The OF Blog: A question of ethics, negative/positive reviews, and Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villjamur

Sunday, June 07, 2009

A question of ethics, negative/positive reviews, and Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villjamur

Writing reviews is a nasty, dirty business. When one really gets down into the material, a reviewer becomes like an autopsy doctor, scraping the entrails and sorting through the offal and the meat of the dissected book, looking for problem areas as well as explanations for certain reactions. It can be grueling, fetid, stinky work, but it's work that generates quite a bit of shit flinging even after the book gutting is done and the reviewer has washed him/herself off and has moved on to the next target for book probing.

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:
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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.


Liviu said...

I do not see the link between SFFE and the SH review of Nights.

SFFE - hard to say what will be about; the Ethics name is weird no question, but they will be judged on what they publish and how they balance the reviews of the group authors books - to me publishing on SFFE a review of a work of one of the authors involved is almost like self-reviewing and each such review should contain "this book is written by an author affiliated with this site" every 3 lines or so
Otherwise Ethics becomes an Orwellian world in this context; but I do not intend to spend too much time visiting SFFE site unless they impress me

Regarding SH that's a completely different issue and my problem with that review and others (much more condescending and even dare I say insulting - not to the author btw, but to the people who loved the book; I mean how could you read such a drivel is the subtext of a bunch of SH reviews)is that the authors of the reviews look at the book through the wrong lens because they are essentially reading a book that's not for them and I mean this in a "life is short, try and read the books you will love the most" way, not in a censorship or negative way.

I know that most YA, tie-ins, crime fiction and urban fantasy are not for me (though I am always willing to at least open a volume once in a while with the caveat that there is a limited amount of books I can read and I have over 200 books on my bookshelves that I started and have not yet finished, but plan to, several more hundred that I want to re-read and I buy/get/try books all the time, so it's not that I do not want to try just that I need to prioritize so obviously I look first at what I know I have a better shot to love)

So for core genre the SH reviews are generally useless for me - I really do not care about the fine points of a book, I care about what is about, does the reviewer like it, how much, why not... - while for border-genre books I find them generally very useful.

But that's me and my only criterion of evaluating a review ( and my only reason for doing them) is pragmatic; useful/useless; does the review puts the book in touch with someone who will love it or not, or conversely does the review warns the right persons the book is not for them or not?

Larry Nolen said...

The connection is that of negative reviews being castigated (unfairly, in many cases) for being "unethical" (which is what Remic seemed to imply in his SF Signal piece on "motherfuckers" and a couple other places, although that could just as well be a misunderstanding on several peoples' parts, I'll admit) or being "unfair" or anything that seems to imply that such things are somehow harmful.

What I find interesting about many of the reactions to the specific SH review that I quote is how so many are to claim that it is (in your words) "core genre", when there really are different ways of approaching how to categorize (if it must be categorized; I don't think it fits easily in any rigid slots) Newton's book. Considering the authors mentioned at the beginning of the review, I would guess that the "core genre" definition would have to be stretched to include several authors who were either associated with the New Weird group or were cited as influences by some associated with that group.

I don't think the issue is that of reading books that the reviewer expects to be "drivel;" many of the reviews of epic fantasy works there have been positive (for example, my review of Abercrombie's last book was more mixed than that of the reviewer who reviewed the first two books in 2007). I don't think it's a clear-cut issue. Not to say there aren't some biases; witness claims about a pro-Brit bias, since many of the reviewers are English, Welsh, or Scots. But I think there isn't a "smoking gun" to indicate anything that is conscious on the reviewers' parts (speaking of course as someone who has done a review for them in the past).

But your point about how the SH-style review isn't for you is rather telling: Why react so strongly if there is the possibility that the reviews are oriented toward those who do want the "fine points" or mechanics of the work at hand? And as for your criterion, I think the review I quoted does address that point...albeit for those who have different check-off boxes to use in evaluating whether or not a particular book is worth their time.

Elena said...

It's always interesting to me to see how different people think about reviews in general. To be honest I very rarely read book reviews (so it makes it somewhere between irony and hypocrisy that I write them), but I do read a fair number of movie reviews. I don't mind a negative review as long as there is a reason for it, that is clearly denoted in the review. In this case, I would say it was. And usually from the manner in which criticisms are made, I can determine something of where the reviewer is coming from.

For myself, I favor reviews that have a broad enough understanding of genre, form, and audience to be able to point out the merits and drawbacks to a particular work. Simply being the wrong audience for a book/movie is not, in my opinion, a good enough reason to trash it: you have to be able to put it in perspective for the intended audience. Some works are transcendent and should be noted as such; but it's just as valuable to say "this work does not rise above it's genre, but you know what? if you like zombie stories you'll probably want to read it."

at least, that is the tactic I try to take with my reviews when it's a book I feel half-hearted about....

Mihai A. said...

I never thought of a comparison between a reviewer and an autopsy doctor. Interesting, but disturbing image :)

JonathanM said...

Liviu's points about negative reviews are interesting.

Speaking as an SH reviewer, I do absolutely have a bias against 'core genre' works. I have little interest in works (in any medium) that are content to do what's been done before. I understand that people like that kind of thing but I have no interest in it. In fact, I don't actually think that critics should be in the business of patting those kinds of author on the head either. One of the roles of the critic is to stir the pot by situating works in a wider context and part of that stirring of the pot is saying "this is good... it moves stuff forward" even if it is down blind alleys. A healthy scene is one that evolves with time. So I think my bias is completely defensible. I wouldn't trust a critic with a preference for stuff that's been done a dozen times before. I'd say they needed to get out more.

As for the problem of people reading books they don't like. This is largely a reflection of the problems with the way reviewing works back-stage. As reviewers we usually get a list of books that are available at the time when we want to start the reviewing process. As Martin has said, nobody in their right mind would go out of their way to read a book they know they'll hate. Instead, quite often, we pick from a number of books that might be interesting, studiously avoiding the stuff that looks boring.

But you never know whether you'll like a book until you finish it.

Of course, we could give up on books that we don't enjoy but as a reviewer, I tend to feel that that's poor form. If I agree to write a review I'm committing myself to appear in someone's review schedule and if I back out I'm messing with the editor's plans and that's not really cool.

So to a certain extent, there are insitutional factors that ensure that people do quite often write about books they don't like.

However, again, I think that this is part of the process of stirring the pot. If only fans reviewed books then what you'd get is ossification and fan-service. By allowing books to be discussed by people who aren't really the book's audience, you're allowing some fresh air into what can be a hot-house of praise. I actually think that this is particularly problematic with the fantasy scene.

So I think that Liviu needs to look at the wider picture. Book reviews are not just purchasing recommendations, they're also part of the fashioning of genre's identity and that feeds back into the books that the genre will produce in future. You might not get good purchasing information out of a review like Martin's because what you want is someone with your exact tastes effectively pre-judging your opinion of a book, but genre as a whole benefits from these types of reviews.

Martin said...

Instead, quite often, we pick from a number of books that might be interesting, studiously avoiding the stuff that looks boring.

As it happens, in this specific case I requested a review copy directly from the author because I was so intrigued by the sound of the novel. So I find Liviu's suggestion that I am "essentially reading a book that's not for [me]" baffling.

But you never know whether you'll like a book until you finish it.

I can't repeat this enough.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

There's also the fact that just because a certain group of readers aren't a novel's intended audience doesn't mean that they won't find it interesting and worth reading. So if SH can be said to have a bias against epic fantasy (though given several extremely positive reviews of books within this subgenre I think that's hardly a given) it might still be providing a valuable service by reviewing it, and thus alerting people like Jonathan and myself, who aren't epic fantasy fans, to the existence of books we might nevertheless want to read.

Liviu said...

There are very good points made in the comments directed to me and I am happy I understand a bit more of something which has baffled me for a while regarding SH reviews.

I expressed my bafflement in the original comment here to Larry's review of LAoK - comment that was partly in answer to the comment above that specifically took to task Larry's review.

I have been reading 200 and more books a year for almost 20 years now and I am always looking for new books of interest, so I evaluate any and all reviews pretty much against that, while for books that I read I compare it to my book experience to see how my taste and the reviewer matches.

This being said I find negative reviews boiling down to "the book is not for me", and I even bought some books based on a strong negative review (The Somnambulist), while I found others (Oh No Ringo) very entertaining; for most I shrug (anyone remember the retracted review by a writer who I like and is a member of SFFE btw for Stel Pavlou Gene?) and think: poor reviewer, who punished him/her to have not only to read but review this book he had such a hard time reading?

I promised once I would review a book for FBC that I found a big chore reading, and while my review reflected that, I still regret promising it and for the next book I asked for a review copy and found a chore to read, I just dropped it because I believed anything I would write would be insincere or unfair since I just could not engage it; better do a capsule "book about zombies not mil space opera as first volume, bored me and skimmed it just to see if I find anything of interest, which I did not"

On the other hand for books with which I engaged even though negatively, I have no qualms about writing a negative review (see Fall of Thanes, City/City and various short stories in various anthology reviews for recent examples on FBC, or my snarky lines on Goodreads...)

So I have the greatest respect for SH and I love some of their reviews, but I find that whenever the reviewers truly engage with a book the review is much more interesting to me and that was my gist of the original "better stick with that" rather than "negativity, censorship, SH hates this or that..."

Liviu said...

And for specificity about engaging - look at SH rv of Adamantine Palace - I found most of the reviewer points true as well as most of the conclusion

"Above all, this is a novel with a good idea, but precious little personality to call its own. It floats by on its "shock" factor and swift pace, too concerned with pushing its thin plot forward to spend time on developing some proper ballast: well-rounded characters, interactions with dramatic weight, vivid settings, a sense of a world that is lived in. It is all glitter, in other words, and no grit"

However I loved the book, I will get and review the next installment (Robert reviewed this for FBC) and I would strongly recommend it. Shock, glitz, yes but so what? The book is fun and whatever flaws it has, it's much more enjoyable than many a "perfect technically, but soulless" book. And if this does not illustrates my point about reading a book not for you nothing will - and again no disrespect implied to the reviewer; he wants other books, did not get it here, the puzzle is why he felt the need to let us know that in a lengthy review that has very little utility outside of "fast, glitz books are not for me and Adamantine is one such" - write that and I would raise my hat to you, no need to get into detail...

Anonymous said...

I freely admit to be being absolutely terrible at giving negative reviews and am even more terrible at balancing my own enthusiasm with a fair amount of criticism.

That doesn't mean I don't appreciate reviews that take a view other my own. Seeing a work through someone else's eyes.

Sometimes I suspect that as a librarian my approach to the review process is a bit different. Even if I didn't like the book I try to force myself to envision the type of reader that might and how to sell that reader on that book.

My reviewing is informed S. R. Ranganathan's 2nd and 3rd laws of library science: every reader his book, and every book its reader (

Terry Weyna said...

If your review is formed by the fact that you're reading an ARC -- which is, by definition, not the final product and still a work in progress -- you have an obligation to wait and read the final product, rather than writing a review that criticizes the ARC. That *is* a matter of ethics, as far as I'm concerned; it's wrong to trash a book on this grounds, as the reviewer of Nights of Villjamur did.

Martin said...

I'm surprised that someone who does so much publicity work for the publishing industry is so ignorant of how the industry actually works. Why do you think the industry sends out ARCs?

Alan said...

Martin: ARCs usually come with some legal disclaimer that requires the reviewer to check with the publisher before producing extracts: did you follow this procedure?

Martin said...

This is not a legal disclaimer, this is a request for common courtesy. But yes, the quotes in this review - as with all SH reviews - were checked by the reviews editor against final copy. You would know this if you'd read the review since (unusually) it is explictly mentioned.

Michelle said...

I must admit: I like negative reviews. I absolutely love writing them, because usually it's a lot easier to come up with the reasons why you despised a book than finding the reasons for liking it.

I don't think "ethics" come into play at any point. If every review needs to be positive, then why review? It would be a pointless endeavor and we'd be lying through our teeth for at least 40% of the time. Because, let's be honest - the good book vs bad book ratio is getting worse with each year that passes.

Terry Weyna said...

First, I don't do publicity work for the publishing industry. I write book reviews on my own time and, to make a living, practice law. (Take the jokes about a lawyer opining on ethics as read, okay?) Most of the time, I'm writing about books I've taken out of the library or that I've purchased on my own. I get an occasional ARC, but not many. (In fact, in looking over my blog just now, I note that only two of the full length reviews I've posted there since 2006 have been of books I received as ARCs.)

Second, I do understand (of course) that ARCs are sent out for the purpose of early reviews. I do not, however, base my review on how many errors there are in ARCs, even on the occasions when an ARC is full of them. (I'm currently reading Au Revoir to All That, for instance, which I received through LibraryThing, and it is littered with not just typographical errors, but with syntax errors, incomplete sentences and the like. If it ultimately makes it impossible for me to understand what's going on in the book, or to form a fair opinion, I will not post a review.)

My impression is that books are sometimes sent out by an eager publisher in ARC form before they are really ready for it. If that's the case, I don't hold it against the author. I don't consider it ethical to do so. You may have a different opinion about that, Martin, to which you are entitled. After all, not everyone agrees on matters of ethics. But frankly, I'm very surprised that there would be disagreement on this issue.

I've written negative reviews, like this one, my short review of Doris Grumbach's Fifty Days of Solitude on my blog, and quite a number of books I reviewed for The Drood Review of Mystery, back in the good old days when that publication was around. That's not my issue. I know that reviewers are assigned books that they have committed to review and must review regardless of their opinion, and therefore will occasionally write negative reviews. That's not my concern at all.

I do, however, think that one can write a bad review without being mean-spirited or basing an opinion on a bad ARC. I thought this review committed both acts.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't think it's fair to say that Martin held the state of the ARC against Newton. He concluded from it that the book had been rushed - that a draft had been received so late that there had been no time for meaningful proofreading before copies were sent out to reviewers. This is neither an unreasonable supposition, nor the main argument Martin lays against the book.

Nic C said...


I'm sorry to hear that you didn't like my review of Adamantine Palace, despite apparently agreeing with everything I said in it.

My problem with the book - as I said in the review - wasn't that it was, as you put it, fun but flawed. I have absolutely no problem with books that are fast, shallow and fun - I thoroughly enjoyed Temeraire, for example, which certainly isn't deep or edgy, but definitely *is* fun. I do, however, have a problem with books that are fast, shallow, and neither fun nor very good. I didn't dislike Adamantine Palace because it was fast and shocking and 'glitzy'. I disliked it because it played at being shocking, but wasn't, and (worse) it substituted that faux-shock for substance.

And if this does not illustrates my point about reading a book not for you nothing will - and again no disrespect implied to the reviewer; he wants other books, did not get it here, the puzzle is why he felt the need to let us know that in a lengthy review that has very little utility outside of "fast, glitz books are not for me and Adamantine is one such"

I wrote the review because a) I'd promised I would, b) I always write about what I've read if I have something to say about it, not just because I like it, c) I'd chosen to read the book in the first place because I thought it sounded interesting - it was trying something new with dragons, had character names that hinted at a non pseudo-medieval European setting, etc. Contrary to not being 'for' me, it sounded very much like the sort of thing I might like. It didn't work out that way.

I don't hate 'core fantasy', either - see my most recent review at SH, for example. I've been an avid fantasy readers for years; I just don't, apparently unlike you, see any conflict between reading fantasy and writing about it seriously, whether positively or negatively.

I'm tempted to suggest that you apply your own advice to yourself: if you think something (like, say, SH reviews of 'core fantasy') isn't for you, don't read it. But since, manifestly, I don't think there's anything wrong with reading stuff you dislike or disagree with, and then engaging with it, I say: carry on.

Liviu said...

Thank you for clarifying some points and incidentally while I was so-so on Temeraire, I kept reading books 2 and 3 when I finally gave up on it as a series far away from my tastes, while recently when asked about a try at the latest McKenna book I gave it and some earlier novels by her a cursory preview and decided they are far away from my tastes also, so I guess it's just that our tastes in core-fantasy are way different.

On the other hand I have to say that the review linked by you to Irons in Fire is a pleasure to read and it would definitely make me take a look at the book otherwise.

And this comes back to my main point: reviews where the reviewer engages with the book are the best and most useful

In a sense the default is a negative review imho - give me a random novel or ok a random sff novel, or even a random preferred sff subgenre novel (from mil sf to new gritty to new space opera to new weird) and the odds are still I would dislike it, though of course my odds of liking it increase in the order mentioned.

So in a sense finding books to love is hard and reviews about such are the best.

Terry said...

Nic, thank you for pointing to your review of Juliet McKenna's latest book. I have not previously read her work, but will now want to sample it for myself; it sounds well worth reading.

Abigail, as usual, we disagree. I'm quite confident that on the day we agree, we will be receiving weather reports that Hell has frozen over.

It is eminently fair to conclude from Martin's review that he "held the state of the ARC against Newton." When a review contains the following: "In fact, the proof of Nights of Villjamur is the possibly the most error riddled I've ever seen, with numerous poor choices of this kind, and more substantial structural errors, in addition to basic typos. The text just does not hang together very well," no other conclusion is possible. Martin even goes so far as to comment on the word choice used in the ARC, and the difference between the word used there and in the final version of the book. The conclusion that the condition of the ARC mattered to the review is confirmed when the reviewer again refers to an error in the proof in the concluding paragraph of the review.

No question, this was not the main point of the review. I never said it was. Rather, the point appears to be that "this is an unremarkable, middle of the road fantasy that doesn't really attempt to be anything more." Yes, Martin does say in his final paragraph that this "problem" with the book may be a matter of the book having been written in a rush, but his principal evidence of this is that the ARC was error-ridden; which means, once again, that Martin held the condition of the ARC against the author of the book.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Abigail, that's such utter bullshit. Martin clearly beat Newton over the head with the poor state of the ARC, which is ridiculous because there are lots of reasons an ARC might not be up to snuff. It's generally not cricket in my opinion to mention that kind of thing in a review, because the reader isn't getting that version anyway and because it's, again, hard to tell the *why* behind it.

As for the policy of letting reviewers pick what they review, this is also fraught with danger. If you are working with a book review editor, it would behoove the book editor to not, for example, allow a pairing like John Langan and Abigail Nussbaum. Any reasonable person would know this would lead to massive fail in a review. And I'm not talking about the writing of a negative review--I have no problem with negative reviews. But I do have a problem with negative reviews that are negative because of a fundamental disconnect between the author and the reviewer.


Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'd like to think that I'm a reasonable person, Jeff, and yet I'm the one who requested the John Langan book for review, having liked his most recent story in F&SF so much that I nominated it for the Hugo. I'd be interested to know just what about my writing makes it obvious that he and I would be a bad match.

More generally, do you really think a reviews editor should force reviewers to take assignments whether they're interested in them or not? If ever there was a recipe for negative reviews and reviewer/book mismatches...

Larry Nolen said...

Lots of interesting comments here, too many for me to respond to at length now (being awake this late with a stuffy head isn't my idea of a conducive blogging experience).

Will note that there are other "ethical" issues that have been raised over the course of the discussion here: 1) Reviewer and ARCs/how to use those in a review, 2) Reviews editors and the assigning of books, 3) (Unstated but implied) Reviewers and their (un)conscious biases and how these might lead to spectacular failures to engage with works (something I worry about).

Now for another related ethical issue: Reviewing books by people with whom you have had some sustained contact. Are there ever times that this is permissible? I ask this in light of certain charges made over the past few years directed at those who review at certain venues (yes, SH is one, but far from the only one where I've heard this accusation). Can reviewers get so "comfy" with certain styles/authors that their reviews, positive and negative alike, lack a sort of 'distance' (I hesitate to say 'objective,' although it certainly could be applied here, I suppose)?

That's something that I'd like to hear others here weigh in upon, whether here or on their own blogs.

JonathanM said...

Jeff --

"I do have a problem with negative reviews that are negative because of a fundamental disconnect between the author and the reviewer."

I'm not even sure what that means. I don't think that I've ever experienced it as a reviewer.

But assuming that this is a real phenomenon, if it is possible for reviewers to experience a "fundamental disconnect" from the writer then it is also possible for readers to experience that same disconnection and as a result reviews written from behind that disconnect are of use to the wider community.

I share Abigail's puzzlement at the idea that she would be predictably disconnected from Langan's work. Based on what evidence should a reviews editor base such judgments? In what way is it the responsibility of a reviews editor to prevent such disconnected reviews from appearing in print?

Martin said...

Martin clearly beat Newton over the head with the poor state of the ARC, which is ridiculous because there are lots of reasons an ARC might not be up to snuff.

Well, this is tedious but let's go through my comments in detail:

"In fact, the proof of Nights of Villjamur is the possibly the most error riddled I've ever seen, with numerous poor choices of this kind, and more substantial structural errors, in addition to basic typos."

So, first, we have a factual claim: I am reading this proof. I would have thought this was helpful to the reader as it tells them I was not reviewing the final text. As for why I am not reviewing the final text, this is a commercial decision by the publisher taken in order to maximise publicity.

(I have used ARC and proof interchangeably here but that was perhaps a mistake as it is my impression that there are actually differences between the two. I'm not sure.)

Secondly, we have another factual claim: it is the most error riddled proof I've read. This is less obviously of interest to the reader who will be reading the final text. However, the errors I am talking about go beyond the basic typos you would expect (and expect to be corrected) to more major issues. Some of these will be corrected, some won't and, in the example I give of a correction in the final text, the improvement isn't great.

As you say, there are a lot of reasons an ARC might not be up to snuff. I suspect the responsibilty lies with both Newton and Pan MacMillan and since the errors are greater than usual I am picking up these problems whilst at the same time a) letting potential readers know that some of them may be corrected in the final text and b) suggesting the state of the proof is indicative of something wider:

"Partly this comes back to confidence, but I suspect (hope) a lot of it is due to pace of production; the book shows every sign of being written in a rush,"

This doesn't sound like bashing to me, more like giving the benefit of the doubt. If you would like me to ignore entirely the fact I am reading an ARC then there seem to be two choices when faced with an example like this, neither of which are ideal:

a) All errors and problems with the proof are ignored on the basis that they will be corrected in the final text (even though this is unlikely and this is unfair to the reader).

b) All errors and problems are acknowledged (even though many are likely to be corrected and this is unfair to the author).

As for the policy of letting reviewers pick what they review, this is also fraught with danger... because of a fundamental disconnect between the author and the reviewer.

What the fuck are you talking about?

Martin said...

Terry: I apologise for my curtness. The most recent entry on your blog was a book contest and - returning to ethics - I find such things deeply problematic. However, my characterisation of you and your blog as a whole was unfair.

The supposed obligation to wait and read the final product remains bollocks though. (It was this I was reacting so strongly against.)

David Moles said...

What the fuck are you talking about?

I think Jeff's saying that the editor of the book should demand (of the reviews editor) the reviewer the book's editor thinks best suited to the book. Or at least demand not-the-reviewer the book's editor thinks least suited to the book.

On the face of it that at least doesn't sound like a stupid thing for the editor / publisher / publisher's publicity people to do, or want to do. I suppose whether it's ethical (in a non-Remiczian sense) depends on where the power is.

Anonymous said...

Dear gods, it's like standing on a rock in the middle of a wildebeast stampede. Only with 'reviewers' as the wildebeast... I didn't know there were so many of you, let alone all on one website...

... on the topic of the post, I've two reactions. The helpful reaction is that people are disagreeing partly because they are talking about different things. I notice particularly that JonathanM is talking about "critics" and their duty to "stir the pot". I thought the topic here was reviews, not criticism. These are two entirely distinct things. In fact, one of them is actually many different distinct things...

The "reviewer" or "critic" is not a unitary role. They can have any one of several different functions:

- to convey to an audience an estimation of whether a book is good or bad

- to explain elements of the book to an audience through exegesis

- to aid or alter (an) understanding of the book through eisogesis and the provision of new perspectives

- to use the book to teach people how to write books

- to evaluate the literary or historical or social significance of the book

- to use the book to illustrate philosophical points (either about the contents of the book or about the nature of books)

- to analyse the critic (and any like-minded members of the audience) through the medium of the book

- to shape the artistic culture, pushing it in one way or the other

- to play a part in the publishing machine

- doubtless, many other things

These roles are not all the same. In particular, only the first is truly 'reviewing' a book in the conventional sense - and even there the role varies depending on which meaning of 'good' is used: judging whether a book is good requires us to establish what we want it to be good for.

Which aspect of quality is reviewed is arbitrary. There can be no good grounds to criticise a reviewer for rewarding 'comfortable' books simply because they are enjoyable. If his review is intending to establish how enjoyable a book is for an artistically conservative afficionado of a particular genre, that is exactly what his reviews should do. If he claims to be doing that and in fact gives the highest praise to edgy and exotic works, he is betraying his audience.

That is the key point about the role of a reviewer. The reviewing role is a role focused on the audience - a review exists to serve its audience, and must be true to its audience, though it may of course to some extent select its own audience.

Some people think that a reviewer should do more - that he should become a critic. Well, there's nothing wrong with being a critic. But to set oneself out as a reviewer, serving the audience, and then to surreptitiously insert one's own, individual agendas is dishonest and unscrupulous. Unethical, one might even say.

This is true when a "reviewer" is really part of the publishing machine, giving a good review because he has been paid to. He sets himself out as a reviewer, but is in fact a publicist, and his reviews are therefore dishonest. But it is just as dishonest when a reviewer is really trying to influence the culture. If you are trying to 'stir the pot', you will give reviews that 'stir the pot', not reviews that actually reflect the quality of the book. Anyone who has any political motive with his review (whether the politics is the politics of publishing or the politics of the artistic community) should, to be ethical, make this duality of purpose clear, and where possible divide their comments strictly between their two roles.

And is it for that matter any better to be edgy than to be comfortable? I don't see why. You talk about moving forward, but that's no inherently better than staying still. At risk of sounding a bit postmodern for a moment, the dichotomy of new and old is a false dichotomy in a postmodern situation. Everything is new; everything is old. The difference is not in the text but in the perspective of the reviewer - and from what perspective will you adjudge which of the two perspectives is superior?

Anonymous said...

[I can see an argument for considering originality a good thing, but that is altogether a different thing. A book can be completely comfortably genre and yet contain originality. An edgy and progressive book can at the same time be unimaginative and derivative. One is a question of the content; another is the question of the frame]

Is it ever ethical for reviewers to review books by people they know? Yes, of course it is. They may, for instance, be reviewing for an audience of people they know - or for an audience of people who want to know how a book appears to people who know the author. There's nothing wrong in being such a person. If your wife has written a book, I'd love to read your review of it - I'm sure you'd have quite a different perspective on it. And her editor's review would be fascinating! And her own review! The problem with authors reviewing their own work is not that they cannot be interesting, but that they struggle to truly be reviewers, rather than publicists or self-analysts.

Is there anything wrong with lacking, as Larry puts it, 'distance' from a book you are reviewing? Of course not. If you are writing for an audience who are likewise lacking distance, it is the only appropriate way to write for them!

Is there such a thing as a disconect between the reader and the text, as JeffV implies? Of course not. The reader is connected to the text through the process of reading, and in no other way. He can be no more or less connected with any one text than with another. Disliking a text, or even failing to understand a text, is not a sign of a 'diconnect' - the meaning is not in the text. Meaning resides in our perception of a text, and just as we have differing perceptions of a text we may derive differing meanings from it. From one perception, a text may be dull and prosaic; from another, fascinating and poetic. To only review books when one stands having the latter perspective is to write for a smaller audience with each review you write.

If only one person in the world 'connects' with a book, is it wrong for a review who does not connect with it to write a review on that basis? I should hardly think so - for more than 99% of the world, that review will be useful. If the one person in the world who DOES connect with the book is in any way a man of taste, sophistication or philosophy, that review will also be useful to him, as it will show a new perspective on the book, against which his own perspective may be developed. And of course if we are ourselves seeking to be wise, we should take interest in HIS review, however alien his perspective seems from our own. If nothing else, it can be interesting to see who he is, and may cause us to reevaluate what else we know of him.


Reviewers, at least since the rise of Derrida's ilk, seem to feel dissatisfied with reviewing, and try to remodel themselves as "critics". Critics, meanwhile, pretend to philosophy. Sadly, they are almost without exception poor philosophers, and would be better aspiring to be reviewers. Criticism is a shallow, egocentric and unuseful enterprise - dishonest at best, solipsistic at worst; reviewing at least serves a purpose, and a constituency.

Anonymous said...

The UNhelpful comment that springs to mind is that this appears to be a debate about nothing, at heart:

Person A: we should be positive and supporting in our reviews!
Person B: we must not compromise our task by shying from making legitimate criticisms!

Both people are in fundamental agreement: neither wants reviews to be mindless and unhelpful praise, and neither wants reviews to be cruel, malicious or so harsh that they fail to discern. The only difference is that Person A is has slightly more genteel tastes than Person B. This is not a legitimate argument - this is just a disagreement in temperament.

Why, then, have I, a humble bystander, written so long a response to an argument that isn't an argument, and that has no significance for me? Well, all arguments are good arguments, in that they are better made than left unsaid; an argument is at heart the inhabitation of a perspective, and it is good for our health to let our eyes wander now and then.
[Hmmm. I suppose I'm merely criticising the thoughts of others; and all criticism is fundamentally superfluous in a material sense. Our boon is wisdom, or at least a buttress against folly. Yay critical thought!]

[[Self-justification ended now. Must go do something useful.]]


Oh god, this has ended up being longer than two comments. I am not suited to such haiku-like formats as blogger comments, it seems.

So, I've just added three comment, two of them huge, by nobody any of you know, and which will be of no interest whatsoever anyway. I think we might call that egotistical.

[*ducks in shame*]

Sorry, honestly.

David Moles said...

I would be surprised if most review-readers make the distinction between reviewer and critic, and even more surprised if most of them made the same distinction you're making.

David Moles said...

And I'd also be surprised if many of those self-identified as critics didn't see themselves as serving their audiences.

Terry Weyna said...

Martin, thank you for your comment to me, and your apology. Just to be clear, I don't think that a reviewer has an obligation in every case to wait and read/refer to the final book; I think that's necessary if the ARC is an issue that affects the reader's opinion of the book.

I am interested in your thoughts on contests and giveaways by reviewers. I have had two on my blog, both recent, and ran them for the sole purpose of increasing my readership. There are some blogs that seem to have become almost entirely publicity-oriented, with many, many giveaways, and I do not want my blog to become that; I'd rather have my smaller audience. But the occasional contest seems to do no harm.

The one that's up now was one I particularly liked because it demands that those who choose to enter do some writing. As the wife of a professor of writing, a man who has also written several books about writing, I've been infected with the idea that it's always a good thing to encourage people to write.

As to reviewing books by people one has connections with of one sort or another: I recently reviewed a first thriller by someone who had been my legal partner many years ago. I chose to review the book with a disclosure of my connection to the author. That was a thorny issue for me, though, and I very nearly did not post at all about the book. I would never do more than simply announce the publication of my husband's books. This doesn't come up often for me, though, since I only rarely go to conventions or other gatherings, and know few people who write SFFH personally.

This is a fascinating discussion overall, I must say. I'm enjoying it immensely.

Larry Nolen said...

Very interesting points, everyone. While I'm going to try and stay out of certain issues that seem to be popping up again (this time in this post, but seen first elsewhere), the question of how review editors deal with assigning books is a valid point to raise. Considering that I've had dealings with only one e-zine to date, I cannot state anything with surety, I know I wasn't pressured to write a certain way or to shade things one way or the other. Perhaps this goes on elsewhere. But that isn't a here or now point when it comes to SH, since my post only used Martin's recent review to raise a larger point about negative reviews and the reactions they often inspire.

VW has several interesting points, many of which I agree with to some extent or another. But some of those arise from viewing the review as being some aloof entity that is removed from the foibles and merits of the reviewer. I'm not for sure if that's possible or even desirable. Whether I'm writing a more "immediate" piece designed to be parsed as a "yes-good, no-bad" for a book or if I'm engaging in a more critical analysis of a work, I'm writing an essay, which is going to be of a limited, personal sort. Of course, once it's written and released online or published in print, it leaves the essayist's control and others are free to judge it by its merits and deficiencies.

Personal disclosure sometimes enhances a reader's parsing of an essay. The fact that I had done some historical research into the same era as covered in Jonathan Littel's The Kindly Ones I think strengthened my "authority" to comment on certain things he was doing.

But "authority" is a tricky thing, one that depends upon perceptions of being honest and also of avoiding as best as possible conflict of interests. There are authors I know personally and over the years, I've tended to note their books and praise (when I thought it was merited), but I would never take money from a review venue to review their books because my "authority" would be compromised and my ability to engage the text would be compromised. Of course, there are times and places where such reviews can and should take place, but I prefer to err on the side of caution.

Should note that Hal Duncan has some good points to make that are related to many raised in this conversation here.

Joe said...

"Now for another related ethical issue: Reviewing books by people with whom you have had some sustained contact. Are there ever times that this is permissible? I ask this in light of certain charges made over the past few years directed at those who review at certain venues (yes, SH is one, but far from the only one where I've heard this accusation). Can reviewers get so "comfy" with certain styles/authors that their reviews, positive and negative alike, lack a sort of 'distance' (I hesitate to say 'objective,' although it certainly could be applied here, I suppose)?"

Larry - I think you've got a couple of different questions here in what initially appeared to be one question.

First - to address the first question: Reviewing a book written by someone with whom you've had sustained contact. This is a little tough. I'm thinking specifically about myself and Mary Robinette Kowal. I've had a handful of very pleasant e-mail exchanges with Mary. I've never met her but she seems quite nice. I'm generally biased to like Mary's fiction, but the thing is, I think I have this bias because I do like Mary's fiction and not because of Mary herself.

But that's easy when I come across stories of hers that I do like, and I expect to think highly of her debut collection later this year. My review of it would be honest (in my mind), but I've had a moderate amount of sustained contact with the author.

I suspect that if I became personal friends with Mary, or any other author, I would probably decline to review her book because my personal friendship might shade what I was willing to say about it. Maybe.

Professionally, Cat Rambo is one of my editors at Fantasy Magazine. I think it would be very much unethical to review her collection.

I think it's a matter of degrees and perhaps a matter of disclosure. If I am personal friends with a writer and still choose to review that writer's work - it should be disclosed and the reader can decide if my review was fair or not. This might be more difficult for writers who review, because I'm not sure that this genre sandbox is all that large that there isn't overlap.

Joe said...

"Can reviewers get so "comfy" with certain styles/authors that their reviews, positive and negative alike, lack a sort of 'distance' (I hesitate to say 'objective,' although it certainly could be applied here, I suppose)?"

The second part of your question is more becoming comfortable with a writer's style, and that's different than personal interaction with a writer.

I don't know. A sense of "comfort" or coming home with a writer's work can potentially blind you to some of the flaws (or what is done exceptionally well), but on the other hand knowing that writer's work and style so well can allow for greater insights into the new work.

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