It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Reading by numbers


After yet another argument on a science fiction forum, I decided to work out how many books I’ve reviewed – because in order to review a book, I have to read it critically. Which is not to say I don’t normally read critically, although sometimes the book simply isn’t worth doing so; but for a review, no matter how bad the book is, I have to.

I have a rough idea of how many books I’ve read. Since I started keeping records in 1991 I’ve read 3220 books, but I’ve no real idea how many I read before that. Probably a couple of thousand more. I have, after all, been reading books for about 40 years. And around two-thirds of those books have been science fiction. So I’ve been reading it a long time, and I’ve read a lot of it. This means that when I say Asimov is a bad writer, I’m not saying it having never read any of his books. In fact, I’ve read most of his novel-length oeuvre, and a good many of his short stories.

But, critical reading… I started out reviewing books in 1988 for Paperback Inferno, a review magazine for the British Science Fiction Association. In 1992, Paperback Inferno was folded into Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, and I began reviewing for that magazine. I stopped a couple of years after I moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1994.

Between 1993 and 2003, I was in an APA called Acnestis, run by Maureen Kincaid Speller. Each month, we’d write a contribution – a combination of fan writing, criticism, reviews, commentary on previous months, etc – and produce thirty copies, which we’d post to Maureen. She would then sort those so each of us received an envelope containing a copy of each person’s contribution for that month. Acnestis helped keep me sane during my decade in the UAE. In my contributions, I usually mentioned the books I’d read that month. Sometimes it was just a capsule description, but occasionally I’d write a longer review. But only thirty people ever got to see those reviews.

In 2007, I started up this blog – originally on, but now on WordPress – and among the many things I posted were several reviews of books I’d read. I also republished some of my Acnestis reviews. In 2008, I became a reviewer for Interzone. In 2010, I was asked to provide reviews for SFF Chronicles. In 2011, I set up SF Mistressworks. And in 2012, when Daughters of Prometheus started, I began contributing to that…

So that’s a lot of reviews. It is, in fact, 237 reviews. And here are a few tables breaking down that figure:

Reviews by year
(Note ten-year gap from 1997 to 2007.)

year Total
1988 4
1989 4
1990 14
1991 9
1992 5
1993 20
1994 5
1995 1
1996 1
1997 4
2007 10
2008 24
2009 20
2010 26
2011 38
2012 44
2013 8
Grand Total 237

Reviews by venue
(I have counted reviews only by their original appearance.)

venue Total
Daughters of Prometheus 5
Interzone 21
It doesn’t have to be right 88
Paperback Inferno 33
SF Mistressworks 36
SFF Chronicles 16
The Lyre* 6
Vector 32
Grand Total 237

The top ten by number of books reviewed of authors.
(Gwyneth Jones is no surprise, and I do have a habit of reviewing each new Iain Banks genre novel as it appears. Two of the Ian Whates books were anthologies he edited.)

author Total
Gwyneth Jones 6
CJ Cherryh 5
Iain M Banks 5
Ian Whates 5
DG Compton 4
Carolyn Ives Gilman 3
Ken MacLeod 3
Louise Cooper 3
Pamela Sargent 3
Roger Zelazny 3

I have reviewed books by 182 different authors, not all of them genre. I’ve not included the capsule reviews I’ve posted to my blog in these numbers, though that would likely bump the figure by about another 100 or so. I can’t claim the quality of my reviews has been consistent, either over the years or within a single year. I like to think they’re readable, honest, and occasionally make useful points.

I don’t usually have the luxury of time to spend months giving a book a really deep read with the intent of writing several thousand words on it. There are far too many books I want to read, and a year in which I read only a dozen or so books would feel like a complete waste of twelve months to me. Of course, I don’t write a review of every book I read. Nor do I choose every book I read for review – for Interzone, for example, I can only pick from among what’s available, and I don’t always get my first choice.

But I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and I’d like to think I’ve sort of got the hang of it. I don’t consider myself a critic – I don’t have the toolset for that. And, to be honest, I’d sooner focus on writing my own fiction than study to be a critic. I think it is important, however, that if you want to seriously discuss science fiction, or any fiction for that matter, then you need to read critically. Otherwise it’s just squee. It’s no good being knowledgeable about a novel’s universe or story, you also need to understand how that story works, where the author has succeeded and where they have failed, and why. That’s what reviewers try to do, that’s what I try to do when I write about other people’s fiction. That’s what I’ve been trying to do since 1988, over the course of 237 book reviews…

* The Lyre was a small press genre magazine I co-edited in the early 1990s. We published two issues, featuring original fiction by Eric Brown, Simon Clark, Stephen Baxter, Michael Cobley, Keith Brooke, Gwyneth Jones, Peter F Hamilton, Peter T Garratt, and a few other less familiar names.

4 thoughts on “Reading by numbers

  1. Pingback: Reading Critically - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

  2. I agree that Asimov was a bad writer, although I still admire The Naked Sun. But I just can’t make myself reread Foundation and its sequels. But it isn’t just Asimov. Clarke was a poor writer too. Of the big three SF writers of the 1950s, only some of Heinlein’s books still hold up for me, mostly those from the 1950s. Heinlein could really write, when he wasn’t preaching.

    I have a hard time thinking of any of the SF books I grew up reading back in the 1960s as well written. Even stylists like Le Guin and Delany have their problems. Yet, some SF books written outside the genre do hold up today, like Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank.

    • I think Clarke was often a better writer than Heinlein. His prose was cold and impersonal, whereas Heinlein’s was almost chummy and confiding; but it suited his stories better, and was mostly successful at evoking wonder.

      Coincidentally, I’m reading On The Beach at the moment, and I’m finding it very bland. There is no prose style. It’s all he said, she said, this and then that. Most of the plot is carried in dialogue. It’s commercial fiction of its day, and it shows. Also, some of the details are a bit dodgy. (Ilyushin, for example, never made a Il-626 bomber; the number is nonsense.)

      • On the Beach has a lot of problems, and believability issues, but in the end it evokes quite an emotional response. Clarke always wrote his books as tools to explain his ideas. They just don’t flow as stories, and have zero human emotion. Science fiction has always been autistic in lacking an emotion depth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.