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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.


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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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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...

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.
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.
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.
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...

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.
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.
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.

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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