Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Tag: reviewing

Three Twitter Threads on Negative Reviews

The issue of negative reviews in science fiction and fantasy is coming up again, as it does from time to time. It’s a subject I have talked about before, continue to have a lot of thoughts about, and will have more to say about in the future, but this time I’d like to highlight points made by others in threaded conversations on Twitter.

First, Rose Lemberg, who notes a disparity in who is expected to provide critical or negative reviews—and, notably, critical authority—and whose reviews are simply ignored. While reviewers from marginalized (e.g. non-cis) groups can and do write good works of criticism, those works are ignored, Rose says; whereas white male reviewers are criticized when they don’t assume the mantle of authority. (I suppose you might call it the Voice of Clute.)

One of the reviewers Rose mentions is Bogi Takács, who points to something I worry about but haven’t much experienced: writers who harass reviewers who give them a bad review. Then again, I’m a straight white cis male (and as such, selon Rose, am supposed to be critical); Bogi points out that reviewers from marginalized groups are much more likely to experience harassment from authors, because authors don’t go after reviewers they perceive as having power. As I see it, it’s textbook bullying behaviour—behaviour that, according to Bogi, chases reviewers out of their field, because no one has those reviewers’ back and the work is just not worth the grief.

Finally, Cecily Kane looks at the unintended consequence of framing negative or critical reviews as toxic or as “attacking authors”: you create a perverse incentive in which the only ones willing to do the necessary work of critical reviews are the toxic assholes who are fully on board for attacking authors. Because you’ve chased out everyone else who would otherwise be willing to do the work.

Or to put it another way: If writing a negative review is going to get the reviewer shat on, you’re going to incentivize the people who enjoy flinging poo.

I honestly think we protest too much: there are still plenty of good, critical reviews out there. It’s just that they’re drowned out by a much greater volume of uncritical squee, unapologetic logrolling and frankly mediocre reviewing work. It’s an extraordinarily incestuous field, and it’s hard to shitcan a bad book written by someone in your social circle. Necessary, but hard. It’s probably better we not leave that work to the sociopaths.

Some Half-Formed Thoughts on Short Fiction Reviews

There’s been some discussion recently about the need for more (and better) reviews of science fiction and fantasy short stories, much of which is predicated on the various inadequacies of the few existing short fiction review venues.

In general I think more short fiction reviews can only be a Good Thing, because more critical discourse on science fiction and fantasy literature is never a Bad Thing. There’s not enough of it (as opposed to PR and squee). That said, I have a couple of reservations.

First, if the purpose of short fiction reviews is to be useful for award nomination purposes, I have a problem with that. I appreciate that nowadays there are frankly too many short stories being published for any single person to read them all,1 and that award nominators are looking for ways to filter the reading material down a bit. But I have a problem with the implicit assumption that winning awards is the reason for creating works of art. (Winning an award should be an inadvertent by-product, not the point of the enterprise.) If we’re reviewing short fiction because we’re trying to figure out our award nomination ballots, then we’re reinforcing the notion that art is grist for a career: write a story to generate buzz; generate buzz to win an award; win an award to further the career; ???; profit!

We’d also be privileging the latest at the expense of the greatest: reviewing for awards purposes means you only review what’s eligible for the next award season. A story that is only three to five years old may still be worthy of critique and analysis—may still be worth talking about—but if all you’re doing is reading for awards, it has already disappeared down the memory hole. Functionally speaking, it no longer exists.

Neophilia might be good for the publishing calendar, it might be good for writers’ careers, but it’s terrible for art.

Second, if we’re agreed that there should be more short fiction reviews, I think it’s a bad idea for us to simply review it on our own blogs and journals. It’s too haphazard. There aren’t enough people looking for short fiction reviews to have those reviews scattered across the intertubes. There’s a reason why Rocket Stack RankTangent and Locus came to be: collating reviews from divers hands makes a lot of sense. The reader only has a single place to go.

The problem is that short fiction reviews make absolutely no economic sense. I could easily reboot Ecdysis with a new focus on short fiction reviews, but how would I solicit them? Reviewers would expect, reasonably, to be compensated, but what business model (other than Locus’s, but they primarily do book reviews and trade news) would there be for a periodical focused mainly on short fiction reviews? Book reviews get few enough eyeballs; short fiction reviews would be even worse, and without even the faint hope of affiliate income. It would have to be a labour of love, which in sf community terms means a work done for social capital, and that’s often been problematic too.

I’ll keep thinking about this, and listening to other opinions on this subject.

AE Is Resurrecting Itself

AE logoSince November 2014 I’ve been reviewing books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. Last September their website went dark; a brief note said that the site had been compromised by hackers and would be back soon. Months passed, and people were starting to wonder if AE would ever be back. (Because I reviewed for them, I got a few emails about it.)

But last week they finally broke their silence: their front page now announces that they will be coming back. Now I’m told that the relaunch is still some time away — months, not weeks. (Remember: this is done in their spare time.) But when that does occur I’ll be back writing reviews and other nonfiction pieces for them.

(If nothing else, I’m glad not to have killed the magazine per the Waldrop rule: the last thing they published before the site went down was my review of Jo Walton’s Necessity.)

Ethics in Opera Reviewing

The latest contretemps concerning ethics in reviewing comes not from science fiction or computer games, but opera.

Earlier this month, the National Post pulled their review of a Canadian Opera Company performance of Rossini’s Maometto II after a COC public relations manager, Jennifer Pugsley, wrote the Post to complain about a couple of points in the review. Rather than standing by their reviewer, freelancer Arthur Kapitainis, or making the corrections requested, features producer Dustin Parkes apologized and pulled the review.

Kapitainis quit (inasmuch as a freelancer can do so); his review was reprinted at Musical Toronto before being restored, sans an offending sentence, at its original location.

In the email exchange between Pugsley and Parkes (reprinted here), Parkes noted that performing arts reviews “simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content.” (He went on to ask about getting tickets. Ahem.)

As for the news coverage of this incident, the Washington Post focuses on the role, and importance, of arts criticism in journalism, whereas  this Maclean’s piece looks at the economics of arts reviews in leaner, meaner times: reviewing the performing arts in mainstream publications has never been viable; it’s just that newspapers used to have money enough to subsidize it.

As I see it, critical integrity is beside the point in cases like these. I suspect that performing arts coverage has always been filed under civic boosterism (the tickets are part and parcel): covering the event, rather than critiquing it, is what’s important. No one, after all, wants to read that the local orchestra can’t play worth a damn—what good would that do?

Actually, It’s About Ethics in Book Reviewing

As I mentioned in a previous post, I appeared on a panel called “It’s Actually About Ethics: Reviewing the Work of Colleagues and Friends” at Readercon. That was last weekend. Scott Edelman recorded video of that panel, so you can see me in all my questionable glory. As you will see, I have a few suggestions about who you should and should not review.

The ethics of writing book reviews seems to be a topic of the moment. I have a number of links. Let’s start with my friend Natalie Luhrs and her comprehensive article on the subject in Uncanny Magazine. That’s a good starting point.

Jonathan McCalmont is concerned about reviewers’ critical agency and has some sharp observations about the role reviewers play: “Why do so many bloggers make it look as though they are working an extra job as unpaid interns in the entertainment industry?” The truth about book reviews is that while they’re ostensibly for readers, the audience that cares about them most is the publishing industry: booksellers, librarians, publicists—and most of all authors, who are the ones who do most of the linking to and retweeting of reviews.

I’m very mindful of the fact that reviewing is a cog in the literary-industrial complex, and that it takes great force of personality to resist falling into line with the demands of publicity. For an example of such force of personality, see James Nicoll, who has enough of a problem with reviewers taking money from authors (he does sponsored reviews on his website, but, critically, not from the authors of the books) that he’s leaving Romantic Times over their for-pay RT Review Source.

The ethical book reviewer, it seems to me, has to be prepared to act against their own pecuniary and social self-interest—giving a friend a bad review, turning down money, losing social capital or access to advance copies—in favour of the integrity of their reviewing. But the ethical book reviewer will not suffer if authors and publishers are also ethical. Ethics in book reviewing, in other words, isn’t only about reviewers.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén