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The Positive Value of Negative Reviews

January 6, 2015

Following last year’s Hale and Sriduangkaew-related turmoil, The G at Nerds of a Feather asked me to participate in a round-table discussion about the positive value of negative reviews. The results of this discussion have now been published so you can see me discussing the issue with G, Maureen Kincaid Speller and Jared Shurin. My contribution talks about fan cultures and Jacob Silverman’s infamous ‘Against Enthusiasm’ piece and concludes with what I perceive to be the value of negative reviews:

I believe in the value of negative reviews because I want to be part of a literary culture that puts the emotional and intellectual needs of ordinary readers above those of professional elites. Unlike Silverman, I don’t yearn for a culture of intellectual combat but I do want to exist in a cultural space where people feel empowered by their community to talk about books in the way that feels most appropriate to them. I want people to be unafraid to talk about books in ways that lead to discussions about more important things and it is impossible for fans to have that type of freedom when they are expected to bear in mind the interests of authors who are trying to build their careers and manage their brands.

The piece has already generated some interesting discussion in the comments Erin Horáková asks about the supposed firewall between critiquing a book and critiquing an author:

Is there room to make critical inquiries about the Author as persona, the author as creator of multiple texts, the author as biographical entity? I mean, this paragraph presupposes, in a way, that we’re ‘helping people decide’ about the specific text we’re reviewing. I tend to think that’s one thing we’re doing! But we’re also, inextricably, talking about books generally–ways they can be good and bad, speaking to an audience of readers, some of whom are also writers, in ways that will inform how they read and write, as conversations about how books function/fail/succeed do. I’m very ‘Author is Dead’. But in a way, that’s what makes me willing–not to read/engage in divination about intent and biography per se, but willing to treat the author as a choice-making entity with attitudes/effects that reverberate through their work, and a cultural persona that/who inescapably affects how we read their work.

I remember a video about how to call someone out doing the rounds a few years ago.  In it, the speaker argued that we need to draw a distinction between accusing someone of having said something racist/sexist/homophobic and asserting that they are racist/sexist/homophobic. The idea being that people are more likely to be receptive when they are accused of errant behaviour than when they are accused of being morally deficient and prejudiced. It’s a lovely idea but the world simply does not work that way.

In reality, people are more than happy to make the leap between ‘this book is sexist/racist’ and ‘this author is sexist/racist’ and the slipperiness of the line between judging a book and judging an author is only too obvious when you notice how relaxed everyone seems to be about assuming an author is a brilliant moral paragon on the basis of writing something that everyone liked.

As to whether people would tolerate a critique of an author’s persona, I think that depends entirely upon who the author is and who is doing the tolerating. For example, if someone were to look at the novels of the fantasy author Mark Lawrence and then read through his various blog posts and Twitter statements before denouncing him as a sexist buffoon, I doubt very much that many people on the left wing of genre culture would make much of a fuss. After all… is that not precisely the methodology employed by Requires Hate? Is that not precisely the methodology that underpins much of call-out culture?

Part of the problem is that what passes for moral judgements is often nothing more than expressions of tribal loyalty.We would like to believe that we are principled creatures with clear ideas about the unacceptability of crossing certain lines but in truth we are fine with people crossing the line between criticism and personal judgement when we agree with the judgement in question. However, the second those techniques are deployed against our friends and the people we like, we reach for double standards and gerrymandered moral principles that are really little more than ill-fitting defence mechanisms applied after the fact in an effort to square the circle between our desire to be seen to have principled and our desire to defend our friends when they behave in a questionable manner.

One of my chief sources of alienation from contemporary genre culture is our addiction to the moral quick fix. People are so desperate to vent their spleens and position themselves on the right side of a shit storm that they forget that many of these moral questions have no easy answers. Survey the fall-out from the Requires Hate scandal and you can see people tying themselves in knots as they try to find a stance that gives equal weighting to a number of mutually exclusive moral principles; Pay too little attention to the racial element of RH’s behaviour and you look like you are being insensitive to the historic mistreatment of people of colour. Endorse anything less than a zero-tolerance policy on bullying and people will accuse you of ignoring the victims. Stress the fact that authors need to be protected from overly aggressive reviewing and you are anti-fan. Stress the fact that reviewers should be able to say whatever they want without authors being able to respond and you are seen to be insensitive to the realities of contemporary publishing.

The truth is that there are no moral quick fixes here… there is only greyness, ambiguity and deciding which principles you think are more important than others.  Another point I make in the article is:

Genre culture has always been a network of cultural scenes rather than a single integrated community and genre culture’s attempts to behave as though it is a single community has resulted not just in cultural clashes over the role of negative reviewing but also a tangible fear that opening your mouth will result in people from different scenes jumping on you for daring to say the wrong thing even when the cultural scene you inhabit is telling you that what you are saying is perfectly acceptable.

Most of genre culture’s major shit storms seem to derive from the assumption and expectation that all corners of fandom must believe the same things and that failure to abide by a particular moral code is grounds for public shaming. The more time passes, the more I think that this social model is completely untenable. Fans should be able to recognise and tolerate differences of opinion if only because there are no easy answers to moral questions. I plant my flag pretty clearly on the side of robustly negative reviewing but others would rather live in communities where such things simply do not happen. I don’t want to spend time in those kinds of community and I imagine the same is true of people who believe that reviews should all be positive.

Once you realise that there are no moral answers, institutional reforms and differences of opinion become a matter of politics and boundaries. It really would be nice to find a way to live and let live, to recognise the sanctity of others’ spaces in a way that still allows dialogue and the occasional respectful exchange of ideas but then self-righteousness is one hell of a drug and moral certainty drives more traffic than acknowledgements of complexity.

4 Comments
  1. January 6, 2015 4:55 pm

    Reblogged this on My WordPress Notepad.

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  2. January 7, 2015 6:49 am

    Agree 100% with your Nerds of a Feather contribution. Books are for readers, 90% of everything is rubbish, and – if your work is part of the 90% – then the solution is to improve, not to whine at the critic.

    From what I gather, much of the discussion isn’t about the quality/originality of work, but more about its potential racism/sexism, etc. I don’t believe the author is dead because 90% of my interactions with my characters in my WIP happen off the page. They are simple personality models that are compartmentalised from my conscious personality, and who I can *interview*. A critic claiming to speak for my characters is as absurd as a historian claiming to know Elizabeth I based on a biography.

    The solution to accusations of sexism is to ensure that, yes, you make it very clear you’re not your characters. Third-person narrative must separate events (fictional facts) from the author’s interpretation. A first-person narrative must show the unreliability and partiality of real autobiography.

    When that is done, it is possible to separate the author (the narrator) from the characters, and hold he or she responsible for their contribution. In that world, I could write from the POV of a holocaust denier without being accused of being one. And I wouldn’t have to hold my hands up, and cowardly pretend that exploring mankind’s capability for evil is ‘nothing to do with me, gov. The author’s dead. It was society that made me do it’.

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  3. January 10, 2015 3:00 pm

    Being linked to the roundtable piece from Twitter reminded me how much I miss your presence on Twitter.

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  4. January 10, 2015 6:40 pm

    Thank you Char… That really is very sweet of you :-)

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