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Black Static


Does My Head Look Big In This Black Hat?

18th May, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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I'm right in the middle of writing the Case Notes column for Black Static #11 and so time is at a premium. Instead of writing something new, I thought I'd recycle a blog entry relevant to reviewing from my myspace page, safe in the knowledge that only three people and a dog read it the first time around. Here it is then, in a somewhat slimmed down form to the original entry:-


I'm not a masochist. I don't ask for books to review that I expect to dislike. But, just as you can't judge a book by its cover, sometimes the back cover blurb or the publisher's PR handout doesn't really suggest what you might be getting yourself into. I mean, of course they'll make the book sound appealing; they want you to buy it.

When I reviewed as part of a team, I would feel obliged to finish any book that I offered to do and submit a review, even if I hated it, but since becoming a one man review team at Black Static I've gone a lot easier on myself with bad books. I'm still willing to be critical if there's a book that I've read which has problems, but the books I find truly appalling, the ones that are all but unreadable, those I'm likely to put aside and read something else, instead of persevering simply for the sake of writing a negative review.

And yet I'm not sure if that's always the right thing to do.

We're constantly told that there's so much crap getting published, but I don't believe that's actually the case. The great majority of books are not crap. What they are is decent, competent works of fiction, entertaining enough if that's the sort of thing that turns you on, capable of taking you out of yourself for a few hours, providing distraction, and yes, often flawed, but seldom to the point that they deserve the strongest condemnation known to man. That, thank you Mr Sturgeon, is what constitutes 90% of SF, and every other genre too. The remaining 10% is where the crap is found, along with the true works of genius, the books that can change your life.

I think in recent years though we've seen a marked increase in the amount of crap. Partly that's down to the shift in mainstream publishing away from literary concerns and to the commoditisation of books, where the compelling factor is not quality so much as marketability (seen in the cult of celebrity and the Tolkien/Rowling/Brown/King style branding). As a result of this many mid-list authors have now moved into the sphere of small and indie publishers, which in turn has conferred a cachet of respectability on such enterprises, and similarly new authors who might once have got a toehold on the mainstream ladder are now forced into seeking new outlets. At the same time changes in technology such as POD and desktop publishing have made small, self and 'subsidised' publishing much more feasible.

But of course there is no guarantee that these options will only be exploited by those who can actually write, or have anything worth saying, which is where the problems start. It's a popular saying, that everyone thinks they have a novel in them. Now, thanks to Publish America, Lulu and similar businesses, they can publish that novel and promote it on the internet.

I used to think that this substandard work was damaging to a genre as a whole, that if people's first encounter with, say Horror, was a piece of badly written bilge then they wouldn't read that genre any more, would find their literary jollies elsewhere. But now I realise that argument is flawed, like saying if you get food poisoning from an undercooked turdburger at Sneaky Pete's Greasy Grill then you'll never go to a local restaurant again. People aren't that stupid. They aren't going to draw those kind of broad conclusions, unless...

Well, if the man from Egon Ronay tells you Sneaky Pete's is the best restaurant in town.

Similarly, if a recognised reviewer or critic (the two are not the same) informs punters that some badly written derivative crap by Joe Horrorguy is the best the genre has to offer, then there's always the possibility those readers won't bother with Horror any more.

This is the information age, and we're swamped with the stuff. There are blogs, there are amazon reviews (sometimes written by the authors themselves), there are websites and there is word of mouth. Doesn't matter how bad a writer you are, the chances are there is somebody ready, willing and able to shout it from the rooftops that this is the second coming of F Scott Fitzgerald. Gibberish becomes cutting edge, bad grammar is reified as experimental writing and crap is the new transgressive, but most of the time all we're really talking about is piss poor writing. Even some of the people engaged by editors to write reviews rather than just putting their views out there for the hell of it are on occasion guilty of lapsing into this second language known as hyperbole. Even me.

At times it seems that we're in a world of reviewers who read no bad books (or even good books with occasional flaws), only some that are not as brilliant as others, and every writer who manages to string together two coherent sentences is the new Edgar Allan Poe, or whoever (pick a genre template).

I don't know why this is. Maybe these reviewers want to be liked, want to be seen as nice people. Maybe they want to discover the next Stephen King and think if they say it enough times they're bound to get it right one of them. Maybe they're scared of the author tracking them down to a message board somewhere and flaming. Maybe as children they believed Grandma, when she told them to keep quiet if they couldn't say anything nice about somebody. Maybe they really are so badly read they don't know shit when they see it. Maybe all the books they read are that good. Or maybe I'm the one full of shit. Yes, I'm definitely full of shit. 

What's needed is more reviewers we can rely on. People whose opinions we can trust to be without agenda or bias, and from experience discover how those opinions mirror our own. And on that score I find I'm more willing to trust a reviewer who is prepared to dole out criticism as well as praise than one who has nothing to say that is not sweetness and light, someone who won't give bad writing and poor production values a free pass. And similarly, as a writer I'm a lot more pleased to get praise from such reviewers, because I know it isn't something that can be taken for granted, that I've earned it.

It feels better to praise something than to criticise it, and most of the time and within reason that's the right thing to do. But hey, sometimes reviewers have to wear black hats. The willingness to read and report back on the occasional bad book is what underlies a reviewer's credibility, the foundation for whatever we have that passes for authority, and if you're not prepared to do that, if you just want to be Mr Nice Guy all the time, then hey, maybe you shouldn't be reviewing. 


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