Are negative reviews politically incorrect?


A recent discussion about reviews has caused me to Google about on the subject. In the last couple of blogs, I’ve noted opinions about the trend toward positive reviews, but there are some more pointed opinions out there on the issue of negative vs. positive reviews. This is the third and last blog on the subject.

Rafia Zakaria, writing for The Baffler, has thrown her support firmly behind critical reviews. Unless it stings, she says, then it’s not worth anything. She also has some interesting ideas about why and how the current trend has emerged.

First, she notes that the tone and style of contemporary book reviews reads like ad copy—generally including a summary and some non-conclusions, but nothing of critical engagement or analysis of how the work might relate to the environment it emerges from. Her conclusion is that this style is based mainly on a political ethics that requires non-judgement. In other words, all readers are expected to “check their biases and privilege” before reading and not make any kind of judgement about the content or quality of the book. Ergo, writing only positive reviews is a commitment to equality and fairness for all.

However, this raises questions about affirmative action. According to Zakaria, the purpose of limiting negative reviews this way is (implicitly) to assist underprivileged and marginalized authors, whose work may be hard for readers to relate to. She suggests that critical reviews are seen as a kind of “textual violence” and therefore “a tacit endorsement of inequality, of exclusion, and marginalization.” As a marginalized minority writer herself, she feels this is a matter of the privileged taking offence on the behalf of the marginalized while at the same time suggesting that minority authors’ work is too sub-standard to stand up to a real review.

Does she have a point? Are reviews now required to serve marginalized writers through non-judgement? Is this a tacit statement on the poor quality of their work?

Then what about the other side of this? Because of the pressure for positive reviews, many reviewers won’t read something when they feel they can’t give it a good review. This means people who have written something truly different are shut out of the market. Because of the current publishing climate, this could include people with unpopular political viewpoints, people who are expressing an uncomfortable reflection of society, or people who are too rooted in their own cultural viewpoint to suit the current marketplace. Of course, minority writers who are accepted and heavily promoted by big name publishers are going to get reviews in big name publications, but what about everybody else? Is the emphasis on only positive reviews shutting out reviews of all these other works?


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?

Review of Wintersong by S. Jae Jones

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This book is part of my effort to review minority authors. It was published through Thomas Dunn Books/Macmillan in February of 2017. Jones is Asian, a native of Los Angeles, and this looks to be her first published novel. There’s a sequel coming in 2018 called Shadowsong. This review contains spoilers.

Liesl is the middle child, dark and plain, while her older sister Kathe is blond and beautiful and her younger brother Josef is a violin virtuoso. Liesl wants to study music, too, and dreams of being a composer, but her father only lets her play accompaniment to her brother. As a child, she finds a boy in the woods who calls himself the Goblin King, and they promise to marry, but as Liesl grows older, she has to give up her dreams to take responsibility for her family. Then the Goblin King comes for his bride. Because Liesl has rejected him, he takes Kathe instead. Can Liesl save her sister by giving up her own life?

Jones has used the German legend of the Erlkonig as the basis for her story, with some other allusions drawn from European culture and the movie Labyrinth. The story is set in the 1800s when touring violinists were the rock stars of the era. According to the Erlkonig legend, the bride gives up her life and retires to the Underground to make sure spring comes to the world above. It’s not very Asian, but somehow I haven’t heard a peep about cultural appropriation.

On the positive side, Jones has put together a really promising plot. The issue of having to give up personal dreams to take family responsibility seems to be a common theme from Asian women writers. Here, Liesl escapes the clutches of her family, but moves into another stifling situation. Her husband offers her complete freedom to play and write music, but there is no audience—she is confined to the Underground. The Erlkonig is a strong romantic interest on the one hand, but on the other, it’s clear that staying with him will slowly drain away her life. There are choices between evils here.

On the not-so-positive side, I didn’t much like Liesl or the petulant, demanding, erratic way she conducts herself around people who love her. I think her character could have been used more positively to send messages about discipline, cooperation, communication, focus and hard work to achieve what you want. Of course, this might be just my viewpoint speaking. I had similar complaints about The Last Jedi.

Three and a half stars.


Thoughts on the 2017 World Fantasy Awards


I’ve pretty much finished all the reviews of the World Fantasy Awards fiction nominees. I’m not going to look at the collections, so it’s time for a wrap up of what I thought.

What really jumps out is the considerable overlap this list has with other major SFF awards, especially the Hugos. In order to complete reviews of the whole World Fantasy list, I had to read 2 novels out of 5 nominees, 1 long fiction out of 5 and 3 short stories out of 5. All the others I had already reviewed as part of either the Nebula or the Hugo Awards. This makes my reviewing job easier, but again, it points out the inbred nature of the SFF awards and the lack of diversity in sources the works are drawn from.

Speaking of diversity, this list is notable for leaning heavily to black and white nominees and totally shutting out both Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. Counting up the ethnicity, it looks like there were three black authors out of fifteen or 20% of the nominees, which well beats the approximately 12% African American population demographic in the US. The list gets extra diversity points for having one nominee of Arab descent, but Arabs are currently designated white in the US.

There are a couple of folks who are LGBTQ and advertize disability diagnoses. Again, the absence of Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native Americans could have to do with the lack of diversity in sources the fantasy audience draws from. Gender breakdown was 4 women to one man in the novel category, 2 women to 3 men in the long fiction category and 5 women to 0 men in the short fiction category. This adds up to 10 women to 5 men, following the current trend to strongly favor women writers in the awards nominations. There was also fair diversity of publishers except in the long-fiction category, where published 4 out of 5 of the nominees.

I’ve already reviewed each of the works for quality, content and logical coherence. All of these were well written, with a few real standouts. I don’t have any complaints about the winners. They were first class in all categories. I did note some strong political messages in some of the works. This is a troubling issue. Doesn’t it affect readability when the author’s political views are so obviously promoted that they take over the story?

Again, many congratulations to the World Fantasy Winners!


Review of The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North


This novel was the 2017 winner of the World Fantasy Award. It was published by Redhook/Orbit UK, and runs 468 pages.

Most people totally forget Hope Arden within a minute. This means she can’t hold a job or maintain any serious relationships, and she supports herself by being a world-class thief. Hope is affronted by a woman’s death in Dubai, and partially out of spite, steals the Chrysalis diamonds from the Princess Shamma bint Bandar at a party hosted by the Prometheus Corporation. Prometheus markets an app that recommends actions, purchases and treatments to achieve Perfection. Because of the power and reach of the corporation, Hope finds herself on the run. Allied with a darkweb terrorist called Byron, can she bring down Prometheus?

This is a very complex novel. It’s basically a thriller plot, where Hope and her various allies struggle against the powerful minions of the corporation. It’s also an indictment of our worship of celebrity and perfection, here summed up in the app that guides people in how to become rich and beautiful to the ultimate degree, while also making them slaves to the corporation—meanwhile the ordinary Hope remains invisible. Regardless of the thriller plot, Hope continually digresses into stream of consciousness inspection of her past and the failings of society around her. This includes several prominent cultures because of the multinational quality of the tale. Her eventual solution to the battle with Perfection isn’t simple, either, as Hope’s vulnerability and her emotional responses to the people she meets constantly affect her decisions.

Good points: It’s complex; it’s a thriller; it’s got a lot to say as a mirror for our society. There are some artful cliffhangers, beautiful images, great feelings of place and very complex and well-developed characters. The reader forms emotional bonds with these people.

Not so good points: It’s slow-moving because of all the digressions—I had a hard time getting started because of the pace. The thriller plot could have been a short story or a novella without all the asides, so it’s not the book for people who like fast, hard-hitting action.

I’m going to go five stars on this one. I was impressed.


Review of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff


This book was a finalist for the World Fantasy Awards. It’s a collection of novellas based on the different characters, but it can also be read as a novel. It’s published by HarperCollins and runs 382 pages.

The year is 1954, and African American war veteran Atticus Turner is traveling north to Chicago. His dad Montrose has disappeared somewhere in New England, and with his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to find him. They end up at Samuel Braithwhite’s manor, where they learn interesting things about Atticus’ maternal ancestry and encounter Samuel’s son Caleb, who wants to control that legacy. Atticus and his friends soon find themselves dealing with ghosts, warlocks and various arcane events as they’re caught up in the machinations of an ancient cult. Can they save themselves and return to normal lives?

This is an entertaining read, as the characters are all resourceful and end up accomplishing what they need to do through the application of determination and common sense. Regardless of the Jim Crow setting, the characters feel contemporary, as if Ruff has set characters with modern sensibilities into the Lovecraft milieu.

I’ve read some other reviews that promote this book by saying racism is the real horror in the story. I didn’t really see that. If you’re unfamiliar with the facts of Jim Crow segregation and the kind of discrimination African Americans faced in the 1950s, then I suppose this could be a surprise. Presumably Ruff set his story in this period at least partly to display the racial issues, but actually he skims over it as fairly matter-of-fact. Everybody deals and nobody gets lynched.

What really stood out for me instead was the message that these black characters read and treasure the SFF classics of the day by Lovecraft, Burroughs, Bradbury, Asimov, etc., without any disconnect because of their race. Is that so? Currently these writers are all considered to be both racist and sexist because they reflect the attitudes of their era. So, do readers of all races normally transcend racism and sexism to place themselves in a romantic character and a romantic setting? Or is this just an irony that Ruff has inserted in his story? I’d like to hear from people with an opinion.

Four and a half stars.


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.


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