What Makes a Review Worthwhile?

Discussion in 'SFF lounge' started by J-Sun, Apr 4, 2012.

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    J-Sun

    J-Sun Active Member

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    Figured we could play this with a potentially larger panel. :)

    MIND MELD: A Look at Genre Reviews

    Basically, to me, the best review is a review that recognizes that it's basically a form of a "personal essay" and not something right or wrong due to its adherence to the One True Critical Framework. It recapitulates the work in miniature, telling people "whether [the reviewer has] enjoyed the item in question" (Cupp) in such a way that it will "hook up the right reader with the right book" (Raets). Reviewers mostly fall down by (directly) showing off themselves rather than the work, or otherwise not adequately describing the work, or by assuming that their review is not an opinion. There's no easy answer to how a reviewer can improve - live better, read better, review better. It's all sort of bundled up and too complex for there to be a simple answer.

    (I had specific comments on most all the panelists' comments, but that got a bit long. ;))
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    Anne Lyle

    Anne Lyle Fantastical historian

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    I'm still struggling to get my review format right, fitting in the three aspects mentioned in the article: content, opinion and perspective. Mine tend to be light on content, as I hate reviews that consist mostly of a rehash of the back cover blurb or, worse still, practically recap the whole book. I prefer them to focus on what the reviewer liked and disliked about the book, so that I can make an informed guess as to whether it's likely to match my own tastes.

    In that sense, I'm happy for a review to be "about the reviewer". OTOH, only yesterday I had someone review my book in glowing terms (5 stars on Amazon), which is nice, but the tone of it was very "look how much I know about Elizabethan drama". The first words were the title of a pamphlet of the era - in Latin... :rolleyes:
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    Stephen Palmer

    Stephen Palmer author of novels

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    Reviewers should put lots of themselves into reviews. Like Anne, I don't much care for "rehashes of the plot" reviews, although they are fine if there is a paragraph at the end which summarises what the review thinks of the quality of the novel.
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    Montero

    Montero Senior Member

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    @Stephen - I wondered why reviewers should put lots of themselves into the review? Also personal question - do you have a scientific/report writing background?

    Reason I ask is that I do have such a background, and when writing reviews I try for
    Brief flavour of book - as in battles/magic whatever.
    How well the author does the plot, characterisation and world building.
    Briefly comment on whether I enjoyed it/whether it was my sort of book - if not, whether it was sufficiently well written that I think it would be enjoyed by someone whose sort of book it was. (When sent a book to review, rather than picking my own.)

    So I mostly keep myself out of it. Wondered if that automatic reaction on my part was from my keep it impersonal scientific analysis training.
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    iansales

    iansales Active Member

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    There are two parts to a review. The first is where the reviewer discusses whether they liked or disliked the book and explains why. This is a result of their taste. The second part is where the reviewer explains why the book is a good or bad book objectively. There are agreed critical standards, and books that fail to meet them are bad. Anyone who thinks books can only be judged subjectively is not a critical reader.
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    Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Active Member

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    :D LOL

    I am yet to encounter a book that all the critics could agree, particularly with genre fiction. And I'm not just talking about people agreeing on whether they like a book, but people agreeing on whether a book is objectively good or not.
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    HareBrain

    HareBrain Lagomorphing Staff Member

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    Like this?

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    iansales

    iansales Active Member

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    Not true at all. The City & the City, for example. I think you'll find all the critics agreed it was good. Whether it was successful in its intent is an entirely different matter.

    Or are you possibly claiming that AE van Vogt, for example, is as good a writer as, say, Anthony Burgess? Because that's nonsensical. And yes, Burgess did write sf, and admitted as much - though he liked the horrible neologism "futfic".
    Last edited: Apr 13, 2012
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    Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Active Member

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    I know you're a music fan Ian and I wonder if you would extend the same view towards music? Is there a universally agreed standard of what constitutes good music? If not, what's the difference between music and literature?

    I just don't see how there can be a truly objective standard for what is good in any of the creative art forms. If there were, it would only serve to stifle innovation.
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    HareBrain

    HareBrain Lagomorphing Staff Member

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    Critical standards can't be objective, unless they can be codified by strict rules. There are of course standards which are matters of general consensus at a particular time and in a particular culture, but that's not the same thing.
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    iansales

    iansales Active Member

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    Egg, I can recognise a well-crafted pop song though I may not enjoy listening to it. I can recognise virtuoso jazz trumpet-playing, though I'm not a jazz fan. I can recognise the craft, skill and talent with which musicians play their instruments (or sing), though I may not like the music they're playing.

    The same is true of fiction. I can see that characters are drawn well, the background is not intrusive, the prose is not bland and simplistic, the story is plotted well... True, such judgment is not an exact science, but there's certainly a scale. At one end you have those who are lauded for their writing by people who understand how fiction works; at the other end you have the likes of... Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, etc.

    Nothing is black and white; you can't apply binary logic to it. But your "opinion" on whether a book is good means nothing unless you can back it up with evidence from the text. And to do that, you have to understand what that evidence is and how to judge it.

    That you enjoyed a book, that you liked it... is no indication of a book's quality, only an indication of your subjective response to it. You shouldn't confuse the two.
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    Gary Compton

    Gary Compton King Harvey Basset R.I.P

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    That's the end I want to be at, the cash end.:)
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    James Coote

    James Coote Spoon Thumb

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    Sounds more like food than music
    Is it tasty?
    Is it healthy?

    I'm hopelessly unqualified to comment here, but surely a good review is one that the reader enjoys?

    As in different readers want different things in a book, so different reviewers cater to different readers. Or taking it a step further, some people don't even care about the book, they just want to be entertained by the reviewer
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    Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Active Member

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    Ian

    I can accept that there are characteristics and properties of music or literature that can be objectively identified or quantified (at least in ordinal terms if not cardinal). A story might be said to have well crafted characters, detailed world building, a fast-moving plot, a multi layered mystery, etc. But whether the presence or absence of these characteristics makes that better or worse book is itself a personal, subjective judgement.

    My point is the very notion of whether something is good or bad is very much in the camp of being a subjective judgement.

    To illustrate my point, and to continue with the music analogy, when punk came along in the mid seventies, it lacked most if not all of the objective characteristics that would have led most people judge it bad music. But that was exactly the point, to strip music back down to basics, to be simple enough that almost anyone could play it. The singing would have been considered bad by anyone using the conventional (at the time) criteria to judge it but wouldn't that be missing the point?

    So I guess I can at least agree with you in part. That are things that can be objectively considered when it comes to reviewing books but your final judgement as to whether that it is a good book must ultimately be subjective.
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    Stephen Palmer

    Stephen Palmer author of novels

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    A degree in physics.

    I think reviewers should put a bit of themselves into their reviews because I want to know what a person thinks. I think the objectivity/subjectivity balance should be about 50/50.
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    biodroid

    biodroid Expensive Gadget User

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    I generally prefer a general consensus. But I am one of those that doesn't really bother with reviews. If the story looks intriguing enough and the rating is above 7 out of 10 then I will bother with it. Other than that I feel that a review is very personal to the reviewer and not to me. I will make up my own mind. I think in Hearts in Atlantis someone says if you don't get into the story in so many pages then put the book down and wish the author well on his next venture. Something to that effect.
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    DrMclony

    DrMclony SF Author

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    I just want to read a review that is honest and accurate.

    Honest in opinion regarding the readers experience of reading, and accurate in... ummm... technical stuff? whatever. I often see these days reviewers displaying a complete lack of understanding of the criteria they are judging. Many of the current 'buzz words' in those awful creative writing courses are commonly miss-used to criticise books harshly that do not deserve such criticisms.

    If a reviewer does not enjoy a book, that is fine. But any criticisms of the writers technique or ability should be based entirely in fact based on accurate analyses in line with the consensus of writing terminology. A reader must be able to gain accurate advice regarding the books they are considering reading.

    A big bugbear is when they justify their errors of understanding by saying they studied creative writing so they must be right and those who disagree are wrong, even when speaking to a teacher of creative writing. Go figure.

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