Monday, January 5, 2015

BLOGTABLE: The Positive Value of Negative Reviews

Welcome to the inaugural episode of BLOGTABLE! Here's how it works: a prompt is issued by a regular contributor to nerds of a feather, flock together; it is then answered by three guest bloggers in turn. Crucially, each guest blogger will also respond to each preceding respondent. This episode's cast o' characters:

The G (Prompter) 

The G is founder and co-editor of ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F, crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.

Maureen Kincaid-Speller (Respondent #1)

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and a reviewer, whose work has appeared in print in Foundation, Interzone and Vector, and online at various venues, including Strange Horizons. She also blogs sporadically at Paper Knife.

Jared Shurin (Respondent #2)

Jared writes for Pornokitsch (and others) and tells us that he is a certified BBQ judge. [Ed. He is also many other things--former co-editor of the Hugo Award-winning Speculative Fiction anthology, former judge for the Kitschies and all-around smart person. He is, however, far too modest to claim these things for himself.]

 Jonathan McCalmont (Respondent #3)

Jonathan McCalmont lives in a wood. A critic and fan-writer, he writes a regular column entitled 'Future Interrupted' for the British science fiction magazine Interzone and is proprietor of the Ruthless Culture blog.

But enough about us...

EPISODE 1: In which The G suggests that negative reviews have positive value...

Prompt: There has been some pushback recently against the negative review—from authors and fans primarily, perhaps less from publishers. Negative reviews are said to be “performative” and “more about the reviewer than the book in question”--which of course they can be--but in some cases criticism of the negative reviews equates commentary on text with “attacks” on those who write, publish or enjoy reading said text.

Now, I don’t write a lot of negative reviews—I’m not paid to do this, so I can be a little picky about what books I read. That means the worst ones end up being “mostly bad with something that kept me from quitting the book.” The quality distribution of books I review, then, is skewed to the right of normal. But I do feel, as a book reviewers, that I have an ethical obligation to honestly relate how I feel and not sugar-coat or gloss over the things that don't work for me. 

I value this kind of honesty as a reader, and rely on negative reviews from a consensus of trusted sources to warn me off bad purchasing decisions or poor uses of my time. And I value incisive, thought-provoking critique, much of which would not exist if everyone just stuck to singing praises in the echo chamber.

So I ask each of you the following questions:

What are the positive effects of negative reviews—for readers, writers, publishers and so forth? Why do we need negative reviews and what would a fandom without them look like? What’s really driving this pushback against negative reviewing?

Conversely, what are the pitfalls of negative reviewing? Does incisive critique sometimes slip into abusive ranting, and if so, where does one draw the line? What rules or limits do you set for yourself prior to writing a negative review, if any?

Finally, since you are all based in the UK, do you perceive a cultural difference between American and British fandoms in toleration of negative reviewing? I ask because, growing up in various music fandoms, I’ve always perceived a very clear delineation in attitudes among music journalists and bloggers. Back in the halcyon days of the 1990s, for example, I used to read NME and Melody Maker alongside Rolling Stone and Spin, and the former pulled many fewer punches than the latter. In other words, I inferred a cultural difference when it came to toleration of strong criticism in indie music fandom. That bit of tangential history may not be relevant to the subject at hand, or it might. Is it? If so, how and to what degree?

Response #1: Maureen Kincaid-Speller

There is the obvious point that an unfavourable review can help a reader decide whether or not to bother with a novel. Or, perversely, a bad review may prompt a reader to try a novel. If you read a reviewer regularly, you get to know if and how their tastes mesh with your own; a poor review can mean that you will probably like a particular book in the same way that a favourable review means that the reader is likely to hate the book.

I'm also intrigued by negative reviews of otherwise well-received books and will sometimes read a novel because I want to understand why that reviewer has made that judgement when the response has otherwise been favourable. And I read my favourite authors irrespective of what people say about their books.

As a reviewer, I see myself acting as a kind of critical friend, writing for people who haven't themselves got to the novel yet. I'm passing on my opinions, positive or negative, about books, rather as I would if we were having an actual conversation. I'm not easily pleased so if I say I like a novel, I mean it. On the other hand, because I'm not easily pleased, I feel a responsibility to be as clear as possible about why I don't like a novel. Those reviews are often more interesting to write as a result.

It's slightly different if I'm writing a more formal critical piece, when I am perhaps discussing the novel in a broader context, and also trying to work out for myself in greater detail what the book's problems are. Then I probably write for me as much as for anyone else. However, I don't review for authors or publishers. Indeed, I don't see how a reviewer who aims for Clutean excessive candour, as I do, can develop that kind of relationship with publishers and writers without to some extent compromising their integrity. I could kid myself that I'm acting as the grit in the oyster, helping the author and publisher to produce a pearl next time, but if that does happen, it's entirely accidental. For what it's worth, that seems to me to be the function of the author's editor and their own first readers. I may be unnecessarily austere about this but my reviewing relationship is with the book and the reader, not with the people who produced the book. (And if I were to have that sort of relationship with a writer, I'd not review the book anyway. Similarly, I do not review books I've copyedited.)

I have a real problem with the online review culture of 'if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all' that seems to have emerged from some of the review/rating websites. It's a disservice to the reader, and I think to the writer as well. It's hard to make a judgement about a book without at least the possibility of dissenting reviews existing, while I'd argue that a writer should at least be aware that not everyone loves everything they do, even if they actually don't read the reviews themselves. A world in which everyone agrees about everything, and every book is a five-star read and the best thing ever, is a world which is bland and in which there is no incentive to do better or to do something different.

I think a lot of fan coteries miss the fact, as they rally round their authors and go after the so-called bullies, that we all exercise critical judgements every day. Something as mundane as 'I prefer apples to oranges' is a critical judgement, but I've never noticed orange-lovers hounding apple-lovers because of it. There is a clear understanding that a preference for one fruit is not a judgement about the people who prefer another kind of fruit. And yet, these days even a slightly less than totally stellar review can have people behaving very oddly, trying to suppress reviews or silence an errant reviewer.

Obviously, social media has broken down a lot of barriers between fans, writers, publishers and reviewers. Done well, the online relationship can be very enjoyable and entertaining. A lot of publishers and authors have realised that the most effective way to use something like Twitter is to establish a distinctive online presence rather than going for sell, sell, sell. I enjoy talking with authors and editors online as much as the next person, though I notice we actually rarely talk about their own work. And I'm happy to post/tweet about a book I've really enjoyed.

But it can also go horribly wrong. It seems to me that the communities surrounding some book blogs and reading/rating sites work to a different model than the one I am used to. I'm on friendly terms with many of the people I review but tend to maintain a slight distance (and I only review people I know well if they also know that I will be completely honest) whereas some of these communities seem deliberately to foster a sense of particular closeness to individual authors.The fans seem to be rather more partisan, willing to do things to help promote a book, and as a result I wonder if they aren't sometimes also vulnerable to manipulation, even unintentionally.

I also have the sense that some less experienced authors are expecting more from being online than is realistic, when it comes to promotional success. It must be hard to write a book, and then be expected to promote it like mad online, only to have someone like me come along and say 'this is not actually the best book ever written' or else to refuse to dance the promotional minuet with them (if you do nothing but send out promotional tweets, there is little chance I will follow you back). There must be a great temptation to moan to one's followers about a lacklustre review or to respond when they complain about a bad review. And if you love an author's work, I can see it must be an equally great temptation to rush in and try to help, however inappropriately.

Now, as far as my reviews are concerned, I never set out to deliberately write a negative review, any more than I set out to deliberately write a positive review. What I find shapes what I say. But there is always a temptation to write a negative review in an amusing way, if only to avoid a boring litany of complaint. Sometimes it's like shooting fish in a barrel, and in those instances I try to keep my review calm and detached because otherwise I feel I'm just taking advantage of a not-terribly-good piece of writing. 

On the other hand, if the publicity blurb tells you that a novel is up there with Cormac McCarthy's The Road, when it self-evidently is not, that seems to me to be fair game for a little amusement. But I try not to be funny just for the sake of it, because I'm not a terribly good comic writer. I rarely write truly angry reviews; my academic training means I tend to be a little detached and I'd rather avoid my anger getting the better of me. Which doesn't mean to say that one day I won't finally snap, and when I do, I suspect my review will be extremely thorough.

Insofar as I have rules about negative reviews, they should be about the book, not the author. And I like to let all my reviews, positive or negative, sit for at least twenty-four hours and then revisit them before submitting. This doesn't always happen, of course, deadlines being deadlines, but most of my reviews go through multiple drafts anyway.

Finally, with regards the supposed distinction between reviewing cultures in US and UK fandoms, I'm not sure that I personally see a difference in terms of their tolerance of negative reviewing. Of course that may simply be that I've been reviewing for a long time and people are used to me, or else that the venues I regularly publish in are tolerant of negative reviews. Having said that, I'm sure that as a reader I gravitate to sites and publications that don't simply pump out a stream of five-star reviews, so my view is somewhat biased.

Though I am aware that, according to anecdotal evidence, several US publications I read regularly accept only favourable reviews, the argument being that negative reviews just take up space, so possibly there is a geographical divide. Myself, I think some non-geographical fannish communities are more tolerant than others. Or at any rate, some better understand the function of a negative review.

All I can say for sure is that so far no one has gone after me for writing a negative review, online or in print, but that doesn't mean it won't happen in the future. If it were to happen, I think I'd feel I was probably getting something right.

Response #2: Jared Shurin

Okay, so since I agree with Maureen, which makes for dull discussion (another benefit of being critical?), I’m going to pick a tiny bit at the original question.

The phrase ‘negative’ review implies a system of scoring that doesn’t actually exist. Ditto, for that matter, ‘positive’ reviews. There’s no great literary reddit, where the books with the highest total score make it to the front page of the collective consciousness. If someone says bad stuff about a book, it doesn’t counteract someone else saying something nice about it - they both exist simultaneously. I think this semantic jiggery-pokery reveals the way people think about negative reviews: that they’re contributing to some sort of overarching mean.

This isn’t helped, of course, by the fact that the busiest, biggest and most important reviewing platform is Amazon. We now live in a world where opinions are collected, quantified, and showcased as an official metric of a book’s quality (at point of purchase, no less). And it works. Scary stuff. But it goes beyond Amazon into human nature. We have a natural tendency to want to tally the intangible, whether that’s tracking quarks, starring reviews or providing the stats for Zeus in Deities and Demigods.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that categorising reviews as positive and negative is a dangerous attempt to bring logic where it doesn’t belong... and also the social norm.

The other bit I’d like to discuss is why we do this. For the vast, vast, vast majority of reviewers (myself included), there’s no actual gain involved. We’re what Zoe Quinn refers to as “enthusiast press”: low barrier to entry and created as means of expressing or exploring one’s passion. We review books because we really want to talk about them. (That also means we naturally gravitate towards the stuff we like.)

Being enthusiast press also means we have no training, no background and no editorial oversight. It is you. Your thoughts. Your blog. Your publish button. Unsurprisingly, that means there’s a lot of foundering about - learning to write, to express yourself, to make an argument and, ultimately, learning how to engage with your audience. The last - and I think this is the key thing - is the only measurable point. There’s no one giving out grading us or handing out gold stars. Instead, our positive reinforcement comes as comments, hits, links, shares... If you’re trying to figure out what ‘works’, your only truth is Google Analytics.

And, surprise!, people respond to absolutism. You don’t provoke traffic with ‘that was fine’ - you get it by squeeing... or screeching... at the loudest possible volume. It is a lesson you learn really quickly reviewing online: the most ‘successful’ reviews are the unconditional ones.

I suppose the point I’m dancing around here is that, for reviewers, the world encourages us to be extreme. The biggest reviewing platforms assign numbers to things, and, in our own spaces, the more we exaggerate our behaviour, the more visitors we get.

There’s definitely a pushback against negative reviewing - and positive reviewing (as Maureen notes, as did author Matt Haig) - but the systems in place simply don’t encourage judicious neutrality.

Of course - and, again, I agree with Maureen here - you can give critical reviews without being an ass. Which, combined with the fact that most reviewers are their own editor as well, means her rule about waiting 24 hours is a really good one.

And absolutely we should review the book and not the author. The latter would involve making assumptions about intent that simply aren’t possible to prove - so as well as being mudslinging, it isn’t something you can even support. The text? Go wild - it is out there for you to interpret. But you can’t read the author’s mind. Also, it is a clear sign of... childishness. Not ‘amateurism’ (I’m all for amateurs, being one myself), but going personal is cheap, easy, and not about the book. Going after the author doesn’t make you a ‘bad person’, it just means you’re writing a ‘bad review’ - it isn’t actually achieving its primary purpose and helping people decide about the text.

I also don’t see the US/UK difference. Weirdly, my gut feel would’ve been the other way around - the UK fan community and industry are both smaller, so we’re all much more likely to rub shoulders - personally or professionally - with someone we’ve reviewed. Which, I would think, would make people more circumspect about negative reviews.

Where the community is more, well, odd, is that, all things considered, I think we’re more likely to get flak from our peers for being positive - whether that’s about the Star Wars trailer, Gossip Girl or the new Patrick Rothfuss. We should never be ashamed of liking something. We should always keep the ability to think critically about it, but our passions are our own. And, as reviewers, we should never cast judgement on the people that do like a thing. So I suppose that’s another rule, or an addendum: review the text, not its author, and definitely not its fans.

Response #3: Jonathan McCalmont

Jared is right to mention extreme positivity as the debate about negative reviewing has always been a sneaky means of discussing what does and does not constitute acceptable speech in a particular cultural space. With Kathleen Hale and Requires Hate still fresh in our minds, it is easy to think that this is all about books, but it is really about what kind of literary culture we want to create for ourselves.

Back in 2012, Jacob Silverman wrote a piece for Slate entitled “Against Enthusiasm” in which he took mainstream literary culture to task for being too nice:

If you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you'll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer's biggest fan. It's not only shallow, it's untrue, and it's having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.
I have mixed feelings about Silverman’s position but I admire his willingness to ask awkward questions about the defining characteristics of his cultural sphere. Do genre readers want their cultural spaces to be defined by a bunch of well-connected authors being delightful and charming the money from their bank accounts, or do they want cultural spaces in which people feel empowered to say that popular, award-winning books are racist as fuck and that the people who wrote them deserve to suffer for their privilege and lack of sensitivity? Cultural spaces cannot be all things to all people and when we talk about whether or not it is acceptable to write negative reviews, we are really talking about who gets to speak and what they are allowed to say.

Maureen wisely notes that different pockets of fandom have different attitudes towards these types of issues and while the unlimited real estate available online should allow us all to find the type of literary culture we want, things are never that easy. Most of us exist in more than one cultural group and our presence in those different groups means that it is almost impossible to create a community and keep it insulated from the communities that back onto it. Most of genre culture’s social media blood-letting comes from the fact that the boundaries between sub-cultures have weakened, allowing people from far-flung corners of fandom to discover each other and fly into a rage over the idea that different cultural niches might cohere around different sets of values. Arguments about negative reviews invariably stem from people in reader-focused spaces discovering the existence of book- and fan-focused spaces and being outraged at their lack of respect for social hierarchies.

The G asks whether the US and UK have different attitudes towards criticism and I have certainly seen it said that they do… With regards to genre culture, I think that John Clute’s presence in the UK served as a constant reminder that you didn’t need to be an author or an academic to become a well-respected critic. That particular avenue of social mobility may now have been closed off but I think it is fair to say that British fandom and American fandom have always had subtle differences… but then London and Brighton fandom have different histories and I’m pretty sure that Bay Area fandom operates in a different manner to Las Vegas fandom! Genre culture has always been a network of cultural scenes rather than a single integrated community and genre culture’s attempts to behave as though it is a single community has resulted not just in cultural clashes over the role of negative reviewing but also a tangible fear that opening your mouth will result in people from different scenes jumping on you for daring to say the wrong thing even when the cultural scene you inhabit is telling you that what you are saying is perfectly acceptable.

I believe in the value of negative reviews because I want to be part of a literary culture that puts the emotional and intellectual needs of ordinary readers above those of professional elites. Unlike Silverman, I don’t yearn for a culture of intellectual combat but I do want to exist in a cultural space where people feel empowered by their community to talk about books in the way that feels most appropriate to them. I want people to be unafraid to talk about books in ways that lead to discussions about more important things and it is impossible for fans to have that type of freedom when they are expected to bear in mind the interests of authors who are trying to build their careers and manage their brands. I understand that the publishing industry has fucked over a generation of authors and tricked them into serving as their own publicists but that doesn’t mean that ordinary readers are morally required to enable those professional aspirations. I don’t want to be part of a literary culture that exists only to serve the interests of professionals and that is why I will always defend a fan’s right to produce brutal, scathing and viciously negative reviews.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and
'nerds of a
feather, flock together' founder/administrator