To Name or Not to Name

Paula Guran explains Fantasy Magazine‘s reviews policy:

The idea here is to review anonymously (like Publishers Weekly) while still saying exactly who the reviewers are — just not who wrote exactly what. I feel it frees the reviewer while still assuring the reader that a variety of respected opinion is being presented. (Issue #4 has two “featured” reviews with bylines, btw. )

Why? The number one reason is that this way the reviews are seen as “Fantasy” magazine reviews. The second reason is that genre is a small world and few of its knowledgeable reviewers live in ivory towers so it sometimes helps you be a better reviewer if your name is not on a review. That being said, it is only fair to the reader to know s/he can have confidence that a review is written by someone whose opinion they respect — thus the list of reputable reviewers doing the reviews.

She asks for opinions. I’m ambivalent. On the one hand, as was covered at tedious length in last week’s discussions, I’m all for honest negative reviews. Not only do I think they’re good for the health of the field, but I enjoy reading discussions of books people didn’t like just as much as I enjoy reading discussions of books they liked. So if an anonymised reviews section creates an environment that encourages that, I’m for it. On the other hand, though, I can’t see an particular reason why it should be necessary. I know a similar desire for freedom was behind the Dark Cabal (remember them?), for instance, but magazines like Interzone don’t seem to have had trouble recruiting a group of people who are prepared to say what they think under their own bylines.

And anonymity could also be frustrating. Some readers may not notice who writes a review, but I tend to; in part, admittedly, because I write reviews myself, but that’s not the only reason. Pretty much everyone who reviews for either Locus or NYRSF presumably falls into the category of ‘respected reviewer’, but I don’t agree with anyone who writes for either venue all the time, and some of them I disagree with frequently. I have no reason to expect that Fantasy Magazine‘s reviewers are any different, but because most of the reviews are quite short, and therefore don’t have the space to develop a detailed argument, there’s more of an element of taking what the review says on trust. I take Paula’s point about creating trust in a more general reviews ‘brand’, but it still looks a bit like an attempt to claim objectivity for an activity which is, by definition, subjective.

UPDATE: Further discussion here.

10 thoughts on “To Name or Not to Name

  1. I know a similar desire for freedom was behind the Dark Cabal (remember them?)

    I think we are all trying to forget that particular debacle.

  2. The obvious flaw I can see here is that after a time one would get to know the reviewers by their writing style and approaches (unless they made deliberate efforts to obfuscate such things) – OK, so you might not know which name matched which style, but you’d still get a feel for the reviewer’s likes and dislikes over time. Strikes me as overkill, really, but I think their heart is in the right place.

    Add that to the fact that the reviewers end up without a byline for specific pieces – which may not be something that bothers them, but I’d not be keen to review anonymously myself. If only for the reason that I’m more likely to trust a review by someone who stands up beside their opinion (whether I agree with it or not), and hence assume that anyone reading a review by me would do the same. I feel free to speak my mind, and I hope that people would feel free to debate my reviews with me if they disagreed with them (though I prefer people not to debate using kitchen utensils or flammable liquids). However, my assumptions, as always, could be in error…

  3. Not have my name associated with a review I’d spent time and effort writing? I’d be *furious* at the idea. It isn’t just an ego thing (although I don’t see why a non-fiction writer shouldn’t be recognised equally for what they’ve done – does “Fantasy” Magazine want its stories similarly disassociated from their authors?). I balk at the idea that a review is simply a guide to whether you should read/like something or not: rather it should be an entry into the realm of debate that surrounds that particular text and as such should be associated with its author. If it not, how can the discourse continue and grow?

    Also, saying that anonymising reviews turns them into “Fantasy” magazine reviews suggests that a) all their reviewers can be trusted equally and b) that they all have the same criteria of liking and disliking. This can’t possibly be, not unless the magazine imposes certain dos and don’ts. It seems a bit silly to me.

  4. Paul:

    after a time one would get to know the reviewers by their writing style and approaches

    Now you’ve got me imagining someone trying to anonymise John Clute.

    Victoria:

    I balk at the idea that a review is simply a guide to whether you should read/like something or not: rather it should be an entry into the realm of debate that surrounds that particular text and as such should be associated with its author.

    I agree, but I do wonder how typical we are of people who read reviews. It’s something of a contradiction: everyone says that reviews don’t really influence sales, but at the same time, it seems like what a lot of people want to see is just thumbs up/thumbs down assessments that they can use to decide whether to … buy the book.

  5. I’m ambivalent.

    I’m not – it’s an insane idea. By publishing the list of reviewers, but not saying who reviewed what, the implication is that all the reviewers collectively endorse all the reviews published. Would you really want to be associated with a review that you diametrically disagreed with? Because that is what this policy does. It strikes me as a good way of driving off reviewers of integrity from working for this periodical. I certainly wouldn’t.

  6. I review for Fantasy Magazine (and Publishers Weekly; non-genre) and I don’t give a crap if I get an individual byline or not. Nor do I think any reasonable person would possibly believe every reviewer endorsed every review. I sure didn’t.

    Dark Cabal wasn’t writing reviews so much as expressing opinions on the field and they didn’t give any hint of who they were. Totally different situation.

    I think in the context of short reviews that are mostly summary anyway, anonymity is fine. It doesn’t hurt anyone. And most of the reviews are positive reviews, so at best you could say it’s superfluous, but definitely not something requiring much debate, surely.

    What might be worth more debate, and an article naming names, is what forces drove Cheryl Morgan out of the reviewing field and why those people are fuckheads. :)

    JeffV

  7. I thought about asking Niall if he’d delete the last paragraph of the above comment, but that’s really not fair. I said it and I should explain it. Not to mention apologize for it–and I do apologize, unequivocably. First of all, it’s the right level of discourse, obviously, and secondly it’s not accurate.

    I’ve been a bit grumpy about Emerald City going away and it wasn’t until Graham Sleight emailed me after seeing this comment above that I was able to get some context on it. Cheryl herself says she was mostly just sick of doing it. It is of course a huge amount of work. My reference was in regard to comments by Niall, Morrison, and Graham on her Emerald City blog. I still think Niall and Morrison’s comments were inaccurate and, in part, not constructive, but as I said to Cheryl at Finncon, if it were me I would have cheerfully have told them all to f— off (and I do mean cheerfully–I don’t hold grudges) and gone on about my business.

    Anyway, I think my irritation at losing a valuable resource overcame any rational thoughts about the issue and I do apologize.

    All the best,

    Jeff

  8. Jeff: thanks for that comment. I feel bad about the fallout from that incident. It’s fair to say that if it was all happening all over again, I’d do and say different things.

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