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.