(Not) Reviewing Books

The literary world appears to be having one of its semi-predictable spasms about writers criticizing writers — or writers not criticizing writers enough, as the case may be — and all the various associated emotions that go with that. We get these bouts of novel gazing fairly regularly because very often the people who write reviews of books are also authors themselves, partly because authors are somewhat likely to be familiar with their own field and partly because a writer’s gotta eat, and reviewing a book will buy you a pizza. This fact means that the reviewer/reviewee dynamic is a little different than it often is in other creative fields. You rarely see, say, something like Paul Thomas Anderson formally reviewing the latest David Cronenberg movie in the New York Times, or Patti Smith laying down her detailed thoughts on the newest Regina Spektor album in Pitchfork, as examples. Maybe the world would be a more interesting place if they did, but they don’t seem to (occasionally a former critic/reviewer will make the leap into an artistic field — your Peter Bogdanoviches and Chrissie Hyndes — but it’s not exactly the same thing).

As an author and as a long time professional critic/reviewer (movies, music, video games), I am occasionally asked to write reviews of upcoming books for media outlets. Generally speaking I turn down these offers. Here’s why.

1. Relating specifically to science fiction and fantasy works, I demur because I am the sitting president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and I think it would be bad form — and bad optics — for someone in that position to make any sort of hay professionally reviewing the work of his constituency. This is an excuse I will have through June of 2013.

2. Also relating to science fiction and fantasy, at this point I know many of the folks in it — and a non-trivial number of the people coming into it — on a personal level, and the possibility of professionally writing something negative about their work makes me uncomfortable. This is a personal issue of mine, I would note, and not something I think should guide anyone else. I have sf/f writer friends who have reviewed work of mine — some of them negatively (or at least less than positively) — and I wouldn’t want them to feel in the slightest bit uncomfortable having done so.

3. If I’m writing a novel at the time (which is not an unusual thing for me to be doing these days) I’m not typically reading new fiction because I don’t want what I’m reading to leak into what I’m writing.

4. My professional writing time is valuable and writing book reviews will pay me less than I can get writing other things.

5. As a practical matter I prefer to use what reputational clout I have being publicly positive about other writers’ books, i.e., all things considered I’d rather tell you about the books that I’ve had a good or interesting experience with, than about the books I did not.

Reasons 2, 3 and 5 are also the reasons I don’t run book reviews as anything approaching a regular feature on Whatever, either.

That said, I do think, both as a matter of personal moral obligation and to keep people from thinking I’m a “pull the ladder up from behind me” sort of guy, that it’s important for me to help promote other authors and their works on the site — I have some reach here, after all. This is one of the reasons I do the Big Idea feature here: It allows me to give a platform to writers to promote their books, and readers to discover new books, without requiring me to be critical, either positively or negatively, of the book itself (or the author).

It’s not to say I don’t have critical opinions of books, or of books in my own home genres — oh boy! Do I! — it just means that if you want to know what I think of those books, you should probably ask me both privately and in person.

Do I think authors should not write reviews other author’s books, particularly in media outlets? No. As I hinted above, I think it’s fine if they do. My own choices in the matter are based on what’s best for me as a person and as with anything else, one’s own mileage may vary.

I think that if you do endeavor to review something in a professional (and/or rigorous) sense, you should be critical regarding its flaws and honest about your opinion of it. Don’t be an asshole about it, and remember about the failure mode of clever, but point out the problems. You’re not doing anyone any favors by pulling your punches. If you’ve done a conscientious review and the other writer has a fit about it, it’s their karma, not yours.

38 thoughts on “(Not) Reviewing Books

  1. If I ever become and actual, published Science Fiction Writer (which is an ambition of mine, but not now I’m focusing on my post-grad school statistics career) I’ll just tell people who want me to review a book “Dude, I HATED doing book reports in school. I loved reading the book but the demands of doing the report soured me completely on the idea of a formal review”*

    And I’m sticking with that excuse (if I am ever successful which since I’ve pissed Scalzi off a number of times the probability of that is probably lowered ;) )

    *But, I’ll talk all day about books I love in an informal setting, to Liz’s never-ending embarassment. The latest one I’m raving about on our dates is “Caliban’s War” the sequel to “Leviathan Wakes”. Great reading.

  2. I don’t often read the books in Big Idea, but I think it’s a great way to promote SF books. I don’t believe you’re doing it to avoid criticism. I think you’re doing it because you generally like helping people, plus there’s probably a little enlightened self interest – building a bigger audience for SF helps you make a living too.

  3. As a practical matter I prefer to use what reputational clout I have being publicly positive about other writers’ books, i.e., all things considered I’d rather tell you about the books that I’ve had a good or interesting experience with, than about the books I did not.

    I write book reviews, and since this isn’t a pimp thread I won’t post links to the evidence. :) In an ideal world “I’d rather tell you about the books that I’ve had a good or interesting experience with, than about the books I did not” too. Unfortunately, my (basically non-existent) “reputational clout” with editors doesn’t extend to cherry picking publishers lists. Blogging is a different matter.

  4. Point number three is exactly why I’m waiting to read David Brin’s latest novel. I’m working on my first novel, and while doing some research for it, I discovered that his new novel’s main concept is one that’s involved in my book too. I’m sure his ideas on it will be fascinating, but I don’t want to either take his ideas or change my own to avoid copying him. I’ll be interested to read his take on it once I’ve finished my own.

  5. For me, The Big Idea is far more useful in discovering and choosing a book than reading reviews. Well, the Big Idea combined with reading an excerpt.
    If I’m undecided I will read reviews from readers and not professional reviewers on Good Reads or Amazon.

  6. Love “novel gazing”! Is that yours? Thanks for the smile

    I completely understand pt.2 particularly. Its one of the greatest failing of modern politics and media. Because these guys (mostly but a few gals) hang out together too often, go to the same parties and seem to enjoy each others company they really do not fill the roles they were designed for. How can one of the talking heads on TV call a candidate a liar despite the fact they are telling a whopper when they will soon be sharing cocktails and canapes at Sally Quinns salon?

    But I don’t see any need for you to apologize. Your still honest enough to explain your position which makes you better than too many critics.

  7. I read William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin’s books. About half of it I didn’t understand, and the other half sounded like something I would write to myself on goodreads.com to remind myself why I didn’t like the books. Which is to say it doesn’t strike me as a particularly eloquent review. But I do find it helpful when reviews point out the bad prose and quote it in part, which seems to be what everyone is upset about. Maybe I’m just a meanie too.

  8. @ John Scalzi

    Won’t someone think of the children, or grandchildren, or great-grand nephews, or whoever holds the virtually death-proof copyright extensions?

    I just meant, do you ever think about reviewing books that have had a formative impact on you as a writer, like Bradbury or Heinlein, just for the heck of it? You obviously spend time writing blog posts about the things important to you, even when there’s no immediate payday in sight. Cat rescue, anyone?

  9. I had just read the “John is Not Himself” post and then went on to the NYT review by Giraldi before stopping by this site. Not having read any of Alix Ohlin’s work (I think) I’m not sure how accurate the review was but I didn’t finish it anyway. I lost interest early on because I found it dull and what I decided was an attempt to be deliberately difficult to read. And just dull. Whatever happened to wit?

  10. As a critic, rather than a fellow writer, who regularly engages in novel-gazing, I applaud any and all efforts to make the whole process seem less incestuous. It’s terribly difficult to write about someone’s failed attempt even when you’ve done something as innocuous as exchanging a couple of emails.

  11. I have the same policy for almost all the same reasons (except #1 obviously). Although everyone is free to choose what is right for them, I received the advice never to review from a fairly famous teacher I had early in my career and have found it some of the best advice I’ve ever received. I say the same to new writers–don’t review, it can only bring you grief and it takes a lot of time. Just put the energy into writing.

  12. Sure, you seem to go with the “if you don’t have something nice to say, you don’t say anything at all” policy. That being said, I have followed your introductions to authors to WONDERFUL places.

    Earlier this year, you introduced me to Matthew Stover and CAINE!!!! After reading every word of the Cain tale this year, I can’t tell you how appreciative I have been of your recommendations. This is not the first time you have sold books with just a few words and it won’t be your last. If I remember right, the Caine thing was more of a mention than a review. Either way, that was powerful enough to get me going.

    I appreciate the tips and actively wait for each one you give us.

  13. “I’m pretty sure a dead author doesn’t need a book reviewed.”

    But does that mean there might be negative book reviews you’d be willing to post publicly? Like, say, “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: Bad Heinlein book, or the WORST Heinlein book?” And if not, what IS the worst Heinlein book? You could start a 250-comment epic flamewar with such a question, and I bet it’d be interesting…

  14. @ Huey

    Trolling works better when you don’t announce it.
    *innocent pose* Not that I’d have any reason to know that…

  15. Whereupon quoth Dan: That being said, I have followed your introductions to authors to WONDERFUL places.

    Ditto. Best recommendations IMHO usually originate from those who do so unofficially and/or infrequently at best, and when doing so need don no Hat of Authority to make their case.

  16. @Gulliver: it’s a little-known fact that Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk’s middle name was ‘Timmy’.

  17. I try to keep my Official Author Blog positive, especially about books. (To some degree about other media too, although I did kind of go off on the Disney adaptation of Wrinkle In Time. Because it blows goats.) In my younger days, on LJ, I did some serious ranting about books I hated, which was fun, but…I really don’t have as much time these days, partly. I will make the occasionally snarky comment here and there, but I don’t rant so much. When I do, it’s generally less about bog-standard bad writing and more about stuff where the messages bug the hell out of me.

  18. Actually, having the reviewers be in the same pool as the reviewed can come up in other fields – for some time, there was a classical music magazine operating in New Jersey in which no one wrote a review who hadn’t been a professional classical musician.

  19. Doctors generally don’t criticize other doctors.

    Writers are self employed. There is a huge difference between working for someone and being self employed. Why would a writer spend time criticizing someone else. It affects this persons livelihood. Then you risk that person getting mad and criticizing you. All this affects the income you get.
    I don’t fault you at all. I think people either forget, don’t care, or don’t realize the difference. I had no idea how little money most uthors earned until I started reading author blogs. It was never anything I paid attention to. I don’t think most readers really pay attention to this stuff.

    All that being said, I generally am cautious of quotes and positive reviews from one author to another. I prefer to look at non author reviews to get a better sense of whether I will like the book.

  20. Then in June of 2013, you can kiss and tell. “I threw this sorry excuse for a novel across the room, where it fell into the tank of giant squid. The author is quite a piece of work. Why I recall an incident in the SFWA Suite where…”

  21. Yesterday afternoon, I watched something on Netflix Streaming called “Hecklers”. I recommend it, if you have access to that. It was put together by Jamie Kennedy (not a huge fan of his, but I don’t dislike him either) and it started off as discussing comedy show and music show hecklers, and then moved into movie reviews and bloggers, etc. It was timely. In essence, it boiled down the thing that I think many people involved in this conversation have been trying to get at: some reviewers are very good at what they do, are educated in the area they are trying to review, and have shown they can discuss it intelligently. Others? Are nothing more than hecklers, trying to draw attention *to themselves* and *away* from what they are reviewing. Just like comedy show hecklers who think they are funnier than the person onstage, or don’t have any impulse control and absolutely have to shout out something to draw attention to themselves.

    Basically, these “hecklers” are bringing down the tone of reviewing, which is giving good reviewers a bad rap.

  22. Irrelevant point, ignore my self-indulgence – I never read the word “optics” used in the manner as in the post. “Bad optics” used as “astigmatism” used as “compromised vision or focus”, I guess. Might steal for my own use. Please, do not comment, to make my larceny more undetectable. ;-)

  23. I saw Hecklers and the only thing I got out of it was that Jamie Kennedy is a whiny little creep who can’t take criticism. While that’s a fascinating view of Jamie Kennedy showing the sick and terrible underbelly of the standup comedian who is both pure hostility and NEED, it doesn’t really say much about critics, beyond the fact that some critics want so much attention that they are willing to have themselves filmed as Jamie Kennedy yells at them.

    The “best” part was when Jamie Kennedy came up against a couple of critics who didn’t care that he felt really bad because they said horrible things about Son of the Mask and he responded with “So do you live at COMIC CON!” and they were like “no, that only takes place a couple of days out of the year” and he just kept doing his “NERD!!!” jokes that made him look sad.

    Ok, actually the best part is when he’s trying to convince Richard Roeper that Son of the Mask was a good movie. Unlike the rest of the amateur critics, Roeper just laughed at him.

  24. Tim Leider, this is exactly what I am talking about. Can’t you see it? Your comment is exhibiting the very “heckler” behaviour that I am talking about. If Jamie Kennedy wasn’t in any screen time (because there were lots of other people in this docu, and your brief description here makes it seem otherwise), would that have gotten the point across better?

    I have no use for reviews that resort to ad hominem attacks, because it would seem the reviewer can’t actually discuss in a cogent manner what he or she disliked about a book/film/art opening/whetever. This is a big part of what I think is happening in reviewing these days.

  25. It occurs to me that “clever” itself can be a failure mode, when you default to it instead of saying something useful or smart. Plenty of text has nothing insightful to say and adds nothing to the world, but oh my, look at that clever play on words.

  26. @lunamoth42, I think Tim Lieder was pointing out possible motiviations Jamie Kennedy had to make this movie. I haven’t seen the movie, but I didn’t get the impression from Tim’s post that Jamie is in the movie much, just that he was driven to make it because he can’t take criticism, so he was lashing out.

  27. I have enjoyed the “Big Idea” series (I’m new to your blog this year). I think it is a kind and generous use of your platform. It has been fun to hear about the authors’ ideas in their own words.

  28. I found I liked the clever-ish premise of The Cat Who Walks Thru Walls, and was generally entertained by its bit of solipsism and the “game” of authorship Counting. Which actually kind of fits in with the plotline of Redshirts, where much of the story was controlled by off-screen Authors. That does not contradict that it was also Pretty Bad.

    However, I found myself vigorously more appalled by Heinlein’s final novel (with sailing and sunsets in its name), what with the whole enormously Oedipal theme going on. That distracted me from whatever might have been good about that book.

    I’m sure that if Robert Heinlein asked Mr Scalzi for use of his platform, he’d consider offering it.

  29. I pimped/gifted three people Ready Player One after seeing it here, and I have managed to read it three times myself notwithstanding a huge to read pile

  30. I’m pretty sure a dead author doesn’t need a book reviewed. He or she is beyond worrying about making a living.

    I don’t write reviews for the benefit of the author. I write reviews for the benefit of readers.

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