Tuesday, April 3, 2007

350 Word Reviews

There have been complaints in some places that lament the fact that we, at Interzone, use 350 word reviews rather than longer ones. It crops up here, but I’ve seen it in other places, as well. To quote:

If I wanted 350 word reviews of things I'd read SFX but I'd prefer longer more
in depth pieces.

I would vastly prefer the old style of reviews section, where three or four
people an issue would each write at length about several books, to the current
350-words-a-book version.

Maybe people could wonder why there is such a 350-word limit on book reviews. It is, after all, the industry standard. Not only SFX is using it, but the utmost majority of professional publishers. Like, in the UK: New Statesman, Spectator, and the Independent. Or, for reference, check out this overview of the National Union of Journalist, where most reviews mentioned are also 350 words or less. And it's also the same in all the major magazines and newspapers in my country, The Netherlands.

Is this a fossilised habit that refuses to die, or do all these professional, profit-making venues have a certain rationale for it?

A couple of years ago I went to a BeneluxCon in Blankenberge, Belgium. There was a reviewing workshop led by a professional translator and journalist. It was an eye-opener.

The gist of it is that a 350-word book review is more challenging to write than a lengthy one, and if done well is – in general – better for both the reviewer and the reader, and also better from a publicity point of view.

Quite probably, the 350-word limit originated from the fact that print magazines and newspapers only had a limited amount of space available. So, in order to get a broad range of reviews for a broad audience, reviews were kept short and concise.

For a modern print publication, this is still an ongoing concern. In the internet age, one could argue, space limitation is not an issue anymore, so (much) lengthier reviews can be published. Still, even professional online venues like SciFi Wire don't do that. Simply because the reasoning behind it is not sound.

The internet is the gathering place for people with short attention spans. Or, to quote a colleague: "the online reading experience is facilitated by terseness". So in order to snare those rapid surfers, one needs to display brief and succinct reviews, not prolonged protractions from a geeky pedestal. Unless one's main aim is to preach to the converted, but let me give a hint: most professional businesses want to expand their audience.

We expect short fiction writers to be sharp and concise, and not waste a single word. So why should we not expect the same from our reviewers? Should we set the standard lower for reviews? If quantity is more important than quality, then the logical endpoint is spam.

When limited to a 350 wordcount, reviewers must write only about the essentials. It forces them to concentrate on what they really need to say, to get to the heart of the matter. No roundabout reasoning, no self-important side remarks, no bloated blathering, no snarky references for the incrowd. No excess baggage, not a single gram of it. It compels reviewers to develop and hone their craft to perfection. First learn the ropes, the basics before one is allowed to do lengthier essays. Show that you're a professional, build a track record and an outstanding oeuvre before you're allowed more leeway. As mentioned, we expect the same of fiction writers, so why should non-fiction writers be exempt to this?

Well, to me the answer is: no, reviewers are not exempt to these rules, and have to comply to high standards. And about every professional publisher, plus any University course worth its salt agrees with this.

So 350-word book reviews are not a necessary evil, but the industry standard because – when done well – they work. In print and – if not even more – on the internet.

But for those of you that need a refresher, or a primer, here are some links to professional reviewing, and the difference between reviewing and criticism.

So, taking these lessons into account, how would a 350-word, concise and conclusive review look like? One could do worse than check out the professional venues mentioned above in this post, but to put my money where my mouth is, I'll include a review of Blindsight by Peter Watts.

In Blindsight, humanity’s evolutionary destiny is questioned by a First Contact with ominous consequences. A biologist by trade, Peter Watts’s audacious novel challenges our perceptions of consciousness, in a narrative where the science weighs in equally with the fiction, and where each action, confrontation, discussion or character serves the underlying theme. Its intellectual density continuously threatens to collapse into the black hole of its thesis, pulling the reader through a mental event horizon into the unknown.

Warned by a ‘firefall’ event, a crew of humans encounters an alien object on the edge of the solar system: Rorschach, which orbits a brown dwarf, harnessing its huge magnetic field. After initial, indirect, and portentous communications the Earth crew explores the alien craft. The tension increases, and the mystery deepens as the humans enter deeply strange and hostile territory.

It is no coincidence that none of the main characters are baseline humans: each of them – a captain cum resurrected vampire, an hyper-integrated exobiologist whose exosensorium causes synaesthesia, a linguist with a deliberate multi-personality disorder, a major so hyper-linked she and her drones become as one, and an observer who had half his brains removed – illuminate the notion that there are other modes of thinking, different ways of using brain power. Still, these highly augmented humans are no match for the aliens they encounter.

These ‘scramblers’ are more, much more than they seem: the result of a parallel evolution that threatens to outcompete the (unmodified) human race. Already apparent during the study of two ‘captured’ aliens, this realisation becomes undeniable as the confrontation between post-humans and aliens intensifies. And only through the use of all its resources – including the real Captain of the vessel – can the Earth forces, through sacrifice, achieve a temporary reprieve, which enables Siri Keeton – the observer – to get back to Earth to report. If he gets back, and if Earth is the same when he returns…

Definitely not a novel for escapists or the occasional reader, Blindsight is extremely thought-provoking, taking its premise to the ultimate conclusion, showing that the alien without might be closely related to the alien within.

Also, a – much longer – essay on Blindsight is slated for the May issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction. And before everybody accuses me of inconsistency: the NYRoSF is a specific venue for longer critical articles, not a magazine that contains fiction, articles, interviews, and reviews like, well, Interzone.

Finally, if you want a pisstake on book reviewing, look no further.