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Meta-review: A Review of My Reviewing


The other day, the Professor observed that it has been a long time since I posted a straight review. And it’s true: while I tend to discuss many books in my posts, and often specifically discuss new books that I’d received as ARCs, I haven’t posted a straightforward review since May of this year. I have read plenty of books in the interim, some of which I requested, some of which were sent to me, and some of which I picked up in the store because I was interested. So why, then, the dearth of reviews?

Genres and Conventions in Literary Criticism

As anyone who has read a single post of mine can probably guess, I like criticism. I like dissecting literature, art, and culture to gain some modicum of understanding. And over the course of the past few months, I have been thinking about the purpose and nature of literary criticism, about what it accomplishes, and how my own meager attempts contribute in some fashion to the field. In a sense, I’ve been turning a critical lens on the field of criticism itself.

And I am quite surprised that this field of meta-criticism features a more muddled vocabulary than even literary criticism itself (which is saying something, and what it says is not very polite).

Everyone these days plays the role of “critic:” reviewers who recommend books to other readers, analysts who explore the broader field of literary production, writers who discuss their methods, process, and thinking, etc. To express a thought – any kind of thought – about the written word is likely to be labelled “criticism”, and with global communications at our fingertips, the barriers to entry are very low.

But criticism itself takes on many forms, and we write it and read it for many reasons. Like the stories we read, criticism can be sub-divided into a number of genres, each of which has its own conventions, its own devices, its own markets, and its own audiences. Like genres in fiction, critical genres have porous borders, and there is much overlap between their methods and devices. But all that being said, I think it is safe to propose several key categories:

Commercial Reviews
Short (< 300 words) reviews which typically provide a brief overview of the story’s plot, highlight one or two salient details (either positively or negatively), and sometimes mention similar or vastly different titles for the sake of comparison. Primarily aimed at a professional audience of booksellers and librarians, and because of their professional reputation used by publicists to provide consumers with juicy and authoritative blurbs.
  • Kirkus Reviews
  • Publisher’s Weekly
  • School Library Journal
  • Locus Magazine

Perception Pieces
Longer (300 – 2,000 words) articles that are targeted specifically at prospective readers. Structurally, they tend to present the critic’s highly subjective perceptions of a specific title, of their experience reading it, and offer a handful of very specific examples from the text. Sometimes, depending on the critic, those perceptions are contextualized through a discussion of the title’s broader genre, or of the author’s previous work, though these are not defining features of the category. What is notable about this category is that there are no structural differences between a typical perception piece in The New York Times, a book blogger’s review, or a consumer’s write-up on GoodReads. Much as professional reviewers might grumble, the only real difference lies in the audience’s perception of the reviewer’s authority, which typically stems from the brand on the masthead (although the quality of individual reviews will, of course, vary).
  • The New York Times
  • The New Yorker
  • The Los Angeles Review of Books
  • Book Bloggers
  • GoodReads
  • Amazon.com Reader Reviews

Technical Analyses
These are also longer reviews, but they differ structurally from most perception pieces in that they focus more on the methods by which a given story achieves its effects. I suspect many of the reviewers who write technical analyses (myself included) are themselves writers of fiction, and see their “review” as a dissection of authorial technique. The level of technical detail into which such reviews go, the “closeness” of their reading, exceeds that typically found in a perception piece.
  • Book Bloggers
  • Books/Essays on Writing
  • Books of Literary Criticism

Generalized Commentary
Where perception pieces focus on the reviewer’s reaction to a specific title, generalized commentary broadens the discussion to encompass an entire artistic field (however the critic chooses to define it). Such generalized commentary draws broad conclusions, sweeps the field with generalizations, and discusses stylistic, thematic, structural, commercial, etc. trends. While such commentary can often resemble that found in perception pieces or technical analyses, the scope is broad enough to extend beyond individual titles.
  • The New Yorker
  • The Guardian
  • Book Bloggers
  • Writers’ Blogs / Essays
  • Books on Writing
  • Essays in Anthologies

Academic Criticism
At its best, academic criticism resembles a fusion of technical analysis, generalized commentary, and perception pieces. However in contemporary practice, it has become a genre unto itself. Its markets are limited to peer-reviewed critical journals and (at book length) university presses, and its stylistic conventions often veer towards the incomprehensible (for which I think we have Jacques Derrida in particular to thank – and by thank, I mean the opposite). Its audience is almost always limited to academics, to critics with a stomach for the stuff, or to truly adventurous writers.
  • University press-published books of criticism
  • Critical conference proceedings
  • Academic papers

My Goals as a Critic

As I said when I first started up this blog, lo these two years ago (my how time flies when you’re having fun!), my goal is to better understand the field of speculative fiction, both on a cultural and a technical level. I want to understand the roles that science fiction, fantasy, and horror all play in our lives, and to understand how (by what means) different stories affect us as individuals and as a society. Or at least I want to understand it more than I do today.

The majority of my blog posts tend to be general commentary, probably closer in kind to technical analysis than to perception pieces. And my reviews, whose frequency has gradually decreased, tend to be more technical. As I state in my review policy, I tend to review books and stories that strike me in some way, where something about either their ambitions or their methods stands out within the broader field.

Does the decreasing frequency of my reviews mean that there is less technical innovation taking place in speculative fiction? I honestly don’t know. Does the fact that few books have recently moved me sufficiently to write a review mean that I subscribe to the much-discussed belief in the genre’s exhaustion?

I hope not. I hope it’s just a combination of having more interesting thoughts about broader subjects, or of wanting to discuss specific titles within a wider context. But despite this hope, I still find myself awake at night thinking about what this implies for both myself as a reader/critic, and if anything, for the genre.

For those who’ve been reading me for awhile – or for those who’ve gone back in the archives and read some of my reviews – do you miss them? Should I try to cast a wider net in my reading or to make a concerted effort to write more of those kinds of reviews? Or does my general commentary from the last several months still work for you?

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m here for the general commentary, actually. I find it’s challenging to follow a detailed commentary/criticism on a book I haven’t read — and the chances I’ve read what you’re reviewing are slim. Shorter, more mainstream reviews, I tend to skip because my to-read pile is so unmanageable already. (I’ll be the first to admit I need to read more.)

    FWIW, I would value your opinion on specific books because of your past commentary… but it would be on a “oh, someone said X is good, did Chris ever talk about that…?” basis.

    November 29, 2012
    • Awesome! Thanks so much for letting me know. A couple other folks over on Twitter have mentioned a similar preference for general commentary, so I’ll probably stick with that. Thanks for letting me know what you think!

      November 30, 2012

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