Notes to Would-Be Reviewers

Heaven — or something — save us writers from the amateur reviewers, and some professionals, who pan a book with phrases similar to “trite plot” or “worn-out character type” or “overused plot device,” “all too typical young hero,” “standard PI,” etc., ad infinitum.

Far be it for me to be the one to say that all books all writers write are good. They aren’t. Nor will every book I write appeal to those who read my work. It won’t, and probably shouldn’t. But… those of you who are reviewers or who aspire to be reviewers, please, please, don’t display your ignorance by basing your judgments on “worn-out” character types or “overused plots.”

As Robert A. Heinlein noted in his “Channel Markers” speech to the U.S. Naval Academy more than 35 years ago, there are NO new plots. There are only a limited number of basic plots. As a result, there are no overused or trite plots. There are writers who handle plots badly, for a myriad of reasons, just as there are writers who handle them well. There are writers whose characters do not fit the plots, but the problems don’t lie in the “plot.” They lie in how the plot was or was not handled.

Almost every plot Shakespeare used in his plays was cribbed from somewhere else or someone else, but his work remains “fresh” and “original” after more than four centuries because of the way in which he handled those very common plot elements.

The same type of analysis applies to characters. Certain archetypes or types appear and reappear in novels, not because they’re tired or the authors are lazy, but because they’re necessary. If one writes a courtroom drama, there will be good attorneys and bad attorneys and brilliant attorneys. There may even be marginally competent attorneys and evil ones, but there won’t be moronic ones because they can’t pass the bar. Mercenaries will almost always be ex-military types, because that’s where one gets that kind of experience. Private investigators will almost always be ex-police or ex-military, or possibly disbarred attorneys, for the same reasons. In fantasy, knights should almost always be either wealthy or older retainers of the wealthy who have worked their way up from common armsmen, or professional military, because in any half-realistic society, those are the only way to gain the resources and experience. Pilots need to have a high degree of training and education and good reactions — and good judgment, because they’re in charge of rather expensive equipment and lives.

All too often both critics and social reformers tend to forget that stereotypes arise for a reason. They’re real. There are “good cops” and “bad cops.” And whether one likes it or not, if you see a large minority male in gang-like attire emerging from an alley and heading in your direction at night, discretion is indeed the better part of valor, stereotype or no stereotype. The same is true of the sharp-dressing WASP male who wants to sell you a large bridge for the smallest of sums. Obviously, stereotypes and archetypes can be and are overused, but slavish avoidance of such is as much a contrivance as overuse.

Likewise, try not to criticize a writer because he or she writes a particular kind of book. I don’t see reviewers trashing mystery writers, or “literary” writers, or romance writers because they write the same type of book time after time. One can note that the writer continues to write a particular type of book — but if you say that, make sure that’s all that writer writes. You can certainly point out that the writer didn’t handle it as well as in the past — or that the writer improved, but don’t trash it because you wanted the writer to write something different.

So… if you want to review… go ahead. Just try to do it with a touch of professionalism and understanding.