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Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Bad Bully Review(er) Manifesto (or, Why Negative Reviews Are Good)

If you haven't heard or seen it yet, the proverbial shit hit the SF/F-community-fan today on this Strange Horizons review of Michael J. Sullivan's Theft of Swords.*  Not just any shit, mind you, but a rather familiar kind of excrement that makes the SF/F world an amusing and altogether strange place.  The short version:
Liz Bourke wrote a scathing review of Sullivan's novel (technically two novels packed into one), in which she derided the book for weak prose, inaccurate use of Early Modern English, plot and character inequities, and the frequency of weak female characters.  In response, a number of people left comments assaulting Bourke in one of two ways:  1) rejecting Bourke's criticism as patently bunk, and 2) launching accusations at Bourke herself.  (There were other reactions too, but you should read the comments to get the full picture.)
The result?  A long dialogue about the value of negative reviews, what constitutes "being mean," and similar themes we've seen before.
The review/comments also inspired this post by Adrian Faulkner about why bullying reviews are bad news indeed, from which the following gem-of-a-quote comes from:

I don’t know what happened to make some of these reviewers so bitter. Jealousy of the author’s success, a misguided thought that this will make a name for themselves? I wouldn’t accept racism, homophobia or anti-Semitism in a review, so why should I accept bullying? Surely, in the 21st century, we’re better than that? It genuinely shocks me that the genre community believes that type of behaviour is acceptable in this day and age. 
Seriously, people, it’s not hard to write an honest review!
Hard, indeed.  So hard, in fact, that it must be difficult to find said honesty in a negative review.  Clearly a spirited reviewer like Bourke must be lying for cheap shocks, lambasting Sullivan because he just so happens to be the random victim of the week.  And by lying, Bourke clearly has put herself in league with racists, homophobes, and anti-Semites.  Why not neo-Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church, Rick Santorum, and the British National Party too?**

Or perhaps not.  What all of this seems to point to is a public devaluation of actual honest criticism.  We have grown used to -- in this community, at least -- a misdirected honesty.  Too little attention has been given to the full picture, one which has, on the one side, the good and the beautiful, and, on the other side, the bad and the ugly.  You can imagine which side isn't getting its fair shake.

But negative reviews are not only fascinating, but crucial.  As a writer who occasionally workshops his fiction, I know how important it is to be told honestly when something doesn't work.  That usually means having to accept harsh criticism not unlike what Bourke wrote in her review.  Someone who only tells me good things, or refuses to tear my work to pieces where it needs such treatment, is useless.  Likewise, a reviewer who cannot write negative reviews is less a reviewer than a slave to publicity.  We have to be able to tell people when we don't like something, just as we have to be able to tell people when we do.  And we should have free reign -- minus those spaces where libel might be committed -- to explore the "why."  Negative reviews are a way to remind the public, authors, and publishers about the standards expected of publication.***  The fewer negative reviews available where they belong, the more likely it is that bad books will continue to be published.****

None of that makes a reviewer a "bully." To make that assessment is to expose a woeful ignorance of how bullies operate.*****  Bullies don't stop at criticizing the "behavior" that you make public for consumption.  Rather, bullies seek to inflict personal damage, physical and emotional, assaulting you where you should feel safe.  They're opportunistic predators.
Is Liz Bourke a bully?  Not by a long shot.  Passionate and brutally honest?  You bet.  But very little of her review could be misconstrued as a personal attack against Mr. Sullivan, and those elements which some have taken to be "bully behavior" might be better called "hyperbolic criticism."  Her review does what some of the best reviews do:  provide solid evidence, passion, and personality.  To question her argument because you disagree with her tone, her method, or her chosen "target" says more about your personal investment in fandom than the quality of Bourke as a critic.  Nor does launching personal attacks against someone you accuse of the same activity useful to your cause.  Rank hypocrisy is a one-way-street, as it were.

Whatever we think of reviews, good and bad, they must be honest and they must provide sound reasoning, even if we still disagree with them in the end.  They should not, however, be held to Adrian Faulkner's standard:
The best reviews create debate about the thing they are reviewing, the worst create debate about the review.
Holding the value of a review to the whims of human reaction is not unlike deciding drunk driving by whether someone crashes their car.  Then again, there are probably better analogies for this...

What do you all think about negative reviews?


*For the record, I have had two reviews published in Strange Horizons:  Tron: Legacy (Adam Roberts disagreed with me here) and Bricks by Leon Jenner (no thoughts whatsoever).
**Look these folks up if you have no idea who I'm talking about.
***When I say negative reviews, I don't mean one-line rants, as is common on the Internet.
****I have not read Sullivan's work, though we are interviewing him for The Skiffy and Fanty Show next month, which will require me to read his work.  Bourke's review will have little influence on my take, as my reading standards are understandably different.  Personally, I can let go and enjoy a fluffy book.  Don't take my word for it, though.  Read my reviews in the last year or so.  Don't go farther than that, though.  The deeper into the archive you go, the worse my reviews become.  I've come a long way...
*****I have personal experience with bullies.  I spent most of my youth struggling to grow taller than 4'11, which made me a perfect target for the bully crowd.  Lots of punching and psychological abuse.  Maybe I'll tell you all about it some time.

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  1. Anonymous2:02 PM

    There's brutally honest and then there's mean-spirited, and this review is much more of the latter category. She not only criticizes the story, but the author, and that is where it crosses the line.

  2. Where does she cross the line in her review?

  3. I thought the original review was hilarious - I didn't agree with every single point of criticism (the dialogue quoted was clunky but not egregiously awful for the most part), but it was for the most part objective. Hyperbolic, as you say, but basically valid as far as one could tell.

    Having a wicked-edged tongue myself, I know the temptation to unleash it on a book that you wanted to like but really really didn't, because I've given in to it myself. But hyperbole can be counterproductive if it attracts more attention than the content of your review. i think maybe the editor of Strange Horizons could have pointed out that the style was a bit OTT and suggested toning it down without losing the meat of the criticism - but damn, it wouldn't have been half so amusing :)

  4. Before I say anything I should probably say I love Sullivan's work, and I've enjoyed the Ririya books from start to finish.

    That said, I doubt very much he's overly upset about this review, and in fact it may well have done a lot for him, even though it might have stung to read it at first.

    Any book that gets only good reviews seems to generate suspicion, that the author has some hoe wrangled the reviewers to promote their cause. As Mur Lafferty said: "anyone can get a good review, but once someone hates you you know you've made it." (paraphrased).

    There is a line between an attack on the book or the writing (ie "I think this book is awful") and an attack on the author (I think this author is awful and should quit writing to take up juggling explosives).

  5. Hello SMD,

    *waves friendly from other side of fence*

    If we talk about that review in question, you can see it in the very first sentence. The way that 'moderate' is used to describe the financial success and the use of the verb 'parlay', clearly convey the reviewers feelings about self-published work. It's setting out with its mind made up that this is going to be no good.

    And it's that sense of superiority that honestly feels bullying to me. It feels like it found something weak so it can set it's claws into it, like it went for easy prey. And at that moment, I find myself questioning whether the aim is to review the book or to show off. If it's the latter, then it's dishonest - the aim becoming to include witty putdowns and one-liners rather than consider the book for what it set out to do and whether it achieves that or not.

    For the record: I think Bourke's arguments are well thought out, it's the tone that bothers me. I've not read the book but I'm pretty sure I might agree with a lot of the points.

    I'm not against negative reviews as I stated. Here's one in the guardian that I feel is incredibly negative but well constructed

    Anyways, all the best

  6. Anonymous6:39 AM

    There's nothing wrong with negative reviews. But Ms. Bourke's rhetoric was mean-spirited and what was posted was a diatribe that shows an anger that is unwarranted and works against getting her points across.

    To be honest, I think a review packed with such charged emotion is more appropriate for a personal blog site. But it was posted on a "professional online magazine" and as such is supposed to have editorial oversight. A good editor would have asked the reviewer to go back, take a deep breath, remove some of the rhetoric. Any good critical review will temper criticism with positive attributes, or at a minimum recognize, “while I found this not to my personal tastes, I recognize that others who like works such as abc, def, or ghi, should find this to their liking.” I would suggest that Ms. Bourke look at negative reviews done by sites such as Bookworm Blues who is a "supposed" to be an amateur yet shows a considerable higher standard of professionalism. She has many critical reviews and tries to point out both the positive and negative aspects of ANY book whether she enjoyed them or not.
    In the end I think Ms. Bourke has brought many eyeballs to Strange Horizon's site and I think that was the editor’s intent in letting such a volatile post go live. I think that Ms. Bourke would have actually done far more damage to Michael’s career without the vitriol but then one would be talking about her or her review if it were more evenly constructed. So maybe this was her intent all along. I hope not, because it comes across as those on reality television who are willing to share their “less than admirable” qualities in exchange for a spotlight. Hopefully she really did just hate the book to the point where her good reason overtook her. Despite the publicity, I don’t think she did herself, Strange Horizon, or the book anything but harm and I’m saddened that the whole event ever occurred.

  7. Classic case of a reviewer getting hassled by friends or fans over an honest but negative review. I've had it happen often enough to me for the reviewer to have all of my sympathy.

  8. Has anyone ever read the reviews in the New York Times, People magazine or Entertainment Weekly, among other publications? Some of the reviews found there can be over the top scathing and hit below the belt. Why isn't anyone complaining about them but will complain about review bloggers or reviewers on websites?

    No one said reviews are fair and there are no written rules on how to review unfortunately, just like when a movie, television show or Broadway show is reviewed. If it's put out there for the public, the public has the right to praise or demean as they seem fit. Should a reviewer make fun of the author or creative person behind the work? Certainly not. But again, nothing is stopping them and this will continue to go on without fail because of freedom of speech.

  9. Good post; although I would say that, since I agree! I don't think there's anything in the review that crosses over into a personal attack on the author, and I'm surprised at how many readers of the review seem to be convinced that the piece must have been motivate by meanness of spirit.

    Each to their own, I guess. Personally, I like to see passion, humour, and brutal honesty in reviews. I have no patience with reviewers who pull their punches, or just plain refuse to write negative reviews. How are you a reviewer if you aren't prepared to say what you really think about a book, on the offchance you might offend its fans, or - in the event that he/she sees it - the author?

  10. One must wonder if so many would have felt justifiably outraged by this review of something they seem to think is excellent fiction if the reviewer wrote the exact same review but had a name recognized as male.

    It shouldn't surprise us that fans of core genre identify themselves so closely with the things that they like that they perceive any criticism of what they like as a personal attack upon them.

    Nevertheless it still comes as a surprise.

    Love, C.