Responses and reviews, criticism and critique

Remember the “book review” section of the newspaper? I don’t. Partly because I’m a fantasy reader, and fantasy has often been neglected by such enterprises, but more because I’ve never been a newspaper reader. Put one in front of me while I’m cooling my heels at the dentist’s and I’ll read it — look, I used to read the back of the cereal box while eating my breakfast in high school; I’ll read almost anything you put in front of me — but I’m one of those Young People who never became a subscriber, and likely never will. So to me, the notion of there being a professional class of journalists paid to review books is odd, and the demise of such a thing isn’t surprising. To me, book reviews are something that happens on the Internet.

The web has, of course, been a great democratizer of such matters. Which has, also of course, led to some wailing and gnashing of teeth over that shift, as professional reviewers bemoan how people with their blogs are Doing It Wrong. And, like any red-blooded author, I have Google Alerts set up on my own titles, so I see a decent cross section of How It’s Done. To my eye, those bemoaning the “shallowness” of Internet reviews are missing an important point.

I see four general kinds of commentary on books, each of which has a different audience and a different purpose.

First are the responses, which I think many of those bemoaning the current trend (erroneously) try to interpret as reviews. A response is just one reader’s personal reaction to the book, without much attempt at context. This can be positive or negative, short or long, anything from “Meh. I couldn’t get into it.” to a thousand words on how much the reader adores the protagonist. Their purpose is simply to share, and as such, their best audience is often other people who have also read the book. After all, your reaction doesn’t mean much to me if I don’t know the thing you’re reacting to.

A review, by contrast, has as its best audience people who have not read the book, because its purpose is to help them decide whether this is their kind of thing or not. Reviews often include a capsule summary of the story’s premise, and maybe some references to other work by the same author, or comparable books by other authors. In other words, context to go along with the opinion. But a good review has opinions, too — otherwise it’s just marketing copy — as the reviewer talks about what works and what doesn’t, what merits might draw you in and what flaws might drive you away. Whether you agree with the reviewer or not, the information can be useful to your decision. (One of the few newspaper sections I read in high school was the movie reviews. If Philip Wuntch bashed an action movie as brainless spectacle, I knew I would enjoy it.)

Then there’s criticism, which I mean in the academic or near-academic sense. This is less about the aesthetic qualities of a book, and more about the ideas it tackles: race relations or postcolonialism or the grotesque or whatever. Criticism is less concerned with the question, “Is this a good book?,” and more with the question, “What is this book saying?” Its best audience is generally people interested in whatever the idea is; academics regularly listen to conference papers on books they’ve never read, because the papers deal with their theoretical field, but if you’ve never heard of the abject or the phrase “weird bodies,” then a piece digging into how China Mieville problematizes the apparent integrity of the human form in Perdido Street Station may very well lose you, even if you’ve read the book.

And finally there’s critique, i.e. the sort of thing a crit group does. Generally the audience for this is the writer herself, because the purpose of critique is to suggest how the story might be improved: cut this unnecessary scene, clarify that character’s motivation, give the ending another twist. Such things aren’t terribly helpful after a book has been published, though they may spark the author to keep such matters in mind for the next one.

All of these are useful in their own way. They only lose their use when you try to force them to the wrong purpose: if I’m trying to decide whether a given book is the sort of story I’d like, a brief plot summary serves me better than an analysis of how one of the side characters demonstrates Judith Butler’s notions of gender performance, and if I’m trying to polish up a final draft to send back to my editor, “I loved it” is flattering but not helpful.

Of course, the lines between the four aren’t clear, and don’t have to be. A review of one of my own early novels included a critique-ish comment about my overuse of italics, which I took to heart for future work. Wandering off into a side tangent about how Ye Olde World-Spanning Epic subverts the usual colonialist tropes may get me interested in a fat fantasy series, even if you’re busy squeeing and haven’t said a word about the plot. But if I find myself getting annoyed at a piece of commentary, these I step back and consider what I expect out of it, and whether it’s doing that job badly, or doing some other job that just isn’t what I’m looking for.

Which of these do you do, and in what context? And is there a fifth (or sixth or seventh) type I’m overlooking here?

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  1. 1. Kari Sperring

    There’s detailed deconstruction, too — really a sub-category of academic critique, but sometimes found elsewhere — where a novel is anatomised to examine how it’s constructed and layered and themed and so on. I find that kind of thing very useful and utterly fascinating, as I learn so much from it about how fiction works.

  2. 2. Kate Elliott

    Good deconstruction of the new world out there, which is rife with readers talking to each other — I can’t help but think that is a great thing.

  3. 3. Elias McClellan

    But what about editors?

    Having read book reviews on CHUD, criticism in academic journals, and discussions on blogs, I agree with Ms. Elliott, to a point.

    We’ve all been subject to very self-serving reviews in newspapers. I honestly think the goal in most English lit departments is not publishing original work but to write biting critisim of other’s initiatives. I won’t even comment on the politics inherent to most academic critisim in the last 30 years.

    What I worry for is a lack of editorial oversight and/or responsibility online. Clearly, I’m not referring to the spelling and grammar as much as language and content. The easiest examples are racist/sexist comments running rampant in the blog-o-sphere that would not reach print because of a low-paid, underappreciated features editor at the local news rag.

    Books are already getting lost in the shuffle between media, (Kendal, IPad, etc) lost in the market of declining store fronts, and ignored based on fashion (vampyres are out and zombies are in). I hope there will be an evolution on line but I don’t think it will happen without editorial oversight.

    So I continue to read a little of this and a little of that while I wait.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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