Books, science fiction

Review Nicely, Children.

If it's rubbish, should we say so?

A review of Neal Asher’s latest science fiction adventure, Orbus, was published on Friday by Strange Horizons. It was written by me. I didn’t make many bones about my view on the novel, which was pretty negative. Especially in sf reviewing, there seems a strong tendency to praise more than criticise; a sense that the genre needs encouraging, or reviewers need not to abuse their position, pervades many review outlets, to the extent that even a poor book gets a review of which several paragraphs are devoted to what it does well (for which we should read ‘averagely’, or simply ‘not quite as badly’). I’m guilty of that, too: towards the end of the Orbus review, I did my best to give Asher some credit for a few interesting ideas and his knack for scary monsters.

Still, the eminently reasonable and sensible Paul Raven tweeted this about the review: “[…] the almost complete lack of punch-pulling from Hartland was a real eyebrow-raiser.” In response, Ian Sales made the point I make above: “sadly, too many reviews these days are dishonest – yes, find something nice to say, but don’t ignore the bad.” The final part of the he said/he said I’ll quote here is Paul’s reply: “Troo dat – but even so, I’d flinch from giving a kicking that thorough, possibly because I’m not a published writer.”

I know exactly what Paul means: my own eyebrows were raised by a review this weekend, namely Hilary Mantel’s take-down of Lindsey Davis’s new British Civil Wars romp, Rebels and Traitors. Rather than leaving the good bits to a consolatory end, Mantel gets the sweeteners out of the way early: “Her research has been assiduous and detailed, her commitment to the subject is impressive, and the background detail is often eye-opening.” Her final sentence, though, is a real wounder: “Perhaps it is just as well that there is no sentence in it that you would want to read twice.” Ouch.

The eyebrow-raising in this case, at least for my own part, was more a case of seeing a recent Booker-winning writer of historical fiction laying into another writer of historical fiction with such abandon. In a sense, then, my problem was the opposite of Paul’s: Mantel, unlike for example me, is a published writer – indeed, in the same ‘genre’ (for more on which thorny question, go here) as the book she is reviewing – and her take-down could well be read as more problematic as a result. I assume Paul’s point (if it isn’t about careerism!) is simply that Tor publish Asher and don’t publish Hartland, and that therefore Hartland should doff his cap a bit more. Fair cop. At the same time, though, is a published fiction writer – if (and I don’t buy this) more qualified – more trustworthy as a critic, particularly of a work close to her own patch? The published writer thing seems to me a red herring on more than one level. Had Tor published my (non-existent) rip-roaring sf manly adventure, does that make me any better a critic of Asher’s? Might it not make me worse?

Disclosure: I haven’t read Davis, but Mantel is a reviewer I’ve agreed with in the past, and she isn’t currently having any problem with sales. Merely the coincidence of my and Paul’s responses struck me. Further for the record, I agree with Jonathan McCalmont in the comments to my original review: sf reviewers shouldn’t make nice with disappointing fare just because it’s been crafted in their bailiwick, published writers or no.

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11 thoughts on “Review Nicely, Children.

  1. “Is a published fiction writer – if (and I don’t buy this) more qualified – more trustworthy as a critic, particularly of a work close to her own patch?”

    I feel I should have something to say to this, motherfuckish or otherwise. Not sure I do, though.

    One thing that has sometimes occurs to me is that a published author is out there, like a participant of a duel, as a target in a way an otherwise unpublished reviewer isn’t. That’s not a bad thing, I think; on the contrary. If you say horrid things about Asher (say) then there’s little he can do except fume. If I do, though, all Asher needs to do to vent is to pull down one of my novels, cremate it in a review, and Bob’s your Hitchens. I can at least step up to the ‘dish it out, take it’ crease.

  2. Paul’s tweet actually caused me to raise an eye-brow… Far more so than your review or the discussions surrounding it.

    I think Paul’s comment comes from a vision of the publishing world as a kind of hierarchy. Presumably one shouldn’t critique published authors too viciously without being a published author because we haven’t earned our spurs but rather that assumes that we’re all in the spur-winning business. I’ve never had any interest in writing fiction and so the fact that I am not a published author matters no more or less to me than the fact that I have never won a gold medal for the decathlon or been crowned Miss America.

    Interestingly, I think that a lot of venues DO buy into this notional hierarchy. The TLS tends to publish quite a few reviews by people who are themselves writers, in fact, I might even go out on a ledge and say that they have a preference for publishing those kinds of critics.

    I can understand it from a marketing point of view… after all, Mantel on Davis will draw in both sets of fans and anyone else likely to be interested in the review while McCalmont on Davis would interest nobody apart from possibly me. However, I don’t understand it from the point of view of competence.

    I don’t think you need to write a novel to be able to evaluate one. I don’t think you need to be an accomplished prose stylist in order to evaluate prose. You need a refined aesthetic sensibility and a capacity to articulate the findings of that sensibility but I don’t think that there’s any real connection between those capacities and the capacity to produce good writing. I’ve yawned my way through a number of authors and directors talking about their own work with little insight or articulacy. I’ve been to BSFA meetings and thought that, actually, the interviewer seems to have far more interesting things to say about the author than the author themselves.

    So yes… Paul’s remarks puzzled me. I can see where he’s coming from but I’m not sure I agree.

  3. is a published fiction writer – if (and I don’t buy this) more qualified – more trustworthy as a critic

    Trustworthiness is in the eye of the review-reader, here, isn’t it? Certainly there are some readers for whom an author’s critique is going to be more trustworthy than a non-author’s, because they believe author-status grants the authority of expertise; equally, there are some readers for whom a non-author’s critique is going to be the more trustworthy, because they believe that status grants the authority of the commons. And there is surely an element of truth in both stances, but only to the extent that it means it’s a good thing to have both perspectives within the tent.

  4. Interesting thoughts, Mr Hartland, and thanks for sharing them! I should point out, perhaps, that my comment was very much personal rather than prescriptive in thrust: I’m not the sort of person who likes telling anyone how they should do anything, whether it’s something I do or not!

    The instinct I refer to is probably as much a function of my music reviewing as my book reviewing, if not more so (as I do a lot more music reviews): in both fields one of the most common retorts of the aggrieved fan of the criticised artist is “well, if you’re so smart, where’s your [published book/released album]?”.

    It’s a ridiculously facile response, but it’s also completely impossible to defend against, because the sort of person that poses it is the sort of person who can’t comprehend the notion that quality means different things to different people, and that it isn’t a direct correlate to popularity. Another issue is that I am both a musician and a writer of fiction, though unpublished in either sphere; if I had a pound for every time I’ve been called jealous, a “failed artist” (whatever that is) or an attention-seeker off the back of the success of my betters, I’d be able to buy a round for the whole bar at Eastercon.

    And so I tend to steer away from criticising a book (or album) for its worthiness of publication, to focus instead on what you might describe as “the end-user experience”… because I can defend that without having to teach basic rhetoric to people who are just trying to defend their own tastes, albeit in a fashion that does their tastes no favours. Perhaps that’s craven of me; it is something I ask myself from time to time. But I still give negative reviews of work that I think deserves it, and intend to keep doing so; I have merely changed my route through the minefield, so to speak. 🙂

    I don’t believe published authors make better critics (nor critics better authors, for that matter), but I do think they can perhaps speak to matters of advanced craft and style with a different degree of authority (ha!) to that of the rest of us, if only in the eyes of the aggrieved fan. Then again, I may be ascribing more nous to the aggrieved fan than they have historically demonstrated themselves to be in possession of, in my experience at least…

    Anyway, glad you found my comments of interest, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  5. danhartland says:

    The question we all seem to be asking in our own ways is, “Who are we reviewing for?”I very much take Adam’s point that, as a published writer, he must think more carefuly about reprisals when logging a bad review – and that perhaps this makes him a more even-handed, less knee-jerk, reviewer. But, by the same token, as a lay reader of reviews I’m uninterested in which author’s said naughty things about which other – I’m not sure these sort of things are useful to someone looking at a review to figure out whether or not to read the book.

    To wit, I read the TLS for lovely writing and deep thought, but not necessarily for a sense of whether a book – particularly a work of fiction – is really, truly worth my time. This, perhaps, is a function of the reviewers they choose – or of the ruminative tradition of that organ. But when Niall points out that some readers want that, whilst some readers want the unencumbered opinion of a fellow reader, I think he’s getting very close to what I was getting at.

    That is, when I guess I write for the general reader (in SF, I the general fan?). I want to tell them why I think they should/shouldn’t read the book. They can then attack me or agree with me as they wish – which is where Paul and I part ways (though thanks for the response, Mr R!), because I don’t see my job as erecting pre-emptive defenses for people unwilling to listen to my opinions. If they don’t want to, for whatever reason, then that’s for them. As Niall says, a good review outlet will have a variety of voices (with declared biases/experiences as applicable), and readers learn which of them they trust, judged by their own criteria. I’m willing to be judged on the published/unpublished basis, but not apologise for it – likewise, a published author shouldn’t have to apologise for needing to take professional considerations into account.

    And Adam – I’ve put up with some stick in my time, you know. I mean, see the first comment here. Wounding stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

  6. “… perhaps this makes him a more even-handed, less knee-jerk, reviewer …”

    Ooh, I’d say, just speaking empirically: not. Isn’t the point rather the reverse? That extreme candour is harder to stick to if half your mind is on the possible negative repurcussions on your own career? I know I, for one, have found myself thinking: ‘this year’s Hugo shortlist is very weak, but I daren’t say anything disrespectful in public for fear of pissing off potential readers of my own writing …’

    Or, well, no: of course, actually, I haven’t found myself thinking that. But more to the point: I’m not sure I’m especially representative of most authors-who-also-review. Fans don’t cluster in large numbers around grumpy old motherfucker writers; they’d rather spend time and money on likeable, or wininng, or otherwise hip and loveable writers instead. Of course they would; that’s human. So a writer who reviews is thinking not only ‘do I think this is a good book?’ but also ‘what sort of version of me is this review going to put out to people? Will it put them off buying my books?’

    Non-published reviewers have fewer of these sorts of anxieties to pen them. The best reviewers are in this camp, I think.

    As for that SH comment to your Reynolds review: odd. I remember it, at the time. I daresay it was a slip of the pen for ‘You’re wrong, and you’re a powerfully built stallion of a man’.

  7. Also, Jonathan: “I don’t think you need to write a novel to be able to evaluate one.

    Of course this is right. As Samuel Johnson put it: you don’t need to be a cobbler to know if a pair of shoes pinch your toes.

    the fact that I have never won a gold medal for the decathlon or been crowned Miss America

    Surely just a matter of time, though …

  8. [ “I don’t think you need to write a novel to be able to evaluate one.” ]

    Absolutely agree, and I got to be a published novelist and some other things too.

    But that’s also why I don’t care to write seriously about what I doesn’t provoke me in the first place as thinking there is something serious to say about it, at least in connection with other things that are ‘good.’ Whatever.

    But thanks so much for the pointer to the Strange Horizons review because I learned a useful term for genre failings — worldbling! That is foofoofoshoo.

    Love, C.

  9. Adam — I remember someone around the time of the Saxon Bullock thing turning down a non-fiction position with a short fiction magazine on the grounds that they didn’t want it to harm their brand. I think they were hoping to become a published author and so were afraid that a negative review might lead to their work being overlooked by publishers out of spite or a desire for revenge.

    I think it’s not so much a question of whether or not you’ve been published as the extent to which you define yourself in certain terms. If you invest a lot of your self-worth in getting published then it kind of makes sense that you’d pretty much do anything to get published (pull punches in reviews, sell crack to children, rape farm animals…) but if you define yourself in terms of being a critic, a fan or an academic then obviously your values are going to be somewhat different and you’re going to not only worry less about pissing off publishers (that is assuming that bad reviews actually piss them off) but also go out of your way to display critical independence.

  10. Pingback: Reviewing Politics? « @Number 71

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