When I launched SF Reviews.Net in mid-'01 (an event for which I'd been preparing for four years prior to that), I had no idea how big it would eventually become. Borne out of both a sense of nostalgia for my fanzine-publishing youth, and a desire not only finally to read that teetering mountain of SF and fantasy books cluttering my closet but share the experience with other fans, the site has blossomed beyond the level of "elevated hobby" to within spitting distance of "second career". It really has only just dawned on me that I've indeed begun something that will end only with my death.
It took about four years for the traffic and the word of mouth to get to the point where the industry caught on. Then, there went the proverbial floodgates. Publicists contact me. Pull quotes from my reviews appear with flattering regularity on back covers and dust jackets. And every month the genre's majors cram my mailbox with advance reader's copies (ARCs, in the biz jargon) and spanking new hardcovers in which you can still smell the fresh ink. It's a reader's paradise, and most certainly a luxury my discretionary funds couldn't begin to accommodate on such a scale, even if it has made my clutter problem worse!
Why review? Well, it's human nature — actually, I should say it's consumerist nature — to want to collect opinions on one's choice of entertainment before laying out hard-earned cash. When a friend of yours tells you he's just seen a new movie, what's the first question out of your mouth? "How was it?" Reviewers in newspapers and magazines and on the web are there to answer that very same question. The only difference is they reach a broader group of people.
Some people resent reviewers. Occasionally that resentment is earned. Reviewing is like any other form of writing, in that there are people who do it well and people who do it poorly. A poor reviewer is one who, in my opinion, is not writing his review in a sincere effort to evaluate the work in question and how successfully it drives home what it is trying to communicate, but who is instead using the review as a way of carrying himself around on his own shoulders in praise of his cleverness and snobbery. You see this kind of bogus criticism all the time in the music press, particularly the British music press, where angry and envious 20-year-olds write blistering personal attacks on rock stars and call them album reviews.
Then again, some members of the public think that a good review is only one that you agree with. I personally would find it terribly dreary and limiting to live in an echo chamber where only the opinions I'd previously vetted and approved were allowed to enter my virgin ears. Many critics I admire — Roger Ebert, John Clute — have written reviews I disagree with passionately, but I always find reading their work highly satisfying, regardless, because I respect the way they express themselves and impart their ideas.
A common human weakness is the inability to deal emotionally with encountering an opinion that runs contrary to one's own. Lots of folks just go apeshit if they read a bad review of a movie or a book they liked, even if the review is a well-written piece in which the reviewer takes great pains to explain why his opinions shaped up the way they did. Some people just need to realize that not everyone is going to like the same books, movies, or music that they like. This is called growing up.
But one mustn't dismiss all of the people who are like this as immature, because there's a subtler aspect to it that ought to be duly considered. Often the general public hasn't seen as many movies or read as many books as a critic has, and are thus less likely than a critic to be irritated when formulaic plots, tired clichés or stock characters reappear ad nauseam in their entertainment. Hollywood has it easy this way. They can get away with churning out the same dippy cookie-cutter teen romantic comedies or brain-dead action flicks year after year, because there's always going to be a new generation of kids who haven't seen that stuff before.
I read and review about 6-9 books a month, however my schedule permits. The average member of the public who even reads at all as a form of entertainment (and that's damn few) may read only one or two novels a year. SF and fantasy readers tend to be more high-volume readers than that; compared to some folks I know my reading schedule isn't even mildly voracious. But general readers tend to focus on what they like and don't go too far afield. I know lots of hard SF fans who react to a fantasy novel as if they've just seen a cockroach. Since I review any and all non-media-related, original SF & fantasy, I'm equally likely to read such disparate talents as David Drake (military action), Greg Egan (speculative hard science), Terry Pratchett (satire and farce) and Maggie Furey (romantic epic fantasy), and give equal critical consideration to all. Among normal people, a Hammer's Slammers fan is about as likely to pick up a book with a white unicorn and an elf on the cover as a Glenn Danzig fan is likely to go to the Lilith Fair.
So what makes a good review? Well, I say the same criteria that make for any good writing. Good writing happens when an idea is communicated with clarity so that it is understood by the reader, agreement or disagreement with the idea itself notwithstanding. A good review should be one in which the reviewer explains the nature of what it is he's reviewing ("...this is a hard SF novel in which...."), then not only succinctly states his opinion, pro or con, but explains his reasons for forming that opinion. In other words, such-and-such a book worked or didn't work for me because....
I try to do all of this in my reviews, because if I'm not making my opinions clear then I worry my review won't be of any use to a book buyer. Sometimes I succeed better than other times. But even when you do your best you can never win. I've had people compliment me for being helpful and detailed in such-and-such review, while someone else will come along and complain that the same review was nitpicky and exaggerated either what I liked/hated, or whatever. Hey, it just comes with the territory.
One must always be on the lookout for lazy mistakes. When you've been doing this as long as I have, it gets easy to slip into, for instance, publishing jargon and forget that not everyone knows what certain common abbreviations mean. (When I launched the site in 2001 I had coined "VLFN" to refer to the "Very Long Fantasy Novel," in reaction to the trend in publishing towards bloated doorstopper epics. But I've phased it out because I got tired of explaining it even though I'd put it in the FAQ.) I also learned long ago never to use a spell checker to copy edit my work, but to do it manually, and even then I screw up. For instance, I discovered to my chagrin, while I was porting over the Harry Potter reviews to the new layout, that I had sometimes misspelled Voldemort's name as Valdemort, once in a review where I'd spelled it correctly only a few sentences down! D'oh. As you might have guessed, upon launching this redesign, I've taken the opportunity of going back over some reviews I wrote early in the game (many of the ones from the late 90's), when I wasn't as skilled a writer as I am now. And in some cases I've done some significant edits where I felt the writing could use real improvement.
So welcome to SF Reviews.Net. How time flies when you're having fun. I have too many people to thank for assistance rendered over the years in helping this site achieve the success it has, but many publicists and editors deserve direct kudos: Jill Maxick and Lou Anders at Pyr; David Moench and Greg Kubie at Del Rey Spectra; Brady McReynolds and Anne Sowards at Ace/Roc; Jodi Rosoff at DAW; Esther Bochner at Macmillan Audio; and, last but not least, Cassie, Justin, and the whole damn gang at Tor have all been wonderful people to deal with — and have been pretty darn good sports too, when they've sent me something I haven't liked! (Yes, I've left out a few names. Don't feel slighted!) There are a couple of other publishers who don't like me so much, who haven't been such good sports about bad reviews. As I said, that comes with the territory. I never promised that everyone would agree with every review I write, nor could I make that promise in any world resembling reality. But I do my best, because I love SF and fantasy, and I'm here to share that love with other fans like myself. And with every book I read and review I write, I like to think I learn a little more.
—Thomas M. Wagner