A reviewer on reviewing
Reviewing is a very tricky business. Responding to this furor reported by David Barnett of the Guardian: Do I criticise spelling and grammar? Occasionally, but never when it’s an advance reading copy in which the publisher or author has disclosed that it is an ‘uncorrected manuscript proof’. Big Al’s review at the centre of this row is quite positive, saying the book is quite good except for proofing, typo and grammar issues that need to be addressed to help with the reading experience. I don’t know how much of this issue was dealt with in the ‘cleaner’ version the author asked the reviewer to read, and how much the author needs an independent editor.
As the author of most of the content of DMF I find it difficult to be the sole editor. I find some of my errors but when I read over work several months down the line I find a lot of room for improvement. It’s the whole time/distance from the work issue – when it’s too recent, too close, it’s harder to edit. For this reason I ask a few trusted people to proof read on my behalf, even offering editorial opinion.
Back to the issue of reviewing – I was sharing earlier today about two issues that have arisen for me as a reviewer. The first issue is to respect the readers even if I don’t like the book. For this reason, even if I don’t like a book, I ask myself ‘am I in the target market for this book?’ If I don’t like it, the answer is probably no. The second question I ask myself is ‘would the target market enjoy this book’ and the answer is usually yes to some degree. My goal in writing a review is to help people decide whether they would enjoy the book without giving away too much of the story. I’ve read reviews where a reviewer has either loved or hated a book, and regardless of the reviewer’s opinion, the review has been so well written that I’ve been able to tell if I would enjoy the book regardless of how simpatico our tastes are. This is my goal in writing a review.
The other issue of reviewing that has reared its ugly head since I started writing reviews is that authors read my reviews. I hate that. It’s fine if I’d give their book 4 or 5 stars, but if I’m only luke-warm and they’ve spent a year or more of their life working on this book… or if I really don’t like it, and I am in a position where I’ve been given a review copy in order to publish a public review, what then? This is a horrible situation! I try to balance honesty with tact against an awareness of the target market and my perception of whether the target market would enjoy the book. In these situations I will try to offer some positive comments and some criticisms based on either my tastes or observations of the novel, adding a conclusion that gives an indication of who I think would enjoy the novel.
In the past year I can think of two books that I reviewed that I didn’t even finish reading, both for different reasons. In both reviews I wrote honestly about why I didn’t finish reading the book, giving people with different tastes the opportunity to recognise that here were books that they may enjoy. I also invited other people to submit reviews so that DMF could give a balanced view of the book.
In the only review I have published where I let rip into a novel (that I read in full), I quoted another reviewer who said that novel, The Quantum Thief, would win awards. I felt this gave the review balance, so I could be a bit freer with my criticisms. I also thought that an author who is a physicist should have developed his science significantly better. If it had been a fantasy book based on magic my criticisms would have been different (I don’t like limitless magic without consequences either), but I objected to a fantasy/magic based book using ‘quantum’ as justification for unlimited energy-lossless actions and transformations. I like my SF to be SF and my fantasy to be fantasy. If there is cross-over, the author needs to be very careful about the divide, in my opinion. However, Adam Roberts, famous SF author and the writer of the outstanding review, obviously loved The Quantum Thief. With Roberts’ reputation and success supporting The Quantum Thief, I felt that I, as a nobody with an opinion nonetheless, could be specific, detailed and somewhat vicious (by my standards) in my response. This was before I realised that authors read my reviews… I wonder if I would write a review like that again, or if I would approach it differently. I like to think that I would write the review like that again, simply because I think my criticism had validity AND I gave my annoyance with the book balance by quoting Roberts.
My review style is evolving. I’m still taking into account my degree of enjoyment, whether I’m the target market and whether I believe the target market would enjoy the book. I believe honesty is important in reviews or it defeats the purpose of writing a review. While I’m trying to distance myself from the academic style I learnt over several years of studying, I believe that an academic style benefits reviews although that style of review is not for everyone. Thus I’m hoping to provide a magazine or newspaper style of review as well as a more in-depth analysis to cater to different tastes. The standards to which I aspire are high, and I’m aware that I’m nowhere near my goals yet. It’s a work in progress.
Readers can help by reading my work critically and giving feedback, just as I’m giving feedback to others. I ask that you are sensitive in your feedback as I try to be sensitive to others – don’t be aggressive and do justify your comments. I’m aware of one or more reviews that claimed that a novel written by an Australian author was ‘unAustralian’. No justification was given. This criticism has stuck in my mind because I started reading the book in question without knowing the nationality of the author then I saw something that made me think the author was Australian. At this point I stopped reading to look up the author’s details, and I was delighted to discover that I was right, the author was Australian. So I’m wondering why that criticism was made. If you criticise my work, either positively or negatively, please say why. This will help me work through issues and develop my style. Good feedback can be taken on board and explored, even if it doesn’t cause an immediate change.
White Noise was originally a segment in early issues of DMF with the intention of collecting a combination of blogs and essays written by Nalini Haynes. This blog was originally published in Dark Matter issue 7, January 2012.