Sticks and Stones
by Brian Plante
With publication in professional venues comes reviews. I've gotten some good ones, and a few lukewarm or downright bad ones. That's OK. I don't hold anything against a critic who doesn't fall in love with my work. In a way, I respect a critic who honestly says what he doesn't like.
What are fiction reviews for? There are two types of reviews, and I think they have different goals. First, there is the "literary criticism" sort of review, where the critic writes an in-depth, scholarly analysis of the novel or story. I'm not a big fan of this sort of review. I read science fiction and fantasy mostly for entertainment, and while I appreciate work with depth and quality, I don't generally put my "fun" reading under a microscope like this.
The other sort of review is the "consumer report" type. These reviews are more concerned with pointing out the good stuff and steering the reader away from the bad stuff. I find these reviews more useful than the literary sort, since what I really want to know is whether a book is worth the investment in my time and money.
I have only once written a review for publication. As a member of a large writers group a few years back, I was invited by another member to review the semi-pro magazine he edited, and publish the review in the group's newsletter. I gave the magazine a pretty good review, but I probably shouldn't have agreed to do it in the first place, and the experience made me realize that I'm not a good reviewer (which is different from critiquing a story in a writers' group). I probably will not write a review for publication again.
The problem is that I, as a fiction writer, cannot approach a review in the same way that a pure reader can. There's politics involved.
Let me say, I've read an awful lot of fiction in my life, and it's a lot harder these days for an author to give me that sense of wonder that I had when I was a teenager. I know that most of the novels and stories I read now will not measure up to my expectations. It's not that the stories written today are any worse today than when I was younger -- it's me. I know I'm jaded and I accept that. When I pick up an issue of one of the major SF magazines, I know in advance that I'll really only like three or four stories in the issue and skim through the rest.
So, for me to honestly review a magazine or novel, I'd probably ruffle a few feathers. Besides pissing off my fellow writers, I'd probably make enemies of the editors for badmouthing their magazines. And these are editors to whom I'm trying to sell my own work. So what's to be gained by my review that praises three stories and pans the seven that didn't pique my interest? Maybe that magazine's editor will never buy a story from me in retaliation. Maybe some readers who liked a story I dismissed will likewise dismiss my work in the future because our tastes are so obviously different. Maybe I'll make enemies of my fellow writers.
OK, but many other fiction writers do write reviews, and somehow navigate the politics. Well, a few critics only write positive reviews. Some of these folks seem to like just about everything they read. I've seen this practice justified by the critic saying he doesn't want to waste his time reading or reviewing bad fiction, and only concentrate his efforts on worthy works. That sounds like a bit of a cop-out to me. In addition to knowing which books and stories are worth seeking out, I also want to know which ones should be avoided. But can a working writer who may be struggling for publication possibly afford to offend editors? Can a writer who has his eyes set on winning awards offend his fellow writers (and perhaps some readers) with bad reviews? Does a writer invite negative reviews of his own fiction when he knocks the work of his competition?
The best reviewer, then, would seem to be someone who has no stake in the publishing industry himself. Someone who can call a spade a spade, without worrying about repercussions from editors and fellow writers. Someone who has read enough to know that Sturgeon's law is true -- most of the stuff out there is crud -- and is not afraid to tell his readers so.
That's why I respect a critic that doesn't like all of my work. I don't think anyone gives bad reviews just to be a bastard. If a critic does not like my story, that's his opinion, and he is certainly entitled to it. Perhaps I've failed as a writer with a story, although I don't necessarily take to heart every bad review I read. No story will please everyone. More power to the critic that can be honest about it.
Some good places to find SF/F reviews on-line are Tangent, Locus Online, SF Reader, Best SF, SF Site, and Bluejack.
Copyright © 2002 Brian Plante Count=4658
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