This round table marks twenty years of Strange Horizons reviews. The Reviews editors gathered together a group of reviewers past and present and asked them to discuss what reviewing is, why it matters—and why they bother with it.
It would be wrong to say we were surprised when this discussion eventually stretched across twenty-seven pages—and also untrue to say we edited proceedings with anything but a heavy heart. What follows, though, is as lightly edited as possible while keeping it within the confines of the magazine.
We may eventually publish a coffee table book, who knows.
Rachel Cordasco has a PhD in literary studies and currently works as a developmental editor. She founded the website SFinTranslation.com in 2016, writes reviews for World Literature Today and Strange Horizons, and translates Italian speculative fiction, some of which has been published in magazines like Clarkesworld and Future Science Fiction Digest. Rachel’s book Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation From the Cold War to the New Millennium is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.
Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She’s working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
ML Kejera is a Gambian writer based in Chicago. He is a Caine Prize nominee and Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlistee. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Nation, PanelxPanel, and adda. He reviews comics for The AV Club. Please send him pictures of your favorite pizza @KejeraL.
Based in India, Samira Nadkarni spends most of her time explaining Nicolas Cage movies to her father and making bad puns. In her everyday life, she’s an academic. At night, she watches terrible TV and posts blurry pictures of her cat. It’s a life.
Abigail Nussbaum is an Israeli writer who works and lives outside of Tel Aviv. She blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions, for which she won a Best Fan Writer Hugo in 2017. She is the former reviews editor for Strange Horizons.
Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of all things speculative. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews, has been a Hugo finalist fan writer, and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. When not hunting Hodags across the wilds of Wisconsin, you can find him gushing about short fiction (and his cats) on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.
Nisi Shawl wrote the Nebula Award finalist Everfair and the 2008 James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award winner Filter House. In 2005 they co-wrote Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, the standard text on inclusivity in the imaginative genres. Shawl is a founder of the Carl Brandon Society, and for the last twenty years has served on the board of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. In 2019 Shawl received the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award, and in 2020 they received two Locus Awards. They live in southern Seattle and takes frequent walks with their cat. www.nisishawl.com
Aishwarya Subramanian is an academic who lives in New Delhi and works on space, fantasy, and children’s literature after empire. She’s also a reviews editor at Strange Horizons.
Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or they pronouns) and an immigrant to the US. E is a winner of the Lambda award for editing Transcendent 2, the Hugo award for Best Fan Writer, and a finalist for other awards. Eir debut poetry collection Algorithmic Shapeshifting and eir debut short story collection The Trans Space Octopus Congregation were both released last year. You can find Bogi talking about books at http://www.bogireadstheworld.com, and on various social media like Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon as bogiperson.
Let’s start simple. Why reviewing? How did you start?
Bogi Takács: I started reviewing books as a kid! My fifth- (sixth-?) grade literature teacher suggested it when she was trying to get people to write for the school newspaper. I reviewed two books and caused a scandal that led to the entire reviews column being canceled—I praised a book whose topic was along the lines of “the many ways how parents annoy their kids,” and this was deemed to be “disrespectful to parents.” But I wanted to do that again! (My mom was amused and she encouraged me.) In high school, I was regularly reviewing science fiction for Solaria online, at the time the only Hungarian science fiction magazine. (It started as a diskmag, but back then I hadn't yet been writing for it. I did read all the diskmag issues, too.) I just really like to write about books.
ML Kejera: I've always been a big fan of reviews. I usually read them after I've read a book to better understand it. I enjoy writing reviews (almost exclusively of comic books) because I enjoy dissecting form.
Abigail Nussbaum: I see my reviewing as an offshoot of fandom. In the late 90s and early 00s I was active in a few fandoms—X-Files and Harry Potter, mostly—but gravitated almost exclusively to what would now be described as “meta,” analysis and reviewing rather than fanfic. Around the mid-00s I was active on a message board called Readerville, dedicated to discussions of books, which helped me both to expand my reading and explore my impulse to talk about the things I’d read. I started a blog in 2005 basically because I had a lot to say and nowhere to say it—certainly not at the length I wanted. A few months later, Niall Harrison got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in writing for Strange Horizons, and the rest is history.
Erin Horáková: I was an undergrad TAing for the fantasy writer Rachel Swirsky, who gave my name to Abigail as a potential female reviewer at a time when SH was looking to add more to the pool. (Like Abigail, I did a ton of meta.)
Aisha Subramanian: Also like Abigail, I started blogging about books in the early 2000s, and I’d just started a few freelance writing jobs around the same time. I’d occasionally review SF on my blog, and I was aware of some venues for SF criticism (of which SH was one), but I don’t think it occurred to me that I could probably write for them until I offered to review a truly awful-looking book around a decade ago.
Nisi Shawl: I started by reviewing for The Stranger, Seattle’s alternaweekly. I was reading books, so why not get paid for writing about that? From their staff I found out about a position at The Seattle Times, and then Julie Phillips (author of the James Tiptree, Jr. bio) recommended me to Ms. Magazine, and from there I started reviewing all over. When Timmi Duchamp wanted to start a literary quarterly with a reviews content of around 65%, I leapt at the chance to edit that section.
Charles Payseur: I sort of answered a call on critters.org when they said that Tangent Online was looking for reviewers. Which ... turned out to be rather an awful experience, but it did get me used to the mechanics of reviewing.
AS: It’s probably not a great advertisement for my critical skills to say this, but I was a pretty poor reader until university. I read a lot, and some of it was very good, but I was not good at articulating what and why and how it fitted into a wider world of ideas. Reviewing was a big part of how I started to teach myself to approach those questions.
Samira Nadkarni: I feel like my story of coming to reviewing is both odder and sadder. I had just left the UK to try and complete my degree at home in India while struggling quite a bit with what I now realise was a bunch of anxiety and depression, and just generally the burnout that comes from trying to feel present in a space that always works to make you feel small and insignificant. At this point I was binge-watching Shadowhunters and went on a giant rant about it on Twitter (as you do); Aisha, who at that point was a friend of a friend I’d only met once during a drunken night out, suggested that I might take all that annoyance and put it into a review. And so that’s how I began to review SFF and how I came to Strange Horizons in 2016.
Rachel Cordasco: I had left academia, too, and was working at a small press for a couple of years when I left to stay home with my newborn twins. When they were a little over a year old, I realized that I needed to start reading and writing again in order to get out of the rut I felt that I had fallen into. I’ve always loved science fiction (though I hadn’t read much of it during college and grad school), so I bought a copy of John Joseph Adams’s Robot Uprisings anthology, wrote up a review, and started sending it around. That led to my stint at John DeNardo’s SF Signal, which was exactly what my brain needed. He started sending me SF in translation to review, which inspired my own website dedicated to tracking and reviewing that corner of the genre.
SN: Reviewing was therapeutic for me. I say this quite often, but in many ways Aisha and Strange Horizons gave me a way back to myself: coming out of academia as I did, I was really unsure if I had anything worth saying, let alone worth publishing. I cannot express what an unexpected joy it was to be told that things I thought had value. It’s something I try to keep in mind and take to all the spaces I can—that reminder of what it does to a person to be made to feel like they have nothing of worth to contribute, versus being told that we could work together to offer something people could maybe enjoy (and also that I didn’t have to offer anything at all to be worthwhile). I try not to forget that.
MLK: It was Aisha who originally contacted me, too, asking if I had ever considered writing reviews.
BT: I started reviewing in English after Shweta Narayan encouraged me to do so. Shweta started an initiative to diversify the voting base for the Hugos, and I got a membership through this initiative after committing to review in English. That was in 2011, I think. Initially, I reviewed short stories and material that was free online, because I was still living in Hungary and it wasn't easy to get recent English-language SFF at that time. Later I moved away from short stories and toward books because I started editing reprint anthologies, and felt that was a weird conflict of interest—people were scrutinizing my tweets for what I would reprint later. I still need to figure out what to do about that, because I don't want to stop talking about short stories altogether.
CP: When I ran a monthly review/recommendation column, The Monthly Round, on the blog Nerds of a Feather, it was as a short-fiction specialist. In doing that, I found I was reading a lot of short fiction that I wasn’t reviewing, and I saw some conversations at the time sort of pointing out the lack of more comprehensive reviews that would look at whole issues of content. Because I was already doing the reading, I thought I’d review everything I read, which is how I started my own blog, Quick Sip Reviews. Almost six years later, and not much has changed. I’ve worked at other venues, but the core of what I’m doing hasn’t really changed.
Bogi and Charles lead us to the idea of practice—what we write about and how that changes over time. What do you seek to achieve in a review? What is reviewing for?
EH: For me, reviewing is always for post-textual engagement (which makes “timeliness” an odd keystone for criticism). I can’t think of a time I’ve looked at a review to decide whether to spend time with a text. I’m never “shopping around” like that; my “to read” list is bigger than I’ll finish in my lifetime as it is.
MLK: Yes—as I personally don’t need more than a brief synopsis to be interested enough to read a book, reviewing functions more like very excited and personal criticism for me. I'm not sure exactly what reviewing is for, if we’re being honest. I know it’s meant to inform potential buyers about a book and why they should or should not read it. However, considering there are so many other ways to find things to read, especially now, I wonder if that’s still true. Perhaps it’s just me, but I read reviews to further engage with a text, to see what someone for whom reading and formulating opinions is work thinks.
CP: I review to learn. When I started, part of that was that I was new to the field and wanted to learn what was being written, how, by whom, where, all that. Reviewing became a way of having a one-person education, because I lacked access to any sort of genre-specific schooling or workshops. As time went on, though, I sort of realized that my learning wasn’t limited to the field, wasn’t about learning “how to write” or anything like that. Rather, I found that what I was learning about was ... myself. For me, at least, reviewing is deeply introspective. Yes, I might be trying to think about what a story might be “saying,” its themes and techniques and structures. Its voice and its devices. But more than that, I try to interrogate my reading. I want to know what I feel when I read a story, and why.
AN: To begin with, reviewing felt like a way of engaging in conversation with the larger community of critics and bloggers out there. The heyday of blogging—and particularly SFF book-blogging—happened to coincide with important shifts in the field such as the New Weird and slipstream. And personally, this was the period where I was discovering new (or new-to-me) authors who were expanding my understanding of what genre was capable of. Later on, after RaceFail opened my eyes to issues of racism, cultural appropriation, and representation that I hadn’t been cognizant of, that also started being reflected in the reviews I read and wrote. Basically, reviewing was a way of puzzling out the state of the field and where I stood in relation to it.
SN: For me, it does seem like most reviews are in conversation with either a general perception of the piece of media, other reviews in the field, of the larger field itself, and it’s always interesting to read reviews as a way to see into that conversation and unpack what’s being pushed back against and how that pushback is being constructed. As a result, my favourite reviews (or pieces of writing more generally), within or outside of SFF, are the ones that take small things and make them elastic in ways that refuse the boundaries that other reviews or popular perceptions have set. I think Corey Alexander did this often and wonderfully, and Keguro Macharia does as well. It’s a skill I love to see and that I hope to develop in time. I’m often stunned by the sheer range and complexities of their knowledges and it makes me want to push myself as well; to be that firm and/or generous, to balance making space for something with setting up a different and sometimes decentered critical space.
NS: For me reviews are a way of counteracting some of the racism, sexism, transphobia, etc., still rampant in the genre. By highlighting the work of authors whose voices are typically marginalized, and by interrogating the texts of dominant paradigm members from a position outside the dominant paradigm, I can help recast the rules of engagement.
SN: Hilariously, I think reviews for me are just a place I can have a lot of feelings. I think about 95% of my reviewing process is just me weeping about feelings in my room or to anyone who will listen. I have so many of them and all at once? That said, I’m actually really picky about who I will read, listen to on a podcast, or watch on YouTube. I have certain people whose opinions I value deeply, and I tend to be very careful to pause with their work and think through what they’re saying, and often I will look up reviews and/or work that they recommend.
CP: Over the years I’ve sort of landed at the idea that, for me, reviewing is a kind of selfish act, for all that it ends up being something that more people than myself appreciate. Authors want reviews of their work, readers want reviews of work, but if I was reviewing for someone else, if I was doing this as a “favor,” then I don’t think I’d enjoy it, don’t think I’d have been able to keep doing it for as long as I can. For me, reviewing is about the work of introspection, of self-examination. I read to challenge myself, to provoke myself, and then to question why I reacted the way I did. How did the work move me, and how did it achieve that? It’s not always something that can be universalized. I don’t try to be “objective,” but rather to be honest and earnest, and approach each work attempting to engage deeply. The review is “for” ... well, for me. For itself. For the act of interrogating my readings, and hopefully learning a bit about writing, yes, but also about myself. I want to understand myself better after a review.
RC: I agree with everyone here who talks about reviewing as a personal act. Often, when I’m trying to put into words my thoughts about a book, I find that I’m trying to engage in a one-sided conversation with the author while also putting forward my interpretation. It took me many years to gain enough confidence in myself to do that. Thanks to some fantastic literature professors who pushed me to craft clear, precise arguments and support them with textual evidence, I feel confident enough to offer arguments and interpretations, even those that might seem farfetched. Reviewing, for me, is a way to draw in readers who might have skipped over a book that they will actually wind up loving. I try to inject humor into my reviews to make them more engaging, and I limit plot summary because that isn’t what I myself want in a review. Reviewing is a way to quickly convince a reader to pick up a particular book (or even skip it), while also offering my own personal and intellectual response.
BT: A lot of the above really resonated with me; especially Nisi’s and Charles’s answers. I'd add one more point: for me, it is important to say something in a review that hasn’t been said yet, or at least I haven’t seen it said yet. I have been increasingly deliberately reviewing books that have few reviews, have gone relatively unnoticed in SFF for some reason (like being published by a non-SFF press), or which have received many reviews but where I feel I can still say something new—for example, intersex books are currently almost always reviewed by non-intersex people. (For an exception, I really enjoyed Hans Lindahl’s "An intersex person reacts to Middlesex"!)
I’ve focused on reviewing work by marginalized authors since about 2012 (recently I had a Twitter thread explaining how my choice of reading has changed over time), but now there’s so much available that I like to focus on the books that are less high-profile. I also really enjoy reading older works from this perspective. I especially find that earlier works with trans and/or intersex themes were often miscategorized and called “gay and lesbian”—or sometimes not even that. For me, reviewing—like reading—is also about a sense of discovery, and sharing that discovery with people. For marginalized people in particular, I also want to show that we have our histories in literature and we can find those pieces and engage with them.
This is also one of the reasons why I like making lists and bibliographies of books—it’s not an act of reviewing per se, but it fulfils the same need.
AS: I love Nisi’s characterisation here of changing the rules of engagement, and what feels to me like Bogi’s related idea that a review should say what hasn’t been said (or what the reviewer hasn’t seen said). As a reader, what I want from a review is that it should open up something for me: the text itself, or a context I perhaps didn’t have the tools to think about; ideally both. It’s both negotiating with/changing the shape of the wider conversation, and also intervening in what is included in that conversation—reviewing work by marginalised authors, or from non-mainstream spaces. Often, if I want to look for critical writing on a particular story or book, there’s only one review out there that’s immediately findable. Just the work of recording that this work exists and is part of the field has value.
SN: I really agree with Bogi’s framing of review as discovery. I see the process of trying to expand boundaries as one where reviewing can offer huge spaces for critical growth, and it helps to have editorial systems that support this. Reviewing doesn’t happen in a vacuum; I work with an editor and usually discuss the work in private spaces with those I trust or occasionally online (if I’m doing something like a livetweet). And this is valuable to me because as much as reviewing is a deeply personal act, it necessitates a kind of responsibility that requires trust and the building and sustaining of community. I don’t like to leap before I look and ensure someone’s down there to catch me, even if I love the sheer possibilities of that leap into new ways of re/interpreting. I think reviewing the way I enjoy most would be less viable without an editorial team who made me feel safe enough to push myself.
So, all that given, there seems an obvious question to ask: is there any real difference for you between a "review" and "criticism"?
NS: A review responds to a specific work or works. Criticism is more about the context in which that work or those works can be received. That context can be historical, geographical, cultural, or genre-centered. Most reviews are shorter than most pieces of criticism, and they usually deal with newer productions than criticism does. When someone sends me a piece that I think is criticism rather than a review, I hand it off to Timmi to be published in Cascadia Subduction Zone as a feature.
EH: I also feel like reviews are in response to particular pieces, and criticism is more general. Well, to be honest, I feel like reviews are what venues commission, and criticism is what I want to write?
SN: I don’t actually distinguish between the two, and I wonder if it is because my willingness to consume any piece of media is really dependent on what contexts it sits in, what it sets out to do, and what it (maybe inadvertently) carries along with it. I’m less interested in why a text is “worthy” and more interested in what it’s doing and how it goes about that.
AN: I agree that criticism is more general rather than a response to a specific piece, but I also think the terms are rarely used that way. I can’t help but feel that the difference is more important to readers of reviews than writers of it.
MLK: The nominal difference between a review and a piece of criticism has to do with, I think, that relationship with the audience. With criticism, you’re meant to technically just analyze a work. With a review, you’re meant to convince a reader why they should or should not buy a work.
EH: But if we decouple the idea of the review from marketing, is it still in publishers’ interests to send us copies? I think more than anything what makes sales is just seeing something’s being talked about a fair amount. So I guess from that perspective the review “works”?
MLK: I don't think reviewers have too much sway over whether someone buys a book. Sites like Goodreads are more about the community formed around literature than actual individual works. Even if one hasn’t read the book in question, I think reviews are more often used to generate conversation which is, of course, another way reviewing is similar to criticism.
CP: Works that offer mainly summary can still be a “review” by most definitions, while to be “criticism” I feel like the work has to engage a bit more with where the work falls within the larger landscape. Criticism, at least for me, sort of implies looking at a work as a piece of art, from a point of view from outside of it; while I feel like reviewing can be done from within, only really looking at the work on its own terms, providing details that might be helpful to readers or potential readers, and offering the reviewer a chance to examine their specific reactions to the piece absent an attempt to place the work into a larger context. Functionally, though, they can be identical.
RC: I tend to think of reviews as shorter pieces that balance plot summary and analysis, while critical pieces are much longer and go into depth with analysis and interpretation, with little plot summary. Criticism tends to be read by scholars and teachers, while reviews are usually geared more toward lay readers.
AN: Back in the day when blogs and reviews were a much bigger deal than they are now, my writing was often referred to as “not a review, a critique” by people who weren’t happy that I’d written something negative but couldn’t come up with an actual counter-argument to what I’d written. It was, I felt, a way of categorizing me as highbrow, and thus safe to ignore.
SN: I feel like I’m often led to believe that the difference between a review and a critique is that reviews are marketed as more low culture and critique is seen as higher culture (and presumably requires formal training) and this is something I don’t particularly hold with at all. I love critique that is fun as much as I love a sometimes dense review. The boundaries between these don’t really work for me so I prefer to pretend they don’t exist and go about my business whenever I can.
BT: I strongly agree with Samira here. I would also turn this around a bit and for a moment focus on the person doing the writing—I feel that a “reviewer” is often considered less highbrow and respectable than a “critic,” and this is often used to discount people's perspectives. Blogs and Goodreads have reviews, literary venues have criticism. We've probably all heard someone say “Oh, that's only a book review!” A similar mechanism exists with respect to blogging. Blogging is considered lowbrow. When I feel that the person I'm talking to has these kinds of biases, I aggressively describe myself as a book blogger, because I don't want to play into respectability politics. But I have been around long enough and I'm well-known enough that now I can do that. Hopefully, it will make space for people who are starting just now, because when I was starting, there was a wide gulf between people who write “for magazines” versus “on their own blog” or Youtube or Goodreads, etc. In English, I have always posted most of my reviews and related bookish material on my own blog and/or my personal social media, but this allowed people to readily discount my opinions for a very long time. I think it only changed after I won the Lambda award as an editor in 2017.
AS: I’m a bit unsure of my own answer on this one, but while I’m not fussed about a review telling me whether a book is “good” or “bad” (“worth reading” or “not,” whatever that means) I wonder if, in practice, the distinction isn’t something I consider in my own reading or writing.
I do think that venue and audience matter, though. Writing for an academic readership can feel like a completely different approach than for a general audience, and I think this applies to different venues as well to some extent. There are definitely things I’m willing to try in an SH review that I wouldn’t if I was sending that review elsewhere. Readers in different spaces have different expectations of what a review will provide, and are going to be discombobulated by something that flouts those. Which can also be something a reviewer anticipates and chooses to either disregard or deliberately subvert. I’m thinking of a superb anti-review by Samira a few years ago: a traditional review maybe has a responsibility to engage with the text as a whole object rather than the specific aspects of it that might relate to a larger critical conversation, but her piece refused to engage with an anthology by essentially stopping midway. It was an ethical position, but also a really strong rhetorical move!
Actually, that brings us pretty neatly to questions of style. Has yours changed over time? What makes for a good review—or good reviewer?
RC: As I noted earlier, I’ve become a lot more confident in my analyses—this is helped by the fact that I’m getting older and more crotchety, and also because editors have started soliciting reviews from me, rather than the other way around. I find that my style has certainly coalesced into something uniquely “Rachel,” mostly because I’ve been writing over the course of a couple of decades. I know now what works for me and what doesn’t, and I appreciate those readers who engage with my reviews and tell me what was helpful and what wasn’t. To me, a good review is one that doesn’t take itself too seriously, offers the reader a good sense of the book’s plot and approach in just a few words, and includes helpful analysis.
AN: Whereas I’ve mostly just gotten better at curtailing run-on sentences and overlong paragraphs 🙂
More seriously, when I reread my older writing I’m struck by the need I had to situate a work in its cultural moment, and as part of a conversation with other books (and my review as part of a conversation with other reviewers). These days my reviews are more self-contained, which is both good and bad—I think we talk less about movements and cross-pollination of influence and ideas in SFF these days, and I regret that loss. But at the same time, I prefer a piece that stands on its own to one that is so rooted in its moment that you can barely understand it without remembering the conversation that was raging when it was first published.
EH: I think the major thing I learned—and it was under Abigail—was to be cogent; to share the necessary details for people to engage with my opinion and, preferably, have a sense of whether they’d agree, and why or why not; to simultaneously present the material and a reading. Explicating what’s “obvious” to you is actually not at all simple. I chaffed at that imperative, because Abigail could be more formally exacting both in those terms and regarding the scope of a review than I incline to be, but it was largely a productive tension.
NS: Mary Ann Gwinn, my editor at The Seattle Times for many years, helped me understand the need to do what Erin mentioned about offering cogency to my audience. This is particularly important when reviewing for a non-genre audience, one which needs definitions for terms like “sensawunda” and “fen.” I haven’t noticed a change in the results, but I do notice that I no longer read a book three times before writing about it. I take brief notes, but otherwise I am just doing my regular reader thing.
CP: My reviews have also taken on a bit more structure than when I started. When I first started Quick Sip Reviews, at least, my reviews tended to be around 250-300 words (now they range closer to 450-550); they were just a single paragraph with my thoughts. Over time I started to just want to write more, but I also got some pushback from readers who didn’t want to read spoilers of the works. So after a number of attempts to deal with that, I ended up landing on a three-part review. The first part gives a spoiler-free overview of the work with limited reflection. The second part gives keywords that might help me or readers find elements in stories they’re more interested in checking out. The third part is the review proper, where I can dig into spoilers if I want to, and where I look more at my reaction to the story.
MLK: I’ve only been reviewing for a few years so not much has had time to change in my approach. I suppose a frequent comment I receive from editors has to do with communicating how, exactly, the work makes me feel as a writer. I often have no idea, other than I find successful or unsuccessful the manner in which the author has tried to make me feel. Funnily enough, before I wrote them, I used to read reviews specifically to see what other people felt about a work to understand my own feelings. So my approach has evolved to be more forthcoming with why a book makes me feel a certain way in addition to how it does so. I have no idea what makes a good review or reviewer, other than I enjoy reading reviews that discuss how the form of a work fits (or doesn't fit) its function.
SN: I’ve only been reviewing for a relatively short while, too—four years—and I think I see a sea-change in myself. I often re-read my old reviews and I’m a bit furious with myself for the gaps I’ve left. For example, the fact that I never read Advantageous through a queer disability justice framework makes me so annoyed with the limits of my knowledge at the time, and I almost wish it could have been handed off to someone who would’ve known what to do with it, to give that amazing piece of feminist media its due. I swing between that annoyance and a kind of deep gladness that whatever I’ve encountered since then has offered me the possibility of seeing this and knowing enough to be able to at least trace the shapes of it now. I’m definitely more careful with language, and that’s something I’m working on all the time. Structure-wise, I unfortunately remain more bull-in-a-china shop than anything else. It’s a mess. It’s something I always promise myself I’ll work on but that I find quite hard to work on in general.
AS: As an enthusiastic young blogger I think I was a lot less precise than I am now; I’ve got better at talking about how something connects to a wider discourse without having to make some vast sweeping statement. (It’s possible that I’ve strayed too far in the opposite direction, if anything.)
BT: I’m also much more thoughtful about phrasings and even if I want to phrase something very strongly (which I do ...), I am conscious about exactly how I am saying that, so as to minimize responses that derail from my actual points. This happens especially, I think, when I remark that something plays into discriminatory stereotypes. Often fans of authors have gut-level responses of rejection to that and I want to make sure to get it across that I’m not attacking the author or their fandom: I am only pointing out that X, Y, Z thing unfortunately plays into X, Y, Z stereotypes, and that this needs to be considered when discussing it. I wanted to say that maybe this happens in adult SFF less, but, thinking of my interactions, I am actually not sure about that. Some people will still tone-police me, etc. so this is more for my own peace of mind.
AS: Regarding tone, I think RaceFail and its echoes over the intervening years have really affected what I’m willing to say in public and how I’m willing to say it. I’m extremely aware that I am, if not an angry brown woman, a brown woman who is sometimes … publicly scornful? And that being able to be that is partly a function of not having sufficiently annoyed the wrong people yet. I don’t think that this has materially affected the content of my criticism (or at least, not much), but I do spend more time than I’d like in going over work and trying to protect it from derailing responses or accusations.
Are there critics whose style has influenced your own?
EH: Chesterton on Dickens makes me literally cry. He’s just such a good reader, when most people can’t read Chuckles D for shit. Chesterton knows how to open a text with tender attention, to make it better for the time he spends with it.
RC: I, too, appreciate Chesterton, and also Dorothy Parker. I would give several boxes of chocolate just to be able to write such sparkling prose.
MLK: There are quite a few of those for me. Michiko Kakutani is hilarious. As odd as I find him now, Salman Rushdie's criticism of Handsworth Songs changed how I approach documentaries. Jorge Luis Borges, of course. I think often of him saying that, perhaps, one need not write out an entire book when a synopsis would do.
CP: I think an early influence was A.C. Wise, who writes just gorgeous reviews and really engages deeply with works in an enthusiastic and compassionate manner. Bogi is also a critic and reviewer who influenced how I could talk about stories, and how I could engage with them online.
SN: I don’t know that I consciously emulate anyone’s style of writing. I’m definitely heavily influenced by anything I’m reading in the moment, so if I’m on a poetry tear then it shows up in my writing and there’s not really a lot I can do to stop it.
AN: Most of the influence I’ve felt has been in subject matter and approach. I’ve already mentioned RaceFail, which caused me to look at the books I was reading in new ways, and introduced new ideas about how I should be evaluating them.
NS: I’ve enjoyed the work of several reviewers I have edited—Victoria Garcia comes to mind. But I’m not emulating it.
BT: I am a fanperson and cheerleader for many reviewers! I made a list of some of them when I was Fan Guest of Honor at ConFusion earlier this year, and then I also read it in my Hugo award acceptance video. Here is the full text, I encourage everyone to read it! When it comes to discovering titles very few other people talked about, I find a lot of new titles via LaTonya Pennington—especially comics—and Silvia Moreno-Garcia—especially translated books (I also mentioned both of them in the list above, I just didn't discuss that particular aspect of their work). When it comes to engaging with older speculative fiction with a more contemporary viewpoint, I enjoy the work of Sandstone and Joachim Boaz. I also have a difficult update related to one of the people I mentioned—Corey Alexander passed away recently due to chronic illness complications. Corey has been really influential to me especially when it came to the care and caution they put into engaging with each and every text. They also emphasized the importance of reviews that come from the same marginalized group the original author was writing about—a kind of #ownvoices but focusing on reviews.
SN: Part of my hesitance to name review influences comes from the complexity of delineating how someone influences your writing. For example, like Bogi, Corey Alexander remains a huge influence on me, though this was very much through their resource lists. I didn’t start to read their reviews until later, and in some ways this is a good thing because I needed to process those lists to be able to understand the point they were making so eloquently. Similarly, a lot of the people who are big influences on how I review now might not be involved in the process of reviewing, just as I may not be engaging with them for my work reviewing. I find it hard to list out people who have affected my writing because I don’t think I have strong borders in place to delineate this for myself. I mostly just follow the creed of keeping whatever is useful in the moment to build upon in the future.
Are there types of review you aim for or avoid?
EH: I dislike Being Amusingly Mad/The Take Down. It’s a mode I occasionally feel myself playing into against my better judgement, but it’s maybe the cheapest, easiest, least useful thing criticism can be. And actually, it’s not even amusing on my end. I don’t actually enjoy that feeling, it’s just a worn, familiar groove I’ve got a habit of falling into.
AN: I don’t write negative reviews very often anymore, mainly because I’ve gotten better at avoiding genuinely awful books. I agree that being Amusingly Mad is easy and sometimes cheap, though when it’s done well it’s something to behold. I’m just not interested in seeking out the sort of books you could write these sorts of takedowns about (I’m not going to hateread anything, which is a popular genre on my twitter feed, for example). The best thing you can do is meet a book where it is. That doesn’t mean you’re going to like it or think that it’s a good book, but your take on it will be more valuable.
MLK: I dislike angry reviews that offer no analysis of craft. Even when a work is just heinous or deeply problematic, I prefer (if it is to be reviewed at all and the reviewer can stomach it) that how it achieves its hatred be analyzed. I prefer to read reviews that bring in whatever conversation the work being covered is a part of. The goal in my own writing, I think, is to explore the author's purpose and pinpoint their successes and analyze what their failures mean.
NS: I also avoid negative reviews because they’re a waste of everyone’s time: mine, the author of the book covered, the audience reading my review. However, I have seen an excellent review of a pretty awful book that basically consisted of noting what a reasonable reader could have expected from the book, what the book seemed to intend to want to do, why it would have wanted to do that, and what it did instead. No judgment, no coyness. That’s a wonderfully skillful review, and nicely informative.
AS: I hate writing negative reviews—though, like others here, I’ve written my fair share of them. I think, as with all other forms of writing, that reviewers do need to think about the purpose of any particular negative review—but that’s probably also true for very positive reviews, about which we generally do less worrying. Stating the obvious here, but if something is just poor, I don’t see great value in giving it space that could go to more interesting texts. If something is harmful, or its badnesses are connected to larger problems within literature/art/the genre/the discourse, then that needs to be countered and commented on.
SN: I don’t know that I’m opposed to a negative review and I think it would be hypocritical of me to be since I’ve certainly written my fair share of them. I think part of this is also the choice to think about where anger comes from or what it offers, whose anger gets space, and which bits of it get smoothed away into that great myth of “objectivity.” If I’m angry with a piece of media, I prefer to be able to say so and note why, because that anger is its own conversation and that sits in larger contexts. My preferred style is definitely the review that unpacks a piece of media to show different aspects to it, but I find great value in a good negative review because sometimes you have to take a thing apart and that is its own act of kindness.
EH: I think Samira makes a very useful point here about the uses of some forms of negativity and the cover of Niceness. Anger and performances thereof are really multifaceted and differently effective, and while I resist being trivialised as Funny, like a yippy dog kind of funny, when I have real problems with work, that kind of “hot takes about the worst sandwiches, fight me about egg salad!!” routine is different from interrogating a text that needs it.
SN: I think, with a lot of reviewing, the idea is often to be kind to the creator and to the work and that kindness sometimes smooths out edges that are sharp and hurtful to a whole bunch of people, and that kindness is a type of power. As far as possible, I try to pay attention to power where I can—and notice where I direct kindness. It’s important to me not to equate kindness with a silence or a smoothing rather than a conversation, uncomfortable as it may be. I don’t seek out media to write negative things about, but I am less likely to shy away from them as well these days.
RC: I tend to write two kinds of reviews: the “praise” piece and the “damning with faint praise” piece. The former is easier to write, personally, but the latter allows me to engage with a book that I either just didn’t like or that had stylistic or structural problems but still was worth reading. I wrote one quite scathing review on my own blog years ago and felt gross about it. If a book is that bad (ok I’ll tell you, it was The Circle), it doesn’t deserve a review.
AS: It’s what Rachel describes as the “damning with faint praise” reviews that I actively avoid writing. I think those reviews can be useful (and statistically, most books that are reviewed might deserve them), but I struggle to feel like I’ve contributed anything of value when I write one.
SN: I steer away from reviews that are bland; where the media ticked all the boxes and did all the things and at the end I remember only that I didn’t love it or hate it particularly at all. I hate writing these and have occasionally fallen into them when I’ve asked for a copy of a book and then had to live up to the assumed promise of writing about it.
BT: I find negative reviews really helpful, both from people whose perspective is similar to mine, and from people who generally love the things I dislike. I just invert the polarity of the review in the latter case. This is even true about reviews that are outright discriminatory or hateful. When I was looking for work to reprint in the Transcendent: The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction books, I found a surprising amount of relevant material by searching for what was negatively and sometimes explicitly hatefully reviewed on SFF review sites. To put it as plainly as I can, some reviewers still struggle with the concept of transgender characters existing—or even the concept of transgender authors existing, because I still come across reviews that feel a need to negatively comment on the author's bio. I think it was Charles who said that sometimes reviews need to be reviewed too?
CP: Reviews are texts. They are pieces of writing and pieces of art in their own right. As such, there’s some that speak more to me, some that I think I get more out of, but I don’t really find that the format specifically is what makes the difference. For me, it’s more about the style, the craft, the subject, so many things that basically change what I will get out of the review. I tend to get less out of very brief (under 100 words) reviews, but just as I like different formats of short fiction and poetry, I think different styles and approaches to reviews opens up more of a conversation and leads at least personally to a more rounded enjoyment of criticism as a whole.
On the topic of horses for courses, let’s talk about house style for a minute. At SH, 3000+ word reviews were once rare. In the last few years, 5000+ pieces have become not unheard of. Is this move towards longer criticism primarily a function of our being an online magazine, do you think, and what do you think of it?
EH: Why would you call me out like this? No, but it’s the foreclosure of other, longer critical spaces as well, isn’t it? Like Orwell’s (I spit on his name) famous-but-terrible haute-take about Dickens: it’s long as hell, and where would you put that today? Maybe the LRB, possibly.
AN: If we’re talking about the internet as a whole, surely the move has been towards shorter writing? The death of blogs means that most venues for reviewing are commercial ones, and they tend to cater their wordcount to what they think a reader’s attention span will support—500-1000 words on most of the sites I read. Strange Horizons is very much the exception to the rule, and, yes, perhaps the reason that it has allowed its reviews to sprawl is that there are so few venues that allow that sort of thing anymore.
EH: To be honest, I haven’t found people’s attention dropping off for longer pieces. My most popular stuff has universally far exceeded this word count, and I wonder whether this is something of an attention-economy misnomer, a la the now-infamously unsupported Pivot to Video.
MLK: I think the internet also discourages readers from engaging with longer work as shorter work (particularly graded reviews) is so easily available. Still, I know of many reviewers who use Patreon or Substack for longer work.
NS: The most recent online reviews I’ve done were for the (now on hiatus) Seattle Review of Books, and they wanted three titles in 750 words. I know SH has published longer stuff, but I haven’t written it.
SN: Whereas I, like Erin, have never met a word limit I did not exceed egregiously.
CP: I think that there’s a certain hunger still for long-form reviews, especially with the ways that blogging has sort of died back a bit in recent years. I don’t think really long reviews have ever been unpopular—people want something meaty to sink their teeth into once in a while. On the flip, I find that, with short fiction reviewing, readers tend to want recommendations over reviews, and value shorter comments rather than longer reviews.
BT: I think there's always been space for reviews of various lengths, the question is more along the lines of whether there's payment for them, and whether the payment is commensurate with the effort. I personally enjoy reviews of any length! There are excellent one-paragraph reviews that do exactly what a one-paragraph review is supposed to do, and excellent ten-page reviews likewise.
RC: Yes, I think that the internet has allowed for much longer reviews, which is great for in-depth discussions of books, though I don’t know how many casual readers have the time or patience to read lengthy pieces. Some books, too, lend themselves more to long reviews, while others don’t need more than a few sentences.
AS: There was a brief, beautiful moment when a whole bunch of literary journals and magazines with long-form criticism sprung up, though some of them have since petered out. Like many people, in a post-internet world I sometimes struggle with the energy and attention-span for a long review, but I still think of them as a vital part of the ecosystem. And yes, payment is a huge issue here: the kind of time and effort that goes into a several-thousand-word review is in no way compensated by what most venues will pay for it.
So—spoilers!—there are challenges ahead. What is the future of the form, do you think? How can we make it better?
NS: The future of reviewing? I have no idea! I’m not even sure there will be a publishing industry in a year’s time, let alone our little niche within it.
CP: I think it’s hard to say exactly how reviewing will change or move forward. Reviewing is a kind of transformative work and, again, it’s writing and it’s art in its own right. So just as the works that reviews cover continue to change formally, continue to push boundaries of what is considered “legit,” so too will reviews.
SN: I sometimes wish there was room for more experimentation in reviewing. It does feel like we’re very stuck in a particular style of what is seen as comprehensible and “good” as a type of review, and I wish sometimes that there was more space to play with that. I find often that I actually really enjoy the points at which reviews become more than just the one thing. For example, Thug Notes on YouTube sort of does something really interesting: there’s the mixed media collages he uses, the summary and analysis system, the use of AAVE, the little jokes dropped in, the opening music, the set, the larger commentary of him reading these texts in this way—it’s extremely cool and it forces viewers to confront how we still position the idea of high literature and who can critique it or engage with it. It is performance, and I’m really taken with the idea of reviewing as performance that deconstructs not only the text but the process of a review instead of this endless focus on “authenticity” that does seem to be de rigueur.
EH: I feel like there’s Big Room for the long-form YouTube essay, but not, academically or in SFF, for a lot of varied lengths of criticism, which is odd because a lot of work tends to clock in somewhere above 3k without being a monograph?
AN: I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask this question, since I’m still plugging away at a blog and writing 3000-word reviews in a market that has very little time for either. A lot of the conversation about books these days has moved on to venues like Goodreads, which I’ve never had much interest in. And on Twitter, it’s hard to distinguish between reviewing, political analysis that uses books (and other pop culture) as useful examples, and marketing. I’d love for us to have a blogosphere and a book conversation again, a place where there could once again be a vibrant ecosphere for reviews, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.
CP: I think the more important question there is: “How we can make it better?” And not better just in terms of making the reviews more ... useful? But better in a sense that the field is one riddled with pitfalls, missing stairs, and bad actors. What I think would make the field better would be more of a push to build community, to reach out and help people wanting to enter the field do so safely and with encouragement, and with some hope of being fairly compensated for their labor.
BT: I think to make it better, the field as a whole needs to support reviewers who belong to marginalized groups much, much better. Part of this is related to payrates. (Multiple larger SFF venues have increased payrates recently, but they are still far below payrates for fiction, and often far below review rates in non-SFF media.) Part of this is commissioning reviews from marginalized reviewers and not just books by an author of their specific group. Racism is often mentioned, but I think sometimes we need to be more specific. The exclusion of Black and Indigenous reviewers, in particular, is a big issue, both within and outside SFF. So is the exclusion of non-Western reviewers writing both in English and in other languages.
RC: I’d love to see new kinds of publications and sites that engage with under-reviewed books (ahem SF in translation).
BT: When was the last time you saw a translated review? A translated book essay of ANY kind? Editors and publishers, when did you last commission something like that? When did you last reach out to people who might be able to point you toward material, if you yourself don't know where to start? How much did you pay those people? If you constantly find yourself asking for favors from someone, have you made attempts to recruit that person to your venue? If the attempts haven't gone anywhere, why is that? How much uncompensated and/or uncredited labor do you assume reviewers can do? Trade reviews in particular are usually anonymous and low-paid, and yet trade venues lately have been heavily recruiting from marginalized groups. We need to discuss the ethics of that.
MLK: But that might have less to do with reviewers and the places that pay them and more to do with writing in a predatory, capitalist system. Yes, reviewing doesn't pay well, but would that matter as such if we didn't have to worry too much about healthcare?
EH: I think constantly about the material impossibility of professionalised work in this field and adjacent ones. You can scrounge a living out of writing, fiction or nonfiction, but god it’s bitter work. I’m not sure how you’d fix it.
BT: Ask for that money! Don't undercut your fellows by working for magazines for free or for very low rates, even if you think you are inexperienced. I think working for free is a valid choice if you work for yourself or a cause you support. But you can even make money these days reviewing on your own website, if you set up a Patreon. You can have a Patreon where you have bonus goodies, or one that functions more like a tip jar. I've seen both work out for people with different temperaments. Find your style and go for it!
AS: I don’t think I can add to what Bogi says here. All of that.
SN: I find myself looking to people already refusing the stylistic boundaries of the existing system to seek my own ways forward. For example, I really like the work that Vijeta Kumar is doing out in India. She uses an autoethnographic approach which I find myself really taken by because it’s so powerful. This version of reviewing is so utterly different from anything I write, and I want to find ways to come to it (while understanding that this might not be possible in all contexts). The building of a narrative that weaves in and out and around is quite stunning, decentering the text to offer where the reviewer’s contexts sit, and I often find myself thinking of it.
MLK: The review is also a very ancient form, so I imagine it won't be going away anytime soon. I don't think video is the entirety of the future, as people do genuinely enjoy reading and text-based communication. As we’ve discussed, the pay for reviewing, however, is low—so I imagine reviewers often focus on other things. Or, as is more the case, readers might opt for easily digestible but less substantive reviews at other venues. I can’t imagine a world where some of my favorite reviewers, like Aaron Bady, just stop. They have a lot to say about books and seem incapable of not talking about them. I simply hope that reviewers of the future work in a world slightly kinder to writers.