The Pressures for Positive Reviews


Here’s the second installment on the subject of reviews and what’s expected from the contemporary book or film critic. There were a few more interesting opinions that came out of my recent readings on the subject, generally related to those explored in the last blog.

Writing for Salon, Laura Miller describes the traditional model of literary criticism where critics pretty much made the classics by pointing out which books should matter for a cultivated, educated audience. This meant the critics were the arbiters of taste, and the audience took their advice because they wanted to be seen as cultivated and intelligent. Publishers were also, presumably, swayed by these critics’ opinions which slapped down anyone unsuitable who thought they could write a novel. Miller thinks this is an outdated model, and that critical readings should be saved for the classroom. Her view of the critic’s role is to point out the books he or she likes in particular so the audience can find them.

Of course, the problem with this is that authors and publishers quickly get the idea they should offer inducements for critics to point out their books. Writing for The Baffler, Rafia Zakaria calls reviewers an “extended marketing operation” who are expected to “arrange the book in a bouquet” like blooming flowers to help attract an audience.

Writing for Slate, Ben Yagoda gives us a current classification of critics:
• Over-intellectual nitpickers – Try to rate popular books as something they’re not.
• Soft touches – In the pockets of publishers.
• Quote sluts – Write notices for display ads.
• Chummy logrollers – Relentless enthusiasm for the blogosphere.
• Careerist contrarians – Try to stand out with unpopular opinions.
Yagoda also suggests a reason for large audience vs. critic discrepancies in ratings. He thinks this means the work is unpleasant to sit through in some way. In other words, reviewers will hold out because they’ve got to write a review, while causal readers or film viewers will take off and find something better to do.

Also writing in Slate, Jacob Silverman describes the “safe space” atmosphere of the Twitter/blogosphere where all books are wonderful and every writer is every other writer’s fan. He calls this shallow, untrue and chilling to literary culture. After all, he says, what critic will write an honest review in an environment where authors are valued more for their social media following than for what they write? What he doesn’t say is how fast this social media following can turn into trollish attack dogs. Silverman says it’s not publishing that’s threatened; instead, it’s the body of reviewers who are trivialized and endangered by this system.

Another issue Silverman doesn’t identify in this analysis is generational characteristics at work. Everyone likes praise, but a constant need for it is fairly well identified with millennials. Writing in the New York Times in 2015, Alex Williams points out some of the tendencies we can expect from Generation Z (aka post-millennials), now displacing the millennials as the largest, richest and most sought-after generation of consumers. Gen Z is generally the children of Gen X, who are coming of age post Millennium. Compared to millennials, this group has grown up in uncertain times, so they tend to be more conservative than millennials and heavily concerned with privacy, risk and safe spaces. They tend to be less binary and more biracial, are heavily oriented toward technology and social media and tend to lose interest in things more quickly.

Is this the group Silverman has identified as so intolerant of critical reviews in the Twitter/blogosphere? When will the upcoming Gen Z start to change what sells in the marketplace?


Are critical reviews an outdated idea?


Since we had a recent discussion here about reviews, I’ve been doing some reading on the issue, and I’ve made up made up a short series on the subject of critical or negative as opposed to strictly positive reviews. Here’s the first installment.

There was a time when artists put their work out there in front of the public and held their breaths, hoping for a positive review from critics that would encourage sales. However, unless you’ve annoyed some group that will trash your work on Amazon, the big issue these days seems to be getting someone to review your work, and not the question of what they’ll say or how many stars they’ll give you. There has been a recent trend toward highly positive reviews, to the point where it’s getting hard to find a negative one, or even one that provides a real critical analysis. So, is this a problem for the literary community?

A discussion about this demise of critical reviews seems to have broken out into public view just lately. This may have been provoked by a statement from Isaac Fitzgerald, new editor of BuzzFeed’s book section, that in order to “promote a positive community experience,” he will only publish positive reviews. Responses were varied. Sarah Miller re-reviewed a few “classics” for the New Yorker in response, using the contemporary warm, vapid style, starting with Moby Dick. Ha, ha. Very funny.

Other articles on the subject were more thoughtful. Jacob Silverman, writing for Slate, suggests this the trend to “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm” has to do with the growth of authors’ social media communities. He points out that writers and fans are trying to build communities that are completely safe, comfortable environments. After all, everybody worked hard on their book. Shouldn’t they get praise for the result?

Ben Yagoda, writing for Slate, and Laura Miller, writing for Salon, suggest that the content of reviews really doesn’t matter. Miller writes that most writers now are, and will remain, obscure and poorly-rated in the grand scheme of things. “No one needs middling reviews of mediocre books,” she says. Yagoda quotes Sturgeon’s law, named after SF author Theodore Sturgeon, who observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” Yagoda notes that the first part of this quote is generally left off. So, if everything is crap anyway, does it really matter how we try to sort it out?

More on this in the next installment.

Review of Roadsouls by Betsy James


This novel was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and reads like young adult. It’s published by Aqueduct and runs 338 pages. The following may include spoilers.

Duuni is betrothed to a man who has previously abused her and already taken her mother to wife. She rebels and is sentenced to public beating. She escapes and is taken by the Roadsouls. Raim is a hunter and weaver blinded in an accident of overconfidence. In is anger, he refuses anyone’s help and runs away from his family. He is taken by the Roadsouls. The caravan travels from place to place, picking up abandoned children, and supports itself by performing at country fairs while Duuni and Raim face hazards along the road. Can they accept one another and find sanctuary?

Good points: This starts off to be really promising. I love stories about people who are down and out and overcome their disabilities through courage and determination, and this had that feel. The characters and the world are very well drawn with the countryside laid out around a central holy mountain. It’s settled by diverse people with different languages and beliefs, and there’s at least a suggestion of how the economy works. This includes what is likely a good description of a factory at the turn of the 20th century—a reminder of why we have unions and child labor laws. Many people are also going to like this because it’s about rape culture and finding safe spaces in a dangerous world.

Not so good points: It’s a long list. First, there’s not really any fantasy here. There’s no magic other than maybe an imaginary lion that Duuni thinks follows her around. Then it turns out to be about victims and predators. Although warned against it, Duuni and Raim repeatedly go off by themselves, act like victims and get captured and mistreated by bad people. The plot is forced and there are logical failings, especially toward the end, where Amu comes back to the factory where he has sold Raim as a laborer, allowing himself to be killed. He really didn’t need Raim for what he was planning. Miraculously, there’s no pursuit after Raim and Ratling escape and are rescued again by the Roadsouls. This feels anti-capitalist, as factories and “paidmen” are bad elements, while the sanctuaries are communes of artisans and wild children with not much visible means of support. I also gather this is about consent, as Duuni repeatedly makes love with Raim and then says no at the last minute. He waits patiently while she overcomes her fears because he loves her. At the end of the book, he’s still waiting. Everybody robs the dead here. There’s no respect on either side.

Two and a half stars because of the logical failings.

Discrimination in the SFF community?


A while back I made the comment that the major SFF awards seem to be discriminating against Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. In the past few years, it’s been easy to run down the list of nominees and see a good representation of African American, Asian and LGBTQ authors, with a sprinkling of Arabs, Pacific Islanders, etc. However, there’s been a consistent shortage of Hispanic/LatinX/Native American names in the nominations and in the Locus reviews and other reading lists that feed into the awards. This is in spite of the fact that Hispanics are the largest US minority, and combined with Native Americans, come in at about 1/3 of the population. Comments on the blog suggested that the issue was that the people who vote for the awards just don’t like the type of fiction those people write.

The lack of representation is no surprise. Despite the large numbers of Hispanics/Native Americans in the US population, they’re still highly marginalized and discriminated against in jobs, education, housing, immigration and lots of other areas. There’s really no shortage of accomplished writers within this group, so it makes you wonder what’s been going on in the publishing and awards systems to keep the Hispanic/LatinX/Native America authors so unrecognized. Now, we have a clear case of discrimination within the SFF community that suggests what might be going on.

Jon Del Arroz is Latino and, as such, falls clearly into the marginalized minority brown author-of-color category. Like many Hispanics, he apparently also falls on the moderate to conservative side of the political spectrum. His current publisher is Superversive Press, known for pulp type fiction, but also a publisher of fairly right leaning works.

Del Arroz posted a blog here about his experiences back in the spring. According to Del Arroz, he was initially promoted at local Bay area cons as a minority author, but found himself placed in panel discussions that were political and left-leaning, rather than about SFF or promoting books. Once his politics became known, says Del Arroz, then the discrimination started, based more on his ideas than his race.

In the late summer, Del Arroz was lumped with those “middle aged white dudes” after his nomination for the Dragon Awards. This was followed by a campaign in December 2017 to try to get the SFWA management to reject his application for membership. He’s also been banned from WorldCon.

So, are Hispanics/LatinX/Native Americans being excluded from the SFF community mainly because of their political views? Clearly Del Arroz thinks politics is currently trumping his marginalized minority status as a Latino. How does a socially conscious community reconcile this kind of behavior?

Virtue Signaling: Weaponizing the System


Recently I’ve been blogging about virtue signaling, which is publicly stating your opinions on moral issues in order to show your support. Social pressure to conform leads to “MeToo” reactions, and something worse called “groupthink.” In groupthink, no one really thinks critically about issues, but instead responds to the social pressures with knee-jerk, mindless reactions.

This makes virtue signaling a powerful tool in the political arena. In fact, the dependability of the reaction it provokes makes it easily weaponized. All you have to do right now to take someone down is to call them a racist or a sexual harasser. This trend has gotten so obvious in broader US politics that I can almost see powerful and manipulative Puppetmasters pulling the strings—a war back and forth—with attacks taking down Hollywood political donors, artists, senators, members of the press, anybody who influential and on the wrong side of issues. I’m sure these Puppetmasters are laughing all the while, as mindless groupthink lemmings attack one another, doing their work for them. Anybody who questions the process gets a dose of the same.

Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were early casualties, and conspiracy theorists immediately speculated that Weinstein was payback. It’s pretty easy to dig up questionable actions over a man’s lifetime, but women are harder. Taylor Swift was attacked as a racist by someone claiming her songs contain white supremacist lyrics. Meryl Streep is currently under attack by anonymous posters that have appeared in Los Angeles, accusing her of knowing and keeping quiet about Weinstein—complicity, in other words. Morning-after remorse has produced calls for Al Franken to unresign, and led Tavis Smiley and Joe Scarborough to wonder publicly what’s behind the attacks. Meanwhile, the Trump administration deftly avoided accusations by taking down attorney Lisa Bloom.

Bringing the focus back to the SFF community, I think these same hazards have been working in the heavy polarization of relations. Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely important to call out people who are actually sexually abusive and racist, but because of the weaponizing, it’s gotten to be important to look critically at the accuracy of the claims and question what might be behind them.

The most obvious example is Vox Day, of course. Articles and comments consistently claim he’s anti-diversity, while a look at his publications and award nominations show clearly that he likes Chinese SF and promotes minorities. Another recent attack, of course, has been on Rocket Stack Rank as racist and sexist because of their dislike of non-standard pronouns. Wasn’t it at one time questionable to attack reviewers? Another example is last year’s attack on horror writer David Riley for holding conservative political views. Still another is the attack on editor Sunil Patel (see also here) for apparently being a jerk, while accusers couldn’t come up with anything more than vague claims about sexual harassment.

There may be questionable issues at work in all these cases, of course. Anyone has the right to feel affronted and to complain, but shouldn’t we be looking at things a little more rationally?

Review of They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera


This book is near future science fiction and was published by Harper Teen in 2017. It runs about 384 pages. Silvera is of Puerto Rican heritage and lives in New York City.

Mateo Torrez is eighteen. He’s reading the CountDowners blog at 12:22 a.m. when he receives his final alert from Death-Cast. His dad is in the hospital in a coma and Mateo doesn’t want to spend his End Day alone, so he brings up the Last Friend app and looks for someone to spend the day with. Rufus Emeterio is seventeen. He’s beating up his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend Peck when his phone sounds the Death-Cast alert. His gang the Plutos plans a great funeral for him, but Peck spoils it by calling the police. Rufus escapes and looks on the Last Friend app to find someone to spend his End Day with. The two boys find each other and set out to live adventures they’ve not tried before. Is there a way they can escape death at the end?

Good points: This story is very positive and life-affirming. Mateo is shy and reclusive and Rufus is assertive and slipping into bad behavior. The two boys influence each other to change in a single day, where Mateo comes out of his shell and Rufus takes up a lot of his new friend’s kindness. They end up with a relationship that’s more than just “friends” by the time evening rolls around. The story also touches other people’s lives on their End Day that cross the boys’ path. Of course, there’s a philosophical thread to all this, about how we should live our lives every day, but Silvera spends most of his time with the characters, leaving the philosophy subtle.

Not so good points: Silvera is very focused on the characters and their interactions and tends to neglects the action line. I can’t really complain about the plotting. There’s a sequence of events, subplots that include other characters, and a suitable finale. These provide little peaks of interest, but without the rising action line, the story fails to develop much drama. Slivera may be working to make the story gentle and encouraging for teens instead, but some authors would have made this a real heart-breaker.

Silvera gets extra points for having such fresh ideas.

Three and a half stars.

More on Fascism and Freedom of Speech


I notice in the website’s analytics that this is a popular topic this month, so maybe I should add a few more blogs on the subject.

I’ve had something brewing since back in September, when you may remember that President Trump posted a gif of himself hitting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball. I was pretty busy that week, so didn’t sit down and listen to the usual hue and cry in the media. My impression was that the gif was sort of juvenile and a bit humorous. There’s a clear symbolism there, too, about Trump defeating the forces of liberalism in the recent election. It might not be very presidential to needle people like that, but all in all, I thought it was a pretty well done statement. Then on Sunday I had the TV playing and caught some of State of the Union, a show on CNN hosted that day by Dana Bash, where guest Ana Navarro made the comment that a six-year-old would be punished for this, so it shouldn’t be acceptable from Trump. The impression I got was that she thought Trump needed to be punished for it.

So, here we are back at the question of freedom of speech, and whether statements people don’t like should to be punished through the popular method of ganging up on the speaker or writer and shouting slurs. More recently, there’s been a move to punish unpopular speech with actual physical violence.

Reviewing what I’ve already said about the First Amendment, it only protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press (including symbolic statements and hate speech but not inciting to violence) from government censorship. It doesn’t provide any protection against consequences of speech in public forums or guarantee that statements will be accepted at all. Regardless, there is a popular expectation that everyone has a right to be heard. Some of this is supported by other legislation, such as whistle blower laws that protect people who alert the public to questions of safety, corruption, etc.

So why do people feel they need to punish some statements? When you look at the definitions of censorship, you’ll see that it’s often connected with moral judgments. In other words, people who are out there shouting slurs have made a decision that some ideas are dangerous to the moral fabric of our culture and need to be suppressed. Censorship is also used to protect a position of power, such as when a political interest group tries to suppress the opposition.

This kind of censorship is fascism. It used to be a popular technique of the politically far right, who were trying to protect the US from dangerous communist ideas. However, the pendulum has swung so it’s now often a tool of the left, which tries to frame unpopular ideas as sexist or racist in order to incite public opinion against the speaker or writer. Over the course of history, fascism has not shown up in a good light. Classic fails include Puritanism and the Nazi Party.

Besides that, I’m worrying about Ana Navarro’s child-rearing ideas. Who would punish a six-year-old for drawing silly cartoons?

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