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 Miller thinks this is an outdated model, and that critical readings should be saved for the classroom.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?


Congrats to the 2018 Nebula Finalists


Interestingly, more than one of the names repeat this year. Vina Jie-Min Prasad and Sarah Pinsker both appear in more than one category. This year, the Nebula Recommended Reading List did pretty much accurately predict that the top recommended stories would end up as finalists.

As is usual recently, the list leans heavily female. Here’s a quick diversity count, as well as I can figure it:
Best novel – 6 women, 1 man, 1 African American, 1 Asian
Best novella – 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 1 Asian, 1 Jewish
Best novelette – 2 women, 2 men, 1 trans, 2 LGBT, 1 Asian
Best short story – 4 women, 2 men, 2 Asian, 1 Native American, 2 Jewish

Four of 7 of the Best novel finalists come from Orbit, and 4 of 6 of the Best novella category come from, plus one of the novelettes and one of the short stories.

For those who have been keeping up with my blog, you’ll know I’m happy to see a Native American writer represented this year. Many congrats to all! Reviews to follow soon.

Best Novel

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly (Tor)
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (Saga)
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (Knopf; riverrun)
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (Orbit US)
Jade City by Fonda Lee (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz (Tor; Orbit UK 2018)

Best Novella

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey ( Publishing)
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages ( Publishing)
And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
Barry’s Deal by Lawrence M. Schoen (NobleFusion Press)
All Systems Red by Martha Wells ( Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang ( Publishing)

Best Novelette

“Dirty Old Town” by Richard Bowes (F&SF 5-6/17)
“Weaponized Math” by Jonathan P. Brazee (The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3)
“Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
“A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
“A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson ( 1/4/17)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)

Best Short Story

“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
“Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls (Strange Horizons 6/5/17)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel ( 3/15/17)
“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)

Review of Wrap Your Body in Time by David Neil Drews

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This is a first novel, self-published in October of 2017, and runs about 750 pages. David Drews is a Jewish writer and suffers from multiple identity disorder.

Arron has esophageal cancer. He has watched his dad die slowly of chemotherapy and makes the decision to refuse it. Instead, he sets out to really live in the time he’s got left, to exercise, to see the world, to enjoy friends and family—and to deal with the ghost of his abusive father. On the journey he meets his schizophrenic grandfather, finds a potential wife. Can Aaron defeat his own demons before he reaches the end of his road?

This is a pretty sweeping novel that chronicles the bout with cancer on the one hand, while providing human interest through absorbing characters on the other. It didn’t have much of a hook, but by chapter 2 when we got the cancer diagnosis, the book had hit its stride. There’s a touch of magical realism here, including chatty animals and the various ghosts that lurk about. There’s a sort of wry humor that runs through it, and a lot of play-by-play for sports fans.

Four and a half stars.


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.


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?


Review of Third Flatiron Best of 2017 (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 21)

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This is a collection of thirteen speculative fiction short stories edited by Juliana Rew, including her choice of the best stories from the Third Flatiron Anthologies published in 2017. These stories range from SF to fantasy to horror, and right now it looks it’s only offered as an ebook.

Third Flatiron Anthologies has proved to be a pretty reliable series for lightweight, entertaining fiction, mostly without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in short stories just lately. These offerings follow that standard, including everything from the quirky to the serious.

The stories include John Sunseri’s take on a different racetrack, James Beamon’s humorous tale of programmed troops, Konstantine Paradias’ projection of CRISPR in the kitchen, Brian Trent’s vision of Dorian Gray after the fall, Jean Graham’s spooky comeuppance for murder, Ville Nummenpaa’s contest for the most boring speaker, Wulf Moon’s Beast of the Month Club, Rati Mehrotra’s vision of the afterlife, Keyan Bowes’ integrated pre-school, Vaughan Stanger’s burdensome message, and Jill Hand’s projection of what your dog might say to you if it could talk. There were a couple of stand-outs. I especially liked J.L. Forrest’s witchy tale of rescue and Premee Mohamed’s vision of self-sacrifice.

Three and a half stars.


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?


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