Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Xenopath

with 20 comments

Earlier in the day I happened to come across this review (cached version as it has been edited). It is not a very good review but, hey, there are a lot of bad reviews out there. However, when I first clicked through I thought it was just another blog, it was only after a while that I twigged that this was, in fact, the website of Fantasy Magazine. This is a respected magazine with multiple editors publishing a review which would be embarrassingly inept for someone’s blog. So I thought rather than moving on it was worth having a look at in more detail:

Introduction (250 words)

The review starts by quoting the blurb. Not a good sign. Okay, I know I have a tendency to quote crap off the covers in my reviews too. Its a bad habit. Generally, I am trying to make a point about marketing or positioning though. This reviewer is using it as shorthand for the book’s contents and, since the items mentioned in the blurb are for the main part entirely standard tropes from the SF toy box, her frame of reference already seems quite narrow. The Southern Asian setting intrigues the reviewer and, fair enough,

(I will take a break from complaining about the review to complain about the blurb: the publishers refer to an “exotic” spaceport when what they mean is an “Asian” spaceport. Fail.)

From the blurb we then switch to the cover which is again pretty irrelevant. The reviewer favours art that is neat, crisp and cleanly drawn, she wants it to look like the stuff it is meant to look like. This is worrying in itself but it is also worring in what it suggests about her appreciation of literature.

From the cover we switch to the formating. Now, this is just flat ridiculous. In addition to this, it again suggests worrying things about the reviewer’s judgement. “Voice” is not a good chapter title, it is utterly generic. The reviewer add that Brown has published other books which is useful information but this poor shoehorned into a section on the approving critical quotes in the front of the novel. I agree with the reviewer that larding the inside of a novel with “their last book was great” endorsements is irritating. This is not really the place to state such personal gripes though. Again, I’ve been known to include the odd personal gripe but this is remarkably sustained attempt to both ignore the text itself and the wider context of the text.

The problems: an awkward and irrelevant opening, a reviewer who doesn’t display much breadth of taste or knowledge of the genre.

Review (300 words)

Eventually we start looking at the text itself. The reviewer starts by approvingly quoting the opening sentence: “Vaughan was refuelling The Pride of Calcutta, just in from Ganymede, when the call came through.” This is an incredibly bland opening line, that this is a reassuring to the reviewer is not reassuring to me.

We are then told that the author “a offers a keen projection of what current techology might become”. The evidence of this is a Dick Tracy wristphone. Seriously? This does not seem a particularly stunning example of extrapolation. It is also worth mentioning the misspelling of technology. I am a bad speller, I make mistakes on this blog all the time. However, anything that is published by a magazine should have been drafted, proofed and edited. Mistakes like this suggest otherwise (although it could, of course, be just a mistake). See also: *italics* instead of italics.

We then move onto the prose. Now, to me saying that the writing is solid is not actually a compliment but we do at least get quotes of what the reviewer considers to be particularly good prose which is welcome. But than have the sort of critical even-handedness which really gets my goat: there were lame ideas and cool ideas, there were poorly realised characters and well realised characters. It is true that sometimes novels are all over the place but usually if a book has lots of bad bits as well as good bits then is not a very good book and it is helpful to say this. It is always good for a reviewer to state an opinion.

Spoilers (450 words)

No review should ever have a line break “begin spoiler” heading, this means you have failed as a reviewer. It is bad enough in blogs but in a magazine it is just unacceptable. Even keeping in mind that a lot of the things that are commonly considered to be spoilers I do not see as such, I can understand someone not wishing to include spoilers in a review. However, that does not mean you can abrogate all responsibility as this reviewer does:

Unfortunately, I can’t discuss any of the problems I encountered without ruining the endgame plot for new readers, so the following is a spoiler section; *please* only read it if you’ve already read the book!

When we start reading the so-called spoiler we discover that the first paragraph isn’t even a spoiler at all. The reviewer’s problem is that an object that is a hundred thousand years old does not show any signs of erosion. This is a fair enough problem to have. There is absolutely no reason to quarantine it in a spoiler section. It could easily be mentioned as an aside about the plot without any risk of spoilers. Oh, except the reviewer hasn’t actually said anything at all about the plot.

We are halfway through the review now and we have no idea what happens in the novel. Reviews shouldn’t be all synopsis (a common failing) but no synopsis isn’t very helpful either. In this paragraph the reviewer suddenly and offhandedly mentions “the pachyderms”. What? Here we have a review which is solely written for other people who have read the book. Which means it isn’t a review at all.

It is still not clear that the second paragraph is a spoiler either because again it is stripped of any context. This paragraph actually reads a lot like – *gasp* – critical engagement with the text that has so far been lacking from the reviewer. Why then has the reviewer chosen hide it? It is unfortunately impossible for someone who has not read this novel (ie the audience of the review) to follow this section because it is entirely designed as a conversation between other readers of the book. This extents to actually asking questions. It also has chatty asides – “Which should *not* be taken as a slam against philosophers!” – which make it seem much more like a blog post than a formal review.

There is then a third paragraph of non-spoiler spoilers which makes this the longest section and means that almost half of the review cannot actually be read by the audience. This paragraph is also the third in a row that takes issue with Brown which means the majority of the review is negative.

Conclusion (100 words)

Yet despite the overwhelming negativity of the review this does not translate into an overall negative judgement. We are back to the equivocation of the earlier review: it was bad but it was good too and there is worse out there. And that is it, review over.

Since the reviewer spends so long on formatting I will allow myself to mention the bizarre formatting of this review. It ends without announcement and then slides into a brief biography of Brown, then a couple of links and then a bio of the reviewer herself. It is messy and confused and again suggests a lack of any editorial hand.

What is my point? Why am I picking on this review? My intention isn’t to pick on it specifically (although I appreciate it may not feel this way), I just happened to read it and it seemed to exemplify an unfortunate fact. Namely, that a lot of genre reviews, perhaps even the majority of them, are very poorly written. They are written without consideration and reflection, they are written without a basic grasp of composition or the point of reviewing, they are written by people lacking a breadth of taste and knowledge, they are frequently written by people who are hostile to the very idea of criticism. My reviews are by no means perfect but at least I try. It is immensely frustrating to read the garbage that passes for reviewing at even a relatively prestigious venue like Fantasy Magazine. It is especially frustrating given the chip the genre has on its shoulder about not being taken seriously. If you want to be taken seriously you have to earn it.

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Written by Martin

3 September 2009 at 19:34

Posted in books, criticism

Tagged with ,

20 Responses

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  1. The thing that annoyed me during my light skimming was that the reviewer spent a lot of time describing the book itself and the few pages of blurbs before book actually begins. I mostly ignore that kind of thing and really, unless it’s ridiculous (20 pages of blurbs or something), it’s entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand.

    And “The interior formatting is professional.” Well, fine. I assume it’s going to be, since it is, you know, a published book. That’s something you shouldn’t bother to point out unless it’s NOT professional. I would have mentioned something like the short story collection I picked up in the UK that neglected to actually break between the first two stories– it just kind of jumped from what seemed like the denouement of the first to the start of the second. I thought it was some kind of coda to the first story until I checked the table of contents and saw that no, the first story was supposed to have ended and the second started at about that point. That’s _unprofessional_ and should be pointed out. People actually putting together readable books shouldn’t be so unusual as to be worth mentioning in a review. The cover font (“neat and crisp”) is actually pretty generic and the cover design is unremarkable; why waste time praising it?

    jbrandt

    3 September 2009 at 20:40

  2. There’s something really depressing about that…

    The website itself is lovely. I adore the banner art and the site itself is well laid out, pleasant to look at and easy to navigate. There are editorial guidelines and they clearly have a staff not only of editors but also of interns.

    And yet the review has clearly not been edited or even proof-read. There are word repetitions and spelling mistakes as well as syntax and grammar problems. All of those problems could easily be solved with a back and forth and that’s before you get into the structural and practical problems with the review itself.

    It’s a prestigious venue with a nice website and it has clearly been going for a while and yet whoever is in charge of the reviews clearly shows them hardly any love at all. A lack of love that translates into hardly any comments whatsoever.

    For example, all it would have taken was one line in an email pointing out that you don’t need a spoiler section and that review would have improved immeasurably… the person who wrote it is clearly lacking in confidence. So lacking that she needs spoilers to discuss even minor plot points and struggles not to sit on the fence when giving her opinion.

    Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen used to do a lot of bad review bashing and it used to set my teeth on edge as good reviewers are made rather than born. They need to be encouraged and guided and clearly whoever is editing the reviews at Fantasy magazine is not doing their job properly and as a result one of their reviewers gets singled out for writing a bad review.

    I look at that website and that reviewer and I see potential, but also a real need for love and attention.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    3 September 2009 at 20:51

  3. The review reads like it’s by someone who normally reviews self-published books – in which case, comments on the interior formatting are not unusual.

    Ian Sales

    3 September 2009 at 22:33

  4. Ah, that would explain it.

    jbrandt

    3 September 2009 at 22:56

  5. Jonathan: I agree that reviewers need to be encouraged and that editors need to take their responsibilities seriously.

    The reason I started reviewing is because, as a reader, I was looking for genre reviews on the internet and not finding much of worth. I started writing for SF Site and they were very encouraging in terms of being receptive to new reviewers and being open to reviews of pretty much anything, new or old. However, they were also editorially very hands off which meant there was a steep learning curve and it had to be over come on my own. There is a difference between being better than other reviewers and actually being good. It was only when I started writing for NYRSF and Strange Horizons that I started receiving strong editorial guidance and – no surprise – this is when my reviewing really started improving.

    There just aren’t enough venues like that though, even in places you might expect them to exist like at Fantasy Magazine.

    Martin

    4 September 2009 at 07:31

  6. I agree that the responsibility is ultimately on the reviewer. There’s stuff that you really need to work out for yourself.

    For example, having a short plot synopsis (especially when you have several hundred words to play with) so that people can work out what the book is actually about. Or not having a plot spoiler in the middle of a review.

    If you read the types of reviews other people put out then you learn the form.

    However, given that it only required an email to point out these kinds of errors I do think that it reflects incredibly poorly on the site’s non-fiction editor that the review went out looking the way it did.

    If you look at Fantasy Magazine’s editorial team you’ll see that these are ‘serious fans’. People with profiles. People with reputations. People with fingers in pies. And yet that review shows a real lack of care, interest and pride.

    It’s easy to be spoiled by places like Strange Horizons but even when I’ve written for smaller sites, I’ve never had my work go out looking like that.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    4 September 2009 at 09:46

  7. A few years ago, before Gabe C abandoned SF (again), I found his forum dedicated to discussion of genre reviewing and criticism really useful. It was a shame that nothing similar sprang up afterwards. There are alternatives, I suppose, but nothing that I’m aware of with such a specific focus.

    Reading Martin’s criticisms in this post reminded me of that forum. I don’t think any of my reviews have been quite as inept as this Xenopath piece (at least not in the last few years) but on a number of points – e.g. confidence & not fence-sitting, tight and assured structure – I have a lot of room for improvement.

    (For anyone else who is late to the party, Fantasy Magazine seem to have removed the review (perhaps it will be restored after a thorough edit) but there is a cached version here.)

    ShaunCG

    4 September 2009 at 10:08

  8. I’m in agreement with your criticisms of this review (ShaunCG – thanks for the cached version). It was especially abysmal, and the introduction leaves me perplexed.

    With respect to spoilers online – sometimes it is useful to mark these out (not in the manner of this reviewer, however, although I suspect such things are hang-ups from forum users.

    Online reviews are strange beasts – the nature of having something online implies casual conversational tones and much less formality. Then again, does the online reviewer serve a different function?

    Mark

    4 September 2009 at 15:15

  9. Mark — I’m not sure why online reviews would be more conversational… If you’re writing about a book on a blog that is normally full of personal stuff then it’s fair to infer that it’ll be informal but otherwise online reviews vary depending upon writer and venue.

    Shaun — Agreed on Gabe’s forum. It was a nice idea and did go some way to creating a community out of online reviewers. The idea could probably stand to be looked at again. I know that Herr Raven was enthusiastic about the idea of creating one linked to the SF Foundation Critical Masterclass but the person organising it at the time was weirdly resistant.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    4 September 2009 at 18:31

  10. Then again, does the online reviewer serve a different function?

    Quoth John Clute, in an interview in the September Locus, following on from a discussion of the decline of newspaper review sections:

    But I myself have had a kind of Indian Summer, because when the shackles loosen a bit (whether or not hands-on literary editors are nearly as visible on the horizon as they used to be, saying “I need eight hundred words on X, a thousand words on Y” I know they have a sense of style in their paper), that’s a kind of constraint. People don’t seem to be as attentive to as many aspects of content and length and focus as they used to be. Before those journals folded, there seems to have been a radical narrowing of what they would accept. My Indian Summer, of course, has been online publication.

    That (probably temporary) freedom is a freedom from editorial control, from length control. “Give me stuff, and we’ll think it’s good, it’s printable, and we won’t think anymore” — I’ve had that kind of response for quite a lot of the online stuff I’ve done. The most liberating thing is that you don’t have length restrictions. In a collection of reviews I just published, I noticed there are fewer reviews but more words, and when you leaf through, it looks more like a narrative book because the copy doesn’t break off after 800 or a thousand or twelve hundred words but after fifteen hundred or two thousand. I don’t think I’ve become more loquacious (or only a little bit); but just because there is no pressing editorial need to constrain length, reviews can become more and more adventurous.

    It is not natural, necessarily, that the old online version of what used to be Science Fiction Weekly used a format with links to all my previous columns. It is not natural, necessarily, that a blog kind of “all is now, and if you blink you’ve missed it” site is the way it is going to be for the next ten years, or maybe the next six months. I don’t get any sense of security, of how I can maintain that old sense of continuity with readers now in a particular site, and I think it’s going to be more and more difficult for individuals like myself to publish individual pieces that are not part of a site that I create myself, or a blog, or something like Boing Boing. I’ll be able to write for free journals like Strange HOrizons, and will continue to when I feel like publishing a review about something, but otherwise I will (as it were) retreat to my dormer and work on the Encyclopedia.

    I don’t think online reviewers serve a different function, but I think the native online reviewer operates under different constraints and assumptions than the native print reviewer, and I don’t necessarily think we’ve fully mapped those differences yet. I go back and forth on the value of conversational-ness, for instance.

    Niall

    4 September 2009 at 18:36

  11. Jonathan – I think it comes with the nature of the internet. You’re given a freedom not associated with print media.

    Niall – That’s a good quote, although I think I disagree on the point of blogs. Many blogs do serve their readers as a more informal natter – more an online coffee morning. Which is a much more powerful tool in book sales, because it almost becomes a recommendation from a friend. (One of the major factors why people buy books.) Informality can be a boon to end-users.

    Mark Newton

    5 September 2009 at 08:08

  12. Mark, I think the error you are making is in thinking that because the internet allows writers to be more informal and conversational than in print media, all writing that appears online must necessarily be informal and conversational.

    I write for online publication far more frequently than I do for dead tree format and I don’t think my style varies all that much.

    In fact, I’m not even sure what a “conversational” review might be like other than “OMG, loved this book”.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    5 September 2009 at 12:28

  13. Jonathan:

    Aside from the elaborate leap to me saying “all writing that appears online”…

    Blogs and newer review sites have certainly changed the texture of online reviewing. Without editorial control on many of these – other than creator-editor, which is risky – there is much more freedom to waffle and meander. Plus there’s not as much of a limit on word count – which has a significant yet subtle effect.

    (As an aside, blogs are simply anarchistic in the true sense, so what you say or someone else says doesn’t matter, because it’s all viewed equally by readers, whether we like to think it or not. And it’s probably changed what the general bulk of users require from a review, too. It’s constantly evolving – just like the internet.)

    The last point: not sure I can help you with that one, other than walking you through some examples. You’re probably not all that far off. Perhaps chatty and undisciplined.

    Mark Newton

    5 September 2009 at 13:05

  14. […] link: Xenopath « Everything Is Nice […]

  15. […] Lewis discusses a review of Eric Brown’s […]

  16. The review appears to have been revised now.

    Niall

    10 September 2009 at 06:56

  17. Yeah, I noticed that yesterday. I was checking to see whether I could take the cached link down since seemed to be up and unchanged. Unfortunately by that time it had been changed without an indication of this on the site which again is worryingly unprofessional.

    Martin

    10 September 2009 at 08:03

  18. And the cached version seems to have picked up the edit as well, now, unfortunately.

    Niall

    10 September 2009 at 08:11

  19. Agreed, not very professional at all. If they were capable of doing this kind of edit to start with then why didn’t they? The discrete changing of the review without acknowledging the problem suggests that they’re looking to cover their arses and possibly make Martin look like a crazy person in the process.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    10 September 2009 at 09:48

  20. I’ve just saved a copy of the cached review which was still in my browser’s temporary files. I’m not quite sure what to do with it but if anyone wants it emailed their way I can accommodate that. Or I could just paste it into the comments here.

    ShaunCG

    14 September 2009 at 09:34


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