Greetings! Today I say: It is about time I wrote upon the thorny matter of reviews.

I’ve been reviewing “tri-genre” (I’m trying for a new buzzword. D’you reckon it’ll catch on?) titles now for 14 years. My very first review ever was for Mount Dragon, a techno-thriller, which I wrote while doing work experience for SFX.

In the time since Mount Dragon  I have written critiques of hundreds of books, films, videos (yes! it’s been that long) DVD’s, games, RPGs, comics, conventions… I’m going to be mainly talking books here, but most of what I mention below applies to all.

Now, some of these reviews have been bad. Not badly written (at least I bloody well hope not, although there’s bound to have been a few), but negative, critical drubbings with low scores attached to them.

Ah! The power! Lodged in my ivory tower of critical impunity, I have lobbed shit-bombs unashamedly at the creative works of others, and sometimes, dare I say, with palpable glee. Because there are those books that make you froth madly at the mouth just at the mere actuality of their publication.

All well and good, until your own stuff gets the spike of disapproval… This is going to be a long post. I’ll get back to that.

First off, I’m going to talk about writing reviews for large magazines, because there’s a lot of nonsense surrounding the marks and so forth given out by publication. The below applies to SFX, for whom I’ve done the majority of my reviews, and Death Ray.  Some others aren’t so honest…

We’re doing bullet points, people! Let’s go.

  • All reviews are subjective There is no such thing as objective criticism, not truly.
  • There is no “official magazine position” All reviews are written by individuals, and different people like different things. Often what opinions people have on a particular product differ wildly within a magazine. Someone like Ian Berriman on SFX will do his hardest to place the right book with the right person, but still,  reviews are entirely subjective.
  • My five stars is not your five stars People ascribe marks for different reasons. Grades mean different things to different people. Five stars to me might mean four stars to you. Editors will try to equalise this, but you only have to look at games mags, which supposedly  mark out of a hundred but rarely stray below sixty per cent, to see how this can get out of hand. Reviews are subjective. Do you see a pattern here?
  • Advertising has little affect on review marks It would be naive and disingenuous to say that monies from advertising deals have no affect whatsoever on reviews, but on the magazines I have worked on, it’s had surprisingly little. Only on one occasion have I felt compelled to adjust marks to suit an agenda (not on SFX I hasten to add), and  that was very much against my principles. Companies cannot “buy” good reviews. If that happens, journalistic integrity and the whole reason you buy your magazine go down the toilet. On the other hand, having furious advertisers ring up and berate staff for bad reviews is extremely common.
  • Sometimes other things do have affects If the book is bad, but the author shows promise, I might be more generous.  If I have a shitty hangover and argued with my wife, I might be more of a harsh penman than if I’ve spent all night dancing with angel-faced women with nice bottoms in tight, shiny dresses. Sometimes I’m nice, mostly I’m only human.
  • “You obviously haven’t read the book!” Yes I have, and I hated it, so fuck off.
  • Self-published? Don’t bother Only very, very rarely will a self-published book get past a reviews editor. I have reviewed only one I can recall, and that was because it had sold loads of copies. Most self-published work is awful. Even the one I reviewed sucked hard. We magazine people don’t have time to find the few pearls within the heaps of shit that make up this particular ego-mountain. That’s your job. Be the gatekeepers of this modern age! Things are changing.  By all means, tell everyone when you find a corker. They are there.
  • Space is at a premium Another reason why self-published books don’t get much airtime, or books that come from small presses, or limited print runs, or arrived on the wrong Tuesday. There just isn’t enough room for everything. If selection can seem arbitrary beyond these factors, that’s because it sometimes is.
  • Know your market If I didn’t like a book, but I know that lots of people do like this author’s books and this particular one seems to be a good example, I may be kinder than my true opinion dictates. Like, I really loathe urban fantasy. I mean, I can’t tell you how much, with its endless sex, stupid were-panthers, too-many-boyfriends and what-to-wear dilemmas and sparkly vampires knobs. But I can tell a good one from a bad one. I think.
  • Sometimes I use a pseudonym Is there something that could possibly be construed as a conflict of interest by picky cyber-trolls? Then I write under a different name. There never is a conflict of interest, by the way, I’m always as subjectively objective as I can possibly be (or do I mean objectively subjective?), sometimes to the point of personal detriment.

So, that’s out of the way. Where was I? Ah, yes, bad reviews. As I worked harder and harder at becoming an author, and it dawned on me what a monumentally soul-crushing experience trying to get published is, it definitely made me less hard on the work of others. Not necessarily in the score ascribed, but perhaps in the way I explained myself. I’m less likely to go for a cheap joke now. I reread some of my reviews, especially those from my “Bitter Period” (where I’d gone to work for The Big Hobby Company, wondered what the hell I’d done to my career, and was disenchanted with my attempts to publish) and they are really spiky. Funny, but too cruel. I think I was trying to be AA Gill. Why?

The overwhelming majority of reviews for Reality 36 have been very positive. I have, however, had three bad ones. One was from a guy who was incensed by the cliff-hanger nature of the end, which is fair enough. I was warned about it by my publishers, but the story was just too big to fit in one book. If I’m honest, I thought a cliff-hanger might pull people back for the second, so didn’t worry about it too much. A misjudgment? Maybe, maybe not.

The others seem less fair. One, on Amazon, give the book a generous one-star rating and is titled “Unending Tedium“. Nice. But, er, technically incorrect, because it does end, eh? Says the close-to-tears, slighted student twat in me. You know, one in a wanker’s scarf that has just been punched by a townie for being a pretentious little prick.

The other came after SFSignal gave me a new author spotlight. Hurrah! A bad review immediately followed. No!

This spirited fellow gave the final line:

I say to the author, do not give up, but stop and give ideas a good think and draw them out to their logical conclusion. You can ask me for free!

To which one’s immediate reaction is “You can go stuff your cock up your own bumhole! For free!”

But then, I can’t say that, can I? So I didn’t say that. Oh, did I? Whoops.  Their opinions (reviews are subjective, remember?) are as valid as anyone else’s. You have to take the rough with the smooth. The temptation to answer a bad review is almost overwhelming, to say with trembling bottom lip: “But Otto isn’t weary of fighting, it clearly says in the book several times he loves it!” or “Just because an emotional sense isn’t conveyed by machine telepathy doesn’t mean you can’t use emotive language” or “Richards isn’t supposed to be a gumshoe, it’s a character beat. It’s supposed to be unconvincing, like all of us he’s trying to find a shape to his life.” Or any other rebuttal to the points they make. Bad. Idea. It just makes you look like a child who can’t take his beatings.

A setback. I mean a setback. No child beating here. No sir.

The bottom line is they don’t like it, just like I don’t like every book I’ve ever read, some of which have been loved by lots of other people. It’s impossible to please everyone. In direct support of this is that one reviewer thought I over-detailed the technology, the other that one aspect of it was under-detailed. Go figure! (Excuse me a moment while I cry into my keyboard like a fat girl whose ailing pony has just been shot in the head by the vet and turned into dog meat. Bye bye Blossom >sob<).

Every reader brings half the story to the collaborative book party. “Unending Tedium” bloke seemed to have been expecting something else – he mentions the Big Sleep, and first person perspectives, for example. I can say the book’s not supposed to be a futuristic Chandler, but so what? Fact is, what I wrote didn’t chime with what was in their heads. There is a mismatch there. A good author/ reader synergy is like a relationship. A book cover is a smooch, it asks you to undress it by cracking the cover. Sadly, sometimes we’re disappointed. You don’t marry every girl you ever smooch. I’d have two wives if that were the case! (Hohohohoho. I jape. I’d, er, still have one).

But hang on, Mr Helpful wrote a skit parodying a section of the story. How dare he! I would never do such a thing! I… Oh, hang on. I have done it. Lots and lots and lots. I must be a real bell end.

To get back to my mildly sexual analogies, not every blind date works out. Should we vilify everyone that does not like us? Of course not. I reckon if more people had raised the points Helpful and Tedium had, I might take them on board and modify my writing. I mean, I don’t think I’ll be doing a cliffhanger again. That gripe has come up a lot. What these guys say hasn’t, but I’ll keep a weather eye out. You never know, techno-shoes may too become a big no-no in future books.

Where’s this leave my own crit? Answer: I doubt I will get any more gentle than I already have. Sorry, authors, I’m going to continue lobbing bricks around my glass house. It’s the only way I can cope with my own pain.

No, but what’s really worrying is all the comforting things I tell myself above there, you know what? They apply to all the positive reviews as well.

Appreciation of entirely subjective reviews is entirely subjective, after all.

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Comments
  1. Gav Thorpe says:

    ‘Tri-genre’ is shit. It’ll never catch on. But enough of the in-depth critique.

    Expectation is huge factor is the reading experience, and hence the reviewing experience. In some ways the disconnect between expectation and reality can be the biggest influence, far greater than the quality, or lack, of the actual work itself. If someone is expecting SF Chandler, and is looking forward to SF Chandler, then regardless of the qualities of the work they will be wrestling with a dissapointment. Similarly, re-makes of movies, sequels and prequels all have to live and die by the power of expectation.

    It’s particularly hard if none of the meerkatting* has been at all misleading, and the expectation has just arisen independently in the reader’s head. Hopefully readers that pay attention to reviews are savvy enough to look for more than just one source before making their decision. In that sense, a certain wisdom of crowds takes over and hopefully works of quality can be identified properly (which is not the same as just seeing what is popular).

    *Given the stupid success of a bloody internet insurance comparison site in elevating a small member of the mongoose family, this term should be used henceforth to describe any process of selling or advertising.

  2. Matt Keefe says:

    Those are bulleted paragraphs, H. You can’t have a bullet point with multiple sentences. You’re just using them for decoration, you waster.

  3. Matt Keefe says:

    How do I turn the fucking snow off? It’s giving me a headache.

  4. Matt Keefe says:

    There’s a quantitive difference, which the better critics appreciate, between not liking something and something being shit. The cardinal sin of a reviewer is to give the impression that something’s shit just because you don’t like it, but sometimes stuff just really is shit. There’s nothing wrong with pointing that out.

    Gav’s right about expectation, but so much of it stems from misleading promotion that negative reviews really do have a vital role to play. Benefit of the doubt is otherwise completely lop-sided and awarded wholly in favour of the inherently positive spin of a commercial release’s publishers and promoters. Whether they’re going to admit it or not, publishers and producers know that they frequently knowingly put out shit; there are all sorts of tedious commercial and practical reasons for this and, yes, I can understand them, but they oughtn’t be surprised that people point it out, and they certainly have no right to get annoyed at it. An unfair review is very different from a bad one, and the notion that all bad reviews are inherently unfair is just bollocks.

  5. Matt Keefe says:

    I suppose I should probably balance that with some touchy-feely stuff about the authors’ feelings. Some very nice people produce some right shit. I have written some right shit myself. Just because someone’s a really nice person doesn’t mean their writing’s any good, unfortunately, and however much we might not want to upset them, it just wouldn’t be right by a review’s readers to go easy on the book for that reason alone. The principle of judging the work not its creator holds true in both directions. Most of the time, we won’t know anything about the author’s personality anyway, or whether or not the book’s shortcomings are down to something as forgivable as a best effort being not quite good enough, or rather down to laziness, complacency, arrogance and vastly over-inflated ego. This is where people start talking about constructive criticism, of course, but even fairly harsh criticism can be taken constructively: “This is wank. There’s a malapropism on every page and three in the back cover blurb.” That’s constructive criticism, even if a bit rude; I don’t think a reviewer is overstepping any moral bounds by playing to the gallery, or using the odd cheap joke here and there to fulfil their parallel aims of producing a readable and entertaining review. We could adopt a sort of neutral standard of permitting only bare critique, without too much tone either towards the negative or the positive, but then reviews overall would just be that bit less entertaining, and even the positive ones would be far less read, so who’s really going to win by that?

    • Matt Keefe says:

      It’s publishers who throw unready authors to the lions. If you get another author from the stable to say “Tolstoy for the 21st Century, a masterpiece!” on the back cover and it’s not, how do you think that’s going to end?

  6. Von says:

    Well, for what it’s worth, I’m glad my self-published small-press book managed to run the Death Ray gauntlet, and I’m still glad you gave it the fair-to-middling review it deserved. The others were uniformly harsh, and I had to keep telling myself that no, that was fair, hard sci-fi fans wouldn’t like it and no, in retrospect some of it wasn’t all that good and if I’d had any sense I wouldn’t have done things that way either. Life goes on, though…

    • guyhaley says:

      What book was it? I must have reviewed more than one self-published book, only one came to mind yesterday. Small press is different, because there is a level of quality control there that you just don’t find in self-published works. Meaning, some. We always tried to do some small press publications on Death Ray, because they otherwise get very little publicity, and some are pretty darn good.

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