Assessing Quality in Writing and the Arts — Part I

Recently, I had an on-line “discussion” with a professor who didn’t care much for the Spellsong Cycle. While I respect his opinion that the books did not impress him, I was less than enthused about his views that his assessment was far superior to other time-tested means of assessing quality for novels. Four of the five books received starred reviews from review sources such as Kirkus, Booklist, and even Romantic Times, which also gave the last book an award. The series also sold well, if not so well as the Saga of Recluce, and all the books are still in print ten years later. His counter to the issue of reviews was that he was amazed that any F&SF book received a negative review. This led me to thinking about the issue of quality or excellence.

Now… as many of you who have followed my thoughts for a time know, I’m not the greatest champion of reviews. I suppose my assessment of them is along the lines of Churchill’s view on democracy; they’re the worst way of assessing excellence, except for anything else that’s ever been tried.

Every year more than 1,000 new titles are published in the F&SF field. Kirkus reviews less than fifty of these each year and might award 10 starred reviews. Publishers Weekly reviews perhaps a hundred, Booklist, and Library Journal far less. Given the overlap, since some books may get reviews in more than one publication, it’s unlikely than more than 150 new titles get reviews. That’s fifteen percent. Of that number less than twenty percent get starred reviews or the equivalent, and again, some of those will overlap. So…something like 30 titles might get starred reviews. That’s less than three percent, which is a far cry from the idea that all reviews are raves. Almost all reviews are a mixed bag, where the reviewer likes some things and dislikes others.

Now… in the interests of fairness, it is also true that publicists do have the habit of excerpting the best lines from reviews for cover blurbs. Take a review that stated, “After a dull and pedantic beginning, the author finally reaches an exciting conclusion.” We all know what part of that review will appear on the cover, but that doesn’t invalidate the entire review.

As for the issue of negative reviews, in general, what’s the point? Readers usually want to know what to read, not what not to read. I’ve observed that most negative reviews are about books by best-selling authors or authors who have had past works critically acclaimed, where the reviewer is suggesting that the book being reviewed isn’t up to the author’s standards. Sometimes, I have disagreed with such assessments, but I think it’s fair to say that most reviewers don’t provide negative reviews just for the sake of trashing a book.

But…in the end, the plain fact is that the vast majority of titles published each year get no reviews from the major review sources, and only a few more get reviews from smaller specialized online genre reviewers.

Reviews, of course, are really the last step in assessing quality. The first, and most important step, occurs with the editor. The editor picks out what will be published and works with the author to improve it. It’s analogous to the peer review process in academia. Contrary to popular opinion, editors aren’t just interested in what sells, although what they buy for a publisher obviously has to sell. For example, my editor has been involved in the publishing field for some forty years, but also has a Ph.D. in Comparative Medieval Literature and has taught as a visiting professor at a number of universities, including Harvard. He’s edited several authoritative and widely acclaimed texts on the field, as well as a number of acclaimed anthologies. And it’s not just my editor. Virtually all editors who have any length of service have great ability to assess both quality and saleability, because it’s a competitive field. After the editor and author finish revisions, copy-editors enter the process, nit-picking punctuation, definitions, missing referents and the like. Then, of course, after publication, reviewers take their turn.

In addition, readers do “vote” on quality, or at least on appeal, and, if they don’t like a book, they won’t buy it… and that includes my books. Even after the success of The Magic of Recluce, when The Green Progression came out, it didn’t sell, despite favorable reviews. In fact, it may have been the worst-selling hardcover published by Tor in the 1990s. [To be continued]