Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison
coalescent

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Reviewing

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.]
Tags: james lovegrove, reviewing, reviews, sf, the alien online
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