Confessions of a Guilty Reviewer
I used to write occasional reviews for Tangent Online, and once I wrote one that I still regret. I’ve rarely found a slice-of-life story or flash fiction that I enjoyed, so I probably had no business evaluating a piece of short fiction that was both. Yet I read it, and I slammed it. Not because it was bad flash fiction, or because it was a bad slice-of-life story (I had no kind of qualifications for adequately judging either) but because I didn’t like flash fiction or slice-of-life stories. It was the epitome of ill-informed reviewing, where the writer is arrogant enough to know better than fans of an entire genre. Or two.
I didn’t understand my mistake for a while, and when I met the author of the story at a convention years later he was kind enough not to mention my idiocy, or, more likely, hadn’t remembered the name of the idiot who’d written the review.
You’d think that my epiphany about having written such a bad review would have arrived when I started to get my own fiction published more regularly, but it actually hit me faster, probably because it took a loooong time for my fiction to get published regularly.
I began to evaluate game products for Black Gate and it finally dawned on me that I had to consider both a work’s intended function and its intended audience. For instance, if I was looking at a role-playing product, I couldn’t evaluate a retro dungeon crawl by the same standards I looked at a modern story-based adventure with plot arcs.
Nowadays when I get a bad review for one of my works, it sometimes means that the book wasn’t the right one for the reader. That happens, of course. My friends love some authors who just don’t do anything for me. (And some people actually like anchovies on their pizza.) But sometimes not liking a book comes from a disconnect between what the reader wants from the work and what the work is intended to deliver.
My favorite bad review of The Desert of Souls came from a reader who believed the book was supposed to be a comedy, a la Terry Pratchett, despite the fact that there has been no marketing to suggest anything of the kind. One assumes that I would have gotten a one star review as well from someone who had desired it to be a story about cross-dressing penguins or a feminist literary tract set in the 19th century.
When I started to see these disconnects happen with my work I first felt sorry for myself (sniff) and wished all reviewers had to pass some kind of course so that they knew to approach a work by its own standards when they’re reading it. Does it succeed or fail as, say, a romance? Or even as a big fat fantasy, which is going to have different conventions even than other kinds of fantasy novels?
That, of course, is ridiculous, and instead of wishing I’ve learned to toughen up. When you’re on the other side of that fence – the critiqued rather than the critiquer – one of the first things you need to develop is a thicker skin, and the ability to laugh, and I’ve gotten a lot better at both of those. Still, sometimes you can’t help but wince.
There is an art to review writing, and an art to taking a work apart. We need reviewers willing to call out a work when it doesn’t, uh, work, and who aren’t afraid to tell us the unvarnished truth. A well-written bad review can be a work of art. Sometimes they’re vindictive, but a really good one actually requires courage, especially if it flies in the face of the expected.
Yet as much as I strive to better my writing all the time, and as much as I desire to be courageous, I decided a while back not to send forth my review roosters of doom anymore. I only call attention now to works that I really enjoyed. Chances are that if you see one glowing game review from me, there are ten other books I didn’t bother to cover standing behind it that I didn’t like.
I’m a poor model for other reviewers I lean on to tell me when I should bother seeing a movie or reading a book, but… there it is. Someone who is afraid to ruffle feathers can’t write negative reviews. Maybe this is all because I still cringe a little when I think what it must have felt like to get that stupid, scathing review I wrote all those years ago.
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the historical fantasy novels The Desert of Souls, and the forthcoming The Bones of the Old Ones, as well as the related short story collection The Waters of Eternity, and the Paizo Pathfinder novel Plague of Shadows. You can keep up with him at his website, www.howardandrewjones.com, and keep up with him on Twitter or follow his occasional meanderings on Facebook.
I’m so looking forward to reading your next novel about cross-dressing penguins distributing feminist literary tracts in the 19th century.
Joe, why a novel? It might be more fun as a flash fiction slice of life.
But seriously, I can totally see why a pro-level reviewer might choose to cover only work that passed muster. It’s so easy these days to crowd-source the basic question of whether a book is worth picking up or not. The thing your reader can’t crowd-source is finding something illuminating to say about it.
Hey, I loved this. It was linked to in Charles Tan’s blog, so I followed it back, well, “home,” as it were.
Some of the greatest lines about critics come from the movie “All About Eve,” I think, and are voiced by a beautifully sarcastic George Sanders.
I reviewed theatre for a while, and only wrote one really scathing review. I think in part I wrote that one because for once I couldn’t quite see what that particular production was TRYING to do. Usually I will enjoy a show based on its intentions, not necessarily its results.
This, I think, makes me NOT the best reviewer in the world, because it’s like I’m looking at a great big grand old picture imposed upon the skeletal scaffolding that’s actually there… Partly this is a result of that “willing suspension of belief” we hear so much about… I’ve got it in spades… It works GREAT for reading FICTION TOO!!!
But when a production is so smug, so sure of itself, and it’s STILL kind of horrible and a mess? That’s when I get irritated. IT knows what it is but the rest of us are still clueless, and not for lack of trying.
I think I like best when it is very clear what a story is, and it is very clear that is good… That the illusion is so solid that I can’t see the scaffolding any more. Not a seam. Not a murmur. When I forget there’s a stage (or a page) at all. Full immersion. I may not understand everything HAPPENING (which isn’t hard; often a writer/director/production/piece of fiction is much smarter than I am), but I BELIEVE it’s happening.
Sorry this is such a long comment. Only I’ve thought about this on and off for several years, and it’s nice to see a blog about it. And such a BRAVE blog, Howard! For I know how critique can sting.
Sword + Sorcery has a glorious history of crossing peoples wires, getting people all tossed around + even pissed off.
You got it easy baby.
People seem to largely gather what you are doing with Dabir + Asim.
So there’s a few squirrels in the tree.
Ever look through the Saga of Robert E. Howard Bashing?
I’ll bet someone is taking a stab at REHs’ ghost right now.
Next time one of you becoming Sword + Sorcery folks gets a bad review or a snarky comment, just answer this riddle to yourselves;
‘Is the servant greater than the master?’
Nicely said, Howard.
When I ran the SF SITE I had a policy of publishing only positive reviews. Partly that was for business reasons… I was trying to get a website off the ground in 1996, when a lot of people in the industry thought a review publication on the Internet was ridiculous. We were controversial enough as it was, I figured we didn’t need to be pissing off authors and publishers, too.
Eventually I read a novel that was so awful that I ended up breaking my own rule, and publishing a negative review. It felt good.
Good points, Howard. I came across an observation a while ago which said that the critic has to first figure out what a work is trying to do, then evaluate whether it succeeds at that task (basically the equivalent of what you say about looking at the intended function and intended audience). That always seemed like a good guideline, but a tricky one to live up to — as you imply, nobody can know *all* the different standards and approaches and conventions out there. Sometimes a critic has to in a sense rely on the work to establish its own criteria for judgment. And sometimes even the best critics just miss things.
Personally, I don’t particularly like writing bad reviews, if only because it means that I’m reliving a work I disliked in order to describe it. Of course, sometimes in doing that you realise things about it that change your mind. I do feel that even if I disliked a story I have to respect the work that went into it, to the extent that expressing the dislike should be done as politely and honestly as possible. (Unless the work really goes above and beyond in being unpleasant, but that’s pretty rare.) In general I think it’s more fulfilling to write a positive review — and trickier, since one is trying to produce a readable piece of writing without falling back on snark and easy gags.
The 12 year old trapped in my head is sorely tempted to make up a new caption for that pic…
Joe, I’ll let you know when that one comes out.
I see I need to drop back by more often, so that I can address comments gradually.
Sarah, I was thinking that it WAS easier to write a good review, until Matthew wisely pointed out that there are challenges there as well, because you never want to sound unobjective.
On the other hand, you don’t just want to pick something negative to mention just to sound balanced. I hate when news shows do that. They’ll have one opinion, then, in the interest of balance, they’ll track down the other side, which could be legit, or could be elevating some really tiny counter opinion and presenting it to the public as a viewpoint with equal weight and validity.
But I digress. I you’re going to glow about something, I think you should try to explain why.
RadiantAbyss, you’re right. The new edge of sword-and-sorcery has it a lot easier. Just a few years back you couldn’t get it published anywhere. We have it a lot better now. Still, it can be an unpleasant surprise when someone takes down your work, especially when you’re fighting to reach enough of an audience to keep your career going. You fear every bad word, especially ones from powerful sources, will be a lead weight on your leg while you’re trying to swim.
Claire, I hear what you’re saying. I’ve never reviewed theater myself, but sometimes if you bend too far to try and understand the aim of the author, it becomes impossible to judge the work.
[…] Confessions-of-a-guilty-reviewer […]