Reviewing Blues

"Be careful what you wish for, because you may get it." So a million finger-wagging moralists have warned us. As a lad, I reckoned my simple wish for more and more books was blameless, high-minded and couldn't possibly go wrong. I hadn't thought ahead to the day when, living with maybe twenty thousand volumes in a big Victorian house, I'm forever fretting about making room for new arrivals.

Free review copies were part of the dream. When I was new to SF fandom, there was a mysterious monopoly deal whereby one enthusiast had persuaded British publishers that he was the official reviews agent for UK fanzines. He cornered all SF review copies and doled them out to editors he approved of. I sent in a humble request but never got anything, apparently because I'd been in the Oxford University SF Group and Official Monopoly Man thought students were poncy elitists.

So I scrounged review copies for my first fanzine by writing to publishers about this "major new journal of SF criticism" in terms that surely made them think, "What a poncy elitist." Unlikely books trickled in. Nonfiction on the healing powers of cod-liver oil; Clive James's first collection of TV reviews (good stuff, but ...); a dreadful self-published SF novel by Lord Weymouth of Longleat House in which the human race has evolved into "huge steaming lumps of purple jelly, anchored to metallic plates which are embedded within rubberised constructions of great architectural beauty ... And we emit a soft, musical blurping sound for the purposes of communication." Blurp!

Here the page ripples and blurs to indicate the passage of decades during which – thanks to my long book-reviewing stint in White Dwarf and other games magazines – regular parcels of freebie genre fiction became part of life. So did the need for a bigger house.

The books still swarm in, burying the doormat in piles of young-adult vampire zombie dystopias with big swords. Some are ARCs, advance reading copies, blazoned with hideous warnings against parting with this priceless rarity. Apparently you must keep all ARCs forever or resort to book-burning. Usually I pass the moral dilemma to Oxfam.

(Peter F. Hamilton's publishers went through a phase of having him sign all his review ARCs. All that wrist-ache and writer's cramp, suffered in the sure knowledge that he wouldn't be getting a penny in royalties from any of those copies ...)

In the old days, freebies sometimes came with a gentlemanly note saying "It is particularly requested that no review should appear before the date of publication." The post-Harry Potter era is harsher, with occasional paranoid publicists who ask the hapless reviewer to sign a formal embargo agreement, laden with hideous legal penalty clauses, before being allowed to see the book (hardly ever by an author likely to induce J.K. Rowling-style spoiler frenzy). In these cases I murmur inaudibly yet with much emotion, "If you don't trust me, you can sod off."

Another change that's tiresome for peace-loving reviewers is a switch of (metaphorical) reproductive strategies. Trad publishing used what biologists called the r-strategy: spraying review copies all over the place like frogspawn, in hope that a lucky few will prosper. Now, maybe because of increasingly steep postal costs, some publicists have switched to the K-strategy where each precious volume is cherished like a human child and found the best possible home. In practice this means email exchanges in which a wheedling PR person tries to persuade the surly and uncooperative critic (me) to make a firm commitment to read and review some treasured work before actually seeing the thing. I never know how to answer those emails.

Then there's the reviewing ... but that's the easy part.

David Langford gets his headaches from the hard part, which is reading the bloody books.