So Bourke writes a strongly opinionated piece that skewers Sullivan's reprinted (and formerly self-published) first two novels. She uses hyperbolic language to create a heightened sense of her disapproval of this epic fantasy's structure, before going on to lay out the reasons why she thinks the work is crappy. Attention is drawn from the beginning, but yet not to the detriment of her actual argument that the story is clichéd, the writing is uneven to atrocious (with quotes provided as evidence of these assertions), with questionable plot logic and characterizations. Nothing out of the ordinary, considering that this format has a long and storied tradition in Anglo-American reviewing (see some of Edmund Wilson or H.L. Mencken's negative reviews, for example) and that Strange Horizon has a long tradition of encouraging its reviewers to be as forceful and strong with their opinions as the review merits.
So what's the fuss, you wonder? Well, from what I've seen, there were several people tweeting and retweeting links to the review. Several of these people had either read Sullivan's works before and either did not agree with the substance of the review or they took exception to the manner of presentation. It always fascinates me to see which types of reviews draw the most responses. Almost without fail, those reviews are of romance novels, paranormal romances, so-called "urban fantasies," and epic fantasies. None of these literary genres occupy a privileged position; several critics take a rather dim view of works whose main defining traits are their ability to mimic the tone, structure, characterization, theme, and even prose of other works.
When asked to describe why these works are liked by them despite others having misgivings about the quality of the prose, narrative, themes, or characterizations, frequently there will be variations on the apologia that the work was "light," that it was a "real page-turner," or that it was "fun." What isn't really said here is that those words do not define any real characteristics of the book at hand as it tries to place that book in context to other, similar works whose main trait is that their supporters tend to be inarticulate in their praise of works that others find to be weary, derivative, and on occasion stultifying works.
If we drop the above-mentioned "light," "page-turner," and "fun" from the critical examination/defense of the review in question, what is left is an almost inchoate babble that the reviewer is "too forceful" with her opinions, that since she is studying to be a classics historian that she is "not qualified" to discuss these works, that the piece is "an attack piece" or "hatchet job," and so on ad nauseam. What is not found is an actual substantive defense of Sullivan's work, despite the requests from a few for those commentators who have read his novels to elaborate on their disagreement with the argument itself (rather than the tone and thrust of the argument, which many there have settled for doing), but instead an obfuscation of what could be an excellent opportunity to make a cogent counterpoint(s).
Many know that I have an ambiguous stance in regards to epic fantasies. As a narrative form, it does have the potential to say certain things about how we view the world, particularly in a metaphysical way, yet too often there is this perception that writers don't go far enough, either in their development of the narrative themes or in the mechanics of the narrative (prose, characterization). It would be nice to see those who love this form to dare be articulate about why this form is worth reading, for when they use near-meaningless platitudes ("fun," "light reading," etc.) without placing them in a better context, the more positive part of their counterarguments sounds more like a sulking child saying "No, it's not!" without ever demonstrating an ability to cast their preferred reading in a positive light.
And then there are the ad hominems and tone arguments. Bourke has caught some flak for not being invested in the area, as if she (and by extension, Strange Horizons) were somehow aiming to take down epic fantasy releases by not showering them all with hugs and rainbows. I suspect those making such comments are not regular readers of the site's reviews section, which has covered several epic fantasies more favorably than some (myself included) would have done. Yet there's a nasty undertone to a few of the comments: Bourke is not qualified because of her other interests (as if reading Chaucer means one cannot appreciate a well-told epic fantasy - that was one of my favorite dumb comments to read in quite some time) or, as could be darkly hinted in a couple of responses, because she is a woman.
Sure, that might not be directly stated as such, but if one were to parse what some said carefully, there is this sense that the "sweetheart" and "dollface" comments from a now-banned commentator are meant to denigrate her views and to dismiss what she had to say because she is a woman. Although that was the strongest and most extreme example, one cannot help but wonder if some of these comments attacking the reviewer (while failing to provide plausible counters to the review itself) are signs of something else. Maybe, maybe not, but that niggling doubt is now there for me at least.
As I said above, the responses have largely devolved to an inchoate mess. I see only a little discussion of the narrative itself and that on the whole seems involved tortured logic to explain away Bourke's criticism of the prose and the female characters. If only the comments were limited to even this rudimentary discussion, then perhaps there wouldn't be such an uproar. But when the main issues seem to revolve around the tone of Bourke's review and whether or not she (and by extension, Strange Horizons) is qualified to post negative reviews of epic fantasy, with the ancillary concern that some of these comments are motivated by problematic concerns, it is hard for me to fail to conclude that this entire issue is a matter of what some might eruditely call "raging butthurt on the intarwebs."