Thursday, January 27, 2005

What we Read

JP has raised a timely pet peeve about book reviewers here:

I'm glad that there seems to be an increase in the number of reasonably non-standard fantasy books being published lately. (At least, I think there's an increase, incremental though it may be).

However, I am getting a little tired of people lauding these books simply for not offering up Tolkienesque tropes. Many of the reviews I've read of Steph Swainston's The Year of Our War, for instance (and I'm not talking about you just now, Rob), seem to content themselves with patting Swainston on the back for not trotting out the old elves and celts stuff and avoid a real discussion of the book on its own merits. Which strikes me as mighty lazy reviewing.

I know what he means: I remember getting swepted up by the hype surrounding Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell last year. When the reviews came out, I greedily devoured every one of them praising this 800-page monster and I eagerly awaited its coming in the local shores.

But it was only after I read the review done by the erudite John Clute wherein he alternately praises the book and warns the reader that I was convinced. After all, if speculative fiction's own Simon Cowell (dammit, there's that comparison again!) is convinced, then there must be something to the hype, right?

Meself (especially in reviewing the books I put up in this blog), I peg myself a "reader's reviewer", i.e. I review books the way one reader would like to know if he would want to read a book or not. That means if I like it, I'd say so. That doesn't mean I keep the negative stuff out of the review though. That also means that books I don't like I don't finish so fat-chance I'd do a review on them. (But at least I'm willing to give 'em a spin.)

In effect: if you're gonna make recommendations about a movie to a friend, you'd be honest enough to tell him if the middle part was dragging or the special effects sucked and things like that, right?

Or as JP noted--

As I've said, this isn't meant to be an attack on a book that was pretty good - my point here is that reviewing cannot be purely reactionary. There are standards of literature that transcend genres, and these are the standards by which all of us, John Clute, Johnny Q Public, you and me, should judge any book, whether it's SF, fantasy, horror, mystery, magic realism, cyborg porn or whatever.

To do less is to dishonour the literary art.

Unfortunately, I'm no John Clute doing Excessive Candour columns in SciFi Weekly (nor even a Lucius Shepard doing reviews in Electric Story). So instead of being a critic, I'd stick to doing book posts at least akin to intelligent reviews found in Amazon, those that don't involve phrases like: "this book rocks!" or "this book sucks!".

Of course, I could always take a page from "hellfire" gabe, who says:

Personally, I think that people who consider themselves "reviewers" and other people as "critics" (that is, those who need to make a distinction) ought to just follow this example:

HEROES DIE by Matt Stover

review by gabe chouinard

"I liked this book. You should buy it."

The end. Anything more than that, and criticism has to come into play.

Elegantly put but then, I won't have a chance to be witty!

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