In the last few years, I have written a series of short articles for Foundation, and a pair of articles for Focus, all on the subject of reviewing. And yet I still don’t feel I’ve got anywhere near to the heart of the matter. Part of the problem is that we have no clear language with which to talk about reviewing. What’s the difference between a review and criticism? Where do you draw the line between review, review essay, and critical essay? Is criticism, by definition, negative? Is a bad review the same as a negative review? We have no generally agreed upon way of answering any of these questions, and any general writing about reviewing is liable to get hijacked by trying to define terms.
I keep worrying away at the issue, without really getting anywhere. And yet there is a dearth of writing about criticism. So, I’ve started going back in my mind to the basics. What follows is a first shot at a list of the sorts of things we talk about when we talk about reviewing. I suspect it is not comprehensive. I also suspect that a lot of people will disagree with a lot of my characterisations. But if this is anything it is just the start of something that needs to be much bigger.
I’m going to start with what may be the most controversial statement of all: reviewing refers to any piece of writing about a text that isn’t written by the author of the text itself. (Sorry, bit of jargon in there: by “text” I mean any created work, whether it is a story, a book, a play, a film or whatever. I tend to write criticism about books, so my automatic inclination would have been to say: “a review is any piece of writing about a book that isn’t written by the author of the book itself”, but that excludes all sorts of other creative endeavours that can be reviewed. So, I used “text” as a catch-all term. But you begin to see the problem here.) I know that, for instance, Anthony Burgess once pseudonymously reviewed one of his own novels. It’s misleading, but I think in the long run I would not count that as a genuine review (it is more in the nature of a joke or a jeu d’esprit, but that is not to say that jokiness has no part in a genuine review). On the other hand, Christopher Priest once reviewed a book by Nicholas Ruddick about Christopher Priest; this does indeed count as a review, and a valuable one at that, because of the privileged information it contained.
Therefore, if I write about something that I haven’t myself written, then I am engaged in reviewing. Note that in this definition I say nothing about length, purpose, or critical content. All those things are important, but they can muddy the water, and what I am trying to do here is start from absolute basics (“I think, therefore I am”), and we can bring these other factors into the picture as that picture begins to develop.
By this broad, loose definition, reviewing can cover anything from a blurb to a monograph. And that’s fair enough, because these are all ways we have of writing about creative texts. They are not all critical ways, they are not all analytical, they are not all objective, but they are all to some degree an outside eye upon the text in question.
Let me start with the issue of purpose, because there is little in the way of specialist language involved here, but at the same time how we regard the purpose of a piece of writing can have a profound effect upon how we regard that writing.
Thus, we might write in order to announce the text. This is reviewing as a branch of publicity or advertising, its primary purpose is to let an assumed audience know that the text is available for them to consume. It is the sort of thing you are most likely to encounter in a blurb, in a catalogue (which often just reproduces the blurb, or, more likely, the blurb on the book just repeats what has already appeared in the publisher’s catalogue), or in a capsule review (some of which also do little more than reproduce the blurb).
In their purest form, such announcements contain no evaluative language whatsoever. But more often than not they overlap with writing to extol the text; that is, the writing of largely uncritical praise that is designed primarily to excite the audience about a new text. Again, this is writing more akin to advertising and publicity than it is to criticism, and is generally found in blurbs and capsules. (A blurb might, occasionally, offer a more measured view of the text. Probably the most famous example of this is the first UK paperback of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, which gathered a number of the most biting attacks that the novel had received. But this is rare, and is almost invariably the result of a careful calculation by the relevant publicity departments about how to best reach the intended audience for the work.) When we encounter such over-enthusiastic writing in a blurb we learn to take it with a pinch of salt; it also appears in some reviews, where it is generally a sign of a less experienced or less than competent reviewer.
This approach to extolling the text rather than evaluating it is also often associated with that curious phenomenon of the modern internet age, the cover reveal, the book blog, or what I have recently seen referred to as the “book influencer”. It may be unfair to tar all who indulge in these activities with the same brush, but that recent coinage, book influencer, suggests that this is how they are viewed by the publishing industry: an unpaid adjunct to the publicity department who can be relied on to manufacture uncritical excitement for the next product. But I suspect that the purpose of the writing here is slightly different: to express a personal relationship with the text. And this is something that you find in many forms of writing, from the book blog up to and including the critical essay. The text is something to be discussed not objectively, but subjectively, almost intimately. This expression of a relationship can take several forms. For instance, some seem to consider that liking a text is the equivalent of being best friends with the author; while for others, the text in question has had some profound, life-changing effect upon their private life. The common factor is that judgement is suspended in favour of personal preference: you have to read this book simply because it meant so much to me. Done well, such relationship writing can be engaging or even thrilling to read, though it is not always the most reliable way to judge a text.
Almost the polar opposite of this approach is what is, or at least what used to be, the standard form of review writing: evaluation. At its simplest, the writer who ends a capsule review saying: “Buy this book!” or, “Avoid like the plague!”, is evaluating the text. That is, they are standing back from the text to consider how it stands up against some critical standard. What that standard is might not be entirely clear, there are times when you just have to take it on trust. But any act of evaluation is a step away from taking the text on its own terms.
However, simple declarative statements – this is a good book, this is a bad film – are not very satisfactory for the reader, and, from experience, I can say that they are not very satisfactory for the writer either. What is needed is the next step: analysis. Evaluation can come in a capsule review, but analysis requires something a little longer (length is not the defining characteristic of different types of review, but it is a factor in what the review can achieve). Analysis is understanding why you have arrived at a particular evaluation, why you think the text is a good book or a bad film, and then conveying that explanation in what you write.
Of course, analysis is never simple, and those of us who have gone that route have found it to be a very slippery slope indeed. Because it is rarely as easy as saying that this text is good because of X, or bad because of Y. Indeed, the more carefully you look at any text to answer, to your own satisfaction, why you actually like it, the more things you are going to find. It can quickly get to the stage where not finding a complex multiplicity of things to consider counts against the text: it is too simplistic to be truly satisfying. That confusing multiplicity of things to consider will, in the end, get in the way of evaluation. If you determine that elements A, B and C are done well, but elements X, Y and Z are done poorly, how can you decide whether, on the whole, the text is good or bad?
All too often, reviewing is considered to be a simple matter of making a judgement. But the more you get into reviewing, the more you realize that making a judgement is a very small part of the job of reviewing. Evaluation and analysis are both acts of comparison, but the more analytic you become, the more you realize that what is being compared and how it is being compared are fundamental to your own understanding of the text being reviewed, and therefore to your readers’ understanding. This leads, inevitably, to context. Again, while not invariable, this does tend to require more space than the types of writing we’ve considered to this point. Context, of course, can mean many things. It can be as simple as comparing the text to previous things by the same author, or you may look at how it fits with other works on the same topic, or other works from the same period. You may even fit the text into a broader artistic context: the art and literature of the Civil War, film and writing in the Great Depression, artists respond to the Cold War, that sort of thing.
By examining a text within a particular context, you are starting to do something more than evaluate, analyse, and review. It is somewhere in here, for instance, that reviewing tends to give way to criticism, though you won’t find anyone able to pinpoint exactly where that change might occur. What you are doing (another inescapable jargon term) is offering a particular reading of the text. Reading, in this sense, is a curious term. It is not an impersonal, objective review (to the extent that any review can be entirely objective), but neither is it subjective in the same way that relationship writing is subjective. When you offer a reading of a text you are not saying that this is the single and definitive way to approach that text. Indeed, to offer a reading is implicitly to acknowledge that there may be multiple other readings, each of which may be valid in its own way. What you are saying is that when I see this, and this, and this, in the text, bearing in mind such and such a context, I am led to interpret it this way. This is how the text seems to make sense to me.
Another way of interpreting reading in this sense, therefore, is understanding. This is what tends to be going on in most long-form writing about texts. Long form because it inevitably involves a deep dive into the text itself, considering things like word choice, sequence of events, the way characters are presented, etc, while at the same time producing a broad sweep of all sorts of other things that might impinge upon the text, from contemporary politics to the state of scientific knowledge. None of this can be done briefly, which is why this type of writing tends to be the preserve of the long critical essay or, more often, the monograph. And the purpose of such writing is not to extol the text, or to judge it, but simply to explain it. By this I mean explain it to the writer; the critic is trying to understand why the text is structured the way it is, why that structure works or does not work, and why the critic responds to it the way they do.
All of these terms – announce, extol, relationship, evaluation, analysis, context, reading, and understanding – help to explain why people might write about a text. The list is probably not exhaustive, but it does serve as a series of way stations we might notice as we turn to consider how people write about a text. For want of a better identifier I have subsumed all of what follows under the term “reviewing”, but this is reviewing in the very broadest sense. Basically, whenever someone sets out to write about a text there are at least as many ways to do it as there are reasons for what they do. The list that follows is roughly arranged in order of ascending size from shortest to longest, but length itself is no determinant of how a piece of writing should be categorized. There are overlaps in both length and approach between each of these types of writing, and in several cases the differences between two entries on the list are so imprecise that it is impossible to say where the line can be drawn, or even whether it should be drawn. Again, this list is surely not exhaustive, but it is intended to help find a starting point for any informed discussion of criticism and reviewing.
Let me start with what is probably the most questionable item on this list: the blurb. How can I justify including this among the extended family of reviewing? But a blurb is designed to encapsulate a book, to draw attention to its most salient features, and to explain why a potential reader would be well advised to pick the book up. And those are all characteristics that we will encounter again and again in this list. By blurb, I mean a short piece of writing, generally no more than around 100-200 words, that appears on the dustjacket of a hardback book or the back cover of a paperback. Pretty much the same text will have appeared in the publisher’s catalogue, and will also appear on Amazon and other bookselling sites. (There are equivalents for other forms of text, on the back of a DVD box, on Spotify, on the label beside a painting in a museum, but blurbs on books is probably the form we are most familiar with.) Blurbs will often be accompanied by quotations, either solicited from friendly authors or pulled from early reviews (I’ll come back to this later), but these are not part of the blurb as such.
I have written a few blurbs in my time, and believe me it is not an easy thing to do. I know some publishers try to save time and/or money by getting the author to produce their own blurb: this is not a wise decision. If you could sum up your book enticingly in 200 words, you wouldn’t have needed to write 200 pages. It takes distance from the text to be able to pick out something so immediately engaging that by the time the reader opens the book to page one they are already committed to reading it. It is advertising copy, therefore, but it still requires a degree of objective appreciation of the text.
When I say that the blurb is the shortest item on this list, that is not always the case. The capsule review, also sometimes referred to as the notice, can be shorter. When I used to write for the late, lamented Good Book Guide, I had no more than 50 words per book. Most capsule reviews you come across these days are in the form of round-up reviews, where the reviewer is given a set number of words to cover five or ten new books, usually in a given category. The Guardian, for instance, has monthly round-ups of science fiction and of crime fiction. There is enough flexibility in this format for the reviewer to make some over-arching judgement, and more attention might be paid to the better works on the list while others may receive little more than a sentence or two. For me, the archetype for the capsule review is at the back of the New Yorker, where there are four unsigned reviews in a single column. It is easy to quarrel with these very brief reviews, but they are a model for how to give just enough detail to convey a sense of the book and still provide some evaluation.
As a way of moving on to the next category, this is a story I have told many times, but it bears repeating. I was at a launch party for a book and was introduced to the head of the publishing house. As a way of making conversation, he asked what I did, and I said I was a reviewer. Where? I gave a list of rather prestigious print publications: Interzone, Foundation, TLS, that sort of thing. I could see his eyes glazing over. Someone else approached. What do you do? I’m a book blogger. And the publishing head honcho literally turned his back on me. There was a time when reviewing would have aroused more interest, but now it is the immediacy and the (presumed) uncriticality of book blogging that gets attention. Because this can be used, this is an unpaid adjunct to the publicity department.
I don’t want to call this category book blogging because that is too broad a term. I have a blog where I sometimes write about the books I read, though I don’t consider myself a “book-blogger”. I think the term I came across recently (I’m not sure, now, where I found it or how much currency it has) is a better fit: book influencer. There are all sorts of blogs, vlogs, YouTube channels and the like out there where “influencers” spend all their time spreading the word to their followers about everything from fashion to holiday destinations to investment opportunities. Book influencers make books just one more commodity to be exploited in this way. The ideal, for influencers, is to make the audience excited about each new product, and not to ask too many questions about it. It is to greet each book with squee and to treat something as mundane as the revelation of the cover of a forthcoming book as if it were of world-shattering importance. There is no distance, no objectivity; it is advertising by enthusiasm alone. There is something almost incoherent about the worst examples of this (and it is a model still so new that it tends to be judged by its worst examples), which seems to me to be a very strange way of responding to a literary text.
The broader term, book blogger, of course, covers the influencers, but also a much wider territory from the capsule to the critical essay. In fact, it is a category defined not by its content but by its medium. So, when I heard that one blogger had allegedly said that they made sure that every single review they published carried at least one pull quote that the publisher could use to advertise the book, I knew that this person was admitting that what they wrote contained no critical judgement of value but was simply unpaid advertising. But I also knew that the same could have been said by writers of print only reviews. It is a dishonest way of writing about books (at least the blurb writers and influencers are honest about the intent of what they are doing), but it is a dishonesty you could find in every branch of reviewing. I have had occasional quotations lifted out of my reviews to appear in advertising, but the lines were never intended for that purpose, and in fact were not ones I would have expected to be used that way. To try and produce such lines deliberately and consistently in every single review can only do damage to the way you write about books in general.
Which brings us to the heart of this taxonomy: the review. Okay, I said at the start that reviewing covered any piece of writing about a text. In broad terms, and given how loosely we use the language, that is the case. But we also use review much more narrowly to mean a particular type of critical writing about a text. In general, what we call a review is a flexible enough definition to hide a multitude of sins. So, let us begin by saying that a review (in this sense) is a piece of writing devoted to one specific text. It is generally critical writing; that is, it tends to evaluate the work, and will usually provide enough analysis to support that evaluation. Where the text is fictional, then a plot summary is common; however, those reviews that rely excessively, or even totally, on plot summaries are generally less satisfactory, not least because they move the review closer to advertising. In terms of length, a review will sit somewhere between a capsule and a critical essay, but with quite a bit of overlap at either end of the scale. We might say they could be anywhere from around 200 words to around 2,000 words, though on average, depending on the venue, they tend to fall in the 400-500 word range or the 1,200-1,500 word range.
While this might serve as a template for a review, however, there are considerable variations (I’ve written reviews up to 5,000 words, for instance). The venue where the review is to appear might well have word limits, of course (when I’ve written for the Times Literary Supplement they tended to ask for around 800 words, while Strange Horizons tends to prefer around 1,500), but the text being reviewed will also affect the length. I’ve reviewed books where it has been a struggle to find as many as 1,000 words to say about it, and others where 2,000-3,000 words feels like I’m not doing it full justice.
Also, there are different types of review. What I have described here might be taken as the standard: a relatively concise critical appreciation of a single work. But you might also be writing about several different works in a review column, which is a sort of grown-up version of the round-up mentioned earlier. As with a round-up, you would have a certain number of words in order to write about a certain number of texts. There would be flexibility within this, so that some texts might receive more attention than others. And there is also the flexibility to provide either an overall critical judgement, or to make a judgement on each book in turn.
On the other hand, if you are reviewing a single text and find that 2,000 words or so doesn’t do it justice, then what you are writing may well be considered a review-essay. I recently wrote a review of around 1,500 words, but when I submitted the review I mentioned that I had enough notes to at least double that word length. I got an email in reply saying, effectively, go for it. The revised piece finally came in at around 5,000 words. To my mind it is still a review, a critical discussion of the pros and cons of one particular work, but the length alone makes me think it should probably be classed as a review-essay. But the distinction is, at best, fuzzy.
If it is hard to say where a review turns into a review-essay, it is even harder to distinguish between a review-essay and a critical essay. In fact, in many cases I think they are just two names for the same thing. Consider it as a spectrum: the majority of the spectrum, the middle ground, is where review-essay and critical essay overlap. But at one end, where review-essay shades into review, the term critical essay doesn’t really apply; while at the other end, where critical essay shades into academic writing, the term review-essay doesn’t really apply.
For me, a critical essay tends not to focus on one individual text, but rather looks more at context. This may mean the essay considers a body of work, a particular theme, a certain period, or some other idea. Therefore, any individual text is of interest more for how it relates to other texts than for how it achieves its own peculiar effects, but again this is not a hard and fast distinction. As I’ve noted before, venue may have a lot to do with where the writing sits on this spectrum. A journal like Science Fiction Studies, for example, divides its contents into three main groups, essays, review-essays, and reviews. Here, the review-essay is a slightly longer form of the review, but is not necessarily much shorter than any of the critical essays. And while the essays tend to be more thematic in structure, they are quite likely to deal with just one work; the difference between essay and review essay, then, tends to be that the review-essay addresses a recently-published book, while the essays turn to a somewhat older work. A review or review-essay, therefore, implies an immediacy in looking at something hot off the presses; while a critical essay implies a temporal distance, a cooler appraisal.
Should a critical essay be written for a book rather than a journal, it may well be referred to as a chapter. There is really no substantial difference other than venue.
The sorts of essays I’ve been talking about are likely to find their way into such (relatively) popular magazines as the Times Literary Supplement of the New York Review of Books, but they are probably most readily found in academic journals and books. For that reason, they can merge into critical theory. I’m inclined not to include critical theory as part of my excessively broad understanding of “reviewing”, because in the main it is not writing about texts, but rather writing about how texts are written about. I’m open to persuasion on this, and this paragraph is included as a marker on that score, but at the moment I’m not inclined to take this already overlong essay down that particular rabbit hole.
There is one more category to be included in this catalogue of how people write about texts, and that is the monograph. Monograph is just a fancy way of saying a book-length work by (usually) a single author on a single subject. Within the terms of this taxonomy, that single subject may be a creator’s entire body of work, but it may also be a single text. I am at the moment engaged in writing a short book about Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (when finished, my text is likely to come in at close to half the length of Holdstock’s original novel). Again, this is only a difference in length from the critical essay, though the various chapters of the monograph may well come across as a series of interconnected essays.
So, writing about a text can be done at any length from 100 words or so to 100,000 words or so. The infinite gradations between these two extremes tend to come under a whole string of different names, but the differences are not always readily apparent, and there is so much overlap along the way that the different terms can bring confusion rather than clarity.
There were a few other confusing terms I wanted to consider in this taxonomy. The first of which is criticism itself. The reason I called this a taxonomy of reviewing rather than a taxonomy of criticism is because of the problems with that word. In popular parlance, criticism doesn’t just have a negative connotation, it is actively antagonistic: to be criticised is to be attacked. In terms of reviewing, however, criticism is a much more neutral term. Criticising a work may involve both praising it and decrying it. But nobody outside what I suppose we might term the reviewing fraternity really grasps this nuanced difference. They may recognise that a film critic or a literary critic is concerned with looking at both good and bad within their chosen remit, but the practice of criticism continues to be negative. That’s why I wish we had another word for criticism. I am happy to include the word “critic” in my email address, but when asked what I do I invariably say I review books. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can entirely escape the word “criticism”, so we need to use it with care, wearisome as that may be.
I have sometimes wondered whether the practice of criticism derived in some way from the study of moral philosophy. Certainly, as critics we are very free with words like “good” and “bad”. But we must be wary of the fact that these, too, are ambiguous terms. What do we mean by good? Morally uplifting? Well achieved? Satisfying? A particularly fine example of its type? Some or all of these at the same time? And when we identify a particular piece of writing as a bad review, do we mean a review that is overall critical (that word, again) of the text in question? Or do we mean a notably poor example of a review, regardless of the text in question? We use good and bad liberally, indeed carelessly, to mean all of these things, often at the same time.
One of the things we look for as critics is the quality of the writing. How clearly concepts are expressed. How succinctly complex ideas are put across to a non-specialist audience. And yet the language of criticism itself is so full of ambivalence, so open to myriad different interpretations, that it sometimes seems impossible to write criticism clearly and succinctly. That’s why, whenever I write about reviewing or criticism, I feel that the language is working against me. I can write criticism in plain English with no problem, yet the moment I write about criticism every word seems to be freighted with ambiguity. Can I talk about analysing and contextualizing as though they are the same thing? Is there any relevant difference between a review and a critical essay? What on earth do I mean by saying something is good? These are words we use all the time, but we use them badly(?) because we never stop to think what the words are saying. And if we can’t be precise in our language, if we can’t disentangle words so that their meaning is clear to a lay audience, is it possible to write about criticism at all?