Reviewing in the BlogoSphere Revisited
by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
Date: 01 August 2007 /
One of the Readercon panels I was on last month was "Reviewing in the Blogosphere," (1) along with John Clute (Excessive Candour), Kathryn Kramer (New York Review of Science Fiction, blog), Gordon Van Gelder (F&SF), Tom Purdom (Author), and Jim Freund (Hour of the Wolf) as Moderator. It was a pity that they didn't have more actual bloggers on the panel, though Kathryn certainly does, and I suggested that John Clute's columns on SciFi.com were closer to blog entries than reviews. That and my comment that we don't do negative reviews caught the interest of folks in the blogosphere...though they missed some of the context, not their fault really because I do tend to make a certain amount of trouble on panels to liven them up, and as a result they didn't get the whole story...
As I recall, we didn't talk all that much about blogged reviews, but more about web reviewing in general. Personally, I think that blogs are a great forum for literary criticism, but less so for reviews, because the nature of a blog is that it's more about the blogger than the object of the post. This isn't bad, and it's why I suggested that Clute's pieces were bloggish in nature. Excellent, but as illuminating of the writer as of the topic.
The biggest thing the web offers turns out to be freedom to do what you want. In John's case, it's freedom to write as much as he feels like about a book and to digress wherever his muse takes him. I'm all for that approach, and anyone who wants to can follow suit. In my case, or more correctly, in the case of my editorial policy I set boundaries for our reviewers that keep them in line with SFRevu's mission, which is to promote good science fiction and fantasy by making readers aware of the good new stuff,
There are other valid missions out there, but that's ours, and it means we tend away from negative reviews and don't go in for a lot of literary criticism. Clute pointed out that to him, that's just not reviewing.
The only argument I have with his comment is a semantic one. I think what he does is more properly "criticism" and what I described is "reviewing". My view is that the first assumes you've read the book and don't mind spoilers, and the second that you haven't and do. The majority of articles published on SFRevu fall into the second category, though reviewers are encouraged to include critical analysis, but not to make it the point of the piece. On the other hand, I'm quite happy to publish pieces which are straightforward literary criticism, though they're listed as feature articles.
My much reacted to comment that we don't do negative reviews might be illuminated by this bit from the SFRevu Style Guide: (2)
For those of you who like names, the official crank is Steven Sawicki, by the way, but lately he's been saying nice things about books and I don't have the heart to stop him.
The only thing that we really try not to do is to run reviews where the reviewer rants from one end to the other and whose main objective seems to be to get even with an author for making them read a book they didn't enjoy. My frequent comment to reviewers is that if it doesn't grab you, put it down and we'll get you another. On the other hand, if a book has flaws as well as strengths (and what doesn't?) folks are welcome to point them out. Of course, what one person sees as a flaw may be another person's strengths. Handled well, for instance, I like a bit of exposition in my fiction, and if a story doesn't include new ideas I'm less likely to think well of it. I like plot too. For other reviewers though, the prose is the thing, and infodumps just get in way. I don't think either is right or wrong, and part of the editorial job (handled ably and more often by Gayle Surrette than me) is to match book and reviewer.
One thing that I'm proud of is the number of first time and small press authors that get reviewed by SFRevu. It wouldn't help them any if we pulled our punches, but it doesn't serve anyone's interest if we bash them for not springing forth fully formed. We also use a lot of new reviewers, balanced by a core staff with experience. The more experience a reviewer has, the less likely I am to want to rein them in and the more interested I am in the critical section of their review. I confess to having overstated the "we only run good reviews" comment on the panel...as anyone who has read the site (especially my reviews) should have been able to figure out. Our staff reviewers, like John Berlyne, are also given more latitude in what they write because I have confidence that they know what they're talking about.
Lastly, I'd invite folks to drop by and read some of the reviews and features on SFRevu and post comments on them (the form is at the bottom of the review page). If you think we're guilty of unrepentant fluff or unreasonable Pollyannaism, feel free to say so, and if you would like to contribute a piece of thoughtful analysis on a book as literary criticism rather than as a review, we're interested in that too.
1) Readercon 18 9:00 pm ME F&SF Reviewing in the Blogosphere.