On Negative Reviews

Strange Horizons has my review of Anthony Huso’s Black Bottle. It is not kind:

All this leaves the story mired in accident, and it becomes difficult to draw out salience from the glutted page. The withered attempts to enliven what are at times indecipherable proceedings, to jump on a bandwagon which has itself long since become part of the generic landscape, fail to do for Huso’s story what Sena does for Caliph Howl—revive it. The early matching of Pandragor with the USA—it suffered a Civil War in ’61 and perceives itself to be “the freest country north or south of the Tehesh Plateau” (p. 38)—come to very little, perhaps because by its very nature the novel itself isn’t capable of very much. Either way, however, Black Bottles‘s focus turns rapidly inwards—to sexing-up magic or telling Westerosian tales of aristocratic derring-do. We have seen this done before and better, and reading Huso is to be left wondering what the point was.

I once had a reputation for being a shark of a reviewer – though Nina Allan recently, and generously, placed me in the same tent as Paul Kincaid, John Clute, Matthew Cheney and Messrs McCalmont, Harrison and Lewis, so I’m not sure whether this is still the case – and it’s possible, what with reviews like this one, that some might imagine I enjoy writing hatchet jobs. Certainly there’s a satisfaction to turning a decent argument, but ultimately there’s very little joy in reading a book you don’t like and then having to ‘fess up about it. Black Bottle has a lovely cover and some decent blurb – I cracked the spine expecting, and wanting, to like it. That wasn’t to be.

Richard Cooper blogged recently on “the tricky but interesting position of trying to bring the language of criticism – heartfelt, individualistic, provocative, unashamed – into the world of fandom”. There’s a professionalism – and a respect – about finishing a book you don’t enjoy and then being honest enough to say why. Cooper deals at length with the resistance in Doctor Who fandom to this kind of approach to discussing a writer’s work, but what he says is true for much of SF&F fandom – in fact Paul Kincaid, he not just of Allan’s admiration but of the exhaustion meme I mention in the Huso review, tweeted that, “I’ve been on the receiving end of this [hostility to criticism] way too often”. Kincaid is a grand old man of SF&F reviewing – if his criticism is considered too harsh, my negativity must at times seem positively malicious.

In fact, it isn’t. Some of my favourite works of fiction are SF&F – but the genre disappoints more than it enlightens, and a comparison with work from outside of the ghetto walls – I agree with Martin Lewis that “I  get a sensawunda from literary fiction more frequently than SF” – does not help books like Huso’s. All of this is by way of thinking the obvious out loud, though since my policy on negative reviews has never been to sin the sin of the soft-pedal it’s worth writing it down. Most importantly, you should contribute to Strange Horizons’s fund drive – because the magazine consistently supports honest, robust and useful criticism of precisely the kind many SF&F sites avoid like the plague.

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4 thoughts on “On Negative Reviews

  1. Less of the ‘grand old man’, you young whippersnapper!

    But I’ve always been thought of as a harsh critic, though I hope a fair one. Harshness goes with the territory. You have got to be completely honest about a work, virtues and faults, but some people will always see any reference to faults as harsh and entirely negative.

    In my time I’ve been savagely attacked for reviews that I thought were basically positive, just because I didn’t bow down and proclaim it the greatest work of literature ever. The partisans will always expect unalloyed praise, and now we have the internet they can be much more vociferous if they don’t get it.

    What really disturbed me about some of the responses to Cooper’s essay, and to other manifestations of this partisanship, is the way they present themselves as being so reasonable. ‘This isn’t criticism, it’s just a vile attack, and that is so rude.’ I see them pointing down the road towards censorship.

  2. Less of the ‘grand old man’, you young whippersnapper!

    Yes, I did think twice about that one! As you see, I went for it anyway. 😛

    I wonder how – if at all – the fact that you hail from ‘inside’ the SF&F community has coloured the perception of your negativity? McCalmont, who of course responded at length to your exhaustion piece, often opines that he’s on the outside looking in, and that this affects the reception of his stringent criticism; I don’t feel myself to be a fully-fledged member of the community, either, but don’t really feel frozen out in the way he describes. From the words ‘savagely attacked’, it doesn’t sound like regularly attending Eastercons has spared you much whipping, either.

    It does seem to me, though, that this sense of a community – that attacking a book is attaching the group that congregates around it – is the key factor in this incipient hive-mind ‘censorship’ you fear. When did the community define itself by loyalty to the artifact rather than the aim – to the imperfect book rather than that the potential perfection of the form?

    • I suppose I don’t mind so long as you prefix the ‘old’ with ‘grand’, though it does rather make me feel like the Grand Old Duke of York …

      I’m not sure coming from ‘inside’ the SF community is any sort of help and may even be a hindrance. For a start, the fan community I emerged from was not much given to reading sf, and dismissed any critical writing as ‘sercon’ (serious & constructive) which was dull and therefore a bad thing. Becoming a critic out of that community could in certain lights be seen as a betrayal of my roots. There is also a problem of once a fan always a fan, which meant that it took an awful long time for my critical writing to be taken seriously either inside or outside the community.

      But then, the attacks didn’t actually come from the community that I’d been a part of. The passionate partisans of particular works are not really associated with the sort of fan community I knew. So I don’t think that being a part of or being outside of any community is going to make any sort of difference to the attacks you receive. The most savage attacks I ever received came when I dared to criticise a YA novel, and I’ve always been outside any sort of YA community that might exist.

      You’re right, it is attachment to artifact rather than anything less specific that lies behind much of this frantic resistance to criticism. And I suspect that such attachment has always been there, it is just that the internet has given it a more ready and more visible forum for expression.

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