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 Miller thinks this is an outdated model, and that critical readings should be saved for the classroom.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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The Red Panda Faction

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It looks like there’s a new player in the 2018 Dragon Awards. A leftist group calling themselves the Red Panda Faction posted recommendations for voting during the last few hours before it closed. Here’s the description of their mission: “We are leftist fans of SF/fantasy/horror lit & film, gamers, & comic book nerds…who discuss & promote leftist, LGBTQ+, and feminist cultural works in SF/fantasy/horror.”

The Dragon Awards guidelines don’t discourage slates or campaigning, but it’s a little unusual for SFF justice warrior groups to clearly state their mission in political terms this way. Apparently there was a Facebook page, too, but when I tried to find it, it seemed to be down. Here’s the slate the Pandas posted:

Best Science Fiction Novel

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Death’s End by Liu Cixin

Best Fantasy Novel

Blood of the Earth by Faith Hunter

Best Military Scifi/Fantasy novel

Allies & Enemies: Exiles by Amy J. Murphy

Best YA/Middle Grade Novel

A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas

Best Alternate History Novel

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Best Apocalyptic Novel

American War by Omar El Akkad

Best Horror Novel

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Best Comic Book

Monstress by Marjorie Liu

Best Graphic Novel

My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris

Best SF/Fantasy TV Series

Stranger Things, Netflix

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie

Arrival by Denis Villeneuve

Best PC/Console game

Mass Effect: Andromeda by Bioware

Best SF/Fantasy Mobile Game

Monument Valley 2 by ustwo games

Best SF/Fantasy Board Game

Terraforming Mars by Stronghold Games

Best SF/Fantasy Miniatures/Collectible Card/RPG

Pulp Cthulhu by Chaosium

Review of “43 Responses to ‘In Memory of Dr. Alexandra Nako'” by Barbara A. Barnett

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Here’s another short story published by Daily Science Fiction with 10 recommendations.

The format looks like an exchange of Twitter messages. The first is from puppyhugs42 thanking Dr. Bates for his tribute to Dr. Alexandra Nako. The next is from Chekhov’s Jellyfish opining that there really is something beyond death, and that Dr. Nako is a martyr. The third is from AlexandraNako, addressed to Kevin. She tells him he needs to stop the research immediately. Contributors take this as insensitive use of Dr. Nako’s name, and Dr. Bates responds that the research will continue. Nako continues to post, and is banned twice, but quickly returns under other usernames to continue her warnings. Bates posts that he considers this harassment and has called security. Spam starts to come over his feed.

Like most of Daily SF stories, this one is very short. The format is creative and the story emerges from the exchange of posts as the users carry on a conversation. It remains only suggestive, as Nako is never able to post a complete warning—the letters jumble when she tries. Because of this, it never really says anything, only reveals small bits of information about the characters and what they might possibly have been doing. This means it doesn’t present thoughtful ideas or ask much in the way of questions. The story is entertaining, but again a hard sell for a Nebula nomination.

Three stars.

Has the Hugo Turned into an Affirmative Action Award?

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Another point that came up during the recent discussion at File 770 was how the Hugo Award winners are now regarded. There was commentary on this well before the 2016 awards cycle. For example, various bloggers have noted that the awards are increasingly dominated by women and minorities. In 2015 Brad Torgersen posted his  view of this trend, which is that the Hugos are being used as an “affirmative action award”. For anyone vague on what that means, affirmative action is defined as “an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination.” The fact that anyone sees it this way is another suggestion (see previous blog) that the award voting has become politically motivated. Of course, any reasonable exchange on the idea is impossible. As one poster at File 770 noted, it is “inherently racist” to discuss the results in this way.

This is not to suggest that the winning works are not deserving. The makeup of the SFF community has clearly changed over the more than a century that SFF has been recognized as a genre. This means that readers’ tastes have changed, as well. I tend to lean progressive, and I love the interesting and creative elements that diverse authors bring to the genre. I reviewed all the winners this year and pointed out deserving elements well before the awards were given (as well as undeserving ones). However, the political squabble tends to obscure the positives. For an idea of how the response to this year’s awards went, check this exchange on Twitter.

Because of the virulence of the politics, no one these days can be sure whether they’ve won a Hugo Award based on the quality of the works or because of the politics. It looks to be a damaging experience. The Twitter exchange is another example of Internet bullying of someone who had little to do with allocation of the awards. Regardless of the Hugo committee’s efforts, you have to admit the Puppies are now right about a taint in the awards system.

Note: Mike Glyer has asked me to note that discussions that take place at File 770 don’t necessarily represent his personal views.

Worldviews and gatekeepers

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A couple of blogs ago, I reviewed Cecily Kane’s article in Fireside Magazine and asked if the publication rate for black authors was really evidence of racism in SFF publication. Whatever the answer, the immediate result of Kane’s article seems to have been that African American Nebula/Hugo Award finalist N.K. Jemisin was suddenly inundated by solicitations for stories.

Jemisin went on to provide an interview for Kane that’s linked to the Fireside article. Jemisin suggests that submissions from black writers to SFF publication might actually be lower than expected because there is a strong self-publishing market for black authors. This grew up in the 1990s when traditional publishers were slow to accept black interest fiction. Now, black writers have to make a choice about whether to submit to a traditional market or self-publish, and many decide to go the direct route and not wait through the slush pile for a rejection slip.

Jemisin also comments on the market forces that constrain black writers to write for mainstream interests. She notes she was 30 years old before she felt confident about writing black characters into her fiction. Because POC try to suit the market, she says, bias becomes self-perpetrating.

In an associated article, Justina Ireland addresses the question of quality as an excuse from publishers. “I’d love to acquire more authors from [marginalized group],” she quotes, “but the stories I get just aren’t of a very good quality!” She then notes that quality often has to do with taste and bias. Anyone who’s been following the recent Puppy activism can probably relate to that.

Jemisin’s interview and associated comments on Twitter also attracted attention from the Puppy camp. “…the Sad Puppies are the bad ones here, but I note that NK Jemsin’s complaint is the same one: GATE KEEPERS,” says the Phantom Soapbox.

Sciencing the bullies

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Just a few more comments before leaving this bullying topic for a while: The SFF community isn’t the only group suffering from this issue. Poking around turned up an interesting blog by Oliver Keyes on the response to his resignation from the volunteer R programming community. Before anyone rushes forward with complaints, I notice that Keyes is not blameless in the bullying sphere. At the very least, he has a wacky sense of humor. He is also employed by Wikipedia, another community rife with bullies.

After his report about a bug in the R programming language was shut down by management, Keyes resigned and received a number of comments on his site, including, apparently, 28 death threats. In response, he conducted a study which he delicately entitled “Oliver Keyes Sciences the Shit Out of the Arseholes on his Blog.” He analyzed 183 comments and found 107 users, of which he determined 67 were arseholes. He also traced their referring site and geo-located their IP address, leading to some fascinating results.

The first chart he presents is “Probability of commenter being an arsehole, based on website of origin.” Interestingly, commenters coming from Vox Day’s website had a 100% probability of being arseholes. The next highest probability went to Google at about 80%. The lowest probabilities were Twitter at about 20% and Facebook at about 30%. Keyes noted that commenters coming from Wikipedia also had a 100% probability rating, but the number of commenters was too small to make it onto the graph.

Next, Keyes looked at country of origin. Because of the language involved in the blog, nearly 100% of comments came from English-speaking countries. “Probability of commenter being an arsehole, based on country of origin” showed the UK in the lead with about 75% probability, the US at about 70% probability and Canada at about 50%.

It’s true that people commenting on this particular resignation had an axe to grind, but still this is an interesting sampling of the kind of comments that some people get. I guess you have to be pretty thick-skinned if you expect to maintain a presence on the Internet.

Checking on diversity in the awards

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The graph I pointed out a while back from Cory Doctorow turns out to be from a study Nicola Griffith is heading on the distribution of literary awards. Here’s an article Doctorow has written about it online titled “Gender and sf awards: who wins and for what,” and here is a blog post from Griffith about her intent.

Not only is the study group checking to see who wins, but also whether the main characters of the winning entries are male, female or mixed. This is producing some interesting data. According to Griffith, the more prestigious the award, the more likely the subject is to be male. For example, forty percent of Hugo awards for novels from 2000-2014 went to men writing about men/boys, and another 13% went to women writing about men/boys. The other 47% of winners was divided between men or women writing about women/girls or about mixed male/female or uncertain characters. Within this group, men took the biggest bite again, receiving 20% of the awards with novels about mixed male and female characters. This leaves men dominating in some way for 73% of the awards. The graph Doctorow posted on Twitter from the study group shows that awards for women pretty much followed their professional involvement in SF&F writing until the late nineties, when then a downward trend stuck. So far there’s no info on why.

Griffith’s study group also plans to look at other awards like the Edgars, the Campbells, the Pulitzer and the Newbery. Besides who wins for what, they’re also planning to ask publishers and booksellers about the standards and procedures for choosing, supporting and publicizing books for awards. The articles include a link to her study group for anyone interested in helping with the study.

Graphs courtesy of the Literary Prize Data study headed by Nicola Griffith.

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