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June 15th, 2005

The Latest Dark Cabal.

You might have seen the links around, but a new anonymous review blog, The Latest Dark Cabal, has just started.

It's written by writers who have decided that awards need to be given for merit, not favouritism, and have thus decided that the way to start doing this is by writing reviews of work that might be called even handed, and removing their names from it. The reason for anonymity, stated on the blog, is that the six authors involved don't want other authors sending their stories so that they'll be talked about on the blog and get the free marketing. It's a pretty weak reasoning, from my point of view, because if you were truly interested in reviewing work with no favouritism, you would invite authors to send their published work and inform each and every one that they would be reduced to a level playing field, rather than having six authors cherry pick to suit their favourite topics. But that's a matter of opinion, really, because there are other reasons why this is a pointless exercise.

Authors get up every couple of months and bitch about how reviewing is suspect, awards don't reward quality, and so on and so forth. I did it in April. The problem is that genre communities are small, and it's not hard, as an author, to meet other authors and editors and yes, even reviewers, and chat and watch them interact and become buddies. Truth is, you quite often have a bit in common with each other, in that shared interest kind of way, and you're all friendly. No one is there to make enemies. In addition to this, we've all been told that the way to get ahead in any kind of work place is to network, and it's not any different here. The problem is, that when it comes to the actual work, all these things come together to create a less than honest opinion about an author's work when a friend writes about it--or, at the very least, an opinion that is suspect.

So, every couple of months, authors bitch about this. Occasionally, some decide to Do Some Thing About It.

In this case, The Latest Dark Cabal, which at least acknowledges in its title that it isn't the first or last of these things to come about. The problem, of course, is not that it is being done, but that it is being done anonymously, and that it is being done by writers.

I'll start with the last part first.

I've long been of the opinion that writers need to be told to fuck off when it comes to reviewing within their field. That's FUCK OFF in big capital letters, by the way. I'm reminded, whenever this topic comes up, of a talk I went to watch with Paul Schrader, the director of such films as Affliction and scriptwriter of films such as Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead. Schrader is this solid greying man, and on the cold night I saw him in the bowels of UTS, he sniffed like he'd just had sixteen lines of cocaine before coming on stage. He was, for the most part, interesting, but the one thing I've always remembered is when a member from the audience asked him why he didn't critique film anyone. Without pause, he simply replied, "Because I wanted to make films. You can't be a filmmaker and a critic at the same time. To fulfill either task, you have to be in the position where you're not worried about upsetting anyone. You have to be able to follow through."*

The same holds true here. I am an author and I do not review any work by any author in the same field as me. I'll review films and comics and music and other genred fiction as well as whatever I want on this blog, but you will not find one word uttered about any author in the field I publish in here. This is not because I couldn't say it, but because I would simply be telling to buy the work of people I like, or causing myself needless issues when I said such and such wrote a bad story. It's just making my life difficult when it needn't be, and frankly, I don't care for reviewing that much. If I wanted to review at a professional level, I would aim to do this, and enjoy the money, since it's not in fiction.

The other problem with authors critiquing each others work is that it doesn't encourage critical thought outside authors, which results in a small pool remaining small by resulting in authors producing reviews for authors, which thus impacts on authors buying collections and magazines and, basically, keeping the scene alive. This is a problem, since it ties into one of the other things that authors like to bitch about, which is how the market is shrinking, about how it's hard to promote, and so on and so forth. It's all very true, but it doesn't help to expand a community if your critical voices are born part time from authors who wish to dabble on the side, and who are motivated, in part, by their own authorial concerns for finding voices to talk about their own work and those they think are worthy (and yes, I am suspect about how those works became worthy because I am naturally cynical). In my opinion, what needs to be encouraged is new critical voices, and the more distinct these voices are from the individuals who produce the work they view, the stronger their voices will be. In addition to this, those critical voices will want to reach an audience, because I don't yet believe that it is a motivation of new reviewers to review for authors alone.

In relation to The Latest Dark Cabal specifically, the problem is that they are anonymous authors reviewing, and want it to be known that they are Authors, gosh darn it. The worse offender of this is 'Onyx' who, in its review of slipstream writing, wants to present its review from a position of power, and must tell us that it has "written some (and it's been pretty well received.)" Well, I'm very happy for Onyx, but it's a useless statement that really leaves the whole review as nothing but a bit of masked self indulgence that could almost be likened to the Mask Magician, except with authors. The Masked Slipstream Author, perhaps, though it doesn't have the same ring to it, does it?

In addition to this, what's to suggest that these authors are not the authors they write about? I don't actually think this is true, but due to Onyx's anonymity, there's nothing to suggest that he isn't Christopher Rowe, and that when he writes that Rowe's collection is "lyrical about life" while being "unflinching about things like girls getting married at fourteen and the violence of rural society", there's nothing to actually suggest that it isn't Rowe himself sitting there and indulging in some self marketing. Now, like I said, I don't actually believe this, but the truth is, there's no way to say that it isn't true, and that if it isn't Rowe, then it could be one of the other writers Onyx mentions.

It's a cynical world out there, don't you know?

At any rate, I'm going to wrap this up here. I don't actually think The Latest Dark Cabal is worth that much noise, and I could do with the sleep.




* This is, of course, paraphrased from my memory. I saw him about four years ago. The other thing he talked about was Martin Scorcese's obsession with winning an Oscar. Apparently, he really wants one, which Schrader didn't understand. "This isn't why we make films," he said, and then went on to imply that maybe this was why Scorcese was making films.
This is neat. Over at Tangent Online, James Palmer reviewed Shadowed Realms #4 and said this about my story:

Ben Peek's "Johnny Cash (A Tale in Questionnaire Results)" breaks the bonds of the traditional short story to spin a tale of government cover-ups, black magic, and Johnny Cash songs. The story is laid out as a series of answers to questions, and is printed in cursive on government stationery (props to the web people at Shadowed Realms for adding an extra touch of reality to this piece). The questions aren't shown, but it's easy to tell what they are from the answers, and the story is quite clear despite the strange format.

Benjamin Li is the head of the Occult Research Division of a shadowy organization called Brandycorp, the owner of which is a magician. There are demons galore, and Ronald Reagan makes a pact with one of them in order to have a hypnotic effect added to his voice whenever it is electronically transferred. Oh yeah, and there are several references to Johnny Cash songs. After that, the story gets weird. This is one of the most inventive flash fiction pieces I've ever read. Do yourself a favor and check it out.


Even though the font isn't cursive, you can still read it here.

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