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Book Reviewer Backlash

There are a couple of discussions going on in the sf blogosphere regarding book reviews. Here are my thoughts on the matter…


In a rather lengthy post that mixes review with anti-review rant, Gabe Chouinard says he’s disappointed with the quality of online reviews. He says he wants substance in the reviews he reads.

There are some interesting comments and observations in that post and a healthy dose of angry comments, too. Much of the discussion revolves around the difference between a review and a critique. One commenter took issue with Gabe’s rant, enough to post a scathing counterpoint on his own Live Journal to which Gabe responded. Also good reading, that. Despite the occasional angry comments, it’s good that people are talking about this.

I’m reminded of people who gripe yet continue to punish themselves by continuing the behavior which seems to make them so unhappy. (I’ll ignore the ironic amusement provided by Gabe’s admission that he is part of the problem.) If a reviewer is not to your liking for whatever reason – lack of insight, differing tastes, poor writing – then don’t read their reviews. If you have a list of reviewers who you like, great! Stick with them.

As one of the offending reviewers, I’m tempted, as was apparently intended, to respond defensively. I could pick on the fact that the more “insightful” of my comments of my review was ignored and a quote was chosen (one with a typo no less) to suit the rant. I could also mention how Eragon was a book I purchased and not a review copy from the publisher, thus there was no aim to please anyone. I could say that the review was written relatively soon after I began reviewing and that my later (and hopefully more experienced) reviews were ignored. I could cite how my reviews are not always glowing, how I don’t like everything I see and that sometimes ticks people off. (Don’t get me started by mentioning Klausner.)

But the fact is that people review and critique for all sorts of reasons. Some do it as a profession. Some, like me, do it for recording their impressions. Some, as the other post suspects, might even do it for the free books. Without matching each and every individual review with a reviewer’s reasons and criteria, whining about them seems pointless. The most you can (respectfully) say is that your tastes differ from a reviewer and/or a review does meet your own expectations, which may be entirely different than the goals of the reviewer.

That said, there are review sites that I personally feel do not meet my own expectations. But you can’t please everyone. I’m sure those same reviews are useful to someone somewhere. To each his own.


Over on the Nightshade forum, there’s a discussion about short story reviews. The discussion revolves around whether a review of a collection or anthology should say something about every single story in the book.

Are reviewers obligated to do so? Some of that post’s commenters seem to think so. They feel cheated if stories are not mentioned. But, as mentioned there, some venues are limited for space (especially print magazines) and there are only so many words that can be used. Editorial constraints apply.

Speaking for myself, which is the only thing I can do, I like to review all of the stories. Again, this suits my reason for reviewing: to serve as a record and reminder of what I’ve read. Admittedly, I’m probably more anal-retentive about it than most, as will be evidenced by my upcoming review of The Space Opera Renaissance. But that’s just what I choose to do. Your mileage may vary between reviewers, venues and subject matter.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

16 Comments on Book Reviewer Backlash

  1. Hi John. Thanks for your metered response to the piece. As I mentioned elsewhere, I am most interested in opening up the dialogue. Of course, you’re absolutely correct when you say, in effect, ‘different strokes for different folks’, which is why I tried (and hopefully succeeded) in personalizing the piece to show that it is reflective of the way *I* view things.

    Well, that and I was a bit crabby.

    And for the record, r_urell is Bob Urell. He and I go waaaaaay back, and what might sound mean-spirited between us is just our way of insulting one another while arguing. An old tradition.

    Thanks for your comments!

  2. I would review for free books, but no one’s offered me any! Free DVDs yes, but no free books yet. Hint, Hint! πŸ˜‰

    Seriously I make no pretense to being a sophisticated reviewer. My reviews are short and largely just give my reactions to the book. I have no doubt this falls well short of the criteria that a professional reviewer might follow.

    But I’m always suspicious when people start insisting that everyone do things exactly the way they personally like as though that’s the only valid form.

  3. I’m sure most readers here know that I definately don’t love everything I read and I try hard to stay away from the love-ins surrounding certain works (evidence my opinions on Quicksilver) if in fact I don’t care for them. I also have a hard line on what can get 5 stars – as unfair as some find that to be.

    However I’d like to comment on one aspect of the discussion I found interesting. I’ve often wondered – do 1-star or 2-star sci-fi books even get published? Really? By major publishers? I honestly suspect not – I would guess that through solid editing most 1- or 2-star efforts are either polished into reasonable works OR the book simply isn’t published. The publisher wants to sell the book, so unless it has something major going for it (a well-known author or a tie-in license) that would help assure sales, I just don’t see the publisher printing the book if it really sucks.

    That doesn’t mean a book I don’t like doesn’t get published – again see Quicksilver. However I appreciate that there are plenty of people who do like that book and honestly, it isn’t a terrible effort that should never have been published.

    So as a result – aren’t we most likely to see good reviews?

  4. Most of the online venues accept freelance reviews and, if you click with the reviews editor, they then offer you free books. Free. Books. Just sayin’.

    Oh, and most of the scathe in my post was fairly mild. chouinard and I tend to substitute perjoratives for…everything, actually. The intellectual thumbwrestling’s pretty much eternal, but the rancor’s mostly for show.

  5. Gabe and Bob, thanks for the backgrounder on your history and, most of all, the frankness of your writing.

    And I would point others to Gabes’ postscript to his original manifesto.

  6. There are two kind of reviews I read, those before I buy a book and those after I bought and read the book. When I’m looking for reviews that help me decide whether to buy or not to buy, the sort of reviews Gabe calls “Surface Reviews”, neatly described as “generalized opinion reviews, where the only criteria seems to be the reader’s enjoyment of a particular text”. Which is exactly what I want to know, how much enjoyment I get out of the book. Deep, critical ananlysis is only interesting afterwards.

  7. As for my reviews on SFSignal, here are my thoughts.

    1. I am just a SF fan with a blog, I’m aiming my thoughts at other fans. If their tastes are similar to mine, then knowing whether I like a book or not will help them.

    2. I am not a writer, professional or otherwise. If you want a technical paper written, I can do that. If you something of a more scholarly bent, forget it. I could write something down, but it would probably be incoherant.

    3. I’m not being paid to write certain types of reviews. If someone approached my and said they would pay me money if I would write a critique of books, I’d turn them down. I’m not interested in doing that.

    4. Yes, we do get free books from publishers. And while it may seem that we like a lot of books, which we do, that has more to do with the ‘Greasemonkey Effect‘, where we decide to read only those books that interest us, as opposed to any quid pro quo with the publishers. As a result, since we tend to read books which are interesting to us, our reviews are going to be higher. In other words, lifes too short to read something that doesn’t sound appealing.

    5. A proper critique takes time, energy and deep familiarity with all SF literature (which I don’t have, mostly the early stuff, see reason 4). In other words, a proper critique is hard, and I’m not interested in writing those. A cop out? You decide. While you are, I’ll be reading another book, playing a game or spending time with my kids.

    So there you have it, that’s why I review the reading experience and nothing else. I’ll take slight exception to the 1-star/2-star statement. I think no publisher believes that they are publishing a 1 or 2 star book. But, you can’t please everyone, so there will be people who won’t like, or even loathe, a particular book. Yes, reviews are subjective so you will get the bad reviews, even on books that may be generally accepted as being good or better (see John’s review of Blade Runner.

  8. It is actually hard to do a minireview on each and every tale in an anthology. I did it here ( but I doubt that anyone who decides to buy the book on the basis of my review is actually going to read and judge based on each and every minireview: if I had just told him the highlights, that probably would tell him as much as he wants to know.

  9. That’s one approach. If I did that, I might have perhaps failed to mention “Guest Law” in my most recent anthology review, which would have been a shame, eh? πŸ˜‰

  10. A recent and related link to The Armchair Anarchist at Velcro City Tourist Board who asks: What is the job of contemporary sf criticism.

  11. And while I’m at it, here are some responses from the blogosphere about Gabe’s original post.

  12. Armchair Anarchist has an updated post, specifically addressing Gabe’s post: Climbing free of the online book review sinkhole.

  13. And now Gabe has another post addressing the NethSpace response.

  14. As I read more and more on this subject, the problem seems to be muddled even more and more. I honestly think that the original problem was in that Gabe is a review-aholic and feels that he must continue to read review after review in search of that perfect review or maybe for the same reason folks look at accidents – they are there and obvious. I don’t know, but I don’t have a problem with way we do our reviews since I am never looking for a critique of a work. I am looking to see if somebody liked the body for what it was, and that is all.

    I tend to gravitate to a set of reviews that match my tastes and interests. I do this quite a bit with gaming since I have a limited play time and I want to find games that meet what I would consider fun. I am finding that this number of reviews is declining since many of the current batch of reviewers are too cool for my tastes (note that was sarcasm, and should be clearer if I ever finish my latest curmudgeon spiel for GamingSignal.) But the honest truth for myself is that I will avoid works that are bad – I may start but will not finish. Combine that with the simple fact that I review books on what I liked but not so much how it sits in the grand body of literature (namely since I have not read a huge number of books).

    I am sorry that Gabe is struggling with this and it is an interesting discussion, but at the end I simply state what others have said: If you don’t like the review style of a given site – avoid it, but I will never tell anybody not to review a book. There are always nuggets of good information there even for some of the more fanboy fluff reviews, and for some that is what they are looking for.

  15. Another response from Jay Tomio.

  16. I entirely agree that short story reviews should be more widespread. For that same reason I launched the site “Thrilling Wonder Story”, where the opportunity is provided for readers to write reviews on INDIVIDUAL STORY BASIS.

    Here is the link:

    Anyone can add to an existing database of reviews, but they are also screened for quality before being posted as an entry. Again, this is a resource to cover STORIES, including some rare and collectible (from the pulps)

    see you there!


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