Towards a Strange Horizons Reviews Policy: Who is the Audience?

Posted by Abigail Nussbaum

Matt Cheney's review of Gary K. Wolfe's essay collection Evaporating Genres, which appears today, provides a good jumping off point for the relaunch of the this long-dormant series, in which I try to articulate my vision for the Strange Horizons reviews department (parts 1 and 2, from way back in January). Though he admires Wolfe as a reviewer, Matt is disappointed by Evaporating Genres, and finally concludes that the problem is that Wolfe is not a critic but a reviewer:

Book reviews and critical essays are different beasts, their behaviors and morphologies most notably distinguished, it seems to me, not by distance or demands, but by a basic difference of audience: book reviews generally presume an audience that has not yet read the book under discussion, while critical essays generally presume an audience that has at least a passing familiarity with the major works discussed. There are, of course, exceptions and plenty of places where cross-breeding blurs the distinctions between species, but such exceptions and blurs don't blot out the norms, and few readers would mistake a review in Publisher's Weekly for an essay in Contemporary Literature. This is a distinction of type, not quality; there are brilliant and beautiful book reviews, idiotic and clumsy critical essays, and vice versa.

I would express the difference between reviewing and criticism somewhat differently, though I think it's important that Matt describes that difference specifically in terms of target audience, which is something we'll return to shortly. To my mind, the difference between reviewing and criticism has more to do with the role that the book or books under discussion play in the piece. Are they the point of the exercise—in which case we're probably talking about a review—or a means to an end, a way of illustrating a point about a theme, an author, or the field in general—in which case we're talking about a piece of criticism. As Matt is quick to note, these are not hard and fast distinctions. Especially with so much of the critical conversation taking place on blogs rather than formal organs of review, the boundary between a review and a piece of criticism has become very porous. Even at Strange Horizons, we've published reviews that might more accurately be dubbed criticism--Adam Roberts's joint review of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Húrin and Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind is more interested in discussing the development of epic fantasy and the use of language within it than it is in either of the books, and Edward James's review of Kate Elliott's Cold Magic is actually a retrospective of Elliott's whole body of work in the universe in which that novel is set.

Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that most of what Strange Horizons's reviews department publishes, and a sizable portion of online reviewing, falls closer to the reviews end of the scale than to the criticism end. And yet it is quite common to see the two terms used in a very different way, as a means of distinguishing between different kinds of reviews. Sometimes this is a way for disgruntled fans to attack a reviewer who has panned a favorite author or work. The word 'critic' is used as a cudgel that implies elitism. But even when it's used neutrally or positively, 'critic' carries connotations of intellectualism, rigor, and perhaps even joylessness. A review, in this context, is relatively short, gives a definitive value judgment on the book, prioritizes the reviewer's emotional response, and doesn't delve too deeply into the work under discussion. A more thorough, more detailed, and, let's face it, more demanding discussion of the book will often find itself being dubbed criticism.

Reviewing vs. criticism is one of the hot button issues of that portion of fandom that publishes its opinions and reads the opinions of others, but trailing not too far behind is the spoiler question—should a review contain spoilers for the book being discussed? How extensive should those spoilers be? Should readers be warned of their existence (for example by hiding the spoilery part of a review under a cut-tag)? It seems to me that these two questions are, at their core, about very similar things. They both hinge on what we think a review is for. Is the purpose of a review to allow us to sound out in favor or against a work, and suggest to others that they seek it out or avoid it? Or is it to take part in a conversation whose topic is all of genre and points beyond? In other words, and as Matt pointed out in the quote with which I started this piece, the question is one of audience.

Misjudging a review's audience is probably one of the most common problems I've encountered while editing the Strange Horizons reviews department, and the one most likely to afflict reviewers who are just starting out. Some write reviews whose intended audience has read, if not the book in question, than others in its universe, and pepper their reviews with opaque references to characters and settings from previous books, or statements like "It was a pleasure to see X again," without explaining who X is. Other reviews seem to have been written for people who know the reviewer. They rely on describing the reviewer's personal associations with the book in order to justify their judgment of it. Others are so terrified of anything resembling spoilers that they come off almost like ad copy. They describe effect—the book is funny, or scary, or moving—without telling the readers what the cause was.

These are all relatively simple problems, and easily avoided with a bit of practice. Once you get past that hurdle—once you learn that any assertion about a work must always be grounded in concrete support, that your own emotional response is never a good enough reason for someone else to pick up a book or leave it unread—there still remains a difficult but essential question: who are we writing for? It's a question that I personally have answered in only the vaguest terms. Having started out as a blogger, my first audience was a hypothetical entity that was half myself, half an imaginary person who just happened to be terribly interested in what I had to say. Though I do write differently for my blog than I do for Strange Horizons or other venues I've reviewed for, I've never spelled out who my audience is. And yet the answer to that question determines every other decision we make about a review. Should it be long or short? Detailed or generalized? Fannish or dispassionate? Academic or accessible?

Of course, the question of audience isn't simply one of personal choice. Most reviewers will tailor their voice according to the venue they're writing for. An established venue has a sense of the kind of audience it has attracted or wants to attract, and tailors its reviews accordingly. Which leads to the obvious question—what is the Strange Horizons audience? Who are we writing for?


Comments (25)

I will say this regarding spoilers: if you do not provide a warning to the reader, you are an asshole.

I only read an SH review if I've read the novel and have formed an opinion. This means I personally skip a bulk of the reviews.

In fact I always assumed that the main intent of the reviews page was to create a dialogue with those who had read the novel. I assumed this based on the high level of spoiler content and the fact that reviews, such as the one you cite by Adam Roberts, seem to do more then discuss whether a novel is worth buying.

One suggestion - not that you're looking for them - is possibly to make that (potentially artifical) divide between the review and the critical essay on the site. I accept that drawing the line will be difficult.

Talking about Gary Wolfe I think his Locus reviews brilliantly straddle that line between reviewing the book, providing analysis and not spoiling huge chunks of it, but still providing the concrete examples that you mention above.

I will say this regarding spoilers: if you read a review of something that you're worried about having spoiled and then blame the reviewer for spoiling it, you're an asshole.

If your experience of a work of art can be spoiled by someone revealing an element of the plot then that work is probably not worth experiencing in the first place.

If you want to distinguish between reviews and criticism, may I suggest you include a short disclaimer at the head of each piece, along the lines of:

"This is a work of literary criticism not a review, and therefore may contain extensive spoilers."

Jonathan, I respectfully disagree. In some works the element of suspense is a large part of the enjoyment.

Gareth, you're quite right on that latter point; in those cases, a reviewer worth reading will (or perhaps should) recognise the centrality of that suspense to the appeal of the work in question and avoid it.

If a reviewer habitually does nothing more than run through the skeleton of the plot and award [x] stars out of [y], it's maybe time to stop giving them their Skinner-box pageview rewards. As I mentioned to Niall Harrison on Twitter a few minutes back, the spoilers issue is like any other form of censorship: it begins and ends with your hand on the TV remote or mouse buttons. In other words: if you're worried about spoilers, avoid reviews. Seeeemples.

To stifle discussion of a work because you've not read or watched it yet is petty, and born of a similar sense of privilege to that which informs the "George R R Martin should hurry the hell up with my sequels!" camp.

I see your point, Paul. But many people use book reviews as a guide when deciding which books to buy.

Gareth -- Ignorance as to what will happen next is not the only source of suspense. In fact, it is not even a particularly reliable source of tension...

For example, I've been reading quite a bit of Ruth Rendell recently (both under her own name and that of Barbara Vine) and Rendell routinely makes it abundantly clear what is going to happen and yet, despite it being obvious how a story will end, her books are still overflowing with suspense.

A Judgement in Stone, A Dark-Adapted Eye and King Solomon's Carpet are all examples of books filled with tension and suspense but which simply cannot be spoiled by revealing details of their plots.

Suspense and tension are a function of language and pace, structure and atmosphere. You can't spoil these things by revealing plot details.

I should probably clarify that Strange Horizons's policy regarding spoilers is not up for debate here. I have no intention of posting a spoiler warning. I encourage reviewers to give specific examples from the works they review. And though I have, on occasion, queried the necessity of a particularly big spoiler, I tend to defer to the reviewer's judgment on this point: if they feel that the review needs to spoil the ending or the big twist in order to make its point, then so be it.

I mentioned spoilers because, as I say, I think the question comes down to one of audience, which is what I'd like to discuss here.

Jonathan - I think we will have to agree to disagree on this one.

Gareth -- I disagree! :-p

My problem with spoilers is not so much a question of wanting critics to be able to write the reviews they want to write as it is a profound scepticism that there exist genuinely decent works of fiction that *can* be spoiled by the revelation of some detail of the plot.

I think that plot spoilers are a myth.

Can you give me any concrete examples of good books that are spoiled by someone revealing their endings?

Can you give me any concrete examples of good books that are spoiled by someone revealing their endings?

Is that even possible without committing an act of spoilerdom?

(I think we just went meta on this thing... ;) )

At the risk of dragging this thread back to Abigail's original question, here's how I see the readers of reviews at Strange Horizons.

I think they would identify as genre readers if asked, but not as strongly as, say, readers of Locus. I think they have a sense of the history of sf and fantasy, but I think most of them read plenty outside the genres as well. (They may not necessarily identify as fans, although I think most would. I think they're more interested in content than marketing categories.) I think they're politically engaged, and most likely leftish; I think they care about the politics of their fiction. I think they care strongly about the aesthetics of their fiction. I think they like Kristin Cashore, Michael Chabon, Karen Joy Fowler, Theodora Goss, Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, NK Jemisin, Kelly Link, Maureen McHugh, Kim Stanley Robinson, Geoff Ryman, Vandana Singh, Catherynne Valente and Charles Yu. I think they know what the Tiptree Award is, and are comfortable identifying as feminist (and intersectional). I think they like finding new writers. I think they're younger rather than older, predominantly -- but not exclusively -- from North America, the UK and Australia. I think they're looking for reviews that provide context and analysis, as well as the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I think they like reading reviews. I think they like hearing from a range of voices.

At least, that's what I think the audience that comes to the site to read reviews is like; there's also the audience that comes to a review from a link, or a google search, who may never have been to Strange Horizons before.

I think this profile is necessarily a caricature, but not completely detached from reality.

I do use SH reviews as guides to my SF consumption, and I do think there are works which better experienced without knowing elements of the plot. Maybe they are not great works of art if knowing some of the plot twists in advance means I don't enjoy it as much, but it doesn't mean I don't want to read them, and there are certainly works which can be viewed differently if you have certain pieces of knowledge.

(In the interval between starting and finishing this comment, I see Jonathan has asked for examples - I should say I don't think the experience is ruined, but I would read, say, Surface Detail in a different light if I know the ending. Or watch Fight Club differently. And there are video games where I might actually play the game differently if I know the consequences of my game choices.)

I don't know in advance whether the work being reviewed is one of these works, or whether the review will spoil it or not, so it's always bit of a gamble when I read the review. I would prefer the SH reviews to go for detailed and in-depth and to be blurring the lines with critical essays, rather than have them stifled by the need to avoid spoiling the book; if that means there are certain reviews here I don't read until I've read the book, it seems an acceptable trade-off for having a thoughtful and interesting piece to come back to once I have read the work in question.

Regarding audience...

When I first started writing reasonably lengthy and detailed reviews I said that my ideal reader was a younger version of myself. I only discovered the existence of 1,500+ word "critical reviews" of SF&F books when I was in my 30s, and I would have appreciated knowing about them, having them in order to get more out of the books I was reading and to improve my reading skills overall, when I was in my late teens and 20s. So one audience for SH-style reviews are readers who may enjoy a book but feel they're not getting the most out if it, or who want the keys to getting more out of a book before they start reading it, or who are picky enough in their reading to want a detailed analysis before buying/borrowing.

Then also, when I review for SH, I'm writing for the community I know exists around SH--including fellow SH reviewers, reviewers from other publications, and other critically-minded readers. There's an element of keeping the community vibrant by contributing to it, thanking fellow reviewers for sharing their unique perspectives on books by sharing my own; there's an element of adding to the community's knowledge about books and increasing people's ability to talk about them, in specific and in trends, even when not everyone has read them; and there's an element of wanting to help steer the community, by promoting certain topics as interesting than others, certain literary values as more worthy than others, and so forth. (There's a sense of posterity in this as well: the audience is also future readers who want to know which "older" books are any good, future critics and historians who want to know what we in 2011 thought about certain books and their authors and the ideas they contained. Material published on the web lingers.)

And authors, editors, and publishers are another audience for reviews that I can't help but be aware of: with Google Alerts you know they are reading, and I've probably gotten more review comments from authors than from casual readers. A thorough review can be a way of thanking an author, and/or of suggesting possible areas of improvement; of telling editors and publishers that certain kinds of books are valued, so please publish more of them, and/or of discouraging publication of certain tired tropes, prejudices, etc.

Any individual review will be composed with a different mixture of these audiences in mind.

But at the end of the day, a lot of what I write is material that I feel compelled to write because it makes me happier to live in a world in which it has been written. Because I get antsy if I haven't seen certain ideas expressed in writing, and so feel compelled to express them myself. It's not so much a matter of a known or assumed audience, as of wanting to increase the signal to noise ratio of the world, of preferring to live in a world where a certain truth has been stated or a certain perspective put forward as worth considering.


"I think that plot spoilers are a myth."

How can you make such a universal statement based soley on your personal preferences? It is obvious that for many readers spoiling key surprises can detract from the reading experience. And I just don't see the point in NOT providing a spoiler warning: the spoiler warning is such a nice compromise!

Niall - are you saying that you believe that the SH reviews audience is almost (but not exactly) like you? ;-)

By the by, I agree that really great works of literature are not spoiled by spoilers. So many wonderful books can be read multiple times--each time with a widening appreciation of what they have to offer--which wouldn't be true if foreknowledge of the plot sucked all the enjoyment out of them.

On reading Niall's and Matt's comments, it occurs to me that another attribute I associate with SH reviews readers is being engaged with the field, and perhaps especially with the critical end of the field. This is all gut feeling (I haven't done any sort of analysis of actual data), but it seems to me that when I read the comments on SH reviews, the commenters are often people who also write reviews and/or criticism, and who one way or another are often grappling with big questions about sf: what it is, what it can do, what it should do, what approaches writers and readers take to it, etc.

But again, I'm talking through my hat here. And I imagine my view is skewed by (a) which reviews and comments I read, and (b) which readers choose to write comments.

Re spoilers: here's my view. Short version: for me personally, plot is important, surprises are important, and I rarely re-read or re-watch anything. (And the pleasure from re-reading or re-watching is often different, for me, than the pleasure from the first-time-through experience.) Really, when I'm going into something for the first time, the main thing I want to know is what mood I should be in to best enjoy it.

The problem with spoilers is: what actually constitutes a spoiler? What would spoil a book for me might not spoil it for someone else, and vice versa. If I steer clear of everything that might potentially spoil it for someone, then I am effectively barred from mentioning anything to do with the plot. And if you want spoiler warnings, can't you just imagine a bloody great poster at the head of every review: WARNING, HERE BE POSSIBLE SPOILERS?

As Niall knows, one of my reviews at SH was once berated by the author for containing a spoiler. Unfortunately, the incident in question occurred less than a third of the way into the novel, and not mentioning that incident would have made it impossible to make any sensible remark about anything that happened subsequently. There is always this tension between not revealing details of the plot and actually commenting in depth upon the work. For probably 75% of the books I review it is possible to avoid any real likelihood of a spoiler. But for the other 25% I genuinely believe that my duty as a critic to provide serious and constructive analysis of the work outweighs the possibility that I might reveal something to some portion of my audience that spoils the book for them.

Lord help us, I see my audience as people who want to know what does and does not work about a book, and why. That knowledge is incompatible with the idea of spoilers. There are, after all, usually many reasons to read a book, plot is rarely the only or even the major reason, and a revelation about plot is unlikely to damage the other reasons for reading. Indeed, it might even heighten the other pleasures of the book.

Yes, the "what constitutes a spoiler" thing is where one runs into trouble. I've known some people that consider ANYTHING about the book, other than title and author, to be a spoiler. In which case, why are they reading a review? If someone advertises a "spoiler free" review, what the hell is the point of writing or reading it? If all you can say is thumbs up or thumbs down? Screw that.

My personal policy is to tell plot details that occur within the first half of the book. Then I use the cut line and make spoiler space astericks before I discuss anything that happens after that point. Nobody can say they weren't warned about DON'T LOOK IF YOU DON'T LIKE THAT.

... if you want spoiler warnings, can't you just imagine a bloody great poster at the head of every review: WARNING, HERE BE POSSIBLE SPOILERS?

This. A thousand times this.

Reading reviews and then complaining they've spoiled your appreciation of a book is like complaining the library stocks smutty novels you don't want to read. Go to a different shelf.

Er (not sure if I'm entitled to comment having read Niall's definition of SH reviews readers)... but I think on the whole, you should just keep doing what you're doing!

The point surely is that Matt Cheney was only disappointed with Wolfe's book when he was reading it with one set of expectations, and that once he had reformulated his parameters, it fell into place. In some ways, Cheney is actually providing a redemptive reading of Wolfe against a notional uber-theory perspective. This seems to me to be exemplary because it accepts as valid both current academic and reviewing practice - and then negotiate between them to form something acceptable to a reader from either camp possessing good faith.

The terror of spoilers and the concept of criticism is perhaps why as a genre sf/f can't really grow up have nice things?


are you saying that you believe that the SH reviews audience is almost (but not exactly) like you?

Not intentionally, but, er, I guess a bit. Actually the SH reader in my head is a better person than I am.


(not sure if I'm entitled to comment having read Niall's definition of SH reviews readers).

Because you don't fit it ... or because you fit it too well? I'm happy to refine my views when faced with actual people!

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