[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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On Reviews

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

I've been very lucky in reviews of my work so far, so this isn't sour grapes, but I've never quite figured out what it is that reviewers in the SF field are supposed to be doing. Are they trying to advise the consumer whether or not to spend their money, the way film reviewers do? In that case, almost to a person, they fail at their jobs because the reviews come out way, way too late to make any difference.

Perhaps the reviewers are trying to change SF for what they perceive to be the better. Sorry, it's the writers and editors who do that. William Gibson changed SF completely with one book; Stanley Weinbaum changed it overnight with one short story, John W. Campbell remade it in his image with a consistent editorial policy. Compared to that all the essays of William Aethling and Damon Knight, although fun to read, had virtually no impact at all. You change an art form by showing how it can be done better, not by carping about how others have done it. (Aethling, under his real name of James Blish, did have an impact on the field because of his fiction, and Knight had an impact, too, because of his editing.)

Do I like reviews? No, not really — and I say this even though the rave reviews from Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Science Fiction Review and Mystery Scene and Library Journal and Reading for Pleasure and Quill & Quire and The Toronto Star have helped make my novels successful. Indeed, as Phyllis Gotlieb has observed, writers and reviewers are natural enemies. Authors should dislike reviewers, or at least keep an arm's-length relationship with them, since if the review is anything but a rave, then the reviewer is in effect taking food from our mouths.

You wouldn't expect the owner of a store to be buddies with the guy who pickets out front with a sign that says, "This place sells shoddy merchandise." Yet I've had some fanzine reviewers cozy up to me at the bar at conventions looking for a free drink, as if somehow we're buddies, and others condescendingly imply that I'd better be nice to them. Granted the big-name reviewers in the field are above reproach, but, because of the nature of fanzine and semiprozine publishing, almost anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves a reviewer.

Now, there is indeed a lot of SF out there, and one needs some method of choosing. My problem, in part, is the cachet that is given to any review, regardless of the source. It doesn't matter if the reviewer might not be well read in the field, may not do any reading at all outside of the field, may not be trained in critical methods, or may not be out of high school yet. All the poor reader knows is that it's a review, and that magic word lends weight and credibility in and of itself, regardless of who wrote the article.

Saying I'm going to separate the wheat from the chaff for you should be a sacred trust — we're talking about people's economic livelihoods as well as attempts to influence the overall development of an art form, after all — but instead it's devolved, particularly in much of SF reviewing, into nothing more than just a lot of unapologetically idiosyncratic and uninformed opinions.

How many good books get ignored because "they said" it wasn't well written or "I heard" it wasn't very good or "it's supposed to be" a turkey? Reviewing, by its very nature, isn't just, hey, everyone's entitled to an opinion. Rather, it's a deliberate and forthright attempt to impose that opinion on the buying public, and that's something that should not be done lightly.

If their were no reviewers (no "gate-keepers," as one of my English Lit Ph.D. acquaintances calls them), then books would be judged by readers and promoted by word of mouth — which is exactly the way it should be.

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