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Black Static


Some Thoughts on the Recent Disturbance

16th Jan, 2012

Author: Peter Tennant

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Over at Strange Horizons there's a kerfuffle going on about a recent review they posted. I'm in total sympathy with the position of the reviewer, as the worst book I read all last year was another self-starter that got picked up by a mainstream publisher, though as far as I know no pitchfork wielding mob of disgruntled readers turned up at TTA Towers demanding satisfaction after the review appeared in Black Static.

Anyway, some random thoughts on this whole matter and related reviewing issues from your all too often random reviewer.

Reviews are not written for the benefit of writers, though writers may indeed benefit. They are written as part of the process by which possible readers decide how they are to spend their time and/or money. A reviewer's first obligation is to those readers. The writer is entitled to expect a fair review, though not a 'good' one, and if a writer's feelings are hurt then that is regrettable, but unavoidable.

Of course review outlets should critique 'bad' books, tempting as it may be to forego the all too often inevitable hassle and comeback by simply ignoring the latest lemon under the pretext of promoting the 'good'. If they fail to do so, then the field is left to the praise singers, the pseudonymous posters on Amazon and Goodreads who puff up their mates' books and never mention any others, to those with a vested interest in the success of the author and/or lacking in the critical faculties necessary to objectively assess a work's merits. Dissenting voices are necessary, and perhaps never more so than at the present moment when PoD and e-Books have so comprehensively changed the face of publishing by empowering those who previously could only realise their literary dreams with an editor's acquiescence. There is also I think a dangerous element of pre-judging in deciding not to review a book because you expect it to be just another attempt to cash in on the latest publishing trend.

Yes, very few books are either wholly good or bad, but if a reviewer points out that a work is poorly written then for a fan of the work to say that it's an exciting, action packed page turner does not refute that. This is not an either/or situation. Books can be both page turners and well written, and readers should insist that they are. Where a writer is lacking in any particular department, be it grammar, proof-reading or fact checking, then it's the job of his publisher to address that, and if that's not done then the responsible reviewer is obligated to call them on it.

Not all commercially successful and much loved books are well written, and reviewers need to be aware that if they point out such shortcomings then the criticism is sometimes going to be taken very personally by fans of the book. We identify strongly with the works of art that move us, and many of us can't be objective and neutral in taking on board negative responses to the things we love. Harsh criticism doesn't sting just the writer. This is perhaps equally true, if not more so, in the case of books that are not commercially successful and/or much loved, where proponents of the work don't even have the comfort of numbers. Strong reactions are to be expected, and reviewers should not be surprised by them. This is not sufficient reason to refrain from writing negative reviews, but it does suggest that attempting to engage in rational argument with detractors may be a futile exercise.

Accusations of personal malice on the part of a reviewer, of an agenda being followed, need to be proven. The act of writing a negative review does not, in itself, constitute such proof. Nor does repeating the accusation loudly and often make it true. On the other hand, if you overheard reviewer X calling down maledictions on the head of that clumsy fool of a writer Y as he swabbed red wine from his Ben Sherman shirt in the Gents at FantasyCon, then that might be worth mentioning should X's subsequent review of Y's next novel turn out to be a hatchet job.

Reviewing is not covered under the Geneva Convention. As long as it stops short of personal insult, I believe reviewers are at liberty to be as robustly critical as they feel appropriate, just as a writer's champions are allowed to be as effusive as they wish in praising him or her. And, as far as that goes, being too harsh can often be just as counter-productive as praising too highly. Readers can be put off when a reviewer is too obviously having a good time panning a book, making an example of it on the altar of literary criticism, just as they can be deterred from reading a book when the review consists of nothing but gushing, unqualified praise. The question is one of credibility in reviewing, of demonstrating how and why you hold the opinions that you do.



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