Publishing and Marketing 07: A Reviewer’s Self-Examination
A few days ago I came across a review of Mark Lawrence’s second Broken Empire novel, King of Thorns (link), which is up for nomination for the David Gemmell Legend Awards in the Legend category. The Legend Award is given to the Best Novel of the previous year. On Twitter and Facebook, I talked about how that review justified all my reasons and fears for not reading further into this series after my experiences with the first novel, Prince of Thorns (review).
My tweets eventually spawned off a discussion about negative reviews, which led into the review that forms the basis and reason for this entire post. In January last year, reviewer Liz Bourke wrote about Michael J. Sullivan’s first Riyria Revelations novel, Theft of Swords (link). This review was brought to my attention by a friend on Twitter who had taken exception to the way that Liz Bourke took potshots at the author and his editors at Orbit Books.
Going through the review and the comments thread, some things become apparent to me as to the intent of the review, the tone it is written in, and what, ultimately, were the reactions. However, what really ended up happening was that it all sparked off some self-examination about negative reviews. And that’s what this post is all about.
So welcome to another Publishing and Marketing blogpost.
Before we get started, I’d like to make a few things clear, so just bear with me.
First. Michael J. Sullivan originally self-published the Riyria Revelations novels. He wrote all six of them before he started publishing them. You can find all sorts of details on that entire process on his blog (link). In 2011, Orbit bought the print (at least, not sure about digital as well) publication rights to the novels. They then published the six novels as three 2-book omnibuses. The sixth novel, which had not yet been published by Michael, got a separate digital release so people who wanted only that one (pretty much all the readers he had already acquired by that point) didn’t have to re-buy the fifth novel in a packaged edition.
Second. Michael has publicly mentioned that he started to write the novels to be light-hearted fantasy and that he went for a more serious and engaging tone as he went on, evolving the series as it were.
The reason I mention this is so that there’s a necessary context for people going into this entire discussion. Context that might otherwise be unavailable to them for a variety of reasons.
Third. I’ve read all the Riyria Revelations novels and I’m a big fan of Michael’s work. You can read my reviews of his books here (collected editions): Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, Heir of Novron; and the recently-released (single) prequel novel The Crown Tower, which is the first in the Riyria Chronicles series.
Fourth. I completely disagree with Liz Bourke’s review and I think that it is even unprofessional, not because of the content exactly, but for its tone. And retroactively, because of how she’s justified the review and engaged with commenters.
So that’s all of that. Hopefully, all that has established the context for what follows next.
I won’t go into any kind of discussion about the opening paragraph of the review. I hold the opinion that as it is written, it is absolutely disgusting and clearly nothing more than completely deliberate bait to incite an aggressive response. That paragraph does a disservice to the reviewer, to the platform that is hosting the review, and to all the readers of that review, whether they agree with that opinion or not.
No, that’s not what I want to discuss. There’s no point to that discussion because I have extremely little interest in any kind of mud-slinging, for surely that’s what it would devolve into.
The reason I am writing this post, and the reason that the title is as it is, is that the review has forced me to look at how I write negative reviews, the intent behind them, and so on and so forth. To use as examples, I give you two reviews that have given me the most trouble in the last 21 months (I’ve been a reviewer for 3 months longer than that): Throne of Lies by Aaron Dembski-Bowden and Eisenhorn vs Ravenor #1: Pariah by Dan Abnett. Go ahead and give them both a read. I’ll be here while you do.
The reason I say that these reviews have given me trouble is because I’ve had to face a distinct surfeit of negativity for them. I’ve received a lot of hate-mail for them. I’ve received a lot of negative commentary on social media for them. My status as a reviewer, my integrity as a reviewer, and more has been called into question. Why? Because I dared to go against the public opinion of the fandom. I’ll be perfectly honest, the fanbase for these two authors, widely considered to be two of the best authors writing for Black Library today, is largely a rabid and vocal fanbase that does not tolerate any dissenting opinion. Given that my opinion on Black Library books rarely, if ever, falls with the so-called popular opinion, I’ve faced my fair share of hostile criticism, although nothing as close as what I did in the wake of writing those two reviews.
So, after reading Liz Bourke’s review of Theft of Swords from last year, I came to thinking about negative reviews, especially ones that go out of their way to bait their readers. And in doing so, I was forced to a self-examination about certain criticisms I’ve made of various novels in the past, criticisms that are similar to what Liz Bourke’s review mentions.
The first of these is the use of “other” languages in fantasy. Last year, I wrote a review on Goodreads about a debut novel from St. Martin’s Press, Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff, in which I made a specific point about the author’s use of Japanese honorifics. The novel was purported to be Japanese steampunk fantasy, emphasis heavy on the “Japanese” part of that three-word phrase. It was a novel that I’d really, really been looking forward to, but was ultimately so disappointed with it that I didn’t even finish it. You can read the review here. Being a review specifically for Goodreads, the only such I’ve ever done, it doesn’t have the same… outer packaging that my reviews usually do, so do forgive that.
Anyway, the use of the Japanese language, or rather, the utter mangling of it, was one of the biggest reasons why I disliked the novel so much. And it is a point that a LOT of people, especially people who are familiar with the language, whether because they are native/non-native speakers or because they have second-hand experience through various entertainment media, picked up on. Quite scathingly so.
And in her review, Liz Bourke raises a similar point about Michael’s use of Old English to represent the wizard Esrahaddon’s dialogue in Theft of Swords.
The reason I raise this point is that while Jay Kristoff’s misuse bothered me a great deal, enough to get me really wound up about it, the same didn’t happen with Michael’s misuse. And I was forced to ask myself why. The dissonance bothers me. I raised this point on Twitter, and had a really interesting conversation with various people about it. And we came to a few conclusions and thoughts about it.
One of the first was this: Japanese is a living language actively spoken by millions of people around the world and is “consumed” by thousands more on a daily basis. Misuse of the Japanese language is a process mired in cultural controversies for the precise reason that it is a living language. Any misuse has implications of cultural dismissal and misrepresentation. And this is a point that is very relevant in today’s SFF scene, given all the ongoing discussions of Diversity in SFF.
Conversely, Old English is a… dead language, spoken by no more than a few thousand people at best and it does not have the same connotations of cultural misappropriation that a misuse of the Japanese language does. And the Riyria Revelations series does not make any pretensions about being an Old English high fantasy to anywhere near the same extent that the marketing for Stormdancer implied was the case with Stormdancer as a Japanese steampunk fantasy.
But, when you get down to the heart of it, the issue is about languages in SFF. J. R. R. Tolkien, widely regarded as the grandfather of epic fantasy (especially as we know it today, famously created several languages for The Lord of the Rings. Elvish, Dwarfish, languages for the many other cultures that are depicted in those novels. He did it all. And he set an extremely high bar with respect to world-building. He set an example that many have tried to follow over the years.
What this has all done is that it has created a “culture” in fantasy. All those “weird” names you see in fantasy novels? They’re all a result of that culture. Writers want to give their settings that extra oomph, that extra uniqueness. And so, they do what they do best: they make up names and then extending that to creating pseudo-languages.
So what does this all mean? Personally, it is perfectly okay for authors to create languages. It is also perfectly okay for authors to use real-world language to lend their books a certain amount of uniqueness, such as Michael did, or to lend their books a certain amount of authenticity, such as Jay Kristoff did. All the same, I don’t think that authors should misrepresent the languages that they are appropriating for their purposes, whatever those may be. Additionally, and very importantly, we should also consider what kind of a context that appropriation is being used for.
It is easy to pass off both misuses of real-world languages as “this is speculative fiction and the appropriations are just that setting’s version of those languages” so we shouldn’t act all harsh about whether or not they are misused. Creative license and all.
Still, this is a much more complicated issue. And the biggest reason for that is that the Japanese language is a completely different language than Old English or English. Completely different rules. Completely different cultural context. Completely different written representation. And that needs to be factored in when you want to use the Japanese language in your fiction. The key thing to remember here is that there is an… ongoing emotional and cultural connection with the Japanese language.
In all honesty, I can’t say the same for Old English. Outside of academics and enthusiasts, it just doesn’t have the same kind of connection to it, despite all its history, which is rich and varied and has given the world some of its most popular fiction. Which is why its just not such a big deal, not as much as its made out in the review.
But, all the same, I can definitely agree with the core of the point made by Liz Bourke. And I’d say that no matter what real-world language is used in fiction, it should be treated with respect and that any use of it should be well-researched. The point I made myself just now is as valid as the opposite, and we shouldn’t leave sight of either of them. The misuse of the Japanese language is going to turn off a much more significant readership than the misuse of a language that hardly anyone speaks in daily use, but that is hardly grounds for being, in any way, sloppy.
I love Michael’s work. His books have done much to reinvigorate my love for traditional fantasy. His misuse of Old English, as a pseudo-Old English, doesn’t bother me one bit because I lack the same comprehension for it that I have with the Japanese language. In light of all that I have said here, I don’t like his books any less, because it doesn’t lessen my enjoyment in anywhere near the same way as with Stormdancer.
So, now on to the second, and more important point: the tone of a negative review. To start, I’ll admit that I’ve gone for a sensational opening myself. My review of Pariah shows that, with the pull quote I chose to use: “In the battle of expectations versus reality, it’s my expectations that got bombed to hell”. I was using a rough war analogy to show the degree to which the novel failed to work for me. The rest of the review is, I think, absent from any further sensationalism. But, I’m guilty of it all the same.
I’ve had a fair amount of discussion on Facebook about the tone of Liz Bourke’s review. I consider the entire tone to be deliberately and needlessly aggressive. Many other people don’t see it that way and they consider it to be an extremely well-written review despite its opening paragraph. They don’t see what I do. And that’s perfectly fine. That’s a reflection of the reviewer-reader relationship in much the same way that the review is of one between the reviewer and the author. We all have differing opinions and there is no piece of fiction out there that EVERYbody loves. That’s just impossible. Somewhere out there, someone always disagrees, for whatever reason.
And the truth of things is that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Strange Horizons is a widely-known genre discussion platform and what they post is the opinion of their contributors. What every reviewer posts on their blogs is entirely their own opinion. As bloggers, we are in the business of making available our opinions for public consumption. For people to read them and react to them, whether that reaction is positive or negative.
But, surely it holds to reason that how we express our opinion has a lot of effect on the people reading and reacting to our opinion. Enthusiasm and vigor are not crimes of any kind.
I generally hold to a simple rule: don’t act like a dick. I don’t go out of my way to be negative, whether that is done with a certain bit of humor or not. I certainly don’t call the competence of editors and acquisitions people at publishers into question. Especially not in as public a place as a blog. Forums, sure, I’ll act very critical, such as I do often of late with Black Library’s various marketing strategies.
We come back, again and again, to the tone of negative reviews. There’s a blogger out there, who I have no interest in calling any direct interest towards, who has made it a point of action to be extremely negative, extremely insulting. Kind of like all those Zero Punctuation video game reviews but much more controversial tone. Taking cheap shots at authors, at readers, at publishers, I find that kind of thing to be distasteful and as a matter of personal note, I avoid all such places.
My initial reaction to Liz Bourke’s review was along the same vein. While I was put off by her potshot at Michael and Orbit, it was easy for me to dismiss the entire review. Being a fan, it wasn’t going to change my opinion anyway, especially not when I’ve already reviewed all the novels myself. But going through the comments, it was distressing that people were holding up the review as a… well-deserved and well-meant piece. In the blogosphere, everything is a two-edged sword. People who defended Michael’s work were talked to as if they were proponents of mediocre, and even bad, fiction and that they should know better. People who took issue with the review, in many cases, didn’t comport themselves in a well-meant manner either. And there were lots of accusations on all sides, which ultimately took away from the review itself.
But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about how I’ve come to see my negative reviews after reading that review. This post is about the self-examination with respect to negative reviews.
What use is of a controversial tone other than to bait people unnecessarily and create controversy? The sad truism of the blogosphere is that controversy sells like hot cakes topped with whipped cream being sold for $0.99. I’ve seen this happen again and again. Hell, its happened to me too. My reviews for Pariah and Throne of Lies were the most-viewed reviews for those weeks. There was a lot of talk about them in forums and on social media. For the former, it spawned a LOT of discussion on a private group forum on Facebook I am a part of and that discussion got very heated. For the latter, I even got a lukewarm response from the author himself who made an either-way comment about it.
Yeah, “controversy” sells.
What matters however, are the intentions. I wrote my Pariah review because I rarely write negative reviews of BL publications. After all the brouhaha over Throne of Lies and all the hate-mail that I got, I was turned off writing any significantly negative reviews. I just didn’t want to deal with all the head-ache that they bring. So, whatever the publisher, whoever the author, I stayed away from negative reviews. And that applies more to novels than comics because with comics, you don’t get much… attention as a blogger, unless you happen to be part of a large site like Comic Book Resources. So negative reviews for comics are far, far easier and relaxing to do than the ones for novels.
I certainly didn’t set out to cause any deliberate controversies through the review. I wanted to do a negative review and that was that. I didn’t want to… court any specific attention.
And that’s exactly what I saw in that review by Liz Bourke, a deliberate attempt to court attention. And its worked, because that review hundreds of comments posted when it was relevant. The comments thread had some fairly spirited conversation.
As a self-examination, if that review has done anything, is just reinforce my opinions about negative reviewing. And when I talk negative reviews, I talk about negative reviews for books, not comics, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Negative reviews of comics, I get zero creator response and zero fan response in any way that is in the least bit hostile. Negative reviews of books, I’ve been burned too many times that I try to stay away from as much as possible and only do them occasionally.
So that’s the extent of my thoughts on the matter. For now.
Just as a closing point, I want to head-off ANY possible accusations of sexism. Before you make any of that sort of comment, I encourage you to read this blogpost. It was written as a response to a review that deliberately called out another reviewer, who coincidentally happened to be Liz Bourke. The accusation of sexism will come no doubt because just last week I wrote about the relationship between reviewers and authors with respect to the latter stepping into a discussion of their work(s) by the former with specific context to a recent article on the Strange Horizons website which pretty much said: authors not welcome. And that SH post was written by a female blogger.
Given how easily comments of sexism and gender bias are thrown around these days, I fully expect that I’ll be on the receiving end of a few.
Posted on September 23, 2013, in Book Reviews, Editorial, Publishing & Marketing, Review Central and tagged Book Reviews, Books, Column, Dan Abnett, Editorial, Fantasy, Jay Kristoff, Liz Bourke, Marketing, Michael J. Sullivan, Negative Reviews, Orbit Books, Pariah, Publishing, Publishing & Marketing, Reflections on Reviews, Review, Review Central, Reviewing Etiquette, Stormdancer, Strange Horizons, Theft of Swords, Tone. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.