Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek
benpeek

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Talking About Reviewing, 2006 Style.

sirius2canopus left a comment in my blog about the purpose of reviews. She said that one of the things she hoped that a reviewer "will point out my strengths and weaknesses without making a meal of my deficiencies so that my hackles will rise and I won't see commonsense and therefore not appreciate the valuable feedback this person of authority has gone to the trouble of giving me."

Now, as far as I'm concerned, taking any kind of writing advice from a reviewer is ridiculous. You would no sooner take the advice of some drunk if he or she came up to you on the street and gave you writing advice, so why would you take the advice of someone you don't know who, by simple occupation, has been put into this position of authority? (Bare in mind that a reviewer only has authority if you allow it.) That doesn't mean that you can't get some insight from a piece of critical writing, or even have a thought gel for you, or whatever. But a reviewer's job is not to educate an author about writing, just as an author's job is not to tell a reviewer how to do their own writing.

Also in this discussion was the argument that a reviewer should not be mean and cruel, but take everything very seriously, which is of course what an author would like to see. As an author, I like to see my work taken seriously. But as a reader, I enjoy the funny, nasty reviews that tear into bad things. Not always, just sometimes, mind. It just appeals to me as a reader. Of course, with that said, that led sirius2canopus to fire back this, which I decided to drop here and make a blog comment out of, because, well, why not?

sirius2canopus says, "What motivates a person to write a review? Some altruistic desire to tell the reading public about his experience of reading a certain book? Or a personal desire to make a few dollars on the side or a name for themselves by showing others what they can do?"

Why does it have to be either of those things?

Why do you write? Why do I write? Why is it that your question seems to naturally assume that fiction occupies a more important position than critical work? I'm going to assume that we're not talking about those three hundred word reviews that appear on Publishers Weekly and Amazon, and which are essentially rundowns of the plot, and a thumbs up or thumbs down, and I'll skip using the word review and go to the work critique, which I think is more apt. But: taking a critical work as a piece of writing, why is it that you naturally assume that the writer is motivated by love, money, or jealousy (see later)? Sure, these things can be motivation--all three of them can be, in fact, just as all three can be a motivation in any piece of fiction. A piece of critical writing is a form of writing--it has its own set of rules, guidelines, and ways in which it judges merit and worth, and is it not possible that the people who write it actually enjoy writing reviews?

sirius2canopus says, "When someone writes a review, they are doing it on the back of another writer's work. No work, no review. No review and the reviewer has to make their money and their name all by themselves."

How ridiculous. I wonder where John Clute is? Michael Dirda? Maybe they made their names doing secret black op specialist missions during the sixties. Hey, maybe I can get Frederic Jameson to come over here. I wonder if he'd be insulted to be considered a reviewer? Well, still...

To start with, there exists a body of critical work within a genre, and this critical work is independent to the fiction that has been written. It forms its own thought. A good critical piece will actually bring you an awareness of where a work sits within this field. A good critical voice will have a knowledge of the field that they are in that, due to its dedication to the art of critiquing, will have gone deeper and further than an author would, perhaps. A good critical voice will write about things that steps out of that simple duality that is 'no work, no review'. Critical writing is its own art form. Appreciate it or don't, it's no skin of my nose, but the idea that a reviewer ought to be grateful to an author for providing a work in which he or she can make a bit of coin is a bit... well, simple.

sirius2canopus says, "Often that reviewer is a writer who is in competition against the author they are reviewing."

No, they're not. I would probably even argue the 'often' part, to, 'there are a small bunch of authors who write fiction and reviews.' But even then I wouldn't say they were in competition. Writing is not the kind of thing where you rate yourself against other authors, and so you say, "Well, X did this, and so did I, but I got better reviews than X, so I am the winner!" or even on a smaller level, where authors are submitting to the same areas. The idea that authors are in competition is, really, just ridiculous, but if you somehow manage to put some saddles on a bunch, and race them, then please let me know, cause I want to go and ride Dan Brown for a while, whipping him into a gallop.

sirius2canopus says, "Therefore, shouldn't there be some kind of 'ethics of reviewing'?"

In other words, can't we all just be friends?

sirius2canopus, says, "If someone wants to make money or a name for themselves by bagging my work, don't they at least owe me the courtesy of bagging it in a professional manner."

Why?

No, seriously, why do they owe it to you?

Last time I checked, we all enjoyed our time ripping the shit out of Tom Cruise, or Hillary Duff's big new teeth. Scientology is a favourite of many people. Christianity. The church. I particularly like kicking Dr Who, just for a thing you'd like to pick. There are magazines and websites dedicated to printing lies, to being unprofessional, and we all say this shit, we all have our turn, for whatever reason, and no one ever stops and says, "Hey, guys, you know what, lets leave L. Ron Hubbard alone. Sure, he was a crazy fuck of dude who dodged tax and lie like fucking shit, but people get something out of Scientology. It nourishes them just like a religion. Shit, lets just call it a religion. Lets be fair to them."

So, why, all of a sudden, must reviewers be kind and nice and ethical towards authors? Because authors want that? Of course they do. Just like Scientologists.

sirius2canopus says, "Isn't constructive criticism a whole lot more useful and trustworthy than destructive criticism? Mind you, the latter probably requires a lot less thought on the reviewer's part?"

Why, because you think cruelty comes easier? Getting those little barbs just right is an art form in itself, I assure you. So, no, I don't think one requires less thought than the other, or that you can put a universal worth on the writing, just because. They both serve their purpose and their audience, and both can be as useful as the other (or not).

sirius2canopus says, "Is destructive criticism really a form of entertainment? Entertaining for who?"

Well, me. For starters. I imagine you won't have to look hard for some other people who enjoy it. I'm particularly fond of those television without pity write ups, myself.

Anyhow, here's an interesting little thing. Not so long ago, my opinion of writing reviews was simple, "If you're an author, don't do it." I had come to this opinion, of course, because I'm from Australia, and a scene that is, as I think Jonathan Strahan said once, "One phone call deep, one phone call wide." I figured that just not reviewing meant that you could avoid all the compromise and problems that come with it, but then, you know, the truth is I spent a lot of time writing reviews on this blog, and I spend an entire year writing a thirty thousand critique of race and the use of imagined environments in various books and theories... and I just came to this conclusion that, really, it was a bit of a cop out to say that. And it was. So now I touch a bit of critical work every now and then, and I kind of dig it, and as I go along, the more I find that it has its own rewards and merits, its own drawbacks, and my mind, while not as quick as it is with fiction, and while it doesn't enjoy critical work as much as it enjoys fiction, still possesses a few ideas regarding critical work.

But the one thing I can assure you, is if the motivation for this work was money, jealousy, or making my name... I think I'd have come up with a better scheme. No one gives much of a shit about critical writers. Certainly not enough that cute goth girls will ask for your phone number at one in the morning in a quiet bar after they find out what kind of stuff you write.
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