Negative reviews

Mar 9, 21:14 by Carey McGee
Over at The Alien Online, its editor, Ariel, posted an editorial called "Reviewing: Why Do I Do It?", in which he tells the story of publishing an eviscerating review written by a contributor. The review spurred a nasty e-mail from the author on the recieving end of the nasty review, and because of the incident Ariel is publicly questioning whether negative reviews are worth publishing.

I'm curious as to the opinions of IROSF's audience when it comes to negative reviews--particularly those as venomous as this one. I e-mailed my thoughts about the incident to Ariel, but I'd like to hear what anyone else things about whether how they feel about negative reviews in general, and how they feel about seeing them in the "pages" of IROSF.
Mar 10, 00:22 by Bluejack
It's a great question, and one that longtime readers will know I regularly duck in the world of short fiction. Now, short fiction is a somewhat different world from reviews of novels, but here are my principles.

(1) From Gordon Van Gelder: "The highest goal of reviewing is putting readers together with the fiction they will love."

(2) Be up front about your own tastes, biases, and favorites, so that readers can make their own adjustments.

(3) Don't trash new authors. This could sound like favoritism, but I am never less than candid in my reviews. If I see specific things in any story that strike me as worthy of comment, positive or negative, I have no hesitation about putting it to print. That said, new authors -- particularly in short fiction -- are generally still finding their way. If I don't have anything positive to say, and neither anything constructive to say, that is: if I just plain hate a story, I'll pass it with a quick plot summary and move on. New authors have enough against them as it is, and the capricious taste of some reviewer doesn't need to be piled on top of it.

(4) Life's too short to focus on mediocrity. I read a lot. I would far rather spend my time on what I enjoy reading than that which I don't.

(5) Trash-talk is fun, easy, and totally unproductive. I mean, it is a sort of guilty pleasure to read -- or to write -- but it's generally not valuable. Some reviewers, Lucius Shephard's film reviews in F&SF are a good example, do trash talk -- but do so in a generally insightful and constructive manner.

(6) Big Name Authors can take it. Although I don't write too many "eviscerating reviews" -- I do think that established professionals are fair game.

In general, I think most of these guidelines would be reasonable for book reviews as well. There are two additional distinctions to make though:

(A) Reviews are different from criticism. Reviews are simply that: a personal take on some work. They can range from intimate personal reaction (which may or may not be useful to anyone), to more professional evaluations that attempt to give a reader enough sense of the work to make a decision about whether he or she wants to read the book. (Watch the movie. Whatever.) Criticism, on the other hand, is not intended as a shopper's aid, it is an analysis of the work. Said analysis must probe the work, and I would expect any such probing to at least make an author a little uncomfortable.

(B) For an author to respond to a reviewer is generally considered unprofessional. The professional way to get this done is for the author's agent, the editor, and possibly two guys named Bruno, to come down on the editor of the reviewer like a ton of bricks. (Bet you didn't think of that when you took on the reviews side of IROSF, Carey!)
Mar 10, 00:40 by Bluejack
Now, having blathered on at extraordinary length, I have also read the blog and review in question. A few quick observations on same:

(1) The eviscerating review really is a personal attack on the author, which is -- in my book -- not cool.

(2) The book in question really does sound like an agonizing piece of garbage -- and it's very hard for a reviewer to resist trashing something like that.

(3) I didn't quite get from your summary, Carey, that Ariel was the editor, rather than the author. In this case I actually think the author was right to complain to him, rather than to to the reviewer. Of course, it also sounds like the author let his emotions get the better of him, and probably deeply regretted that email as soon as he hit the send key. Or, being the author of what sounds like a truly awful book, maybe he didn't. All I'm saying is, the author could have done worse.

(4) One of the questions Ariel asks is: "And, dammit, ... don't we also have a duty to warn our readers off the bad stuff?" I generally think we don't. The very worst review an author can receive is to be totally ignored. And that's really what most bad fiction deserves. Readers can and will make their own decisions about what to read, but a controversy like this will just encourage some few to go out and buy the book to see if it's as bad as it sounds. (Instead of blowing off steam, Pavlou should have counted to ten and thanked TAO for the review -- it's probably as much attention as the book will ever get.)

(5) Conclusion: I think Ariel probably didn't need to publish that particular review. In his blog he mentions cases where authors handled negative reviews well, and even profited by them. I have had the same experience. I don't think all reviews need to be "positive." But when the review starts to turn mean, then I think it may be time to set it aside.

Oh dear, I've now blathered on at even greater length. I'll shut up now.
Mar 10, 01:49 by Carey McGee
Thanks for the comments, Blunt. I've reworded the post to hopefully more clearly distinguish the parties involved.
Mar 10, 03:37 by Carey McGee
(1) The eviscerating review really is a personal attack on the author, which is -- in my book -- not cool.

I agree, and I think that the responsibility lies with the editor here, rather than the reviewer.

Fundamentally, what is at issue in this particular case is not whether negative reviews are productive, it's whether this particular review should ever have been published. I think it should not have been, and I expressed as much to Ariel in my message to him. I did want to take the opportunity to spin off a larger discssion, though, and this incident seemed like a good way to tee off.

The sheer number of books published these days (to say nothing of the mass of short fiction) means that navigating it all and deciding how to allocate our limited time to any individual piece is becoming increasingly difficult. And while it's good to be steered away from things I won't like, as a reader, I'd much rather be steered towards something that I would enjoy.

Negative reviews have their place, but I tend to think that they work best when they can paint with a wider palette, rather than dwelling intensely on the weaknesses of a particular sentence. An extreme case would be the "hatchet jobs" of Dale Peck. He goes too far in his negativity (like his now-infamous comment about Rick Moody) but he always has something broader to say that is not confined to the immediate circumstances of the work in question. His concern is not with one bad book, it is with the state of fiction, and even when he is wrong in his opinions, I find it more edifying to read than a passionate and pointless gutting of a single book that I never would have noticed anyway.
Mar 10, 20:48 by Carey McGee
A quick update on the situation: Ariel has removed the review and has decided to hang up the reviews portion of the site. It's unfortunate that it had to come to this, but it looks like there was a lot more feeding into the decision than an e-mail from an irate author.
Mar 11, 10:05 by Bluejack
Yes, I find myself empathizing with him. It will be interesting to see where he takes it. Frankly, he sounds like a man who might just be ready to throw in the towel entirely... at least for a while. If there's one thing I've learned in life is that "calling it quits" usually means "taking a break."


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