Sunday, February 27, 2005


Matthew Cheney, who has certainly written glowing things about my work (Secret Life) and also written a mixed review of my work (Veniss), and who I met at WorldCon this year, and who I correspond with quite regularly (all in the interests of disclosure), has written a concise and true entry about the importance of truth in reviewing within the SF/F field. My favorite part is the quote he pulls from a John Clute collection:

Reviewers who will not tell the truth are like cholesterol. They are lumps of fat. They starve the heart. I have myself certainly clogged a few arteries, have sometimes kept my mouth shut out of this "friendship" which is nothing in the end but self-interest. So perhaps it is time to call a halt. Perhaps we should establish a Protocol of Excessive Candour, a convention within the community that excesses of intramural harshness are less damaging than the hypocrisies of stroke therapy, that telling the truth is a way of expressing love: self-love; love of others; love for the genre, which claims to tell the truth about things that count; love for the inhabitants of the planet; love for the future. Because truth is all we've got. And if we don't talk to ourselves, and if we don't use every tool at our command in our time on Earth to tell the truth, nobody else will.

I couldn't agree with this more. At the same time, I have so much scar tissue from writing mixed and negative reviews--even to the point, as detailed in my nonfiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat?, of getting really shafted for doing a negative review of a year's best collection--that you have to wonder if it's worth it after awhile. (You know what they say about speaking truth to power.)

You write a mixed or negative review not because you want to "get" someone or to make anybody feel bad or to expose the soft underbelly of the genre, but because you read a book and it didn't satisfy you, and there are some interesting things to say that may speak to the general as well as the specific. And because, hey, maybe you got the book assignment and you're locked into it and would feel like a jerk if you lied in your review just to avoid recriminations. And, also, because if you're going to review a book, you have a responsibility to readers to tell the truth about it.

I've only written one negative review to redress an imbalance, and that was of Thraxas when when it won the World Fantasy Award, because the book was so bad, and held up so poorly when compared to the books it was nominated with, that somebody had to offer a corrective.

But, again, is it worth it? As a writer, I feel as if every time I write a mixed or negative review, I'm opening myself up for a world of hurt--and that my own books may suffer at the hands of others as a result. I love book reviewing, and I love writing about books I'm totally in love with, but it just doesn't feel right to only review books that I love--it seems unbalanced, and it's also a constraint; I don't like feeling as if I'm being forced into silence before I even write a single word. (I should note that when I wrote a mixed review of one of Mieville's books, he was a prince about it; same goes for Jeffrey Ford.)

That said, I've mostly done year's best articles and reviews of books I love in recent years because I don't have the time to go through the kinds of battles that sometimes occur when you do write a negative review. So it's entirely possible that I'll stop reviewing genre books for formal review publications altogether over the next few years; I'm not really sure yet. I just know that my current policy of only formally reviewing books I really like feels like bullshit to me. As Cheney says in his blog entry, how wonderful it would be if we could have open and honest discourse about books within the SF/F community. What we have now falls far short of that ideal, unfortunately. (As a result, for example, we get new author after new author being overhyped, which not only hurts the field but can damage the author's later work and stop them from ever reaching their full potential; the writers who have fallen prey to their own press releases and review clippings are legion.)

Now, as for this blog--the rules are slightly different here. A blog, to me, is the perfect forum to push books I love without (usually) talking about books I don't like--because it's "semi formal," because it's not an official review magazine or website.

I also feel I can use this forum to alert you to interesting writers whose books I may not have read. I'm about to post an interview with Holly Phillips. I haven't read enough of her work yet to have an informed opinion about it, but that's not a criteria for doing an interview of the five questions nature. Here's somebody who is getting a lot of attention and who is talented, according to people I trust. Would I ever interview a writer I hadn't read much of for a more formal forum? No. But, for me, blogs allow me to extend myself a little more leeway, to not be as stringent in my requirements as for formal reviews. It doesn't mean that I don't speak to the truth here, but that this forum is a little more relaxed. And it will continue to be that way. This blog is for the moment; whatever I do in a more formal setting is permanent.


(This will be the last time for awhile that I respond to or point you in the direction of an entry on another blog. Otherwise, this blog will become what some other blogs have already become: lazy links to other people's words, or a continual counter-puncher with no offense not generated by other bloggers.)

(Evil Monkey: "Hey--Adam Roberts did a number on your collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? over at Alien Online. Still like the idea of negative reviews?" Jeff: "Yeah, I was so upset by that review I almost threw up. But after the initial shock and sadness over it--because, you know, it's true, you can feel it in your belly when you get slammed like that--and in the fullness of time, I did and do in fact much prefer Roberts' response to the book to any review that tries to shade the truth as the reviewer sees it. And Roberts and I have had quite a cordial and even friendly correspondence since. I read his short story collection and enjoyed much of it, and said as much in my year's best article at Locus Online, and have his novel Snow on tap." Evil Monkey: "So it was a good experience?" Jeff: "In that it ultimately opened up a dialogue between two writers who didn't correspond before, yes. And the review itself toughened me up a bit." Evil Monkey: "So no nightmares anymore?" Jeff: "I have nightmares about the Bush presidency, not about bad reviews." Evil Monkey: "What can a writer do to negate the personal effect of bad reviews of their books?" Jeff: "Read Bruce Holland Rogers' book on writing. He deals with it effectively. Or, you can do what Alasdair Gray does, and put 'Very' and 'Not Very' columns of reviewer quotes on the back covers of your books. I think that was Gray's way of putting the importance of it into perspective.")


At 2:36 PM, Blogger Tade Thompson said...

I find it interesting that this same attitude obtains in academic book reviews as well.
My boss asked me to review a textbook with strict instructions to avoid negative comments. I asked him about my responsibility to the reader. What if the book is a waste of money? Shouldn't the students be forewarned?
'Sure,' he said, 'as long as you don't plan to write a book in this lifetime.'


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