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.