Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reviewing Anthologies...

In this post, I'm speaking as a reader. Over the years I've been part of more anthologies than I can count off hand. From college reviews to LGBT presses to e-publishers, I can't say I've ever read a scathing review about an anthology I've been part of either. I just wanted to clarify this so no one gets the impression I'm harping about my own reviews. I'd also like to mention that I rarely rate or review anthologies because it makes me feel uncomfortable. But, as a reader, I really do depend on anthology reviews when I'm shopping for books. And I'm not talking about reviews that were left by the authors in the anthology, the editor of the anthology, and the publisher of the anthology (I really don't like it when publishers and editors rate their own anthologies; it's not something I would ever do). I'm talking about solid impartial reviews from readers.

For me, when I'm shopping for an anthology, the best reviews are those that do get into more detail and are longer. I know I've said reviews can often be too long sometimes. But with anthologies I tend to prefer the detail and the rundown of each story...or at least one or two of the stories. For readers, shopping for an anthology can be tricky at best. We get an overall description of what the anthology is about with regard to theme. But we rarely get a short blurb to go along with each story. If I ever do edit another anthology of my own, which I don't see happening any time soon, I will ask each contributing author for a short two or three sentence description about their story instead of me writing a generalized blurb. I think this helps readers decide on whether or not the anthology is right for them.

What prompted this post is the following review. I've paraphrased it and I won't mention the anthology or the reviewer because that's not important. I just want to use it as an example of how confusing anthology reviews can be sometimes. And I'm just as guilty of doing this as others are. I think we've all done it at one time or another. Sometimes I go back and read older reviews I've written and I cringe at how many things I should have said and didn't. Because I'm not a book reviewer, my problem is that I'm always worried about giving out spoilers and I tend to hold back.

With an anthology you're going to have great stories and some shit, and this book is typical of the perfect combination of plastic and fine crystal.

The reviewer left a two star rating.

Of course the review is perfectly accurate in a general sense. I never buy an anthology and expect to love each and every story. But what about the great stories? Are they worth buying the book? If there are twenty stories in an anthology and fourteen of them are great and six aren't as good, I'd like to know this in the review so I can make the decision about whether or not to invest my time and money in the book. Just a few sentences is all it would take. And I think we all really do depend on these reviews when we are vetting books these days. I'm thinking about buying the new John Irving novel out and I'm reading each review as it comes in.

If I were to base my decision completely on this one review above, I probably wouldn't buy the book (actually, I didn't buy the book...but I'm still watching the reviews). Without getting any details at all about any of the stories, and just by seeing a two star review, my basic assumption is that the book is mediocre at best and I'd rather not take a chance. I assumed, which I hate to do, the reviewer was being polite and the book sucked. And sometimes that's such a shame. Sometimes there can be that one single story in an anthology that resonates with readers and inspires them, and the author of that story had to suffer because of nineteen average stories and one broad generalization. I might take the chance if I saw there was one great story in a review. For one great story I can deal with nineteen average stories. But without knowing this one small fact, I would simply assume the entire book isn't worth reading.

No matter what, buying an anthology in any genre is always a gamble. But if there is at least a little detail, readers get a chance to make a decision based on specific information instead of general information. I'm just as guilty of this sometimes as the reviewer I paraphrased above. And from now on I'm going to make an effort not to review with generalizations.

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