If you haven’t heard or seen it yet, the proverbial shit hit the SF/F-community-fan today on this Strange Horizons review of Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords.* Not just any shit, mind you, but a rather familiar kind of excrement that makes the SF/F world an amusing and altogether strange place. The short version:
Liz Bourke wrote a scathing review of Sullivan’s novel (technically two novels packed into one), in which she derided the book for weak prose, inaccurate use of Early Modern English, plot and character inequities, and the frequency of weak female characters. In response, a number of people left comments assaulting Bourke in one of two ways: 1) rejecting Bourke’s criticism as patently bunk, and 2) launching accusations at Bourke herself. (There were other reactions too, but you should read the comments to get the full picture.)
The result? A long dialogue about the value of negative reviews, what constitutes “being mean,” and similar themes we’ve seen before.
The review/comments also inspired this post by Adrian Faulkner about why bullying reviews are bad news indeed, from which the following gem-of-a-quote comes from:
I don’t know what happened to make some of these reviewers so bitter. Jealousy of the author’s success, a misguided thought that this will make a name for themselves? I wouldn’t accept racism, homophobia or anti-Semitism in a review, so why should I accept bullying? Surely, in the 21st century, we’re better than that? It genuinely shocks me that the genre community believes that type of behaviour is acceptable in this day and age.
Seriously, people, it’s not hard to write an honest review!
Hard, indeed. So hard, in fact, that it must be difficult to find said honesty in a negative review. Clearly a spirited reviewer like Bourke must be lying for cheap shocks, lambasting Sullivan because he just so happens to be the random victim of the week. And by lying, Bourke clearly has put herself in league with racists, homophobes, and anti-Semites. Why not neo-Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church, Rick Santorum, and the British National Party too?**
Or perhaps not. What all of this seems to point to is a public devaluation of actual honest criticism. We have grown used to — in this community, at least — a misdirected honesty. Too little attention has been given to the full picture, one which has, on the one side, the good and the beautiful, and, on the other side, the bad and the ugly. You can imagine which side isn’t getting its fair shake.
But negative reviews are not only fascinating, but crucial. As a writer who occasionally workshops his fiction, I know how important it is to be told honestly when something doesn’t work. That usually means having to accept harsh criticism not unlike what Bourke wrote in her review. Someone who only tells me good things, or refuses to tear my work to pieces where it needs such treatment, is useless. Likewise, a reviewer who cannot write negative reviews is less a reviewer than a slave to publicity. We have to be able to tell people when we don’t like something, just as we have to be able to tell people when we do. And we should have free reign — minus those spaces where libel might be committed — to explore the “why.” Negative reviews are a way to remind the public, authors, and publishers about the standards expected of publication.*** The fewer negative reviews available where they belong, the more likely it is that bad books will continue to be published.****
None of that makes a reviewer a “bully.” To make that assessment is to expose a woeful ignorance of how bullies operate.***** Bullies don’t stop at criticizing the “behavior” that you make public for consumption. Rather, bullies seek to inflict personal damage, physical and emotional, assaulting you where you should feel safe. They’re opportunistic predators.
Is Liz Bourke a bully? Not by a long shot. Passionate and brutally honest? You bet. But very little of her review could be misconstrued as a personal attack against Mr. Sullivan, and those elements which some have taken to be “bully behavior” might be better called “hyperbolic criticism.” Her review does what some of the best reviews do: provide solid evidence, passion, and personality. To question her argument because you disagree with her tone, her method, or her chosen “target” says more about your personal investment in fandom than the quality of Bourke as a critic. Nor does launching personal attacks against someone you accuse of the same activity useful to your cause. Rank hypocrisy is a one-way-street, as it were.
Whatever we think of reviews, good and bad, they must be honest and they must provide sound reasoning, even if we still disagree with them in the end. They should not, however, be held to Adrian Faulkner’s standard:
The best reviews create debate about the thing they are reviewing, the worst create debate about the review.
Holding the value of a review to the whims of human reaction is not unlike deciding drunk driving by whether someone crashes their car. Then again, there are probably better analogies for this…
What do you all think about negative reviews?
*For the record, I have had two reviews published in Strange Horizons: Tron: Legacy (Adam Roberts disagreed with me here) and Bricks by Leon Jenner (no thoughts whatsoever).
**Look these folks up if you have no idea who I’m talking about.
***When I say negative reviews, I don’t mean one-line rants, as is common on the Internet.
****I have not read Sullivan’s work, though we are interviewing him for The Skiffy and Fanty Show next month, which will require me to read his work. Bourke’s review will have little influence on my take, as my reading standards are understandably different. Personally, I can let go and enjoy a fluffy book. Don’t take my word for it, though. Read my reviews in the last year or so. Don’t go farther than that, though. The deeper into the archive you go, the worse my reviews become. I’ve come a long way…
*****I have personal experience with bullies. I spent most of my youth struggling to grow taller than 4’11, which made me a perfect target for the bully crowd. Lots of punching and psychological abuse. Maybe I’ll tell you all about it some time.