Review Thoughts

Recently, I read a review of a forthcoming S&SF book that began by trashing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby as a story about insufferable and deeply uninteresting spoiled rich heterosexual white people and their petty self-centered problems. And on the surface, the reviewer is correct. But on a deeper level, Gatsby is also about an ambitious and flawed outsider trying to force his way into the power structure to gain acceptance.

Now whether one likes Gatsby or not, it’s simplistic to characterize the novel as being merely about spoiled rich people, just as it would be simplistic to characterize N. K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season as a future survival story in a world dominated by plate tectonics or Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness as being about survival on a frigid planet inhabited by hermaphrodites.

Yet too many readers and reviewers only consider the superficialities when reading or reviewing books. Currently, marketing doesn’t help either, because good and complex books don’t lend themselves to “elevator pitch” descriptions. And too often, the elevator pitch descriptions, either by the publisher, reviewers, or readers, focus on what can be described simplistically, rather than what cannot, when what cannot be described in simple terms may be what the novel is really all about.

And yes, there are those few, ultra-intellectual reviewers who go to the opposite extreme and focus on how the author’s psychic traumas and/or personal life (as is most likely the case with Gatsby) are reflected in the “subtext” of the book, or how the writer should or shouldn’t be supported because of his or her or their political outlook, any or all of which, while they may or may not be true, has nothing to do with whether the novel is a good piece of work on its own.

According to studies, “critical” reviews, for the most part, don’t influence sales that much. It’s more likely that sales influence reviews, one way or another. Yet far too many writers, especially those with “literary” aspirations, worry about reviews, which they can’t control, rather than spending that energy on writing the best book they can.

4 thoughts on “Review Thoughts”

  1. William F McKissack says:

    You sort of alude to this but it feels like most reviewers aside from the dusk jacket blurbs are reviewing to be noticed themselves. Instead of a service to readers, reviewers need clicks just like the news and have become biased toward sensationalism.

    The issue isn’t just with books or entertainment. Product reviewers seem to play the same game.

  2. John Mai says:

    I don’t know what’s happening to books and with writers anymore anyway.
    I just suffered through two of the most awful novels I’ve ever wasted money upon, both read as though they were written by an eight year old with literacy issues.
    I was floored when I realized that one of them used a professional editing service.
    Somewhat in their defense…I suppose…they seem to be self published as I did not see a publishing company name anywhere.
    It’s possible that as I’ve grown older I’ve become hyper-critical, or merely spoiled by the works of authors like, say, the one whose blog this is.
    …and I seem to have gone off topic. My apologies.

    1. Tom says:

      How did you choose the books?
      If by reading review(s), then, what was in the reviews that helped you choose?

      Reviews are just another persons opinion.

      Because we like how that writer does reviews we read the review; or we are interested in the subject; or the author being reviewed writes in various genders and we want to know whether the book was within our sphere of interest. Or … why did we read the review?

      Book jack reviews are difficult as the writer has a small space to write a balanced comment on the plot and which of the authors strengths is prominent.

      Perhaps it is the victim (reader) of the review who chooses what they get? Of course not if they are intentionally misled or the reviewer is, as pointed out, too self-centered.

      The internet does allow for reading of several different reviews and this sometimes clarifies the content of a work if not the quality: but then the quality is always determined by the reader.

      1. Tom says:

        Beware or be aware.

        TOWARDS A TRANSACTIONAL THEORY OF READING by Louise M. Rosenblatt – Professor of English Education, New York University, New York City.

        Neuroscientists Have Discovered a Phenomenon That They Can’t Explain -“Scientists are meant to know what’s going on, but in this particular case, we are deeply confused.” ED YONG 9 June 2021 The Atlantic

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