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After the Snapshot, Part 2.

Yesterday I covered the difficulty in finding small press books. A bunch of people are talking about it in the comments, and those people are a lot smarter and clued into how things work than I am. Go check it out.

Right now, however, I'm going to write about the second series of thoughts I had. This one has to do with reviewing.

It's strange, but the fucked up nature of finding reviews never much occurred to me before, but it appears that a lot of the places the Australian small press goes to be reviewed exist overseas. Locus is, of course, the prime example, but there's a few other examples (like SF Site) around that you can pick at your leisure. The true fucked up part comes in when you realise that for a lot of the small press in Australia, these places are the primary areas where our work can be reviewed with consistency, and where Australian readers go to learn about a book or whatever. Now, maybe I'm missing this giant Australian outlet for reviews, but to me, that seems pretty fucking weird.

That doesn't mean that reviewing outlets don't exist here. You can get reviewed in local and national papers, but the problem with those reviews is that they're hampered by space constraints. I've no doubt that Terry Dowling has an extensive critical vocabulary that allows him to review work quite extensively... but you'd be hard pressed to find it in some of his small press reviews for the Australian. There's just not the space for him. The same goes for the few reviews I've read by Lucy Sussex in Melbourne papers. But, even with that, the question is how much do these reviews make a difference to the sale of a collection or book? I've not yet heard of a print run eaten up in a week after a mention in the papers, but again, I could be wrong.

The real problem, however, is that there is no consistent critical voices in the country for reviewing. Reviews appear in the small press magazines like Aurealis and Orb, but since they appear once or twice a year, it's not exactly what I would consider consistent. There are reviews on TiconderogaOnline and the Brisbane run Fantastic Queensland site, and while these are consistent (though Fantastic Queensland appears to have sunk without a cry for help) they do not focus on Australian work. Last year saw Lee Battersby reviewing for Ideomancer, but the zine appears to have refocused its efforts onto a more international outlook, which is fair enough. I always thought that Battersby's Australian focused reviews never sat honestly within the outlook of the zine while it was there, anyway. The only Australian outlet for reviews that springs immediately to mind is Robert Stephenson and others reviewing for AurealisXpress, the newsletter put out by the people from Aurealis for their subscribers. Since no one outside those with a subscription can read it, the result is that as a venue of critique, it's absolutely pointless.

Reviews in Australia of the small press also have a second problem, and that is that they're not very critical. In his interview, Robin Pen mentions that Simon Brown, when he was doing some reviews of EidolonOnline, wouldn't review what he disliked. I might be wrong, but I remember Lee Battersby saying much the same thing with his reviews. Which is, naturally, what you get when you have authors review the work of other writers--the natural instinct is to hold back and not rip the guts out of something, full well knowing that they themselves are sitting on the same side of the fence and, as the saying goes, you don't shit where you eat.

The result of all of this is that there is a desperate need for critical voices of Australian Speculative Fiction.

My one idea, which some people liked and I'm going to include here for anyone to take if they want it, would be for about three or four people to set up a review blog. Grab a blogspot account or make a website and turn it into Australian Speculative Fiction Reviewing or some such thing, and begin to review everything. Novels, short stories, magazines, artwork, everything with the scene, and everything with detail--an entry for a short story, an entry for a novel, and so forth. Grab the local comic scene while you're at it. Throw everything into it and review constantly. Daily would be best, but maybe just once a week for each person, depending on the amount of people you have... and I reckon, within about six months, you'd have a solid readership and authors sending you their work, assuming you're not completely without the ability to review and be critical. On the back of that six months and a solid readership, you could then go to publishing houses like Random House and point them to the blog and get books sent to you. From there, you might even be able to make some money, having built yourself up as a new critical voice in the country. At the very least, you'll be cutting down on the cash you spend on reading material, and who doesn't like free stuff of things you plan to read anyhow?

(Right now it's not unknown for the small press to send PDF files of books to bloggers when they mention they'll review a book on their blog. Some publishers and authors are starving for word of mouth.)

The important thing is to not be exclusive in what you review. Don't say, We're only going to review short fiction, or fantasy, or midget serial killer kung fu stories. Review it all. Bring in the readership for everything, and let one piggy back off the other. My theory is that a lot of fantasy readers are not adverse to picking up a short fiction magazine, or collection, and that it's their book buying habits that stop them from doing this. New fantasy books are released every month, so all they have to do is go into a chain bookstore and they've got their fix. Why should it be difficult for a reader who just wants to chill in the evening with a book? But if you had a venue that brought them in to hear about a fantasy trilogy they're considering, and then they heard about an online story, and maybe a few more... well, it won't work for everyone, but it'll work for some. The important thing, I think, is to be consistent, and to be about everything in the speculative fiction world.

It also means being critical. No regrets critical. If something is shit, say it's shit, talk about how it's shit, and when people tell you that you were too harsh and such and such (as they will) you reply with, "Well, that's going to happen," and you keep reviewing.

Which means that no authors reviewing.

You can't trust an author when he or she reviews. There are a few who skirt this, and the first that jumps into my mind is Adam Roberts, but he's not in this scene. The Australian scene is so small that a bruised author ego makes things difficult for another author, and so they'll skirt it, just not speak about it. It's a fantastic rule when you're in a room full of other authors, but outside that, when you want critical voices, my firm belief is that you tell the authors to fuck off.

Comments

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ironed_orchid
Apr. 21st, 2005 02:59 am (UTC)
I think there are some authors who are fair reviewers, but I think that you're right to stress that it shouldn't be a a site for authors to review other authors, the point would be to establish credibility.
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 03:08 am (UTC)
yeah, there are some. most of them, i think, come from academic backgrounds and so they stradle the fence quite comfortably.
ironed_orchid
Apr. 21st, 2005 03:14 am (UTC)
Most of those I thought of do work as academics as well as writers of fiction (Byatt springs loomingly to mind, her book on Iris Murdoch is wonderful).

Perhaps that's a good place for anyone who wants to take up your idea to start looking for reviewers: people who teach courses on speculative fiction in universities.
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 03:22 am (UTC)
perhaps. i don't think you need to limit it to people who teach spec fic. in many ways, it might be better to find people who aren't connected to that, so that it doesn't feel like an exstension of the work they do at uni. you can kinda get burnt out on the one thing.
ironed_orchid
Apr. 21st, 2005 03:27 am (UTC)
i don't think you need to limit it to people who teach spec fic

Who said limit? I said good starting point.

Not all the people who teach spec fic are actually that well read in contemporary SF - but there are a few good people around.
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 03:30 am (UTC)
>Who said limit? I said good starting point.

fair enough. my brain is not on full function cycles yet. it can manage a burst of something and then shuts down for the rest of the day.

>Not all the people who teach spec fic are actually that well read in contemporary SF - but there are a few good people around.

i've actually never met anyone who teaches spec fic. i've met people who teach other things, though, such as creative writing in general, or other english topics, and spec fic just fills a tiny corner of their world.
ironed_orchid
Apr. 21st, 2005 03:42 am (UTC)
At both the unis I've been a student at (Murdoch and ANU) there've been courses on spec fic in the lit program. Sometimes they're taught by people who teach a bunch of other courses, other times by people who's specialization is actually SF. At Murdoch the course was taught by Helen Merrick one year and Tess Williams another year but now it seems to go to whoever has space in their timetable.
angriest
Apr. 22nd, 2005 01:26 am (UTC)
Science Fiction and Cyberculture was developed by Helen and Tess and was by all accounts extremely good, although biased slightly towards a historical and feminist perspective. This was then completely wiped clean and re-started with just the title remaining by Dr Niall Lucy, who made it a broader, looser course with a couple of set texts for students such as Neuromancer, The Left Hand of Darkness, Tea From An Empty Cup and Paul Auster book I can't recall but wasn't actually SF anyway.

The course has since been abandoned, unfortunately, which is a pity because I had a pretty neat proposal almost finished to make it brilliant.
ironed_orchid
Apr. 22nd, 2005 01:47 am (UTC)
I think that Grant Stone had a hand in the initial course design and getting it running. I did it the year that Helen Merrick taught, which was a very good thing. I heard from other students about Niall teaching it and they seemed to think he was just using it to test out ideas from the book he was working on.

I have no idea what's going on in the lit dept at Murdoch these days, I imagine that Niall and Vijay are taking a lot more of the courses as funding for contract teaching positions dries up.
angriest
Apr. 22nd, 2005 01:23 am (UTC)
Not all the people who teach spec fic are actually that well read in contemporary SF - but there are a few good people around.

Indeed they are not.
ex_benpayne119
Apr. 21st, 2005 04:43 am (UTC)
I don't know how many reviewers you'd find who didn't write and were sufficiently familiar with the scene... but i don't know...

girliejones
Apr. 21st, 2005 04:57 am (UTC)
Maybe a compromise is to get two reviewers for stories? Although that halves your output ...
ashamel
Apr. 21st, 2005 05:43 am (UTC)
Ah yes, that was my other point (the one I failed to make lower down the page).

We'll have the same problem here as with trying to find someone who has the time and energy to sell small press books, without the distractions of trying to write one. That's what I alluded to in my own interview of last week, bemoaning the lack of 'groupies' in the scene.

As far as I can tell, the only real people interested in reading Australian SF are those who are interested in writing SF, and who are Australian. If you are an interested reader in this country, you don't jump on the web looking for Aussie content, you read whatever is down at your bookshop (maybe Galaxy, more likely Dymocks or whatever), and you might use the web to look for further info on your favourite authors.

(If anyone can dispute that, I'd be happy to hear it, but it seems realistic to me.)

That's why I think web distribution and reviewing is ultimately a closed loop. It's not that web sites are bad (quite the contrary) -- but I don't think they'll solve the problems that need solving.

If we find people who will take up Ben's idea and go with it, then fantastic. I recommend that anyone who is interested start developing their critical facilities. But it's just one step of many that are needed.

It's not all bad news, however. I think Australia has a lot more good editors -- people who are willing to put the hard work into coordinating and publishing magazines and anthologies -- than might reasonably be expected. Sometimes I wonder why they aren't spending that time on their own writing, but I'm thankful that they aren't.
girliejones
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:00 am (UTC)
I would think that its a step-by-step process. First you have to be accessible - I enjoy SF short stories but didn't even know these kind of zines existed until I met friends of friends on lj. There is probably a bigger market than you imagine for Australian SF if only it couldbe tapped. I figure once you have an accessible product, like a one-stop shop website, then you go into phase 2 - marketing and exposure. And as I've already stated, I'm somewhat of a groupie at the mo.
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:15 am (UTC)
yeah, i think you're right. i think you have to look at it as a step by step process. you begin here, you go to there. if it was something i had any ability to do, i'd give it a shot, but i have no idea.

there was a comic store on the net called www.artbomb.net that i always thought was an interesting thing. sounds like some of what you're thinking about.
girliejones
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:19 am (UTC)
Well, I was wondering whether this really was something we should give a shot and see how it goes - I don't think you'll know any other way.

I was going to email you and ask what would be your first round of publications to approach?
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:39 am (UTC)
for publications, i would try all. of the top of my head i can think of agog!, csfg, aurealis, potato monkey, andromeda spaceways, borderlands, fables and reflections, orb, and there's some more like stephen dedman's consensual and mitch? for ezines.

you would also, i guess, need to set up the site. i saw david cake offering to help on that (strangedave) so it might be worth seeing if he'd still do that. he's also pretty well connected to elements of the scene, and as is ben payne, who was around here.

i can help point in you directions, but truth is, i won't be much help after that. but: helping you get into contact with folk, pointing directions, that i can do easy.
girliejones
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:42 am (UTC)
i can help point in you directions, but truth is, i won't be much help after that. but: helping you get into contact with folk, pointing directions, that i can do easy.


That's the bit I need help with. Will see if strangedave is still interested and might hunt Mr Payne down and pick his brain a bit (that bit is just for fun!)
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:47 am (UTC)
cool.

well, just you need folk to hunt, just email me. i suspect picking payne's brain will give you pretty much everything i can (i think he might be better connected than i) but if not, don't hesitate.
girliejones
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:50 am (UTC)
Okay - thanks. Hmmm... now, where to start ...
girliejones
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:22 am (UTC)
Also meant to say it should be something open to feedback and constructive criticism and allowed to evolve over time.
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:40 am (UTC)
yeah, i imagine that it's the only way to go.
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:12 am (UTC)
i think you'd have to start pulling from the ranks of people who do a bit of editing, and a bit of reviewing to bolster the ranks. then, whoever you had in charge (or overlooked the reviews) could help them bring up their critical language and ability. writing a good review is just like writing good fiction: you got to work at it.
ashamel
Apr. 21st, 2005 04:00 am (UTC)
I have done plenty of reviewing in my time (most of which has gone up on TR), and I worry about it, given my own ambitions. Hell, I was worried about those comments I made on my lj earlier about your earlier story, but since it fit the post, and since it was the truth (as I saw it), I went with it.

Anyway, I think you have a really good idea here, and although I'm not sure I would participate (if even allowed to do so, given your final remarks), I think I can offer some thoughts on the subject. Firstly, reviewing is not an easy thing. I see so many reviews that are just: "this is in the plot. It was good/bad". That's pretty much completely useless (with the exception that, over time, you might come to recognise a reviewer's biases and manage to interpolate their comments to something you haven't yet seen).

Instead, I think reviews should talk about the context of a work: why was it written, who is it for, does it meet those goals? Does it do something particular well, or badly? It requires a wide knowledge and an objective eye (whilst at the same time, being confident enough in your own opinions to let them fly). It also requires practice and feedback, as much as any other form of writing, so I wouldn't want to stop people giving it a go.

(I asked Terry Dowling once at a panel on this very topic if he ever got feedback from his reviews. He said he never did, other than from the author, and I seem to recall even that was very rare.)

Secondly, we have the problem of whether writers deserve critical savaging even if, well, they deserve it. I'm not saying you should sugar-coat or lie, but you also don't want to turn the guns on someone just starting out, who might need a bit of encouragement in a tough field. In a scene as small as this one, making that distinction is not easy.

(You could say that if they've been published by Harper Collins or Prime or whatever, then obviously gloves are off, but that relies on the assumption that our own scene is simply not good enough, despite any reservations about modern publishing practices we might have.)

I know that might not seem as important as cultivating a culture of total honesty (which is hard enough), but I have my own regrets in this area, and maybe there are even people that would be working if not for comments I've made. Maybe "anyone who can be discouraged, should be", as the saying goes, but these things are harder when reduced to specific people.
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 04:09 am (UTC)
yeah, i think it's a good thing for reviewers to understand that not all authors are at the same level. it's a good thing to be able to convey that to the reader, too, which is important. i mean, if you were to review a terry dowling short story, you would go in with the full knowledge that here's an author who has written for years, has a large body of work, is critically respected, and capable of quite a lot. you would not treat someone who has just published their first story the same way, but then, perhaps, you couldn't, as that new writer doesn't have the body of work.

personally, i don't mind when people don't like my stuff. no reviewer has yet to say something worse than what i think, but mostly, i just understand that for everything out there, some people aren't going to dig it. that's the way it is. given the choice, i'd rather nice glowing things, but who wouldn't?

you're right about context, too.
ex_benpayne119
Apr. 21st, 2005 04:56 am (UTC)
On the topic of reviewing,

i don't think it's ever necessary to savage something. You can tell a reader everything there is to know about a book without being a cunt about it... sure, you have to point out a book's weaknesses, but good reviewers will always do it in a way so that readers can interpret it in the light of their own tastes...

for example, a bad review will leave me with the impression "I hated this book", a good review will leave me with something like "I didn't enjoy this book because the characterisation was weak, even though there was plenty of action". That way if I'm an action fan who doesn't give a crap about characters, I can get the idea that this book is for me, even though the reviewer hated it... the latter kind of review is useful for all readers, the former only to people with the exact same taste as the reviewer...

in other words, i guess, reviews should be informative as well as simply critical..

in my experience, (and i'm sure there are lots of people who've read different reviews to me) savaging a book usually occurs when the reviewer is either

(a) trying to draw attention to their own skill at writing as a reviewer
(b) trying to use the review to make a broader argument, eg. "fantasy sucks"...

extreme reviewing is more at home in tabloids where aggression brings readership than in any publication seeking to be intelligent and informative...

at least that's my feeling...

ashamel
Apr. 21st, 2005 05:19 am (UTC)
That's true, though I was talking about critical 'savagery' with some exaggeration. In the review I was alluding too (the one I regreted, kind-of sort-of), I said the product was too derivative, and provided fairly detailed examples backing up my statement. In retrospect that could have been seen as using my knowledge of the field to intimidate someone with less experience, which wasn't my intent. (Hell, I don't really know what happened on the other side of the fence, which is why I'm trying to leave this general.)

In other reviews, I think my quest for proper context has lead to nit-picking (While I Live may be an example, though I'm sure John Marsden can stick up for himself if required to do so). As I said, it's not an easy discipline, and I can't say I have mastered it.
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:18 am (UTC)
no, i agree, you don't have to be a cunt about it.

but. the other side of that is that a lot of people enjoy reviews that are savage, that don't hold back. i'm sure we can all think of experiences where we've read something, or we continue to read reviews, because it is, as you say, about the reviewer and not the thing being reviewed.

so i think there's a legitimate level of reviewing there, but for what everyone wants in connection to respectability, you'd have to avoid it.
ironed_orchid
Apr. 21st, 2005 08:45 am (UTC)
I think a mistake a lot of new reviewers make is equating critical with negative. I see this with movie reviewers all the time. What makes someone like David Stratton such a good movie reviewer is not only being able to say when something is bad, and give it a zero, but also to be able to say when something is just perfect at what it does and to give it 100%. Furthermore, a good reviewer needs to be someone who has at least some familiarity with the field and is able to make useful comparisons. That helps readers to know whether or not it's likely to be their sort of book/story.
ex_benpayne119
Apr. 21st, 2005 04:41 am (UTC)
interesting post...

My feelings are something like this...

I had an idea about a year or so ago that it would be a cool thing to have a website dedicated to Australian spec fic. The idea behind it was that it would review *every* release in local genre publications, and that wherever possible, each release would be reviewed by a number of people... preferably at least three....

I think one of the reasons reviewers do need to be careful is that because there are so few reviews one reviewer's opinion carries disproportionate weight... i'd like to see multiple reviews of each book/mag to make some gesture toward subjectivity...

anyway, i didn't end up doing it because i didn't really have the time to set it up, and i couldn't find enough people to review... but i still think it would be good... particularly if the site were to run in conjunction with a spec fic news site and the aforementioned website selling stuff...

anyway... lots to think about...

girliejones
Apr. 21st, 2005 05:00 am (UTC)
That's what I was going to say - it would make sense to me to have the review site either coupled or on the site with stuff for sale. I dunno how hard that would be to run in conjuction ... depends I guess on how many potential reviewers were out there and how often they reviewed.
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:22 am (UTC)
i like that idea about double reviewing. i actually had the same thought about the blog idea.

but of course, the problem with that is getting copies to reviewers. usually only one is sent out to each bunch of folk. but i'm sure it could be overcome easily enough. there are these things called photocopying machines ;)

i think if you were going to gather reviewers, you'd have to go outside the scene for them. a lot of uni students are willing to review for uni papers for experience. i don't see why the same sort of thing couldn't happen for this.
jonathanstrahan
Apr. 21st, 2005 05:02 am (UTC)
Back in 1999 I edited and published a critical 'zine called The Coode Street Review of Science Fiction, which provided clear-minded criticism of Australian science fiction and fantasy. It was supposed to be ongoing, but turned into a one-shot when my co-editor moved on and I became a father. I learned some things doing it. First, at least at that time, the country's serious critics didn't want to be published online. They wanted a print publication they could point to for credit. Second, Australian SF is one phone call wide and one phone call deep. Everyone knows everyone, or knows someone who does. It's very difficult to review openly in that sort of environment.

I'm not sure if a website would work today, or if you would need to do it in print. I do suspect you'd have to pay, at least nominally, to get decent work. The big problem, though, would be a site editor. To do this properly you would need someone who is willing to invest serious time to co-ordinate, edit and whatever all of the material for review. It would be a full-on job. I'm not sure who could do it, but there are certainly a handful of people like Russell Blackford, Damien Broderick, Janeen Webb and others who could write what you'd need.

Jonathan
benpeek
Apr. 21st, 2005 07:28 am (UTC)
yeah, payment is an issue, as is a site editor. i couldn't imagine any of the people you note doing it for free, given the serious time it would take to co-ordinate and edit. and, you know, why should they? each of them have careers and interests and paying review gigs (broderick especially). so i'd have no way of how you could go through getting some sort of funding for that, unless you could somehow convince a company to back it. which i couldn't see happening.

and yes, reviewing in this environment is difficult due to the zine, but i think that could be overcome with time. after about six months, and after everyone has been punched around a bit so everyone has a bruised ego, it might be okay...

but then maybe i'm just living a fantasy :)
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