Reviewer’s Etiquette: Making An Apology

Being withing the publishing-related blogosphere, etiquette is becoming ever more important day by day. Week on week there is some instance where etiquette breaks down and some kind of meltdown happens. Last year was especially notorious in that regard with several controversies stemming from reviews over at Goodreads where authors and their posse attacked reviewers for negative comments or even vice versa where reviewers (Goodreads reviewers to be specific) engaged in deliberate author baiting.

It was so bad for a while, in my opinion, that it was as if Goodreads was just going to implode and gain a certain notoriety to such an extent that authors would just give up on the site altogether. Fortunately, that never happened.

In recent times, it has all been replaced by a beast of another kind: reviewers baiting each other or authors engaging in some really despicable bigoted thinking that is absolutely vile (no, I’m not referring to a certain “master” SF author here). The latest example of the reviewer baiting happened a few days ago over at Fantasy Faction. And the culprit happened to be none other than “Overlord” Marc Aplin, who runs the site and is its chief editor.

Marc Aplin’s review of Emperor of Thorns is where the instance of reviewer baiting happened. I have absolutely no contention with the review itself. I’ve read the first book in the Broken Kingdom series, Prince of Thorns, and I hold quite a negative opinion of it. I won’t ever get around to reading either King of Thorns or Emperor of Thorns, since the first novel told me that the type of narrative and the protagonist that Lawrence used are just not to my tastes at all. I go into a bit more detail than that in my own review, which can be found here. And the reason I mention my (negative) review here, is because Marc Aplin attacked a review of the self-same book in his review of the second sequel to that book.

The first thing that set me off was why this happened in the first place. The review at Tor.com was posted on the release date of Prince of Thorns and the reviewer was going off everything that was present in the book, plus her own subjectivity. And yet, almost two years later, we have Marc Aplin here, scoring some cheap humour points off it and saying that he was, wait for it, “offended by the review”.

I address my next comments directly to Marc: Marc, it is perfectly within your rights and interests as a reader and a fan of Mark Lawrence’s work to be offended by a negative review of his novels. You are passionate about these books, you clearly like them and you are, to use your own phrase, “…an advocate of ‘good’ fantasy books…” Everything is fine and dandy here. Feel free to talk about the kind of review that went up on Tor.com because they clearly conflict with your own opinions. But come on, how do you utterly fail to see that what you did was a violation of an unspoken code amongst reviewers? How does it make sense for you to pull quotes from that review two years later to justify your own opinions for why a reader should go ahead and pick up Emperor of Thorns? And not only that, but picking only that review, from a female reviewer, and going into allegations of sexism against HER?

I do hope that I am not the only one to see a problem with that, blog readers. The cached version of that original review by Aplin is no longer available. Thankfully, I have screenshots. My apologies in advance to the reviewer in question, Liz Bourke, for posting these since she took a strong exception to Aplin in using her name in a familiar and derogatory manner when he has never interacted with her before. My intentions are not the same.

Baiting 101Makes one wonder doesn’t it?

I spend some time on Fantasy Faction on and off. The editorials on the state of the fantasy genre, especially those that explore how far it has come, where it is going, and the various analyses of the trends within I find to be fascinating reads. They are the primary reason why I visit that site. I’ve had some limited forum interaction (extremely limited rather since I tend to be a lurker far more than a commenter), but overall, I’ve always seen Fantasy Faction as a site that generates positivity and encourages it. I frequent two other forums, on a far more regular basis, and I come across far more negativity there, especially one of them in particular. So its nice to see a site like Fantasy Faction where civil and respect discourse is a priority of everybody.

And then something like this comes along, from the site’s chief editor no less, and all that goes out of the window. If he is setting this kind of an example, then how can others fail to emulate him? It is as simple as that.

Using Liz Bourke’s name in a derogatory manner, to convey an insult, and then make the accusation that she is biased against male authors? It boggles my mind to see such lack of professionalism from such a high profile site.

Let me be clear. I’m no stranger to allegations of not being professional myself. Some of these are true, some of these aren’t. And I’ve fielded my share of controversies with respect to negative reviews and negative views before, ever since January of last year, and most prominently January of this year. So I won’t be saying that my image is squeaky clean, because it is not.

However, I will put forward that I have never broken this unspoken code amongst reviewers (blog reviewers to be specific), where I slag them if their opinions don’t match them with mine, and I call them out in my own reviews with such casual condescension as Marc Aplin displays here. Why? Because it is all so counter-productive. It all comes down to respecting subjectivity. I’m a loud opponent of some authors and books, and these are mostly ones where I hold rather strong opinions, of the kind that will most likely never change, but when it comes to a discussion, I don’t slag people for believing differently. I try to be better than that.

In the review-blogosphere, memories are rather long and the community of reviewers is rather small. This is something that I’ve observed all over the place, in my 22 months as a reviewer. Everybody knows each other, even just peripherally, and to stand out as a bad apple…. well, that’s a quick way to get ostracized and ignored. Definitely not a goal of mine.

To go back to Aplin’s so-called review (his comments on Liz Bourke precede his actual review of Emperor of Thorns), I take exception when he derides her most of all for not looking at Jorg (the protagonist of the Broken Empire series) through all the three books of the series. To repeat from earlier, Bourke read the first book around its release and that’s when the review was put up. Why, and how, could she look at the events and characters and narrative therein and make a judgement based on the ENTIRE trilogy? Did Marc Aplin fail to read the post date on the review?

A book, especially in a series, should first and foremost stand on its own before it is considered as part of a series or even a set of loosely-connected novels. And first books should hook the reader and give him or her enough motivation and reason to stick around for a sequel. Prince of Thorns gave me no reason to do that. It gave no reason to Bourke for doing that. It gave Aplin a reason. All I can do at that is shrug my shoulders because… whatever. Subjectivity right? And yet, Aplin takes Bourke to task for not considering that Prince of Thorns is part of a trilogy and that she should not comment about that book before reading the other books.

Quite frankly, it is one of the daftest things I’ve ever read on Fantasy Faction, let alone on the internet, as far as reviews are concerned.

After all was said and done, Bourke eventually found out about how she was being misrepresented and how her name was being misappropriated by someone she has never had any interaction with. And so, Twitter came alive with discussions surrounding her being named and challenged in Aplin’s review. Even the comments section of the review itself became a place of some measure of heated discussion.

I was already irked at the review and with Aplin. Reading the comments did not help in any way (not providing the screenshots at the moment, but I can if needed).

One commenter, going under a pseudonym, came to Aplin’s defense after somehow finding out that Aplin had been called sexist by Bourke (rightly so, in my opinion). Said commenter saw no reason why she would be offended and that since she had clearly engaged in less-than-respectable behaviour (according to said commenter), then other people had every right to be less-than-respectable to her. That’s the kind of logic that always makes me want to headdesk and rage on.

The underlying principle of that argument is the old “eye for an eye, blood for blood” belief. It sounds far better in fiction than it does in real life. A few days ago I talked about my reasons for boycotting a certain SF movie that was coming out because my moral compass and my beliefs are completely at odds with those of the author who penned the book that this movie is based on. I go into much more detail in the post itself, and in the comments section, but the point I’m trying to make is that there is a huge difference between “everyone has a right to freedom of speech but that does not mean freedom from consequence” and “if you want to act like shit towards something I like, then I have every right to call you out on it and act shitty towards you”.

What it all boiled down to, eventually, was that Aplin was perfectly content to have people slag off other people, even call them names and curse at them. He acted nonchalant, uncaring, and just smiled on.

I suppose that eventually he started to feel the heat however. Because he ended up editing his review to remove references to Bourke, while still keeping his attack on her perception and subjectivity of Prince of Thorns. And he issued an apology, which I quote below.

Dear Miss Bourke,

I apologise if offended you. However, being an advocate of ‘good’ fantasy books, it kind of hurt to hear you slander one of the very best.

In addition, I have to say, I found parts of your review quite insulting; and not just your comments towards the author either, but to me as a reader and as a person. For reference, the bit that most offended me – for there was much more – was as follows:

Quote
If you like bleak, bloody, and gruesome novels about cold-blooded unprincipled sociopaths who achieve their murderous dreams, then this book will be perfect for you … Me, I need to go scrub out my brain.

To me, that seems an attack on my character – am I weird for enjoying this book? Are the many Fantasy-Faction readers who don’t need to scrub their brain weird too? I’m not so sure I like ‘cold-blooded unprincipled sociopaths who achieve their murderous dreams’ (it is also worth pointing out you have only read the first book and therefore cannot say whether he achieves his dreams or not), but what I like is the fact that I’m setting out on a journey with a character who has shed the shackles of my expectations and who, I can proudly say, I’m excited to follow and see where he ends up.

Many people would say that great literature is the deviation from expectation and very often, therefore, constraints. If that’s true, Mark Lawrence certainly deserves all the attention he has been getting. I’m just sorry you were so offended that you couldn’t enjoy it to the extent such a large percentage of the community has. I honestly think it is one of the most important series of the decade.

Once again though, for my referring to you by your first name and using the term ‘Bourked’, I’m sorry.

Marc Aplin

Aside from me laughing out loud at certain bits of this apology, I was rather…. offended. Let me repeat myself one more time: Liz Bourke read and reviewed the novel by its release date. She did not… enjoy the kind of discourse that the community has since then. I doubt, given her review, if she even bothered to pick up King of Thorns. As a matter of speculation, I’d say that the “community” that Aplin talks here was, at the time of her review’s publication, limited to a select group of reviewers the world over (or, I suppose, in the English-speaking countries) who received advance reading copies. The “large percentage of the community” happened after the fact.

A friend of mine has deconstructed Aplin’s apology rather eloquently here. Aplin’s apology is to the tune of “yeah, I agree that the setting and characters are bleak and cold and heartless, but dammit, I liked it, so why didn’t you? Something’s wrong with YOU”.

Having read Bourke’s review, and the comments section of said review, I certainly don’t walk off thinking that she was commenting about the contents of the novel rather than the author or the reader. Honestly, her comment is pretty spot on. In hindsight, if a reader has read all three of the Broken Empire novels (more like two actually since Emperor of Thorns has a August 1st release date, just four days from now), then the reader clearly likes the setting that Lawrence created, the reader likes the kind of protagonist that Jorg is. Aplin clearly states that he considers this series to be one of the most important series of the decade and his reviews of all three books are glowing reviews praising the setting and the character and everything else. So why really is he offended? Answer: he can’t handle that someone prominent in the reviewing community disagreed with his opinions. Two years ago.

I just shake my head in disappointment.

Finally, much as with his challenge and attack on her, Aplin’s apology is just as condescending. He puts the blame on Bourke for having a dissenting opinion and for him calling her out on it.

So not the way of making an apology.

To compound matters, he soon closed the comments section of the review after posting his apology. I had two comments in the moderation queue waiting to go up at that point, and had been in the queue for at least 25 minutes. They never went live, even though comments from the aforementioned commenter, Aplin himself, and other people were going through. And then… and then, he posted his apology on the Fantasy Faction forums. And lo behold, the first two responses were agreeing completely with him. I was not surprised. I was surprised however that a particular author (I’ve not read any of his work as yet, and after reading his thoughts in this thread I have no motivation to either) joined in on the condemnation of Bourke and that she had no right to post that review. Sigh.

The biggest offending piece of this post on the forums was that Aplin began by saying “So, seems I upset Liz Bourke today with….”. The emphasis there is mine.

Dear Marc, there is no “seems” there. She was offended. Quite rightly so. Even I was offended by your approach. You are writing an apology and yet you are still finding excuses to shift the blame on her. I have a suggestion for you: just don’t do shit like this in the future.

I posted a somewhat lengthy response as you can see, and Aplin’s own response there. I finally realised that Aplin is just a big-name jerk, nothing else. Sorry, Marc, but the way you continued to conduct yourself was offensive. Offensive enough that I had to put down my views on the whole affair in writing. The veneer of good social grace you displayed in your apology and in your response to me was an illusion broken when you said you were closing the thread lest it become a platform for a flame war. May I remind you that I was the only one who challenged you there and that I certainly was not flaming you in any way? You closed comments on the review and then the forum post just when someone was attempting an unbiased discussion?

By unbiased I mean in the sense that I did not agree with your conduct? And your parting comment, which I’ll quote, was just gold, in its entirety:

I’ll be good from now on :) As you say: a place of positivity. BUT, if you’d like to vent further frustration or anger at me, would like answers to any of your questions or would like to arrange a place we can have a fight to the death, please PM or E-mail me :D

Frustration? Anger? Fight to the death? Yeah, I definitely place you in the jerk list. As a reviewer, you offend me Marc Aplin. I’m sorry.

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Posted on July 27, 2013, in Book Reviews, Editorial, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Hey. I hate to ask this, but could you email me the comments? I’m a regular on FF, (Don Juan Cherry Tempo/formerly C.Hill) and I completely missed the whole stir of things. I’m purely curious and will say that the review, ie. comparing two different reviews, was wrong in and of itself, regardless of the details. But as I said, I’m curious as to the details. 😀

    My email is “calebgranthill@hotmail.com” without the quotations. Thanks for an insightful look into this!

    Like

  2. So I may or may not actually have processed your whole post correctly because it’s hard for me to read things when I’m also trying to keep my kid from getting herself killed. That being said, my actual comment probably has nothing to do with anything, but oh well.

    I don’t understand why people take different opinions so damn seriously. Honestly, I couldn’t begin to care less if someone doesn’t like a book I loved. Zero bother factor. I also don’t get why people have to be so damn personal with authors when they write books that aren’t well received by certain people. Jorg and his books are very, very polarizing. You either love them, or hate them. I LOVE them but I don’t think there’s anything wrong or offensive if people hate them. I just don’t get that at all. Why would someone take a difference of opinions/perception so damn personally? It seems incredibly childish to me.

    The thing about reviewing that makes it so fun IS when people disagree with me and they discuss it. For example, you and I disagreed about a book I read recently. I wasn’t the least bit offended. The boot camp section just killed it for me. It was way too long, but the rest of the book was good. The difference of opinion is great, because people who LIKED that book and discuss their reasons for doing so open my eyes up to a new way to read that book and potentially enjoy it. It broadens my horizons.

    I don’t frequent forums for this pissing-contest reason. I don’t get into it. People take things way too seriously and I can’t wrap my head around why so-and-so feeling such a way about (insert book here) matters. Then I get all irked because that difference of opinion is INTERESTING not OFFENSIVE. Everyone processes everything in their own unique ways. Isn’t that what makes the world so colorful? Can’t people respect the author if not their book? Can’t people respect the reviewer if they don’t agree with the review?

    Hell, I don’t know… but there you go. That’s my tangent and it has nothing to do with anything but oh well.

    Like

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