On book reviewing and films

On book reviewing and films

I think I must be getting cranky in my old age. Either that or, bizarrely, more pushed for time despite being retired. In years gone by I always finished every book I started, and would expect to re-read a decent one within a year or so. These days I stop reading, long before the end, one in every three or four new books I pick up. Partly this is because they tend to be so long (an issue I've previously explored in this web article) and at my typical rate of 70 pages per hour that means that a 700 page book requires ten hours of investment. As I only read novels for an hour or two each evening that hogs my reading time for anywhere between a week and a fortnight. So that fat book had better be really good and grab my attention quickly or I'm likely to bin it. I'm much more tolerant of short novels and even more of short stories. The other reason for rejection is the modern tendency to pack in lots of extraneous plot lines, which sometimes add so much "human interest" and character development that these becomes the main focus of the story, with the SF bits as a background. While the principal characters have to be well-enough drawn to be believable and to evoke some empathy, that isn't primarily what I read SFF for.

One result of my impatience is that I don't usually post bad reviews: the books I don't like don't get finished, so don't get reviewed (other than perhaps a brief note to that effect). The other reason I don't rubbish novels in my reviews is that I am aware of how subjective the review process is. This has particularly been brought home to me by the reviews of my own books (all summarised on my website – good and bad), with amazon reader feedback for both books covering the full range from one to five stars. Now you may say that amazon reviews aren't worth much, but the verdicts of even experienced reviewers also differ widely. Considering that reviewing is supposed to be as objective as possible, with guidelines on how to achieve this, these results offer food for thought.

The inescapable conclusion is that reviewing is a lot more subjective than most reviewers like to admit. To borrow a metaphor, reviews of any book are like the descriptions of an elephant by blind people relying on touch: each individual account will contain some information, but won't give a clear picture of the beast. Furthermore, if a reviewer really likes a story, s/he is likely to be much more tolerant of any deficiencies, and the reverse is also true. It is possible to find things to praise, and things to criticise, in just about any novel ever written, and what the reviewer chooses to emphasise makes a huge difference to the impression given by the review. Even worse, I have noticed comments from reviewers to the effect that they feel obliged to finish a book even if they don't like it, but they punish the author for their wasted time by posting a vitriolic review. Not very ethical, in my opinion.

So if I do post a review of a book which was readable enough to finish but which I didn't enjoy all that much, I'll say it wasn't the kind of story to appeal to me; I won't say it's rubbish. In case you are thinking that this line of argument must have been prompted by a recent bad review of one of my own books, I plead not guilty! In fact, Scales has recently received a rather good review by an experienced editor, and summarised along with all of the others here. So some reviews really are very objective, perceptive and of high quality!

If I'm less patient than I used to be where books are concerned, I've become even less tolerant of movies. In part that's because I have more sympathy for authors, who generally slave away by themselves in their spare time. In contrast, Hollywood employs vast numbers of people (many extremely well paid) to produce each film at phenomenal cost, yet as often as not the result isn't worth watching. Even when an author provides them with an excellent story, they still manage to mess it up with depressing frequency. So I finish only about half of the films I sit down to watch. Recently I've seen three SF films: 'District 13', 'Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith', and 'War of the Worlds', with contrasting results.

'District 13' is a French film set in a near-future Paris barrio which has been blocked off from the rest of the city by a high wall in order to contain the lawlessness within. A nuclear weapon has been stolen and smuggled into the barrio, and an undercover policeman teams up with a barrio resident to try to avert disaster. OK, the dialogue is corny and the acting barely adequate, but the film has huge energy with wonderfully gymnastic combat and "free-running" chases around the city (I love watching parkour – far more exciting than any of the traditional sports). I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I really liked the original 'Star Wars' film and thought I would catch up with 'Revenge of the Sith'. Oh dear – how the mighty have fallen. There was (only just) enough interest in the depiction of the turning of Anakin to the Dark Side (you don't usually see a hero turning into a baddie in this kind of film) plus the CGI (I'm a sucker for alien landscapes, cityscapes and machinery) to keep me watching to the end, but it was a close-run thing. Where have the humour and joie de vivre gone? When the only engaging character in the film is the speechless robot R2D2 you know there are problems…

'War of the Worlds' is a classic novel but this 2005 film version is one I didn't sit through. Since when was the story primarily about dysfunctional family relationships, with the alien invasion shoved into the background? This seems a common thread in Hollywood films these days: everything has to have its stock characters always in conflict with each other, with broken marriages, difficult father-son relationships, and a cute moppet who can be relied upon to scream at frequent intervals. Tedious, tedious, tedious – why can't they just tell the story?

Oh well, enough grumbling. Next week I'll be reviewing The Hammer of God, by that late lamented old master, Arthur C Clarke.

(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)