Following an exchange of thoughts on a worst reads of 2020 post on Re-enchantment Of The World, I’ve decided to write a bit about writing negative reviews, and the abundance of positive reviews one encounters.
I’m sure some of the more critical readers of this blog are at times baffled by all the positive reviews they see for – let’s be frank here – generic, uninspired produce. That is very noticeable on Goodreads, where new titles often harvest +4 scores quickly, and also in the blogosphere negative reviews are fairly rare.
That most books published today are generic needs no proof. Still, let me refer you to this brilliant piece on Speculiction, that looks at book titles of Fantasy published around 2018. The proliferation of accessible word-processing, cheap laptop computers and ever better and cheaper printing methods have flooded the market.
Everybody with a creative inclination and enough spare time can write a book nowadays. Our culture seems to laud free expression and believing in your own, unique self, and that seems to trick lots of people into thinking they are artists too. The dedication of Herbert and Tolkien to write their big books by hand or on a typewriter simply isn’t necessary anymore today. Editing has never been more easy.
But while Joseph Beuys claimed that Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler in the 60ies, his beef was with the fact that not everybody could study at an art academy in Germany at the time. So rather than a call for everybody to start writing books, Beuys’ ostensibly democratic dictum should rather be read as a call to learn how to write books first.
Pulp and generic writing have always existed, but whereas the pulp around 1960 was published in short books of about 140 pages, today it seems growth is an inescapable law for books too – new titles averaging 450 pages instead, often as a part of a series. While they have a cultural veneer, big publishers are in the sales business first and foremost: selling more volume = more profit.
I could add e-readers, self-publishing and free blogging as factors, but the gist is clear: the speculative fiction reader is overwhelmed by new titles this day and age.
This phenomenon isn’t restricted to speculative fiction, by the way. I have followed the metal scene actively since the early 90ies, and also in metal there is an exponential proliferation of bands, albums, releases. For fringe genres like black or death metal there were only a handful of labels, and one could more or less keep up with everything released if one was so inclined and had the money or enough tapes to trade. But with success comes a bandwagon, and somewhere between 1995 and 2000 things mushroomed.
Similar causes are easily pointed at here as well, and technology is a big part of it: everybody can make a very decent home studio with just a laptop and one mic. Top notch recording & mixing software like Audacity and Bandcamp are free. Designing a decent album cover similarly isn’t that hard anymore as it was in the early days of MS Paint or xeroxed fanzines. On top of all that, Bandcamp and others have solved the problem of distribution.
That leaves marketing as the sole problem – both for the aspiring metal band, as the big publisher of speculative fiction. And as technology, the internet and free time steadily become more available in developing countries too, the pool of creative humans becomes bigger and bigger with each passing day.
Enter negative reviews.
The value of reviews is often debated.
There are those that claim to never read reviews. They “do not need reviews.” If that is the case: how do they decide what to read next?
The answer is simple: they just read what is picked for them by marketing. Sure, they might decide between book A and book B when they’re in the bookshop, but those decisions are based on superficial stuff like the cover and the blurb: marketing again. Hell, even which books are displayed prominently on the store’s shelves is marketing. The same goes for Amazon’s algorithms.
Some keep relying on the Awards for guidance – but even the old trustworthy prizes are no guide anymore. The Hugo’s have become politicized, and the popular vote has always been a strange marriage of trends, group think and clever marketeers. Originality is not the main factor, as anybody who has read A Memory Called Empire and enough other SF can attest too.
I could not read without reviews. A big part of deciding what books to buy is reading reviews. In a way, I consider this blog as a kind of curating service to others. I spend countless of hours of reading other reviewers, on different platforms – blogs, Goodreads, Amazon, LibraryThing, and traditional newspapers and magazines. If I come across a title that looks interesting, the first thing I do is go to Goodreads and read reviews of people I’ve friended over the years, and who’s tastes I can more or less assess – for one does not need to only assess the books themselves, but also the reviews.
The crucial step is what happens after: I filter for 1 and 2-star reviews, and read those. That habit has saved me a lot of time and money.
The problem is: new books tend to have far fewer negative reviews. What’s happening there?
The answer to that question would merit proper research, and would make a good topic for a PhD in literary science, but as I’m not part of the academic world anymore, and my time is limited, I will leave you with some preliminary thoughts on the matter.
An important reason is the trepidation that some reviewers have to writing negative reviews. Over the years I’ve come across many people voicing some kind of variant of “I don’t write negative reviews”.
Some don’t do so out of a sense of respect: the author put their soul into writing this book, and that deserves respect, not some nagging review. Other people try to stay away from “negative energy”, and that includes writing negative reviews. And yet others think taste is such a determining factor, that writing a negative review is so subjective that it is basically useless. Finally, some reviewers don’t trust their own abilities, don’t feel adequately schooled in literary criticism to voice negative opinions – the book got published, it must have some merit, I guess I’m unworthy, not this book? The fact that there’s the persistent stereotype that reviewers are just failed writers doesn’t help to embolden the potential negative reviewer.
Another factor is the fact that some reviewers don’t review books they did not finish out of principle. This is reinforced by some readers that tend to dismiss DNF reviews right out of hand.
When taken together, these two factors clearly tilt the available reviews to the positive side.
I’m not immune to these considerations myself. I do write negative reviews, and I often enjoy writing them – the Irulan motto underneath my About page is a bit of a give-away – but after I got a ton of backlash for my review of The Algebraist in the Iain M. Banks Facebook group, I decided not to post my lukewarm Transition review there. I guess I was naive in thinking the majority Banks fans would be able to have a rational conversation based on the arguments in the review, instead of a shouting match.
That takes me to another set of factors: the social.
At times, I have the feeling that a significant part of early readers are fans part of a fandom that seems to like about anything with the label SF or Fantasy, and for these readers reading is more a matter of identity and not so much literature. Especially all the politically correct SF that has come out the last 5 or 10 years seems to confirm that. After Gamergate, the entire saga of the Puppies and their ilk seems to indicate that an important part of speculative fiction has become part of the Culture Wars. If your reading is the act of a culture war soldier rather than the act of a lover of culture at large, that kind of tribalism gets you into cheering for the like-minded more easily rather than being critical.
These fandom readers also tend to favor the new over anything else: I’m truly baffled by some readers that only seem to read and review books published the very year they read in it – some read over 50 or 100 books published today, 2020 or 2021. There are not even books from 2015 or 2010 in their feed, let alone books from the 1980s or 1950s. Readers like that easily lack historical perspective – unless they have been reading for 3 or 4 or 5 decades. Especially young readers might fall prey to the cult of the new, but either way, if the bulk of the stuff you read is generic contemporary stuff, that becomes your baseline.
But even for those not part of that part of fandom, there is an unavoidable pressure to conform. I have hesitated too when rating a book publicly on Goodreads. It’s simply harder to click 1 or 2 stars than it is to click 3 stars when everybody seems to rave about the book. I can’t remember the specific titles anymore, but I have occasionally given 3 or 2 stars while I actually wanted to give 2 or 1 stars. I don’t do that anymore, but believe me, it took some courage to rate The Return of the King 2 stars only. Two stars mean “it was ok” according the Goodreads scale. That’s not even a bad rating, if you think of it.
A reason that is specific for Goodreads is that people tend to have their own star rating system. That doesn’t always translate well to the Goodreads system – all the more as they don’t work with half stars. And the Goodreads scale is tilted towards the positive: only a 1 star rating is truly negative, so if you just use your own scale, a rating of 2 out of 5 stars – that is essentially negative to most people – becomes an “it’s ok” on Goodreads. It would be helpful to publish the average scoring of every user next to every of their scores, not just on their profile page.
Entertainment seems to trump everything these days. Also in Hollywood plot holes or consistency don’t seem to matter anymore. As Ola G has put it in the discussion I referred to at the very beginning: “I don’t see too much critical reception of any kind of cultural artifacts lately – as if their only purpose was escapist entertainment and whatever crosses that bar is just fantastic and no questions asked.” Maybe we have become old farts – I’m guessing people said similar things 50 years ago as well. Still, marketing and focus groups tend to determine a director’s hand more these days than 25 years ago, or at least, that’s the way it seems to me if I just compare the big commercial movies.
There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, I enjoy a nice beach read too, so here we get to the crux of the entire discussion: what is good? What is quality? Taste remains a strange thing to discuss.
A final factor, more specific to book blogging, are ARCs – Advanced Reader Copies: the promotional stuff publishers send out in bulk to e-readering reviewers these days. People tend to be more positive about books received like that, out of thankfulness and respect, and out of fear of not getting anymore in the future. It’s easily imagined and all to human to add half a star or a star if it’s an ARC – it undoubtedly is an unconscious mechanism for lots of reviewers. ARCs tend to operate as a feedback loop, as publishers stay away from reviewers that are known to be very critical.
As ARCs are cheaper than ever to distribute via e-mail today, my guess is they are distributed much more widely than 10 or 20 years ago, resulting in even more positive online reviews.
I have received a few ARCs myself, but by self-publishing authors only. I didn’t finish any of the manuscripts, and common decency told me not to write a review in that case. These people payed for the paper and the postage – I don’t own an e-reader, and postage to Europe is ludicrously expensive for American authors. On top of that, some of these books were so bad I dropped out of them after 20 pages – and that’s just not enough material to base a review on.
All the talk about “honest review” or “in exchange for an honest opinion” is obviously well meant, but it’s clear ARCs skew reviews to the positive side.
In short: Sturgeon’s law also applies to reviews.
If you think of other factors, or have a different perspective, don’t hesitate to comment. It would be very interesting to hear from people that work in publishing.
And if you are a reviewer yourself, please, do not withhold the reader community your negative thoughts. They are a matter public service.