Why bad book reviews can be a good thing

Jetse de Vries, intrepid slush-wader for Interzone, has taken to blogging like a duck to water. Today he has a post about an album he’s just acquired, and there’s a throwaway comment in there that struck a chord (hah!) with me straight away:

“I got interested in the band when I read a review of the debut album […] where the reviewer really liked the melodic parts, but really hated it when the huge guitar riffs came chugging in. It sounded exactly like the kind of music I was looking for: I bought the debut album and have been a fan ever since. It’s also why I think that reviewers should be honest all the time: in this case even a negative review sold the album to me, as I could correctly estimate from the review that this album would be to my taste.”

Ah, it’s a partisan scene, rock music. So may conflicting sub-cultures under one umbrella – and I have to disagree with Jetse’s comment that rock music is somehow more socially acceptable than science fiction, in the UK at least. Accepted, perhaps, but still sneered upon and denigrated when out of fashion. Which leaves the door open to point back to my cultural comparison of science fiction and rock music

But I digress slightly. As Jetse demonstrates, negative reviews – if written well, with objective description of the things that the reviewer found unpalatable – can still sell a piece of work to the right buyer, be it book or album or anything else. Except haute cuisine, perhaps.

This blends in smoothly to the collective head-scratching over at Señor Chouinard’s Taverna for Uppity Young SF Critics, where the tendency for the genre scene to be a little too generous with the positive reviews has cropped up more than once. Numerous root causes for this have been suggested, and I’m not going to open that can of worms*, but what is plain is that there’s not a great deal of earnest critical reviewing going down, especially on the internet.

I’m not suggesting that all reviewers should wade into each novel they receive with the strict intent of tearing it into metaphorical shreds for its perceived failings. But I am suggesting that a balanced piece of criticism, where the reviewer makes his prejudices plain while explaining what he disliked – and being honest about the book’s more objective failings – isn’t doing the author, publisher or reader a disservice.

Something that feeds into this issue is the question of who reads book reviews, and what they read them for (to have their opinions vindicated? to have their opinions challenged? to see what’s on the market that might be to their stylistic taste?). This is a largely unknown quantity, too, which is one of the reasons I’m so looking forward to moderating a panel on the subject at Eastercon**. I want to make my reviews useful and challenging to readers and writers alike, but I’m not out to make myself look important by slating books for the sake of notoriety. If people read them (which I guess they must do), they must do so for a reason, and understanding that reason will help me (and, I hope, other reviewers and critics) do a better job.

But back to the negative review, and Jetse’s comments. Maybe it’s a regular feature of Dutch music media, but he stumbled across what I would consider a rarity in the UK – a review where the reviewer took time to explain what it was about the album he disliked, rather than explaining how what he likes made the album unpalatable to him. That may sound like a minor difference, but as a reader and writer of music reviews, I firmly believe it is the biggest difference. Much of the UK music press is filled with writers who either spout the publication or industry line (often using the tired cliches that Jonathan McCalmont quite rightfully loathes to see in book reviews), or who have reached a position of status where they can talk about new record entirely in terms of their own personal preferences.

“But hang on, Paul; further up the page you said that you though reviewers should state their prejudices, and now you’re saying that sucks?”

Yes and no; it’s a question not just of degree but of purpose. Purpose first: I work on the (entirely justifiable) theory that someone reading my reviews has absolutely no idea who I am. They’ve probably not read my other reviews (or, if they have, they’ve not remembered them as being mine). They have no idea what sort of stuff has pride of place on my bookshelves, nor which titles got sacrificed to eBay as soon as they were finished with. Think of literature as a three-dimensional space; they have no way of telling what angle I’m approaching a book from … unless I demonstrate to them where I’m standing in relation to that book.

So, if I’m reviewing a book that just hasn’t floated my literary boat, I need to explain why. Simply saying “this book sucks, don’t buy it” serves no one. I need to show why, in my universe, that book sucks for me. A smart curious reader will be able to compare my strong-place-to-stand to his own, and decide what results his personal lever might have on the same book, if you’ll excuse a mangled metaphor. (The uncurious reader, one has to assume, isn’t going to bother reading in-depth reviews of novels anyway, and therefore can be factored out of the equation with few qualms.)

But as to the question of degree: it serves no purpose for the review to become all about my own personal likes and dislikes in literature at the expense of the book in question – something Jonathan refers to as ‘Lady Bracknell Specials’, wherein the reviewer’s opinion becomes the subject of the piece, rather than a light to shine on the book that should be the subject. That would just be an exercise in egotism on my point; an implicit assumption that what I think is somehow more relevant than what a potential reader might think.

However, it is also a duty for me to say if a book simply isn’t any good on its own standards; on the standards all books should be judged on – entertainment, characterisation, prose, style, fluidity, depth, adventure, all that stuff and more. And this is the bit where confusion of motives can arise – I have to be able to stick my head above the parapet and say that I think a book just simply isn’t good, full stop; that no one (except the uncritical reader, who we have already excluded from the equation) is going to get much enjoyment out of it. Basically, if the Emperor is on parade in the buff, it’s down to me to point it out.

Or is that, perhaps, just intellectual vanity of the highest order? The pretentions of a wannabe author who managed to scrape some column inches out of a genre mag editor with a deadline and a headache?

Of course, it might also be intellectual vanity to post a thousand or so words all about how you think book reviewing should be done … but this is my blog, after all, and I’m only doing so in the hope of finding out what other people think about how the process should work. So, in some triumphant blaze of internet meta-meta-ness, I invite you all to review my review of the book reviewing process. Feel free to use knives – but be sure to state your prejudices, okay? 😉

[*No, I’m really not going to go into it. I don’t know why, I don’t care why, and I hold no person or group of persons responsible. This situation simply is, and I’m treating it as a hole in the road as opposed to a murder investigation.]

[**Oh, the Eastercon panel is at 6:30pm on the Friday, since you asked. See you there, yeah?]

6 thoughts on “Why bad book reviews can be a good thing”

  1. Hi Paul

    I tend to read reviews for a number of reasons:

    1) To discover new authors or stories that I may otherwise not have read.

    2) To judge if a book or story will be to my taste, before I buy it.

    3) To keep tabs on the zietgiest – to see what other authors are writing about, what the hot topics are, etc.

    4) To improve my own work by learning from the “mistakes” of others – to check my own writing to make sure it doesn’t contain the same faults or shortcomings pointed out by the reviewer.

    I hope this helps.

  2. I think the more renowned a reviewer is the more tolerant most readers would be of the egotism they might inject into a piece. If it’s Norman Mailer reviewing for the New York Times or something on that level, I think the egotism is almost expected.

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