12.29.2003

Authority

I'd add my thanks to gabe for putting this together.

If we could, I’d like to address something that whizzed by in another epoch of discussion boards or blogs or wherever it was that we were blitzing this out. There’re all sorts of different qualities I think we can agree a critical reviewer needs, and I doubt there‘s any reason to go over them here. But the quality I think most separates a bad reviewer from a good one is authority.

Because we’re talking about books, and we all know everyone has different taste, we can’t really rely on a reviewer’s objectivity. As much as they try, even the best is going to have their soft spot. There’s no getting around that. And we can’t really count on the different branches of literary theory to bail us out because they’re all based upon various social paradigms and they each have their weaknesses. So, since we’re talking about what makes one reviewer trustworthy and another less so, I think it‘s the authority with which they can back up their convictions.

When I say authority, I’m really talking about three different elements: Discipline, Knowledge, and Method. By discipline I mean the reviewer’s ability to set themselves to applying one particular method and their entire body of knowledge to each and every text they take on, despite their subjectivity. Whether our hero is blurbing the next Tad Williams Big Fat Fantasy or combing for material in the dregs of some sloppy little e-zine, if I can trust that they’ll use the same techniques and energy to both, then they’ve got a third of my trust.

As for knowledge, I think that’s self-evident. Our reviewer is smart, well read inside and outside the genre. They can tell you the history of scientifiction, the genesis of Middle-Earth. They know their stuff because this is what they do. If they can’t stump you, then they’re probably missing something important that you would‘ve liked to know. Whether it’s only that the book they’ve reviewed is a smart satire of Mike Moorcock’s Eternal Champion or whether they’ve completely missed the fact that this latest short story is a total rip-off of Bob Sheckley’s Dimensions of Miracles, I need to believe that they‘ll spot these things. They need to know this stuff. It’s their job.

And then we come to method, the least and most important leg of our tripod. By method I don’t mean which branch of lit theory they use. If you can spot what kind of reading you’re being shoveled, you can generally spit out the bad parts and keep the meat fairly crap-free. What I mean is what amount of care do they take with the text? Can they place this story or that novel in the context of the entire genre? Are they spotting all the little Easter eggs the author left behind? Can they guide me to them without giving them away? Do they have a specific process by which they take a text under review and fold, spindle and mutilate it enough that they can give me a complete and relevant take on it? Whether they read each text twice or they have a notepad and highlighter handy for excisions, method is the scientific part to the art of reviewing and I need to know that my reviewer not only has one, but also understands how to implement it.

If they’ve got all three of these elements, discipline, knowledge and method, then what I know is there’s a consistent process by which, even if my literary tastes are diametrically opposed to theirs, I know I can trust every review they write to tell me whether or not I want to spend money on that particular book. Even if that means I pass of their recommendations and buy whatever they pan, at least I have a guide of sorts. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
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