Saturday, March 20, 2010

Examples of authentic reviewerese

I've been thinking about research lately -- specifically, the words and phrases used to describe how effective an author has been at it.

Two weeks ago, I came across a review of a historical novel that was described as "impeccably researched." It was meant as a compliment, and most authors would take it that way, understandably so. I emailed the review to a friend who knows the period well, figuring she'd be interested in hearing about it. It turned out she had already read the novel, and disagreed with the assessment. There were many significant, surprising errors in the book, which she found disappointing.

Of course, readers look for much more in historical fiction than facts that are 100% correct. Nobody wants to read infodumps, and novelists sometimes alter history slightly (or more than that) for the storyline's sake. On the other hand, the problematic review casts doubt not only on the author's credibility, but also the reviewer's.

"Impeccably researched" is one of many phrases that has unfortunately slipped into reviewerese, that special lingo used by book reviewers as a short way of saying how they feel about a work. The terms "emotional rollercoaster," "laugh-out-loud funny," and "unputdownable" all belong to this vocabulary; they're overused to such an extent that they've become signs of cliched writing. There's even a bingo game based around them. (Disclaimer: I know many excellent reviewers who've used words on those scoreboards. So have I!)

Along with a wish that a historical novel be (mostly) accurate, readers want it to provide a sense of authenticity. They want to be made to believe that the historical world an author creates is real, that it could have existed as described.

Yesterday, a friend sent me to a SF/fantasy fiction blog which posted the following quote from writer Saladin Ahmed:
... I wish reviewers/critics would stop using [authenticity] as a criterion. 90% of critical/readerly praise for authenticity amounts to either “this guy imagines this culture in a manner which agrees with my imagining of this culture,” or “I didn’t know anything about Malaysian street culture, but now I do!”
That is to say, terms describing a novel's research or authenticity are used all the time by reviewers to indicate something other than what they actually denote.

When you see a novel described as impeccably researched, meticulously researched, or historically accurate (and you'll find this in publicity material, too), what the reviewer may really mean is: "the author includes a lot of historical details that made the setting come alive" or "I didn't notice anything obviously wrong" or "I learned a ton of new info from this book" or even "it has a massively long bibliography." Or it could mean exactly what it says. Without knowing anything about the reviewer's capability to judge such things, it's impossible to know for sure.

Likewise, the word "authentic" often refers to the author's exceptional world-building skills. Are the setting, atmosphere, and characters convincing enough to seem real? This may or may not reflect accuracy -- especially given the preponderance of the phrase in instances where the reviewer admits knowing little about the setting.

I'd cut people some slack for writing that a novel feels authentic rather than outright stating that it is such. It's possible to praise the author's knowledge, efforts, and world-building abilities while still acknowledging his/her limitations in writing about a time that s/he didn't personally experience -- as well as the reviewer's limitations in evaluating that author's work.

These words, like all of reviewerese, should be used judiciously. Careful consideration of the real meaning behind these oft-used phrases makes for stronger, more trustworthy, and (dare I say) more authentic reviews -- and isn't that something worth striving for?


  1. Great post Sarah. I need to look out for that in the future. I'm pretty sure that I've used the words 'historically accurate' when I meant to say that the details the author used added to the feel of the novel.

  2. I agree -- good points.

  3. Anonymous12:08 PM

    Readers view of "research" for a book especially an historical novel can vary as that reader's actual knowledge (some might be controversial) and expectations. One might view details, technical or atmospheric (ways of life) as important, others speech and ideas and anachronism. Recently read a book set in Maximilian Mexico 1862-67, the atmosphere was right, the overall events timeline too, the author must have been very much more interested into the court than the military things. His battles were not right, the armament, tactics and even organization were wrong. It did nothing wrong to the book, it just had me shook my head as in" why did he not do it right?"

  4. I don't see how anyone can know if a novel has been well researched or not unless they themselves have specialist knowledge of the period. Even then it can be hard to tell in some cases without checking the source with the author. I like to read books in areas I don't know a lot about because then I'm not irritated by inaccuracies - but in that case I am wary of passing judgement on the research, however good the book seems.

  5. This is something I'm going to pay active attention to, myself, as I don't want to be claiming an authority/expertise that I don't have. I would think it's acceptable to say (if one has specialist knowledge) that the timeline of events as depicted was accurate, or that particular details are authentic to a period... but to say that a novel provides an authentic experience or an accurate trip to the past (I've seen both of these written) isn't something that's easy to verify! It's very tempting to say, however, in an attempt to praise an author's work.

  6. Those bingo cards. Ow, ow, ow, ow!

  7. A thought-provoking post. One reason I like reading Georgette Heyer, even though I have to suspend my feminist sensibilities for the duration, is that I feel as though I'm getting a mini history lesson with each book. The same can't be said for many other writers who set their fiction in the Regency era. I sometimes wonder if they do any original research at all?

  8. Great post, Sarah. Gives me a lot to think about!

  9. I have concluded from sad experience that "impeccably researched" invariably means the exact opposite.

  10. Super! I really enjoyed reading this post. I have to think if I have used that...I hope not. One phrase that gets me lately is when a reviewer uses the phrase, "the characters were fully fleshed out". I have heard this so much lately it turns me so off when reading a review. Have you come across this?
    By the way, I love your header. :)

    Thanks for this great post. Wisteria

  11. I've seen that phrase before, and am sure I've used it or similar wording, too. There are some phrases that I'm sure everyone's used at one time or other, if they've reviewed long enough... the trick is being aware of them and realizing that they've become cliche. Glad you like the new header!