Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Reviewing Reviewers' Reviews

I'm given to understand The Left Hand of God finally made its bow in the US. Now a whole other continent can get a copy of the year's worst fantasy that much more easily! To my American readers: I do not envy you the disproportionate hype that will inevitably accompany its release.

But hear ye, and hear ye well. I'm not going to gripe about The Left Hand of God today. Indescribably tempting though it is, at this point I must have dedicated more words to debating that book on The Speculative Scotsman than any other. Tigana might be the reason I started blogging in the first place. The Passage might be my favourite read of the year. It's The Left Hand of God that I keep coming back to, though. Time and again, it seems to resurrect itself in my mind as a springboard for interesting discussion. As in this case...

Last week, over at Only the Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Seak read and reviewed Paul Hoffman's execrable fantasy. He didn't love it, nor did he hate it - but that's neither here nor there, really. When I read The Left Hand of God, I turned its first pages with great expectations. The publicity blitz - the millions of pounds spent on advertising, the iPhone app, the book trailer - had seen to that. There are an uncountable number of fantasies that I simply don't have time to read each year, but here was one, and at the very start of 2010, that I simply couldn't afford to miss. Or so I was led to believe.

Seak, on the other hand, as well as - going from the comments on his review - several other speculative fiction fans, has come at The Left Hand of God from an entirely different angle. I don't know that I was the first blogger to rail against Hoffman's book, but clearly enough of us did to effectively counterbalance the hype with negative expectations aplenty. Seak went into The Left Hand of God expecting it to be awful, and though he admits it was "not without its flaws, overall [he] enjoyed" it.

So Seak's experience with The Left Hand of God, and thus his review, was coloured by his expectations - not the expectations generated by the manufactured buzz, as in my case earlier in the year, but by actual reviews of Hoffman's novel. Like mine.

All of which brings up an interesting question, though I'm afraid this is mostly one for the other bloggers reading this pint-sized diatribe.

As reviewers, do you read other reviewers' reviews before composing your own?

For myself, I do everything in my power to ensure that I don't. Which isn't a slight on those bloggers who do - I intimately understand the temptation to check one's own opinion against the general consensus for fear you're way off base - it's only to say that I want the reviews I write to be reflections of my personal experiences, however against the grain they may be in some cases. I worry that my own opinions might subconsciously shift to more closely align with those others I've read or heard were I to read what Adam or Ken or Aidan or Larry or any of other bloggers whose judgment I respect were to say. I try so hard to maintain a sense of subjectivity, in fact, that I have an RSS reader which nearly chokes every time I load it because it's so backlogged full of reviews I won't let myself read - yet.

So what about you guys?


  1. I don't read other reviews before composing my own for fear that I will subconsciously copy something of what they've said because it sounded much like my own opinion. I will write my review but pretty much my next step after hitting submit on my own blog is to rush on out and find out what other people have said about the same book. I'm always curious to measure my thoughts against my peers - sometimes the consensus on a book is easily seen, but then sometimes I stand out like a sore thumb (my rather lacklustre response to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms jumps instantly to mind). Interesting question, though, and I'll be interested to see whether other people read reviews first.

  2. I worry that people will be afraid to admit that they do - so to get the ball rolling, I'll confess to having done just that a few times, when my feelings on a book have been so scattershot that I've no idea how to start putting them into words. When I'm feeling completely out of my depth, I might take a gander at a few dank corners of the blogosphere; sometimes, seeing someone else's perspective can throw your own into focus.

    So it's always... interesting, shall we say, when you're the first person to review a thing - with nothing to measure up against whether or not you want to.

  3. I sometimes do, it really depends on the book. Oftentimes, I'm reading a book after it's been out for a little while, and the initial buzz will get me interested - Kraken and The City and the City are two examples. But, they generally don't impact what *I*, personally think of the book, even if the reviewer has similar feelings on it.

  4. Depending on the type of book being reviewed, I do occasionally read other reviews first. I don't worry overmuch about subconscious influences, but rather am curious about matters of technique and phrasing. These things may only influence slightly if I want to bother reading a book; they never have anything major (and rarely minor) to do with how I approach reviewing a book.

    Side note: Read this and see how differently people can approach something, even when some may have already read another's take.

    I guess I'm just one of those people who like studying reviews and seeing how techniques could be applied to mine (Borges is a major influence on me, in case you haven't read my Borges Month posts on his non-fiction). Writers ought to study other writers to learn tricks; reviewers perhaps should do the same. Neither means that such studying is going to lead to plagiarized essays.

  5. For the most part I try not to look at what others are saying, if only not to be affected by their opinions, but there are a couple of occasions that come to mind in which I had to find out what others were thinking just to grasp what I was thinking of the book... if that makes any sense. I will, though, read other reviews once mine is posted. I can't help being curious...

  6. The books I review tend to come in two categories - the ones I get early enough and many times I am either the first one - notable recent examples are Desert Spear and Evolutionary Void - or among the first who reads them and puts thoughts online in places like Goodreads or sffworld, but I keep the review for around publication date months later for the best effectiveness; for those no online reviews which I read if they come my way would change my opinion since I already have the skeleton of my review down.

    The other books I review are the ones I get after publication and many times I get them because of other people reviews, so I come with some expectations. For example I am still debating if to spend the money to get Black Lung Captain after the so-so reviews around since when I dismissed the early "not great" reaction like for the execrable Tome of the Undergates or the ok but expected much, much better Absorption, I was wrong.

    I do not see what's wrong in reading others reviews - if a reviewer is easily influenced than why should I trust that he/she does not echo the crowd opinion rather than his/her personal one?

  7. Sorry for the double comment, but to exemplify the last point, everyone can tell me how awesome The Passage is, I still believe the middle third bad and bringing the book down a lot, everyone can tell me how great Under Heaven is, i still believe it has so many flaws that only the author's superb world building and style kept it from being a disaster, everyone can tell me how great the Dervish House is and I still believe its Turkey is a tourist postcard one denoting no understanding of its culture by the author, while conversely I still thing the Left Hand of God a very good book if you let go of expecting it being a fantasy when it's post-apocalyptic sf...

  8. Honestly after reading your review, I had no plans whatsoever to read this book, but then the publisher contacted us for the US release and I thought, what the heck.

    Aside from that, I will read reviews every now and then especially if I'm stuck. It's more for a refresher in the material though and along the lines of what Larry just said, I'm always trying to improve, so I'll read others to see how to write gooder (hehe) along with seeing their take.

    I have this terrible problem of reading other people's reviews and wishing I wrote like that. I have to keep reminding myself that I have my own voice that (I like to think) is unique. I still think it's important to improve though as I'll admit I have plenty of room for it. :)

  9. Bryce - I have the reviewer envy thing going on as well, where I read everyone else's reviews and convince myself that I am entirely unable to actually write. Anything. At all. *grin*

  10. The only time that I read reviews before reviewing myself is when I've read them before acquiring the book. The books I review are a mix of ARCs and things I bought myself so there are always going to be times where I've heard all the hype and read the reviews, which led me to buying the book, which leads me to review it.

    I believe that my reviews should be about my opinion of the work and nothing more (I do a brief intro synopsis but I don't like to do a full outline).

  11. If it's a book that I'm about to read and review pre-release, I do my best to avoid other reviews, mainly because I want to avoid having my approach to the book influenced in any way. Once I've written the full review, I'll occasionally scan through other pre-release reviews before publishing mine to make sure I didn't make any glaring mistakes, but so far that hasn't led to any changes in what I wrote.

    If it's a book that's out already, and I'm just reading it for fun, I don't mind seeing other reviews, but in general I get my book recommendations from other sources (friends, book discussion groups) so I'm more likely to read any review after I've read the book.

  12. Before I started blogging I'd read loads of reviews before deciding to buy a book. Now I generally won't read full reviews. I'm more apt to read a full review if it is a book that only has a UK release date in site to decide if I want to order it. Otherwise I'll just read the first and last paragraph of a review to get a sense of whether the reviewer thought it was worth reading. A lot of times I'll go read a bunch of reviews after I write my own to see if I missed anything major or in worry of peopling thinking what I said was bollocks in comparison to everyone else. This doesn't make me go back to change my review or anything as those were my thoughts at the time of writing. Of course my opinion can change over time depending on how the read effected me in the long-term.

  13. I agree with the majority here. I read reviews before I buy a book and after I've reviewed it. I avoid everything else in the middle to avoid influencing my opinions.

    It's not that I assume everyone else is right but if you say (for example) the author used "He said" too often, then I would be looking out for that and more likely to find a fault there as well even if I wouldn't have noticed it otherwise.

  14. @Patrick - Like with the numbers in The Left Hand of God, then. I mentioned that in my review way back when and I must have heard from ten different people who've noticed their proliferation since, presumably because I'd drawn attention to them. Interesting point.

    Since you mention it, Neil Gaiman uses the "he said," "she said" thing far too often. Really takes the edge off his work for me.

    Thanks everyone for chiming in!

  15. I do read reviews when they are available. Often they're not, and I haven't had any problems being among the first. But when reviews of a book are available, I do read them when I'm considering whether to write a review of my own. There are two related reasons. The first is that, pragmatically, I'm a slow writer, and I don't want to spend weeks thinking about, writing, and revising a review if other reviewers have already written what I'd be writing. The second reason, more importantly, is that I take seriously the idea that genres involve conversations, and so when I choose to write a review, it's in the hope of advancing a conversation. The book sets the topics of the conversation, but I also like to think that reviews can become part of the dialogue.

    I'm currently writing a review of Miéville's The City and The City, for example, a year after its release and with Kraken on the shelf, because I still haven't seen a review that does justice to my reading of the earlier book's project--and I think it's worth interjecting that reading into the conversation. Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, mentioned above, is another example: I wrote a review partly in service to readers (myself among them) who had felt ill-served by the uncritical nature of most advance reviews, but also partly to address some recurring character criticisms that I thought weren't especially useful, and needed to be unpacked because postcolonial characters and their narratives were central to the book.

    In the end, then, I trust my ability to read the book that was written.

    Indeed, I find it odd that reviewers would avoid reading reviews due to worries about subconscious shifts of their alignment vis-à-vis a book, or the frame by which they view it, but think nothing of interacting with that book's author before reading and reviewing. If you trust yourself with the latter, surely you can trust yourself with the former?

  16. I glance at other reviews, mostly because there are too many books being released for me to find out about, and I want to make sure that the money I spend on books is spent wisely.

  17. I find it stranger when you write a review and its dramatically different from everyone else. I hated Ghosts of Manhattan but a lot of people loved it. The same thing for Child of Fire. Terrible books that really felt like juvenile efforts yet people loved them despite the gaping plot holes and lackluster writing.

    This phenomena is somewhat one sided. If you love it and someone else hated it you can typically understand that but when you hate it and other people love it you just can't comprehend that.

  18. First, thanks for the compliment - I appreciate it.

    Generally, I don't read reviews unless I've already read the book. It's more for an enjoyment thing - I want to go into a book with as few preconceptions as possible. Typically if its a book that I'm trying to decide if I want to get it/read it or not, I read the intro and the last paragraph and avoid the details in the middle.

    So, generally, I don't read reviews before reviewing a book. However, there are always exceptions. Sometimes I do read quite a few reviews before writing my own - call it research. This usually occurs for reviews where I'm really struggling with a starting point or with sorting out my feelings on the book. Or if I'm writing a review for a book that has already been reviewed by every blogger under the sun, I'll read a lot of reviews first. In cases like that I don't want to repeat what has already been said and prefer to frame my review to add something new to the discussion. Or I'll decide to only write something very short if I don't feel I can add anything new.

  19. I don't go out of my way to read them, but I have read Seak's. I was also aware that you weren't particularly fond of it. I gave it something of a pass however. My own version of a C-, I suppose. It's been pre-scheduled over on SBR to "post" on 7/22.

  20. Hey let's be real, none of you people are professional and that's good. You're fans with opinions and egos who like to stick it out there. You're like those folk who write letters that appear in the back of comics or self published fanzines, only as a reward you somwtimes get free books and arcs.

    Nothing wrong with that. As for myself, I don't trust any one of you over the other, but your collective opinions have been invaluable.

  21. Indeed, I find it odd that reviewers would avoid reading reviews due to worries about subconscious shifts of their alignment vis-à-vis a book, or the frame by which they view it, but think nothing of interacting with that book's author before reading and reviewing. If you trust yourself with the latter, surely you can trust yourself with the former?

    I think it is worth drawing attention to this remark from Matt. From my point of view, a lot of bloggers are much too close to authors.

    I don't read other reviews until after I've written at least a first draft. Partly this is because I often review books which don't have reviews out there. However, it is more because I prefer working in a vacuum - the opposite of Matt's approach - at least initially. I find this helps to motivate me since I usually find reviewing quite an exhausting process.

    Hey let's be real, none of you people are professional and that's good. You're fans with opinions and egos who like to stick it out there.

    What is a professional and how is different to someone with opinions and an ego?

  22. I begin outlining my review in my head about halfway through the book. By the time I finish and sit down to write my review, I know pretty much what points I want to discuss and exactly how I feel about the book in question. I really have no fear of that opinion changing by reading other reviews before or as I write my own.

    However, though it happens rarely, sometimes those reviews might serve to help me decide whether or not to add another point to the discussion. These are usually points that I decide early on are, for whatever reason, largely unimportant or not really worth mentioning.

    Barring some exceptions, I rarely read reviews before I read the book being reviewed. If I do, then it is usually in the same manner Neth does:

    "Typically if its a book that I'm trying to decide if I want to get it/read it or not, I read the intro and the last paragraph and avoid the details in the middle."

  23. Can I ask a question? If - as reviewers - you don't read the reviews before you've finished a book, how do you decide what to read? ( or does it end up that as reviewers you only read those books sent to you by the publishers?)

    As a non-reviewer I chose to read books that have been recommended by friends/reviewed on the radio (a big source of books for me)or from trusted book bloggers. But I'm wondering how you guys chose?

  24. Martin, the dichotomy is between professional and fan, not professional and someone with opinions.
    Miss a deadline you are out of a job, look at Blood of the Muse - not a job just a hobby. Like I said there is nothing wrong with fan opinions, LOCUS started our as a fanzine look at them now.

  25. I read other reviews before writing every single one of mine. It's not for research or anything like that, though. For the last several years (long before I started taking this "blogging" thing seriously) reading reviews has been a part of reading fiction for me.

    I'm not particularly worried about ripping off what I read, because I don't just read Aidan's, or Wert's, or a certain Scotsman's, but rather as many as I can get my hands on. When I finish a book, I go through my whole blogroll and see if they've talked about it. I then google reviews, repeat the search with only blogs, then go to amazon and read the top rated reviews, then read a few more "helpful" ones, then read every one and two star.

    Yeah, it's changing my initial opinion of the book, but I don't have a problem with that; I don't think that my first impression is necessarily sacred. If I read a review that I disagree with, I go over why in my head; I refute it without quite getting to the stage of writing down a rebuttal. If I go over one I like, I think about why I agree. If one changes my mind, that's fabulous - clearly my old opinions weren't as well thought out as I thought they were. I assume that, if you're coming to Hat Rack to read a review on a book, you're more interested in the best understanding of that book's strengths and weaknesses I can give, not what I thought immediately after turning the last page.

    Of course, I've occasionally gone and read a review that was so similar to mine that I then scrapped my own, because there would be no way to then write mine without plagiarizing. And, it turns out, the very first sentence of this comment is a lie, because I wrote my upcoming review of The Real Story in a period where I didn't have internet, and I still haven't gotten around to doing my usual review binge on that book. On the whole, though, my process's stayed fairly consistent with reading other reviews for a while now.

  26. @ Celine

    I belong to several SFF discussion forums. I may not read reviews, barring those by reviewers like Larry (OF Blog of the Fallen) or Paul (Empty Your Heart of its Mortal Dream) who do not typically review the same stuff as everyone else, but I do encounter plenty enough discussion to pique my interest in the books hitting shelves. I also rely on recommendations from those whose tastes I trust, be they friends or authors (Jeff VanderMeer, for instance, has provided some solid recommendations).

    I do not receive books from publishers.

  27. @Celine

    Like James, I follow a lot of discussion in forums and the like. I also monitor forthcoming books from authors I know I like and authors I've heard of and think I may like. Combine that with all the books and promo material I receive from publishers, I have no shortage of info to help me choose books to read.

  28. That's really interesting about the forums. Not an area I'd have thought of! Thanks for taking time to answer the question, James and Neth.

  29. I tend to read reviews before I buy a book I am leaning towards buying. then once I make up my mind to purchase the book I avoid reviews of it like the plague. Once I have written my review I go back and look at reviews to see if I am off base or with the majority of reviews.

    As I read I am already forming my review and thinking about what i want to tackle in it IE: Pros/Cons.

    I also follow several forums where books get discussed so you can't help but have that in the back of your head when you are composing your review.

  30. For myself, Celine, it comes down to a combination of careful consideration and... well, pot luck. I get more books in the mail than I can feasibly read, to begin with. Those that I judge to be either appealing to my own personal tastes or of some significance to the TSS readership go in one pile; the rest in another. When I finish a book, I come to the to-be-read pile wanting, firstly, something different: if I've been reading SF, I'll be wanting some horror or some fantasy - I don't like to read any genre into the ground. So say I've just finished The Way of Kings and I'm looking for my next read. I'm going to rule out all the high fantasy in the TBR stack and go for some fiction (of another genre) that's either nearing release or a book that I'm personally excited about. I'll read the first few pages of each contender until one grabs me.

    Mercenary, perhaps, but it's worked out well enough so far. I just feel so bad for the books I never manage to get to...

  31. I love the idea of being sent more books than you could ever read, Niall. The sheer boggling awesomeness!

    I do like that about your blog, btw, the mix of different fantasy types ( and media.) I tend to find myself drawn to the more rattlebag blogs which, like this one, offer a varied range of materials in review.