Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison

Review Duel

A little while ago, grahamsleight reacted with slight surprise when I said that I thought his review of 20th Century Ghosts was particularly good, and in particular better than mine. I half-promised to make a post justifying my assertion, but haven't done a very good job of getting around to it and I'm going on holiday (and away from the internet) in thirty-six hours, so no time like the present.

This is, however, very much the 'brief notes' version. I should say, though, that I'm not trying to establish some canonical standard for 'a good review'; this is about what I like in reviews, and what I want my own reviews to be like. It is also, I'm sure, going to be utterly tedious except for the three of you who also care about this sort of thing, so it's going under a cut.

  • Let's compare opening paragraphs. Here's mine:
    Joe Hill’s debut collection is one of those books that comes with Hype. For starters, 20th Century Ghosts has had one of the largest and most reasonably priced print runs PS Publishing has put out so far: 1,000 copies of a £15 trade paperback, over and above the hardback and slipcased editions. That speaks to Pete Crowther’s confidence in the book. And since the collection was launched at last year’s World Fantasy Convention, there has been no shortage of people lining up to praise its contents.
    And here's Graham's:
    A few pages into "Best New Horror," the first story in 20th Century Ghosts, the protagonist's wife leaves him. The protagonist's name is Eddie Carroll, and he edits an annual anthology of horror stories. He has discovered that his wife has been having an affair, and she explains that she's glad he caught her, "To have it over with." He doesn't understand what "it" is:
    Graham's paragraph is about the book; my paragraph is about the reaction to the book. It seems to me that the problem with my paragraph, looking at it now, is that it contributes to the reaction to the book, it doesn't actually help you get a handle on the book. It's second-order, where Graham's is first-order.

  • Relatedly, let's compare how we bring in outside sources. Graham quotes Stephen King on the concept of 'moral horror', and uses it to build an argument (of which more below). I quote the book's introduction, and something Hill says in his story notes, but in effect only do so as an appeal to authority; I mention what they say because it agrees with what I've just said. To be blunt, I don't actually develop the relevant ideas, I just restate them.

  • There's also how we quote from the text itself. As mentioned, Graham's review gets straight into the text, and brings in supporting quotes at key points throughout the review. By contrast, I quote from the text exactly once, in the very last paragraph. I'm not quite sure how this happened, because more and more I find myself wanting to write solidly evidence-based reviews. The details of how a story works are interesting to me, and matter. And yet in this review, I leave them out almost entirely.

  • Let's compare length. Graham's review is at least 500 words shorter than mine, and all the better for it. It tells you what you need to know about the book, but it doesn't outstay its welcome. My review, by virtue of the fact that it contains a little bit about each and every story, ends up reading like a list, whereas Graham's review has a narrative thread of its own. I wouldn't be surprised if many people stopped reading mine half-way through because they just had no idea where it was going or why they should care.

  • ... which is to say that Graham's review is better structured. This, I think, is the big one: as I said, Graham's review develops an argument: Joe Hill as a moral horror writer. It's an interesting argument in itself, and starts you thinking about horror in general, but it's always tied back into 20th Century Ghosts as a book. The piece never stops being a review, in other words. By contrast, there is the hint of an argument in my review--that one quote I mentioned, about the stories being about "the bread of everyday life"--but it's just sort of thrown in there. The review establishes that I think it's an important characteristic of the book, but I'm not sure that it does a good job of showing why.
It's not that I think my review is worthless and Graham's is perfect; just that I think Graham's review works better than mine as a piece of writing. Ultimately, my review now reads to me as somewhat superficial, and more interested in describing 20th Century Ghosts than discussing it. And discussion is where I want to be.

For my next trick, I will compare both of the above reviews to John Clute's review. Or not.
Tags: reviewing

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