JANE: So, based on what you said last week, there are absolutely no qualifications for becoming a reviewer other than a willingness to read books and then set down some opinions about them. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
ALAN: That’s a pretty good summary of the process. However, I have noticed that, while a lot of people have strong opinions about the books they have read, very few seem to be able to explain exactly why they hold those opinions.
It seems to be quite easy to say “I liked / disliked this book”, but correspondingly quite hard to give reasons. For many people, reading seems to be an instinctive or emotional process, rather than a rational one. And that’s no bad thing – a story is supposed to be approached on an emotional level. The people who go one step further, from the emotional into the analytical, are the ones who end up as reviewers.
JANE: That’s interesting. Given that I’ve been an English professor, I have no problem approaching a work on both a rational and an emotional level.
How did you learn to do this?
ALAN: In my case I read a lot of reviews, criticisms and analyses. In England, I used to work at a university and the senior common room had a subscription to the Times Literary Supplement. I devoured it avidly. It had lots of (sometimes quite bitchy) reviews in it.
SF itself has had a lot very insightful critics – Kingsley Amis, Damon Knight, James Blish, Algis Budrys, John Clute… The list goes on.
JANE: But there’s a big difference between a critic and a reviewer. A critic certainly can become a reviewer, but what’s tough for an author who is being reviewed is how many reviewers are viewed as critics, even though they have nothing to offer but their personal opinions.
Sorry. I warned you I was going to be inflammatory but, when I became a professional writer, I started looking at the whole reviewing process in a different way. There’s a lot of power in the hands of people with very little qualification to wield it.
ALAN: Yes, I agree. There is a big difference between a reviewer and a critic. A reviewer tends to express personal opinions (the emotional approach I mentioned above), often with little justification for them, whereas a critic tends to be more searching, more interested in structural flaws and strengths, in character development and setting and the ability to invoke a mood. Also the critic tends to look beneath the surface in search of what the work might really be about, over and above the window dressing of the plot. The work’s relationship to other examples in the field might be called into play. I try to write more towards the critical end of the spectrum, though I’m not sure if I always succeed…
The mainstream novelist and reviewer John Updike published a brilliant collection of critical essays called Picked-Up Pieces in which he developed six rules for writing reviews. I have always found these invaluable when it came to writing my own reviews (though I do tend to ignore the rule that says you should quote extensively from the piece under review).
JANE: Can you share these six rules? I’d love to hear them.
ALAN: They are a bit long to state formally. You can find a discussion of them here.
But in summary:
- Try to understand the author’s intent.
- Quote from the work being examined so as to give a flavour of the prose.
- Confirm your description of the book with a quotation from it.
- Go easy on the plot summary and don’t give spoilers.
- If you judge the book deficient, cite a more successful example. Try and make sure that the deficiency is not with you rather than with the book.
- Do not review books you are predisposed to like or dislike. Review the book, not the author.
JANE: That’s interesting – especially the bit about books you are “predisposed” to like or dislike. Sometimes, when I’m not sure about an author whose work is new to me, I pretend the book was written by someone whose work I like, just to see if that would change my mind.
ALAN: Unlike me, you have had extensive formal training in analysing texts. Your PhD thesis was about the novels of D. H. Lawrence, and you have also written a literary biography of Roger Zelazny. How useful has your academic career been when it comes to expressing your opinions about the books you read?
JANE: Actually, I’ve found my lit crit background very useful when reviewing books.
Often, I’m very aware of flaws: derivative plot elements, heavy-handed coincidence, clichéd characters, whatever. However, I’ll test my rational awareness of these against how I felt about the book overall. If my awareness of the flaw(s) didn’t overwhelm my overall enjoyment of the book , then I’ll give a thumbs up. If, however, the flaw kept haunting me to the exclusion of all else, then my assessment would be a thumbs down.
ALAN: Can you clarify that with a specific example?
I enjoyed many of Power’s earlier novels, but my Lit Crit Brain was also aware of where he’d failed to carry through with some element or other. Eventually, I realized that I admired Power’s willingness to take on almost impossibly ambitious stories, even if something might ooze through and get away from him. Eventually, I realized I’d rather read a flawed Tim Powers’ novel than many other ostensibly unflawed but less ambitious works.
ALAN: I see what you mean. But doesn’t that level of critical awareness sometimes get in the way of the story?
JANE: Maybe. I’ve been told I can be ruthless. I remember going out to lunch one time with two very well-known SF/F folks, one of whom writes a high profile review column. They were raving about a new work by an author who was burningly popular at the time.
I started pointing out the weak elements, how they were compensated for by flash rather than substance. Eventually, the reviewer looked at me a bit stunned and said, “Wow! You’re a tough one.”
ALAN: I’ve sometimes been accused of being a bit hard on some books as well.
JANE: But you are only one reviewer among many. How does your experience of becoming a reviewer compare with other people’s?
ALAN: Let me ask some reviewers I know and we can come back to this next time.