April 21st, 2005


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.
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