Reviews: An explanation and FAQ

Q: Quick! I only have the time to read one answer: What do you want me to know about your reviews?

This site contains over 1.7 million words of reviews dating back to 1996. Some of them are raves and some are not. Some of them are well-written and most are not. Nearly all were written for pure personal enjoyment. I see my movies legally, I buy nearly all of the books I review and I don’t accept review copies from authors, publishers, studios or filmmakers. I occasionally slip and spoil stuff, especially when I don’t like something.  There was a huge break in review volume and frequency in 2012 when I became a father.  I rarely claim to be an absolute authority in any domain, so take all comments with a grain of salt. Enjoy.

Q: Why write those reviews?

A few reasons, in no particular order:

  • Practice, because churning out a steady stream of reviews every single month forces me to sit down and write, which is pretty much Obligation Number One for any wannabe writer. Even when other writings projects get shuffled to the wayside when I have other things to do, the reviews keep coming in. Eventually.
  • Personal Enjoyment: What can I say? I like being an obnoxious know-it-all. I like to take a few minutes to reflect on an experience and tell it like I think it is. I like to provide material for hundreds of high-school plagiarists around the world. This is something I still enjoy, so why not?
  • While you may think that these reviews are written for you, the truth is that they’re mostly written for me. Over the years, I have found that an on-line archive of past reviews is very handy: I can make references to it, refresh my memory, read it from any internet-capable device, check out when I read a specific work, etc.

Q: How many books/movies do you read/watch per month?

Prior to 2012 (ie; the year I became a father), I read around 250-300 books a year, had a personal library of 4000+ books and routinely had 400 books in my “to read” pile.  I went to the movie theater about once a week.

After 2012, my reading input slowed down considerably (down to a dozen books in 2015), but I started watching 150+ movies per year on cable TV.

Sometime in the future, I expect to see fewer movies and read more books… but we’ll see.

Q: How did it all begin?

It all began in January 1996, by way of an e-mail. I had posted a few short informal reviews of French-language Science Fiction books on a mailing list I belonged to. These reviews were read by the late Joël Champetier, the then-editor of Solaris, the leading French-Canadian SF&F genre magazine.

Would I be willing, Champetier asked in the said e-mail, to review a book for Solaris?

Would I? Gee: At the time, I had been a Solaris subscriber for a few years and held it in exceedingly high esteem. Think of an American SF fan being asked to review something in Asimov’s or Locus.

I said “Yes!” immediately, then began to panic: Other than those short informal reviews, I had no experience whatsoever in the fine art of criticism.

Instead of curling up in a ball, I did the next best thing and embarked in a crash program of book reviews apprenticeship. By the end of 1996, dozens of “practice” reviews later, I was hooked. When you’re having this much fun, it’s hard to stop… and so I didn’t.

(Oh; my review was eventually published in Solaris, though my apprenticeship didn’t pay off in time for this particular review: It’s so ineptly written than I can scarcely even glance at it today. Blame it on beginner’s jitters. Fortunately, further reviews for Solaris came to be much better.)

[Ironic side-note:  I am, since December 1999, Solaris’s webmaster.  Among other things, this allows me to pick books for reviewing. Life’s funny that way.]

[And, from 2001 onward, I became a movie reviewer for Solaris, eventually becoming their full-time lead reviewer in 2009.]

Q: Have you changed the format of the reviews since 1996?

There have been two or three significant changes since 1996.

In April 1997, I started jotting down capsule reviews about every movie I saw. For a long time, I was more of a reader than a viewer, but movies have a bigger audience than books and end up being easier to write about. If those can provide a barometer of my preferences to put the book reviews in context, hurray!

Less significantly, I switched from a “post whenever I’ve got ten reviews” to a “post monthly reviews” format in 1998, settling from 2003 to 2010 on a quota of eight book reviews per month.  Other time commitments after 2012 brought me back to a “one book review per month, or so” level, although I still post movie reviews of every film I see, although sometimes long after seeing the film.

I briefly flirted with the idea of additional capsule book reviews in 1998 for those “less interesting” books, but ultimately didn’t carry the experiment beyond late 1998. More recently, I have also tried to avoid comparative book reviews, focusing on a one-book-per-review format instead.

In June 2009, I completely redesigned the site and migrated it from flat text files to a database-driven CMS, which required a lot of data consistency adjustments, completely altered my formflow to “post whenever a review is ready”, split up “monthly reviews” in dozens of individual pages and added book covers to the look of the site for reviews after January 2008.

Q: Do you review everything you read?

No! Are you kidding? I reviewed, on average, one out of every two or three books I read, depending on my interest in the book. It’s easy to praise or condemn, but it’s much harder to find something significant to say about an average book. If a book is not interesting to read, chances are that it’s not interesting enough to write about. “Bonus points” toward consideration for reviews are given to authors I have already written about, very recent books or books that illustrate any particular theory of mine.

More recently (post-2012), my reading having slowed down considerably, I nowt review more or less everything I read, because I tend to read books I’m really interested in discussing.

I do try to review every movie I see, though: My one-paragraph capsule format doesn’t require a lot of time, and it’s easier to nit-pick movies.

Q:.Do you get your books and movies from authors, publishers, filmmakers or studios? Can I send you something for review?

No. The vast majority of the books and movies I read are bought with my own money, often at used sales. (Which may serve to explain the eclectic nature of my reviews.)

I have briefly accepted a number of review copies in the past and found out that even if I enjoyed the books, I did not enjoy the experience of reviewing it “on demand”. Since then, I have refused all review copies. Harsh, but fair to everyone.

In short; no, I will not review your book or movie. Sorry, and it’s nothing personal. My stack of books to read already fills an entire extra-large bookcase and my pile of unseen DVDs is almost bigger than the pile of seen DVDs.

The same also goes for movie screeners and free tickets. I’ve done my time hunting for free movies, but these days I’d rather pay and complain at my leisure than dance on demand to someone else’s tune.

Q: What is your process for writing and publishing these reviews?

Generally, it goes like this:

  1. Read the book, watch the movie. I seldom take notes (which explains the lack of specific quotations) and try to rely on my general impressions.
  2. Write the first draft of the review. This step usually takes about ten to thirty minutes. The length of the reviews (roughly 700 words for books, 200 for movies) is dictated by the available space on a single sheet of “paper” in Word. Hey, it works for me.
  3. Let the review sit for a few days. I’m a notoriously bad self-editor. Forgetting about the exact words usually helps in debugging. In most cases, reviews (regardless of when they were originally written) are left to sit until the end of the month, when I can afford the luxury of revising the monthly batch of reviews at once.
  4. Read about the book/movie. Thanks to Amazon, Google and the rest of the web, it’s easy to get a “reality check” about anything. While these extra opinions seldom affect the main angle of my reviews, they can occasionally suggest elements I have forgotten to write about (“Oh, yeah, the beginning was a little slow”) or offer reasonable counterpoints to some of my objections. I have found that reading about the work can also help contextualize some of the reviews, help me avoid dumb mistakes and often inject further material of interest.
  5. Do my best to edit and correct the reviews. As stated previously, I’m really, honestly quite bad at self-editing, which serves to explain the tons of typos on this web site. I often re-read my stuff months or years later and still catch embarrassing errors. Oh, the humiliation.
  6. Post on the web. Self explanatory…

Q: Your reviews don’t spend enough time telling us what the book/movie is about! Why don’t you spend more time telling us about the plot?

I will not endlessly summarize the plot. There are several reasons for this:

  • Reviewers who spend most (or even half) of their verbiage explaining what happens in a story are not primarily reviewing and certainly not criticizing . This isn’t high-school book reporting any more. We’re all equally capable of reading cover blurbs.
  • Amazon.com, among many other fine outlets, is there to provide on-line cover blurbs. In this information age, it’s not exactly difficult to find out those things.
  • The heart of a review is opinion, and it’s almost a mission for the reviewer pass judgement (and subsequent explanation) as soon as possible. The result might be a collection of opinions without any clear description of what the work is about; I’m willing to risk it.
  • Finally, I’m not naive enough to believe that my reviews are the only commentary ever written on the subject, nor even the first thing that visitors here will read about a particular book/movie. My view is only one among many, and I don’t need to repeat what others have already said.

Q: Eek! You spoiled [book or movie X]! Why?

I tend to be coy about a story’s conclusion except in the following situations:

  • If it’s a bad conclusion and it causes me to think less of a book/movie, I have to explain why. If something concludes badly, wouldn’t you like to know before investing time in it?
  • If I really, really, really hate something, all good intentions are off: If you see me sharpening critical knives and you fear a spoiler, stop reading. I’m liable to spoil the damn thing just to prevent you from reading it.
  • If the book is part of a series, I will assume that you’ve read the previous volumes and that they’re fair game for spoilers. Sorry.

This being said, I am not a big believer that spoilers spoil everything.  Over the years, I realized that execution is far more important than premise, and that knowing the big beats of the story being told almost has nothing to do with the overall appreciation of a work of fiction.  After 2012, when I more or less “retired” from watching movies in theaters, I started spoiling myself silly on new movies in order to remain informed about what was going on, and yet I haven’t found that this made much of a difference in my overall appreciation of movies.

Given this, don’t expect me to be sympathetic to any cries of “Eek, you spoiler!”  I’m not going to be mean-spirited about spoiling new books/movies for the sake of it, but I’m not going to excessively hold back either.

Q: Are you a reviewer or a critic?

(Implicit in this question is the sub-question “what’s the difference between a reviewer and a critic”, which I hold to be this: A reviewer is primarily a consumer’s advocate: Is this worth reading/watching or not? Why so? Who’s the best audience for the work? Whereas a critic goes deeper and thinks harder: What is the significance of the work in contemporary/today’s society? What place does the book occupy in the creator’s work? A reviewer may say “Good, 8/10” while a critic would write “Interesting, relevant and a welcome change of pace from this author”. There is also a third, fuzzier category, that of essayist, which tends to focus on the work vis-à-vis the reader… but let’s not go there.)

I’m a little bit of both, but I usually reject the label of “critic”. Despite using the word here and there in this essay as synonym for “reviewer”, I think of myself as an opinionated reader first and foremost. I love to discuss books, but do so from the perspective of someone for whom reading is fun and fun is reading. I seek excitement over enlightenment. “Fine literature” usually bores me. I make not attempt at academic relevance or even fine prose. I believe that authorial psychosexual profiles are best handled by trained psychiatrists. Call me a critic and you will have a duel on your hands; armed keyboards at five keystrokes a second. Well, not really, but I’m going to point out that I’m hardly in the same league as the really good critics.

(Paragraph added years later:) This being said, looking back at what I’ve done on the site, I found that my most rewarding reviews have been works of criticism, comparing a work to the rest of a bibliography, delving in to the relationship between a work and contemporary society and detailing its emotional impacts.  The problem is that those reviews tend to be difficult to write: They ask for emotionally powerful works, a thorough knowledge of a creator’s body of work and some kind of relationship with wider societal issues.  Not every work manages to hit those three targets.

Q: What, as an audience, annoys you the most?

To bore is a sin. I pay my money, I invest my time; I’d better be entertained. A bad work of fiction can be entertaining, and most great books/movies are entertaining. But to be boring, to fail to arouse interest, is the worst sin an author can perpetrate.

I used to be a bit radical about this.  The following excerpt was included here for years without nuance:

My personal mission is to expose all those faux-auteurs, those pseudo-entertainers, those money-grubbing morons who produce pages of lifeless prose, dead characters, tired ideas and obvious plotting. I vow to wage war on the authors of unworthy books. Do not be surprised if I end up being partial to bad stories on account of inventive concepts or simple fun. Be even less surprised if I end up trashing acclaimed works of fine prose whose enjoyment value is perilously close to zero.

Nowadays, I’m quite a bit more relaxed about it.  I still don’t like to waste my time, but I find myself satisfied by works that don’t primarily focus on entertainment.  I don’t get mad about movies that don’t neatly wrap up their ending.  I can appreciate leisurely pacing at times.

Q: Where do you come from, ideologically speaking? What are your biaises?

In a nutshell, I’m a rational French-Canadian techno-nerd with a scientific education.

Every reviewers have biases. Here are some of mine: I come from a staunchly francophone family that’s been on North-American soil since the 17th century, and in Canada from the beginning. I have a Computer Sciences B.Sc. I’m still young and still optimistic and still believe that humans are basically decent. Conservatives would call me a liberal. Let the flames begin.

Q: You suck!  You’re an idiot! You can’t do any better!

Well, it’s true that I can’t get published: I have written six novels so far, and the only one that I had time to polish and send out was viciously rejected, although in retrospect it certainly deserved to be.  I may be a frustrated novelist, but I’m sympathetic to the enterprise (writing novels is fun!) and am getting better with time.  And the thought of making/writing a movie is absurd to me.

As for the suckiness thing, well I have to stay humble: I’m nowhere near John Clute, Gary K. Wolfe, Roger Ebert, Drew McWeeny and the other top-notch critics I respect.  I’m doing this as an amateur, often without enough sleep, and my sarcasm can often cut deeper than I expect. I keep trying to improve and refine my worst instincts.  If you violently disagree with a review of mine, take a look at when it was published.  If it was written more than five years ago, chances are that there’s a significant flaw in it.  Ten years?  I might as well disavow it entirely.

My particular weaknesses as a reviewer are (in no particular order), a tendency toward cheap sarcasm, an undeserved sense of knowledge, rotten copy editing, an over-use of pretentious vocabulary (and adverbs, oooh, rotten seductive wily adverbs), superficial thinking, mis-use of the English language (I’m a native French speaker and it often shows) and a tendency to make works fit in my own mental framework rather than adapt to their intentions.  On the other hand, I rarely soften what I’m thinking… if that can make up for the rest of the flaws.

Q: Why do you specify whether movies were seen “In theatres”, “On DVD”, “On Cable TV”, “On TV” and so on?

A: Despite the progress of home theaters, there is a world of difference between seeing films in theater or at home (other than the impact of seeing a film with a crowd, if I specify “In theaters”, you can be reasonably sure that I paid attention to the film from beginning to end – I can offer you no such guarantee on films watched at home, especially after I became a father), there is a significant visual difference between VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray, and I also believe that paying for a film (ie; “Video on demand”) can be a factor polarizing reactions to a film. More selfishly, this viewing detail also serves as a way to keep track of which film I saw in which format, and how my viewing habits change over time. For the curious, the various categories are:

  • In theatres: Self-explanatory, albeit occasionally specified as “In IMAX theaters”
  • On VHS: self-explanatory, from 1998 to 2002 or so.
  • On DVD or On Blu-Ray: Also self-explanatory; review may include comments on extra material and director commentary tracks. There aren’t as many Blu-Ray reviews as you’d think, considering that the format truly took off as I started watching a lot more movies on premium cable.
  • On TV: Broadcast TV or non-premium cable channels, usually in standard resolution, always with commercial breaks and often with censorship.
  • On Cable TV: Premium “pay TV” cable channels such as The Movie Network or Super Channel; no commercial breaks and no content editing, usually in high definition.
  • Video on-demand: Paid VOD films, via cable infrastructure. If you want to be pitpicky, films freely obtained on-demand from premium movie channels via my cable TV package, as opposed to pay-per-view recent releases, are coded as “On Cable TV”.
  • Downloaded: Contrarily to what you may expect, this tag is about legitimately downloaded films. Of the 2,700+ movie reviews reviewed on this film, maybe a handful of them were not-necessarily-legal downloads, and almost all of those viewing experiences were social (and if you do spot those less-than-legal experiences, you will inevitably notice that the second and third viewing of those same films were fully legal.)
  • [Service] streaming: Films streamed via the internet, usually via services such as YouTube, Netflix or Crackle. This category is still in flux as I try to find a common but useful designation for the various platforms. At this moment, I think I have settled on prefixing streaming with the name of the streaming service.
  • Oddball categories include “On VCD” (don’t ask), “In-flight” (jet-set cinephile!), “Special Screening” (when you help a low-budget filmmaker screen a film at a local SF convention) and the unabashed brag of “At the Gruman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles

Q: What’s with the barbaric practice of listing movie titles with improper alphabetization of articles? It should be “Godfather, The” rather than “The Godfather!”

A: You must be a librarian, and I like you. I agree that articles should not be alphabetized, but my hands are sort-of-tied: Until November 2014, I tried listing movie titles in proper alphabetical order. Unfortunately, I then discovered the joys of syncing my movie titles with those of the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), which does put “The” (and other such articles) at the beginning of the movie title. This taught me two things: A substantial number of my movie review had not been properly named (sometime hilariously so, such as when Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa ended up garbled as Madagascar 2: Return to Africa in my review) and some films have unusual spelling quirks (did you know that the proper title of Adaptation. includes the period?) I note, with some satisfaction, that IMDB itself started out with the best of intentions and proper alphabetical order, but switched back to front-loading its articles in 2009: see https://getsatisfaction.com/imdb/topics/sorting_list_by_title_but_ignoring_articles

Q: What’s with the year of the movie? Didn’t such-and-such film come out later?

A: I have chosen to follow the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) when it comes to movie release dates. This speeds up data synchronization, but it does introduce strange artifacts: IMDB uses the first public screening date as a release date, even though many movies became available to the general public much later and hit mainstream success even later. Such examples include Paranormal Activity (first shown at the Screamfest Film Festival in October 2007, widely released in October 2009), The Hurt Locker (first shown at the Venice Film Festival in September 2008, limited release in US theaters in June 2009, Oscar winner in February 2010) and V for Vendetta (first screening at the Austin Butt-Numb-a-Thon film festival in December 2005, wide release in March 2006) among many others. I’m not happy about it, but the benefits of synchronizing my list of viewed films outweighs the 1-2% of films where this is weird or wrong. See http://www.imdb.com/help/show_leaf?titleformat for IMDB’s rationale in listing titles.

Q: What’s next for these reviews?

I’m not sure!  I’d like to publish more often, review more books, improve my writing and go a bit deeper in my analyses, but we’ll see what happens.

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