The more I hear about this “Science Fiction Ethics” blog the more I despise it. I’m very sad to see a bunch of writers I like involved in such nonsense, and very relieved that I’m not running Emerald City any more. Jeff VanderMeer’s pal, Evil Monkey, has a penetrating and incisive analysis of the issues.
24 thoughts on “Ethics My Arse”
I haven’t been to look at the site, but I have wondered how the term ethics applied to their advertised mission statement. I’m all for an environment that wants to keep a positive spin on their content, but I don’t think that’s what ethics means, is it?
I wouldn’t mind an “ethics” site that was an intelligent discussion of actual ethics — how good and bad ethics are represented in genre literature, the responsibilities of authors, behavior within the community and so forth. That would be interesting stuff.
But “all nice stuff all the time”? Meh.
As far as I can make out, it is writing negative reviews of books that the group regards as “unethical”.
And I agree, an actual discussion of ethics in SF&F would be very interesting.
I’m sorry to read this. If you read the comments to Jeff Vandemeer’s post, Neal Williamson’s analysis is pretty much spot on from where I stand.
The original intent was and remains good as far as I am concerned. Unfortunately, that seems to be getting lost in transmission/translation/whatever.
As is too often the way of the Internet, some initial responses sparked half-cocked responses on both sides and now we have posts like Jeff’s which don’t really help matters.
I think Andy Remic’s more confused than that. What he’s written is sort of a whole lot of recent Internet discussions run through a blender and strained into a sort-of manifesto.
Given that it was Neil’s comment on Jeff’s blog that finally got me so angry I had to say something…
I’m quite happy to admit that there are a number of people around the Internet who I think do a bad job of reviewing more often than not, and some of them happen to be the same people who have got on your case most, but launching a crusade against “critics” is just stupid.
I don’t really get the purpose of the organization or why anybody would take offense at it, it’s so vague.
Cheryl – I apologise if my attempt to analyse what the SFFEthics blog was all about got you riled up. I should have given that statement the proper context, which is to say that there are lots of good critics out there doing great, interesting work in the SFF field. Personally I enjoy reading the likes of Torque Control on a regular basis, as I did Emerald City when it was going.
But I don’t want the high level intellectual conversation about a book all the time, and that’s true of many readers. Sometimes people just want to share their enthusiasm about something without going into deeper analysis, and sometimes they don’t have the critical experience to perform that analysis even if they wanted to.
And that’s what I was getting at in (possibly foolishly, but you know me…), trying to imagine what was going through the minds of the group (with whom I have no affiliation) when they came up with their impetus to create their blog.
In other words, there are places for high level, deeply considered criticism, and I see no reason that there should not be places (I’d be astounded if there aren’t already many) for people to go on and express their enthusiasm for stuff they like. Good luck to ’em, I say.
Personally I think their manifesto is pretty reactionary, and to be honest had it not been for the strange usage of the word Ethics (like some of your earlier commenters I would have preferred a blog about ethical issues in SF), I probably wouldn’t have joined in the conversation in the first place.
Anyway, long comment for a short apology. I was just hypothesising aloud without sketching in the context, and if that made you think I was having a go at critics, I fall on my sword.
While the Ethics name is weird, I still do not get what’s wrong about writing about having fun when reading genre books; I rarely care for “deep” reviews because I find them meaningless at least with respect to sff which dates so easily.
I love some books, do not like others, and they run the gamut from the critically acclaimed to the popular bestseller lists with lots of in-between but I rarely care about navel-gazing.
On the other hand I am very skeptical of anything serious getting out of this group since I just do not think writers groups have produced anything interesting so far online (and for very good intrinsic reasons), so I see no reason this one will be different…
Thanks for clarifying. Apology accepted.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing enthusiastic reviews. There is, however, something very wrong indeed with suggesting that someone who writes a negative review of a book is somehow “unethical” and damaging the industry.
As you say, we can have different attitudes to books. Consequently some people produce rave reviews, others produce thoughtful reviews (“navel-gazing” is a negative and insulting term and I object very strongly to its use), and yet other people may have strongly negative reactions. All of those are valid responses to a book, and none of them should be deemed inappropriate, let alone labeled “unethical”.
As is too often the way of the Internet, some initial responses sparked half-cocked responses on both sides
This is nice, passive “mistakes were made” language but there is no “both sides” here. The initial communications of the intention of the group were unclear and requests for clarification were rebuffed.
The issue is not with ‘negative’ reviews, nor even with ‘high-level discourse’ – all variants of which clearly have a legitimate place – but with the kind of slash-and-burn spiteful-ego-trip writing that all too frequently masquerades as a review.
I consider those unethical.
Not that we want to take issue with those mockers and knockers head-on – I can’t see much to be gained there. But countervailing voices should be heard.
It’s apparent is there’s been a massive failure of communication here – and that’s a great shame – but that doesn’t invalidate the initiative.
(oh and Neil, dunno why I keep misspelling your name – sorry about that and I shall aim to do better in future!)
Speaking as someone who has frequently been accused of writing slash-and-burn spiteful-ego-trip reviews, I strongly resent being accused of being unethical.
Now of course you might not think my reviews were that bad, but other people did, and that’s the sort of problem you will have with any initiative that aims to rid the world of “bad reviewers” – it will end up being used far more to settle personal scores than it will to clean up reviewing (assuming that any cleaning up actually needs to be done).
I don’t see any failure of communication other than that those involved in this initiative have failed to understand what a screaming disaster they have created, and how angry people who work hard to produce reviews are at being accused of being unethical.
Whoa there, please. Where does it say, anywhere, that we’re setting out to rid the Net of whomsoever we might unilaterally designate a ‘bad’ reviewer?
In either the original mission statement, the new stripped-down version or the press release?
Any such attempt would be utterly futile, on so many levels.
I wouldn’t sign up for such idiocy. As far as I am concerned, I haven’t.
And just to be absolutely clear, given I value your friendship, me saying ‘slash and burn reviews are unethical’ is worlds away from me implying that I would consider you personally unethical because third-parties in the past might have accused you of slash-and-burn reviewing on whatever dubious grounds.
I’m quite happy that most of you didn’t set out to rid the Internet of anyone, though Andy Remic apparently did. However, the only likely outcome of defining some reviewers as “unethical” (especially if you don’t actually point at specific people) is that various people will use this as an excuse to have a go at people whose reviews they don’t like. There isn’t, and cannot be, any clear definition of what a slash-and-burn review is. It is a subjective judgment. So if you say that slash-and-burn reviews are unethical then you open the door to lots of honest reviewers being accused of lack of ethics.
1. There’s nothing wrong with writing positive reviews. By all means write lots of them.
2. Inevitably some people will nasty, aggressive reviews (Dale Peck, anyone?). It isn’t nice, but we have to live with it, because sooner or later there will be a book that actually deserves a nasty, aggressive review.
3. Describing any sort of review as “unethical” is a subjective judgment and will only result in people trying to bully reviewers.
Then I think we’re essentially pretty much in agreement. I hope so anyway.
So I shall continue aiming to confound the mockers and spitemongers, whether they be masquerading as reviewers or attacking those writing and reviewing in good faith, not through the personalised attacks that those aforesaid mockers and spitemongers delight in, but rather by accentuating the positive where time and circumstance allows.
Apologizing for “navel gazing” which I did not realize that it sounds offensive and essentially was meant as a shorthand for “when sff novels date so fast, trying to make them the new Tolstoy is pointless, let history decide that”, I think that one criterion by which to objectively judge the site is the reviews of books by the authors involved against other reviews.
Now to me there is a little bit of conflict of interest (especially badly chiming with the Ethics thingy) in writing self-positive reviews, without at least mentioning and repeating mentioning in the review that “author x” is a member of this group for which this review has been written.
For now, I see the site as just another promotional vehicle for the authors involved and that’s good as long as that is made clear
Juliet: There are real issues of focus and what exactly your purpose is. I hardly think Evil Monkey’s ribbing is not helpful–it actually raises the important points, but in a funny way. If you or anyone from the group had stopped by and commented–perhaps even acknowledged the absurdity of some of what’s been said–it could’ve been a very constructive conversation. One of the best ways to diffuse a situation caused by murky communication is to show you have a healthy sense of humor about yourself and what you’re doing. Evil pokes fun at me specifically at least as much as he pokes fun at anyone else.
Accentuating the positive is fine. There are plenty of wonderful books out there that deserve positive reviews.
But please stop talking about ethics. It will only come back to bite you.
I don’t understand your point. Why should the fact that the science in an SF book dates suddenly make the author a less good writer?
A lot of sf depends on sense of wonder and if that is not there I do not think those books will stand the test of time except as historical curiosities.
I find it hard nowadays to read older sff which I enjoyed as a kid or in my beginning of my serious sff reading 20 years ago; I loved VanVogt, Asimov, some Heinlein and nowadays all leave me cold, while I still enjoy reading Corn King and Spring Queen (1930’s), I Claudius, Mika Waltari and Mary Renault (1950’s), Balzac, Dumas and assorted writers from the 1800’s, early/mid 1900’s
Even 80’s and some 90’s sff lost much of its luster (I remember how blown away I was by Bear’s Aeon while today I would find it unreadable, badly dated and all), Hyperion lost much of its luster also, Gateway same, only IM Banks early Culture books still rank as very, very high for me.
So again it may be just me, but I truly find sf very much like science proper,each generation builds on the earlier generation which becomes more of a historical curiosity rather than current, people pay for those books…
That’s all part of understanding how SF works. A good reviewer needs to understand that an SF book is not just characterization and plot, nor is it just scientific ideas and world building. Mainstream reviewers will often dismiss the things that appeal to SF readers as irrelevant to literary quality, whereas SF readers will often tolerate a badly written book if the science is good.
If you are going to make a case for a book being good then you need to bear those things in mind. But at the same time a well-written book is a well-written book, and it shouldn’t lose quality for having out-of-date science any more than, say, Jane Austen would lose quality for portraying social values that are different from those of today.
Jeff, yes, there are absolutely issues of understanding of focus and purpose. Hence my attempts to clarify here, valuing Cheryl as a friend in fandom.
Also, yes, Monkey is funny, but speaking purely for myself here because there is no ‘Group’ consensus, I wasn’t about to tangle with him coz I couldn’t see any way to do that without risking coming over as humourless and/or pompous – which is a) not the case and b) could only make a bad situation worse imho.
There are enough people having sense-of-humour failure over this as it is. Appreciation of the absurd seems to be in regrettably short supply.
I’m assuredly not saying I believe you set out to be unhelpful. I have no reason to think that in the least. But some folk do seem to be reading Monkey’s words as coming direct from the horse’s mouth, so to speak in a mixed zoological metaphor kinda thing, and that’s what’s proving unhelpful.
Cheryl, I don’t think we need wait for the ‘ethics’ word to bite us, given the savaging already in evidence. Sigh.
Liviu, not sure if I’m misunderstanding you, and if I am, I apologise in advance – but please don’t think this is aiming to be some cozy little club where we all say nice things about each other’s books by way of mutual self-congratulation.
(Ick. I’d no more sign up for that than I would some half-witted campaign to drive teh Evil Reviewers off teh Net with Shiny Swords of Niceness)
Btw, I’m unlikely to be revisiting this over the weekend coz of a slew of domestic – and work – stuff that needs doing – so cheerio for now, with goodwill to all.
Just for the record, I do know of “unethical” reviews. I had one myself once. A respected reviewer took on one of my novels in his review column and tore it to shreds…except it became very obvious by the second paragraph of the review that said reviewer had not read it. He had given it a quick skim which he thought was enough to give him the gist. it wasn’t. He took me to task for espousing viewpoints that I never even mentioned in the book.
Really, no fault, no foul–anyone who had read the book would know that he hadn’t read it. Anyone who didn’t like my work to begin with would probably not have had their minds changed if he had given me a positive review. But now, I know, and I’ll always know, and this reviewer’s name and reputation don’t mean shit around my house. If he had written a review that said, “Look, everyone seems to like this book but I just can’t get into it,” I would still respect him.
I’ve also seen an unethical positive review–a review written by someone about a book by a friend. It was a very positive review and the reviewer wrote, quite truthfully, that this was the first thing he had ever read by the writer. However, he wrote the review as if he were completely unacquainted with the writer–had never heard of him before getting the book, when in fact, they were thick as thieves. If he had written, “Look, I’m reviewing a friend’s book but I’ve never read anything by him before,” I would still respect him. As things stand, he’s another joke around my house.
And then there’s jerkwad who persuaded publishers to give him expensive collector editions of books for review, claiming to be a big fan when in reality, he hated the work of those writers, got hold of the books simply to rip up the work, and then made a nice profit selling the books on.
There are many other stories I can’t tell even if I leave the names and titles of the books out.
This is a tough field to review in–everybody pretty much knows everybody else and some people respond to a critical review like a sugar-buzzed two-year-old with Tourette’s.
I don’t think all reviews should positive. But I don’t think any reviewer should review a book by a writer s/he already hates, or should review a book with the express intention of ripping it up.
And if you take a book for review, review the whole goddamned thing. I know, you don’t have to eat a whole egg to know it’s rotten–in which case, don’t be a friggin’ reviewer.
Like you I am well aware that reviews are sometimes unethical. Every walk of life has some unethical people in it. But I am absolutely convinced that the primary effect of a campaign against “unethical” reviewing will not be a reduction in the number of unethical reviews, but rather a vast increase in allegations of unethical behavior against perfectly honest reviews by people who happened to disagree with the reviewer over the book, and in consequence a further decrease in the usefulness of reviews. In the end we will only be left with unethical reviewers because they will be the only ones who don’t care about continually being accused of being unethical.
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