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 Miller thinks this is an outdated model, and that critical readings should be saved for the classroom.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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More on Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking

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In the last blog about social issues, I commented on David Gerrold’s essay ”Humanity’s R&D Department: Science Fiction.” where he discusses the requirement to virtue signal in order to preserve your reputation in the SFF community. My response was that this prevents independent thinking, or even any kind of reasonable discussion about the current direction of the publishing community. I also mentioned that it was an example of “groupthink” where a desire for conformity leads to dysfunctional outcomes. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree about this, so let’s look at some examples:

  • Readers recently complained on the Tor website about K. Arsenault Rivera appropriating Asian culture in her recently published novel The Tiger’s Daughter. This fell into silence when some more perceptive individuals pointed out that Rivera isn’t white. I gather that means it’s an attack that should be reserved for white people.
  • Writer Jenny Trout led a child rape and racism campaign against Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel titled Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. The campaign succeeded in getting the book removed from book shelves, but then it turned out that Man is an activist African American woman writing about her own cultural history.
  • Speaking about the results, author N.K. Jemisin complained about the 2013 SFWA election in her Guest of Honor speech at the convention Continuum in Australia, “Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges,” she said, “not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.” This seems like a stretch as an attack on the SFWA, but other people piled on regardless.
  • Generally virtue signaling provokes an avalanche of “me, too” responses, some of which can turn into vicious attacks like the one against Fionna Man. This is where the conformity problem comes into play. Everyone knows they need to publicly express certain views (as Gerrold pointed out), so once an issue is suggested, they pile on the opportunity to show their conformity. This is regardless of whether they have put any thought into whether the attack is justified or what effect it might really have in the long term. Some people really don’t care.

    Last year there was an argument at File770 where posters discussed freedom of expression and how it should be used to dictate morality. Posters apparently supported the idea that it’s fine to attack people regardless of the accuracy of your claims because this publicizes you own views (virtue signaling) and also indicates what views should be considered morally wrong and unacceptable to the public. This also assumes any injury done by the attack is socially advantageous because it will intimidate others who might be tempted to express the “wrong” views. There was no concern about what kind of personal damage this does to individuals who are erroneously attacked.

    Meanwhile, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, says in his new book Principles: Life and Work that independent thinking is the most important principle for an “idea meritocracy” to rebuild our society in a better way. What should we do about that?

Follow-up on “Little Widow,” et al.

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Since I’ve been discussing David Gerrold’s take on the requirement for virtue signaling that indicates your affiliation in the SFF community, it occurs to me that the recent spate of stories with a social/political bent are a form of virtue signaling. The writers use them to signal their political stance, and the publishers signal their own virtue by supporting the views through publication. This means that the current marketplace is heavily politicized, with no sign of the extremism letting up.

Writers seeking publication would do well to take a look at the political stances of the magazines and anthologies currently in the market and pick those that match their own philosophy and steer clear of those that don’t. From what Gerrold says, this will seriously impact both writer and publisher’s reputations, and it will be difficult to stay neutral in the culture war. For one thing, neutral stores don’t advance the publisher’s agenda, and according to Gerrold’s analysis, remaining silent on the issues just gets you lumped with the opposing side. Plus, unpublished.

Is there any room here for real freedom of expression?

Sales!

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I’ve sold a story called “The Offering” to a Dark Cloud Press anthology called Tales of Blood and Squalor. This is a landmark sale, as both the story and the anthology are horror. I just don’t do horror, but a little while back I got in this mood. So, my first horror sale. Yah, me!

I’ll post an update as publication becomes imminent.

Review of “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn

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This short story is a Hugo finalist published by Tor.com in March 2016.

Enith and Gaant have been at war. Although they have reached a peace agreement, there are war casualties on both sides. Calla is a military nurse from Enith and receives a message from the Gaant Major Lan that she met during the war. “I would like to see you, and bring the game if you can,” he says. The Gaant are telepathic and the Enith are not, but Calla bravely sets off with her chess set. She and Lan have a complex past, as each has been the other’s prisoner. She finds him in a hospital and the two set up a game, begin to play. Soon others of the doctors and nurses are offering suggestions.

Pros: This is a fairly straightforward story that reviews the experiences the two had together during the war and emphasizes their losses and their kindness to one another. Finding something in common (the game) clearly brings them closer, and their relationship affects the surrounding individuals, as well. I gather this is about overcoming differences and appreciating the kindness of others.

Cons: The story suffers from limited world building and scope, and I ended up with little idea of the greater politics (what caused the war?), the cultures or what the world looks like. Without the telepathy, this wouldn’t be speculative fiction. The characters are not clearly drawn, and I came away without much of an idea about how anyone or anything looks. It relies on emotion to carry it, but (jaded me) didn’t feel a whole lot. It’s a noble message, but not outstanding in execution.

Three stars.

The Pressures for Diversity

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In the last blog, I mentioned how the pressure for diversity might influence literary awards. I had a couple of interesting experiences related to the awards cycle this year. First of all, I mentioned the exceptionally high level of diversity among the 2017 Nebula Awards finalists to a friend, and she said “Well, a committee did that.” It’s definitely a cynical viewpoint—she’s suggesting that the list of finalist is manipulated to produce the kind of diversity expected. It also suggests that the public at large is growing more skeptical of the awards results—you have to admit there are a lot of pressures on awards organizations these days to produce a diverse slate. The other experience is related to this.

A small SFF organization I’m a member of made an effort this year to exclude awards nominations they felt had drifted too far outside the speculative fiction genre. There was a challenge related to one exclusion, followed by a squabble about whether the organization was truly recognizing diversity. This was followed by a private discussion where management tried to decide how to proceed. The consensus was that once a diversity challenge has been raised, then the work has to be accepted; plus, the organization is likely to look bad if it doesn’t win. The entry went on to win the award.

I just happened to be lurking in the background and caught this particular discussion, but it’s a real eye-opener about what may actually go on in the awards process. I can’t complain about this particular winner. It was at least marginally speculative fiction, and it was well-written and deserving. However, I’m left with the question of whether it won because of its quality, or because the organization was pressured into 1) accepting it and 2) promoting it to win because of the complaints about diversity.

This is just one example of what can affect an award. What other kinds of pressures exist out there? Commercialism? Powerful publishers? Pleasing the public? And another question–does this kind of pressure for diversity also affect publishing?

Sales!

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While I was gone on vacation, I made a couple of short story sales, both to Mugwump Press. The fantasy story “Death in Marango” and science fiction story “Conjugation in the Shadow of Jupiter” will appear in two of their upcoming anthologies. More info on these as publication gets closer.

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