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                                           A SMALL SYMPOSIUM ON REVIEWING

                           INTRODUCTION, by Steve Lewis

    In my opening remarks for Mystery*File 47, February 2005, the last one that appeared in print form, I was talking about what was in store for the magazine, not realizing at the time, of course, that big changes were in the works and that many of the plans I had in mind were not going to happen.
    But here, so that you don
t have to go look it up, is what I said about reviews:

    What there will be fewer of, I have to admit, are reviews of current mysteries.  While they won’t disappear completely, I have decided that there are plenty of other mystery zines which try to cover as much as what is published today as they can: Mystery Scene, The Drood Review of Mystery, Deadly Pleasures, Mystery News, Mystery Readers Journal, and Crime Spree.  It would be useless for me to try to do the same, and there’s only so much time and energy that’s available.
    But while each of  these other magazines are recommended, and each is excellent in their own way, what most of the reviews you’ll find in them seem to lack, and this is my opinion only, is an openly critical analysis of the books they’re covering.  When all of the reviews are favorable – well, largely so – check me out sometime and see if I’m wrong – how can a reader distinguish one from another, except on the basis of the kind of category (hard-boiled, soft-boiled, poached) or the kind of detective it has (private eye, park ranger, bounty hunter, hairdresser, pickle packer (by the peck) or whatever)?
    And so, even though there won’t be many for me to pick out and show you in the issue you’re holding in your hand, I would like the reviews that appear in M*F, both old and new, to remain (a) informal, (b) informational, and to have (c) some meaning.  There aren’t any rules that reviewers have to follow, but I expect – and so should you – that a critical eye will generally be part of the mix.

    When she read this, Sue Feder sent me an almost immediate reply by email.  She largely agreed with me, which was nice, but what she had to say, she said quite a bit better, at length, and with a lot more fervor.  When I replied to thank her, I also asked,
Would you like to write a guest editorial for the next issue?
    Sue said yes, she
d love to.  After a couple of weeks, the editorial/article below arrived.  Unfortunately, the next issue of Mystery*File was long delayed.  Toward the end of the summer, I emailed her to apologize and to promise that it really was going to appear.  Alas, Sue lost her battle with leukemia before I could fulfill that promise.  Now, however, even though its in a different format than either she or I envisoned when we were talking about it, here it is at last.

                       REVIEWS AND REVIEWERS  - Commentary by Sue Feder

    In M*F 47, Steve Lewis remarked on the lack of critical reviews in other mystery fanzines.  I was delighted to see someone tackle this issue, which seems to be a fairly touchy subject.  Since we’re all fans, nobody wants to actually insult anyone else.  
    Having been a fan reviewer since 1988, however, this is something I feel passionate about.  I can tell you, and to a certain extent would agree with, the two most popular answers to this complaint.  First, fan reviewers will tell you that they get to review what they want to review, and they don’t review books they don’t like because they don’t read books they don’t like.  Second, they will tell you that they feel their job is to introduce readers to new books and writers that they are likely to enjoy, rather than waste space in steering people away from books and writers they will dislike.
    All this is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough.
    I occasionally look over my own “back catalog” of reviews, and it is quite easy to determine which of my reviews were written in my earlier days as a reviewer, and which later.  My earlier reviews were very much of a type – I breathlessly liked the story, or the character, and heartily recommended it, or would be eagerly awaiting further books by the author.  Let’s call this grade school reviewing.
    As years went on, however, I began to review differently because my experience as a reviewer led to my READING differently.  That is, I began thinking more critically not only about the books as a whole, but also about the individual elements of the books, and how these books held up in the context of other works by the writer, or other books which were of a similar type.  Let’s call this high school reviewing.
    In the third level of reviewing (let’s call it college), the reviewer may spend more time on critical analysis than on the book itself.   It’s the sort of thing professional reviewers do; with fan reviewers, I believe that while the occasional book may present opportunities for such deeper discussion, by and large this is not the type of review that fans want or expect from fan publications.
    My concern is that reviewers who have been doing this for ten and more years have never graduated beyond the breathless grade school reviewing level.  I find it very hard to believe that every element of each book under review is of the same uniformly high quality as every other.  Surely there are books in which the story-telling is page-turning but the writing is lousy; or in which the story is by-the-numbers but the character has an interesting voice – in other words, not every element of a book is as successful as every other element, in the vast majority of books, and I simply don’t understand how so many long-time reviewers almost never discriminate between what works and what doesn’t.  To be blunt, I’ve long since stopped reading these reviewers, because I simply have no way of assessing their critical reading skills and determining whether what they have to say about any particular book is valid.
    I also disagree with the popular method of labeling books with a star or letter system.  I think it’s lazy, in that in relying on it, the reviewer may not think hard enough about the book, or work hard enough to properly express those thoughts.  Such “grades” are in any case often not reflective of what the review really says when you read it for itself.  Plus, it’s a useless and frequently meaningless exercise.  If the reviewer thinks character is the most important thing, and gives a book a “B plus” because he or she really liked this new character, even though the story was recycled or poorly developed, the rating will mean nothing to the reader for whom story is everything.
    The reviewer, professional or fan, at a minimum owes it to the reader to give a general idea of what the book is about, discuss what elements work and what don’t work, and why, and advise his or her recommendation with any caveats.  Reviewers also owe it to their readers to reveal anything that might play into credibility factors – biases, relationships to the writer, etc.  Is the reviewer also a bookseller?  Is the reviewer a writer of books of a similar type, or similar settings, or similar themes?  Is the reviewer a friend, relative, enemy of the author?
    The reader then owes it to the reviewer to actually read what the reviewer has said, and assess it, before basing a decision to read a book upon the review.  This is an intimate and interactive relationship, and both parties need to hold up their end of the agreement.

       During the summer of 2005, Ed Gorman had often had friends fill in for him on his blog while he had medical difficulties.  He used a review of mine on one occasion.  Jon Breen was one of several who sent in pieces for Ed  to use on a regular basis.  One of these short articles had to do with reviewing, and I thought it might pair off nicely with what Sue Feder had sent me.  After she had read and enjoyed it, Sue agreed with me.  Jon has been gracious enough to allow me to use it here.
       Ed Gorman, by the way, has had to close down his blog temporarily, to undergo a stem cell transplant.  I
m sure that everyone who has been checking in with him every day wishes him the best, including myself.

            REVIEWS AND LETTERS GRADES - Commentary by Jon Breen

    Reviewers’ numerical ratings of movies or books or restaurants or whatever can serve as a handy shorthand for the consumer, but they come with inevitable problems.  For example, as a lover of old whodunits from the thirties, I came across a very cheap DVD of the (no doubt) public domain film THE DEATH KISS (1933), a low-budget mystery with Bela Lugosi in his frequent post-Dracula role of red-herring suspect and an interesting background of a movie studio, where the star is shot to death with real bullets during filming.
    Looking the book up in Leonard Maltin’s 2005 Movie Guide, I was encouraged to see he’d given it a 3-star rating, so I bought one.  The picture was a lot of fun.  Typically of the time, there was no semblance of accurate police procedure.  The acting was okay, though 1933 seemed late for the overly deliberate style, with pauses between speeches, that you often see in very early talkies.  But there was some amusing dialogue and some gentle satire on the movie business.
    On the whole, I was happy and not at all mad at Maltin.  At the same time I got a copy of MURDER BY TELEVISION, another Lugosi-as-red-herring-suspect (I assume
I’ve only watched half of it) from the same era.  Maltin gave that one a star and a half (just north of a bomb), and it is truly awful, albeit interesting for the background. 
    Thus, Maltin had put me onto to something worth watching and tried to warn me off something that wasn’t, so I should be grateful.  But still, what about that 3-star rating for THE DEATH KISS?  One of my favorite films, TRUE CONFESSIONS (1981), gets only 2 and a half stars in his rating system.  Would Maltin really say that THE DEATH KISS, even judged in relation to other pictures of its time, was a better picture than TRUE CONFESSIONS?

    I doubt that he would, but of course I’m in no position to criticize somebody’s use of a star system.  When I took over “The Jury Box” review column in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine back in the 70s, I might not have used a star-rating system, but editor Fred Dannay suggested I do so.  (Back in the early 30s, the Queen cousins had used an incredibly complicated 100-point scale to rate detective novels, so he obviously was fond of them.  I guess he had a baseball fan’s love of statistical measures.)
    So I adopted the scale previously used in EQMM by Anthony Boucher.  It ran one to five stars.  While the ratings were never explained, the attentive reader could figure out that 5 represented a classic, 4 a superior effort, 3 a good solid recommended bread-and-butter work, and as for the 2 and the 1, they never appeared, understandably since Boucher’s column was called “The Best Mysteries of the Month” and he was plucking out the books he could recommend that he’d already reviewed in the New York Times Book Review.  Boucher usually had only 3- and 4-star reviews, with the 5 coming up so rarely few readers probably realized there was a 5.

    I followed the same pattern, very rarely trotting out the 5, but I did use the 2 (which essentially means some good points but some problems, too) and very rarely even the 1 (which means I don’t understand why the book was ever published).  Because I choose things for review I expect to like, the solid 3-star rating is the most frequent. 
    If I were actually to read to the finish everything that comes to me (for which I would have to be a speed reader like Boucher), the 2-star rating would be the most common.  Both of these ratings represent a fairly wide band, especially the 2.  While I wouldn’t want readers to think one 2 was absolutely equivalent to another 2, it is surely fair for the reader to conclude that in my opinion, any 3 is better than any 2 and so on up the line.

    Guess what.  The system isn’t perfect.  I’ll give some examples, with names withheld to protect the guilty (i.e., me).  At one point in my first stint as “Jury Box” reviewer, I was disappointed with the weak plot in an otherwise charmingly written book by one of my favorite writers, call him Writer A, and gave it a 2-star rating.  Within a couple of months, a very prolific writer of paperback gothics, call her Writer B, produced a book that seemed to me unusually strong in comparison with her usual output, and I gave it 3 stars.  Then I asked myself: do I really consider the best by Writer B superior to a below-par work of Writer A?  Probably not.

    Another factor is the first-book-read syndrome.  When you read an author’s work for the first time, you might tend to overrate it because it represents a fresh voice or underrate it because it irritates you in some way.  I gave a 4 to the first novel I read by one of today’s best known writers and 3’s to books by that writer since.  Was the first one I read really better than the subsequent ones?  Not necessarily.
    I once criticized (and gave a 2 rating to) a detective novel for dragging in a science-fictional solution to the mystery, which seemed to me a cheat on the reader if not sufficiently foreshadowed.  When I read later books by the same author, I knew what to expect; the mixing in of paranormal and science fictional elements didn’t bother me as much; and I found myself handing out 3 ratings and even on one occasion a 4.  Was that first book really inferior to the later books?  Maybe not.

    I once heard (or read?) a defense of his star rating system by Roger Ebert, in which he implied that the ratings were useful in comparing his opinion of a film against other films he reviewed in that particular column or that particular year but not necessarily for comparing his opinion of a film reviewed in 1990 to one in 2005.  That sounds like a fair and honest way to look at it, but I don’t know if I’ll adopt his stance.  We reviewers need to nurture that air of superiority and omniscience we’ve so carefully cultivated.

    Sue Feder mentioned her back catalogof reviews.  I dont know how long theyll stay, but as of October 2005, there are still nearly a thousand of them you can read on-line.  Her strong interest in Ellis Peters and historical mysteries will be obvious, but she read extremely widely.  Youll have no difficulty finding something of interest to you.

      Jon Breen
s column in EQMM is the first thing I turn to when I open a new issue.  (Ed Hochs story is always next, just to see what series characters hes writing about this time.)


    YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME.     email Steve

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