Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Wiscon Recap- Book Reviewers

I'm back from Wiscon! Had an amazing weekend; this was my third year going, and the most rewarding. Will have some recaps coming, and then Positron business as usual will resume.

The first panel on my list was The Art of the Book Reviewer. Our panelists were:
 Very thoughtful panel. Some notes!
  • Differences in blogging vs. print or otherwise-centralized book reviews. Generally discussed as a good thing--democratization & increase in voices.
  • However, as with so many things, now the task is sifting through a ton of information to find the reviewers who we trust & enjoy.
  • (We didn't talk about how quantitative reviewing, coupled with big user groups, affects sales/reception. That's something I've been getting interested in.)
  • Limitations on "what can be reviewed" based on publication venue. Charles, for instance, specializes in reviewing short forms like flash & poetry, which typically aren't available as a "reviewable object" on Goodreads etc.
  • Reviewing and lists as signal-boosts, "what's everybody reading" round-ups, "show me your shelf" phenomena.
  • Fan/writer history of reviews and how that has shaped the genre--dropping names like Blish, Budrys, Knight, Merrill, with Jo Walton being a prominent modern example.
  • Good line from Michael: "You have to be careful to review the book for what it is, not the book you want it to be."
  • Pros/cons of "unmanicured" reviews and visceral responses.
  • Brooke & Michael both talked about the very structured approach they take (depending on venues) in reviews.
  • Much discussion of review audience and purpose of a review. Nice range of purposes.
    • Publishers Weekly is for booksellers: what it is, if to sell it, how to talk about it.
    • More academic & otherwise high-brow reviews build on the work, are a continued engagement with and processing of it, less of a "read this or don't read this."
    • Reviews that signal boost; quick recommendations/disrecommendations to a group that trusts the reviewer.
    • Largely personal reaction reviews that will nonetheless help other people work out how they feel about it.
  • Audience question: "do you avoid negative reviews?" A vexed question! Lots of discussion on this. General consensus seemed to be that writing negative reviews is intensely pleasurable but should probably be kept to a minimum. Much talk on how different publications have infrastructure to prevent matching up reviewers with books they'll hate.
  • Question of "what's quality" leads to a long discussion. Some really delightful slamming of "extruded fantasy product" and the stench of rampant commercialism. But also a good discussion of how what's important and good about a book depends on reader; Curious George used as an example of books that anyone capable of reviewing will be bored by, but nonetheless have a lot of importance and value.
  • Previous question is clarified: "what do you look for in a review in terms of quality?" Couple different ideas on that.
  • The importance of convincing interpretations in a review--is there evidence, examples, is the reviewer's take on the book well-argued.
  • Michael talked about breaking reviews into 3 categories that had people nodding their heads:
    • Reviews for books I don't know if I'm going to read yet--looking to be persuaded or dissuaded.
    • Reviews for books I know I'm not going to read, but I need to be able to talk about, think about, or sell them, so I need to know the gist.
    • Reviews for books I know I am going to read--these are reviews I want to wait for until after I've read the book, and then I want them to deepen my experience.
  • Audience question about how self-publishing is affecting reviewing. General consensus is that quality disparity is obviously much higher, but that there are some fascinating and sometimes unexpectedly best-selling stuff out there--Howey's Wool, Weir's The Martian, etc.
  • "How do you approach spoiling in a review?" Everyone made the caveat that they try to warn the audience when it's coming. However (these are a little paraphrasey):
    • Brooke: "No, I just summarize. I'm a monster." [LAUGHTER]
    • Michael: "At the NYRSF, it's assumed the audience has read it."
    • Charles: "You need to have a clearly stated policy about spoilers so you don't surprise readers with it." That said, "How do you not spoil flash fiction?"
    • Sarah: "Sometimes you need more spoiler-y critical reviews so you can get an idea what that book's all about when you know you're going to read it."
  • Audience comment: "We need more intertextual reviews of speculative poetry so that it forms more of a coherent genre."
  • To audience questions about getting more into reviewing:
    • Sarah sez: write to Strange Horizons and ask them for books to review!
    • Brooke: American Review pays $50 a review.
    • Panel at large: have some good examples of your reviews you can use as writing samples--on Goodreads, blogs, etc.
    • Follow-up question about when to stop reviewing on Amazon/Goodreads if you're trying to go pro. Panel and audience both caution that you don't own your words on either of those, especially Amazon. However, if you are moving in a more serious direction you can still do brief reviews on sites like that, and then link to your full review somewhere else.
  • Audience question about timeliness of reviews: panel responds that yes, a lot of the serious review sites are focusing on new releases. More scholarly/high brow venues have a longer timeframe, often out to the two-year mark. Reviews of older work still valuable, though, and a big part of many reviewing communities.
  • Audience question about what kind of feedback reviews get:
    • Panel talks firstly about how great feedback is, so you know you're not in a vacuum--not always the case!
    • To audience question about whether authors talk to reviewers, Michael & Brooke share a few anecdotes about authors liking/respecting reviews even if they disagreed with the conclusions about their own books.
    • Charles gets serious for a moment and points out that, in popular, easily-accessible venues, trolling and threats are an actual concern, more often from fans who disagree with your review. Emphasizes the importance of having some kind of moderating ability on comments.
  •  Finally, a list of some places, reviewers, and books to check out:
A delightful start to Wiscon. A theme of the con for me this year was thinking about modes of engagement with a novel--as a private reader, as a scholar, as a book club discussant, as a hopeful-someday-maybe writer of fiction. This panel got me thinking about that--different modes of thinking about, and then speaking about a work. Good stuff.

More Wiscon recaps on the way, now that I've slept for 24 hours to make up for the weekend.

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