I decided a few months ago to stop writing novel reviews, partially because I don’t read fast enough, but also because I was spending too much time starting and then losing interest in new releases. As it is, I sometimes pick up a celebrated or award winning novel based on the buzz surrounding it only to be disappointed, or even to put it down a few chapters in. I’ve had better luck reading community reviews as a way of helping me to get a feel for the elements in a given work. From there, I read the first chapter or two online, and if it still seems interesting, I buy it. Lately the issue of reviews – positive and negative – has entered the zeitgeist again, with Den Patrick’s angry response to Christopher Priest’s negative review of Barricade by Jon Wallace, and Damien Walter’s defense of same. Underpinning the discussion is one about the speculative fiction community’s approach to criticism, and the impact it has on the community as a whole.
Is the Speculative Fiction Community Criticism Averse?
In the comments section of Den Patrick’s post, Damien Walter says that “we already have a culture of overwhelmingly positive reviewing,” and follows it up with “the problems of genre aren’t excusable as the problems of society. Although they have some of the same causes – a large amount of status seeking and a big dose of nepotism.”
Strong words, but I agree that the speculative fiction community has an overall culture of positive reviewing: fandom is by its nature celebratory, and that tendency lends itself much more to enthusiastic recommendation than thoughtful, granular criticism. Additionally, in a community where connections develop between book bloggers, publishers, and authors, it’s hard not to assume that these relationships subtly influence reviews.
My main goal in reviewing novels wasn’t criticism, it was to help readers understand whether a novel might be of interest to them. Though I see that approach as reflective of a changing aesthetic, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings was a factor, as well as wanting to find my place in a community that from what I’d seen valued enthusiasm over critique. I’ve read many exhaustive, well-written reviews that have come out of fandom, that include a mixture of positive and negative comments, but I think it’s a fair statement to say that that fandom is (or at least is trying to be) a welcoming place, and part of what that means is a tendency to value excitement over judgement, for better or for worse.
The Impact of Criticism on a Community
A fair amount of what gets published through mainstream publishing houses is of fair to middling quality. This is an industry-wide issue, and is reflective of a mixture of individual tastes (authors, agents, editors) and market-based decision making. How the speculative fiction community reacts to this environment is another question, and how values like enthusiasm, celebration, relationship-building, and criticism are prioritized impacts the level of quality that the community will accept.
Of course, the criteria used to judge work varies, and it should be noted that community reviewers are taking on a sizable task that is of great service, for which their only compensation is status, free review copies, friendship, and fun. Nobody is calling themselves a professional (whatever that means), no standard has been defined, and nobody is making a living off of it. But a community that doesn’t set high standards is vulnerable to external judgement: the charge has been leveled repeatedly against science fiction and fantasy that it doesn’t care about quality the way so-called “literary” work does. Though these charges might be attributed to a historical tendency to value ideas more than story or character, you can’t discount the impact of a culture that values celebration over critique.
When a community struggles to look at its own work critically, it makes it harder for someone not already in love with the genre to gain access (how do you know where to start?), and it allows critics to draw distinctions between genre and “serious” work. How much this is a problem depends on what you expect from speculative fiction, or the speculative fiction community.
A Cultural Cost
The tendency of the speculative fiction community to value tolerance is rooted in its outsider origins. The same culture that celebrates hard science fiction and YA vampire stories, role-players and SMOFs, is one that would rather generate excitement for a new novel than reject it because of its flaws.
A culture of acceptance, however, can have consequences more serious than an occasional glowing review given to a mediocre book, or a perception by outsiders that speculative fiction is more focused on space ships and sword fights than quality. Favoring tolerance of behavior when criticism is needed leads to denial, and missing stairs. Some of the problems the community currently struggles with are due to its difficulty in balancing acceptance with criticism and accountability.
I believe that the path of high expectations, accountability, and transparency is almost always the path to take. I wouldn’t want criticism to replace tolerance as the default, but I would encourage criticism of both books and behavior, with the understanding that critique is most valuable when it takes place within the context of an ongoing, respectful dialogue, and clearly defined standards.
Do you think the speculative fiction community values enthusiasm over critique? Have you ever put down a celebrated novel, and if so, did you see this as a reflection of personal taste, or did you feel that the praise the community had given the work was unwarranted? Do you see the connection I’m drawing between a culture of celebration, and acceptance of bad behavior, or do you think it’s a stretch?