I’m always keen to read an argument against spoiler alerts; in Wired, Jason Kehe makes the point that avoiding spoilers prevents us from talking about whether art is successful because we can’t talk about endings. “[G]ood criticism should not cater to our childish fears of spoiled pleasures, with disclaimers and warnings and other acts of silly self-debasement. It should honestly evaluate a work of art in its entirety, and you can’t do that without talking about what happens. Besides, it’s not even clear that spoilers really do ruin one’s experience of art.” Preventing spoilers is at bottom a marketing tactic, and has been since the end credits of Witness for the Prosecution (1957) asked the audience not to reveal its plot twist. That was, and is, to get more bums in seats. Marketing is the enemy of good criticism.
The Writer’s Map does two things: it collects writing about literary maps and it presents those maps pictorially. We’ve had collections of literary and fantasy maps before—for example, J. B. Post’s Atlas of Fantasy, the second edition of which came out in 1979, so we’re past due for another. We’ve had essays about literary maps, published here and there in periodicals, essay collections and online. This book gathers them both in one place, creating what is nothing less than a writer’s love letter to the map.
This is one of several reviews of new map books that I’ve done lately. On The Map Room proper, I’ve reviewed Tom Harper’s Atlas: A World of Maps at the British Library and Susan Schulten’s History of America in 100 Maps. Still to come: reviews of the latest edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World as well as Betsy Mason and Greg Miller’s All Over the Map. [Update: Those reviews have now been written; I’ve updated the links.]
It’s a busy season for reviews: map books tend to come out in the fall, in advance of the Christmas season, because they position themselves as gifts for map geeks. (I do an annual gift guide for that very reason.) Which makes the fall a very busy time for me: so far my accomplishments have been largely to (1) attend sf conventions, (2) rake leaves and (3) write map book 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.
I want to talk about this, because it bothers me.
I will start by saying I think @jasonsanford does terrific work. I back his Patreon and recommend it.
— R. Lemberg (@RoseLemberg) April 11, 2018
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.)
"Why aren't there more critical and/or negative reviews" is usually a demand by white Anglo men. (Several on my timeline today.)
Here is a short thread explaining why.
I have both positive and negative reviews and also a lot of "well I liked this but X aspect was annoying"
— Bogi Takács PERSON, 100% migráncs (@bogiperson) April 11, 2018
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.
Not link-tweeting anyone because it's so pervasive, but: when you create a critical culture in which any negative critique is framed as an "attack on authors," you create conditions in which virtually the only people willing to do it are also willing to *actually* attack authors.
— Cecily Kane (@Cecily_Kane) April 11, 2018
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.
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 Rank, Tangent 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.