A Brief Treatise on the Purpose of Reviewing And a Shameless Attempt to Sell You Some Books

Eidolon has been publishing book reviews since its inception without really ever querying their purpose. What role do they fulfil? Basically, book reviews sell books: that is their function. A book is published and sent to a reviewer, free and gratis, in the hope of getting some publicity for it. This is as true for a large publisher as for a small one; the only difference being that the smaller publisher focuses his efforts more precisely. Publishers even go to the extent of providing advertising revenue to newspapers and magazines which publish book reviews to make sure that this occurs. In some cases, publishers have even been known to pay for the reception their product receives.

If this is the case, what it the value of a book review? At a broad level, book reviews provide a market guide for readers in an information-glutted world. There are only so many books or magazines that a reader has the time or money to read. Magazines like Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle provide information on the blizzard of sf novels and magazines produced every year, and guidance on what might be interesting and worthwhile.

Reviews, and more accurately criticism, contribute to a dialogue, an understanding of what is going on, particularly within a specialised environment. The writing, publishing and reading of the mode of fiction known as science fiction is a very specialised one. It addresses an audience which has, presumably, a developed understanding of the conventions and iconography of the genre: readers who are familiar with icons like the "gleaming future city", the "space ship", the "ray gun", the "faster than light drive"; readers who have a familiarity with basic character types; readers who understand that care and attention is needed when reading science fiction because it is often a literal and didactic form. What reviewers help do, and critics do more directly, is inform less-educated readers about the conventions of the genre, and to discuss what developments and changes may be occurring within it.

This is even truer when dealing with a subset of the genre, like Australian science fiction. There are contexts within which Australian science fiction exists which may be different from those within which science fiction as a whole exists. Gary Wolfe in Locus pointed out several things about Australian sf which were fascinating. He said, in reviewing Metaworlds, that "Australians still conform to the practice of producing convenient, hand-held volumes of only a dozen or so stories each" (it may not have occurred to him that this may simply be the result of lack of material or lack of publisher confidence) and, referring to the stories in the book, that "all of them play with good ideas with the sense of discovery and excitement that has become more characteristic of Australian writing than of any other kind"; fascinating observations, and ones which help describe Australian sf to an American audience and to ourselves.

So, book reviews help sell books, are part of a dialogue about the genre, help educate new readers - what else? Rightly or wrongly, they act as ego sustenance/maintenance for creators within the genre. Barry Oakley, literary editor for The Australian, writing in The Australian Magazine of 16 July 1994 in response to a comment from Dale Spender that reviewers' favourable comments may flatter the ego but don't make ultimately much impact, said that "Writers are like camels. The sustenance they store in their humps is praise. In the desert times, when ideas don't come, they live off their favourable comments for weeks. The newspaper clippings might turn brown, but the words themselves stay bright in the manilla folders of memory." Interesting, and probably true. Reviews often contain pull-quotes or glowing bits of praise which can be dredged up and re-read. However, this appears more to be incidental to the process of reviewing, than to be one of the functions of a book review. The author, in a sense, remains entirely outside the publisher-reviewer-reader loop, and the use to which the author puts that review remains essentially irrelevant to the process of reviewing. This is by no means an exhaustive catalogue of the functions and purposes of book reviews, but one which may be a starting point for some discussion on the why's and what for's of book reviewing in Eidolon and elsewhere.

And now, an exhortation for you to pay attention to some small press material which may otherwise be overlooked. Paul Williams, editor of Crawdaddy and The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick, has advised that he is preparing The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon for publication by North Atlantic Press. Volume One, The Ultimate Egoist, will be published in September 1994, and cover Sturgeon's earliest writings from 1937 to 1940, including all the short-short stories he wrote for newspaper syndication and many previously unpublished early writings, plus such major works as "It" and "Bianca's Hands". The page length is not known, but it is expected to be a substantial volume in hardcover, with jacket art by Jacek Yerka, forewords by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, and Gene Wolfe, and a long appendix of "Story Notes" which quote extensive comments on these stories from Sturgeon interviews and from his early correspondence. The book will sell for $US25, and will likely run to ten volumes, coming out every six months or so. Interested readers who want to be put on the Sturgeon Project mailing list should write to: Paul Williams, Box 231155, Encinitas, CA 92023 USA. Regrettably, your normal retailer may not carry this item and you may need to contact a specialist supplier. We recommend you contact Galaxy Bookshop in Sydney; Infinitas Bookshop in Parramatta, Gaslight Books in Canberra; Magic Circle Bookshop in Perth and Slow Glass Books in Melbourne. For mail order try Slow Glass Books at GPO Box 2708X, Melbourne 3001.

Oh, and finally, you may have noticed that we have redesigned the magazine. The evolution of the design of Eidolon is a continual process, and will continue indefinitely into the future, but we would particularly like to thank Keira McKenzie for her distinctive and stylish work on the initial designs of the magazine, and Shaun Tan for helping Eidolon reach this new interim phase. We hope you like it.

Originally appeared pp. 4-5, Eidolon 15, July 1994.
Copyright © 1994 Eidolon Publications.