On the “Right” Kind of Reviews

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One of the things that often bothers me about the reviewing process is the idea that some reviews are inherently more valuable than others. By this, I don’t mean in the sense of the quality of the writing itself; after all, some reviews really are nothing more than a quick “I liked it” or are borderline unreadable. Rather, I mean “more valuable” in the sense that different styles of reviewing are worth more than others. While I think most of us would agree that this is poppycock, there are some in the sf/f community who would honestly claim that the critical/analytical review is simply better than the others (namely, the self-reflective review).

Where this often rears its head is in the artificial divide between academia and fandom-at-large (or “serious fandom” vs. “gee-golly-joyfestival fandom”). I don’t know if this is the result of one side of fandom trying desperately to make sf/f a “serious genre” or the result of the way academics sometimes enter sf/f fandom1. But there are some who seem hell bent on treating genre and the reviews that fill up its thought chambers as though some things should be ignored in favor of more “worthy” entries. I sometimes call these folks the Grumble Crowd2 since they are also the small group of individuals who appear to hate pretty much everything in the genre anyway — which explains why so much of what they do is write the infamous 5,000-word “critical review” with nose turned up to the Super Serious Lit God, McOrwell (or McWells or McShelley or whatever).

However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned since working with Renay (of Lady Business fame) on Speculative Fiction 2014, it’s that there are few wrong ways to approach reviews or fandom-at-large, nor must we like everything we encounter. The critical review can exist alongside the self-reflective review. Neither has to be the “right way” or the “worthy way.” They both have their value, and they should be respected as such. To a lot of people, the self-reflective review (on the self, feeling, reaction, etc.) is exactly what they hope for — possibly because the emotional experience of reading is ultimately what they seek. To others, the critical review (on style, form, content, meaning, etc.) holds the same essential value. I happen to flutter between the two forms — a product, I suppose of refusing to put aside either of my hats (academic and superfan).

I’m not saying that there aren’t standards for reviews (or any writing). There are. Neither am I saying that those standards have to be listened to. They don’t. What I am saying is this:  the notion that we can reject so much of what qualifies as “fan engagement” on the basis that some things are just more “critical and analytical” is total bullshit. That isn’t how fandom should work. It’s certainly not how want fandom to work. But I also think your emotional reaction to a work is as interesting as your interpretation of a scene or symbol. Why you feel the way you do — to me — has equal value as what you think a story means. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with liking both things.

The comments are open. Use them wisely.

  1. Some academics come to the genre through unconventional routes, such as reading stoic histories of the genre or taking college-level classes about “serious literature”).
  2. I may talk about this group some day…

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.


3 thoughts on “On the “Right” Kind of Reviews

  1. I have to say I’m somewhat in disagreement with you. If I want to know how person A felt about a book, I’ll read their review (or ask them); if I want analysis of a work, I’ll look for critiques. Those are two widely and wildly different products. In terms of “superiority”, there is a greater degree of formality assigned to a critique than there is to a review…”I liked it” has far less meat on the bones than a critique that attempts to place a work within the body of the field, utilizes historical comparisons, compares themes to touchstone works, examines societal influences & etc.
    As you rightly say, “I liked it” may be what the reader is looking for. On the other hand, all such reviews are entirely subjective, while a good, disciplined critique attempts to come as close to an objective analysis as is possible for something as subjective as literature. It utilizes standardized analytical techniques that allow one work in the field to be compared, in a somewhat formal fashion, to the body of work in the field.
    The two serve nearly completely different purposes; in terms of “superiority”, I feel that the formalized aspects of the critique make it superior to the informal, random manner of “reviews”, if only because it is possible to compare critiques side-by-side, while comparing reviews side-by-side is pointless (and meaningless). At least it is a superior form when the activity is anything deeper than “did people who like the kind of stuff I do like this?”

    • I tried to explicitly reject “I liked it” reviews here to differentiate between the critical review, the self-reflective review, and the contentless reviews once can reduce to a star rating. The latter of these really don’t tell us anything useful, so I’m not really interested in defending them as a “review” because I don’t see them as actual reviews. Reviews have some kind of content.

      However, I reject completely any notion that the critical review is necessarily superior to the self-reflective review. At what they each *do,* they are superior to one another, but I do not see any validity in any argument that one is just better than the other. Setting aside your individual preferences, the motives or intents, etc., these each have their place within the broader field of reviewing and should be respected as such.

      So, I’m not defending “I liked it” reviews. I’m defending self-reflective reviews from the notion that they are inherently less worthwhile solely because they aren’t a critical review. They each serve a purpose. They are each sufficient to the task of their assigned purpose. It’s certainly the case that some people prefer one over the other. But to different audiences, they hold significant value. I think it’s OK to accept that.

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