Sometimes, the offal overwhelms the meat of the work and the autopsy doctor/reviewer just has to conclude that the story stunk so badly of shit that it might be indeed too shitty for other potential readers to consume without at least some risk to their literary digestive tracts. So a negative review is written. Sometimes, such reviews are full of vitriol, asking, as Marcus Greil once did of Bob Dylan's 1970 album, Self Portrait, "What is this shit?" Occasionally, writers or other readers get offended by this and they opine that they'd want something that is a bit more "positive," whatever "positive" might mean.
Enter the newly-created author group blog, Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics. Their mission statement is as follows: "The aim of this site is to promote positive reviews of books, movies and comics. There are some writers involved. It's that simple." Umm...if it were really as simple as that, dare I say it being so simple that a caveman could (understand) do it, then why have there been several posts questioning just what in the hell is this blog about and whether or not "ethics" is the right word for this desire for "positive reviews?" Are those inquirers "motherfuckers," as one of the SFFE bloggers, Andy Remic, claimed (in a rather strange and poor choice of words, I might add) in a recent SF Signal Mind Meld?
I would argue (of course) that they are not. While it is easy to say negative comments that have no merit (for example, if I called you a filthy unclefucker, if you'll pardon the crude quote from the South Park movie), it is interesting to see just how difficult it has become for anyone to make negative comments of any substantive sort in certain corners of the reviewing blogosphere. One case in point is the recent brouhaha surrounding the Strange Horizons review of Mark Charan Newton's first wide-release novel, Nights of Villjamur. That negative review certainly can stand as an example for some of the expectations readers and writers alike may have for the time and place for a negative review (if, for some, there ought to be a negative review in the first place).
The first paragraph of Martin Lewis's review contains an interesting argument:
Mark Charan Newton is clearly a writer who is still finding his voice. This is a fairly mealy-mouthed criticism but Nights of Villjamur is a fairly mush-mouthed novel. After a small press debut, The Reef (2008), Newton now joins China Mieville, Hal Duncan and Alan Campbell at Pan Macmillan/Tor UK. It is fine company to be in, the vanguard of British fantasy: urban (although not "urban" fantasy), flavoured with science fiction, horror and the weird, not scared of the odd literary flourish. The comparison is not flattering though. Newton obviously sees Mieville as a major role model, but I was reminded instead of Duncan, if only because of the stark contrast in their writing styles. Whatever else you might say about Duncan—and I have a thing or two to say about Vellum—you would never accuse his prose of lacking an identifiable personality, indeed the manic and instantly recognisable gush of it can be overwhelming. Newton has the opposite problem. His prose has no personality of its own and is consistantly underwhelming, with the result that his world lacks colour and clarity.After I read Newton's book in March, I had a similar reaction to what Lewis notes in his first paragraph. Newton did at times seem to be struggling to find his voice. There were times in reading the novel that I found myself wondering why he didn't compress certain scenes or to reduce the number of PoV characters. There were times that the references back to M. John Harrison's Viriconium novels, especially Knights of Viriconium, seemed a bit too transparent when Newton was trying to establish the changing relationships of City and Character. While I can understand Lewis's point about how Newton's voice is much less confident than Hal Duncan's, I thought that there were times in this novel that Newton had begun to develop a stronger, less mimicried prose style. But this is a fair criticism, even if it isn't one that I would support in full, in part because I remember thinking (there will be no direct quotes from me, as I read this book three months ago and will be re-reading it this week) that through the early mistakes with the pacing and rhythm of the prose, that Newton was beginning to show signs of developing his voice. But developing does not equal mastery and at times, the setting and the characterizations did seem to be more like a pastische of Harrison, Gene Wolfe, and Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels, with occasional flourishes reminiscent of Miéville's first Bas-Lag stories.
Villjamur is the seat of an archipelago empire. It is a fastness against the encroaching snow of a miniature Ice Age, and its walls are already girded by an army of refugees seeking sanctuary. It is a city of bridges and spires, home to humans and rumel, banshees and garuda (those last imported directly from Mieville's New Crobuzon). It is a city with thousands of years of history, and yet somehow it never comes to life. Fantasy, more than any other genre, thrives on colour, but vibrancy is sadly lacking here. There are odd flashes, of course:
This is an interesting criticism, as I seem to recall that while certainly there were times that Villjamur as a setting seemed to be rather sketchy, on the whole the novel contained more "visual" stimula than many other novels that I have read recently, notable especially since it is a first wide-release novel. While I see Lewis's point and can understand it, I think I found myself being a bit more forgiving here, in part because I'm not a very visual person, preferring instead to focus on how the prose "sounds" to me over how the images might appear or "taste."The streets were filled with priests from the outlying tribes, allowed in on a one-day permit, but watched closely by soldiers from the Regiment of Foot. Sulists gathered around their shell reading priests. Noonists were standing semi-naked in a circle, smeared in fish oils, holding hands and singing a melisma while a bunch of city cats tried to lick the oil off their hands. Ovinists were holding up pigs' hearts, as was their custom, allowing the blood to drip from them slowly into their mouths. (p. 48)
Such passages are few and far between, though, and Villjamur is not conjured into our hearts and minds. Rare is the moment when you think you can smell the streets. Newton concentrates on a thin stratum of middle-class cafes and bars, but even this is rather perfunctory. The upper and lower classes are painted with even broader strokes. The city should be packed, tense, and heaving, but it feels curiously empty and the raw mass of humanity is largely absent. It is noticeable that the refugee camp outside the city walls is barely glimpsed, despite playing a significant part in the plot. This lack of attention is a recurring theme of the novel.
The text just does not hang together very well. You can see when the author is trying and when he is just being functional but often when he tries, he fails, and often when he is functional, he is just plain bad. God knows there are worse prose stylists out there, but usually they are bad because they have limited horizons. This is not the case with Newton. Instead the variance and dissonance of his narrative voice makes reading it similar to listening to the swinging register of a boy going through puberty, and I can only hope that it settles down, matures, and rounds out in a couple of years.This is the strongest part of Lewis's criticism for me. Perhaps it was reading the uncorrected proofs three months before its release, but there were places where the prose did seem to be a bit uneven. The metaphor of the boy reaching puberty does describe the shifts that take place well, although I did find the story to contain more good prose than the bad. As for the characterizations, I agree that it may have been a mistake to be overly ambitious and try to cover more than the two most-developed characters, Jeryd and Lathraea. While I understand that the others' were done in part to set the stage for future volumes, it is frustrating to begin a character arc and then to see it suspended for most of a novel, waiting for a future volume for it to be resumed. This was actually my chief complaint about the novel when I read it, as I recall thinking that there are too many characters being juggled at once, making it difficult to get to know any of them. Hopefully, this will be something that will be resolved in the near future.
Unfortunately it is not just the way Newton says things but what he says. As I've said, he never really immerses us in his world: his unnecessary prologue offers no hook and unwisely separates us from the city at the heart of the empire and the novel. We then move forward several years and arrive in Villjamur just in time for the Emperor to commit suicide. A headless state threatened from without, not just by the coming freeze but by reports of strange creatures, tribal raids, and genocide in the outer islands offers a potent opportunity for political intrigue and unrest. Unfortunately, the story opens out to encompass myriad viewpoint characters, most of whom should not have been allowed this privilege, and continues along the diffuse, meandering path hinted at by the prologue. Throughout the book I often found myself wishing Newton had concentrated on just two: Inquisitor Jeryd and Commander Brynd Lathraea. Jeryd is investigating the murder of several prominent councillors and it is through this thread that the internal threats to the empire are exposed. Conversely, Lathraea is roving the islands investigating external threats. This covers the majority of what actually happens in Night Of Villjamur and would have been ample for the first novel in a series. Instead, we are repeatedly distracted or, worse, threads are deliberately put on hold.
The last third of Lewis's review was a bit weaker than the parts quoted, but he makes some sound points, supported with some evidence, about how Newton novel at times didn't seem to rise to the level of the associations he was creating with other well-known works. However, my main impression of the novel differs from his. Despite the inconsistencies in Newton's prose and despite the half-baked features of several of his characters, I ultimately enjoyed the book. It did have a discernable atmosphere. It had a plausible mystery surrounding the events that made me want to read on. It didn't have the feel that this story had been told thousands of times, even when I found myself thinking that Newton's ambitions outstripped his abilities to illustrate what images he had in mind. It was a good to very good early novel, one that I will try to judge better on a re-read in the very near future. But Lewis's review has made me think about the novel's areas of weaknesses and how they could impede for many readers the enjoyment of the novel. For that, his negative review proves to be worthwhile.
But despite keeping his focus solely on perceived weaknesses in the novel, Lewis's negative review attracted all sorts of vitriolic reactions (as evidenced in the comments section to the SH review). While certainly it wasn't as positive as several of the reviews I'll link to here, at least there was a honest attempt to examine the work for its faults as well as its strengths. In several of the reviews I just linked to, there is such an effusive praise that it becomes hard to detect if there were any perceived faults that those reviewers might have detected in the work. Such reviews, positive but devoid of any examination into what "worked" and what didn't, to me would seem to be more useless than all but the ad hominem negative reviews that would call a writer a "cum-guzzling gutter slut" before ever considering appraising that author's work in a professional manner.
Which is more "ethical," to discuss a book's deficiencies openly and (presumably) honestly, or to promote "positivity" in such a way as to risk creating a Lake Wobegon Affect, where each succeeding book being reviewed is somehow "better" than the one before, leaving some readers to wonder if sunshine shines out of some people's assholes and if certain writers fart, that it would smell of roses and incense? It certainly isn't "easy" to write negative reviews. I myself rarely review books that I depise, in part because I don't want to be like that autopsy doctor mentioned in my opening paragraph, scraping through all that offal. But I do try to note at least a few things that bothered me, as to do otherwise would be "unethical" of me, as I wouldn't be providing my own honest, considered reaction to a book. Also, it is perversely entertaining to see what happens when someone does dare to state his/her own opinion and it runs counter to others.' Many of the comments to Lewis's review failed to address the issue of how opinions differ. While certainly there were elements that were misinterpreted (or so my not-so-humble-opinion might think) and while yes, some phrases could have been parsed better, I found some of the criticisms to be of a personal nature, as in "How dare he disagree with my take on the story!" Makes me wonder if reviewing and the reactions to it are just strictly about personal opinions and very little about engaging with the review and seeing how it affects your own takes on the story.
But it's now Sunday evening here. A new week is dawning. I wonder what new tempests will arise, which new "movements" will arise to stamp out that which is depised. All I know is that I did like Newton's book and that some of the praise and much of the criticism was deserved and I suspect that Newton will improve in his craft, just as all of us do. I'm very eager to read his second volume, as I suspect that one will build upon the successes of the first, while correcting the shortcomings of the same. And perhaps, some of that is due to someone just being honest enough to say that there are problems that need to be corrected.