‘Duty Calls’, xkcd 386

Ever since I became a published author, I’ve been struggling with the necessary tensions of belonging to the community whose output I most want to critique. Internally, the questions I’ve been asking myself have ranged from Should I write paid reviews to supplement my income? to What’s the best response to a book that enrages me? I’ve said before that total self-censorship is not an option I feel comfortable with – at least, not at this point in my life. After all, I’m still new to the authoring game; old habits are hard to break, and if I’ve been writing stories for longer than I’ve been reviewing or thinking critically about them, then it’s not much longer. To phrase the scenario as crudely as possible, I comprehend the wisdom of not shitting where one eats, but at the same time, I feel deeply uneasy with the idea that being an author means I’m no longer allowed to be moved by books, to be angered or disgusted or made quizzical by books – or rather, that I can be all these things, but only on the proviso that I’m secretive about it, as though my native reactions to narrative have somehow become shameful.

This is a difficult tightrope to walk. Stories of authors reacting to criticism on the internet abound, and are seldom remembered in a positive light (though frankly, I think we’re all on Neil Gaiman’s side when it comes to the whole pencil-necked weasel thing). Then there’s the mafia issue – which, for all it exaggerates the power of individual authors to affect someone else’s career, is nonetheless a salient footnote on the etiquette of criticism, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on. Way back in the mists of time (2008) when I started this blog, my second ever post was on editorialising in the media: the creeping intrusion of personal opinion into factual content, such that the two are now almost irreversibly blurred. I said then, and maintain now, that a large portion of the blame for the current state of our news media can be fairly apportioned to a public thirst for sensationalism – or rather, to the perceived public thirst for sensationalism. I mention this because, while artistic opinions of any kind are always going to be subjective, certain regions of the internet have developed a taste for snarky, pejorative book reviews, which I’m coming to think of as being inimical to good criticism in the same way that editorialising is inimical to facts.

That’s not to say I don’t read snarky reviews. I’m not even claiming never to have enjoyed them, however guiltily. But I am saying that the general inability of readers, reviewers and writers to distinguish between critical reviews, humorous reviews and pejorative reviews  is becoming a genuine problem, particularly in a culture where blogging, social media outlets and review sites like Goodreads are all so deeply interconnected as to constitute a single hivemind. Anything you say in public is both easily attributable to you and, as such, open to yet more criticism. This can become something of a viscious circle, and while many disputes are tiny storms in tinier teacups, the blogosphere itself is a super-sized coffee mug as broad across as the internet is deep, its viscous contents routinely stirred by a combination of citykilling typhoons and the sorts of electrical disturbance usually found in Star Trek nebulae.

Or, to put it another way: shit you say on the internet gets read. Possibly only by that one guy who found your blog by accident that one time, and possibly by every adherent of every major online publication after the guano is flung at the rotating turbine. Anonymity is only the default right up until it isn’t, and the important thing to take away here is that you don’t get to choose what piece gets noticed. As John Scalzi so succinctly put it, the failure mode of clever is asshole, and as alluded to by xkcd, someone is pretty much always wrong on the internet. (For extra credit, refer to: Rule 34, Dante’s InternetGodwin’s Law, The 18 Types of Internet Troll, and any site involving fanon, slashfic or religion, particularly if it combines all three.)

So, for the purposes of attempting to enable a happier, safer, more constructive internet, here is a rough dissemination of the difference between critical reviews, humorous reviews and pejorative reviews, respectively:

1. Critical Reviews

Contrary to what you might think, critical reviews are not necessarily negative. Rather, they involve an awareness of literary conventions (pacing, writing style, structure, plotting), a demonstrable familiarity with the genre in question, and a knowledge of standard tropes and plot conventions. As much as possible, they endeavour to be written in the spirit of informative objectivity. By which I mean: no personal vendettas, no ad hominem attacks, no profanity (exceptions made in the case of positive usage, i.e: this book is fucking brilliant), and no snide remarks. Given the native imperfection of human beings, a cultural preference for humour and the fact that sometimes, in our honest opinion, a book just doesn’t work, your mileage may vary when it comes to enforcing these points; at the very least, our own views frequently lead us to be more lenient or strict with a particular review depending on the extent to which we agree (or disagree) with its conclusion. Note, too, that while I certainly think reviews of this kind are important, they can also be somewhat bloodless, especially when it comes to books we actually like. Thus, while critical reviews as characterised here can certainly be either positive or negative, I’ve chosen my guidelines with negativity in mind, if only because there’s a world of difference between laughing with and laughing at. Which leads us to:

2. Humorous Reviews

Ranging from gentle, tongue-in-cheek send-ups to gleeful mockery, humorous reviews are generally written with mirth in mind. This doesn’t prevent them from containing critical insights, however – they’re only couched differently. For me, the most successful humorous reviews are positive in tone. The best books infect us. Like viruses, they mutate our cells and turn us into replicators, instilling the urge to go forth and infect yet more people. Humour is an excellent means of transmitting this enthusiasm precisely because it overwhelms our objectivity with laughter and story-greed. When used in more negative reviews, it can serve the purpose of attracting readers, not to the book in question, but to the reviewer, displaying their personality and particular taste while still providing critical feedback on a novel’s pros and cons. Though sometimes verging into snarkish, schadenfreude territory (see above, re: your mileage may vary), a funny-yet-critical review will support its jibes with reasoned analysis and, where appropriate, balance the tone with lighthearted humour, ensuring that the end result doesn’t read wholly as a joke at the book’s expense. For all that I’m a fan of critical reviews, I tend to prefer them as one-off reads, or as tie-breaker votes when other, more subjective sources disagree. But when it comes to choosing a regular reviewer, humour is what wins out for me: not only because it affords a greater sense of who the reviewer actually is, but because even a negative review can still make me curious about a particular book – and if there’s one thing I don’t want a reviewer to do as a matter of course, it’s make me feel like a cretin for enjoying something they disliked. Which leads us to:

3. Pejorative Reviews

Often, pejorative reviews are based on adversarial reading by a hostile audience. Maybe the reviewer just doesn’t like the author, or the genre, or the voice. Maybe they think the premise sounds ludicrous. Whatever the reason, unless they’re willing to be talked into a full face heel turn, there’s a good chance that the outcome will be just what they expected – and, finding this to be so, they’ll be even angrier at the end than they were at the outset. Alternatively, they’ve gone in as hopeful, willing readers, and had that trust betrayed: their berserk button is pressed, and the result is an irate, shouty review full of capslock and swearing. Note that this is not, of itself, an inappropriate reaction, nor does it automatically make for a bad review. Sometimes, issues are important enough to get angry about, particularly when we feel our perspective is otherwise being ignored. But while such pejorative might be objectively understandable, it can also undermine its own critical significance, simply because of the difficulties inherent in disentangling venom from facts. So often when something makes us angry, we don’t slow down to explain why that anger is justified – or at least, not in a way that’s comprehensible to someone who hasn’t already read the book. This can lead virgin readers to assume incompetence on behalf of the reviewer – and if we want our views to be taken seriously, this is clearly a disadvantage. A further consequence of adversarial reading is the snowball effect: past a certain point, being reasonably annoyed with several things in particular easily leads to being irrationally irked by many things in general. For instance: while I might be perfectly willing to overlook one or two small typos in a brilliant book, their presence in a lesser story suddenly becomes a noteworthy factor in my judging it as such. Combine this with attacks on the author and an openly disparaging attitude to anyone who disagrees, and even the most eloquent vitriol is still tarred with the brush of being, well, vitriol. We might seek it out when a book disappoints us, desperate to know that we weren’t the only ones to feel that way, but overall, pejorative reviews tend to be of the least help, both to readers and to the wider literary community.

So! It is now late, and I have done my blogging duty for another day. Internets, what do you think about reviewing?

Comments
  1. Phoebe says:

    Or, to put it another way: shit you say on the internet gets read. Possibly only by that one guy who found your blog by accident that one time, and possibly by every adherent of every major online publication after the guano is flung at the rotating turbine. Anonymity is only the default right up until it isn’t, and the important thing to take away here is that you don’t get to choose what piece gets noticed. As John Scalzi so succinctly put it, the failure mode of clever is asshole, and as alluded to by xkcd, someone is pretty much always wrong on the internet. (For extra credit, refer to: Rule 34, Dante’s Internet, Godwin’s Law, The 18 Types of Internet Troll, and any site involving fanon, slashfic or religion, particularly if it combines all three.)

    Can I just be like “THIS!”?

    That’s pretty much what I realized from the whole YA Mafia thing. Authors were talking about reviewers who were talking about authors all in their little circles and somehow everyone seemed to feel that it was okay to say snitty things because, hey, this is the internet, and no one will ever see. But of course, everyone saw pretty much everything.

    My feeling about reviews is the same as it ever was: be circumspect (you get to decide what values you’re comfortable with, no one else), and own your words.

    Also, damn you for linking to TVtropes.

    • fozmeadows says:

      TV Tropes is possibly the best thing EVER.

      Also: online arguments are definitely subject to the Law of Diminishing Returns. Every post contains new material for each subsequent post to counter, thus ensuring that the argument steadily devolves from the original context. By way of distinguishing this theory from economics, call it the Nesting Text Effect: every time you direct reply to a previous comment, the box containing your words gets smaller, which is a pretty good metaphor for the simultaneous diminishing of content. Or so I think.

  2. I think in a way it’s similar to constructive feedback in writing workshops. Critical feedback or reviews presented in a neutral and mature way can help the writer make their work better, by encouraging them rather than ridiculing them (which will most likely have the opposite effect); if a lot of reviews are pointing out the same flaws, they know it’s something they need to work on. And it can help the potential reader make a more informed decision on whether they think they will actually like the book.
    On the other hand, pejorative reviews will, as you said, most likely just alienate the reader, since most people can easily see through a review that has been written specifically to attack a certain writer/genre etc. Kind of like listening to some school bully denouncing some other kid because he wears dorky clothes or something.
    Just my two cents’ worth😀

    • fozmeadows says:

      Absolutely! And to continue the crit group comparison, pejorative comments can also have the effect of turning the writer contrary: even if what you’re pointing out is genuinely a problem, phrasing it so personally means the person on the receiving end is well within their rights just to write you off as irrelevant – and that helps neither the critic nor the writer.

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