The Readercon panel about the difference between print and online reviewing seems to have generated an awful lot of hot air, most notably here and here. Some of the comments have been sensible, a lot haven’t, and the discussion as far as I can be bothered to follow it seems to be following ever decreasing circles. So I thought I’d chip in a few comments of my own.

1: What is the difference between online reviews and print reviews? Most of those who have responded to these discussions, especially the proponents of online reviewing, seem to be convinced that the medium makes a massive difference to the message. This is arrant nonsense. At its most basic a review is a judgemental response to a piece of art, it can be written or spoken or communicated in any other way you might imagine (tap-dancing about architecture?). The medium of communication does not – should not – affect the message communicated.

So what are the principal differences the various commentators have adumbrated?

a) Editing. I have written for print and not been edited, I’ve written for online journals and been edited. The fact of editing is completely irrelevant to the medium. Speaking from experience (as both a writer and an editor) I have to say that being edited produces far better work than not being edited. And as a critic how can I complain that some hapless writer has grown too big to be edited if I am not happy to have my own work edited? But all of this is a completely different argument.

b) Length. In print, it is said, you face restrictions on word length, online you can take the space to do the job properly. Well, perhaps. In print I have written reviews ranging from 50 words or less to 5,000 words or more; online I have written reviews ranging from 800 words or less to 2,500 words or more. I have no great brief for the 50-word capsules, but there are things to be said for any length of review from around 300 words upwards. A really long review (the sort you read in the New York Review of Books) tends to be less about the book and more about an idea generated by the book. The short review tends to be a very immediate reaction to what hits the reviewer most strongly about the book. At short length it can be difficult to present a cogent, well-argued case; at long length it can be difficult to sustain the interest of the reader (and of the reviewer). And a good review of 1,000 words or more is not an easy thing for a new reviewer, far better for them to be able to hone their skills at shorter length. In other words, there are places for all lengths of reviews, and that place again has little bearing on the medium.

c) Immediacy. We are told that online journals are able to react much more quickly to events, which is possibly true though I don’t see that this makes any material difference to the nature of the review. And the print media certainly reacted pretty damned quickly to the publication of the latest Harry Potter (I read a review in a newspaper before I read any online); while I have reviewed books for online journals many months after their publication date.

d) Response. You can instantly add a comment to an online review. True. Though I have to say that most of my online reviews have generated no comment whatsoever. The ability to do something does not mean that it will be done, or even that the doing of it makes a material difference. Some of my online reviews have attracted comments, but a roughly equal proportion of my print reviews have attracted comment also (in person, by phone, by letter, in the letter column of the magazine). Why this is seen as making a significant difference to the review is beyond me; but it does lead to another point …

e) Audience. The online response, it is said, turns the review into a dialogue in which the reviewer is writing for a particular audience (some see this as a negative, others see it as a positive – to be honest I can’t see it as anything other than neutral). Writers always write for an audience, how clearly or foggily defined that audience is, is down to the individual writer and the individual circumstances. I have to say that I’ve had a far clearer idea of my audience in some of the print media I’ve written for than I have in any of the online media. But really these two points are disguised ways of talking about a third …

f) Amateurism. What we are actually talking about is not the online journals (Strange Horizons, SF Site, Scifi Weekly, Infinity Plus) but the blogs. Someone, trained and practiced critic or not, simply rabbiting on about the books they’ve been reading lately to a bunch of friends online, and suddenly because of search engines it turns up as a review of the book. Except the same sort of disdain was shown for fanzines in the past. This again has nothing to do with the medium and everything to do with forms of elitism. If you classify such discussions (in print or on line) as word of mouth, it’s great; if you classify it as criticism, it’s not. But caveat emptor, we know when we’re reading a serious, well-argued review and when we’re not.

2: What are we talking about?
The big trouble with a lot of these discussions is that terms are banded about that look unproblematic, that look as though everyone would know what they mean, but in fact they confuse rather than clarify the issue.

When we talk about a good review do we mean a review that praises the book, or a review that is well written?

What do we mean by a bad review? Or a negative review? Is a bad review one that says the book is bad? Or one that is badly written? Or one that is badly argued? Is a negative review one that simply says, on balance, this is not a good book? Or is it one that lambasts the book, the author, and all their progeny down to the tenth generation?

The trouble is that the discussions I have seen use each of these meanings interchangeably. So watch out for those tricky little words.

My own credo is simple. A review should be honest (any reviewer who allows her opinion to be swayed by friendship, bribery, peer pressure or whatever, is not worth reading), defensible (I don’t mind if people disagree with my judgement, I am quite used to being the only critic to hold a certain position, pro or con, on any particular book, but I want to be sure the readers can see why I reached that particular judgement), and, so far as I am able, well written (a review is also an entertainment, the reader should be rewarded for taking the time to read the piece). This credo, it should be noted, is an aspiration; I have no idea how close I ever get to achieving it.

Notice I say nothing about reviews being good or bad, positive or negative. It is part of the honesty of a review that if you don’t think a book is any good you have to say so. It is also part of the honesty of a review to recognise that very very few books are entirely wonderful or entirely terrible, and the job of a reviewer is to identify and note that balance. Because of that I do not believe I write positive reviews, or negative reviews – but I hope I write honest reviews.

I confess that in times gone by I have written killer reviews that have torn certain books apart mercilessly. Such reviews are fun to write, and I believed at the time and believe still that the books in question deserved such treatment. But I am not proud of those reviews, and I do not do that now.

At the same time I very strongly disapprove of magazines that will only publish positive reviews. I understand that magazines (online as well as print) have limits to what they can cover and so must make judgements about what does in and what stays out; I also accept that wholly negative reviews (see above) can reflect badly on the venue and the reviewer; nevertheless we need both the good and the bad. Partly this is pique: I’ve had reviews bounced by some journals because the review was too negative. Partly it is because I believe that only publishing positive reviews gives a very misleading impression of the field. But mostly it is because I do not believe that reviews can or should be wholly positive, and as reader, writer and critic you need to see that balance of positive and negative.

3: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes
This whole discussion has led matociquala to suggest reviewing the reviewers. I have news for her: it already happens. In my time I have reviewed critical journals and countless collections of essays and reviews. A review is just another piece of writing, and as such it is as open to being reviewed as any other work of non-fiction. I’d like to see more of it, but it does happen.

Someone else has suggested a canon of maybe 10 central works and all critics should be invited to review those works so that readers can do a compare and contrast.

It’s a nice idea. It would be a fun exercise to do sometime (just don’t ask me to try and co-ordinate it). But I’m not sure what value it would have. Besides, it already happens. There are enough instances out there where I have reviewed books that have also been reviewed by any number of other reviewers. Mostly people read these various reviews to triangulate on the book, but they also, consciously or not, use it to triangulate on reviewers.

All of which had led us a long way from the original issue of the difference between print and online reviewing. But then, the whole discussion has simply used this as a peg by which to hang a much broader argument about reviewing as a whole.

First published at LiveJournal, 25 July 2007.