This past week or so has seen several articles/posts on the whys and wherefores of reviewing. As somebody trying to teach himself how to craft reviews worth people wasting their time on instead of more important things like walking the dog or shining their shoes, I'm eager to take advice and seek insights into the art of reviewing wherever I can. I own scads of compilations of reviews by David Thomson, Clive James, Christopher Hitchens and others. I'll never attain a level of skill or artistry that comes close to the bottom rung of their least work (I'm not being self-effacing. Their work is superb and important.). At this point this site is mostly filled with reviews and I do want to be better in the little genre pool I've chose to swim in.
The first came from author James Enge at his Ambrose & Elsewhere site. He examines the place of and motives behind negative reviewing. He also states what he seems to consider the minimum requirement for honest reviewing: if you want to make a claim about a piece of art, back it up with real examples from the work.
The second was an article from the British GK.com site by disgraced Independent writer, Johann Hari. His piece is about the decline of serious reviewing and its replacement by shorter and inherently less insightful reviews. He was spurred by the replacement of much of its longer album reviews with Twitter posts by Spin magazine. He makes claims to the value of criticism I heartily agree with though others about its importance I'm less inclined to.
Finally, Michal Wojcik, author, artist and creator of the excellent One Last Sketch blog, had two related posts. The first is on the poor quality of much of what passes for reviewing on the 'net, and the second on why he limits what he chooses to review himself as well as pointing to more of the deficiencies he encounters in far too many reviews. The primary one he describes is the highlighting of a sentence pulled from here or there in a book as examples of the author's supposedly poor writing instead of examining the writing, etc. of the entire work.
Wojcik's words had the most immediate effect and got me thinking again about what I'm doing and why I'm bothering with this site at all. Does anyone really need to read another article about swords & sorcery? Will I ever have an insight into Howard/Leiber/Moorcock that hasn't been written better by others? Also, who am I to even be doing this. Stuff like that started buzzing around in my head. Slowly some answers did gurgle up.
I don't know if there's any value to the reviews I've written but I want to make sure they're honest and my stands adequately argued. When it comes to something I dislike I need to be able to pull it apart and understand what components don't work for me and why as well as where and if its larger elements (plot, allusions, etc.) fail. I've been doing this for about a year now and I'm only just starting to reach a point where I think I might not miss these goals one day. There's just a lot of work ahead.
Looking back all the way to April of this year, I presented my longest and most negative review. It was for the collected Simon of Gitta stories by Richard L. Tierney. Returning to it I'm disappointed by the vagueness of much of it. There was so much about the book I didn't enjoy. Way too many of the stories were just too long and too boring. Unfortunately, I never actually explained how Tierney failed to capture or maintain my interest in Simon's escapades.
Part of my problem is I don't want to reveal too much about plot specifics in my reviews. I'm writing a lot about short stories. There's often not that much to say without giving away the whole enterprise. Even in the cases of stories I dislike I don't want to ruin them for potential readers (I haven't encountered anything yet so exceedingly awful readers need to waved away from like a toxic spill). If I want to be more substantive I need to give a little more evidence and grounds for my opinions.
Most of what I'm doing qualifies proudly as consumer advice as described in the Hari article. I've read something and I want to let you know if it's worth investing your time in. I love reviews and lists because there's just too much stuff out there to sift through. Always has been and there's only going to be more. By doing what I'm doing I'm hoping to help to provide some focus in the specific genre of S&S for current and potential readers. As such many of my reviews don't need to do much more than hip readers to some new (to them) writing I found worth my time and think others might as well.
Sometimes, though, there's a little more going on and that's what I need to work on. Nothing written by any of the three folks above is new or astounding. However, it's all information I need to digest and remember much better than I think I have to date. A big reason for this blog's creation was to force myself to write and learn how to discipline myself and work on those self editing skills I possess at far too an undeveloped level.
Even this post is too diffuse (but I'm going to post it anyway). For those of you who read my blather and keep coming back, thank you very much. That's a big incentive to take the time and make the effort to become better at doing this blogging business. It's rewarding to put something out there and have people read it. Readers' time is the payment made for my posts and I don't want to put shoddy goods on the shelf.
With some luck and more work than I'm too often willing to undertake, I hope to write reviews that provide a reasonable amount of insight into what makes a particular story work for me. When I find an author who knocks my socks off (like James Enge) I hope to be able to impart a bit of the excitement I got when I first encountered his/her work. When it isn't successful I want to be able to be able to dissect it and point out where it went wrong. Here's hoping I get there someday.