseed, reissued by Tor in 2007 (trade paperback, 2012) and followed by Farseed (Tor, 2007) and Seed Seeker (Tor, 2010), has been optioned by Paramount Pictures, with Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight; Dexter) attached to write the script and produce through her Tall Girls Productions. Her Web site is at http://www.pamelasargent.com/.

In my infrequent and intermittent forays into book reviewing, I have one unbreakable rule for myself, and that is to write only about books I like and can recommend to readers. Writers get enough grief, and I’m not about to add to their store of misery; better to call attention to novels and stories that others might enjoy.

As for how reviewers could improve their craft for the benefit of writers: they can’t. There’s nothing they can do to aid the writer at all. By the time any writer reads the review, the book is out, so what are you going to do? It’s too late for revisions. And if you make the mistake of reading a bad review, you don’t just feel demoralized, angry, and depressed for a day, or weeks, or months, depending on your temperament and the viciousness of the review. There’s also the danger that quotes from that pan of your work will suddenly spring into your mind at odd moments and throw you completely off your stride while you’re writing.

A good review or a rave can be even more of a danger, especially if the writer takes it too seriously and basks in the praise to excess. As a wise writer, whose name escapes me, once said, “If you believe the good reviews, then you’ll have to believe the bad ones.” The best use any writer can make of great reviews is as promotional blurbs; smile, pass them on to your editors, then put them out of your mind and get on with your work. I’m grateful for such reviews, especially thoughtful ones where the reviewer clearly understood my intentions, but ultimately I have to listen to my inner voice and not a reviewer’s when I’m writing.

What a reviewer can do for readers and fans is call attention to books that are worth reading. This requires an appreciation of the novel or story for what it is as opposed to what the reviewer wanted or expected it to be. It means allowing the book to take you over, to leave yourself open to apprehending the writer’s intentions and how well he or she met them, then being able to step back and assess the work. For reviewers of science fiction and fantasy, it means having enough knowledge of past work, both inside sf and in literature in general, to be able to distinguish a piece of writing that is truly original from a superficially entertaining read that may be derivative and likely to fade fast. It means remembering that the review is not about you (every time I hear somebody tell an aspiring writer that a good way to make a name for herself is to write reviews, I shudder), but about the book, the story, and the writer you’re reviewing.

Luckily there is a reviewer around who offers a great example for hopeful reviewers to learn from: Paul Di Filippo, a fine writer of fiction himself who has a wide and deep knowledge of sf and fantasy that he brings to all of his writing, both fiction and nonfiction. Go to Barnes & Noble, read his reviews (which are intelligent, thoughtful essays that can be enjoyed even if you haven’t read the work under discussion), and see what a good reviewer can do with a book. Somehow it seems appropriate to end this short piece with a good review of a reviewer.

Scott A Cupp
Scott A. Cupp is a short story writer from San Antonio. He has been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award as Best New Writer and the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology. He lost both. He is a former co-owner of Adventures in Crime and Space bookstore in Austin. His website www.scottacupp.com features links to several odd stories including “Johnny Cannabis and Tony, the Purple Paisley (Sometimes) Colored White Lab Rat“. You should check it out.

I have been a reviewer of books and movies for a long time. I like to review them because I have read/seen many of them. A reviewer serves a big purpose. I feel that my job is to tell people whether I have enjoyed the item in question. It does not necessarily have to be a great book or movie, merely one I have enjoyed. I can enjoy schlock as well as great art. Great art is where the critic comes in, someone like Pauline Kael or John Clute. If they enjoy something I have a generally good feeling that there is something there beyond the pedestrian. I may not enjoy the piece (witness Leaving Los Vegas, a film I would have to be paid big sums of money to watch. It may be great but I would not enjoy it so I am not going to subject myself to it. It’s just me, but I can live with that). I like Sucker Punch, a film that is not well made or important, but it worked for me. That is the hard part of the reviewing thing.

To get a feel for what I like, you need to see how I felt about something you liked and compare our thoughts. Then find one we disagree on and see why. You have to know your reviewer to see how they are going to be when compared to your likes and dislikes. I loved John Carter, film or book. I do not like the works of David Weber or most military sf. These are my prejudices. My reviews frequently include personal anecdotes about how or why that item is being reviewed. My current film review at Missions Unknown deals with Teenage Zombies, a not so good 50’s low budget horror film that I got because I bought a calendar and watched because there was an ape on the poster. The ape was the clincher. Ultimately, a good reviewer lets the reader know whether they enjoyed the book/film and why. This lets the reader decide whether it is for them. If the reviewer does not reach a conclusion about the item and its enjoyability, they have wasted the reader’s time because that is what needs to be imparted.

Bastard Books
Bastard from Bastard Books and other crap blog. Became known as Bastard by signing up to the SFF World forums on a whim a few years back, and it stuck. Though sometimes I am one, part of it was influenced by a manga and anime of the same name. Until a few years ago I hated reading, now I can’t get enough it. Can someone please bring Jack Bauer back?

I have always found that the best reviews are those that have managed the impossible, be objective. Absent of that, reviews that have a clear divide on what is fact and what is an opinion, and honesty reigning all. Don’t know what any of this has to do with genre though. Is it an important distinction to make? I guess not, but aside from these elements, perspective is very important, and with perspective comes the intended audience. So I guess we’re back wondering what a good review of a piece of genre work does well, and I hesitate to limit it within some sort boundary.

Personally I like reviews that give me the setup of a novel, comment on some of the elements (themes, action, pace, characters), and give their general opinion of their experience reading the novel. Taking it a bit further, since we’re talking about genre, I appreciate indication of the use of magic and/or technology in the story, essentially what constitutes world-building. My previous statements still remain, within this commentary I appreciate when the reviewer is clear on what is his opinion, and what are the facts. There’s always an entertainment component in these, which is sometimes the main attraction for its audience, but just because one entertains doesn’t mean that it’s a good review. Certainly room for both.

In general terms, reviews are there to inform potential readers, with some commentary for the author, so the goals from one reviewer to the next vary greatly, and with that the context of what is being said. I think it important to always remain fair and consistent, something that is hard to accomplish for some, myself included. Which brings us to where reviewers fall down on the job.

I think one way reviewers fall down on the job is by making assumptions, and from those assumptions draw conclusions. Once in a while these assumptions are on the money, but the risks for misinterpretation are too great for me to be comfortable with reviewers who go off on some assumptions particularly when used to judge. It just goes counter to my personal objective, accuracy and facts.

Also when one admits to not being fan of a particular subgenre, then proceeds to eviscerate a novel based on elements that are abundant in said subgenre. It makes little sense to me. It certainly doesn’t help me consider whether this particular novel is for me or not, I understand that you didn’t enjoy the book, but your lack of understanding of readers around is quite telling. On a related note, if the book’s blurb and description mention vampires, as an example, why the heck when you review you make it a point that the book sucks because it had vampires in it? One would think that an intelligent person would have avoided such a book in the first place, if one is averse to vampire fiction. It certainly doesn’t help inform readers that are interested in vampires, hence on this book.

There are various other ways, just too many to mention really. But what about contradicting oneself? That goes back to being consistent. I also love when reviewers complain about typos, and yet their reviews are filled with typos. I mean, it doesn’t invalidate that a novel might be riddled with them, but please take care not to do the same mistakes that you’re complaining about. What about people who get overenthusiastic about some novel, when that novel wasn’t that good? This is a bit tricky, because sometimes you really love a book regardless of popular opinion, but sometimes one can go too far, and the perception of your other reviews can change. I have a disdain for those that purposely mislead.

Then we come to bias and agendas. I really don’t care for them. Then again, we have to go back to intended audiences, and people with bias and agendas are usually surrounded by likeminded people, so what they have to say resonates well with them. But, I personally avoid them like the plague as they don’t tell me squat about the potential for me picking up a book or not. They have their purpose, but as far as reviews are concerned, I think they’re a bad way to go about it.

Keeping it in the bias and agendas department, what’s the idea behind reviewers who take a condescending tone towards a particular subgenre? And I find it funny because many complain about people not respecting fantasy and sci-fi, yet it seems like much of that dissent comes from within the community. There are about 7 billion people on Earth, I think there’s room for just about anything in the genre to exists, it’s just a matter of helping the audience find the respective books, and if it’s not for you, then we can as easily move along. Too bad not all of them can read though, or interested for that matter.

Again, just too many ways to fall and ultimately, what the heck do I know what makes a good review? I just know what works for me personally and I think the diversity around is healthy. It increases discussion, and I think that’s the ultimate goal regardless. But within all this, I think as long as one is clear, honest, and again able to separate fact from opinions, chances are you’re all right by my book. And honestly, I should be the last person to be commenting on this. I’m a new guy, I don’t have the history most reviewers have reading and on the genre, and I don’t consider myself “qualified” to be reviewing, so how’s that for some context and perspective?

As far as improving on craft, well one can try to focus on one’s own writing skills, but I think the best thing you can do is read more and get to understand people and different types of readers. Ultimately, I think that’s my main strength. I take the time to get to know as many people as I can, with the goal of trying to put myself on their shoes as I go about recommending and reviewing. Just be honest. Good or bad, everyone, readers and authors included, will appreciate it.

Daryl Gregory
Daryl Gregory lives in Pennsylvania, and he’s tired of shoveling. When not clearing his driveway, he writes books and comics. He’s the author of the novels Pandemonium, The Devil’s Alphabet, Raising Stony Mayhall and his first short story collection, Unpossible and Other Stories. He’s online at DarylGregory.com.

A good review tells you what the writer is trying to do, how she is trying to do it, and how well she succeeds. Those are the basics. But there are a few things that I would like to see reviews do more often. Let’s call them Daryl’s Three Wishes.

I wish that reviews provided more context. The good review draws comparisons to other books in that month’s column, but also with books that have come out that year, previous books by the author, classics in the field, and (to a lesser degree) TV and movies. Genre is a conversation between stories, and I want to know what a particular work seems to be saying in response to what’s come before, or what’s in the cultural air.

I wish more genre reviews paid attention to how well a piece is written. Books are made out of sentences, but most genre reviews don’t mention them, and if the writer’s style is discussed at all it’s disposed of in a couple of adjectives. I like excerpts in my reviews. True, Publishers Weekly doesn’t have space for them, but I appreciate it when a reviewer who has the room takes the time to find examples that demonstrate what a writer can do with words.

Finally, I wish more reviews were themselves well-written. Nothing is more dispiriting than a review with typos, clumsy sentences, and misused words (errors that are prevalent online, though rarely seen in Locus or the print magazines). But reviews should also be entertaining, and reward the time I’m spending on them. We love the reviews of Damon Knight and Pauline Kael not only for their content, but because they’re a damn good time.

Sarah Chorn
Sarah Chorn has been a compulsive reader her whole life and early on found her reading niche in the fantastic genre of Speculative Fiction. She blames her active imagination for the hobbies that threaten to consume her life. She is a published author and photographer, world traveler and recent college graduate. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never ending pile of speculative fiction books. You can find her book reviews at Bookworm Blues.

I struggled quite a bit with this question. Perhaps the reason why is because I don’t believe that there is a perfect book in existence and I’m rather fussy about what I actually consider a review. For example, writing a one-page summary of a book is not a review. A good review of a piece of genre work will nicely outline the book in a paragraph or so, and then move on to discuss specific elements of the book such as characterization, world building and plot flow. Really good reviews can go even deeper than that and some really frisky reviewers will pull quotes from books as examples of whatever point they are making. The key here is that a review, an actual bonafide review will discuss the positive and negative elements of a book. That’s the key. A review discusses both sides of the coin and doesn’t shy away from details and depth.

There are a few spots I feel that reviewers, myself included, fall down on the job. Often times I think these failings are simply human nature more than anything else, but I do feel that most of us are guilty of them at one point or another. Occasionally reviewers, for one reason or another, lose their ability to be unbiased. This could happen for any number of reasons, like the reviewer enjoyed the book too much, was good friends with the author, doesn’t want to upset the publishers/authors/other important people etc. Another area that reviewers often slack on the job is evenly discussing the positive and negative aspects of a book, often just focusing on the extreme elements of a piece of work they felt strongly about. Lastly, a large issue that many reviews have (and yes, I’m guilty of this, too) is when a review focuses mostly on the book’s comparisons to other books the author wrote. For example, “book two was really good, but when compared to book one it…”

Finally, in discussing how reviewers could improve their craft, it’s important to look at each book on an individual basis instead of comparing it to other similar books, or other books the author wrote. Each book is its own work and each book needs to be seen independently of all the others. This will allow a well-rounded view of the work as a whole, and often will allow the reviewer to keep their unbiased, critical opinion as they read and then write their thoughts. Lastly, something that I almost never do and always mean to add to my reviews are suggestions on how the author could improve on points that the reviewer might not enjoy about the book. It’s one thing to state negative aspects of a book, but I think authors would benefit more if we didn’t just state negative points of a book, but also discussed how a negative could be turned into a positive.

Mostly I’m always impressed by the quality of reviews I see. My fellow genre reviewers are very critical thinkers, on the ball and in depth with their reviews. They keep me on my toes, constantly pushing myself to see how I can improve my own reviews. I think that’s how we can improve the most, never stop challenging yourself, the way you critically read and the well-rounded, in depth quality of reviews you post.

Derek Johnson
Derek Austin Johnson‘s criticism has appeared in SF Site, RevolutionSF, Nova Express and Her Majesty’s Secret Servant. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

First, let’s differentiate a review from criticism. A review is, at its very base, a critical evaluation of a work, be it a book or movie, while criticism evaluates and analyzes a work or series of works, often in relation to its composition and its significance with regard to other works. A review often focuses on a single subject, while criticism can cover many. Not all criticism includes reviews; consider such critical studies as Brian Aldiss’s Trillion Year Spree, which is least interesting when it provides mini-reviews of a wide range of works. Similarly, not all reviews or reviewers practice criticism; often the worst reviews rely simply on the reviewer’s taste, which can be arbitrary and without any critical evaluation whatsoever. What good is a review if its author can only say, “Well, I liked it a lot”? Or its evaluation can be critical but misguided. Consider Ginia Bellafante’s laughably inept review of HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, in which Ms. Bellafante not only showed her ignorance of fantasy works but her disdain with the very concepts involved in fantasy. Remember, too, that literary reviewers lavished praise on Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (with cause, I think), calling it one of the freshest, most original novels they had ever read—an opinion I doubt they would have held had they read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, or Len Deighton’s SS-GB.

So when reviewing a genre work, a reviewer needs not only to possess the skills to think critically about the work in question but also must some knowledge of the history of that genre. These are important, but even then they’re not quite enough. A truly great review—whether or not it favors the work under scrutiny—also draws on broader sources for its analysis. It provides context when the reviewer can place the work not only in terms of the genre but in terms of its media. It may mean nothing to a reader when a reviewer mentions Richard Stark’s Parker during a review of Inception, but those who have read the series suddenly have a source to draw on. This is especially beneficial if one wants to recommend a work to somebody outside the genre. Talking about, say, Charles Stross’s Rule 34 or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl in terms of Mundane SF might leave readers scratching their heads, but by resetting one’s horizons and mentioning classic dystopias like Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, reviewers provide firmer ground. (Of course, it also helps if you know your audience.)

Of course, it can be overdone. I’ve already said that bad reviews of genre work can be misguided because reviewer doesn’t understand or has little knowledge of the genre, but so too can a review suffer when it sticks too closely to genre principles, and thus tries to exclude fine works because they come from outside the field. Consider how betrayed some fans felt when genre critics offered warm praise of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow because Ms. Russell major novel was published as a mainstream work. Or those reviewers who dismissed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—regardless of its compelling language or its evocation of a world winding down—because they could not get past the fact that a mainstream writer visited “our” turf, and did it well. It would serve our genre far better if we didn’t engage in such provincialism.

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