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Convinced by reviews

februari 18, 2011

I generally read reviews either to make sure I don’t, or to confirm that I do need to read a particular book, especially when it comes to fiction. Reviewers mostly end up towards the end of a long list of people who can convince me to pick up someone’s book, well below friends, colleagues, and the authors themselves, below scholarship on particular stories, often below the cover and blurb (I’m ashamed to say). Reviews of scholarly works convince me more often, because they are handy ways of sifting the wheat from the chaffs when you look for research on a particular topic. Fiction reviews can be interesting and well-written, theoretically illuminating, even pleasurable in their own right – but mostly, they fail to sell. In that, I fear I am not alone.

In the same way, I write reviews hoping to entertain; despite the quality of the work, I really don’t expect anyone to run for the nearest bookshop or open a new browser tab with Amazon or Abe Books. If someone were to follow my advice, however, I would also be terribly pleased to hear if they agree or disagree with me – but that’s a different story.

Having published things myself, I now find another reason for reading reviews. When I realised that the issue of Tolkien Studies in which I had an article (vol. VI) was reviewed in the latest issue of Journal of the Fantasti in the Arts (21:3), I certainly looked for what it might say about my contribution first (it was very complimentary, I can smugly add). And when I was told that my thesis was mentioned in a review of Strange Horizons, I obviously has to see what was said there.

To my surprise, however, I found myself not only interested in the paragraph which mentioned my work, or by the review itself, but also by the book under review, Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic. Already the setting captured my attention; it is set in a magical, alternate version of the 19th century. I have only one book by Elliott in my collection, and it never really attracted me, but since I’m attacking a book shop in a few hours, I will bring one more book back than I originally intended. (There is no reason for me to recount Edward James’s review here; click the link above and read it for yourselves. Then disagree with me if you like.)

What I cannot make up my mind about is whether this review has enthused me because it is well-written (it is), because the reviewer is nice about my own book (he is), or because the book under review is actually a great book – that last aspect, I will have to get back to once I have read the book. Now, however, I’m off to the bookshop.

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