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?