Monday, September 18, 2006

Interview, Review, and Criticism

I recently posted my interview with David Louis Edelman, author of the fantastic Infoquake. After I posted my review a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Edelman asked if I would like to conduct an e-mail interview, who was I to say no? I also posted my review of Delia Sherman's Changeling, an entertaining YA Fantasy.

It seems a review I wrote a few months back has instigated something of a stir. This is the type of shitstorm that hits the Intraweb every couple of months; and Gabe is as good as, or maybe better than most at instigating good debate and discussion. However, this time I find it particularly odd, since I've watched some of these things from the 'sidelines' of the Intraweb and not been involved. Gabe brings up some fair points, I suppose, and some things I've been considering over the past few months as my review output has been increasing. With Emerald City closing down and the validity of on-line reviews continually in question, Gabe's essay / critique / rant comes at an interesting time, especially since he singles me out early in his rant. The point I probably agree with the most is that I could have expounded further on one of my initial points in the review. However, I think the remainder of my review is fairly strong (if not explicitly a criticism piece) - it gives a feel for the book and a good indication, via comparisons of other writers/books, if somebody might enjoy the book. After all when I read reviews; that is, the gist of what I am looking for in a review is the answer to this question - is the book worth my time? In essence, I felt I delivered on what I look for when perusing book reviews of a book I'm interested in reading.

From my vantage point, criticisms can tend to be long winded and stray too far from the question I want answered. This isn't intended as a slight on lengthier criticism, despite what I just said. Gabe, more often than not, has a lot of interesting things to say, that's why I often read his rants/criticisms. Very often, though, if the review/critique is too long, I zone out and lose interest. Thus I try to keep my reviews between 500 and 1200 words. This is not to say that reviews can't or shouldn't include some form of criticism. After all, I want to know why the book is worthy or unworthy of my time and critical examination is healthy.

I always want the quality of my reviews to be top notch, of course. I also know some of my reviews are stronger than others, such things are only natural. What Gabe says about reviewers and critics is fodder for debate, which is always good. I don't consider myself a critic under Gabe's definition in his various pieces over the past couple of days. While I received my BA in English (what can you do with that?) and wrote my fair share of essays and rudimentary criticisms, I never read much on critical theory - literary and/or sf. So if I were to start spouting some theories and what not in my review, I would sound hollow to myself, if nobody else. Does that make me any less qualified to be reviewing books for a fairly large genre community/Web site? Am I just a fan with an opinion and an outlet to voice my opinion? I suppose that's a bit part of what I am, as a reviewer for SFFWorld.

I'm not going to lie and say I don't enjoy getting the free books, because I do. But that's just part of the package. What I find gratifying is when my review encourages somebody to pick up the book I reviewed and that person get as much enjoyment out of the book as I did. Or conversely, if I helped somebody avoid a book that I thought was sub-par. However, I feel I should try to read and review every book I receive from publishers, though it doesn’t always happen. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I feel it is something of an unwritten contract between the publisher/publicist and me.

So part of this, I think boils down to the difference between critcisim and reviews. Where does one drift into another? Is a review in Publishers Weekly or the New York Times Book Review any more valid than a review I publish at SFFWorld or a review that appears at SciFiWeekly? Ultimately, I don't know, I can only say from my perspective - no. The current genre reviewer for NYT BR caused something of a stir when his first couple of pieces were published. Response ranged from outrage to "hey, at least genre stuff is still being looked at in the NYT."

Will I try to improve my reviews? Of course, I want to improve over time. Do I think the review in question over at Gabe’s journal is one of my lesser reviews? No, I really don’t, nor do I feel it is my strongest. As a piece of criticism, it perhaps falls short.

All that said, I bear no ill-will towards Gabe, he’s been an online pal for a while now. I don't think I've said all I can say on the subject, since it is something of an ongoing dialogue. Comments?

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