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Don’t Attack Reviewers

October 24, 2014

Last weekend, the Guardian published an astonishing piece by Kathleen Hale about her experiences tracking down someone who spoke ill of her and her books online. According to Hale, the negative reviews spiralled out into a more generalised form of online vitriol that motivated Hale to trace her reviewer’s real identity, travel to confront them and then write an article about it in the Guardian that paints Hale as the (moderately self-critical) victim of things like ‘trolling’ and ‘catfishing’ rather than a petulant and intimidating online presence. Anyone who has published a negative review online will read this article and shiver, particularly at the manner in which Hale presents the silencing of her critic as a signifier for personal growth:

 

I’m told Blythe still blogs and posts on Goodreads; Patricia tells me she still live    tweets Gossip Girl. In some ways I’m grateful to Judy, or whoever is posing as Blythe, for making her Twitter and Instagram private, because it has helped me drop that obsessive part of my daily routine. Although, like anyone with a tendency for low-grade insanity, I occasionally grow nostalgic for the thing that makes me nuts.

 

It’s nice that Kale was afforded the privilege of writing about her experiences in a venue as visible and respected as the Guardian and it’s nice that she was able to transform her defeated and diminished critics into stepping-stones on the road to personal self-improvement. I am genuinely glad that she is feeling better but the bulk of my sympathies still lie with her critic.

I feel quite close to this issue because, for the past ten years, I have been hanging out on the margins of science fiction fandom occasionally writing about books and commenting on the state of the field. In that time I have seen a partisan dislike for negative reviews of favourite books broaden into a more generalised taboo against negative reviewing and a related dissolution of the taboo against authors confronting their critics and responding to reviews. Given that Hale frames her encounters with critics in strictly psychological terms, I think it appropriate that I should begin by doing the same.

The first time I took a step back from genre culture was as a result of being stalked for daring to publish negative reviews. The stalking was limited to some creepy comments and a rather cack-handed attempt to run me out of town on a rail by posting a long diatribe in the comments of a number of widely-read blogs but It did give me pause for thought and a reason for cutting back on my reviewing.

The second time I took a step back from genre culture was a number of years later. Alienated from the field, I had set up this blog as a means of encouraging myself to write about a wider array of things but I had been slowly drifting back towards the field because of a number of decent friendships that made me feel as though I was welcome. After a sudden change in circumstances left me with a good deal more spare time, I decided to increase my output and so started volunteering to review a wider range of books and generally chasing the field by reviewing stuff that was already being widely discussed.

In February 2009, I reviewed Ellen Datlow’s anthology Poe for Strange Horizons. I liked some of the stories but not all of them and was largely unimpressed by the anthology as a whole. A few days later, the Hugo-winning editor Ellen Datlow appeared in the comments to take issue with things that I had said. She was later joined by the author Anna Tambour whose contributions make little sense even upon re-examination. Curious as to where these authors and editors were coming from, I backtracked and came across a discussion of the review on Datlow’s blog. I later commented in public about Datlow’s willingness to go after her critics and she responded by saying that she didn’t believe that I had actually read her work.

In hindsight, this type of stuff seems like weak beer. In the past five years, online discussion has grown considerably more hyperbolic and an editor linking to a negative review on their blog would most likely result in 110 comments rather than 11. However, I started reviewing under the principle that a reviewer’s right to express their opinion about a book was sacrosanct and when you realise that this right has suddenly been taken away it cannot help but make you feel alienated from your culture (am I *that* out of touch?) and just that little bit more careful when choosing which books to review (does this author have a history of going after their critics and do I think that my review might prompt such a response?).

 

Rev6

 

A couple of years later, I took it upon myself to review Jo Walton’s Hugo Award-winning novel Among Others. By that point, I was aware of the growing willingness of authors to go after their critics and so had fallen into the habit of publishing my reviews on an external site rather than my blog. However, when I posted a link to the piece on my blog, I made the mistake of expanding upon some of my points to the extent that this provoked a link directly to my blog as well as to the review. This time, the link prompted 82 comments. Later that summer, Jo Walton appeared on a panel at Worldcon and reportedly discussed my review at some length. I still don’t know what was said at that panel but I do know that Jo Walton later wrote me an email in order to apologise.

It was around this time that my genre reviewing output began to decline. I stopped chasing the conversation and when Strange Horizons stopped sending me emails inviting me to review, I never bothered to chase them. The community had spoken and I didn’t belong. I even spoke out online about how I was completely done with genre reviewing and I didn’t even think about reviewing another work of genre fiction until I encountered Tim Maughan’s short-fiction collection Paintwork. While I am now closer to genre spaces than I was in 2011 and 2012, I’m no longer a regular reviewer and most of my writing takes the form of either columns published in a magazine or cultural commentary that I consider fan-writing rather than literary criticism.

Having written all of this out, I now realise that it seems extraordinarily petty. In hindsight, I wonder what I was worried about but that anxiety did sour me on the genre community and was directly responsible for my ‘career’ as a genre reviewer coming to a rather ill-tempered end. I sympathise with Kathleen Hale’s critics because I received far less intense blow-back for my reviewing and collapsed like a house of cards. These days, I consider anyone who dares to post a negative review to be heroic because I know what it’s like out there and I know that I probably don’t have another dog-pile in me.

 

Rev2

 

In order to get a feel for what it can be like to be a genre reviewer in the current climate, I invite you to take a look at the comments to this overview of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant/Rivers of London series by the Book Smugglers as well as the column by Renay that those comments inspired. Aaronovitch also responded to the column and when the fight eventually spilled out onto Twitter and into the wider genre blogosphere, Renay found herself on the receiving end of some very unpleasant threats. When asked not to impose his intended interpretation upon his fans’ readings, Aaronovitch got angry, started insulting people and later claimed that the term ‘fan’ was itself problematic and promptly resigned from fandom for about as long as it took for him to be invited to be a guest at a convention.

I think that the Strange Horizons blow-up neatly demonstrates the power dynamics involved in choosing to express yourself in genre spaces: If a fan says something and gets into trouble, they can rely upon their friends to back them up. When an author says something and gets into trouble, they can rely upon their friends, their fanbase, their publisher and their agents to provide support. Some of whom will have a financial interest in the author’s career. When Renay popped her head above the parapet and dared to say that maybe we should think about our cultural spaces in a different light, she was attacked and threatened to the point where her later columns were noticeably more personal and less likely to attract attention. When Ben Aaronovitch went for a fan, people with ties to the industry bent over backwards to make him feel welcome.

 

Rev3

 

The power imbalance is so pronounced that I find it difficult to believe that anyone could write something as privileged and insensitive as that which recently appeared on Robert Jackson Bennett’s blog:

 

In my experience, artists aren’t the powerful ones in this situation. We’re vulnerable, powerless, and desperately exposed, and it’s assumed that we’ll stay that way. Granted, we chose to be in this situation – we’ve put ourselves out there before the world – but the increased anonymity of the internet means we catch a lot more tomatoes in the face than we used to, and it’s assumed we’ll grin and bear it.

 

I don’t even want to know what kind of corrupted and malformed neural pathway might lead you to look at my history as a reviewer or the reaction to Renay’s column and conclude that we were the people who had the power in those situations. Was Kathleen Hale’s critic the one who had the power when a manifestly troubled writer decided to turn up on her doorstep? Was Kathleen Hale’s critic the one with the power when an article was written about her in a national newspaper? Was Kathleen Hale’s critic the one with the power when she decided that she felt unsafe with unlocked accounts? No.

Setting my own experiences and feelings about authors responding to critics aside, I think that much of the discussion surrounding Hale’s piece ignores the structural causes for these types of confrontation.

 

Rev4

 

The reason that authors are starting to ‘catch a lot more tomatoes in the face’ is that the publishing industry has royally fucked them. Step back a single generation and you will find that most of an author’s PR was handled by their publishers. Sure… an author would have to do the occasional interview and maybe the odd public appearance but when a publishing house decided your work was worth publishing they put their weight behind it allowing you to spend your time writing rather than hustling for PR and managing your brand. What has happened over the last ten years is that authors have been forced to become so involved with their own PR that there is no longer any distance between them and the people discussing their work. The reason the taboo against authors responding to reviewers has been replaced with a taboo against negative reviews is that there is a world of difference between having your PR people turn a blind-eye to the things being said about you in another room and being expected to sit quietly in front of a bunch of people discussing your failings.

The changes in the social protocols surrounding reviewing show how the lack of distance between authors and fans has put fan spaces under pressure to conform to the requirements of the modern publishing industry: A literary culture built to meet the needs of fans naturally encourages robust criticism because robust criticism encourages fans to talk amongst themselves and a negative review is no bad thing (whether you agree with it or not) because it aims to prevent fans from spending money on books they won’t enjoy. Conversely, a literary culture built to meet the needs of literary professionals has no interest in protecting people from bad purchasing decisions. This type of literary culture emphasises not only positive reviews that help to sell (sometimes terrible and offensive) books but also coverage of the types of things that publishers want. Why encourage fans to find their own areas of interest when you can drive them towards the blogs of people who review the right type of book in the right type of way and at the right time? A literary culture built to suit the needs of literary professionals has no need for independent or idiosyncratic voices and absolutely no need for reviewers who dare to point out that the hot novel of the moment is a waste of money. However, a literary culture built to suit to needs of its bourgeois professionals may feel the need to set out a set of rules that the lower classes would be wise to follow, hence Robert Jackson Bennett laying down the law  as to where and when it is acceptable for critics to express their own opinions:

 

In other words, when you leave your platform, your own personal space of the internet, and go to someone else’s, or even to a community platform, it requires a different code of behavior. This isn’t your space anymore, so you need to act differently. And remember, you’ve had your say back on your own platform. That’s the place to speak your mind.

 

What has changed in the last generation is that the book publishing industry has been bought out by corporations who see the literary world as nothing more than another domain from which to extract money. Thus, the infamously sloppy and old-fashioned publishing industry was put under pressure to perform and in order to perform, belts had to be tightened and resources squeezed including authors who could no longer be allowed to sit around writing when there was marketing to be done. I understand when people like Robert Jackson Bennett say that they’re feeling vulnerable and exposed but it is capitalism and not fans who put them in this position.

Many of the writers who are now compelled to interact with fans in fannish spaces were not members of those spaces prior to becoming authors. Having been told by agents and publishers to set up a Twitter account and get branding, they arrive in fannish spaces expecting the cultural equivalent of an eBay account: Put effort in here, extract money there. Brought to these spaces for entirely selfish reasons, it is not surprising that these authors should find themselves alienated from a set of cultural values devised and maintained by people intent upon using those spaces for different reasons. Faced with a disconnect from the cultural values they have and the cultural values that benefit them financially, some authors choose to either lobby for a new set of rules (as in the case of Robert Jackson Bennett) or lash out at reviewers (as in the case of Kathleen Hale and Ben Aaronovitch) who refuse to act according to the rules that many new authors were lead to expect by publishers who don’t have the time to promote the books they themselves chose to publish.

As an occasional critic and commentator on the world of science fiction literature, I am concerned about the changing attitudes towards fan spaces. I am concerned not only because I have become more and more conscious of how scary it can be to express a dissenting opinion in genre culture but also because I wonder whether these types of business practices are sustainable in the long term.

 

Rev5

 

My views on diversity and inclusivity in fandom rest upon a vision of society that might be described as Darwinian if that didn’t invoke images of Richard Dawkins shouting at Muslims or libertarian plutocrats blaming the poor for being the victims of economic oppression. In my view, everyone who decides to ‘do’ cultural stuff makes a decision as to which cultural spaces are deserving of their attention. The more attractive a cultural space is to potential members, the more that cultural space will grow and benefit from their continued emotional and financial investment. In a sense, all of a culture’s fandoms and spaces are ‘competing’ for resources in the form of new members. A literary culture built to service the needs of fans will develop values that protect fans and allow them enough space to find themselves and do what they want to do. Conversely, a literary culture built to service the economic needs of a professional literary class will seek to restrict fans’ agency to the point where they are merely passive recipients of PR and economic resources to be exploited by those deemed worthy of entry to the professional classes. Is a literary culture that emphasises the passive nature of its non-professional participants really more ‘competitive’ than a literary culture that allows non-professionals the space to express themselves freely? Would a 14-year old version of you rather invest in a cultural space where they are expected to sit still, pay up and help to sell stuff or a cultural space that allows people to find their own voice regardless of what it might have to say? I am not convinced that a literary culture built to service the needs of a professional literary class is as viable as a literary culture built to service the needs of book readers everywhere. I think that frowning on negative reviews whilst turning a blind eye to attacks on reviewers silences voices and makes it much less likely that fandom will attract new voices to replace those who have been silenced in the past. I am sympathetic to writers who feel overwhelmed and horrified by readers’ refusal to be passive economic resources but the answer is never to intimidate, ostracise and occasionally stalk those fans that refuse to conform to their professional requirements.

Authors (like Ben Aaronovitch or Kathleen Hale) who attack reviewers are not freak occurrences but a direct result of increased commercial pressure being placed on cultural spaces. The more international capital requires profit, the more corporations squeeze their publishing arms and the more the publishers squeeze their writers, the more writers wind up attacking reviewers who dare to disrupt their branding strategies. The rising pressure on our cultural ecosystems mirrors the increased pressure on real-world ecosystems and shifting to a set of values that discourages negative reviewing whilst turning a blind-eye to attacks on reviewers is really no different to shifting to a set of values that turn a blind-eye to fracking, clear-cutting forests and strip-mining mountainsides. Like all cultural spaces, fandoms are valuable resources but apply too much pressure to those resources and you risk destroying them not just for yourself but for the authors and fans that come after you.

42 Comments
  1. October 24, 2014 4:47 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, Jonathan. The reviewer-writer (or publisher) relationship can be a difficult one to handle ethically and politely even at the best of times. When people start behaving badly, however, things can turn ugly, fast.

    I think its a case of “it was ever thus” (fans and authors tangling in fanzines) with a large dose of corporate pressure and economic concerns which have led to these new spikes in bad confrontations.

    Paul S Kemp recently chatted with me online, and posited that reviews and reviewers really are just the tip of the spear, rather than the whole enchilada. A single review, in the scheme of things, is no deal breaker or career ender. I am, in the end, not really a big deal if I slam, say, Willful Child. But fears that this not the case lead to Hale, and to Aaronovitch acting as if it was.

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  2. October 24, 2014 5:12 pm

    Excellent.

    I once read some neo-liberal wank (wish I could remember where), which tried to argue that negative reviews should be *banned* on the grounds of economic irresponsibility – don’t you know it could cost an author their sales? etc. Ugh. I despair.

    I’ve had two particularly nasty instances of being attacked for writing negative reviews. Thinking of these still fills me such anxiety that I won’t mention who the writers in question were, I hope that’s okay?

    The first was a direct e-mail from a very well-known writer who was livid that I’d given his book a mediocre review (a book, btw, which had had, at best, a lukewarm reception elsewhere). He all but threatened litigation against me. I was new to blogging at the time, and I have a pathological fear of confrontation, so I promptly replied with a grovelling apology and made all of the changes he’d demanded. I feel bad that he contacted me, bad that I acquiesced to his demands, and generally the whole thing was horrible and intimidating. As you say, it was the power imbalance that freaked me out the most. There was a lot of condescending “you on the outside of the industry cannot possibly understand” -type stuff. I’d never had any contact with a writer before that.

    The second wasn’t an attack from an author, but from some academic critics (like, from an actual university and everything) who stumbled upon a different negative review that I’d written. They discussed me on Twitter for a while, then started linking to my review in a such a way that saw my blog bombarded with hundreds of angry fans writing horrible things in the comments section. It got so bad that I took my blog offline for a month, until things calmed down. The academics later apologised, and insisted that linking to my blog wasn’t done with the intention of unleashing the hounds, as it were (I didn’t believe them); but I was baffled as to why a pair of highly qualified academics would put so much energy into dismissing the unprofessional online book reviews of a 24-year-old with no audience. As if my blog was influential, or was read by more than, like, 10 people a week. If was I publishing in an academic journal, then *maybe* I could understand the scrutiny, but still not the vitriol. Proper scary.

    Anyway, sorry. Ranty, rant.
    Really enjoyed your article. Also, you should come back to Twitter ‘cos it’s boring without you. :)

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  3. October 24, 2014 5:39 pm

    Hi Paul :-)

    I know I’ve had this out with you in the past but I think the issue come down to whose interests these cultural spaces serve. The thing that made me nuts about (both) Robert Jackson Bennett pieces is the suggestion that these cultural spaces belong to authors and that fans can say what they want on their own blogs but the second they move beyond those blogs they’re expected to toe the line and be good little consumers.

    I know I’m sort of on the margins of fandom but my view has always been that I should do what I can to leave those cultural spaces richer than they were before I got there and for my that involves trying to make those cultural spaces more inclusive and more tolerant of difference. Attacking reviewers benefits authors now because it shuts up the negative nellies but in the long run that is really harmful to the fabric of fan culture.

    When I arrived in these spaces, there was an (admittedly old fashioned) idea that fans and authors were part of the same cultural spaces and didn’t outrank each other. I think that attitude has fundamentally changed in the last 10 years and one symptom of that change is that authors are doing their bit to encourage opposition to negative reviews. Hence RJB (and I’m told Cat Valente) lumping trolls and reviewers together in order to devalue independent voices.

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  4. October 24, 2014 6:11 pm

    Hi Tom :-)

    I’m not surprised you nearly shut down your blog, those stories are awful!

    There’s something really anti-social about ranting about someone saying something stupid of offensive and then linking directly to a low-traffic website. All that means is that the author will find their blog filling up with ridiculously angry comments via a referring link allowing them to track back to a discussion about how awful they are. I think that type of thing needs it’s own name as it’s easily as questionable as something like gas-lighting.

    I remember one of the more harrowing stories to come out of the RH/BS thing was a rape survivor who dared to say that learning to survive her ordeal had made her a stronger person. RH took issue with this and would periodically link to the post sending a huge amount of traffic and angry commenters straight to the rape survivor’s blog. The increase in traffic was so noticeable that every time RH linked, the victim would notice and know that she was being ranted about *again*.

    I’ve not had that yet (thankfully) but when I wrote a load of posts about fandom and the Hugos last year, the posts were picked up on LJ and discussed in some depth. Every time one of my articles was linked to, the same person would show up in the comments in order to explain how I was a complete idiot. Now… a) This person is a very well-connected British academic who shouldn’t have that much free time on her hands and b) This person has run a blog and must realise that the traffic spike would lead me to the discussion and her calling me an idiot.

    As to why this type of thing happens, I have a theory…

    Back when I was learning to drive, I would often dally at roundabouts because I found them quite scary. Every time I dallied, people would honk their horns, flash their lights and generally act incredibly annoyed at what, at most, must have been a tiny irritation.

    I think that a lot of people are living shitty lives in shitty relationships with shitty jobs. They’re not happy about this but they can’t yell at their boss, they can’t yell at their partners and they can’t hate themselves so they carry that hatred around inside themselves and release it in a more socially acceptable situation like ‘OMG someone doesn’t like this awesome book!’.

    One of the reasons why I decided to step away from Twitter is that I feel myself doing this type of thing all the time. Feel a bit unhappy about something but can’t really vocalise it coherently or openly? Dump that negativity on Twitter! I think if we all got a little bit better at policing our negative emotions then Twitter would be a much more pleasant place.

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  5. October 24, 2014 6:14 pm

    Great piece, Jonathan. One thing I’d point you to, though, is that Robert Jackson Bennett has also said–in no uncertain terms–that authors need to butt out of fan conversations and accept that readers are going to interpret their books according to their own criteria. Here’s the link: http://robertjacksonbennett.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/you-know-whats-missing-in-this-whole-fans-vs-creators-thing/

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  6. October 24, 2014 6:28 pm

    Hi G :-)

    I’m glad that he has come out against attacking reviewers in the past and both of the posts I link to are aware of the need for fans and reviewers to be able to do their thing unmolested. This in and of itself puts him streets ahead of the likes of Aaronovitch and Hale.

    However, his latest post (the one attempting to distinguish between trolls and critics) seems to be laying down ground rules for where fans can express themselves freely. Magnanimous I am sure but I’m not sure why should he be allowed to impose boundaries upon spaces that weren’t created by him in the first place.

    What is the troll/reviewer comparison if not a rhetorical stick with which to beat reviewers? Behave yourself of you’ll be a troll!

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  7. October 24, 2014 7:19 pm

    It may be worth pointing out that this behaviour seems to take place chiefly online. I’ve been reviewing books for Interzone since 2008, and I can probably count the number of books I gave positive reviews there on the fingers of one hand. Yet only one author has ever responded to a negative review by me – she left a message on LibraryThing saying, “Sorry you didn’t like the book”. On the other hand, I’ve been critical of the works of authors – both living and dead – on my blog, and been insulted and threatened both in the comments and on sites like reddit, fark.com or megafilter.com.

    It may be unfashionable but I think reviews should above all be honest. And while a reader’s response to a work is purely subjective, there is an element of objective assessment involved – although it’s far from an exact science. You can like bad books, you can hate good books, you can both admire how well a book is written while not finding it to your taste or suited to your sensibilities. And all of this has sod-all to do with the author.

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  8. October 24, 2014 7:32 pm

    Good post.

    At a very basic level, I don’t understand the mentality. If I’d written a book and people said it was shit, here’s what I might think:

    (1) My god! They’re right; I shall do better next time.
    (2) I’m confident in my work, but maybe it just wasn’t for them (lol, they like Heinlein).
    (3) Good, it’s work which inspires emotions.

    On point three, my favourite albums aren’t the most popular I have. This isn’t because I am a tosser (I realise I probably am, but the two things are unconnected) but because for something to be truly meaningful, it has to speak to you closely. If everyone likes it, that’s pretty unlikely. And fuck that; there are loads of mediocre books out there.

    Also, Twitter isn’t quite the same. Everyone says so. :)

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  9. October 24, 2014 9:16 pm

    I sat, open-mouthed in shock, while I read about Hale’s conduct and The Guardian rewarding her financially and with a signal-boost. Hale’s behaviour is inspirational; it inspires me to quit reviewing and start training so I can run away faster.

    One publicist (who shall remain nameless) sent an aggressive email telling me that, instead of writing a negative review, I should have done my research BEFORE asking for a review copy.

    Authors have contacted me to ‘correct’ my reviews. On occasion, a rushed read-and-review has resulted in errors; for example, when reading Elspeth Cooper’s trilogy, the ‘firebird’ was introduced as a human acrobat; forgetting this left me puzzled over a later scene. Authors have contacted me politely to offer feedback.

    It’s the other authors, the not-so-polite authors, that are an issue.

    I’ve received threats. I’ve even been threatened by an author I know personally, who lives in my home city. And THAT was because I’d given him a positive review and posted an interview; he wanted it removed because he didn’t want people contacting him to purchase his book. Go figure.

    Ironically, I loved the first Peter Grant book BUT I projected stuff into this book that I wanted to read. Watching the Aaronovitch debacle unfold was an education. Not only did I agree 100% with the reviewer/book blogger, Aaronovitch’s comments told me I was projecting stuff into the book, I had expectations for the series, that were never going to be fulfilled. When I read Peter Grant sexually evaluating the woman he’d come to inform of her husband’s death, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t make a note (I really must make a firm habit of reading with pen & paper handy) so by the time I wrote the review, it slipped my mind. Even worse was my realisation that Aaronovitch was surprised by how much the womminz love Lesley; clearly, he’s not planning to give Peter a psychic smack upside the head to get his shit together. After reading Aaronovitch’s responses to the review, the end of his previous book had a whole new context. With Peter being such a dick and Aaronovitch not liking the awesome woman he’d accidentally created, I probably won’t continue with the series. It’s not like I have a shortage of books to read. So Aaronovitch really won that bout, aye?

    Yesterday I started reading a book. I got about — maybe — 20 pages in. It opened well, with an engaging scene, then went to an info dump. The remainder of the bit I read had judgemental adjectives, info dumps and exposition overshadowing the snippets of showing the characters. Listing the reasons for not reviewing that book would identify the book and the author. Primarily, though, I am not going to review that book because I cannot give it a good review and I don’t want the consequences of giving it a bad review.

    When reviewing I try to take the target market into account. Like, for example, when I gave Wolves by Simon Ings 3 stars; he used some Literary techniques that may have ‘sung’ for the right audience. Those techniques didn’t outweigh the problems I had with the book but I don’t like Literature. Or, as I like to call it, ‘litteratchure’.

    I gave Bone Season a ‘possible 3 stars’ while acknowledging that I only read 1/3 of the book because BADLY WRITTEN. Broken world-building, deus ex machina plot, puppets in a panto doing the necessary to achieve the overblown outcome. Bone Season is an example of an author being paid by the word and a publisher saying, ‘Pretty face! I can sell this pretty young face on book tours!’ I recently received an email publicising the sequel; apparently Bone Season has sold over 250,000 copies in the English language alone and has been translated into 28 languages.

    Who am I to judge? I’m a terrified reviewer who can’t afford to stay in a motel if the angry hordes descend.

    I’m still working through the issues.

    Like

  10. October 25, 2014 2:42 pm

    Hi Richard :-)

    You are entirely right when you say that art is about making that personal connection and sometimes a work just doesn’t click. When that happens, all a reviewer can ever do is talk about the book and explain why it didn’t click for them. It’s really not about the authors.

    And thanks… I may return to Twitter at some point but I think it’s time I took a break.

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  11. October 25, 2014 2:52 pm

    Hi Telani :-)

    Your reactions to the Aaronovitch books are really interesting as I don’t react that way to anything I engage with. It’s not just that I don’t mind spending time with horrible characters or that it doesn’t really bother me if an interesting character gets sidelined, it’s that how I personally feel about the characters simply never enters into it. I (rarely) find stories moving but the fact that characters don’t exist means that my sense of empathy never really kicks in.

    Talk of ‘strong characters we can empathise with’ is almost a cliche in genre circles but it’s simply never happened for me and so I don’t see a work as in any way flawed if the characters are difficult to understand or profoundly unpleasant. For me, characters are only ever a means to an end and if there isn’t some wider thematic mission being pursued then it doesn’t matter what the characters are like.

    As a result, I can totally see why you’d bounce off Wolves as Wolves’ characters aren’t really there to be cared about or rooted for :-)

    I know you’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty iffy treatment by fans, so I know exactly where you’re coming from when you talk about how scary it can be.

    Publishing reviews shouldn’t be scary.

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  12. October 25, 2014 3:52 pm

    I think something has changed. Authors who went on the warpath against reviewers used to talk about having received private words of encouragement, but now they get openly cheered on. I don’t think it’s sustainable, though – it only really works as long those authors don’t read each other’s books!

    On the other hand, I was at a reading this year by a debut author where every word of the writing was so corny that I had to pinch my hand to stop myself laughing out loud, and everyone else in the room seemed to be treating it like a reading by Borges. I’m not into that kind of culty positivity.

    What Robert Jackson Bennett says about spaces did ring a bell with me, in so far as it’s descriptive rather than proscriptive. I keep my reviews now in my own spaces, or spaces I trust – my own blog and Interzone, basically – and don’t generally post them on Amazon or Goodreads. Leaving your own territory does make you a bit more vulnerable.

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  13. October 25, 2014 9:01 pm

    I suspect, as Ian says, that the Internet is largely responsible for making it easy to behave this way. Certainly I imagine that everyone who publishes reviews online (as opposed, say, to the squee-pieces you find in rather too many book blogs) has experienced some such attack. I once wrote a negative review of a children’s book by Pat Murphy and suffered a long and vitriolic series of attacks as a result. (I should point out that Pat took no part in this and possibly wasn’t even aware of it.) Another time I reviewed one of Ellen Datlow’s anthologies and got howls of outrage (including Nick Mamatas assuring Ellen that I was not a serious reviewer).

    I suppose if you want to dish it out you’ve got to be prepared to take it. Certainly I’ve never tempered my reviews in response to an attack, or in anticipation of an attack.

    The thing is, authors are always going to want good reviews, that’s only natural; and now that they are so often responsible for their own PR, they also need good reviews. But it is our job to be honest as reviewers, otherwise there is no value in what we do and we might as well give up. In my experience, all the writers who are worth caring about also recognise an honest review. Writers who attack reviewers tend not to be very interesting writers.

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  14. October 25, 2014 9:14 pm

    This is fascinating. I wrote a bit about this on my blog back in June–I really admire Adam Roberts because he will write the most brutal takedowns of books he finds unworthy. I’d be curious to know if he gets beaned for those.

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  15. October 25, 2014 9:37 pm

    [cough] NALINI [cough] :-D

    And, yeah—I like characters embarking on a hero’s journey that in some way relates to real life. Characters should evolve and grow in some way, not be passive Bellas whether in Twilight or in Wolves. As G K Chesterton said, ‘Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us dragons exist but because they tell us dragons can be defeated.’ If someone has no good role models in real life, it’s possible to find good role models on the TV and in books. (Just, PLEASE, don’t look to soapies for role models!)

    In my opinion, the problem with Literature as a genre is that it dwells in existential angst; it just wallows in the muck. No role models. No hope. I ranted a little about Literature vs genre here: http://www.darkmatterzine.com/emperors-new-prose/. Because the Emperor’s New Prose. (FYI Jane Austen did NOT write Literature. She wrote commercial fiction that is considered Literature because of its longevity. This is interesting in the context of exploring Literature’s boundaries.)

    Which brings me back to your comments about reviews, reviewers and what the book is trying to achieve. It’s not fair to judge a book by an irrelevant standard. This makes reviewing tricky but not impossible.

    Simon Ings’s response on Twitter (only a little of which was included in an update of my review http://www.darkmatterzine.com/wolves/) was to argue the validity of using 1960s research in a way with which I took issue. I also ranted about use of the evil albino trope, the albino suddenly becoming blind in a war zone, inappropriate treatment of blind people and so on. That was a very tricky review to write because I wanted to go on a rant about so many things but I tried to be objective as a former counsellor with training in crisis and trauma counselling, and as a vision impaired person. I thought those issues in particular made a good point from which to criticise his book. Simon disagreed. Was I unfair because he misappropriated MY disability? Maybe. I’m interested in your thoughts.

    In my opinion, if you have a problem with the author as a person, do NOT read the book. I’ve never met Simon Ings and never previously read any of his work so I felt free to review his book.

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  16. Scott Carpenter permalink
    October 26, 2014 1:01 pm

    Thought provoking as usual Jon.

    I come here for the brain food, your review of Vinterbergs The Hunter blew my mind,excuse the cliche but is that not what good writing,criticism is about? appraisal and reappraisal.

    To paraphrase Hobbes life is nasty,brutal and short, In my opinion the internet globalizes this condition.

    Do you not think that the Millennials cannot comprehend criticism as anything but negativity? or is technology and anonymity an aggregator for a long dormant trait?

    In short it is a heavy burden to be intelligent in the age of The New Dumb, modern fandom is an aggregate of marketing,PR and the internet. Unfortunately this is the life you have chosen , please do not give it up.

    Read Generation Wuss by Brett Easton Ellis and I for one would appreciate a scifi reading list for those who seek to engage with ideas rather than sentiment.

    Stay safe,be strong.

    Like

  17. October 26, 2014 6:12 pm

    An author once aggressively sued me for my review of his book on Amazon. Google it.

    Like

  18. psikeyhackr permalink
    October 27, 2014 6:54 am

    On the subject of science fiction it seems that most reviewers do not consider the science worth paying attention to. Either they cannot recognize when it is bad or do not care. But readers have this problem also.

    I have seen two commentators getting the artificial gravity wrong in Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky even though they claim to like the story. There was zero G at the center of the ship and pseudo-gravity at the outer edge. 7th and 8th graders should know that.

    In Leviathan Wakes the asteroid dodges the starship to avoid impact but there is no explanation of how the zombie mud knew it was coming. Ian Banks never explicitly says the Air Spheres have very low gravity but describes a scene that can only happen in low-G. Some things deserve bad reviews.

    Like

  19. October 27, 2014 11:27 am

    Nalini! I’m so sorry!

    You know what that is? It’s the fact that every time I hear someone mention the name Tehani Wessely I think they’re talking about you. For no other reason than the fact that both of your names end in ‘-ni’. When I saw your comment I thought *mustn’t call her Tehani* and then created some weird amalgam of your names instead!

    I don’t look down my nose at people who do want hope and characters they can identify with but it’s not something I naturally do. I think it’s possibly a result of my not having read very much as a child and also having a vision of the world that does tend to emphasise the existential alienation. Chesterton and Tolkien are on point here but I don’t feel that distant echo of salvation when I read fairy stories, I just feel like I’m watching a soap opera.

    Interesting what you say about Ings’ use of albinism. I must admit that it had not registered with me that there was an albino in the book. Your experiences provide a fascinating take on the trope and its use in the book and I think your review’s claims that the book “lacked cohesive plausibility” for its depiction of vision impairment is very much in keeping with the great traditions of genre reviewing. Ings might have disagreed with you and I must admit that I wasn’t bounced out of the story by the technical aspects but your response to the novel was still entirely appropriate.

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  20. October 27, 2014 11:31 am

    Hi Paul :-)

    Interesting that Datlow has gone after you too in the past and deeply puzzled by Mamatas’ suggestion that you’re not a serious reviewer. If you’re not, who is?

    You’re absolutely right when you say that serious writers accept the value of criticism because you can’t accept the value of a literary scene without also accepting the value of people expressing their honest opinions about the books they read. I can understand writers feeling hard-done by occasionally but then I’m sure there are times when they’re also surprised by critical positivity.

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  21. October 27, 2014 11:37 am

    Anthony —

    I remember hearing about your case at the time. That must have been unbelievably horrible for you!

    I’ll post a link to a blog post discussing the affair:

    http://petemorin.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/picking-a-fight-with-a-barrel-of-ink/

    Like

  22. October 27, 2014 11:42 am

    Inthebrake —

    That’s an interesting question actually. I remember a lot of people playing the ‘I will NEVER buy your books!” card when he went after the Hugo awards but I’ve not seen any authors go after him for producing negative reviews. Having said that, with the possible exception of Christopher Priest, Adam is arguably the best-connected genre reviewer in the country and that’s a very different matter to going after someone with a blog.

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  23. October 27, 2014 11:58 am

    Psikeyhackr —

    You might want to read Nalini’s review of Wolves as that’s pretty much exactly what she does :-)

    I don’t write that type of review as I’m not a scientist but I think going after the science in a science fiction novel is entirely appropriate. I love science fiction that is about the world and what more basic manner of engaging with the world is there than making sure that the science makes sense?

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  24. October 27, 2014 6:08 pm

    @iansales:

    It may be unfashionable but I think reviews should above all be honest. And while a reader’s response to a work is purely subjective, there is an element of objective assessment involved – although it’s far from an exact science. You can like bad books, you can hate good books, you can both admire how well a book is written while not finding it to your taste or suited to your sensibilities. And all of this has sod-all to do with the author.

    This a thousand times! May I quote you?

    Like

  25. October 27, 2014 7:00 pm

    Hi Jonathan — no probs. I figured you’d done something like that.

    If I read a book with a character who is supposed to be an albino or who is an ‘albino-type’ then I pay close attention. This began when I was in primary school and my peers told me I had to be evil because all albinos are evil, ‘look at albinos on TV…’ etc. At that point in time I actually didn’t know I was an albino although I knew I had a disability (it’s hard to miss when you struggle with stuff other people take for granted and your first school has ‘visually handicapped’ in its fucking NAME). At that time I did NOT know how badly albinos were represented, probably because my family watched nearly all ABC (public television, Australia’s version of the BBC).

    Thanks for the feedback re my review of Wolves.

    The whole reviewing thing is a work in progress: it feels a bit like a roundabout where I keep returning to the same issues to work through them again. My monstrous TBR pile has resulted in laying aside books that don’t ‘take’ within 20 or 50 pages… or by 1/3 of the way through. However, no review is not a bad review because MONSTROUS TBR PILE. And assignments.

    Keep on keeping us honest and thinking.

    And if you return to twitter, give me a ‘hoi’. Cheers.

    Like

  26. ElizaBeth Gilligan permalink
    October 28, 2014 3:37 am

    As an author, I read all the reviews of my work(s) that I can … it gives me an opportunity to grow as a writer. Critical reviews may seem unfair at times, but they are usually touching an area that the writer feels sensitive about. I consider reviews — positive and negative — to be a challenge at times. Praise of areas of the book(s) that the author feels were unimportant or sensitive in someway can be just as devastating as the critical review. It is the author’s job to find the insight in a review and apply it to their future work(s). If the author can’t do this, then they shouldn’t read reviews because then they are only looking for ego-stroking and friends and families do that job more than adequately most of the time.

    Like

  27. October 28, 2014 4:12 pm

    Reblogged this on Joseph Ratliff Reblogs.

    Like

  28. October 29, 2014 11:18 am

    Jonathan, this is such an interesting yet saddening post. It always worries me to hear that commentators are self censoring.

    I don’t know that I can add much to the conversation, but something I feel gets overlooked with reviews and reactions to them, is the inherent judgement we assign to liking or disliking a particular book, which might be anything from ‘intellectual superiority’ down to ideas of ‘good taste’.

    People usually believe their taste is good etc., so that necessarily means others must be wrong, snobs, idiots or ignorant. This sets up a combative space between fans and reviewers, and I think that’s always been the case. The online world just seems to magnify those sorts of spaces because it bring so many people together.

    I’m personally surprised authors are putting time into attacking reviewers like this, simply because time is so precious when you’re a writer, but as others have said it’s probably not authors’ responses to criticism that have changed, but that it takes so little effort both to find reviews and to respond online. (No one can protect you from yourself if you set up a Google alert!)

    Also, I suspect authors are getting more sympathy, and maybe feel they have more right to ‘defend’ their work publically, as reviews are caught up in the general outrage about conversation online attracting vile behaviour (the criticism = trolling idea). Not helped by the odd reviewer who is, well, not polite in how they express their views.

    Of course it’s slightly different if the review is commenting on larger issues, like racism or discrimination, because often authors get dragged into those wider discussions unexpectedly (i.e. they didn’t set out to write a book that upset people). That type of conversation is never going to be easy.

    The point though, as you said, is that giving your opinion shouldn’t be scary.

    Like

  29. October 29, 2014 11:57 am

    @azteclady

    By all means :-)

    Like

  30. October 29, 2014 12:17 pm

    Hi Lamellae,

    Thanks for your comment, you touch on a number of really interesting issues.

    1 – You’re right about there being a social component to the act of reviewing. Most online communities are built around affinity links and so having someone in a community say that a book is not worthy of other people’s time does have some weight. In fact, the first generation of literary critics (people like Samuel Johnson) did exactly that: They appeared in magazines that everyone read and when a book didn’t make the grade Johnson would effectively deny it access to his community. This is also why most of the more commercially-minded bloggers set out to build not just websites but communities.

    2 – I think that reviewing has been systematically devalued and undermined since I first started doing it about 10 years ago. Nowadays people who post negative reviews are seen as little more than trolls and I imagine the next step in that act of devaluation will be to start comparing negative reviewers to people like GamerGate. Linking negative reviewing with trolling is a great way of shutting out dissenting and idiosyncratic voices and focusing attention on certain approved commentators. Play by the rules of the publishing industry or you’re a troll.

    3 – I think one of the reasons why social justice rhetoric has taken root in certain communities is that it is literally the only critical vocabulary that can voice negative opinions: Write a review explaining why a book is stupid and poorly written and people will call you a troll. Write a review describing why a book is sexism and/or racist and people will call you a credit to your community. The mechanics are the same it’s just a different aesthetic language. Give it 10 years and the language will shift again. I don’t have a problem with SJ, I use those ideas myself when I feel comfortable doing so, but it really is not healthy for communities to support one language of dissent while demonising all the others.

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  31. October 29, 2014 4:07 pm

    I am honestly of the opinion that negative review are something a writer has to be ready to accept. If you put work out, then it will be subject to fair criticism. It will probably also be subject to unfair criticism. If you are not man/woman enough to accept that, then keep your manuscript in your desk draw where it will be unsullied forever.

    Like

  32. October 29, 2014 6:24 pm

    Hi Edmond :-)

    I am also of that opinion but I recognise that this is more easily said than done.

    Like

  33. November 1, 2014 3:18 pm

    Dark Matter Zine. I agree that people should be allowed to write negative reviews, and authors need to accept that not all reviews will be positive. However you write:

    Bone Season is an example of an author being paid by the word and a publisher saying, ‘Pretty face! I can sell this pretty young face on book tours!’

    There you are getting very personal. It’s a pretty bad insult, and it’s about the author, rather than her work. So if the authors get personal in response to that, I can quite understand it.

    Like

  34. November 2, 2014 12:04 am

    Erik Corry

    I am so embarrassed. You are 100% right. It’s a comment I’ve made in person and never in writing before. I should not have made it here, it’s not appropriate.

    Also, a lot of people love the book, apparently. I try to bear this in mind but sometimes my professional mask slips and I express my frustrations with the commercially successful in inappropriate ways.

    Sorry.

    [redface]

    Like

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