The OF Blog: Authors reviewing authors

Friday, April 09, 2010

Authors reviewing authors

One of the more amusing things I have seen over the course of a decade or so browsing through internet SF forums is the idea that several people have that authors should not review other authors, especially if the comments may contain critiques of another author's style, technique, narrative, characterization, plot, etc.  Perhaps some people (not all, mind you, but some, and it is this some that interests me here) come to identify any comments that aren't praising another author as being ad hominem attacks.

Leaving aside the long and rich history of a multitude of authors serving as literary critics, reviewers, and literary professors, it is fascinating to see what happens when an author who does do formal review essays decides to write a series of informal reviews on another author's work, particularly an author whose works are diametrically opposite to that of the author/reviewer.  Such has been the case the past five weeks on Adam Roberts' personal commentary blog, Punkadiddle. 

Although I'm not a huge fan of Roberts works (I've only read two novels and one non-fiction piece and did appreciate the stories, however), I have been well aware of his sometimes-sardonic commentaries on stories and writings that do not appeal to him (his devising of several terms to describe Neal Stephenson's Anathem was very amusing and insightful for me).  So it was with great interest that I began to read his weekly Friday reviews of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series, knowing that the possibility was great that he would not enjoy most of that series.

And here are the links to his five reviews so far, for those who want to read the source material:

The Eye of the World

The Great Hunt

The Dragon Reborn

The Shadow Rising

The Fires of Heaven

For those who may have expected the most brilliant, in-depth analysis of this sprawling, in-progress epic fantasy series, Roberts' pieces probably were disappointing because he was not writing with that in mind.  Instead, he is giving an unvarnished account of reading the series as a reader for the first time and while there are no profound observations, there are several interesting takes on Jordan's prose, his character development (or what stands in place of dynamic character evolution, I suppose), views on gender relations/sex, pacing, etc.  In short, it covers quite a bit of the same ground that other critics of this series have noted over the years.  Interesting how many of those he made his first time reading it.

Me being me, I posted links to these reviews over the past three weeks over at a WoT messageboard.  Did I expect there to be much agreement with Roberts' sentiments?  No, not really.  But the discussions, serious and silly alike (NB:  in most of these, I was being facetious to some extent, in an attempt to generate different looks at the weaknesses pointed out in Roberts' reviews), began to revolve more around Roberts the author and his "authority" (or lack thereof, in the eyes of some) to review what several considered to be "the more successful author" (whatever that might be; I guess monetary income from writing is the sole indicator of which author can comment on another author?).

This was interesting, to say the least.  There were several critiques of the reviews, wondering why Roberts did not tackle X, Y, or Z or focus on A, B, and/or C.  Or in other words, hard-core fans were wondering not just why a reviewer/author did not appreciate the series as a whole, but why he did not cover elements that I suspect are only discussed by dedicated, hard-core fans who re-read such writings dozens of times to suss out possible foreshadowings, authorial intent, etc.  I guess in looking at a tangled old-growth forest, the reviewer missed this one shining sapling obscured by the huge canopy of it. 

Although I did not agree entirely with Roberts' takes, I did at least appreciate them.  But I am left wondering if this example provided is a common one these days, of where partisans of one author would be aghast (and perhaps resort to ridicule) at another author commenting (especially if it were to contain negative elements) to the point where being an author/reviewer is not something that is valued (for possible understandings of certain elements of storycrafting gained through experience that most readers would not have), but rather something that is disdained (as if the reviewer/author were somehow "jealous" or had "sour grapes" toward the other author, especially if the second author were more visible in terms of sales figures).  It seems strange that for many, not only is the author/reviewer not viewed as being a possible "expert" (not that too much stock should be put into proclaimed experts, mind you) but that somehow that reviewer/author would have less insight than "the fans" and that such reviews that contain critiques would be viewed with much more suspicion than if a non-writer reviewer, such as myself, were to write them.

What a strange reviewing world we live in.  Your takes on all this?


Jonathan M said...

The suggestion that one should only consider a series as a whole is, IMHO, entirely wrong-headed.

It effectively means that if you want to write about a series, you either have to read and write about the entire thing (thereby freezing out critics who get bored and wander off after a few books) OR you have to be familiar with what the entire series is about by virtue of reading other critical views of it (thereby freezing out people who are not interested in simply repeating received critical opinion).

When I wrote about the first of the Books of the New Sun, some genre mouth-breather linked to me and criticised me for supposedly criticising Wolfe's failure to supply any answers to the questions he posed. Which was an interesting reaction as I liked the book but simply found it interesting that he not only did not supply any answers but spent a sizeable chunk of the book's back half discussing how one should approach the work.

So I think that demanding that one consider series only as a single critical unit is just a way of ossifying critical opinion by freezing out people who might well have a different and unpopular take on things.

Jonathan M said...

Also, I think it is worth pointing out that people had a similar response to Roberts' criticism of the Hugos last year.

All it is is people who overly identify with something choosing to shoot the messenger rather than engage with substantive criticism. It's one of the more lamentable aspects of human nature.

Larry Nolen said...

I agree. I'm very familiar with Jordan's series, having read all of the books and re-read the first 8 or 9 at least twice (all of this before 2000, mind you; tastes have changed with the years) and I found Roberts' takes to be interesting precisely because he was reviewing each book individually and was reviewing them as he read them for the first time. That is a perspective that isn't often given of these books and for that alone, I valued the reviews.

Interesting point on Wolfe's novel. I never bothered writing anything approaching a review until I had re-read it a couple of times over a five year stretch, but your approach seems to be at least equally valid to me.

I really like your last point about freezing out of those who have different takes. That's what disappointed me the most about posting links to Roberts' reviews on that website. Not that I expected most to agree, but I had hoped that some who would disagree would at least engage with his problems as a first-time reader with the series and see what might come of it. But I guess, as you say, substantive criticism is not a strong suit of the human race.

Liviu said...

Since I never progressed beyond page 10 in WoT 1, I have not read Mr. Roberts' reviews of the WoT series, but I remember vividly his dissection of Incandescence by G. Egan to which the author took exception and posted a rebuttal; I mostly agreed with Mr. Egan since Mr. Roberts approach to reviewing books is quite one-sided imho - which is funny considering he writes excellent sf which can be dissected similarly as Mr. Egan pointed out in his answer citing examples of similar prose from Adam Roberts that was claimed as wooden in Incandescence...

So bottom line I like Adam Roberts as sf writer a lot, as sf community gadfly to some extent, but I rarely bother to read his reviews any more since I think the chances are they will be missing the point badly

Larry Nolen said...

OK, just read the original review and Egan's response. I'm sorry, but I can't quite bring myself around to supporting most Egan's assertions, as it appears he wrote more in a fit of pique than anything else. This quote probably illustrates things that Egan didn't intend to highlight:

A few reviewers complained that they had trouble keeping straight the physical meanings of the Splinterites' directions. This leaves me wondering if they've really never encountered a book before that benefits from being read with a pad of paper and a pen beside it, or whether they're just so hung up on the idea that only non-fiction should be accompanied by note-taking and diagram-scribbling that it never even occurred to them to do this. I realise that some people do much of their reading with one hand on a strap in a crowded bus or train carriage, but books simply don't come with a guarantee that they can be properly enjoyed under such conditions.

While I doubt he meant to be as condescending about readers who don't particularly enjoy doing Wiki searches in the middle of their reading, I could certainly see some taking it that way. In a perverse way, it seems to support some of Roberts' assertions in his review of Egan's book.

But I dunno, authors commenting on other authors always seems to draw crowds and some interesting reactions ;)

Jonathan M said...

I really liked Incandescence but I thought that all of the foreground stuff was spirit-crushingly dull and of no discernable point or purpose.

Beneath that stuff there was a fascinating story about the role of the intellectual in society and alienating intellectual curiosity can be. That's what I liked about the book.

I take Egan's remarks not only to be condescending but also another good reason for thinking that writers are not necessarily the most insightful commentators on their own work.

Adam Whitehead said...

Interesting indeed, since many respected sports commentators and critics are ex-sportsmen themselves, and many members of the Oscars committee are former or currently active directors, actors and scriptwriters themselves. These mediums see reviews by peers to be a perfectly viable idea, so it's interesting it is greeted with hostility in this case.

Something Roberts said that I agree with is that all too often epic fantasy resorts to weight over substance, and that there are many 800-page books in the genre that could have gotten the same point over in 300 pages or so (or, in the case of Goodkind, about 15 pages per book). It would have been interesting to see this point taken on board more and debated.

Larry Nolen said...

Sounds like a caramel center of goodness surrounded by an ancient, tougher than leather shell of dullness. I think that book may go even further to the back of the line due to my current interests, but perhaps it'll work its way back into consideration after a while.

Agreed that authors often don't make for the best commentators on their own work.

Larry Nolen said...


Good point, although I will note that sometimes color analysts (the former players and/or coaches) make for the most irritating of announcers, especially for those viewers who have more than a basic grounding in the sport :P But yes, it is amusing, in a sad sort of way, the hostility that sometimes arises whenever an author comments as a critic/reviewer on another author or group of authors. I've seen several sparks fly in previous years and Roberts is much milder in comparison to some of those conflagrations.

Good point about the issue of the story padding not really being discussed properly.

Elena said...

I didn't bother to go read the reviews, since I haven't read any of the WoT books that came out this decade. But just in my own experience as a reviewer coming up against an obsessive fandom (which the WoT people may or may not be, though being obsessive seems more likely than not)--criticism sometimes simply isn't tolerated. It doesn't matter if it's reasonable and supported, simply that it speaks ill of their hero and that will not be tolerated. Granted, this is in the context of a movie franchise, but I think the principle is the same. Obsession and objectivity rarely meet.

I find it interesting that there should be such vitriol against a writer for criticising another writer. All of the 18th century english writers and half the poets heading into the 19th century were critics and literary theorists. The idea that a practicing writer doesn't have a differernt but at the least equally valid critical POV is laughable.

Elena said...

as a follow up, i wonder if the acceptance of author-on-another-author criticism is different for writers who have a known online presence, particularly in the sense of reviewing, before they are known as writers?

Jonathan M said...

I think the real beef is that Roberts has given Jordan a kicking. Roberts' status as an author-cum-critic is really neither here nor there - That's just a handle that people are using in order to gain leverage for their rejection of his criticism.

They're not really interested in who Roberts is. He's just a dick for criticising an author they like.

As proof look at the comments that say that he was rude. Rudeness is a weird thing to pull a critic up on.

Similarly, they all rant about his teaching at Cambridge but he doesn't teach at Cambridge, he teaches at Royal Holloway. They didn't even bother to read his wikipedia entry properly. There's no deep principle involved of their rejection of Roberts... it's just a knee-jerk reaction.

Liviu said...

As authors reviewing authors, there was once a review of the book Gene by S. Pavlou that kind of shocked me; the review was done by an author whose novels I also quite enjoy like Mr. Roberts' ones and very recently I read and reviewed myself his latest novel

I had read Gene too at the time and it was an ok sf-nal thriller, not worse than many others, so while the slagging review may have had some merit, it was pointless since that way you can slag 90% or more of that genre; the review was retracted soon after and the site running it (now dead though at the time it was a good UK general interest sff) one stopped posting reviews...

So nothing new under the sun here either

Larry Nolen said...

As is being discussed in another post of mine, fans aren't the most objective of readers, to say the least. I knew there'd be some disagreement, but the level and type of disagreement is very interesting, despite my having noted several times that it was the review of someone reading the works for the first time and not a formal review.

As for authors critiquing others and the reactions inspired, I remember one little case from a couple of years ago where an author/editor/reviewer commented that the majority of SF short fiction was more "competent" than brilliant. I believe there were several blog and LJ retorts and it took a week or two at least for the dust to settle and the fur to stop flying.

Martin said...

The novelist-reviewer Liviu is refering to is James Lovegrove. He now reviews SF for the Financial Times.

Jonathan M said...

I can understand the dust.

'Competent' would describe the contents of the Hugo Short fiction nominations or that of most published Year's Best collections.

'Weak' would be a better description of most published short fiction. Even in the better magazines.

Larry Nolen said...

Remind me in October or so to post my thoughts on the stories I didn't choose for consideration in BAF 4. Interesting how much repetition in narrative mode and style has occurred so far. Still have hundreds of stories to read. At least very few will be actively bad.

Add to Technorati Favorites