Towards a Strange Horizons Review Policy: An Introduction
Posted by Abigail Nussbaum
8 January 2011
My name is Abigail Nussbaum, and I've been Strange Horizons's reviews editor for the last two months. Before that I'd been a blogger (at Asking the Wrong Questions) and a reviewer (for Strange Horizons and other sources) for more than five years, but it was only once I started editing other people's work that I found myself in need of some sort of statement of what kind of review I was looking for, and what constituted a good or bad review. It's easy, when you're writing your own stuff, to get by on gut instinct—something feels right or it doesn't, and if you've got a good editor (like Niall) they can often help you articulate what you're trying to accomplish, what isn't working, and how to fix it. In addition, discussions on this topic tend to strike me as unnecessarily prescriptive, full of rules that, in my experience, can just as often be profitably broken as followed—if you know what you're doing, of course. (A good exception are Niall's twin posts on different ways to start and end a review.)
But since I've started editing other people's writing, I've found myself struggling for words, for the tools with which to explain what I want for the review department, and how specific reviews are failing to bring their point across, or sometimes just muddling it. I've felt a keen awareness of the need for some sort of guidelines—for myself, as much as for the reviewers I edit. I know that I don't want to lay down immovable fiats—a Strange Horizons review must be so many words long, must avoid "I" and "me" statements, must not include spoilers—but I do need a more developed, better articulated sense of what a review for Strange Horizons should be.
So with that, I'd like to open the question up to the floor. This is the first in what I hope will become an irregular series in which I'll discuss the different questions that occur while I edit, and which I think deserve to be addressed in the reviewer's guidelines document that I'm trying to formulate. I hope you'll join in and offer your own opinions and insights. So far, what I have of the document is its opening sentences, the review department's mission statement, if you will:
A review should be informative for people who have never read, or heard about, the work in question, illuminating for those who have, and entertaining for both. Whether or not it convinces (or dissuades) its readers from seeking out the subject of the review, they should come away from it feeling that the time it took to read the review was well spent.
Over to you.
(Some interesting reading for people pondering the subject of the purpose of reviews and the form they should take: The New York Times's Why Criticism Matters project, including responses from several reviewers. Though the underlying question has less to do with criticism in general and more with the changing face of criticism in the internet age, there are some interesting responses. I particularly appreciated Sam Anderson's essay, and Elif Batuman's, for discussing the importance of negative reviews.)