Review Duel

Apr. 5th, 2006 10:43 pm
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A little while ago, [ profile] grahamsleight reacted with slight surprise when I said that I thought his review of 20th Century Ghosts was particularly good, and in particular better than mine. I half-promised to make a post justifying my assertion, but haven't done a very good job of getting around to it and I'm going on holiday (and away from the internet) in thirty-six hours, so no time like the present.

This is, however, very much the 'brief notes' version. I should say, though, that I'm not trying to establish some canonical standard for 'a good review'; this is about what I like in reviews, and what I want my own reviews to be like. It is also, I'm sure, going to be utterly tedious except for the three of you who also care about this sort of thing, so it's going under a cut.

Read more... )

For my next trick, I will compare both of the above reviews to John Clute's review. Or not.
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A couple of weeks ago, for the second time ever, I got paid for a review. It felt, and still feels, a bit weird.

In part it feels weird because it doesn't seem justified. If sf reviewing were a salaried profession, there are a large number of people I'd put in the queue to be employed before myself. This is, clearly, not false modesty; there are a lot of good reviewers in this field, and to a fairly large extent I often write about books because other people aren't. If I could get anyone I wanted to write about anything I wanted, I doubt I'd personally write very much. (Convenient that I'm a reviews editor, you might say.)

In part it feels weird because, well, I'm just not used to it. This is not an enterprise with a large target audience. Shallow shiny commercial reviews are a possible exception, but I don't have much interest in either writing or reading those. So I've never expected to be paid for anything I write, and (review copies aside) the majority of places I've written reviews for--Foundation, Interzone, Vector, etc--don't pay. Even somewhere like The New York Review of Science Fiction only pays $10 a review.

I can't imagine not wanting to write for any of those places because of their pay rates or lack thereof. NYRSF is arguably the most respected venue for reviews in sf at the moment; getting a review in there means something. It's a similar story with the other three, although other factors come into play, as well. For some of the above, I write reviews because I want to support them, and I think I can do a decent job. For some of them, the editorial guidance they offer is crucial: I want feedback on my reviews; I want to get better. (There are also venues I don't desperately want to write for, despite the fact that they pay, for the converse reasons.) And then there are the reviews I write, as mentioned, just because other people haven't done so. That's the impetus behind blogging, after all, wanting to be part of the discussion.

At this point we come to Strange Horizons. Before last autumn's relaunch, the Strange Horizons reviews department bought and published one in-depth review a week. Since the relaunch, we've been publishing four reviews a week, and paying for as many as we can. We can't afford to pay for them all. The theoretical solution has been to have a cutoff point, with reviews of 500--750 words unpaid, and longer reviews paid. In practice, many people have been generous, and donated longer reviews.

It is, obviously, not an ideal situation. I try to rotate, but there are plenty of people I haven't been able to pay yet. The immediate alternatives are to pay an (even) smaller amount, but pay for every review, or to publish less reviews. Neither of those appeal to me, the first because it would be an empty gesture, and the second because for the reviews department to be what I want it to be, we need to be publishing more than four reviews a month. What I want it to be, of course, is a venue of the type I was discussing above: a place people want to support, a place people receive whuffie for being published in, and a place where people know their reviews will be well-edited. The long-term theory behind Strange Horizons, not just the reviews department, is surely to believe that it can develop a virtuous circle: that putting out good content will increase the audience, which will increase income during fund drives, which will enable the magazine to pay more for more things.

There are various failure points in this plan. An obvious one is if the editorial control sucks, but (equally obviously) I prefer to believe that the editorial control (in all departments) is actually pretty good. Another failure point, though, is that if it turns out that most people who write reviews aren't like me--and guess what? That one might be true. For starters, there are plenty of reviewers who are also writers, who review partly to earn a little bit of extra money, and who therefore won't want to review for Strange Horizons. This is not unreasonable. It would perhaps be possible to dismiss such people as mercenaries who don't really care about reviewing for itself, but given the large number of author-critics that sf has generated and continues to generate, such a reaction would more than likely be unfair.

So there we are: money makes things complicated. Big revelation. I suppose that if I were to really practise what I preach, I would donate anything I earn from reviewing to Strange Horizons, but when I can spend it on (say) this evening's theatre trip instead, I'm not quite that altruistic. It may feel a bit weird but, like everyone else, I'd prefer to be paid than not.
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Because of the circumstances under which it was initially recommended to me, I very nearly never read this book. That would have been a shame. And in the end, to be perfectly honest, one of the reasons I read it at all was simply so that I would be able to say that I had. Moreover, I was more than half-minded not to write about it, based on the suspicion that any discussion that followed would rapidly become tiring and unproductive. But not writing about it would be to do the book a disservice, so here I am; and if you've never trusted any other recommendation you've seen of it, please trust mine. Whatever issues I bring up below, bear in mind that if you have any interest in how society discusses and assigns value to writing I would still say this book is worth reading.

How to Suppress Women's Writing is a short book by Joanna Russ, about 150 pages, first published in 1983. It is part historical study, part feminist critique, part literary survey, and part polemic. It takes as its starting point the obvious fact that writing by women is under-represented in popular and literary canons, and then outlines mechanisms by which this is achieved. Occasionally writing by other cultural minorities is also considered. You can read the prologue and the first chapter here. Laid out baldly, the list of mechanisms looks daft:

- She didn't write it
- She wrote it, but she had help
- She wrote it but she shouldn't have
- She wrote it, but look what she wrote about
- She wrote it but she only wrote one of it
- She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist (but it isn't really art)
- She wrote it, but she's an anomaly

Some of them don't look any less daft in context, but Russ doesn't, for the most part, suggest that these mechanisms are conscious--
In the case of women writers and other 'wrong' groups practicing art, the techniques of containment, belittlement, and sheer denial are sometimes so very illogical (and so very prevalent) that it's hard not to believe there's a conscious conspiracy going on--how could anyone argue so idiotically and not be aware of it? Yet it's equally easy to insist that silliness like that must be a matter of ignorance--how could anyone aware of such idiocy not stop, if for no other reason than sheer embarrassment? And if the theory of conscious conspiracy won't do (with some exceptions, chiefly where money is involved), while the theory of total ignorance won't do either, what's going on? (17)
--rather that they are unconscious, inherent in the established framework of literary study. They propagate when people do not question their context or the context of ideas presented to them. This is a (relentlessly) negative view of humanity, but it does force you to sit up and think about your own complicity in the works that society has wrought.

In general, Russ writes acutely, honestly and entertainingly about these problems. But she can also be extremely frustrating; the most common experience I had while reading How to Suppress Women's Writing was one of saying "yes, but ..." For instance, immediately after the passage above she continues:
(There is a third theory, in which each supposed case of sexism, racism or class disadvantage becomes a matter of personal enmity here or chance there or some other motive somewhere else. Such a theory is part of the problem, not its explanation. It amounts simply to the denial that there is a problem.) (17-18)
Yes, but ... this is a substantial simplification, and that makes me uneasy. Several times, Russ makes it clear that How to Suppress Women's Writing is not intended as a definitive statement, that she has had neither the time or the resources to achieve that and encourages others to pick up where she leaves off, which is fair enough; and yet, and yet. Because the thing is, a given case of sexism, racism or class disadvantage does not become a matter of personal enmity, or chance, or some other motive, it almost certainly is a matter of personal enmity, or chance, or some other motive. It is both an individual case and part of a pattern, and while--as Russ correctly points out--to concentrate only on individual details is to miss the forest for the trees, to consider only the forest seems to me equally problematic.

At other points, she undermines excellent insights with less-than-perfect metaphors:
In everybody's present historical situation, there can be, I believe, no single center of value and hence no absolute standards. That does not mean that assignment of values must be arbitrary or self-serving (like my students, whose defense of their poetry is "I felt it"). It does mean that for the linear hierarchy of good and bad it becomes necessary to substitute a multitude of centers of value, each with its own periphery, some closer to each other, some farther apart.


There used to be an odd, popular, and erroneous idea that the sun revolved around the earth.

This has been replaced by an even odder, equally popular, and equally erroneous idea that the earth goes around the sun.

In fact, the moon and the earth revolve around a common center, and this commonly-centred pair revolves with the sun around another common center, except that you must figure in all the solar planets here, so things get complicated. (120-21)
You can see what she's trying to do, and I'm sympathetic to it, but the problem is that as soon as you start thinking about her metaphor in terms of why, it breaks down. The reason a heliocentric view was (eventually) adopted is that it is more accurate than geocentrism. The reason we have not adopted a more general view of cosmology for our day-to-day lives, although we know that it is true, is because it is not particularly more useful to do so. Heliocentrism is good enough for most purposes, and I don't think that's an implication that Russ wanted there.

My biggest reservation about the book, though, is in what it says about reviewing and criticism, or more accurately in what it leaves me as a reviewer able to say: sometimes, it doesn't seem to leave me very much at all. That is to a certain extent to be expected. This is primarily a piece of political writing, one that draws attention to patterns that anyone thinking about fiction should be aware of; it is probably not intended to be taken as a literal model for criticism. And yet ...

Chapter 7 deals with 'she wrote it, but she only wrote one of it': the idea that, say, Jane Eyre is the only book by Charlotte Bronte in the literary canon because it's the only book she wrote that's worth reading. I had a number of problems with this. First, it is an argument directed at people who believe that 'the canon' is in some way definitive, whereas I take it to be a starting point. Secondly, it should be obvious that representative cherry-picking is not something that afflicts only women writers. Russ is well aware of this, and so it turns out that the first few pages of the chapter are misdirection before she gets to the real thrust of her argument:
One might argue--and justly--that many male writers are also represented by only one book or one group of poems. I would answer first that the damage done the women is greater because the women constitute so few of the total in anthologies, classes, curricula, and reading lists at any level of education. Moreover, the real mischief of the myth of the isolated achievement, as it is applied to the "wrong" writers, is that the criteria of selection are in themselves loaded and so often lead to the choice of whatever in the writer's work will reinforce the stereotypical notion of what women can write or should write. (65)
This makes sense; I buy it. It doesn't distill into a soundbite as neat as 'she wrote it, but she only wrote one of it,' however, which is a bit unfortunate for a book that is most often referenced by its soundbites. And what do you do if you believe that the soundbite is true? If you've read most or everything by a writer, but are of the opinion that only one or two of the works are genuinely memorable?

I also had problems working out what Russ actually thinks about "women's writing" as a category. In the above quote she appears to be against the idea that it is a category with unique content. This view comes up at other points as well: one of the variants of "she didn't write it" that she examines is "the man inside her wrote it", deriding the idea that "human or personal complexity is reduced to two sets of characteristics, one male, one female." (22) And yet at other times, she seems quite strongly attached to the idea that there are things only women's writing says, going so far as to argue that men misunderstand women's art, and therefore undervalue it, because they are ignorant of women's experience. This seems slightly contradictory, and leads into another restriction on what I can say:
If women's experience is defined as inferior to, less important than, or "narrower" than men's experience, women's writing is automatically denigrated.

If women's experience is simply not seen, the effect will be the same.

She wrote it but look what she wrote about becomes she wrote it, but it's unintelligible/badly constructed/thin/spasmodic/uninteresting, etc, a statement by no means identical with she wrote it, but I can't understand it (in which case the failure might be with the reader). (48)
There's a variant of the accessibility debate to be had here--is it desireable that a work contain the information necessary to make it comprehensible?--but I'm more than willing to accept that works can be misinterpreted by readers outside their context. But this seems to go further, arguing that because I am a man I can never be a part of the work's context, and that the only valid criticism of a book that I don't like that is by a woman is "I can't understand it."

This somewhat kneecaps criticism. For instance, I have read two particularly strong science fiction novels by women that were published this year, by Justina Robson and Tricia Sullivan. Can I say that I think the Robson is the more successful? What do you think of my opinion if I further tell you that the Sullivan is the more overtly feminist? How about if I say that a couple of the stories in Holly Phillips' collection In The Palace of Repose do, in fact, seem to me a little thin? The problem is that although every statement that means "I can't understand this" can be written as a more face-saving "this is badly constructed", not every "this is badly constructed" means "I can't understand this." Because fiction by women is going to be just like fiction by men: flawed. The solution, of course, is to write reviews grounded in specific criticisms that allow the reader to judge for themselves whether the conclusions drawn are valid; but this still requires a certain trust in the reviewer, rather than prejudging their suitability on the basis of gender.

As I said before this long litany of nitpicks, I think How to Suppress Women's Writing is worth reading. In a weird way, the fact that I've nitpicked is meant as a recommendation; it is such an argumentative book that you want to argue back, which is as good a way as any of testing how well your own positions stand up. The best way to avoid unconscious prejudice is to be conscious, and for the most part Russ does an excellent job of demonstrating how and why her list of suppressive mechanisms work (how relevant they are twenty-two years after the book was published is up to the individual reader to decide; for myself, some of them seem more prevalent than others). What's missing, perhaps, is a sense of the possible. This is a book that says 'this must be done.' It even ends with a direct challenge: "I've been trying to finish this monster for thirteen ms pages and it won't. Clearly it's not finished. You finish it." (132) But the book doesn't seem terribly confident that this can ever really be done. I'd like to be a little less pessimistic than that.
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Following on from the duelling reviews of Learning the World that [ profile] immortalradical and I had at Strange Horizons the other week, and from this conversation about valid critical opinions (which itself spun off from this post by Matt Cheney about this story by Eliot Fintushel), [ profile] greengolux has a fascinating post here about accessibility as a quality of fiction:
The questions I've been asking myself in relation to all this are: can a reader who is outside of the target audience make a reasonable judgement about the quality of a work, and can a work's overall quality be judged on the size of the audience it's targeted at?
These are not questions with particularly easy or obvious answers, as the resulting discussion shows. They are also questions that come up time and again in discussions about sf, as John Scalzi's recent discussions about 'entry-level' science fiction, and all the satellite discussions of that concept, demonstrate.

After linking to all that discussion, I'm not sure there's a lot I can add, except a brief position statement. I think the answer to [ profile] greengolux's first question has to be 'yes and no'. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and I'm sure I'm on record somewhere as saying that an outside (or 'naive', for non-pejorative values of 'naive') perspective is valuable. It's one of the reasons I value [ profile] immortalradical's reviews, and more broadly, why some of the most interesting and useful reviews can be the ones I disagree with. But I also think that, as an outsider to something, it is possible to Just Not Get It. Like [ profile] greengolux, that's my basic reaction to Jane Austen, and although I would defend my right to have my opinions of Austen's books, I fully accept that I don't have a lot to bring to an informed discussion of her work.

I could learn, of course--any set of reference points can be learned--and that brings us to the second question. Primarily because context is learnable, I strongly doubt that the size of a work's audience has any bearing on the assessment of a work's quality. On the part of the writer, I am skeptical of the idea that aiming for universality is a good thing, or even a possible thing; I'm not even sure what a universal story would be, or what it could say. On the part of the reader, I am skeptical of the idea that that barriers to entry are inherently bad things. Just because I wouldn't give someone who's never read sf Accelerando doesn't make it a bad book, and just because anyone with a reading age in double digits can pick up The Da Vinci Code doesn't make it a good book. Historical context, or conceptual density, or linguistic complexity, or literary context--all of those are things that an individual reader may or may not appreciate. It is not the work's fault if a reader doesn't appreciate its strengths (indeed, it can be a shame, but it's not anyone's fault as such).

Yes, writing within a context may limit the audience to which a book is accessible, and yes, that has to be accepted--and yes, such writing can be artistically limited as well. I'm not excusing works that, to borrow [ profile] immortalradical's phrase, preach 'a weak sermon to the baying choir'. It's just that the flipside to those books--the books that extend or develop an ongoing argument (which is one of the things I suggest Learning the World does), or that explore their context in minute depth (say, The Name of the Rose)--are, not infrequently, the books I wouldn't give up for the world.

(Bonus marks for anyone who can link this debate back into the self-indulgence debate of earlier in the year, thus constructing a hideous meta-debate impenetrable to anyone who hasn't read fifty posts on two dozen different blogs. Go on, I bet it'd be easy.)

EDIT: [ profile] zarabee comments on accessibility here, and [ profile] sartorias does the same here.
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Or more accurately, of yesterday, but I forgot to link it then so I link it now: Geneva writes about subjectivity and evaluating literature:
Sometimes I want critical analysis to provide reasons that will show other people why they should like the books I like. Not because I think everyone should like exactly what I like, but because if I think a book is really good then I want to share that with people, give them the opportunity to get the same sort of experience out of reading the book that I got. But critical analysis can't and won't provide reasons like that. The best it can do is provide reasons why a reader who reads and appreciates literature in the same way as I do will like the book in question.

That's the best I can hope for as a reviewer. That whatever I write will communicate to people who know my tastes what they can expect from the book, given how what I like compares to what they like. The aims of reviewing are different from the aims of academic philosophical writing, and I've got to adjust to that. In philosophy there's no room for mere opinion, you're writing to convincingly and objectively argue your case, aiming to persuade everyone who reads your argument that you are right with cold, hard logic. Whereas reviewing is all about opinion, it's never going to convince everyone, isn't even supposed to. An objective reviewer is an oxymoron.
Lots of interesting stuff in the comments, too.
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Kelly Link's Magic For Beginners is reviewed in the New York Times by Michael Knight (yes, really). He seems a bit confused:
Take ''Some Zombie Contingency Plans.'' It's about a recently released convict who drives around the suburbs looking for parties to crash because he's lonely. There are zombies here, but are they real? The premise is fresh and the characters (the con, the girl whose party he crashes, her little brother who sleeps under the bed) are likable and Link puts a metafictional twist on the narrative voice (''This is a story about being lost in the woods,'' she says), but the story doesn't quite come together, and those zombies -- are they supposed to be a metaphor?
Scott Westerfeld explains:
Allow me to explain, Mr. Non-sf-Reading Reviewer Man. Sure, zombies can “be a metaphor.” They can represent the oppressed, as in Land of the Dead, or humanity’s feral nature, as in 28 Days. Or racial politics or fear of contagion or even the consumer unconscious (Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead). We could play this game all night.

But really, zombies are not “supposed to be metaphors.” They’re supposed to be friggin’ zombies. They follow the Zombie Rules: they rise from death to eat the flesh of the living, they shuffle in slow pursuit (or should, anyway), and most important, they multiply exponentially. They bring civilization down, taking all but the most resourceful, lucky and well-armed among us, whom they save for last. They make us the hunted; all of us.

That’s the stuff zombies are supposed to do. Yes, they make excellent symbols, and metaphors, and have kick-ass mytho-poetic resonance to boot. But their main job is to follow genre conventions, to play with and expand the Zombie Rules, to make us begin to see the world as a place colored by our own zombie contingency plans.
EDIT: A relevant comment at Making Light:
I got into a rather heated argument a few months back with someone who was insisting that Tooth and Claw was good because "it isn't really about dragons." I said that it was too really about dragons, and that it would have been a much worse novel if it had not been really about dragons. "But I mean, really about dragons," said the other person. And I said yes, really about dragons. It didn't matter how many kinds of typographical emphasis she attempted to vocalize: Tooth and Claw is about dragons.

It also does other things, but if every little thing in it was a metaphor for man's inhumanity to radishes or some damn thing, it would suck.
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One of my many, many memories from Worldcon is a brief conversation with [ profile] grahamsleight and [ profile] mattia about bad habits in reviews. The initial reason for the conversation was my review of Accelerando in the latest Interzone, which I feel indulges in a bad habit.

It was the first piece I wrote for them, and the first time I tried to compress a coherent judgement into 400 words. I mostly stand by the content, but I don't think I got the construction of it quite right. I don't think it's a bad review, as such, but for instance (as [ profile] nuttyxander pointed out) given the readership of Interzone and the limited space available, I probably spent more time than I needed to explaining what the book is and what it's about. And then there's the last sentence, in which I descended to blurbing.
Welcome to millennium three, decade one: science fiction isn't the same any more.
I cringe every time I look at it, not so much because I don't believe it--sure, it's an overstatement, but whatever you want to say about the merits of Accelerando I think you have to recognise its importance--but because I know I wrote that sentence to look like something that might appear on the back of a book. And that's the first thing I was saying to Graham and Mattia that Critics Should Not Do. The review doesn't need it (and publishers should be made to work for their blurbs, dammit!)

The second thing we discussed was a construction that I know I've been guilty of in the past, but which I'm finding more and more annoying: saying that something is 'genuinely moving' or similar. The problem with it is that it's language inflation, and redundant. The reader should be able to trust the venue the review is appearing in, or possibly the author of the review; that 'genuinely' is an attempt to gain trust by trickery.

On the other hand, there's this, via Gwenda Bond and Chance:
There are many words and phrases that should be forever kept out of the hands of book reviewers. It's sad, but true. And one of these is "self-indulgent." Whoever reviewed Neil's new novel, Anansi Boys, for Kirkus calls it "self-indulgent" (though the review is, generally, positive). And this is one of those things that strikes me very odd, like reviewers accusing an author of writing in a way that seems "artificial" or "self-conscious." It is, of course, a necessary prerequisite of fiction that one employ the artifice of language and that one exist in an intensely self-conscious state. Same with "self-indulgent." What could possibly be more self-indulgent than the act of writing fantastic fiction? The author is indulging her- or himself in the expression of the fantasy, and, likewise, the readers are indulging themselves in the luxury of someone else's fantasy. I've never written a story that wasn't self-indulgent. Neither has any other fantasy or sf author. We indulge our interests, our obsessions, and assume that someone out there will feel as passionately about X as we do.
This is true and completely wrongheaded. The part about assuming (I've have gone with 'hoping', but whatever) that readers will be interested in what an author is interested in is true. The suggestion that a book cannot be criticised for being self-indulgent (or that any perceived self-indulgence is merely the result of a disconnect between author and reader) is wrongheaded.

It is certainly something that should only be said carefully, because it starts to edge towards judging authorial intent, which is a minefield (I feel confident saying that a book proposes x or y; I generally feel much less comfortable saying that an author proposes x or y, unless I have external knowledge to support me). And a self-indulgent novel can be a hugely enjoyable novel. For example, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (and, from what I hear, The Baroque Cycle) would seem to be exactly the type of writing that [ profile] greygirlbeast describes. It is frequently and entertainingly digressive, and it is unashamedly targeted at a particular audience. If you are not in that audience, you may well experience the sort of disconnect that [ profile] robyn_ma describes.

However, compare it to Accelerando, which I would expect to have a significant audience overlap. Both cram in more cool things than you can count, both have main characters who are geeks, both have plots in which aspects of information technology are important. Of the two, however, Accelerando is the more focused, the more disciplined; you don't have to put up with digressions to get the cool stuff, you get the cool stuff as an integral part of the novel. It makes its cool stuff interesting to you, it doesn't assume that you will already like it. I would call Cryptonomicon self-indulgent, but I would not say the same of Accelerando.

I seem to be circling around the idea that an author has a contract with a reader to tell a story. That seems a bit strong--clearly wonderful books can be written that pay only lip-service to any such contract. Perhaps what I'm really saying is that I'm just healthily skeptical of the idea that authors are writing only for themselves.

EDIT: Matt Cheney writes:
I should probably note here that I'm not suggesting the reviewers are all maligning masterpieces. A judgment of whether a work is worthwhile or not is less interesting to me than how such a conclusion is reached (call me self-indulgent). It's not the inaccuracy of the term that bothers me so much as the argument it hides: an accusation of self-indulgence, like an accusation of "elitism", lets a reviewer disguise the fact that they're trying to speak for some imaginary mass audience, to say "I did not understand/appreciate/enjoy X, and therefore you should not, either." (Which is essentially what one of the commentors to Kiernan's post suggested: "So, the reviewer is basically saying, 'It doesn't interest me, so it shouldn't interest anyone else,' but taking a roundabout way of saying it so as, perhaps, to stave of consciousness of this indiscretion.") I suppose all of us who make our opinions public are doing this to some extent, trying to shape a consensus to make ourselves feel less alone, but there are many more subtle, nuanced, and useful ways of doing it than throwing around terms like "self-indulgent".
I don't find the hidden argument as strong as he does. I don't see the shouldn't. When I see a reviewer describe something as self-indulgent, I assume they're trying to say something like 'I lost interest because it has [these qualities for which I am using self-indulgent as a shorthand that I don't care for], therefore you may also lose interest'. There is some judgement, in that the reviewer can be suggesting those qualities are wrong rather than just not to their taste, but I think the real problems come in when the reviewer doesn't make it clear which qualities of the text they're criticising. Which, I guess, means I agree that 'self indulgent' is not subtle or nuanced; I'm just not sure that stops it sometimes being useful.


Mar. 8th, 2005 08:02 am
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The eternal debate about reviewing, and particularly about reviewing in a field as small as sf, has been rolling around again. Cheryl Morgan links to many of the posts here, and Gwenda Bond has other thoughts here. They say many sensible things between them, not the least of which is pointing out that on the internet, everyone can hear you, or at least find you through a quick egosurf, and that this has the potential to create Awkwardness. Even if you're being nice! I know I haven't got used to it; every so often I'll write something complimentary about a story and then get an email from the author thanking me for it, and I never quite know what to say in reply. 'You're welcome' always seems a bit cursory, but anything more always seems just a little presumptuous (yes, yes, I know, Authors Are Just People Too. Even so).

But mostly I just try to be fair in what I write, and figure that as long as I explain my reasons for not liking something nobody will get too upset. I'm well aware, however, that I'm a very small fish, and that most of my stuff (notwithstanding what I said above) is going to go unremarked by the wider blogosphere, so I don't feel much pressure to moderate my comments in the way that some others might. If I don't like something, I feel free to say so. Some people are more constrained, obviously--although let's face it, the majority of reviews aren't going to impact sales dramatically, if at all. Causing personal insult is a bigger risk. This takes me back to where I came in and to, conveniently enough, a case study from The Alien Online.

Ariel, the guy who runs TAO, made a long blog post last night about why he writes reviews. As I was reading it, I found myself nodding along to most of his reasons: yes, it makes me feel productive, and occasionally useful, and like I'm part of some ongoing dialogue; it gets me free books, and sometimes maybe accrue or hand out some whuffie. It's not as big a commitment for me as it is for him, of course, and I haven't been doing it nearly as long, but I still recognised a lot of what he talks about. And then this, about having moments of doubt:
One such moment of doubt occurred yesterday, when I posted a review of a book written by a friend of mine - a regular reviewer for TAO, and a published writer to boot - which literally destroyed the work of another writer. I won't mention names, because I'm not a great one for the rubbing in of salt, but it should be fairly obvious which review I'm talking about from the tag-line currently on the homepage.
I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the review he's talking about is this one, written by James Lovegrove, of Gene by Stel Pavlou. The summary is 'A novel so awful it has James Lovegrove questioning the state of his soul and his place on the wheel of death and rebirth.' A sample:
I must have committed some heinous misdeed in a previous life, because in this life my karmic punishment has been to have to read Stel Pavlou's Gene.

Let me be up-front. This is a terrible book. It's not even terrible in a fun way. It's not enjoyable, well-executed hokum, for which I'm as much a sucker as the next person. It's just crap. From start to finish – pure, unmitigated, unadulterated crap.

It is also the worst-written novel I think I have ever come across. The prose is so atrocious that, while reading, by p50 I wanted to tear my own eyes out and by p100 I was seriously entertaining thoughts of suicide.
This sort of thing is fun to read, in a vicious sort of way (and I think Lovegrove was having some fun, too; he says at one point 'I could get all Adam Roberts here and try to justify the badness of Pavlou's prose as being some wry postmodern exercise...'), but the most important thing, to my mind, is that he goes on to back up his criticism with evidence. He picks apart some individual sentences, and tries to pin down what it is that doesn't work about the plotting. It is, as Ariel suggests (assuming this is the review he's talking about, of course!) a piece that destroys the book it focuses on, but it doesn't seem to be a piece that is lazy or unjustified.

Perhaps not surprisingly, though, Mr Pavlou was not impressed. Back to Ariel:
I received an email yesterday evening from the author of the novel under review, which started with a rather strained effort at sarcastic dismissal ('LOL's and all) but then disintegrated into a much more honest expression of said author's obvious hurt and outrage, in which he suggested that the reviewer should, and I quote: "Eat shit and die you sad lamentable little fuck."
Charming, I'm sure you'll agree, and it's entirely understandable that it's given Ariel pause. He goes on to say:
So what's the answer? Stop publishing negative reviews? Stop publishing really negative reviews (which means publishing negative reviews but asking the reviewer to modify their position to attempt to avoid hurting the author's feelings as much as possible in the process - I've done this in the past, and recently, too)? Or publish and be damned... quite possibly repeatedly, and in public (reviewers also get reviewed from time to time, and we, too, tend to work in a creative vacuum, opening ourselves to the slings and arrows of the opinion of others in the process... we just tend not to get paid for it).

Or, I could always just... stop. Stop publishing TAO.
This worried me. To my mind, from the list of options there the only acceptable option is 'publish and be damned'. Excercise editorial control, certainly; make sure a review is fair, and not a baseless screed. But honest, critical reviews are too precious for guys like Ariel, and sites like TAO, to stop. Thankfully, he says later that he won't, at least for now. I hope he keeps going a lot longer than just 'for now'.

(And I'm not saying that just because he once gave me space to respond to a review I thought unfair. In his comments on the whole reviewing dilemma, Jeff Vandermeer also praises a TAO review of his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? even though it was a negative review. I think it's clear the site is doing something right.)

[EDIT: Other posts on this subject here, here, here and here. In addition, Ariel has posted further thoughts here.]
coalescent: (Default)
From the Sunday Times' review of The Time Traveller's Wife:
Although the time-travelling device allows the author to examine her central love affair from a fresh perspective, she seems not to have thought through mny of its other implications. […] On the morning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Henry, knowing what is about to happen, alerts Clare so they can watch it live on television. He even rises early that morning "to listen to the world being normal for a little while longer." At no point does either entertain the notion of a call to the FBI. Does Niffenegger really intend her characters to be this monstrously self-absorbed?
I think The Time Traveller's Wife can be fairly criticised in a number of ways, but I don't think this is one of them. It's not fair because it seems to me to be a review of the story the critic is expecting, not a review of the story the book actually tells.

Ramblings on fair criticism )

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