Tag Archives: reviewing

In a World Where…

Congratulations to the fine folks at the Golden Bough, who were (as far as I know) the only ones to spot my little April Fool’s Day joke in PW‘s April 2 issue: all nine SF/F/H reviews began with the phrase “In a world where…”. This is, of course, an homage to the late, great Don LaFontaine, whose voice graced countless SF/F movie trailers. PW reviews, like trailers, have to very quickly set the scene, summarizing an often complicated background and setting in just a few words. LaFontaine had a real genius for this. The “In a world where…” construction has become a cliché, but it really is very efficient and effective, and it respects how important worldbuilding and scene-setting are in SF/F. I was delighted to have this opportunity to honor LaFontaine and his work while giving PW‘s readers a little extra fun.

An Anniversary

Ten years ago today, some fresh kid who thought she knew anything about books stopped by the PW offices on 17th Street to pick up a couple of ARCs from Peter Cannon, then the SF/F/H reviews editor, who had very kindly offered to give her a trial run as a reviewer.

Ten years later–nearly a third of my lifetime!–here I am, sitting almost literally in Peter’s old chair. (He has the desk next to mine. I gave him a card today, because I am sentimental sometimes.)

It’s been ten very busy and often very strange years in the book world, the magazine world, and my own little world. I still remember my delight the first time I saw a review of mine quoted on a book jacket, and the months of unemployment when I reviewed three books a week to keep myself fed, and how absolutely floored I was the day that Peter told me that a part-time position had opened up on the editorial staff and he felt I should apply for it, and the trip to Japan I spent anxiously checking my email to see whether the magazine had been sold or closed. I can’t count how many times my schedule has changed (the joys of being a part-timer with a sleep disorder). I moved from San Francisco to Manhattan to Brooklyn, changed careers three times, dropped out of college twice, got married once; PW moved from 17th Street to Park Avenue to 23rd Street, and from Cahners to Reed to PWxyz. The very definition of “book” has changed. But my link to PW has endured. The magazine has quite literally sustained me–financially, intellectually, and emotionally–and I like to think I’ve given a few things back.

Now that I’m an editor, I don’t write reviews very often, but I’ll be writing one today; the ARC came in too late to assign to a freelancer, it’s a book I’d have wanted to read anyway, and I like to keep my critical skills sharp. I read the book yesterday and started writing the review in my head on my morning commute today, just like I used to do when I was in a mind-numbing secretarial job and reviewing books was the only thing that made me feel smart and useful. The cover of the ARC is even almost the same color as the cover of the first ARC I reviewed (yes, I remember that sort of thing). I can’t think of a better way to celebrate ten years in two of the best jobs in the world. Here’s to many more.

Men Read Men and Women Read Everyone, Still

March 8 is International Women’s Day! In honor of the occasion, have some interesting statistics on SF/F book review blogs:

In the beginning, I was fairly sure of what I was going to find: men discussing mostly men, and women discussing both either equally or more. Does the data follow?… Men still dominate the literary conversation, but women are in there, too. I was initially surprised by this result, because my gut back in 2011 had said it was not this even. However, if you start rearranging the data a bit, things change. There are women being reviewed by men, yes, but there are also women being reviewed by women. My initial instinct was correct…. the 40/60 is an average, and that average is the way it is because the women reviewing women drive it up.

The more I think about it, the more I think this industry is really poisoned by the marketing-driven self-fulfilling prophecy that boys will only ever read books (watch movies, watch TV shows, read comics) about boys, but girls will read anything about anyone. It reminds me of Harry Connolly’s recent post about fans arguing over which author’s books are better:

Here’s a general guideline I would like people to follow: If you like a particular author’s books and someone unfamiliar with them suggests that the description so far makes them sound kind of dull? Please PLEASE do not start the “… displays an ignorance and shallow judgment that frankly says you’re not worth [author]‘s time as a reader anyway” stuff.

If you like a book or book series, do not try to drive away readers you consider unworthy.

Given all the blather about the death of the industry, why are we still essentially driving men away from books by and about women? If we like these books enough to write and publish them, why aren’t we trying to give them the widest possible audience? You’d think this would make sense purely from a marketing and financial standpoint, in addition to being a step toward real equality.

As more books by and about girls and women become available, there are two types of equality we could end up with: the sort where most people only read books about people who resemble them (that is, girls stop reading about boys because they no longer have to), and the sort where most people are omnivoracious readers (that is, books about girls are marketed to boys and girls alike, the way books about boys are now, and we make it culturally more comfortable for boys to read and enjoy them). I think we would all do well to encourage the latter.

(I’d also love to see more clearly intersex and genderqueer characters and writers, but that’s a topic for a separate post.)

Bring on the Digital Galleys

If you’re not subscribed to the PW Daily email (and why aren’t you? It’s free and you can sign up right here), you may have missed this announcement:

Beginning September 15, Publishers Weekly‘s romance and science fiction/fantasy/horror reviews sections will accept digital galleys for review consideration. This includes galleys for digital-first publications in those genres.

We especially encourage small and independent presses to make use of the new system, which we hope will make it easier to send us galleys three to four months ahead of publication. Uploading digital galleys is also an eco-friendly alternative to packaging and shipping physical galleys.

All of PW’s current submission guidelines apply to digital galleys. We accept .epub, .mobi, .rtf, and .pdf formats. Please only submit each book once; there is no need to submit both physical and digital galleys of the same title.

Publishers may access the upload system at http://www.publishersweekly.com/egalleys. Please send error reports, questions, and feedback to service@publishersweekly.com.

I am pleased as punch to be spearheading this effort, and grateful to my reviewers who are willing to make the digital plunge. Please spread the word to all the SF/fantasy/horror and romance publishers and publicists you know.

Please and Thank You

I have never entirely understood why one is not supposed to thank the Sidhe, or what is supposed to happen if one does. Nonetheless, all the stories say it’s considered extremely rude.

At RWA I participated in a panel discussion of reviewing, and author Ann Herendeen (quoted here with permission) asked whether it was okay for authors to send thank-you notes to reviewers. She wrote to me later, “Bizarre as it seems now, I had the idea that thanking a reviewer would be unprofessional, as much as writing an angry or indignant response for a bad review.”

On the off chance that anyone else out there is laboring under a similar misconception, let me reassure you: this is one of the many, many ways in which reviewers are completely unlike Celtic mythical beings. We love fan mail! If you liked a review in one of my sections of PW, please email me and let me know. I’ll make sure to pass your note along to the reviewer after I’ve taken a moment to bask in it.

Book Smugglers on Blogger–Publisher Relationships

From the fabulous Book Smugglers blog comes an incisive piece on the complex relationship between bloggers and publishers:

The idea seems to be that because book bloggers are not part of some larger, professional (read: paid) organization, because we run the gamut from teenagers to housewives, we are not on the level. We should be happy with the free books and any other extras we receive – and in return for those ARCs/galleys/review copies, we automatically are inured to a bizarre power hierarchy in which bloggers are expected to do certain things. And the worst part is, we’ve noticed that this assumption of being indebted to publishers stems from bloggers.

This, dear readers, makes us a little bit frustrated.

…The thing is, we bloggers have worked long and hard to build our readerships. As we’ve always seen it, as book bloggers, our responsibility is to our readers. Period. This relationship with our readers is based on trust, and that trust can only happen if readers know that we are being not only completely and totally honest in our reviews but also about how we get our review copies (this is why full disclosure is so important).

Go read the whole post. It’s terrific.

I do want to note that the situation is the same for professional, paid reviewers. PW is partially funded by advertisements from publishers–and I believe that many book blogs likewise accept and run publisher ads–but we keep a very high wall between advertising and editorial. On the reviewing side, our first obligation is always to our readers. Why would a publisher, or anyone else, expect that to be different for a blogger than it is for a magazine?

Maybe the issue is that publishers think of bloggers as fans, as consumers of books, rather than as producers of content. If so, that’s a fairly major mistake. The whole point of blogging and of reviewing is that you’re not contented just to consume; you feel driven to share your opinions and thoughts with the world. If we weren’t writing about books we’d be writing about movies or restaurants or politicians. Books just happen to be the lens through which we focus our opinionatedness and need to reach out and connect with other people. So we can’t be bribed with freebies or made to feel beholden to publishers, because our priority isn’t scoring a particular item or favor for ourselves; it’s creating good content and good relationships with our readers.

Of course we see ourselves as being on an equal footing with publishers. We’re in the same business! And they need us to review their books as much as we need them to keep putting out books for us to review–maybe even more. So a little respect, if you please, and more self-respect among bloggers would probably be a good thing too. We need to collectively put paid to this notion of indebtedness. Otherwise, we’re just writing glorified blurbs for well below the going rate.

I wonder how much of this comes from a lot of book bloggers being female. We’re taught to be self-effacing, to acknowledge the contributions of others before we admit to pride in our own accomplishments, to be grateful for what we have rather than asking for more. It’s high time for that to change.

A Case in Point

Jason Sanford on this year’s Million Writers Award contest:

In years past I’ve been the sole judge, reading all the notable stories and picking my ten favorites. This year, though, I invited two others to join me in this duty. Everything was looking good until one of these judges decided she no longer wanted to be a judge.

You see, she was worried what a writing friend would say because she hadn’t picked this friend’s story from the notable list. Even though this judge had already turned in her picks, and even though I promised her anonymity, at the last minute she demanded I remove her and not use her selections.

I gnash my teeth and flail my arms because this is so stupid. This is what happens when we let personal connections get in the way of honest evaluation. Clearly the judge was capable of setting her friendships aside when evaluating the stories, because she passed over the friend’s story rather than giving it special consideration. That’s step one. But step two is trusting her friend to take a similarly dispassionate, quality-based approach, and apparently that was unpossible. So the judge’s assessment of the friend’s irrationality is really what led the judge to withdraw.

The solution seems straightforward:

  1. If you are in the business of evaluating artistic works created by people you may know, only befriend the sensible, rational people in that group of artists.
  2. If you fear that a friend of yours is not sensible and will be offended by you not automatically declaring their work the best ever simply because you are friends, either stop being friends with them or cope with their irrationality, but don’t pass the buck. Your friends are your problem.
  3. If neither 1 nor 2 is tenable, get out of the business of judging or reviewing.

I realize this sounds a bit harsh, but as a former awards judge I am appalled by this judge’s behavior. Really poor form.

I do wish it were easier to do anonymous review in SF/F/H awards and contests, and even in book reviewing and anthology compiling. Obviously it’s impossible for a retrospective award–the judges are fans, and will already have read many of the works up for consideration–but under some other circumstances it might be worth trying. Another layer between judges/editors/critics and authors can only be a good thing.

The Duty of Candor

The other day I had the pleasure of joining China Miéville for lunch. It was an oasis of great conversation in the middle of a very busy day. Our discussion was wide-ranging but kept coming back to the concept of candor, a word China used that I like very much because it doesn’t carry connotations of sneering or hurtful bluntness.

I am generally in favor of candor, which is why I’m in the profession I’m in; I believe that you can’t be a good reviewer or a good editor unless you’re willing to state your complete and honest opinion of a work in the hearing of the work’s creator. We can’t rubber-stamp or gloss over the negatives to soothe or evade hurt feelings. We must be candid.

I could say “We must be critical” but that suggests an emphasis on pointing out things we don’t like, and while I think there’s value in negative reviews, balance is key. I’ve learned over the years that it’s much easier to say “I will stop Bad Habit A” if I have Good Habit B to replace it with. We need role models and positive examples to fill the vacuum left when we abjure our past failings and swear to do better. It’s the critic’s job to say “This work is worth emulating” as well as “This work is riddled with problems”.

Candor as policy is essential. There can be no discrimination on any basis other than taste: no excessive generosity to one’s friends, no excessive harshness to one’s rivals, no favors to one’s current or potential colleagues. I don’t shy away from telling my friends when I don’t like their books, and they remain my friends because they understand that my review has nothing to do with our friendship. It’s about me and the book, alone in a room.

I understand that a lot of people struggle with this. I have a hard time finding SF/F authors to write signature reviews because they so often decline, citing friendship (or enmity) with the author whose work they’d be reviewing. One told me, “I never review anything written by someone who’s still alive.” I can’t imagine taking that stance. I feel that, like editors, reviewers have a duty to not just describe what we read but to opine, with an eye toward moving the genre as a whole in the direction of what we feel would be improvement; you can’t do that if you only review works long after they’ve ceased to inspire new writers. And are our professional and personal associations really so fragile that we don’t dare say in public that we think a friend’s book has flaws? How tragic, if so. I had hoped we were a stronger, more resilient community than that, and I had hoped we were collectively more devoted to the cause of bettering ourselves–as writers and as readers–and our genre.

China told me that he felt the SF/F writing community as a whole is not as critical as it should be, and that the genre deserves and needs honest critique if it’s going to improve. I concur wholeheartedly. So consider this a call to arms: the next time someone asks you what you think of a book, give them your candid opinion. I promise you the world will not end. You might even find that over time, the world improves.

Reviewing Can Be Hazardous

BoingBoing reports on a tit-for-tat battle between a video game reviewer/author and a video game art designer who,  wounded by a bad review, directed members of the game company to pan the reviewer’s book on Amazon.com .

This level of vindictive back and forth is not necessarily unique to Amazon, but I feel that, because Amazon is such a massive choke-point for book buying, a group of vindictive reviewers can do a lot more damage there than they can anywhere else.  In many ways, this is a taste of the future.

BoingBoing also lings to a Marooner’s Rock post on the situation, which has a really good explanation of professionalism in reviewing, including harsh reviewing.

Is there a solution to the problem of vindictive review-sniping on Amazon?  Or is the free nature of bad reviews for any reason something we just need to learn to accept, and possibly work around with pen names or PW-style anonymity?

A Note for Publicists Who Handle Media Tie-in Books

As we hope most of you know, PW does not review media tie in books.  At least not in the F/SF category.  Genreville, however, can cover those books as we see fit.  Though I can’t promise to cover everything sent our way, I have read a number of the Star Wars books, and especially enjoyed the X-Wing novels by Allston and Stackpole.  I’ve also enjoyed media tie in books from Star Trek, the X-Files, Dungeons and Dragons, and other properties.  So I’d be happy to give some love to the neglected media tie-in novel from my little corner of PW. Send queries to josh@genreville.com.

Hitting the Ground Running

Congrats to Jeff VanderMeer on his new Science Fiction Chronicle column for The New York Times.  It’s exactly what I’ve been wanting in mainstream coverage of genre fiction: nuanced, knowledgeable, multicultural, and respectful.  Jeff reviews Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, The Gaslight Dogs by Karen Lowachee, and A Life on Paper (Stories) by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin.

It’s exciting to see a paper like The New York Times cover small presses like Small Beer  (Redemption in Indigo and A Life on Paper) as well as a mass market release (The Gaslight Dogs).  It looks like Jeff is trying to explore not only the solid center of the genre with respected authors like Ian McDonald, but also its more experimental periphery. I hope future genre coverage in The Times is this well crafted.

The New York Times Profiles China Miéville

The Times profile begins with a paragraph that exemplifies the paper’s handling of genre fiction:

If your idea of a science fiction writer is a scrawny guy with computer-glow pallor who’s a little too interested in whether warp speed is a realistic rate of travel, China Miéville is not that person.

To be fair, that is most people’s image of a science fiction writer.  But it’s arguable that Miéville’s novel The City & The City is not actually science fiction as most would define it, if they bothered to think about a definition.  To be fair, the Times claims:

For the record, Mr. Miéville, 37, calls himself a science fiction writer — or, for those steeped in genre subdivisions, a purveyor of “weird” or “new weird” fiction. But he stands out from the crowd for the quality, mischievousness and erudition of his writing.

Is it just me, or is “quality, mischievousness and erudition of his writing” sort of like saying that he stands out because he’s “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy“?  While the profile is a good one, and I’m glad to see Miéville getting mainstream attention, the Times still lacks continuity in its genre reviews.  Since David Itzkoff abandoned his hipster snark filled “Across the Universe” column, the Times book section has only had one review by Jeff VanderMeer. It has otherwise returned to a general stable of people who mostly hold the genre and its authors in some form of mild contempt and can be surprised by something like China Miéville having a nicely toned body.

That said, the mainstream attention Miéville is gathering, combined with his notable personal charisma, could well propel him to a level of recognition enjoyed by writers like Neil Gaiman. Miéville’s writing is even more quirky and highbrow than Gaiman, and he lacks the fan base created by Gaiman’s start in comics. Despite that, among the genre crowd, he is known as a “rock star”.

I bemoan the NY Times focusing on his physique, but I’ve known plenty of fans, writers, editors and critics who get twitterpated about Miéville’s good looks.  So perhaps the Times was on to something. Will genre rock-stars of the future have to look the part as well as write it?

Things Aren’t Always What They Ostensible

Most of my reviewers are on a mailing list where I make announcements (“Here’s where to send your tax forms”) and they discuss various aspects of reviewing (“What are your tricks for reviewing a 600-page anthology of 40 stories in under 180 words?”). I recently sent a message out asking my reviewers to avoid using the word “seem” and variations on it, as PW‘s marvelous copyeditor, Sonia Robbins, has been flagging it a lot in my sections lately. I recommended some alternatives to “seems” and “seemingly”, which come up most often: appears, treated as, perhaps, ostensibly, initially, etc.

One reviewer asked why Sonia and I were singling out “seem” in particular. I explained:

“Seem” is vague and not useful to someone reading the review. It usually means that someone or something is disguised (in which case we should say so) or that the appearance of someone or something is misinterpreted by others (in which case we should say who has the wrong impression and why). The latest example was something like “Sarah seems to be just an ordinary girl but is in fact the prophesied Chosen One who will save the world”. Describing this plot element in detail will help to distinguish this book from all the other destiny-quest stories out there. Compare and contrast:

“Raised as an ordinary girl in a small town, Sarah is shocked when the gods select her as the Chosen One who will save the world.”

“Sarah’s parents tell her she’s the Chosen One, but she must hide her powers to keep the Dark Lord from finding her.”

“Sarah’s halo marks her as the Chosen One, so her grandmother gives her a magical hat that hides it.”

“Everyone knows Sarah is the Chosen One, but her looks are so plain and her manner so unassuming that even her friends and family forget her special status.”

The first two sentences make me yawn. The latter two make me want to read the book because it’s doing something new and different. That’s why it’s important to distinguish them rather than stuffing all of that information into a vague term like “seem” (or, for that matter, “is”).

Likewise “He ventures into a seemingly haunted house” vs.:

“Hoping to overcome his fear of ghosts, he ventures into a house rumored to be haunted.”

“A friend asks him to exorcise ghosts from a house where strange lights flash in the windows and furniture moves itself.”

“He goes into an old house looking for ghosts, which he likes to collect and display in glass bottles.”

In the types of reviews we write, it’s always better to say things flat out. “Seem” is a tease.

Another reviewer replied:

Glad it’s not “seams”–I don’t want to revise the last line of my last review to read “The reader will laugh so hard he’ll split the perhaps of his pants.”

I guess this is what I get for pontificating!

Being the Bearer of Sad Tidings

PW reviewer Laurie Gold writes about the painful side of reviewing:

I thought readers might be interested to know how it feels to write a review for an author whose work you’ve previously enjoyed… and would like to enjoy again in the future… knowing that it’ll dash their hopes.

It feels lousy.

I’m always a little puzzled when reviewers talk about gleefully writing negative reviews. I would always rather praise than deride; I never forget that authors and publishers read our reviews, and I don’t enjoy telling people that something they’ve worked on for months or years is awful. This may sound odd coming from someone who’s very firmly on the record about the ethical importance of negative reviews, but I think there’s a big difference between “It’s important that we be honest and make it clear that we’re willing to publish negative reviews when they’re warranted” and “Yay, I get to put the boot in!”.

Laurie adds:

It’s the flip side to the joy I get requesting a starred review at the magazine, particularly if the author is little-known or new to publishing altogether. Helping build excitement over a book I loved is fun.

A thousand times yes to this! And even more so if I know anything about the authors. At last year’s RWA, I saw Courtney Milan and Tessa Dare on a panel talking about supporting each other as writing partners and being overjoyed when they got their first book contracts almost at the same time. When my reviewers sent in starred reviews of both debuts, I was actually relieved; I was impressed by the authors’ spirit of collaboration rather than competition, but I suspected that one getting a star and the other one not would be hard for both of them, and I was so glad that they would have not only good news to squee over but good news they could share without reservation.

Here’s the thing: I love books. I love readers. I love authors. I love this whole messy industry. Every positive review is a sign that despite all the economic woes, all the struggles to find and keep readers, and all the debates over pricing and formats, we are still doing something right. Authors are writing good books and publishers are publishing them and we, the reviewers, are helping readers to find them and enjoy them and support the people who create them. Those moments of win-win-win are why I’m in this business.

I suppose I’m like a doctor who would really like everyone to be healthy even if that means I’d be out of a job. I wish every book were fabulous. But some aren’t, so I will keep publishing negative reviews even when it makes me sad, and I will keep looking for those moments of pure joy when a book comes by that’s really worth celebrating.

NY Times Gets an F&SF Reviewer Who Actually Likes the Genre

Congratulations to Jeff VanderMeer for getting a reviewing slot in the prestigious but frequently genre-antagonistic New York Times Book Review, discussing Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion.  As a descriptive review, it’s pretty solid.  There’s well-crafted detail about the narrative, the setting, the pacing, and the relationship the book has to Shakespeare’s Tempest.

The only problem I had with the review is this line:

“The result is a singular riff on steampunk — sophisticated, subversive entertainment that never settles for escapism”

I can’t find a place in the review where I’m told how the novel is sophisticated, and more importantly, how it’s subversive.  I think an observation like that needs some explanation, not just the idea that, if I read the book, I’ll be sure to find it.  Jeff’s announcement of the review being published indicates that there was some editorial trimming.  Perhaps that part got cut.

Does this herald more of Jeff’s reviews in the Times?  I certainly hope so.