Negative reviews and me

I hate writing negative reviews. That’s partly, I admit, because I always imagine the author reading them and softly crying as they see me tear apart their baby. Mostly though it’s because they take twice as long to write as the more positive ones.

As a general rule negative reviews aren’t actually that common. That’s true not just of my blog, but of blogs generally and to an extent of more traditional outlets too. Many bloggers, and many critics particularly in the genre space, seem to see themselves almost as cheerleaders for their preferred literary form. I think that’s a mistake.

Here‘s an example from The Guardian of what I mean by cheerleading. Eric Brown is a well respected SF reviewer and a successful author in his own right (a good one – I’ve read some of his books). In his column he regularly gives thumbnail sketch reviews of recent notable SF releases. That’s a useful service, but the problem is he likes all of them.

Now, Eric Brown presumably has more than four books he could choose to review, so it’s quite likely he just chooses to focus on those that he thinks most merit attention. That approach would automatically mean nothing but positivity – the bad books wouldn’t even make his column.

Take a look though, even if you’ve no interest in SF, at the third review down – the Tad Williams novel. In particular, note this quote “Dollar is not your archetypal angel but a likable rascal with a penchant for sex and drink.” Now, I admit I’ve not read the book and Eric Brown has, but does that not sound like the worst bloody cliche of urban fantasy?

Put bluntly, it’s a terrible character concept. It definitely doesn’t sound to me anything like anything Chandler or Hammett would have written (comparisons Brown makes, and I have read both as well as other, previous, Tad Williams’ novels). It sounds generic, which if genre is to have any value is what it must always strive not to be.

That gives me a problem. If I don’t trust the Williams’ review, and I don’t, where does that leave me with the others? The Willow Wilson and the Mary Gentle both sound potentially interesting (actually, I think the Mary Gentle sounds terrible, but I know the author’s work and have some confidence that she might pull it off). If Brown is always positive though how do I know which ones are really worth reading, and which are just getting a sympathetic boost?

I’ll stop ascribing motives to a man I’ve never met who probably genuinely does like all four books, and instead turn to my own blog. I have written negative reviews here, but not very many. So why is that?

Well, before I answer that I’ll give some examples of past negative reviews I’ve written. First example: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkin. This is from way back in 2008, and I hated this book. In fact, it genuinely made me angry, and I think it’s the single most negative review I’ve ever written. The book deserved what I wrote and more, and I stand by the review, but it represents a failure on my part – I read a frankly terrible book and that means I didn’t pay enough attention when choosing what to read.

That’s reason one for a paucity of negative reviews. It’s quite rare I go into a book blind. Generally I know quite a lot about it before picking it up, either from general knowledge of literature or the subject matter or from other blogger’s reviews. I don’t get paid for this, so I’m not going to read a bad book for any reason other than my mistakenly thinking in advance that it was going to be a good book.

Second example: Plague Zone, by David Wellington. Again, this was essentially a bad book. It wasn’t though a book which made me angry as the Perkin book did. This is again an example of me making a bad choice – I read a lesser work by an author who was writing in a genre that’s of no interest to me. That’s my fault, not David Wellington’s. I’ve already talked about why it’s rare for me to read a book that’s out and out bad, but there’s a second point this one brings out and that’s that writing negative reviews is much harder than positive ones.

John Perkin’s book made me angry, so slamming it was easy. David Wellington though had made an honest attempt at writing a solid horror novel and for me hadn’t on this occasion pulled it off. If I’m going to say that in writing then I should justify my view, and that means analysing a book I didn’t enjoy to present where I think it failed and why.

When I write a review of a book that I think hasn’t succeeded I have two main goals. One is to give a sufficiently fair review that someone else might think “hey, this doesn’t sound bad at all, what he dislikes I might like so I’ll give it a try”. In other words, I still want to give enough information to allow a reader of my blog to take an informed view of the book. The second goal is to be constructive. That doesn’t mean blind positivity. It means though saying why I think the book didn’t succeed sufficiently clearly that the failing could potentially be addressed in future books.

That’s in some ways an arrogant statement. The truth is any given author is highly unlikely to be reading my blog, and even if they were is even more unlikely to look to some random blogger for literary tips. Still, if the book isn’t irredeemable (like the Perkins, seriously, it’s terrible) then there should be something one can sensibly say that plainly speaks to the book’s flaws without just lazily throwing stones.

What’s even harder though than writing constructive criticism of a book one doesn’t rate, is writing a review of a book that ultimately is just mediocre. Two examples now: Q&A, by Vikas Swarup (later to be made into a film as Slumdog Millionaire); and The Glass Palace, by Amitav Ghosh. The second is more negative than the first, though looking back I think I was probably a bit kinder to Q&A than it deserved.

The Perkin review was fuelled with anger. The Wellington review was of a book that had clear and easily described flaws that Wellington had obviously avoided in other novels he’d written and that could be avoided in future. The Swarup and Ghosh though, ultimately they’re just a bit worthy and dull.

The concept of my blog is that I review every book I read. If that wasn’t how it worked though I doubt I’d have reviewed either. It wasn’t enjoyable to lay into what for both authors would have been a considerable amount of work. Both books have lots of fans, so if they come across my reviews I’m there raining on their enthusiasms. Worse than all that by a long way though is that it’s boring to write about something boring. As I said above, I’m not getting paid here and writing about dull books is a chore.

What’s noticeable to me as I write this is that all the examples are from a few years back. That’s good, because it means I’m getting better at avoiding bad books. What prompted this post though is my upcoming review of Magda Szabo’s The Door. This is a book with a lot of fans, many of them people whose views on literature I hold in very high regard, but I thought it was terrible. I don’t particularly look forward to writing about it, but I am hoping that on this one at least I’ll have people in the comments telling me why I’m wrong.

So, negative reviews. If you avoid writing them you’re potentially doing a disservice to the authors, by denying them criticism which could help them improve. You’re also potentially doing a disservice to other readers, by not warning them of what they may be getting into. Worse than all of that though is you’re risking not driving debate. If everyone disagrees with me about The Door, that’s not a bad thing. That’s the start of a conversation.

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40 Comments

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40 responses to “Negative reviews and me

  1. Max, I will be very interested to read your review of The Door – as I think it was one of my top ten all time best books and I gave it a glowing review. I find it hard to think what you wouldn’t like about it – but all will be revealed when I read your review. I will wait patiently to have my eyes opened to faults I missed!

    I rarely write negative reviews. If I don’t like a book that much, I just give up on it. I take very little pleasure in writing negatively about a book, and much prefer to write about books I enjoyed. However, sometimes books annoy me and then I write about them just to get it off my chest. My latest review (The Lighthouse) is a case in point. I almost hated the book and found so many faults with it I didn’t know where to start. But then I’ve always felt I have a case of “The Emperor has no Clothes” syndrome, which led me into trouble at work from time to time.

    Tom (still struggling with wordpress.com ‘s new commenting system – hope this one appears).

  2. Hi Max,

    Interesting post and as a blogger, I have reactions to it, of course.
    First, I want to say to readers of this comment who don’t read my blog that:
    - I have no academic background in literature,
    - I don’t write reviews but billets, which means in French I write my opinion, not the Truth.
    - Like you, I write a billet about every book I read, even about the ones I abandoned.

    That’s important to know because I write negative reviews, nasty ones sometimes. For me, skipping the books I didn’t like and just post about the ones I loved is unethical and gives a wrong image of me as a reader. I’d become the superwoman of the book choice, the one who never fails when picking a book. Which is totally untrue. I don’t judge other bloggers who think they don’t have time to lose on negative reviews, their position makes sense too. But it’s not the way I want to blog.

    Then for me, there are two different kinds of negative billets, the ones about good books I didn’t like and the ones about bad books.

    Take Herta Müller. I hated her novella The Passport but I acknowledge it’s a good book. It didn’t work for me, just as The Turn of the Screw didn’t. Bad experiences with books are as important as good ones. OK, there’s the time factor and you want to avoid as much as possible losing time on books you won’t enjoy. But when the book is objectively good (like The Turn of the Screw), you learn something about the writer and about yourself. Writing a negative billet helps you digging into the reasons why you didn’t like a book instead of just slaming it shut and forget it. I had an awful time reading The Turn of the Screw but writing my billet helped me getting over the boredom and considering it with new eyes. I’d still recommend it. For me, writing a negative billet isn’t losing time.

    For the billets about bad books, it’s more difficult because, after all, who am I to judge that a book is bad? Well, I’m a reader, I’ve been reading for a long time now and in a way books are like food. (That’s the French in me, I can’t help it) When you’re used to good stuff, you have trouble tolerating bad ones. You can eat a week of junk food just like you can suffer one or too badly written books from time to time, but the older you get, the less patient you become with low quality. Taste needs education. So yes, sometimes a book is badly written and I don’t see why I couldn’t say it.

    About the first paragraph of your article: the will-I-hurt-the-writer’s-feelings part. That’s a tricky question. Honestly, I didn’t think a second that Tracy Chevalier would get hurt by my Remarkably Boring billet if she read it. (That’s a billet in the “bad book” category) After all, I’m quite alone with that statement, lots of readers loved her book. My guess is she’ll just think I have a poor judgement.
    The only times I started to read a book knowing the writer would read my post (it happened twice when I read PO Box Love: a Novel in Letters by Paola Calvetti and Héloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim), I hoped I would like them and wouldn’t have to write a negative review. Truly, I felt self-conscious.
    When I decided to read On the Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman, Andrew was already visiting my blog regularly and I was genuinely concerned about not hurting his feelings. So I purposely didn’t put the book in the “Currently Reading” pad not to let him know I was reading it. I knew from the start I’d rather not write anything than write a negative billet if I didn’t like the book. I didn’t have the heart to do it. Talk about ethics. Lucky me, I didn’t have to. (check out the billet and the book)

    And I also think writers have to get used to reading bad reviews. You can’t write books and not cope with critics. That’s part of the journey; you may change someone’s life and sometimes you’ll get hurt by negative reviews. It’s as if you wanted to be a lawyer and never lose a case in court. That’s not possible.

    Anyway, that’s my experience. I’m looking forward to your entry about The Door and I like that you write negative reviews because I trust your good ones even more. So, don’t stop please.

    I’ll end this huge comment with a question: How do you feel when you read negative reviews on blogs?

  3. I just lost what I had written – is that what Tom up above meant? I guess I’ll write what I want to say in a Word document and then copy it over here!

  4. Okay, let’s try this again!
    I’m a novice! I never reviewed a book in my life until this past year, after I started self-publishing my own books. Then I started putting up little reviews of my reading on Amazon and then on Goodreads, but I never intended using my blog for book reviews – it was intended for promoting my own books and as an outlet for my own ideas. I feel like I’m trespassing in the Elysian Fields here, daring to express myself among all these far more experienced and erudite reviewers, but I find I’m having fun with it! Who would have thought that reviewing books might be one way to get attention for one’s own writing?
    I haven’t yet had to review a book that I really hated (although I can think of one SF trilogy that certainly could fill that role). If I read something really bad by someone whom I have become friendly with, I would be very uncomfortable, so I would probably not review it at all. Purely selfish – don’t want to alienate a potential customer!
    As for those four books reviewed by Eric Brown, not one of them sounds like something I would want to read. They’re not my type of story, certainly not the sort of science fiction I write. I write what I personally enjoy reading. Ursula K. LeGuin has long been my favorite author, and right now I’ve just gotten into Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.
    Anyway, I hope all of you don’t mind if a neophyte reviewer continues to wander around in your midst!

  5. Just a brief comment from me Max. I rarely (never probably) write negative reviews but I don’t see myself as a cheerleader for the form. My main reason for rarely writing negative reviews is for the main reason you give – I choose what I read very carefully, even review copies. I was sent some books off the cuff a couple of years ago with no prior “would you like to review” them and I have not reviewed most of them because they aren’t my cup of tea. They may be good books of their ilk – I wouldn’t know – but they aren’t what I want to read. My bottom line is why would I spend my precious time reading a book that doesn’t speak to me as something I want to read?

    This is not to say I LOVE every book I read. I can be critical but my criticism is analytical not emotional. It’s usually to do with something not quite working – the structure confusing things, the characters not well delineated or stereotypical, the writing overdone or cliched, the plot or storyline becoming a little ponderous. I don’t dislike a book because I don’t agree with it or because I don’t like the characters. So, you will find criticism – in the analytical meaning of the word – in my blog but you’re unlikely to find a truly negative review.

    Good post btw … my brief comment ended up being a bit long!

  6. Hi Max,

    Really thought-provoking as usual. I too look forward to hearing what you have to say about The Door.

    Personally, I think you have to write the occasional negative review. It isn’t pleasant thinking about the poor author. But if you are to have credibility, the first duty should always be to truth… Or at least, your own subjective truth.

    More interesting than my personal view is the opinion I heard expressed only last night, here in Norwich, by Michael Chabon. He said that he values a thoughtful intelligent negative review almost as highly as a thoughtful positive one – and far more than an unthinking positive one. He said that he often learns from the bad reviews – and that often reviewers find out the faults that he has been trying to hide… They might sting, but they’re useful.

  7. The problem is that if I think a book really sucks, I’m not going to get past the 50 page mark, and under those circumstances, I just toss the book and don’t review it.

    I’m not interested in writing a review that works to rip a book and the author to shreds. If a book’s that bad 1) I hope I don’t buy it and 2) If I do I won’t finish it. I can think of an exception or two when the book(s) were so revolting I was riled the point of action.

    If I read a book I have mixed feelings about (the latest Dennis Lehane is a good example), then I try to write something balanced which includes the strengths and the weaknesses, so that others may gauge (as you point out) whether or not other readers who may have slightly different preferences might like the book more than I did.

    There are times when a book isn’t right for the moment, and if I can’t get into a book, I’ll put it aside and try again later. If it doesn’t work the second time around then it’s a permanent reject.

    A huge annoyance for me is mis-marketing. No idea how or why this happens but it usually starts with the cover, the book gets the wrong audience, and ultimately everyone is unhappy.

  8. Tom, well, hopefully you can point out what I missed. I do admit I only got to page 100 before bailing. I’m looking forward to your The Lighthouse review. Like Emma’s mine is a reading blog, which means that skipping books for review isn’t really an option. Where that’s not the case, as with you and WG, I think it’s natural there would be fewer negative reviews. As I say above, it’s no fun writing them after all.

    Sorry you’re having problems with commenting by the way (and you Lorinda), what’s going wrong?

    Emma, I don’t believe in Truth. We can (and you do) justify our opinions, explain them, provide evidence of how we reached them, but informed opinions do remain ultimately opinions.

    Nice point on not being superhuman. Quite so. Sometimes I just get it wrong. Either the book, despite its qualities, doesn’t speak to me or I just make a bad choice. Like you I’ve no issue with people not writing bad reviews, but I’m happier that where appropriate that’s what I do.

    Your Herta Müller comment reminds me of how I feel about Elvis. I recognise the talent, but the music simply doesn’t speak to me. It’s important to distinguish I think as you do here between what one doesn’t like and what’s bad, because those aren’t necessarily at all the same thing. A good point too on losing patience as one gets older. I read so many great books that a middling one like The Glass Palace actually quite annoys me. It’s presented as great literature, but to paragrase a famous quote: I read great literature, I know great literature, great literature is a friend of mine, and The Glass Palace is no great literature.

    On your final question, I have many reasons for placing confidence in different blogs. Seeing reasoned negative reviews helps build that confidence. It’s not essential, there are blogs I follow which don’t post negative reviews. It helps though.

  9. We’re all amateurs here Lorinda, well, all of us except Sam anyway. I certainly am. Like you I only write reviews because I enjoy it. What other point would there be?

    Somebody pointed out those four reviews to me on twitter, noting how positive they were, and it is striking. It’s not so much the specific books, as just a handy example of positivity particularly with that Tad Williams’ character.

    Have you read Octavia Butler by the way? If not, you might like her.

  10. Don’t like Elvis?! I take your point about it being subjective. But even so! Which records have you been listening to? What have you been watching? If you haven’t seen it, try the 68 comeback special. And listen to Aloha From Hawaii. The opening (2001 A Space Odyssey breaking into See See Rider) is perhaps the finest three minutes in rock music history… Perhaps…

  11. WG, that’s mostly where I am. Actual fully negative reviews are pretty rare, particularly now I’m more embedded in the blogosphere and thus better informed. Where I do write them like you I tend to focus on what went wrong, or try to anyway. There weren’t any sympathetic characters is a bad criticism, because there may well not have been meant to be any (my usual example is Madame Bovary, which lacks sympathetic characters and is a work of genius). Saying a book is bad because you didn’t like the characters isn’t criticism, it’s just a statement of personal preference.

    Saying though that a book failed because the characters were unpersuasive and poorly distinguished, that is a critical comment. Similarly I have a negative review here of Fleming’s Casino Royale, and much of my criticism of that relates to problems of pacing which in a thriller sap it of energy and tension. That to me is more than mere personal preference, and getting rather into critiquing structural issues with the book. I think therefore we’re in the same territory.

    Sam, quite, one must be true at least to one’s own truth. Interesting comment from Chabon. He’s more robust than some authors clearly. Also, Elvis, I’m more a Ballardian electronica man if anything (though actually I listen to a fairly wide range of stuff, just not much rock’n’roll). The comeback special, we’re not in fat Elvis territory are we?

    Guy, I toss the book but still review it. I nearly bailed at page 69 on The Door, and in the end got to about page 100. If people tell me my view would have changed had I continued that’s a fair comment to make and they may be right. The review will be based on what I did read.

    Your Lehane review was what I aim for actually, in that it brought out the issues with the second half and with characterisation while also saying what worked. If nothing worked, well, I’d want to think about how I came to read the book in the first place but I’d still write it up.

    I do sometimes abandon a book because it’s not right for the moment and I don’t review those. It’s not the book’s fault, it’s mine, and I put the book aside for a more apposite time. That’s happened a few times; I’ve started reading something and then been buried at work or found the tone utterly wrong for my then mood. I don’t really consider that having read the book, as there’s no finality as with a book I actually decide to abandon for good.

    Mismarketing is criminal. I tend to find it’s more likely to stop me reading something in the first place though. A lot of women writers are marketed essentially as chicklit, which I think is hugely offputting and does them potentially a great disservice. Serious fiction by women writers, if marketed as disposable supermarket fiction, won’t reach the audience that would really engage with it and instead gets sold to readers who were likely looking for something more fun. Nobody wins.

  12. “Also, Elvis, I’m more a Ballardian electronica man if anything (though actually I listen to a fairly wide range of stuff, just not much rock’n’roll). The comeback special, we’re not in fat Elvis territory are we?”

    I like a good bit of electronica too… But you’re showing lamentable ignorance about the single greatest performer of the 20th century! Comeback Special is sleek, beautiful, animal Elvis. I feel I should offer you some kind of wager, to encourage you to watch it. If you don’t like it, I’ll send you a lovely Melville House book?

    And yes, Chabon is robust. I guess he has the security of knowing he’s rather freaking wonderful…

  13. I’ll put Octavia Butler on my list.
    As for losing the post, all of a sudden the screen just went haywire and reverted to the beginning of the blog post. When I scrolled to the bottom, my comment had vanished. I’ve had this with other people’s WordPress blogs, so I’ve learned to copy what I’ve written as I go along, but I hadn’t done that in this instance. It could be I’m just hitting some mysterious key without realizing it.
    Re Elvis: I was in high school in the ’50′s when he was just getting started and I never did like him! But then I don’t like any rock music, so, Sam, don’t hold it against me!

  14. I shan’t Lorinda. As Max says, it’s a matter of taste… Even if we are talking about The King.

  15. Sam: Tell me you’ve seen Bubba Ho Tep. Please.

  16. Seen it and loved it! (The author of the original book, Joe R Lansdale is great, by the way…)

  17. Interesting conversation here.

    Incidentally, I also wrote a negative billet about Chabon. (Now everyone’s here is thinking I’m a grumpy blogger.)

    Several of you mention book selecting as an antidote to bad surprises. Of course it is. However, I love blind dates with books, it’s part of the fun for me. So of course, you’re bound to have bad experiences. But unforeseen gems are a prize worth the charcoal I dig out sometimes. I wouldn’t have discovered Besson or de Turckheim without that.

    I agree with Guy about mismarketing. Seen from here, the UK needs to improve in covers. The times I compared book covers between the US/the UK and France, the UK one is often the corniest, when it’s not a total betrayal to the writer. (Last example: Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich). French covers are more sober and when they aren’t, you can expect low brow books. And I agree with you, Max, women writers suffer more from it than men.

  18. This is an interesting topic, Max. I’ve never shied away from writing negative reviews, but I find do myself writing fewer and fewer of them these days – and, most likely, they’ll either be assignments for somewhere other than my blog, or part of a reading project like an award shortlist.

    This has happened partly because I’m less inclined to keep reading books I don’t like; but also because, as you say in the post, ‘writing about dull books is a chore’. I find it more interesting to think and write about why good books work than why bad ones don’t.

    Actually, come to think of it, whether a book is interesting is more important to me as a reviewer than whether it’s good or bad. I guess I just don’t read many interesting failures.

  19. Yes Sam, I’m a Lansdale fan. Have you read Go Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler?

  20. I haven’t! But with a title like that, I clearly should… You’d recommend it?

  21. Max, thanks for the reply. Nothing you can do about the comment problem. Sometime this summer, WordPress.com seemed to change the system whereby you could use name, email, and URL. They now seem to require an account with a social networking site. Or a WordPress.com account.

    That’s my experience but it could be something I’ve changed somewhere but I can’t think what it is.

  22. Yeah, if you click on my URL above it goes off to some weird gravatar site! Nobody seems to be able to explain this to me!

  23. The desire for sites to link up with social media is frequently a pain if you don’t use those media. I hadn’t realised WordPress had gone down that road too. I try not to log into anything with my facebook account, why would I want to spam my friends with what I’m listening to on Spotify or with the fact I left a comment on a blog they may not also follow?

    Anyway, grr. Love Joe R Lansdale. Bubba Ho Tep, story and film, is wonderful. Lansdale’s website used to do a free short story a day, and probably still does. Nice author’s site actually.

    Sam, I’m reminded that I have some early Sun Records recordings of Elvis that I’ve never properly listened to. I’ll dig them out just for you.

    David, definitely on the interesting bit. I’d far rather a book try something interesting and fail than that it safely sails into the harbour of mediocrity (making my own stab for pseud’s corner there).

    I’d forgotten that Gischler, such a good title.

  24. I used to log in on WordPress blogs with my hotmail account, but then I signed up for a WordPress account on a proposed shared blog that isn’t panning out. Ever since then I’ve had to change my email to my gmail account when I want to comment on WordPress blogs. Now I get email notifications for responses to my comments – on both my email addresses! Makes an awful lot of stuff to delete! Isn’t cyberspace fun?

  25. Interesting topic and comments as usual. I’d rather see a reviewer’s workings than just their favourite books myself. I think it’s because I read and review equal amounts of fiction and non-fiction but just seeing someone review one book in a genre or on subject A doesn’t convince me that they bring much context to the book or the review they write. I’d rather know they’ve read half a dozen books on the topic, like these seven, dislike those two and would recommend these three.

  26. Max: Victor Gischler is working on a sequel which should be out next year

  27. Like you, I review everything I read, and occasionally there will be a stinker and I don’t shy away from writing about it as I’m not afraid of saying why I didn’t enjoy a book. I often find negative reviews really interesting, and have been tempted to read a book that a friend hated just to see …
    I agree it is far more difficult to write about an OK book than great or bad ones, but being an informed reader, I hope to pick mostly better than average books to read.

  28. Those Eric Brown reviews really annoy me. They are also so sickeningly positive that they do a disservice. They have made me distrust his judgement to the extent that I avoided books on his list, and now I just avoid his list.

  29. Like you, I’ve got better at choosing good books, and (sadly) it’s often recommendations from other people that let me down! I hear what you’re saying about balanced and constructive criticism, but sometimes you’ve just got to let rip…

    …but enough about ‘Please Look After Mother’ ;)

  30. Alex, context is certainly important. I try to flag where I don’t have it, which I think is as important as when I do, so that readers know if I’m less informed on a topic.

    Guy, I’ll need to get to the original book then before the sequel’s out.

    Annabel, I used to do film reviews for an online magazine and there too the mediocre films were hardest. Even if you could properly review them, making it a review anyone would want to read wasn’t easy. I’m never really tempted to read anything I expect to be truly bad. I’ve read Gor novels many years ago, so I know how bad fiction can be.

    If anyone reading this doesn’t know about the Gor novels, they were a godawful fantasy series which as time went on (not much time either, it happened quite quickly as I recall) became increasingly mired in deeply unpleasant views on female sexuality until it became evident that the whole thing was a fantasy in perhaps a more direct sense than I had expected when I started reading them.

    Steve, I think he sees his role as promoting SF, being a cheerleader, but SF has been around well over a century now (if we discount stuff like Cyrano de Bergerac’s work about going to the moon) and is a robust and popular form. It deserves to be criticised, and needs no cheerleading. How can it improve as a form if its flaws aren’t pointed out? What’s the point of a gatekeeper who doesn’t help the lay reader find the best of the form? By writing those reviews he’s missing the chance to guide his readers to the best SF has to offer. That would do more to promote the genre than any amount of indiscriminate boosting ever would.

    Tony, I have a couple of your reviews outstanding to read, so I hope that’s among them. Link?

  31. Re the topic of SF … I never read any Gor novels; they’re obviously the type I never touch. I read a lot of fantasy back in the 1970s because I first read Tolkien when I was 29 and that introduced me to SF through the backdoor. There is a lot of good fantasy writing out there. Patricia McKillip was one of my favorites (The Riddle Master of Hed trilogy), and you can’t get better than Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. There is also much junk; I read a lot of Miriam Zimmer Bradley and always thought what a lousy writer she was. Anyway, I definitely believe that SF and fantasy should be held to the same writing standards as mainstream fiction. My books have been characterized as literary science fiction. I’ve been told they remind people of Mary Doria Russell, so I’m reading The Sparrow right now to see if I agree! Certainly the subject matter is similar, as is the emphasis on introspective psychology. Now if I could only get more people to read some of my books and give their opinion!

  32. Negative reviews are touchy. I think the point of writing a review is honesty. If you love every single novel, then great. Doesn’t happen very often, but you never know. However, if I spend a solid week reading a book that I loathed, it’s getting reviewed. Case in point: Everything is Illuminated. I battled through that book mainly because a close friend recommended it. Painful. Oh sooo painful. Obviously, my readers don’t have to agree with me; that’s the beauty of democracy. But, darn it, that book pissed me off more than I cared to admit… so the review reflected my reaction.

    It’s fair. I think so long as we are honest in an assertive, unapologetic, but thoughtful and respectful way, that’s what matters.

    Thanks Max for an interesting discussion!

    -Lydia

  33. I don’t do any negative reviews well one I think but that was a awful book ,I also finish every book II start I hate the thought of tossing aside someones work with out getting to the end of it ,all the best stu

  34. Lorinda, I recall putting you off Maureen F McHugh due to her being held out as an exponent of mundane SF, but I do wonder if despite that you’d like her. Anyway, I agree that SF and fantasy should be held to serious standards, but I don’t think it should always be the same standards. An SF novel may well be ideas driven, with characters there to carry the ideas, and where that’s the case criticising it as some literary critics do for poor characterisation is a category error. There are SF books which, like yours, are about psychological truth, but a writer like say Stephen Baxter whose characters are at best crude vehciles for the plot isn’t necessarily within the boundaries of what he’s trying to write a weaker writer for that.

    Actually, Baxter is because his characters really can be a bit distractingly terrible, but the point’s still good I think.

    Tony, thanks, I look forward to reading it.

    Lydia, “I think so long as we are honest in an assertive, unapologetic, but thoughtful and respectful way, that’s what matters.” – exactly. Also, if like you I’ve spent a week on a book I hated I should at least get a blog post out of the bloody thing for my pains.

    Stu, but you don’t review every book do you? I take your blog as alerting me to books you think worth my attention (not just mine obviously, but your readers’ attention). I don’t assume it’s a record of everything you’ve written. I see you as calling my attention to translated fiction that otherwise I might well never even have heard of.

    As an addendum, I just posted my review of Magda Szabo’s The Door. That’s pretty negative, so hopefully the book’s fans will offer an alternative perspective.

  35. termitespeaker

    I’m pretty fussy about the kind of SF and fantasy that I read, and I can’t say I’ve ever read any traditional hard SF that I liked. For example, I had never read The Stars My Destination, so I started it recently and was very disappointed and didn’t finish it (part of the problem was it was in a distractingly poorly formatted Kindle version). Somebody told me it was way ahead of its time, but I had read it was a Count of Monte Cristo theme, so I guess I was expecting an intense, noble revenge tale and instead got a sort of send-up of the theme. Now Solaris is another matter; except for the obtuse philosophical ramble at the end, I really liked that book. I don’t like sensationalized, formulaic fiction in any genre. (I’m about two-thirds of the way through The Sparrow and will write about it on my blog when I’m finished.)

  36. I love The Stars my Destination, but I’m not surprised you didn’t. I wouldn’t exactly call it psychologically nuanced. McHugh though is all about the psychology, which is why I thought you might like her.

    Lem I’m a huge fan of. A wonderful writer. Apparently most of his books in English are double translated – Polish into French; French into English.

  37. termitespeaker

    I’ll put HcHugh on my list, but there is a lot ahead of it. And I really should try to finish The Stars My Destination, but I think I would have a print version – that bad Kindle formatting was just too distracting. I’ve read other Lem that I liked as well. It’s been quite a few years back.

  38. Eh, if you didn’t like it you didn’t like it. Bad formatting wouldn’t have helped though I admit.

    It’s been a while for me for Lem too. He should reappear here in a bit. Probably not before next year though.

  39. Pingback: a good passionate fit of crying. | Pechorin's Journal

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