Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Our Approach to Reviewing: Embrace the Gray

Recent events have put focus on negative reviews and so-called “hate blogging,” which I guess just means regular blogging but with added invective. These conversations bring to mind other recent discussions among authors, critics and fans in SF/F, not least of which those centered on author/reader interactions, interpretive space and the role of review outlets, such as this one. Reflection on these topics has, in turn, inspired me to further articulate the approach we take to reviewing creative products--not just books, but films, comics and games as well.

This is not to say that our way is the only way. Other sites do things differently than we do, and that makes me happy. I enjoy reading a whole range of review styles. Some reviewers only write about books they would recommend; others are much harsher than we are. Criticism must encompass a range of styles and approaches, and even the most negative can be useful in “moving the needle,” as Justin Landon recently put it in a discussion on twitter. (Emphasis on "can"; in other cases, it does no such thing.)

With all that in mind, here is a further articulation of our approach to reviewing:


1. This site does not, as a rule, engage in “hate reviewing.” We may be indignant or frustrated with something we encounter, but we try to be fair and highlight both positives and negatives. On the flipside, this site also does not engage in “review cheerleading,” wherein reviewers uncritically promote the text at hand.

To cite example of the former, the lowest score I’ve ever given to a book is 3/10, for James Lee Burke’s crime novel Cimarron Rose. Yet even a book I describe as “a Long Island Ice Tea of cheap well liquor from a North Hollywood dive served up by the guy who played Mr. Belvedere's stunt double on Fantasy Island” also gets a nod for prose that is “vivid, tense and atmospheric.” And Burke is a really talented writer (see this other review); he just happens to have written what is, in my opinion, a pretty bad book.

Conversely, I can highly rate George R. R. Martin’s first three Song of Ice and Fire books for the richness of world-building, intricacies of plotting and depth of characterization—among the best I’ve encountered in epic fantasy—while simultaneously noting how problematic they can be in other respects (the casual rapeyness, the exoticizing of Eastern cultures, etc.). Generally speaking, liking a given text does not mean you have to approve of or even tolerate everything about it, while finding elements of a text objectionable does not mean you can’t enjoy or appreciate other things about it. (This *should* be commonsense, but in a world of 140-character arguments, purity often wins over nuance.)

Our scoring system is designed around this assumption of “grayness” and consequent rejection of essentialist logic. If selected at random, books should score on a bell curve—a Gaussian or normal distribution, centered on 5/10. However, because we do not select books entirely at random, our score distribution is skewed to the right. Nevertheless, we believe that both extreme high and low scores should be ultra rare. That means the vast majority of things we review will by definition do some things well and other things less well.

2. We believe that books, films, comics and games are conversations among creators and consumers, and not the sole "property" of the writer. As Robert Jackson Bennett put it, "when you bring your own perspective and state of mind to my stuff, you are by default changing it – giving it nuance, color, beauties, associations, problems, and conundrums I could never hope to. The human mind is a wonderfully, tantalizingly strange thing, and it is endlessly more complicated than any book could ever be." At the same time, we believe that authors (and other creators) do have vast ranges of special insight--on intentionality, on inspiration, on authorial context and on what never made it off the cutting floor, as well as more obvious things like "what I'm planning to do with these characters in book two." In a sense this reflects the classic emic/etic (i.e. insider/outsider) distinction in anthropology--the insider has specialized knowledge not available to the outsider; the outsider has critical distance. As such, we support author/reader interaction and enjoy hearing about the creative process from the creators themselves. We just don't think their opinions are the only ones that matter.

3. As a rule, we avoid drawing inferences about creators-as-people from the fictional texts they produce. In other words, just because we decide a book contains “problematic gender relations” doesn’t mean we’ve concluded the author has problematic views on gender in the real world. It just means the author has produced a text that we find problematic on the issue of gender. If it becomes a pattern over time, we may conclude that the author’s writing generally displays problematic attitudes on gender. We would still be careful about drawing conclusions about the author’s actual feelings or beliefs--especially when we're in negative territory--unless there was significant corroborating evidence from outside fictional texts (e.g. public statements, behaviors, etc.) to back that up.

4. We also assume most authors, comic creators, filmmakers and game developers implicitly understand that this is where we are coming from, and most of the time they do. If they do not, we will reiterate the position that we stick to the text and don’t judge individuals solely on the fiction/films/comics/games they produce. If our language is sloppy on the distinction, we will make note of that and strive to be clearer in the future. If, however, it is the creator who can’t distinguish between criticism of text and criticism of person, then there really isn’t much we can do about that.

5. We present ourselves as a group blog with a carefully crafted institutional voice, but note that we are simultaneously a collection of individuals with different assumptions and interpretive frameworks. We don’t always like or dislike the same stuff, and may strongly disagree with each other, as in this case.

6. In the end, nerds of a feather, flock together is a fundamentally critical project, which seeks to provide honest and trustworthy recommendations to genre readers. Yet we also accept the fact that opinion is fundamentally subjective. Arguments, such as those found in reviews, are just opinions with supporting evidence—a case, if you will, predicated on that supporting evidence. We strive to produce good arguments in our reviews, but understand that no argument could ever convince everyone. This is a good thing—life would be awfully dull if everyone just agreed all the time, and no one would ever learn anything. What would be the purpose of reviewing then?


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POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator (2012).

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