Reviews and discourse

This is thinking out loud and a bit long and waffly in a field beyond my expertise. Approach with skepticism 🙂

Reviews and literary criticism are not one and the same thing. Criticism (in its literary sense) is a tool of the reviewer and at the same time, reviews can be seen as a subset of criticism. In its wider sense criticism is intended to examine text and shed light on what those texts do. Reviews are more overtly functional and are often characterised as being there to inform potential consumers.

Of course we should be first of all suspicious of this distinction and also the description of both reviews and criticism. I often write things entitled as ‘reviews’ not to inform potential readers/viewers but to share my feeling and experiences as a consumer of that media. In particular, reviews with spoilers or which really require the reader to have experienced the book/movies/tv-show are not written with potential consumers in mind but rather people who have already consumed the media. Much of reviewing that is available online is better described as ‘commentary’ – more akin to post-games discussion of sport matches or analysis of news stories. It may be less high-brow than what would be recognised as literary criticism (and less informed by models of literary criticism) but it is closer in kind to it than ‘reviews’ in the sense of information for potential consumers.

Yet another role for reviews and criticism is improvement, change or the establishment of norms. Editorial reviews (at a high-level – I don’t mean proofreading) are one example but it is something that can be seen in literary criticism and in more general reviewing. Identifying problems in texts or discussing whether a text fits within a genre form parts of wider discussion about what counts as being a problem in a text or what defines a genre.

To clarify for the purpose of discussion I’ll split things into various roles:

  • Reviews for the purpose of informing potential consumers (not unlike product reviews of goods).
  • Post-consumption sharing of experiences.
  • Criticism for the purpose of understanding a text.
  • Reviews/criticism for identifying problems or potential improvements in a text.

Each of these form part of the wider discourse within a community that has a shared engagement with texts. As this is a broad, multi-faceted and diverse discourse that ranges across multiple venues, there are no hard borders between those roles. A review ostensibly for helping people what to read next may incorporate particular norms about the genre because having norms provide a way of judging and reporting on texts. Likewise analysis of what is going on in a story for its own sake can encourage somebody to read a story (or ensure they stay well away from it forever!)

Identifying problems with how race, ethnicity, nationality, religious belief, gender, sexuality or disability are represented in a text would fall into the fourth point on my list but also fits with the first point on my list and will often be derived from the second point on my list. Lastly, a discussion of such issues may revolve around the third point on my list I.e. what is actually going on in a text and what kind of representation is being used.

I’m well out of my philosophical comfort zone by this point having strayed out of the analytical and insular and into the phenomenological and continental but let’s persist.

Common to all is the sharing of personal experiences with others. Put another way, reviews and criticism bridge subjective experiences to intersubjective community understanding.

How we experience a text (story, film etc) is something we can examine and discuss and it is something that we can analyse, something we can find patterns with and it is also something where we can aggregate data. Aggregation and quantification of subjective data does provide a way of looking at subjective experiences using tools designed for “objective” data (and see the previous essay for what I mean about “objective”). It is another way of looking at shared experience.

Related to that is the role of anthologies and magazines. Both are traditionally and important part of this wider discourse about the nature of science fiction and fantasy. By collecting stories together and present a set of stories as examples of the genre and as examples that are of at least some minimum quality, anthologies are also a form of both review and criticism that wittingly or not describes possible boundaries of the genre. To call an anthology a work of ‘criticism’ may sound odd but it covers many aspects of the points above (e.g. a ‘best of the year’ style anthology is normative by presenting examples of some standard of ‘best’ and also a way of guiding consumers to stories they may like and also represent some of the subjective reaction of the editors/compilers).

Similar points can be made about awards and competitions and here the overt nature of a discourse becomes clearer. With fan awards discussion and shared experience is an important part of the process. Juried awards can also engender debate and discussion and I’d argue the most interesting ones are the ones that evolved this aspect (for example the Clarkes by virtue of the Shadow Clarkes have become a more interesting award).

Where are you going with this Camestros! I hear you shout (assuming you’ve read this far). OK, OK, I’ll stop waffling.

My point is, if we are to discuss what reviewing should be like and what kinds of reviews and reviewing activity people should be doing, we have to consider it against this wider discourse. It is the big broad discussion that is the important thing – along side the health and welfare of individuals.

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3 thoughts on “Reviews and discourse

  1. Back in 2015, I wrote an article “Getting More From Short-Fiction Reviews,” mostly in response to an editorial by Neil Clarke. Neil essentially said that Clarkesworld won’t run short fiction reviews because no one wants to read them. People would like a recommendation system, but no one offers that. (Of course I went on to argue that Rocket Stack Rank [not even one month old yet] was exactly what he was looking for.)

    Looking back at it, I think it’s still correct.

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  2. I think of it as a continuum, with ‘Review’ (in the sense of your first bullet point) at one end and ‘Criticism’ (in the sense of your third) at the other. The one thing I would differ on is that I would pretty much merge your third and fourth bullet points, in that identifying problems with representation, structure, etc. is not (to me) really distinct from understanding a text: those are aspects of identifying what worked and what didn’t in a particular piece of fiction. Individual reviewers (or communities) may slide all over the place between those two endpoints, as you note. I think one reason that things frequently get so contentious is that people confuse the two ends of that spectrum as being the same thing, which they are not. Another is that there is a subset of authors, readers, and reviewers who view reviews/criticism solely as a tool for promotion, and therefore view anything that isn’t positive as an attack. Every reviewer/critic has to make their own decisions, of course, but (as I said over at File 770) I think Charles Payseur’s position – that he would remove any review if requested by the author – is completely untenable as a critical stance: its logical endpoint is to reduce all criticism to mere boosterism.

    I really like your notion of an anthology as a work of criticism: it’s quite overt in anything that has ‘Best’ stamped on it, but even in those that don’t it still represents the editor(s) staking out a claim on the boundaries of the field, with all kinds of implications for norms, etc. An SF anthology edited by one of the Puppies and one edited by, say, me would be very different entities, with radically different views as to what constitutes good SF. (Actually, that ‘good’ qualifier could probably be dispensed with.)

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