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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.]
 
 
 
 
 
 
If you view publishing a book is like standing on a soapbox at Hyde Park Corner, then indeed everything you say, and all the heckling from the crowd is legitimate, provided its not defamatory.

But of course the HPC orators and their audience know the rules and treat it as a game. Most authors are introverts, and often the private act of writing is the key feature of their lives, the publishing is merely a lucrative bonus. But more than money, they hope to get respect and recognition, and are bound to be upset by critical reviews.

I guess the problem here is the reviewer, for all his analysis of the work, really going out to have fun with OTT comments. No friend would do that, and I suspect many authors really only think their friends are reading, and get very upset to discover the real world.
I guess the problem here is the reviewer, for all his analysis of the work, really going out to have fun with OTT comments

That's a good point; reviews shouldn't be a bloodsport (and if anyone actively sets out to rubbish a book, they're not playing fair). On the other hand, I'm not sure it does much good to feign a neutral tone when you really feel that strongly about a book.
No friend would do that, and I suspect many authors really only think their friends are reading, and get very upset to discover the real world.

If this is the case then they really shouldn't be writing sicne nthing they produce will have any worth what so ever. Publishing a book is indeed like standing on Hyde Park Corner. All you have to do to make sure people don't write nasty things about you is not right a shit book. Unfortunately a lot of writers are incapable of this.

I'm very glad Ariel published Lovegrove's because lazy and stupid writers deserve to be mocked. I really think Ariel's soul searching is out of place. I know he doesn't like them - he has previously asked me to tone down reviews - but sometimes they are the only legitimate response. This is particularly true in SF where reviewing is often a circle-jerk and so much shit is gushed over uncritically. As Peake says excessive candour is needed here.
I'm not sure they deserve to be mocked, per se, but I'm ok with pointing out that they're lazy and/or stupid.
I'm very glad Ariel published Lovegrove's because lazy and stupid writers deserve to be mocked.
Well, what about lazy and stupid reviewers, then?
I have published a novel. It good very good reviews, with one stunning exception. The reviewer started by telling how much he hated the genre (fantasy). Then he said the ending was ridiculously predictable, although the "ending" he revealed in fact was from chapter 3 in a 22 chapter novel. He said the novel had a fascist point of view, although it had a strong anti-fascist statement in the dramatic climax - the one he said did not exist. Um, probably he forgot to read that chapter. It was 34 pages. He could not be specific about anything else in the novel. And then he wrote some insults about my future as a writer, and then he got paid by a big newspaper to publish this trash in which I was practically pointed out as a fascist - which is indeed a terrible insult. I spent many years writing this book and he probably spent 20 minutes looking it through because he did not want to do his job. There was no point in replying. Yes, I got a dozen other reviews, all of them positive, but this one HURT.

If you dislike a book, you should motivate it. Carefully. If you are a good reviewer, maybe you should also include some ideas of how to improve the writing. I have never written a review without being able to give such suggestions. And I never write reviews in order to pretend I am Oscar Wilde.
Besides, I think that remarks like "after reading 100 pages of this crap I wanted to commit suicide" are tasteless and downright stupid. Try writing such things in a novel and you WILL get mocked for your pre-teen style ...

I also want to point out that English is my second language and therefore I'm sure I made some mistakes in this text.
Well, what about lazy and stupid reviewers, then?

Very much so. Turn about is fair play. However for your mockery to have some impact it would help to know who it is directed against.
I am thinking about the same issues as TAO editor and writing reviews in general.

However I would like to say that Gene was NOT the worst book I have ever read - it just has nothing good about it. I read it and wondered why I bother.

I didn't get around to reviewing it because to do so would require me to slag it off in such a way that I could not avoid causing offence.
OK, I have read the review and although I would not have published it in that form I generally agree with the bulk of the comments made.
I think if you cut the first and last paragraph of that review, you have a perfectly fine, if scathing review. The first paragraph with the karmic retribution line, and the last with its Hitler reference seem a bit too much to me - too much at attempting to be clever at someone else's expense. And even worse, neither is very clever, so they both come off as just plain mean.
I guess I can see your point there, certainly about the closing paragraph.
I do agree with some of the points Ariel makes about why he reviews, but he misses my primary reason off his list. I write reviews because it's a way of ordering the thoughts I have when I read a book. Reading a book often sparks off a whole load of different associations and ideas in my head, and I've found that the only way to shuffle these into some semblance of order is to write them down.

Perhaps this means I shouldn't really be reviewing, because for me, reviewing is essentially a personal process that enables me to figure out how I feel about the book in question and what it means to me. And sometimes the actual review is unrepresentative of the state of mind I arrive at with respect to a book after writing it. For example, I wrote a fairly poor review of The Scar which was mostly about exorcising my irritations at some of Mieville's stylistic so that I felt free to actually appreciate the book. Only I never got round to editing my review to include the appreciative thoughts I had once the irritation was out of the way. On the plus side, I've only done this occasionally, and now I'm aware that I have the capacity for doing it I've changed my reviewing habits. I now try to give myself some more time to digest a book before writing the review, and then giving myself more time to redraft the review once I've written it. Means I'm not reviewing as much, but at least my reviews are more likely to be fit for public consumption now.
Writing a review is always a process of finding out what you really feel about the book. I have lost count of the number of occasions where the only way I've been able to decide whether I really think a book is good or not is to start writing the review. (For the record, as far as I am concerned writing the review starts the moment you start thinking what you could reasonably say about it, and that can, on certain extreme occasions, be weeks before I actually put pen to paper.)

But I suppose the real reason I review is that I am arrogant enough to believe I have something to say, and writing a review is one way of taking a part in the on-going debate that is science fiction. As is writing a comment like this. If we didn't want to be part of the discussion none of us would be doing any of this.
To be fair, this is also a pretty major reason for me as well.

I now try to give myself some more time to digest a book before writing the review, and then giving myself more time to redraft the review once I've written it.

This is what I do (though in my case it's something I was taught to do with any writing, through work) and I find it very helpful.
I disagree with John Clute on quite a number of things, but one thing on which I am in complete agreement is his principle of excessive candour. When you write a review you have to say what you think about the book without any regard to any side issues such as whether or not you know the author. I have seen far too many fawning reviews by supposedly respectable reviewers where I know that the reviewer is a good friend of the author. The trouble is, in the science fiction world authors and critics tend to be such a close knit community that you could easily end up with nothing but Kirkus Reviews. I am, therefore, perfectly prepared to be critical of books by writers I like, and to praise books by writers I dislike. I have in fact done both on numerous occasions.

However, with that principle comes responsibility. You must be utterly and unquestionably fair. You must provide support for criticisms and you must provide support for praise. Ideally the reader should be able to make up their own mind from your review regardless of whether they share your particular tastes and opinions.

What you must not do is indulge in criticism as blood sport. It is very easy to do, and it can be very funny. Of course any review is, among other things, a work of entertainment, but writing to amuse your readers at the expense of being fair to your subject is a dereliction of duty. It reflects far worse on the critic than it does on the criticised.

But if you accept that responsibility, if you play fair, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a hard hitting review. And I know that the writers for whom i have most respect are those who have recognised hard criticism for what it is and have not let it interfere in any way in a friendly relationship.

In this particular case I think Lovegrove may have had good points to make, but the way he makes those points was self-indulgent. I am not sure he crosses the line (whatever that may be and wherever it might be drawn) but he teeters perilously close on occasion. But if anything should give Ariel pause it is emphatically not whether he could continue publishing negative reviews, because if you don't have negative reviews positive reviews mean nothing. Maybe he should ask himself whether he should ask his contributors to revise what they have submitted, but that is as far as it should go.
What you must not do is indulge in criticism as blood sport. It is very easy to do, and it can be very funny. Of course any review is, among other things, a work of entertainment, but writing to amuse your readers at the expense of being fair to your subject is a dereliction of duty.

I don't think I agree. Not all books are equal and I don't think all books need to be treated fairly. There is a percentage of books that simply do not deserve to have been published, that are an insult to readers and for notions of fairness go out the window. If a reviewer is expected to read these unsalvageable works of shit then it is only reasonable to expect them to wring some use out of their time by entertaining themselves and their readers.
There is a percentage of books that simply do not deserve to have been published, that are an insult to readers and for notions of fairness go out the window.

Perhaps if it's an insult to readers then being 'fair' involves being equally insulting to the author and publisher? ;-)
Perhaps if it's an insult to readers then being 'fair' involves being equally insulting to the author and publisher? ;-)

Well, that's implicit, innnit? When I insult the food, I'm insulting the restaurant as well as the chef.
Not all books are equal and I don't think all books need to be treated fairly.

Not all books are equal. But all books must be treated equally.

This is a very basic principle: if a book is really really bad it is the reviewer's duty to say so. It is not the reviewer's duty to indulge in savagery purely for the amusement of the audience.

Not all books are equal. But all books must be treated equally.

No, I can't agree. some sense of proportionality has to be involved: sometimes the scalpel is the most appropriate tool and sometimes the axe.

It is not the reviewer's duty to indulge in savagery purely for the amusement of the audience.

This is true. Equally however I do not believe the reviewer is obliged not to indulge in such savagery. It is not the Christian thing, it is venal and petty, but that's not enough to stop me from doing it when it is warranted.
It is not the Christian thing, it is venal and petty,

Besides it is fun. And, sometimes, it is the only way to get over the trauma of having read utter tripe - what the the new age people call 'cleansing the negativity from one's system'.
sometimes the scalpel is the most appropriate tool and sometimes the axe

I agree with that, but that is not what I was talking about when I said books must be treated equally. You choose the most appropriate tool for the job, then use it judiciously. If you come across as wildly unfair in reviewing a bad book because you are doing it for laughs, or because you are just venting spleen, then I am not going to trust that review.

And if I don't trust your review of bad books, how can I trust your reviews of good books?
When you write a review you have to say what you think about the book without any regard to any side issues such as whether or not you know the author.

Or, indeed, whether you think you know about them. Reviews that draw conclusions about an author's personal politics or beliefs based on a text annoy me; yes, they might be correct conclusions, but they might also be completely wrongheaded.

You must be utterly and unquestionably fair. You must provide support for criticisms and you must provide support for praise. Ideally the reader should be able to make up their own mind from your review regardless of whether they share your particular tastes and opinions.

Yes, that has to be the goal, it seems to me--and achieving or nearing that goal can be very satisfying, I think.
I think I may have to buy Stel Pavlou's Gene for my dad on the strength of that review, since he often exhibits a complete lack of book-buying taste, and likes reading extremely bad techno thrillers. OTOH, he didn't like The DaVinci Code.

My reviews are rarely as balanced or well-written as those of other people commenting here, but if there is a book which I think was a complete pile of crap then I will say so. What I try to do is to make it balanced and say why I thought it was terrible and point out any redeeming features, and not be too harsh about the author. Oh, and I try and read all of a book before reviewing it.

It strikes me that this is a more grown-up and professional equivalent of the arguments about communities like marysues or deleterius, that if someone publicly sticks terrible writing up for other people to see and comment on, then they have to be able to take negativity and criticism for it as well as praise, and if they don't want people to do that they shouldn't stick it on fanfiction.net.
Oh, and I try and read all of a book before reviewing it.

I strongly approve of this policy. :-p

It strikes me that this is a more grown-up and professional equivalent of the arguments about communities like marysues or deleterius,

Yes, perhaps ... although as you know, I'm really not a fan of the 'point and laugh' school of criticism. :)
Tch. Lovegrove needs to learn to use his caps lock key properly if he wants to step up to the Premier League of hyberbolic readers. YOU ARE NOTHING BEFORE THE AWESOME POWER OF SHOUTY REVIEWING, LOVEGROVE, NOTHING.
*swoon*
As should be obvious from the above comments I am in favour of the hatchet job. Setting that aside some of Ariel's comments do need addressing:
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)?
There is a world of difference between a hatchet job and a negative review. Lovegrove's piece is a hatchet job but no conclusions about negative reviews should be drawn from it and not publishing negative reviews would render TAO worthless. The author's feelings should never even enter the debate, it is solely a question of the author's work. I am one of the reviewers Ariel refers to when he says he has recently asked for reviews to be modified for this reason. I accepted because the general tone and content of my review remained unchanged. However I don't think an awareness of the producers feelings was a good reason for doing so. I will take a moment here to echo peake:
When you write a review you have to say what you think about the book without any regard to any side issues such as whether or not you know the author. I have seen far too many fawning reviews by supposedly respectable reviewers where I know that the reviewer is a good friend of the author.
In this age of interconnectivity authorial feedback is much more common and immediate, as Ariel's example shows. In the last couple of years I've had three author's email me because of my reviews: one was very happy, one was not very happy and one took the VanderMeer position described above. A quick thank you note is fine but authors shouldn't initiate debate and reviewers definitely shouldn't respond.
There are a couple things that cross my mind, reading this thread. First, as someone notes, reviewing is not a bloodsport. Writers of bad books are not bad people, there are just bad writers. When you write a book review, you owe someone that amount of respect. You should aim your criticism at the text, not the writer, and probably if you're enjoying writing the review, it's the wrong review. A good rule of thumb is i) imagine the author of the book is a friend of yours, and ii) imagine reading the review aloud to them. If you can't say it to the author's face, then don't say it. The other thing that occurs to me is why would you review this book at all? The reviewer plainly thinks it's an awful book with no redeeming features. The best response to a book like that is to ignore it. To my mind, a good negative review is one that sees merit in a book, recognises that it is worth talking about and why, and then discusses its strengths and weaknesses. Just my two-cents worth.
I must say this is a rather genteel view of reviewing. Its a view that seems quite rooted in the genre because the genre is so amateur (not in a perjorative sense) and even when chumminess is avoid a sense of community prevails. Doesn't anyone here read the papers or the music/film/book press? I'm not writing for the author, I'm writing for the reader. There is a time for the straightlaced book report but there is also a time for colourful invective. It depends on the venue of course but TAO is not Foundation, it is the popular press.

The best response to a book like that is to ignore it.

I think that is completely inappropriate and dishonest. This presents the reader with a skewed and distorted picture of the book. On top of which what editor when you say "no, sorry, there's no copy cos it was too bad to review" say "nevermind, thanks for your time, here's your cheque"?

I really think everyone is making a mountain out of a molehill. Of course, Pavlou wasn't happy but who cares?
The best response to a book like that is to ignore it.

I think that is completely inappropriate and dishonest.


I'm in two minds about this. On the one hand, I can't write about everything I read, and I'd rather spend two hours writing about something I enjoyed than something I didn't. On the other hand, I can enjoy an interesting failure more than a boring success, or at least have more to say; and I also think that warnings against the really bad books are a good thing. Not that it stopped The Da Vinci Code...
>I must say this is a rather genteel view of reviewing.

Perhaps so, but... my experience is that when you get to the colorful invective stage of reviewing it stops being about the book, the reader or anything else except the reviewer's ego. And who cares about that?

>I think that is completely inappropriate and dishonest.

We'll have to agree to disagree. I don't think it presents the reader with a distorted picture of a book. It just doesn't present the reader with a picture of a terrible book at all. Honestly, if a book is flawed but interesting, it's worth reviewing. If it's terrible, then the review is, again, only about the reviewer and the reviewer's ego, and who cares about that? I don't understand the need to give attention to terrible books. There are too many books to read in the world already, why waste column inches on awful ones (again, I repeat, this doesn't apply to interesting failures).
my experience is that when you get to the colorful invective stage of reviewing it stops being about the book, the reader or anything else except the reviewer's ego.

All public writing is egotistic, you are presuming that someone wants to read what you have written. I really don't see the difference between writing to inform and writing to entertain and, in the case of the hatchet job, doing some combination of both.

I don't think it presents the reader with a distorted picture of a book. It just doesn't present the reader with a picture of a terrible book at all.

If all that's available to the public is Harriet Klausner-style blank praise because everyone who recognises the work as trash has censored themselves how can they have anything but a grotesquely lopsided impression of that book?

Both you and Niall have said you would prefer to review interesting failures. So would I but of course you've no way of knowing this until you have finished reading and a reviewer is obliged to review what they have read. I find the attitude that bad work shouldn't be reviewed bizarre.
Oooh! Harriet Klausner. A legend indeed.

Sorry. I'll go back into lurking now. Carry on.
Alright, my bit: I think personally I agree with Jonathon Strahan; if I really dislike something I'd rather not talk about it. However, for me the exception is when either I have high expectations and then it sucks (an author or musician I've liked puts out something second or third-rate), or something's been highly feted, but dammit I think it sucks.
In the first case, I often feel obliged to be vocal about my disappointment, and I think it's only fair to say so.
In the second case, if it's been well-received elsewhere, I may well feel my negative voice is a much-needed antidote (and I won't feel as bad, because clearly other people like it).

Of course Lovegrove's review was of neither of those sorts. He just hated the book. I found it a very entertaining review, but agree with the above poster that without the first and last paragraphs it would've been a lot mroe acceptable, somehow.

I am very sad that TAO will stop publishing reviews.
I found it a very entertaining review, but agree with the above poster that without the first and last paragraphs it would've been a lot mroe acceptable, somehow.

Yes, Nazis are always a bit too much.

(I just clicked through to your LJ, nice to see another glitchcore sf fan :)
Hurrah for glitchcore sf ;)
You have earned my eternal jealousy by going to All Tomorrow's Parties!