On Reviewing, Round 63

It may appear to verge on the perverse for me not to have mentioned this conversation until now; in fact it’s down to a combination of lack of time and, for once, not having much to add. But for those who haven’t seen it yet, here are as many of the iterations of the latest discussion about reviewing as I’ve been able to track down:

  • A new group blog has launched, Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics, which, as this Mind Meld at SF Signal explores, initially had a slightly confused remit. Quoth Andy Remic: “I chose the name “Ethics” not because I wanted to explore the ethical contexts of novels or films, but because I wanted to make an ethical stand against the motherfuckers who, to my mind, are systematically ruining the SFFH genres”.
  • Martin Lewis asks who are the motherfuckers?
  • Jeff VanderMeer and Evil Monkey comment
  • So do David Moles and Cheryl Morgan; other participants in the SFFE blog show up in the comments to the latter post.
  • Meanwhile! Kathryn Cramer responds to the discussion of “mostly positive” reviews policies that took place here a couple of weeks ago by explaining why she feels that what people like about books is more interesting than what they don’t; and posts one of David Hartwell’s NYRSF editorials from a few years ago on the same sort of topic.
  • Elsewhere (well, at Strange Horizons), Martin Lewis reviews Mark Charan Newton’s new book, Nights of Villjamur, and an impassioned discussion about the merits (or otherwise) of his negative review ensues
  • Abigail Nussbaum’s summary of and commentary on the discussion to this point
  • James Nicoll makes several livejournal posts springing off some of the above links
  • Karen Burnham reviews Jay Lake’s Green at SF Signal and adds a disclaimer about her connections with the author and his work; further discussion follows
  • Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen dissects Martin’s review, and adds commentary on the whole discussion
  • Hal Duncan offers two typically thorough posts: Ethics and Enthusiasm — featuring a taxonomy of criticism! — and More on Critique, in which he responds to comments on the first post by Abigail and by Matt Cheney. To the extent that I’ve digested them (we’re talking well over 10,000 words, here), I agree with the first more than with the second, but both are worth investing time in.

And that — I think — brings us current, except perhaps to note that I have my own negative review at Strange Horizons today, of Nancy Kress’s Steal Across the Sky; and that it has become apparent to me that by selecting Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold as the next book I’ll review for SH, I’ve made something of a rod for my own back. On the one hand, Strange Horizons‘ well-known bias against epic fantasy means I’m bound to hate it; on the other hand, Strange Horizons‘ equally well-known pro-UK bias means that I’m obliged to love it. Bet you can’t wait to see how I thread that needle.

UPDATE: The ethicists are now the enthusiasts.

23 thoughts on “On Reviewing, Round 63

  1. Niall, I’ve looked through all the correspondence I’ve had with you over SH reviews, and I can’t find the bit that says “remember, be positive about UK books and slag off the US stuff”. Could you send it again?

    Seriously, what? Yes, the last review I did for Strange Horizons was negative, and yes, it was a US author; but I was negative because I thought the book was dull (i.e., the reasons I said in the review), not because I was adhering to some hidden ant-American agenda. By all means, take me to task for failing to spot the book’s virtues – there are some people whose views I respect who think there’s much more to it than I do – but I feel slightly offended that my honesty as a reviewer is slighted in this way.

    Besides, as a sweeping statement, it seems to be disproved by a look at the other reviews I’ve done for SH. Those consist of a US author’s book I was positive about, a UK author’s book I was positive about, a UK TV show I was negative about, a US-comic (albeit written and drawn by Brits) I was positive about, a US book I was very positive about (and it’s fantasy as well, though maybe not epic fantasy), a UK book I thought I was being fairly positive about, though other people thought I was being sneeringly negative, and a UK non-fiction book I liked. But perhaps I’m the maverick you keep on to buck the trend?

  2. Torn between your slavering hatred for epic fantasy, and your nationalistic fervour for her Majesty’s Commonwealth, your head will explode.

    Problem solved.

  3. Ah, nationalism! Ah, objectivity! I do recall that years ago one NYRSF reviewer in the UK (was it Gwyneth Jones maybe? I don’t remember) complained that she was beginning to feel like “the hired gun from out of town” based on the selection of (US) books we were sending her.

  4. Can someone help me remember who defined the novel as “an extended work of prose with something wrong with it”? I was going to write about that quotation yesterday, but I couldn’t remember whose definition it was.

  5. Every time I read one of Jeff’s comments about Strange Horizons (or on Larry’s blog that reviewers should be prevented from taking on books they have a fundamental disconnect with, whatever that means) I’m reminded of late 90s Margaret Thatcher appearing out of the political hinterland and making anti-European statements that energise the people with those kinds of sympathies but which, on reflection, don’t really make much sense :-)

  6. My. I see from the final link that Strange Horizons also puts down everything that’s not from the UK.

  7. Rather than merely pointing and laughing, I think Jeff’s accusation might merit a bit more thought. Karen points out in the comments of her Jay Lake post, that bias isn’t only about who gets good reviews and who gets bad reviews, but also who gets covered (and even further, who becomes the benchmark for a particular year).

    I don’t think that the international cadre of writers at SH display a pro-UK bias, nor do I think that the UK-based writers at SH display that kind of bias either but might there not be a less tangible sense in which ‘we’ (for want of a better word) allow UK books to set the critical agenda in a way that doesn’t happen with US books?

    For example, the ACCA and the BSFA awards do take place early in the year and I wonder whether these awards might not fix critical attention on UK authors. Particularly as a lot of American SF simply doesn’t get released over here. One possible manifestation of this kind of thing might be the extent to which UK-centric critics might feel as though the Gone Away World or Flood might have been deserving of a Hugo birth. So, early in the year, we think about what should go into the UK awards and this somehow fixes in our minds what should and shouldn’t be considered a good book within a particular time-frame.

    I know that I’m shifting the terms of Jeff’s accusation from “SH gives better reviews to British books” to “some of the people writing for SH might be more favourably disposed to good UK books than good US books”, but I think it’s a question that deserves some thought.

  8. Jonathan: in short (because replying from my phone again), yes, there is a genuine issue buried under the absurdity. I am based in the UK, I have better connections in the UK than the US – and for reasons of expediency, US publishers send their review copies to a US address, and though I can keep up with what we’ve received and what we haven’t, I’m sure the fact of not having the books physically present to flick through sometimes affects my assignments. (Beyond the fact that it would be prohibitively expensive to assign too many US books to UK reviewers.) But it’s something I’ve always been conscious of, and thus try to counteract, and I’m satisfied that that works. After Jeff first posted his comment, I did a quick recount for the year, and we were running at something like 25% negative for the UK, and 27% for the US. If there was a bias I think those numbers would be rather more skewed (and if I were pushing a bias, I like to think I’d do a better job of it).

  9. I’m looking forward to your (inevitably insightful but wrong =P) review of Best Served Cold. I am profoundly ambiguous about Joe Abercrombie but I saw it on the shelves in Borders the other day and experienced a genuine frisson of excitement. On the other hand, it is a hardback and could be used to pummel a whale to death which puts me off…

  10. Kyra: I did notice your reviews of his books, yes. :-) I haven’t read any of them myself — hence reviewing this one; I do appreciate it when writers produce standalone books. Plus, of course, the cover is *very* pretty. Who knows, maybe that’ll even be the deciding factor …

    Back to the topic of the original post: this was on my LJ friends page this morning, pulling out an exchange of comments on one of James Nicoll’s posts to the effect that:

    Person A: Most of the bad books I read are bad in boring ways. Too dull, characters I don’t care about, cliched, whatever. Very few are bad in interesting ways.

    Person B: Yes. As I think I said in a comment elsewhere, one of the types of review of a bad book that we will sometimes run is one that points to a larger failing.

    I find mself not terribly convinced by Person A’s comment, which seems to me to be equivalent to, “Most of the good books I read are good in the same ways — interesting, characters I care about, original, whatever”, and similarly so broad as to be useless. Even if the types of flaw repeat, the context of them is different every time, because each book is different; and one point of a good negative review, I would suggest, is to draw out how the flaws in question are caused/exacerbated/ameliorated by the context in question. I suppose this is just to say that I think all negative reviews should be the sort of negative reviews person B describes, but that seems so obvious as to barely need stating; anything less isn’t a review, it’s a dismissal.

    (The relativist in me also hesitates to assign books to GOOD and BAD columns; books are books, and reviews are opinions, and there can be as many opinions of a book as there are reviews, without necessarily assigning that book a fundamental essence. I suppose I do believe some books are BAD, but if I believed it too strongly I would worry that, as a reviews editor, my perception of a negative review might be, “well, I know you’re wrong, but it’s an interesting review so worth publishing”, rather than “well, we disagree, but it’s an interesting review so worth publishing”; and I think that would be a recipe for trouble.)

  11. I agree with Person A “there are no characters I care about” is a crushingly boring reason for disliking a book. I also think it’s not a particularly informative thing to say.

    I re-read At The Mountains of Madness not that long ago and you’d be incredibly hard-pressed to give even half a shit about any of the characters. It’s still a fantastic story though.

  12. As I mentioned in the comments to the Steal review, I felt the review was very well done though the arguments against the book in the second part were a bit generic and they could be raised against a number of other otherwise much more praised books.

    I agreed with most of the review points, though I still feel the book is good as a core hard sf – again that’s how hard sf works in my opinion and while you may have the rare novel that will transcend the sub-genre while Steal clearly does not, I think that is beside the point; provocative and entertaining for me, I willingly overlooked its flaws, most notably the imbalance between the two parts and I found it a good idea sf almost on par with Beggars.

    Regarding reviews I do not want to rehash the old discussion, but a lot of misunderstanding come from the reasons for reviewing and the intended audience of the reviews. I still love the motto “every reader his/her books and every book its readers” but again that’s me and what I want and find useful from reviews…

  13. Liviu, I don’t speak for the venue, but I think something of the presumed audience of Strange Horizons is implicit in the name: readers who want to focus on books that push the upper boundaries of genre, between different genres, and/or between the emphases of genre and literary fiction. The audience is precisely people who are looking for, among other things, “the rare novel that will transcend the sub-genre” as you put it (I tend to think of it more as successfully living up to the possibilities inherent). If those aren’t standards that are important to you, that just means you need to read between the lines a bit in each review, evaluate whether the criticisms made matter to you. But while you seem to think that traditional genre works are being held to a different standard at SH (per your comments on the OF Blog), I’d suggest that in fact they’re being held to precisely this same standard, of living up to the possibilities they establish for themselves. And whatever you may think, I don’t think SH would have lasted as long as it has were there not a substantial readership interested in works being evaluated by such standards.

    I note, meanwhile, that based on the latest post on their home page, it looks like the “E” in the SFFE blog is going to be changing from “Ethics” to “Enthusiasts.” Still problematic for obvious reasons, but better; and at any rate as someone trying to think of a blog name myself, I am sympathetic to how difficult it can be.

  14. Jonathan:

    I agree with Person A “there are no characters I care about” is a crushingly boring reason for disliking a book. I also think it’s not a particularly informative thing to say.

    Agreed; I just think that in many cases, if you dig a bit, the *reasons* for not caring about the characters will differ from case to case, and may indeed reveal interesting things about books.


    I’d suggest that in fact they’re being held to precisely this same standard, of living up to the possibilities they establish for themselves

    I don’t think I’ve ever formulated it that explicitly, but that’s certainly how I try to review, and it’s something I like to see in reviews.

  15. First and foremost I want to reiterate that I find SH a great site and I found quite a few books based on reviews there.
    The Omega review (and overview of C. Evans work) is just amazing and made me buy 6 books and cajole a pdf arc asap as I could for the 7th

    I have nothing against negative reviews either only that sometimes (imho) they cross a line from polite criticism to personal criticism and that is something I dislike a lot.

    The reviews of Adamantine Palace or Steal Across the Sky are excellent examples of negative reviews (imho) that are well done and in both cases I agreed with many of their points while still enjoying the books in case a lot and I could continue (Affinity Bridge is another example like this and quite a few others)

    The reviews of Nights and Principles of Angels earlier are examples of reviews that cross the line into insulting (imho),

    Regarding audience – I would agree with the point above directed at me, except that I see reviews like today’s Retribution Fall’s which is a great review imho that:

    1: sold me on the book 95% – I was mixed if I want it or not and did not request an arc, so I will buy it next week on release if I so decide and the reviews in other places made me even more mixed, though knowing the reviewers I could see how I would love the book while they would not; the review here made my getting the book almost a certainty

    2:the review starts by acknowledging that “Retribution” is nothing particular original but is fun and expands on that

    And that was my point from the beginning – when the reviewers find a book “fun” the reviews are much, much better than when they struggle and then they find faults everywhere as I know very well from my experience – I find something fun, I overlook a lot and try to express what is fun and why, while noting that yes maybe this or that could have been a bit different, but when I find something meh or worse, well faults pop everywhere…

  16. Liviu :

    You’re right that there’s definitely a tipping point in reviewing where you shift from being charitably inclined towards a work’s faults to where you see them as part of a wider problem. But this is simply the tipping point between whether you like a work or don’t. I don’t think “yeah but you wouldn’t mind X if you liked the book” is much of a defence of X.

    “The reviews of Nights and Principles of Angels earlier are examples of reviews that cross the line into insulting”

    Insulting to whom though? the authors? the readers of the review? the fans of the author?

    I’m not sure that that’s a legitimate/sensible response to someone expressing an opinion.

  17. The worst thing about that ethics blog is not it’s confusion of issues of morality with reviewing, but the fact that none of the huge number of writers they have on board has shown that they can actually review or even write on anything other than a nuts and bolts words ‘n sentences level.

    It’s just awful, tedious plot summary as review mixed with p.r. speak drivel and much of it does not make any sense. That top post for example, which reads in its entirety:

    We ran a short poll among the core writers and contributors on this blog and the results are in for 27 Votes. As you can see from the poll the popular choice is Enthusiasts. Thanks to those who took part I guess we are the Enthusiastic after all.

    That’s just godawful writing.

  18. I’ve only happened upon this latest reiteration of a tediously repetitive subject now because I’ve just got back from the SFF Masterclass where, among other things, I spoke precisely on this subject. I must say that neither the eminent reviews editor who was sitting beside me, nor any of the people taking the Masterclass (all of them reviewers), could see any equation between positive reviews and ethical reviewing. In fact the universal opinion was that ethical reviewing demands the freedom to write negative reviews whenever necessary.

    For myself, I can only hope that I am one of the motherfuckers.

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