Readercon and reviewing

Charles Brown always seemed like yet another éminence grise you get used to seeing every year at Readercon. No more. He gave us Locus Magazine and made sure it would keep going. Then he died on the way home from the con. All I can do is offer my respect and admiration.

Just last Friday, he led the discussion at an entertaining panel about “How to Review”, which started with five discordant views of Anathem. The discussion spilled out into the audience, which included Jon Clute, John Crowley, and a staffer from the New York Review of Science Fiction. After swapping several stories about the joys and hazards of writing negative reviews, most of the panel agreed that it’s harder to write a favorable one. Rose Fox said a positive review is easy because there’s a book you fell in love with and you’re bursting with the desire to tell everyone why they should read it. I think it was Gary K. Wolfe who made the distinction between a review and a critique, adding that a positive critique is difficult because you’re trying to analyze why what the author did right resonated so well with you. Charles Brown said he never takes notes; if something in a book doesn’t stick, it’s not worth writing about. Toward the end, Lev Grossman said he tries to tell the story of what happened in his head as he read it.

On Thursday’s panel of “Writers who Review” it was more of a two-way street. The panelists agreed that in such a close-knit field it’s difficult to review and be reviewed by people you know. While Gene Wolfe said he doesn’t find being reviewed helpful, Elizabeth Hand said you can learn from a well-written negative review.  Howard Waldrop said many reviews are off target. You learn more about what readers are seeing in your work, things that aren’t there. “Write your own story!” he says. Inspired a column Lester del Rey wrote about his prejudices, Michael Bishop proposed listing what you like and don’t like. Paul de Fillipo said reviewing can improve your writing. But not too much, Barry Malzberg warned. He thought A. J. Budrys’s reviewing robbed us of several novels by him.  Still, Hand, de Fillipo, and Wolfe all agreed that reviewing a really good book helps you learn.

And, with that, recess is over.