Thursday, October 4, 2012

On Review Length

 Part of a series on terrible Goodreads comments

For every job, there is a set of jokes that you will hear from your customers every single day. Whether it's the waiter who asks how the meals was only to hear 'we hated it' as they push clean-licked plates at him or the girl at the ice cream stand who must suffer through an endless sting of white-haired grandpas asking 'is it cold in there, or is it just you?', the world is chock full of boring people desperate to be seen as clever.

On Goodreads, the lazy joke du jour is 'This review is as long as the book!' Sure, it's bland and inane, but on closer inspection, there is a much deeper and more pervasive stupidity at work. Firstly, these are all people who voluntarily joined a book review site--let me reiterate that: they joined a site, the purpose of which is to read things other people have written based on things they have read in order to help you decide what to read next.

Do these people realize where they are, or did they somehow get lost and end up here? Were they looking for '' and mistyped? Maybe this is just me, but I'd assume that a website with the word 'read' in the title might involve some light reading, now and again.

Well, nuts to that theory

I mean, sure, we all know that guy who goes to the club but hates to dance and does nothing but complain about how loud the music is, or the girl who you have to invite to every party or she'll be upset, but who inevitably ends up sitting in the corner, sulking. What must life be like for such people--to constantly feel the need to seek out and participate in activities they don't enjoy? I guess it's no wonder they end up on the internet making angry comments.

The second paradoxical thing is how often these comment appears on reviews of really huge books. I mean, I know it's meant to be hyperbolic, but hyperbole is not, in and of itself, funny or clever. It's a lesson we all should have learned in the late nineties, when every boring jerk thought that constant sarcasm was a recipe for instant cool.

The best (or worst) is when I get this on a review of the first 800-page fantasy book in a series and right after the attempted joke, the commentator says "You can't review this as a single book, it's part of a series. You really need to read all the way to the fifth book, when it starts to get good."

The good part must be coming up soon ...

So apparently there are people who will join a book-reading-reading site, are patiently willing to read four dull doorstop books in the hopes that eventually, they will get better--but a four- or five-page review? Naw, fuck that, that's way too much reading.

However, I do have a theory that could make sense of this whole thing. It's in the early stages, but so far, the results are promising. I know that for some people, reading is automatic: they open the book and lose themselves, they cease to experience the world, and they come out of the other side with no recollection of the passage of time.

For this sort of person, 'length' would be measured not in pages, but in content. If they read a hundred pages of their favorite fantasy series and nothing much happens, it would likely feel like no time had passed at all. On the other hand, reading a review that leaps from one idea to the next, exploring breadth and depth, full of references and allusions, and they would have the sensation of having experienced a great deal.

So in the end, I'm willing to concede their point: it's just possible that I say more in five pages than the average fantasy novel does in 500.


  1. I might asked beside review lenght: what constitute a good review actually? I know the basic is to avoid plot summary, and write both the book and your idea on your review, just like I've learned for most of your review. The challenge I meet often in this kind review that it need a big pool of knowledge so we can identify which or what idea we shoul talk about. Back to my question again: what constitute a good review?

    1. Well, when I write a review, I often try to think of what larger idea the book represents, how it changed the way I see the world, the human mind, or the art of writing. If I can connect the book to a larger idea like that, I think it really helps to explain to the reader what the author has achieved. I don't think it's effective to just say 'the author was very creative' or whatever observation--you have to actually demonstrate what they achieved in their writing.

      Since most books present many different ideas and observations, it is sometimes useful to pick the one that affected you in the strongest way and focus on that, especially if the review is going to be shorter than ten pages, in which case you won't have enough space to fully explore all of the ideas.

      I also try to place the author in the context of genre and influence, pointing out other writers who did similar things, and also how they differ from those similar authors. I see every book as a work of criticism, a response to what has come before, and so I try to look at the conversation a book represents between different authors.

  2. No doubt the same people who carp about the length of your more detailed reviews would be the same who'd complain about the succinctness of reviews like the one you wrote for Neverwhere.
    "He has waaayyy too much time on his hands, this Keely!!1!"
    "This review is so short theres no way he could have put any thought into it!"

    1. Yeah, it's pretty clear they're just looking for some way to attack me. Of course, there are ways to talk about a review being too long: if it repeats the same points again and again--or too short: if it fails to explore several sides of the issue. But those are rarely the responses reviews actually get.