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Kirkus Review
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Author:  RLetson [ Fri Aug 27, 2010 5:53 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Kirkus Review

JamesGifford wrote:
I don't perceive Locus as an impartial entity in the field. It exists both as part of, and in service to, the overlap between writers, readers and to some extent publishers.

In other words, I would look to Locus more to find lengthy book notices than critical reviews. That's not intended as any insult; as notifier to the community Locus consistently serves with distinction. It's just not positioned to be a critical observer.

I suspect that really crappy books are either not mentioned or mentioned briefly, in that "notifier" role - hence "no negative reviews."


Suspect away--the actual answer is surprisingly simple. I don't read books I don't like, and to my knowledge neither do any of my colleagues. Life is too short to read crappy books and much too short to explain why you think they're crappy. I didn't even do that in the twenty years I spent teaching literature--you offer your students the good stuff and invite discussion of what it says and how it works. (The third- and fourth-rate stuff is what you have to read in grad school, and even then only in your specialty.)

And to go back to the first point in the post, what entity would qualify as impartial? What kind of publication would not be describable as "in service to [. . .] writers, readers and to some extent publishers" and occupy some sort of "overlap"? This isn't the Consumers Union testing labs we're talking about. Nor, despite the presence of advertising in the magazine, are we talking about informercials or the Shopping Channel or even the movie-plugging guest-shot on a talk show. We're talking about a community of writers, readers, and other professionals with a special interest in a family of literary genres, and a magazine like Locus is a place where some of the discussion can take place. The publishers send in the books--hoping for a notice, naturally--but after that they have no say in what gets read, no say in what gets written--and they keep sending the books no matter what gets printed.

When I started reviewing for Charles in 1990, he returned my first column for revision with the instruction, "Don't argue with the book." That was the last time he edited my copy for anything more than factual errors (damn few of those--I'm very careful) and the occasional trim for size. I was allowed to choose the books I wanted to cover (with Charles reserving the right to nudge me toward an item--and me reserving the right to ignore him) and was never, ever told what to write. And if I've been writing "lengthy book notices," I've been working way too hard at it.

I have to wonder whether you have read my reviews, or Gary Wolfe's, or Faren Miller's or Graham Sleight's. If you think that Gary's long, historically informed, critically sophisticated treatments of books amount to "notices," then I don't know what to make of your understanding of reviewing.

Author:  JamesGifford [ Fri Aug 27, 2010 5:59 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Kirkus Review

RLetson wrote:
Life is too short to read crappy books...

Steve Brust's Law, in my learning.

I really am not looking to argue the matter or diss Locus or its reviewers, but you've seemingly undercut your contention. So... you only read and comment on "good" books? Wouldn't critical reviewing require that you (collectively) review all books of a certain level, to provide a complete picture of the field in each season?

SF in general has bothered me for years with its inbred, friends-reviewing-friends nature - not to mention the overall sweep of friends-hiring-friends; see: any recent anthology. If you can argue that on the one hand Locus does fine critical reviewing and then on the other that you only review "good" books, I don't have much more to say. Even the New Yorker, arguably representative of an even more inbred group, gleefully tap-dances on the occasional work that doesn't measure up.

Author:  PeterScott [ Fri Aug 27, 2010 7:46 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Kirkus Review

Guest wrote:

If I had a nickel for every time I've encountered some variation on this kind of reviewer-bashing, I'd double the (laughable) income I've derived in nearly thirty years of reviewing books (and music and software and office gear). I just finished writing 2200 words about Mr. Patterson's book and I do believe I managed to repress my neurotic need to aggrandize myself at the expense of the work at hand. Read my copy in the October issue of Locus and judge for yourself.

(And FWIW, the Kirkus review is indeed snotty and, I would say, imprecise, predictable, and lazy.)


Oh, how like a reviewer to take my comment out of context :-) I was bolstering my friend; Bill just finished bleeding to death in the cause of literature and deserves all the acclamation he can stand. Being pecked by crows can wait a while. I'm putting on my author hat and commiserating with him against all foes of writers from snide reviewers to stodgy proofreaders and pernicious editors.

Look, as Jim said, it's the exception that proves the rule; if you're the exception, terrific. In my personal experience, books that gave me unalloyed joy were the targets of some reviews that just had to carp about something in them, as though the reviewer couldn't bear to seem to be on the side of popularity. I doubt you wrote any of those reviews. Of course no work is perfect but many reviews elevate a 1% flaw to a 50% flaw for the sake of some warped sense of balance. Rather like "news" shows that stack one guest who is, say, pro-slavery against another who is agin it, and give them equal time to argue so it looks as though the general population is split down the middle on the issue.

I've written books, and reviewed them. I've been paid a lot more for the former than the latter, but other than that, I don't have a dog in this fight.

More interesting to discuss perhaps is what the function of a review is. As a reader I might look at it as a guide to "should I read this damn thing?" Only thing is, so many reviews have disagreed with my own taste that I find that a fruitless goal no matter how hard I try to read between the lines. As an author I find reviews of my own works interesting from a narcissistic point of view and also for the occasional tidbit that points out some flaw I missed. I enjoyed one commentator who praised a book of mine for its "gentle looniness" which comment I treasure because it was a technical book. But as a reader I'm not sure what to do with a review, other than enjoy a really good one for its writing alone and ignore the subject matter. There are other roles to inhabit, of course, like editor, publisher, and agent, that may have different value to draw from a review, but I have insufficient basis for relating to them.

Author:  RLetson [ Fri Aug 27, 2010 8:26 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Kirkus Review

So why frame your comfort as a universal proposition? If a friend had just been high-hatted by an old girlfriend and you said, "Hey, buck up--women are like that," you might expect a dirty look from any woman within earshot.

As for the function of reviews--The buyer's-guide end of the job is pretty dull and in any case amounts to "you'll like this, if you like that sort of thing." The standard advice is to find a reviewer or three whose taste you share (or at least have calibrated against your own) and use them as your bird-dogs. Otherwise, you're better off going to a bookstore and just reading the first page or two.

For some of us, though, the review is a place to talk about books--how they work (or don't, as might happen), about the topics and issues they raise, about what enjoying a work of fiction feels like, about how this book fits in with the rest of the books in the world. If one doesn't enjoy that kind of conversation, then a review won't have much to offer, nor will most literary discussion. But it's my experience that some people do enjoy reading about books (or music or painting or architecture or any number of other pursuits), which is why there are still reviews and blogs and on-line forums.

Author:  BillPatterson [ Sat Aug 28, 2010 7:01 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Kirkus Review

RLetson wrote:
So why frame your comfort as a universal proposition? If a friend had just been high-hatted by an old girlfriend and you said, "Hey, buck up--women are like that," you might expect a dirty look from any woman within earshot.

As for the function of reviews--The buyer's-guide end of the job is pretty dull and in any case amounts to "you'll like this, if you like that sort of thing." The standard advice is to find a reviewer or three whose taste you share (or at least have calibrated against your own) and use them as your bird-dogs. Otherwise, you're better off going to a bookstore and just reading the first page or two.

For some of us, though, the review is a place to talk about books--how they work (or don't, as might happen), about the topics and issues they raise, about what enjoying a work of fiction feels like, about how this book fits in with the rest of the books in the world. If one doesn't enjoy that kind of conversation, then a review won't have much to offer, nor will most literary discussion. But it's my experience that some people do enjoy reading about books (or music or painting or architecture or any number of other pursuits), which is why there are still reviews and blogs and on-line forums.

Yup. Having been on the other side of the reviewer's desk often enough, I must say this strikes me as pretty much how it works for me. At its best, book reviewing is book-talk that illuminates the subject for its readers. And I think it's worth noting that both Frye and Scholes center their comments on this kind of "criticism" as flowing out of the critics reactions, as experienced readers who can communicate something of their own esthetic reaction to a reader.

But there certainly are reviewers who engage in a public performance and whose remarks are more a reflection of themselves than of the subject. I can find this type of reviewer more irritating than useful.

Formal criticism is a somewhat different animule.

Speaking of which, Mr. Letson, I wanted to say I find your paper reprinted in the Ohlander & Greenberg collection a recurringly thought-provoking work. I used your psychotherapeutic view of TEFL as the principal privot-point for "Incest and Archetype," which wound up in Foundation 97.

Author:  RLetson [ Sat Aug 28, 2010 10:20 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Kirkus Review

Glad you found the TEFL essay useful. It was written in '75, right at the tail-end of grad school. I've always thought that the oubliette down which academic writing vanishes is even deeper than the one reserved for software and computer-equipment reviews.

I suspect that most of us who write for publication rather than the trunk have some taste for public performance. The same applies to, say, teachers--I discovered my inner ham in the classroom, and that kind of performing is the other thing I miss about not-teaching. (The big loss is not having an excuse to talk about books and ideas, even if often to a captive, restless, or napping audience. Thus the consolation of reviewing and, to a lesser degree, posting.)

Author:  JamesGifford [ Sat Aug 28, 2010 12:18 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Kirkus Review

RLetson wrote:
Thus the consolation of reviewing and, to a lesser degree, posting.

Well, welcome to the forum - this is one of the few places where you can post on as serious and deep a level as you choose and find worthy minds to engage. (You can also post trivialities and minor amusements and find engagement, which most "serious" venues discourage, but it's been a written and unwritten policy to discourage blank-minded fannish blather here - even your jokes have to contain deep truths.)

You will find the occasional grouchy old bear here who is roused by the right (or wrong) combination of words. Feel free to ignore... um, them.

Author:  RLetson [ Sat Aug 28, 2010 2:26 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Kirkus Review

I'll cop to being old (permanently) and grouchy (on occasion), though I've never managed the mass or pelt required for bear status. Two out of three ain't bad, though. (Enough for a C- these days.) Don't know about engagement--I'd have to ask my wife.

Author:  BillPatterson [ Sat Aug 28, 2010 7:19 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Kirkus Review

RLetson wrote:
Glad you found the TEFL essay useful. It was written in '75, right at the tail-end of grad school. I've always thought that the oubliette down which academic writing vanishes is even deeper than the one reserved for software and computer-equipment reviews.

I suspect that most of us who write for publication rather than the trunk have some taste for public performance. The same applies to, say, teachers--I discovered my inner ham in the classroom, and that kind of performing is the other thing I miss about not-teaching. (The big loss is not having an excuse to talk about books and ideas, even if often to a captive, restless, or napping audience. Thus the consolation of reviewing and, to a lesser degree, posting.)

Ah, yes, teaching will indeed bring out the smoked porker within, and ham is only the start.

"...some taste for public performance." Well, yes -- but there's performance and then there's performance. Which is, I suppose, just another way of saying "it all depends on what you like." I find it irritating when I discover that a reviewer is really talking about himself and using the ostensible subject as an occasion.

1975, eh? That must have been just out when Ohlander and Greenberg were putting their collection of papers together, as ISTR it has a 1975 or 1976 date.

As to the academic oubliette -- it's not quite a black hole, I find, if you can get on specialized reference bibliographies or, in the case of Heinlein studies to date, be cited by someone who is also then cited, like the fleas ad infinitum. That's a kind of limited academic immortality.

Unfortunately, a good percentage of those doing the citation have to do their research from the ground up and never get past "the usual suspects" -- Panshin, Franklin, Stover. This subject came up again this month with the New York Review of SF articles about Farnham's Freehold by Joe Sanders of SFRA. To the usual suspects he cited, he did add Jim Gifford's Readers Companion, which was an improvement, but he must have been aware of the more recent publications about Farnham's Freehold -- he receives the Journal for SFRA review. *crickets*

Author:  RLetson [ Sat Aug 28, 2010 10:45 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Kirkus Review

I think I started the TEFL piece in late '75 or early '76; it was certainly finished it by Labor Day of '76, because I took a copy to MidAmericacon and left it and a cover letter at the hotel desk for Heinlein, just as a courtesy. (Later I got a Mr.-Heinlein-doesn't-read-these note from Ginny--I mention same in passing in the Locus review.) It was commissioned for the Writers of the 21st Century Series by Joe Olander, as were all but one of the essays (Dave Samuelson's is a reprint). There were all kinds of delays wrapping up the project, so it didn't come out until 1978. Years later, I wrote the Heinlein entry for Jim Gunn's not-entirely-successful New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and that one experienced delays as well. Maybe there was a Heinlein Jinx operating. (And there's an awful line that some editor at the packager or at Viking inserted in the NESF piece--I just reread it and am embarrassed all over again. Charles never did that to me.)

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