Jan 16

The Art of the Mean Review

I’m back from Perth.  It was lovely, thanks for asking.

While I was away, there were a couple of interesting posts about the art of reviewing.  The first one was by Martin Lewis, who celebrated his tenth anniversary as a reviewer by re-visiting the structure and content of his first review.  It’s a long post, but anyone genuinely interested in the art of reviewing should give it a read.  And while you’re there, track back through Martin’s blog and read his critiques of anthologies such as Shine, Mirrorshades and The Ascent of Wonder.   They’re wonderful and bloody funny

On the heels of this insightful post came this one by Liviu Suciu, a major contributor to the Fantasy Book Critic site.  In short, Liviu attacks the tone and content of this review by Liz Bourke on the Strange Horizon site of Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan.  Liviu takes particular exception to Liz’s opening paragraph:

Michael J. Sullivan is that rare beast, a man who self-published six books to moderate financial success, and parlayed that success into a deal with a major publisher. Theft of Swords collects the previously self-published The Crown Conspiracy (2007) and Avempartha (2009) in one volume. As of this writing, I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy. Sloppiness in amateurs is understandable. When professionals are involved, there should be consequences. I have words for these people. Bad words. But I’ll restrain myself, and restrict my vocabulary to standards acceptable in polite company. The book’s own words ought to be enough to condemn it.

Liviu, who is quite fond of Sullivan’s series, saw this opening and the review as a whole as “crude genre bashing”.  In the comments section on both the Fantasy Book Critic site and Strange Horizons, he goes on to say more about Liz Bourke’s mis-reading of the text and failing to appreciate the satirical nature of the book.  Both his own post and his response to the actual review on the SH page (coupled with the responses of others who took great offense to the review) has resulted in an explosion of comments on the SH site.  Last time I looked there were 102 responses.  This from a review site that is lucky to get any comments at all.*

I think the reason why SH often gets very few comments is because the reviews are often lengthy – more than 2,000 words – in-depth pieces of criticism.  If you’re looking for a quick was this book any good judgement Strange Horizons is probably not the place to go.  Especially if you don’t want the book spoiled.  That’s no criticism of either the site or reviews editor Abigail Nussbaum (who’s one of the better fan critics on the interwebs).  I think it’s fantastic that there’s an SF site on the web that actually takes the time to properly untangle the plot, themes and style of a novel or collection of short stories.

If I do have an issue with the Strange Horizon page is that at times the critiques – so focused on providing supporting evidence and getting to the guts of the material – have an academic and dry whiff about them.  In other words, I find them to be a bit earnest, lacking personality.

That’s why the Liz Bourke review is so startling and interesting and worth commenting on.  It’s precisely because of that opening paragraph that I read the rest of the review.  Maybe I’m shallow, but I love how visceral it is, how uncensored it feels.  (Though as she says herself I’m sure Liz could have said much worse).  This is a reviewer whose passionate about good books and professional work in general and is personally insulted when a writer and publisher fail to meet even the most basic of standards.

And what’s brilliant about Liz’s review, what takes it above genuinely vitriolic and angry and insulting pieces such as this one by Ruth Fowler**, is that Liz shows her workings.  Her opening paragraph is more then just an act of shock value to drag in the cheap seats like me, it’a actually the foundation of her argument which she clearly expresses in the rest of the review.  It’s fantastic stuff.  And rather than be castigated as an example of “genre bashing” it should be looked at as the benchmark for all passionate, well argued genre reviews.***  The sort that can generate 102 comments, even if more then half of those comments are drivel.

*In fact, before this recent blow-up the most commented on Strange Horizon review was Dan Hartland’s November review of Count to a Trillion by John C Wright, which garnered a massive 10 comments.

** You’ll note that, contrary to Liz, Ruth Fowler doesn’t even bother to finish Tiger’s Wife, undermining her rant about MFA courses.

*** Just like the reviews written by Martin Lewis.


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  1. Martin

    Thanks for the kind words about my writing. On the substance of your post, I am particularly disappointed in the way Liviu has behaved because it is part of an ongoing pattern (and just to note, he is a man). I’ve felt the need to actually ask for an apology from him this time because his comments about me on that blog post clearly cross the line. I’m not about to hold my breath though.

    1. Mondyboy

      I don’t read Vector, so my only exposure to your excellent reviews is your blog. Your picking apart of The Ascent of Wonder is some of the funniest and astute criticism I’ve read. As for Liviu (and thanks for pointing out that Liviu is a he… not sure why I thought he was a she… anyway…) his beef about Strange Horizons being anti any book that threatens the SFF establishment. I mean, WTF!? Actually, I feel sorry for Mark Charan Newton whose been coupled together with nutters like Wright and Asher.

  2. Niall

    In fact, before this recent blow-up the most commented on Strange Horizon review was…

    this review by one Martin Lewis, with a paltry 58 comments. We have had some conversations before now — see reviews of The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear, The Windup Girl, all in the 20s, and TV/film reviews quite often pick up a few. But I wouldn’t mind if it happened a bit more often, it’s true.

    1. Mondyboy

      Thanks for those links. I have to say that my “research” was very slight indeed. What’s a crying shame is that the comments, when they do appear, are so rarely about the text and seem more about the reviewer. But then, should we expect anymore from internet discourse…

  3. Liz Bourke

    Thank you.

    I’m a little boggled at how much pushback the review’s garnered, and how most of the arguments boil down to endless variations on the tone argument. (I expected *some* reaction – using strong rhetoric in public runs the risk of having that effect – but now I’m just hoping it doesn’t break SH’s comments.)

    1. Mondyboy

      I’m boggled as well. Thank the Lord you didn’t review George R R Martin’s latest…

      And it is a great review. So is your review of the Mark Lawrence book on Tor – where you also copped some flak. I hope you have a thick skin.

      1. Liz Bourke

        Thanks. Yeah, I can’t imagine the mess that would have been…

        I’m trying not to comment on the Prince of Thorns review any further? But I will say that I am definitely not impressed by the fact that Mark Lawrence himself appears to be still holding a grudge over what was not, actually, all that negative a review. (Someone was kind – or cruel – enough to send me a link to his twitter feed.)

        If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you’d *better* have a thick skin if you’re going to have opinions in public. Or at least develop one quickly. Sigh.

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