Making Progress

It has been a bit quiet here today because I have been busy working on a new website for the bookstore. I’m quite pleased with what I have thus far. I also have a deadline, because Juliet’s book is due out soon and I need to be able to sell it (and not just through Amazon). More on this in a few days.

Also I’m trying to write a review of Caitlín Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl that does not suck. The better the book, the harder it is to write a review that is neither fawning nor pretentious, so I’m up against it here.

Invisibility Watch

It being International Women’s Day (and before anyone whines, International Men’s Day does exist — it is in November), here’s a brief visibility update.

Most of you will probably have seen VIDA’s report on the visibility (or lack thereof) of women in mainstream literary magazines during 2011. What you may not have seen is this post which looks at books reviewed in popular SF&F blogs.

There’s certainly potential for selection bias here, and the sample size is quite small, so I’m not going to claim that this proves anything. It is, however, yet another data point. And to my mind the key statistic is this: 41% of books reviewed by women bloggers were by male authors; only 18% of the books reviewed by male bloggers were by female authors.

I note that my review selections of late have been very deliberately slanted in favor of female authors.

Please Don’t Nominate Me

No, this is nothing to do with the Hugos. The Guardian is reporting the creation of a new literary prize especially for reviewers. It is to be called the Hatchet Job of the Year. And someone thinks that this is going to improve the public profile of literary critics.


I should note here that I’m perfectly happy for people to write destructive reviews of books that really deserve it. This morning Jon Courtenay Grimwood tweeted about this review in The Guardian, which includes some remarkably bad samples of sentences from the book in question. And a friend phoned me today for a second opinion on an excoriation of a different book which also deserved it, for rather different reasons. But to suggest that the sole purpose of book reviewing is being destructive, well it is no wonder people have such a bad impression of reviewers.


It has been a busy day here, full of minor annoyances, so I’ve not had time to write anything much. However, I would like to give a quick shout out to a couple of people who have done good things recently.

Firstly, Michael Clarke, captain of the Australian cricket team, who was well on his way to setting a new world record for runs scored in an individual innings of a test match, but chose to declare his team’s innings closed in order to make sure he had plenty of time to win the match. Good show, Puppy, even us Poms are impressed.

And secondly to Mr. Hornswoggler, a.k.a. Andrew Wheeler, for this rather fine review of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. From one reviewer to another, well done, sir.

Flying Snowmen

Yes, I know it is ridiculous of me to think that anyone who reads this blog doesn’t also read John Scalzi. However, you may not pay close attention to everything that Scalzi posts, especially if he posts it on a Sunday, and yesterday he was talking about something that interests me a lot, so here I am commenting on it.

John’s story begins with some fanboy neepery on the subject of the lava in Mount Doom in the Return of the King movie. Apparently if you fall into a pool of lava you should float, not sink as Gollum does. Who knew? Not me, certainly, and I do have a science degree.

There’s a whole lot of discussion as to whether it is reasonable to assume that lava in a magical mountain in a fantasy world should behave in the same way as lava in our world, and indeed whether what we are seeing is lava at all, but the essence of the debate is the question of what throws you out of the story, what clips the fragile thread by which your suspension of disbelief is hanging and sends in plunging into the flaming fires of skepticism.

John illustrates this by recounting the story of how his wife, Krissy, when reading a kid’s book about an enchanted snowman, was quite happy to have it walking around, and even eating hot soup, but could not accept the idea of a snowman flying. John therefore suggests adopting the term “Flying Snowman” for something that throws you out of the story.

The comments are also full of ideas as to why a flying snowman should be a problem when other things about him are not, most of which flounder on the question, “then why is it OK that Superman can fly?” But again the key issue is not a general issue about flying snowmen, but one about individuals. For Krissy flying snowmen are a problem; for others they are not.

The reason I am highlighting all of this is that it is a key issue that you have to confront when writing reviews, particularly of speculative literature. Many people have Flying Snowman triggers. Mine tend to be the economics of the fantasy world. Farah Mendlesohn’s are issues to do with the author’s understanding of how history works. Everyone has their own specific areas of expertise, and their own triggers. The mistake that a lot of reviews make (and I know I used to do this) is to assume that their own triggers apply to everyone else, so if they find a book unbelievable, everyone else will do so as well, and consequently the book is a bad book. That’s by no means necessarily so.

I devoted a whole column to talking about this sort of thing in Salon Futura #6. I highlighted three books that caused me suspension of belief problems, and one that avoided anything fantastical that might cause such issues. But the problems I had were in two cases a matter of characterization and in the third it was with something that was a long way from the most fantastical thing in the book.

It is a strange and fragile thing, the contract that we, as readers, have with an author. But if writing books, and reviewing them, were easy then they wouldn’t be worth doing. I don’t know about you, but I love science fiction and fantasy because they give me so much to think about. That includes thinking about why a book doesn’t work for me, and whether the same issues would trouble others.

Some Thoughts on Reviews

Larry Nolen has recently done a couple of long posts (here and here) about the relationship between reviewers and publishers, and how this appears to have changed somewhat in the era of book bloggers. Broadly speaking I agree with him. Even if I wanted to agree to review a book I was given, I can’t guarantee that I’ll have the time, and I don’t like the idea that a free copy of the book is seen as “payment” for the review. I do still get a few free books from author friends, and there are some publicists I’m on good terms with, and will accept books from, but the majority of the books you see reviewed here are books I have bought because I wanted to own them.

I did quite a few reviews last month, and that proved to be an interesting experiment. I don’t put the reviews in the actual blog posts because I like to see how many people click through to read the review. The review that got most views was the one for Debris. It got 61 unique views. Of that number, some will be spammers. I get around 300 spam comments a day, and I know that some of those were posted on the Debris review. If I were a publicist I’d certainly not bother to send a book to someone who only has around 50 readers. Hopefully this will deter some of the hopeful self-published writers who email me their books.

One Man’s Candor

It appears it is open season on reviewers again. There was a little kerfuffle on Twitter this morning that Damien G. Walter has on life support over here. In addition Rose Fox put out a heartfelt plea for candor on Genreville.

I’m all in favor of candor, and apparently I’m not alone as John Clute called his SF Weekly column “Excessive Candour”. But sadly candor can only take you so far. You see, no matter how candid you might think you have been, once your review is published you will discover that for some people you were anything but. If you liked the book you’ll be accused of flattering your friends, sucking up to the author, taking bribes from publishers, and if you are lucky of being a secret agent of a Mormon conspiracy to take over science fiction. If you didn’t like the book, well you were just trying to be clever, or you are a horrible nihilist, or you are exacting revenge for some slight the author has given you.

Just like any other piece of writing, once your review has been published it ceases to be yours. It then mutates in the mind of each person who reads it. They may bring with them cultural filters that completely change the meaning of what you thought you wrote, or they they may simply take it as a personal insult that you did not have the same view of the book in question that they did.

Despite all this, I still try to be candid. That’s just me. Other people’s mileage may differ. But being candid won’t save you from being accused of hideous bias. The only thing that can save you from that is not saying anything at all.

Los Angeles Review of Books

I don’t pay much attention to Twitter notifications of new followers. Most of them, I suspect, will vanish in a day or two because they are spam accounts, or they’ll stop following me because I didn’t immediately follow back. But I do glance at the names just in case, and today a follow came in from an account called @LAReviewofBooks.

What? They cannot be serious, surely? A literary review magazine, following me? Then I looked up their website. This is apparently a very new venture, with the site in a temporary blog on tumblr until their IT guys can finish coding the back end. It is, however, the place where I read this Roger Luckhurst review of Gary Wolfe’s Evaporating Genres yesterday. Scrolling down I found a wonderful review of William Gibson’s Zero History by another academic friend, Sherryl Vint. Now I was intrigued.

Checking the About page I discover that the magazine has a large staff, including eight section heads. One of them is Rob Latham, who is one of my fellow directors at the Translation Awards. He’s doing Speculative Literature. There’s also a section head for Comics. Obviously there are other areas too, but hey, 25% good stuff already, and the YA/Kids section will probably be of interest too. Further investigation of the list of Contributing Editors turned up Nicola Griffith, Jonathan Lethem and Kim Stanley Robinson.

This isn’t quite the same thing as Salon Futura. There doesn’t appear to be any deliberate attempt to cross-fertilize specfic and mainstream literature. But it is a very high profile literary review magazine that looks like it will treat all forms of literature equally, which I most definitely approve of. I’m also pleased to see that it intends to look far beyond the USA, and hopefully beyond the English language.

Needless to say, the site’s feed has gone straight into Google Reader.

Want the T-Shirt

In the latest episode of the Coode Street Podcast (which I will now forever think of as the Poode Street Codcast) Gary Wolfe quotes an unnamed publishing insider as follows:

“An objective review is not a review, it’s a report”


As Jonathan notes in the podcast, reading is an intensely subjective experience. As a reviewer, all you can say is how the book read to you. Naturally we all think we are right, then we talk to other people and discover how differently people can read the same book.

All reviewers are, of course, gatekeepers, in that we tell our readers which books we think are worth reading, and which we think are not. But that is only what we think, and to a great extent our value as reviewers is in explaining why we think those things, not in the validity of our judgments. I am deeply suspicious of any reviewer who appears to want to be an “authority”.

An Editor’s Lament

No, not mine. But I do have similar problems.

There has been a fair amount of talk around the blogosphere of late about the fact that, despite women buying and reading more books than men, reviews in mainstream newspapers are mostly by men, about books by men. Today Katy Guest, Literary Editor of The Independent, entered the fray, mildly blowing her newspaper’s trumpet, but also lamenting how hard it is to get women to submit material to be published.

I feel her pain. I have managed to buy some articles by women for Clarkesworld, but by no means 50%. I am trying to make a conscious effort to seek out more women writers, but they do seem to need to be encouraged, and men don’t. Despite my making a conscious effort to get women involved in Salon Futura, all of the guest articles I have published to date (as opposed to articles by columnists) have been by men. Hopefully that will change soon.

Of course there may be other reasons too. Currently Ms. Guest’s article has just two comments. Both of them are from men making snide “jokes”. It is an inevitable truth of today’s “have your say” culture that articles by women, especially intelligent articles by women, are liable to attract the attention of male trolls. Then there will be the mansplainers, who feel the need to explain to the poor girly, in words of one syllable or less, the truth of the matter that she is so hopelessly seeking to understand. Often they will parrot your points back at you, apparently unable to conceive that you could have make them yourself. Obviously you’ll get intelligent, helpful comments from male readers as well, but the trolls and mansplainers are pretty much inevitable.

Some of my male friends seem to relish troll comments and take them as a challenge. I suspect that far too many women look at comments feeds, shake their heads, and wonder why why anyone would both to put themselves in the stocks to have insults thrown at them.

But, to shift metaphors a little, if we are not prepared to stick our necks out a little, then there will always be more articles by men than by women, and we will always live in a culture in which is seems that men are the source of intellectual authority. So please, ladies, could I have some submissions to Clarkesworld and Salon Futura?

More on Paying for Non-Fiction

This morning over breakfast I listened to the latest edition (#21) of the Galactic Suburbia podcast. I’m very grateful to the ladies for mentioning my post on paying for non-fiction, but I can’t help feeling that they missed the point a little because they said things like, “why should anyone pay for reviews when so many people are willing to do it for free?”

Well, you know, lots of people put their fiction online for free as well, but we still pay people to write it. Sometimes we pay them quite a lot, because they are good at it.

And possibly my point is that when a magazine doesn’t pay for the reviews it prints then it is saying to its readers that it doesn’t care whether those reviews are any good or not.

But mainly the point is that if you do want to get paid for non-fiction has to be worth reading. If you query me to write something for Salon Futura I won’t just say, “yeah great, the more reviews the merrier,” because I have a budget to stick to. Instead I will ask you questions, like this:

  • Why, of all the hundreds of books published recently, should we carry a review of this one?
  • What do you have to say about the book that is interesting, exciting, innovative, important?
  • Why should other people want to read what you have to say about this book?

And if you can’t answer those questions, or if your answer amounts to, “I read it and I liked it”, then I won’t buy your article.

It comes down to this: there are all sorts of reasons why people write reviews, but if you want someone to pay you to write them then you have to write something that other people are going to want to read.

Going Professional

Today’s Twitter feed brought up some interesting developments over at Escape Pod. What used to be just a podcast now has a monthly magazine containing the text of the stories that have been published in audio. There will also be book reviews. What’s more, they are clearly going for the semiprozine market as they talk about paying professional rates. Obviously they need donations, but they sound determined to pay their authors good money.


Or almost. Because, as is depressingly the case, there is a catch. Being a suspicious type, I sent to look at the submission guidelines, and I found what I expected:

At the present time, EP does not offer payment for reviews.

So yes, they’ll be paying their authors, which is a wonderful thing to do, but only if they write fiction.

This is by no means an isolated occurrence. I don’t mean to dump on Escape Pod because they are only doing what many other venues do. One of the reasons I work for Clarkesworld and not for anyone else is because Neil is prepared to pay the same rate for non-fiction as for fiction. Other magazines don’t do that. Indeed, in the past couple of weeks I have caught a couple of people using the term “professional writer” to mean “professional fiction writer”. There’s a widespread view that even if non-fiction writers get the same money as fiction writers, they are still not worthy of being viewed as “professional”. SFWA’s membership rules don’t help here.

So it is all very well for people to complain about the quality of book reviews online (here and here most recently). But if there’s nowhere that recognizes that non-fiction is worth paying for, then there’s no real incentive for people to get any better.

The Dead Critics Panel

Yesterday I got to moderate a panel on literary criticism featuring John Clute, Bill Congreve and James Bradley. I’m pretty pleased with how it went, in no small part because it could easily have been taken as a manifesto for Salon Futura.

The title of the panel was “Is Criticism Dead”, the assumption being that because critics are losing their positions as gatekeepers of literary taste they no longer have a role in the world. Of course us critics are actually undead (and want your braaains!), but hopefully we still have a role in providing entertainment for the public.

The substance of the panel turned on making a distinction between criticism and reviews (and thanks to Peter Nichols for making this clear from the audience). We had, on a couple of occasions, tried to define criticism, and failed. However, we came up with a number of things that it is not.

To start with, as Peter so eloquently put it, criticism is not like writing for Which? magazine. We are not trying to tell you which book you should read next. Reviewers may try to do that, though I think it is a pretty foolish enterprise.

James noted that, especially in today’s online world, critics should approach works with an attitude of humility. We are not there to hand down judgment from on high. We are there to give our impression of the work. Clute added that we may well get it wrong on first reading, and should not be afraid to re-visit works at a later date. I added that even if we get it right for ourselves, other people may approach the work in a very different way. As I said in the first issue of Salon Futura, there is no one correct way to read a book.

Clute also noted that criticism is not spoiler free. You can’t talk intelligently about a book if you have to tiptoe around everything that happens in it. Reviews can try to be spoiler free. Blurbs perhaps should be but rarely are. Criticism, however, has to engage with the work.

Bill made some very interesting points about the nature of reading on computer screens and why the supposed short attention span of the online reader is more a function of font choice, line length and screen clarity than a dumbing down of people’s reading ability. I’d like to know a lot more about that and will try to find Bill to get references. This is relevant, because many online venues are uncomfortable with articles that try to develop an argument, as opposed to simply making points. Criticism should not be simply stating an opinion.

The rough conclusion that we came to is that the role of the critic as a gatekeeper who hands down judgment on books from on high may well be dead, but the need for critics is as great as ever and the new freedoms provided by the Internet, in which magazines like Salon Futura can find a niche without being beholden to the publishing industry, create plenty of opportunities for criticism to flourish.

Guardian Gets Sensawunda

It is Hugo time again at The Guardian’s Book Blog. This time Sam Jordison reviews Larry Niven’s Ringworld. I think Sam pretty much nails it when he says that the Ringworld itself i the star of the book, and the sense of wonder that it generates in the reader is what makes the book work, for those of us for whom it does work.

Of course it won’t work for everyone, and as ever the comments are full of people telling Sam that they didn’t like the book, some of them implying that his review must be “wrong” because of this. There are no books that are universally liked.

Which brings us neatly to a lovely blog post by Glenda Larke about book reviews. Normally I get very tired of bloggers writing about reviews, because such posts consist mainly of people putting forward rules for reviewing, or complaining that reviews are all badly written. Glenda, however, does something new and refreshing. The extracts quotes from a bunch of reviews of her latest book and juxtaposes them. The range of opinions is delightfully varied.

Fear of the Imagination

In the feed of book reviews I got this weekend was an article in The Guardian by Greil Marcus. It talks about a book he has written called Listening to Van Morrison. The book is based on interviews with audiences at Van Morrison concerts. Consequently much of it is about how people interact with art. This section stood out for me:

One of the themes of the book I wrote has to do with the fear some people have for the imagination, for their resistance to being moved by something that is invented: made up. It’s the desire to reduce anything that affects them to the biography of whoever it might have been who made the work.

It seems to me that this is applicable to far more than just music. It touches on the determination that so many readers have to interpret a book in terms of “what the author intended”. Heck, people even judge the abilities of celebrity sportsmen such as David Beckham or Tiger Woods on the basis of whether they view them as “good people” or not. The phenomenon also has connection with diversity politics, because so many people try to defend works of art on the basis of whether or not the creator intended to cause offense. I find this all very odd. A performance — any performance — has a life of its own way beyond that of its creator.

Introducing The Portal

There’s an awful lot of book reviewing that happens online these days, and an awful lot of short fiction magazines, but finding people to review short fiction is surprisingly difficult. It is therefore good to know that someone else is about to take on that task.

The someones in question are Val Grimm and Elizabeth Allen, both former staffers at The Fix. Their site is called The Portal, and it is scheduled for launch at World Fantasy in October. That’s quite a way away, but one of the reasons for the delay is that they are recruiting staff. You see, they don’t just want to cover the UK/US market, they want to report from all around the world. Some people I know well — Fábio Fernandes and Johan Anglemark — are already involved, but more are still needed. If you are interested in helping out, no matter where in the world you are, send an inquiry email and writing sample to thesffportal at gmail dot com. They will be delighted to hear from you.

See also comment from Fábio here.

You Should Be Listening

Seriously, if you have any interest at all in writing, or writing about, science fiction and fantasy literature, you should listen to the podcast conversations between Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan. The latest one, which includes discussion of feminist science fiction and China Miéville, can be found here. Jonathan says they are planning to make it a regular event. This is a very good thing.

The Psychology of Reviewing

One of the questions that often troubles reviewers is why people get so wound up about what they write. At long last it seems that science is investigating. A paper in the Journal of Consumer Research looks at the general field of product reviews. The authors conclude that the questions, “Will others like it?” and “If others like it, do I?” involve very different psychological processes, and how people respond to them is heavily bound up with each person’s personal need to feel unique, or not.

I suspect that there’s a lot more work to be done here. The current study doesn’t address the question as to why even a mildly unenthusiastic review can induce blind fury in a fan of the work being reviewed. However, the whole question of how you think others will view the work under consideration, and whether that matters, is probably key to understanding reviewer psychology.

Still With the Linkage

Tsk, lazy blogger than I am:

– People have known for a long time that animals seem to have some sort of sixth sense when it comes to earthquakes. Slowly but surely, we may be beginning to understand how it works.

– At The Guardian Book Blog Alison Flood considers the Clarke short list and David Barnett looks for real fear.

– Peter Murphy recycles an old review of the wonderful Godspeed You Black Emperor. (Can you imagine how bad music journalism would be if people like Peter had to put up with the same po-faced, self-righteous nonsense about “how to write reviews” that we get in science fiction?)

– I was going to nominate Greg Bridges for a Hugo next year because of this, but now he’s gone and done this as well.

Some Random Linkage

A few things that caught my eye over the past few days.

– Interesting interview with Jeanette Winterson at The Guardian (she describes herself as “post-heterosexual”).

The Independent discovers a new subgenre: Steampunk Romance (interestingly I’ve found a lot of hostility amongst UK fans towards steampunk, but I may just be talking to the wrong people – thoughts?)

– Fingertips talks about how a good artist can still sell albums in the age of free downloads.

– John Scalzi talks a great deal of sense about one-star reviews at Amazon.

– Charles A Tan rounds up some great posts about the Australian speculative fiction scene.