The Pressures for Positive Reviews

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 Miller thinks this is an outdated model, and that critical readings should be saved for the classroom.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

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Apologizing for Heinlein

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FeatherPenClipArtLast year I went to Atlanta for Dragon Con. This is not normally my thing, as I’m mostly an introverted recluse. However, I had a good time. There were–I dunno–maybe 50,000 – 60,000 SF&F fans there, all dressed up in fun costumes. As THE big fan-run conference of the year, I figure this has to be a cross section of current SF&F fandom.

It looked like a lot of cons these days. There was about equal representation of genders. I wasn’t really counting heads, but there seemed to be a fair representation from racial minorities and people with disabilities. There was a lot of nudity, and a certain amount of cross-dressing, which may or may not have been significant.

I poked around in the art exhibit and some other offerings, but mostly I stuck with the writer’s track. I attended several interesting panels, which included publishers, authors and critics. There were a few minorities represented, and some featured mostly men or mostly women, depending on the subject. I have to say that there was some clear discrimination against LGBTQ topics. These panels were rescheduled to increasingly later times, eventually ending up about midnight. Hm.

So, on to the topic. One of the papers actually sounded like an apology for Robert Heinlein. It was presented by Jennifer Hudgens, currently a philosophy academic who teaches courses on science fiction at the University of Kentucky. Ms. Hudgens appears to be about thirtyish, which makes her a Millennial. The subject of her paper was misogyny and racism in Heinlein’s work, and why he’s an important writer anyway. This is an interesting take on science fiction that won several Hugo Awards in the 1950s.

I have to admit I’ve not read anything by Robert Heinlein in a long time. I consider it period science fiction, something to be read with the period in mind, like H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. Because of the attitudes identified by Ms. Hudgens, I suspect it would most likely be un-publishable by a new writer submitting it today.

Ms. Hudgens’ opinion is a bad sign for writers or publishers of traditional, right leaning science fiction like Sad or Rabid Puppies Vox Day, Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen. The Census Bureau predicts that in 2015 Millennials will surpass the Baby Boom generation in size, making them the largest available fan group for SF&F. These kids have grown up in a time when they expect to be respected for who they are, regardless of gender, race, disability, LGBTQ status, religion or national origin. Unless you’re writing period SF&F, then you need to be aware of that.

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