I've told every blogger who has asked me for advice the same thing: Be yourself. You must have your own voice and not try to do what everyone is doing. Sadly, not everyone took this counsel to heart. The problem with a lot of the newer SFF bloggers out there is that they have no voice. You read their stuff, and it feels as though they are afraid to offer their honest opinion. It seems that they don't want their personality to shine through their words, as if afraid that the supply of ARCs and review copies will dwindle and die if they say anything wrong. Gabe Chouinard had a voice. Jay Tomio has a voice. William Lexner has a voice. Rob Bedford and Mark (Hobbit) from sffworld.com have a voice. The same can be said of all of those who helped start the Blogosphere phenomenon which took the genre by storm a while back. We didn't give a damn and we could be brutally honest. Passion for the genre was what fuelled us, not any promises for rewards. After all, publishers saw us as little more than turds back then.Some of the newer SFF review bloggers felt a bit uncomfortable by this, as if they were wondering whether or not Pat was referring to them when he talked about a "lack of voice." Questions were raised and addressed in the comments. If you are curious about that, just click on the link above and read all of the responses. However, I want to address a few points not raised in the comments on Pat's blog.
I do agree that too often there is a sense of "sameness" about many reviews, which is part of the motivation behind my recent posts on what I believe ought to be part of a strong review. If one wants to get the sense of what book is being "pushed," all that reader would have to do is visit a dozen or so blogs over the course of 1-2 weeks and see if the same book is being mentioned and/or reviewed during that span on at least half of those. That is all fine and dandy; it is the nature of the publicity beast. "Buzz" happens for whatever reason and far be it for me to criticize people for reviewing what they've heard about and which seems to be closest to their heart.
There is that worrisome "but what if..." behind all this, however. But what if people aren't daring to be themselves in these reviews, especially those who are receiving review copies from the publishers? But what if these reviewers are writing with an eye for publicity or for the tangible rewards of review blogging? But what if these guys and gals aren't being honest with themselves and others? But what if they are just so damn self-conscious about everything that they don't dare to explore and to challenge?
I'll answer all those "but what if..." questions with one of my own: But what if I don't give two rat shits on a stick about what others are going to believe about my motivations? I take criticism, especially that of the constructive type, quite well. I love to hear from those who have different takes from mine or from those who are willing to take the time to point out weaknesses in my writing or in my analysis. I believe if you're positively self-centered enough to spend hours a week writing words about something that another has written, you better then believe in yourself enough to go out and do what you like.
I post about multilingual matters. One of my favorite authors is a dead, blind Argentine short story writer, poet, and literary critic. Another is a Serbian fabulist. A third is a dead 20th century Irish novelist and short story writer. While there are a few similarities between the three, they differ markedly in their approaches to constructing a story and in how they use language to create vivid mental landscapes. They dared to write things that differed from others around them, while still acknowledging the influence of others from disparate writing disciplines.
I believe reviewers can take something from that. Don't just read whatever gets the most "press." Don't just read what the publishers send you. Don't just read within a narrow definition of genre. Jeff VanderMeer recently wrote on this and his advice is quite good:
Read books you don’t like. You gain as much from understanding what you don’t like and knowing why as from reading work you approve of.Some people online and in my personal life have this mistaken belief that I am well-read. I am not. While it is true that I have read thousands of books from dozens of time periods, nationalities, genres, and so forth, I have explored just enough to know that I barely have scratched the surface. Sometimes, an active search turns up a treasure trove of books, such as my discovery from Edward Whittemore and Ngugi wa Thiong'o after I read positive comments from a few trusted authors and fellow review bloggers. Other times, I have read mediocre-to-poor books based on recs, such as Scott Lynch's disappointing second novel. But in each case, I dared enough to go out and buy those books. Too often, all I see mentioned on the majority of the blogs listed in the Review Blogs section of my blog are only the "latest" and "best" books. Where are those hunts for the diamonds in the rough? Where are the critiques of the strengths and weaknesses of books that don't fit comfortably into any pre-defined niche?
I cannot help but to wonder if there is a missing of the forest for the trees effect going on here with many review blogs. Referring back to Pat's post, he makes a comment with which I disagree strongly:
I recently read about how many SFF reviewers felt that fandom had become fragmented to a degree which was alarming. From where I'm sitting, that couldn't be further from the truth. For the first time in the history of the genre, people have a choice as to where they want to go for reviews, articles, and related material. Which, in the end, explains the proliferation of blogs and websites everywhere. And that's as it should be. Instead of being forced to read John Clute and his ilk (which we had no choice to do for years and years and years), fans now have the luxury to go where they please. Some come here, while many others visit a panoply of blogs, websites, fanzines, etc. Fandom is driven by the same passion for SFF; the last couple of years have presented them with alternatives regarding where they can now get their information.This belief in one big happy (and unified) community I believe demonstrates a lack of awareness of all of various subgenres and approaches out there. Taking a quick glance at the blogroll at Pat's site, the vast majority reviews only a small fraction of the books out there. Considering that some of the largest spec fic bloggers (many of whom are well-known authors), especially those who are not epic fantasists, are not represented at all, nor are their concerns and interests. While one teacup tempest rages in one part of the spec fic blogosphere, another section is calm, unaware of the "momentous" debates and discussions occurring elsewhere. Even today, going to Timbuktu takes some effort and I don't believe many on any side of this make that much of a conscious effort to explore and to discover new insights from people around them.
So while I really do want to agree with much of what Pat writes in his post, I just cannot help but to think that comments such as "forced to read John Clute and his ilk" demonstrate only a provincial attitude of self-satisfaction. After all, if one is going to dare to read what might be disliked or challenging for that reader, one ought to approach all of this with the attitude of "hey, maybe there's something of worth to be discovered there." Shit doesn't smell sweeter just because it came from your asshole, you know. Being convinced that one's style, approach, or likes/dislikes is "proper" or "hey, it works for me" without showing some regard for another approach (I'm not saying you have to agree with it, only that you have tried to be aware of other points of view) is quite hypocritical.
In closing, the majority of what I have said above can be boiled down to one simple maxim that Immanuel Kant had: Sapere aude. If that is followed, then self-consciousness ought to be at a minimum. And thus concludes this so-oh-self-important scribbling. I have things to learn now.