The Curs’ed Truth (2007)

The below article on the trustworthiness of reviews and how honesty can annoy those with vested interests comes from the Blackfish page of Death Ray 08 (yeah, another regular slot we had). Believe it or not, it basically holds true for all the work I’ve done on both Death Ray and SFX. We journos really do care for truthfulness of opinion. There have been a few occasions in my career where I’ve come under real pressure to jump one way or another in reviewing something based on advertising revenue or access to talent, but, backed up by honourable editors, I’ve mostly managed to stay on the straight and narrow. Mostly.

No one is perfect. I’ll fess up and say that if I have to say bad things about something by someone I like or am connected with, I might use a pseudonym, but I won’t alter my opinion. That minor cowardice is as bad as it gets. Or, if the suits press really hard, you can find an extra star added to a review. That’s happened only a handful of times to me over 16 years, and very much depends on the boss who happens to be wearing the suit at the time. Again, the opinions within the piece usually stay the same. It’s hardly phone-tapping awful as far as ethical breaches go.

A low-scoring review can upset valuable contacts, enrage your audience and cost money in advertising. So why say bad things, especially when a good review has exactly the opposite effect? An old-fashioned appreciation of honesty, that’s why…

There are occasions in this job, that you upset people (there are also occasions that you get threatened with lawsuits). It’s inevitable. And it happens most often when you run a bad review.

Authors are the most likely to get upset (note from 2013 — the lesser known they are, the more upset they become BUT the vast majority are sanguine about it).1 These guys have spent months working on their own, often on top of a day job, to finish their opus, and when someone tells lots of other people they don’t like it, they can get jolly miffed. Independent film-makers can also get sniffy (another note from 2013 although complaints from authors were the greatest in overall number on Blackfish, taken proportionally, indie filmmakers are actually the most likely to be cross. Both groups tend to be reasonable too once a dialogue has been entered into, and the initial hurt forgotten). Basically, the fewer people involved in a project, or the more specific a bad review is to one person, the more hurtful it can seem, as it’s all directed at you. And I have some sympathy with that.

Advertisers can also get a tad angry, bad for us, as they give us money. It’s happened more than once in my career that a furious chap rings up to berate the editorial staff for a poor review of a product that they have spent X pounds advertising. But we don’t listen, that’s not our style.

Woe betide any writer who crosses a vocal fandom group. In the nascent days of the internet, I was comprehensively flamed for saying that the anime Record of Lodoss War was a poor adaptation of someone’s D&D campaign (which it actually was). A common cry is, “X reviewer doesn’t know what he/she is talking about!” Well, sometimes that is true, but more usually it’s but a simple difference of opinion.

Because that’s what reviews are – the opinions of individuals. Opinion is how Terry Pratchett’s Making Money was awarded three stars here, and in another magazine four and a half. Our guidance of writers goes as far as a handful of rules regarding style and being careful in who we choose to review the umpteen products we don’t do personally – there’s not much point in giving a fan of dark fantasy novels an obscure Russian SF movie to review. Other than that, they say what they think.2

A bad review can test friendships, scupper business relationships, or screw up your contacts. So why on earth do we do it? Journalists are often accused of putting advertising or perks in front of honesty, but at least on Death Ray, that could not be further from the truth.

It’s an important part of our job, letting you guys know what’s out there to enjoy, and it’s important that we are honest about what we think. Honesty from our non-staff writers is also paramount3. We tend not to look too kindly on people that have their own agendas.

If any of our reviews look less than honest, bang goes our credibility, and that is one thing money can’t buy. Heaping blandishments on something for cash is a kind of prostitution. It may keep some advertisers happy in the short term, but then no-one would be able to trust our opinion, and they would soon learn that being able to trust what you read, especially in Dark Stars4, is of great concern to readers.

A few egos may be bruised, you may disagree with what we say, but at the end press, producers and PR manage to work together, muddling along to give you a guide to the great big galaxy of SF, fantasy and horror out there, providing vital exposure to authors, publishers and others in a magazine with a readership tailored to their material at the same time.

Not that journalists get it completely right all the time. Reviewers sometimes overstate a case for a few cheap gags. We can lose sight of the fact that we’re supposed to be providing a service and get a bit too clever – tortuously written concept reviews are an indicator of this. Anyone who ever read Harry Knowles’ infamous “oral sex” review of Blade II on Ain’t It Cool News will know what I mean5. We have to be careful. We’re not free of criticism ourselves, and quite rightly so.

1 We’ve had a couple of unhappy letters from authors in our eight-month run. But also some happy ones – it goes both ways.

2 This keeps us honest too. We can’t rewrite their copy too much – they’d notice…

3 Examples include getting recommending friends to review their work, or copying the blurb off the back of the book.

4 For the couple of folk who have wondered what Dark Stars actually means –  it’s a reference to John Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star. That, and the fact that the scores are stars, and are black.

5 It was one of the most horrible things I’ve ever read, in so many ways. (Note from 2013 — It still remains so).


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