Another reviewer who’ve I’ve connected to because of Twitter was Stefan Raets of Far Beyond Reality. I’d read his reviews both on FanLit and Tor.com, but only once I encountered him on Twitter, did I start to follow his reviews regularly. And I’m glad I did, because they’re always erudite and thoughtful, a quality which I always enjoy in reviewers. He only made the switch to his own blog earlier this year and I thought it would be interesting to find out why. So let’s see what Stefan had to say!
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Stefan Raets?
I was born and raised in Belgium but moved to New York right after grad school (more than 15 years ago now), so even though Dutch is technically my first language [Ed. Note: Dutch! Squee!], I’m more comfortable speaking and writing English. I currently live in San Diego with my beautiful wife and very bouncy five year old son. I spent over a decade in the corporate world but decided, right after my son was born, that life’s too short to waste it doing things I didn’t really enjoy, so I left my successful career behind to stay at home with my then-infant son. Result: much less stress, and much more time to focus on what I truly love: my family, reading, and writing. Best decision I ever made.
What got you into blogging?
I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I’ve also always been fascinated by book reviews. I was one of those kids who actually enjoyed writing book reports. My Master’s thesis compared different styles of literary criticism in Belgium — exciting stuff, let me tell you. When I left my old career (which had nothing to do with books at all), I decided as an exercise to make myself write full length, in-depth reviews of every single novel I read. I started posting those on my old Livejournal, which drew the attention of some authors and other SFF folks and eventually got me involved with FanLit, where I became a staff reviewer for about two years. Shortly after that, I was asked to start and run the Malazan Re-Read of the Fallen on Tor.com, but life got in the way and I ended up having to drop out of it before I properly got started. (Thank goodness my former FanLit colleagues Bill and Amanda were able to step in and take over that project. [Ed. Note: And to great success. I love that reread!]) Instead of writing those Malazan posts, I started reviewing for Tor.com, which (I soon realized) was more fun because I got to read and write about lots of different books and authors rather than focus on one series exclusively. As I got more and more review assignments, I decided to retire from FanLit to be able to focus on my work for Tor.com and also to launch my own blog, Far Beyond Reality.
Why Far Beyond Reality?
The name comes from the Beyond Reality discussion group, which is about two decades old and which I’ve been managing for about half of that time. We used to be on Yahoo Groups (and before that, on an email list server that was bought by Yahoo) and currently can be found on GoodReads. I’ve had to neglect the group a bit lately because I’ve been so busy with writing assignments, but Beyond Reality is still a great group of readers who constantly come up with wonderful book selections for our monthly discussions.
What is your unique selling point? Interviews, humour, news coverage?
I’m not sure if I’d use the term unique to describe what I do on FBR, but I hope that the quality of my reviews is what keeps people coming back. Maybe it’s because I’m a freelance editor as well as a writer, but I usually end up polishing and re-writing my reviews obsessively. I also always try to balance what I consider the three main components of a good review: description, interpretation and evaluation. I try to make sure that readers discover books they will enjoy, even if they’re not always the kinds of books I enjoy myself. I obviously have favorite authors and genres, but I also like to pick books that just look unique or interesting and often highlight debut authors or lesser known works. In the end, I love nothing more than recommending books to people, and I hope that enthusiasm somehow shows up on the site, too.
What are your goals for your blog?
I just try to provide a place for detailed, in-depth reviews of science fiction and fantasy books. Aside from reviews, I also try to post the occasional interview and have recently started running giveaways of novels I reviewed and enjoyed, so while I wouldn’t call FBR a comprehensive SF&F blog (yet), I do want to extend it more outside of the realm of just reviews. Professionally speaking, I’m a freelance writer and editor, so the site is also a place for me to showcase what I do and find other writing gigs and SFF-related work. (And a final goal that may sound a bit silly, but I look forward to seeing an FBR review quoted on the cover of a novel some day. That happened with several of my FanLit and Tor.com reviews, and it was always thrilling to see.) [Ed. Note: That last one is not silly! I think I’d freak if AFL ever got quoted on a cover, that would be so very cool.]
One of the eternal book reviewer debates is to rate or not to rate? Where do you stand on the issue?
It’s an interesting question. Book ratings are helpful for readers because they provide a quick, quantitative look at the book. People glance at those ratings and often decide to read or not to read based just on the number of stars. The thing is, those ratings are highly subjective, not just because they reflect only one person’s opinion but also because everyone rates things differently: I’ll give a good novel three stars, an excellent one four stars, and only give what I consider a modern classic five stars. (Because of this, back on FanLit, I ended up being known as “Stingy Stefan” because I’d write a fairly positive review and then give the book “just” three stars.) Other people follow completely different guidelines for their ratings, so unless you really know the rater or reviewer, the actual number of stars is fairly meaningless. Also, in the end, a rating is really a huge simplification of the opinions expressed in the review, which is already a summarized, simplified opinion of an often complex piece of literature. So, after much hemming and hawing, I decided to cut that string of simplifications by abandoning ratings and instead trying to be as detailed as possible in the review. It will probably lose me some readers who’d rather get a quick opinion, but so be it. (Plus, being active on GoodReads I still rate everything I read there. I even have a GoodReads widget sitting in the sidebar of the blog, so if anyone really cares, it’s not that hard to find my actual ratings.)
Negative reviews, yay or nay? And why?
Yes, absolutely. It annoys me to no end when blogs never or only very rarely post negative reviews. I tend to lose interest and, ultimately, respect for reviewers who only post positive reviews. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to be able to write about books you didn’t like. If you can’t or won’t do that, you’ll sound like a cheerleader. At the same time, I really don’t appreciate reviewers who can’t express a negative opinion without going overboard. We’re writing about someone’s baby here, about a book someone spent blood, sweat and tears on. If you didn’t like it, fine, by all means let us know – but don’t make it a hatchet job. I dislike it when reviewers are more concerned with sounding clever than with the book they’re supposed to be reviewing, and I hate snark for snark’s sake. One of the hardest things to write as a reviewer is a negative review that’s still balanced, detailed and polite. [Ed. Note: Very true.]
While I have a hard time keeping up with just A Fantastical Librarian to provide content for, you write regularly for Far Beyond Reality, Tor.com and contribute occasionally to fantasyliterature.com. What’s your secret? Do you own a time-turner and if so, can I borrow it some time?
I don’t have many other time-consuming hobbies, and I love what I do, so it’s not hard for me to make time for books. I still consider myself a slacker compared to some other bloggers like Justin from Staffer’s Musings and especially Sarah from Bookworm Blues, who just seem to read more and produce more good content than any single human being should be able to. Despite my chronic insomnia, which adds a few hours of reading time to many of my nights, I just can’t keep up with them.
How important are blogs to your reading choices?
For the last few years I’ve almost only read books before they were released, and I never read reviews of books I’m still planning to read and review myself (to avoid being influenced in any kind of way), so the only time I’ll read a review nowadays is when I’m sure I won’t review it myself – either to stay aware of what’s out there, to add to my ever-growing list of “books I plan to read if I ever catch up with my teetering stack of review copies”, or to compare opinions after I’ve written my own review. There are a few bloggers out there whose taste I trust almost implicitly.
How do you think blogs and reviewers fit in the book business?
Bloggers have become a very significant part of the way people find out about books, but in the end, most of us are really just enthusiastic fans who decided to put our opinions out there for everyone to see. It’s an interesting situation: we’re unpaid volunteers who wield a certain amount of influence. You can argue about the “unpaid” part and about the exact amount of influence, but regardless, it’s still a unique point in the history of the publisher/book critic relationship. For readers, I think the blogosphere is a great resource, because you can get to know a blogger’s taste pretty quickly, making it a much more personal way of getting recommendations than the bigger sites like Amazon and GoodReads. When it comes to finding out about new books, I’d rather check a few good blogger reviews than trust the aggregate scores at Amazon or GoodReads or the professional reviews by e.g. Kirkus or Publishers Weekly.
What is your current read and what book are you most eagerly awaiting?
I just started reading Be My Enemy, the sequel to Ian McDonald’s YA novel Planesrunner (which I absolutely loved). Most eagerly awaiting – oh goodness, I have a bunch of great-looking ARC’s due up for review soon. I tend to bite off more than I can chew (“sure, I’ll review that trilogy by next week!”) so I actually have a “to be reviewed” shelf on GoodReads, arranged by publication date to force myself to read what I should be reading next rather than what I feel like reading. As for forthcoming books I’m anticipating most eagerly – I’d pay money for an early look at Steven Brust’s next Dragaeran novel (he just posted something on his blog indicating it’ll be a while though), the forthcoming Guy Gavriel Kay novel, and the new Scott Lynch novel. Any of those would go straight to the top of the queue, should they land on my doorstep tomorrow.
Is there something else you’re obsessed with other than books?
Music. I’m a huge music geek with a ridiculously large collection of tracks and albums across all genres. If I had the time and energy, I’d run a music blog too, but I have to pick my battles. Connecting this to SF&F: it may be odd, but I need to have music on in the background while I’m reading. However, to avoid getting distracted I always play either instrumental music (soundtracks, classical) or music with unintelligible lyrics (e.g. Sigur Ros or my favorite band ever, Cocteau Twins). I’m a big fan of last.fm, which is like GoodReads but for music.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Well, I just moved last month, and I donated a fairly large amount of books (between 1/3 and 1/4 of my collection) to the local public library, both to support the organization (often chronically underfunded here in the US) and also so I could shelve my remaining books properly. Before that, they were basically stacked, piled and shoved onto the shelves wherever they would fit. Right now, they’re still not arranged alphabetically or by genre or anything like that, but at least they’re more or less grouped by author and sitting right side up on shelves, which is a huge improvement for me. Of course, it’ll probably only take a few months before that system falls apart and I’m tripping over stacks of books again.
Thanks for the interview, Stefan! If you’ve never read any of Stefan’s reviews, you can find them on his blog or Tor.com. Go read them, they’re very much worth seeking out! You can also follow Stefan on Twitter and Facebook.