I had an unpleasant experience last week.
I read what I regard as the worst book review I’ve ever seen.
It wasn’t a review of one of my own books, because I rarely read them these days. Here’s why. In reviews of my books, I’ve been accused of being a communist, fascist, feminazi, SJW, gun porn peddler, neocon (I had to look that up – the term didn’t mean what I had assumed) and a host of other crimes. Some people, of course, simply didn’t like my books, which is fair enough. Most of my 1-star reviews, however, have come from people whose narrative I offended.
That’s fine. It’s all part of the business of being a professional author, and I’ve learned to live with that. But reading them takes me out of a productive mindset, so I only read them on non-writing weeks, which these days is pretty much never.
The review I discovered online is different. For starters, it was written by somebody who calls themselves a critic.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being a critic. However, far too often the difference between a critic and a reviewer seems to be that a critic is more sophisticated and educated than the lower orders who write mere reviews. Critics are having a ‘conversation’ with others of their elevated position. They’re not interested in ordinary readers, who are – let’s face it – unequipped to understand their arguments.
If you know me, you’ll know how cross I am, because I generally avoid such sweeping sarcastic statements like the plague. There’s a minority of critics for whom I know that previous paragraph is unfairly harsh, and to them I apologize.
But I make no apologies in the case of this particular review. Let me give you a flavor of why not. The critic is so bloated with entitlement that they quote a paragraph from the book and then ‘correct’ it, so that it’s now written in the ‘right’ way.
And in doing so, makes it worse in my opinion.
Unbelievably, this is immediately after the critic wrote that one of the glories of science fiction is that there is no one right way to write it. Obviously, they feel there are wrong ways to write science fiction, which appears to mean every style of writing that the critic doesn’t personally appreciate.
Okay. This review is an egregious example, so why get worked up? There are plenty of arrogant, abusive, and just plain ignorant people on the internet who enjoy publicly reveling in their bigotry. Isn’t this just one more?
I would be inclined to agree, if not for one thing.
The critic is also an author in their own right.
In fact, they are an award-winning author, and the reason they are reviewing the novel they don’t appreciate is because it has been nominated for an award. To be fair, the reviewer admits that they aren’t the target audience. Unlike some other critics, they aren’t actively seeking out books they won’t like in order to indulge in the pleasure of ripping them to shreds.
The review still leaves a very sour taste in my mouth. It also brings to mind a question I’ve pondered for some while, but never been moved to post about until now. Revulsion, it turns out, is a powerful motivating force.
Should authors review the works of other authors? Specifically, is it okay for an author to give one of their peers a bad review?
As I wrote at the top, I consider this to be a particularly bad example of a review. But is it irredeemable? No, I don’t think so. Let’s see if we can alter it to be more to my personal liking. To paraphrase, it currently says this:
I didn’t like the way this book was written. And I felt certain that the people I associate with as fellow critics – and whose opinion I respect because they’re broadly the same as mine – wouldn’t like it either. Therefore, the book can’t possibly have much value. Anyone who thinks this is a good book, or nominated it for an award, is both incomprehensible to me and wrong. Here’s an example of a paragraph that wasn’t written correctly. Contrast it with my corrected version.
Let’s change that to a version that suits my tastes better without watering down the original criticisms into obsequious slime.
This book failed to impress me on numerous levels. I didn’t like the way the book was written because of X, Y & Z. I would prefer to have seen A, B & C. By way of illustration, here’s one instance of how I changed a paragraph I didn’t like. Do you see my point? Do you agree that my version is superior?
Do you see how easy it is to be respectful to the author and to those who read and enjoyed the author’s work without filing off your opinions? To be respectful to those who shortlisted the book for an award? How easy it is for the reviewer to acknowledge that there is more to science fiction than they can dream of in their philosophy?
We don’t want to dilute our reviews with constant repetitions of ‘in my opinion’, ‘personally’, ‘for me’. That would be annoying. Nonetheless, I believe literary criticism would be enormously enhanced if more critics acknowledged that significant numbers of readers have different tastes from them, and that those tastes also have worth. Even if — no, especially if — those tastes are different from the peer group they choose to associate with. Indeed, wouldn’t it be nice to promote an inclusive happy family of science fiction fans?
Whoaah! Hold up a mo’! Haven’t I just done the very thing I criticized? Didn’t I just ‘correct’ the original review.
No, I didn’t. I explained what I didn’t like about the original. I suggested an improvement and why I felt it was an improvement. I haven’t said the original was wrong.
It’s true that I’ve applied some harsh words to the original. ‘Bigoted’ might have come up once or twice. But that’s an objective description. I don’t like dismissing other people’s tastes because they don’t share my own, but I haven’t said it’s wrong. Some reviewers freely indulge the pleasures of bigotry and abuse. After all, hatred and division are highly addictive. Just ask any totalitarian dictator. In fact, I recommend you read or listen to this excellent book I’ve just listened to about how so-called news journalism feeds this addiction in order to monetize hatred. [Hate Inc]
Anyway, for the sake of progress in this thought experiment, let us imagine we run with my revised version. We tacitly acknowledge other people have different literary tastes and they are just as valid as ours, even though we don’t personally ‘get’ them. Maybe we could even push this to a higher level of enlightenment and glimpse the possibility that for a literary field to have a diversity of writing can be a strength. We might not personally enjoy every segment of this literary field, but its diversity enriches the whole and keeps it vigorous. Even those parts we don’t particularly like. Even those parts enjoyed by the lumpenlectorat, the underclass of unsophisticated readers who enjoy popular books.
With this more open-minded mode of literary criticism, is it still right for an author to savage another author’s work, even if the criticism is written in the inclusive mode of “I didn’t like it and here’s why”, rather than “it’s terrible, and any other point of view but mine is inconceivable”?
Yes, I believe it is. Personally, I don’t like it, but I can’t bring myself to say that to do so is wrong. Not on ethical grounds. Not if you genuinely didn’t enjoy the work. I also acknowledge that plenty of authors were writing reviews and criticism before they began publishing books. Why should they stop just because they won their “I’m now a certified author” card?
And yet it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth when authors cast scorn on their peers. Always.
If I go to a restaurant in town, and the chef comes to our table to explain in lurid detail why the rival restaurant down the street is a terrible place and we should never go there. I don’t want to hear that.
At quiet times, I have occasionally experienced chefs come and talk to me about where they got the recipe from. And how pleased they are about the ingredients. They’re proud of what they have created and that’s a positive thing to hear. I like hearing from creators who are passionate about what they do.
But sneering, snarky insults, and dark rumors? No, that doesn’t make a good experience for me. I can’t say that I wouldn’t ever read a book by an author who writes scathing reviews of other authors, but I am much less likely to read them.
There are so many good science fiction books that I enjoy being published right now that I don’t have to try out an author I regard as being a jerk.
I guess that’s an angle of practical advice for authors. Be careful when you’re being obnoxious because a lot of readers don’t like it. I say “be careful” not “don’t do it” because, let’s be realistic, there are also many readers who get off on abuse, but only so long as you’re being obnoxious about an othered group of people that it is okay to hate. [Once again, see Hate Inc.].
I know for certain that other people have different views on this.
Does it bother you if an author leaves a bad review for a peer? Maybe you think it’s a good thing, better than people who only leave good reviews.
People like me, for example. The only bad book reviews I’ve ever left are for superstar authors, writers who won’t notice any negative impact from my opinion. And even then, I haven’t left such reviews for many years.
I don’t leave any reviews on Amazon at all, because when I leave a good review, Amazon consistently deletes my reviews and deletes other positive reviews at the same time. So my reviews actually do more harm than good to works I want to support. That’s probably because the Amazon account I use to leave reviews is the same I use to publish books. Amazon knows I sell a lot of books and has some fuzzy guidelines that say I probably shouldn’t be leaving reviews.
I am, however, starting to leave reviews on Bookbub, but I only leave positive reviews. If I don’t like a book, I don’t comment on it. For me, that’s the right way to proceed with reviewing. However, unlike the example that fueled this post, I’m open to the idea that other points of view are also valid.
What do you think?