how genre reviews can fail the reader

This is a response to a comment on another post written by Mark Lawrence, Strangely Narrowed Horizons, which I highly suggest that you read before continuing here.

I had already written one very lengthy comment and I don't want to dominate Mark's comments section. The more I responded to Paul's remark, the more I realized I had more of a blog post than quick comment. This will all make a lot more sense if you read Mark's post and some of the comments, then come back here.

For clarification purposes, the comment that I am responding to is by Paul, someone whose opinion I respect, and someone who will take this post in the constructive manner in which it is intended.

Paul's comment regarded two points and here it is in its entirety:

I use the word "fantastika", Teresa, as a shorthand and a synonym for the more inaccurate phrase "genre fiction".

I also think that book reviews and literary criticism are disciplines that touch, but are not as intersecting as people think.

And my response follows:

It’s not that I dispute your (or Clute’s) definition of the word, Paul, it’s just that I don’t like it. It looks ugly and rings hard on the ears and I really don’t feel fantastika is any more accurate than the term genre fiction. It’s a personal thing and very open to interpretation, which brings me to your next point that book reviews and literary criticism are disciplines that touch but don’t intersect as much as people think.

I will respectfully disagree with that last point.

People who review for Locus, PW, Library Journal, etc. are giving readers a highly subjective snapshot of a novel. A novel that rings true and beautiful to one reviewer will be stinky-poo/turgid to another (one has only to look at my Library Journal and PW reviews for Miserere to see the stark difference in opinions).

These reviews are opinions--nothing more. The same is true of literary criticisms; they are opinions; however, in a literary criticism the critic spends a great deal of time, not just analyzing the structure and verse, but also in supporting his/her analysis with convincing arguments. Literary criticism envelops a wide perspective that encompasses the totality of the work in question.

The people who review for Locus, PW, Library Journal, etc. are usually graduates of literary programs and while they're not dissecting a novel publicly through their reviews, they are evaluating novels and stories based on the criteria that they learned. When they evaluate a novel, they are looking at prose, structure, and … wait for it … theme, but they don’t have the time or space to give you a convincing argument as to WHY they feel the way they do about a certain novel.

Does everyone have to graduate from a literary program to be a good reviewer? No. The trick is to read broadly enough to acquire an instinctual feel for story and structure. These are the bloggers and reviewers who I read.

However, some genre criticism has a tendency to veer off the path. The reviewer is widely read and other reviewers pick up the same motif in their own reviews, because they believe this is the way it should be done. When I read a review that only talks about the number of women/minorities/young adults in a novel, I realize that I am not getting a clear picture of what this book is about--I'm getting a census report followed by a lengthy digression on what the author should have done to make this book more palatable to the reviewer/reader.

These reviewers tend to wield large vocabularies, which gives them a semblance of intelligence, but they have very little understanding of literature in any form. They limit their reading to genre fiction, or fantastika, if you will, and review everything within the very narrow scope of social issues that they deem important. It is the equivalent of saying that all fantasy novels should become a terrible plethora of stories that reek of sameness and sterile utopias. Then the review descends (as I posted on Mark's blog) into a miniature political rant, which is fine if that’s what your blog is about; however, these reviewers purport that they “review” books.

These reviews fail the reader because they don't intersect closely enough with literary criticism.

Let me say that one more time: These reviews fail the reader because they don't intersect closely enough with literary criticism.

Do I think that all bloggers and reviewers should cough out reviews of the same quality as the Times Literary Supplement? No.

I love reading comments about novels. I love it when bloggers evaluate what works for them when they are focused on story and technique and prose. I love reading about what magical systems work for you and why. I enjoy seeing what Ria Bridges calls her "fluff reads"--books that she reads and enjoys for no other reason than these stories tickle her fancy. I love all these things and there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with these types of reviews.

But ...

BUT ... BUT ... BUT ... BUT ...

If you host a site that claims to review novels (SF Signal, Strange Horizons, etc.), I am expecting a higher quality review that intersects more closely with a literary criticism. I am more forgiving of an occasional off-beat review, nor am I expecting TLS quality; however, I want to read about prose and story and structure.

Any reviewer who makes an honest attempt to understand a novel based on those criteria wins points with me. Even if I disagree, I believe that for a reviewer to make an effort to evaluate a novel on that level means the reviewer is reading deeply.

If I read a site that consistently publishes reviews that turn into a political platform for a reviewer's beliefs, then I quit that reading that blog, because then the "review" isn't about the story, it is about the reviewer. I can only assume that by continuously publishing those types of reviews that the blog in question supports that type of criticism, which simply does not appeal to me.

Everybody misses the mark on occasion, or has a difference in opinion which sometimes brings about spirited debate on a story's quality. I love those blogs. I don't think for a moment that we need to be a mass of trolling zombies.

However, if we want other people to take genre fiction seriously, then we--the readers and the authors--need to take our craft and our reviews very seriously too. So, yes, I believe that reviews and literary criticisms should intersect much more closely in order to convey the quality of genre fiction. No one else will take us seriously unless we take ourselves and our works seriously.