Everything Is Nice

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Let’s Push Things Forward

with 24 comments

Blogging is great. It is a tool with huge potential and, by handing over the means of production, it has opened up the world and given everyone a voice. It has been particularly revolutionary in certain fields which entry has traditionally relied on unpaid apprenticeships and the right connections. This includes politics, national journalism and the media and arts, culture and the creative industries. Now, anyone can succeed in these fields but it certainly helps if you are rich and privileged. For example, if you look at the writers of the Guardian – the UK’s premier progressive paper – you will see that a surprisingly large number of them went to public schools and then up to Oxbridge. These fields are all also extremely Londoncentric. Blogging has opened all this up. If you are single mother up in Cumbria writing on a subject you are passionate about in scant free time you have then you now have a platform and it has an audience that is potentially as big as the Guardian’s.

Science fiction isn’t like that though. Say what you want about fandom (and I’ve said plenty) but it is remarkably democratic. Since the birth of the modern genre early in the last century, the line between professionals and amateurs – not to mention writers, reviewers, critics and fans – has been very blurred. Take, for example, the Futurians, a bunch of fans that just happened to include Isaac Asimov, James Blish and Damon Knight. You’d be hard pressed to think of a field with lower barriers to participation than science fiction or one where it is easier to make the transition to “pro”. A large part of this is to do with the huge number of venues for both fiction and non-fiction that the genre has enjoyed. Where there haven’t been the venues people have simply created them and what are fanzines if not yesterday’s blogs? To talk of there being gatekeepers is just nonsense.

So the SF bloggers of today aren’t blazing any sort of trail, they are simply following in the footsteps of previous generations but in a different medium. Which is not to say that everything is business as usual. Blogs have far greater reach and permanence than fanzines ever had. Older fans sometimes complain about younger fans re-inventing the wheel but this is because all the old wheels are mouldering in a shed somewhere. It is regrettable that a great deal of the literature of previous fandom has fallen down the memory hole. The British Science Fiction Association has been publishing magazines for over fifty years but how many of them are accessible and to how many people? I will pause to acknowledge that well-archived physical documents printed on good quality paper remain the prefered long term storage solution. I don’t think this applies to most of the material I am refering to. There is a huge digitisation job to be done but there seems to be little appetite for this.

Therefore it should be a privilege to be writing in the age of the blog and it would be nice to see more people making the most of the gift they have been given. Obviously no one is obligated to do anything but a little self-reflection never hurt anyone. The most common reason given for eshewing such reflection is “I’m just writing for me.” That is a lie. If you really were just writing for yourself, you could keep a diary. People blog not just because they want to write but because they want to be read. This means they have to publish and, once you are publishing publically, what you write is fair game. Just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should; similarly, just because you have a platform, doesn’t mean you should use it.

People really don’t want to hear that. Just as some people seem to believe that there are no good and bad books, only different readers, so they seem to think the same applies to blogs. But this is not true: some things are better than others. Perhaps a more honest way of stating the rejection of reflection would be “I’m just writing for me and other people exactly like me.” And that seems a bit sad to me; it surpresses the potential of the platform but it also surpresses the potential of the writer too.

At the moment there are a lot of enthusiastic SF book review blogs but very few good ones. I would hope (and expect, to be honest) that people would seek to transform their enthusiasm into into skill. This doesn’t seem to be the case and, in fact, people react angrily and defensively to the very suggestion. For me, the fact that the majority of SF blog book reviews are very weak is less of an issue than the refusal of people to address it. Sure, you can do it “for the love” but that is another way of saying you are happy to stay in your comfort zone, lazy and complacent and unwilling to hold yourself to the standards you believe the genre is worthy of. And if that is the case, why bother publishing?

To criticise someone’s writing is not to criticise that person and what I’m saying is “let’s raise our game”. Unfortunately the response is often “why are you putting us down?

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Written by Martin

5 November 2010 at 15:45

Posted in criticism, genre wars, sf

24 Responses

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  1. Couldn’t agree more.

    We can ALWAYS do better. Every single one of us.

    Jonathan M

    5 November 2010 at 16:47

  2. I’ll echo Jonathan and give you a big YES!

    A thoughtful, well-developed critical process is a necessary part of a healthy artform. A cloying, apologetic, or needlessly complimentary community (and I know, given the infighting, some will call that a stretch) is the beginning of a dead artform.

    I am exceedingly grateful for you and the other hard working critics out there (Abigail from Wrong Questions, the good fellow at OF Blog whose name eludes me, Niall and many of the commenters over at Torque Control, and Adam Roberts on Punkadiddle) who are actively generating discourse and critical thought as opposed to hiding under the same fallacies and measures of comfort SF seems to content to wallow in.

    I know I’ve said it before, but I think if it were not for places like Strange Horizons, I would have almost zero understanding of the output of the genre I write in as it seems increasingly that the internet has become no more than a furtherance for marketing machinery as opposed to something resembling thought.

    Anyways, I’ve been lurking around again, but I thought I’d pop in and cheer you on a bit. Speaking of which, you if you have anymore suggestions to add to my list, I’d love to see them!

    Casey Samulski

    5 November 2010 at 23:19

  3. I take my reviewing very seriously. Over the last 18 months it’s become more than just a hobby but something I spend hours working on. You’re right the genre deserves reviewers who are wiling to get their hands dirty, who are willing to strip the piece bare and really see what makes it work.

    But I wasn’t under the impression that genuine critical thought was lacking out there. Do I read the wrong blogs?

    Ian Mond

    6 November 2010 at 04:13

  4. I don’t think it is lacking in so much as you can certainly find it if you know where to look. But I do think there is a lot of chaff to go with the wheat. For example, if you type the name of a new release into Google, invariably the reviewers that come up as the first search results are pretty weak. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    Martin

    6 November 2010 at 11:27

  5. invariably the reviewers that come up as the first search results are pretty weak

    To me this is the core of the problem. To become a good reviewer you have to read good reviews. Unlike more conventional blogs, book review blogs have a low post frequency (the good ones do, at least). I guess what’s needed is better review aggregators to highlight good reviews (as opposed to somehow keeping bad reviews out, i.e. gatekeepers…impossible now and we’re far better for it). Something like Niall’s links posts on TQ but updated in real time instead of once a month. Or is someone already doing this?

    Matt Hilliard

    6 November 2010 at 16:45

  6. I guess what’s needed is better review aggregators to highlight good reviews

    Which, since I’m always looking for good reviews myself, leads to a question: can anyone here recommend some book-review-heavy blogs that are particularly good, or don’t get enough attention? (I already regularly read Asking the Wrong Questions, Punkadiddle, Torque Control, and the review section of Strange Horizons.)

    Wesley

    6 November 2010 at 23:58

  7. There’s OF Blog of the Fallen but I find it quite a frustrating read. Larry’s a clever chap but he almost never produces proper criticism, it’s mostly 500-1000 word reviews. It’s good on digging up books you might not have otherwise heard of though.

    There’s Karen Burnham’s Spiral Galaxy Reviewing laboratory.

    I also like Paul C. Smith’s Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream which is skewed towards the weirder mainstream and intelligent dark-fantasy end of the spectrum.

    Gestalt Mash is a recently launched site overseen by Jay Tomio that goes out of its way to cover both genre and mainstream stuff in slightly unconventional ways.

    There are a few others bubbling under too.

    Niall’s links round-ups were always a really good place to find decent reviews and they also served to unite a certain sector of the reviewing community by making them aware of each other and placing them in a conversation. Now that Niall has stepped down from Vector I have no idea what he’s going to be doing with his blog or whether he’ll continue to do the linking but I think that it’s a social function that someone needs to perform.

    The community of critical videogame writers have a blog called Critical Distance which provides weekly links and allows people to basically pitch their reviews at the round-up. It might provide a useful model for a post TC world :-)

    http://www.critical-distance.com

    Jonathan M

    7 November 2010 at 09:15

  8. There’s also Matt Hillard’s blog and Dabid Hebblethwaite’s one and Matt Denault’s irregular but in-depth Lingua Fantastika.

    Eve’s Alexandria is a great group blog that often covers SF and Pechorin’s Journal covers it from time to time.

    I’ve also recently started reading Solar Bridge and Cold Iron & Rowan Wood and like them a lot.

    Martin

    7 November 2010 at 09:41

  9. Thanks for those Martin. A couple of those I’m aware of, but others I’m not.

    Ian Mond

    7 November 2010 at 10:28

  10. Hey Martin, glad you like what I’ve been doing; means a lot. Oddly, your approval spurs me on to want to be better…

    Not sure how I missed Matt Denault’s blog, actually, as I’ve seen him pop up in other places, and I like what he has to say. I’ve popped it into my reader.

    Richard

    7 November 2010 at 17:05

  11. Richard, thanks; your blog is in my reader list so the admiration is mutual.

    Martin wrote:

    At the moment there are a lot of enthusiastic SF book review blogs but very few good ones. I would hope (and expect, to be honest) that people would seek to transform their enthusiasm into into skill.

    I wonder if one aspect of this is that as reviewers do become determined to improve their craft, they start to gravitate toward edited publications, online and off, and away from blogging their reviews? I don’t mean to state that as a universal: no slight on bloggers who remain solely bloggers, and try to improve their craft in ways they apply on their own blog; and there are certainly plenty of folks like Abigail who have steadily written both for personal blog and for publication (Niall as well, although Torque Control has been sort of a gray area between personal blog and publication). But it does seem to me that there are a number of people like Jonathan, who used to maintain a books-oriented blog but now writes about books largely for places like SH, The Zone, and now Cheryl Morgan’s promising new Salon Futura; Matthew Cheney, who used to review books at his blog The Mumpsimus but now does so almost exclusively for publications like SH and Rain Taxi; Martin, our host, who seldom writes proper book reviews here but does so for SH, Vector, SF Site, etc.

    There are a lot of reasons to write for edited publications, but I think a big part of it–at least for me–is the combination of becoming confident that you have something to say worth saying to a general, widespread audience, and as a result wanting to be sure you say it as well as possible. Which is where an editor can be of great value.

    I wonder if many bloggers don’t get to the second part of that, as Martin suggests, because they never get past the first part.

    I should also say that I don’t think the cycle necessarily ends there. You also see plenty of people like Jonathan and Adam Roberts who, entirely able to be rigorous in traditional reviewing, often use their blogs to experiment with different styles and structures and tones of writing. That’s part of why I created my blog, too: for writings that for various reasons I didn’t think I could sell, or didn’t want to.

    Also:

    For example, if you type the name of a new release into Google, invariably the reviewers that come up as the first search results are pretty weak. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    Yes, I remember this is where we left things when last we talked about this subject here. I’m still not sure how to solve this, or if its solvable. That said, now quoting Matt Hilliard:

    To me this is the core of the problem. To become a good reviewer you have to read good reviews. Unlike more conventional blogs, book review blogs have a low post frequency (the good ones do, at least). I guess what’s needed is better review aggregators to highlight good reviews (as opposed to somehow keeping bad reviews out, i.e. gatekeepers…impossible now and we’re far better for it). Something like Niall’s links posts on TQ but updated in real time instead of once a month. Or is someone already doing this?

    I tried to implement the “real time link dump” idea when I created my blog, but haven’t done a great job of it–partly out of laziness, partly out of setting my filter too high (I wanted to list things that not only were well written, but that also contained ideas beyond the scope of the book under review), and partly out of limits in my online reading (so for instance I’m not happy with the limited amount of linkage I’ve given to coverage of books by women writers). But yes, there are probably ways to make this work, and work better.

    The other thing I’ve run into, though, is my sense that, as above, publications are in some ways the best possible “review aggregators.” That is, I’m not entirely sure time spent bettering my own blog’s search ranking is time well spent, when I can just submit my writing to a publication that already has a high search rank.

    I’m curious what others make, of any of this.

    Matt Denault

    8 November 2010 at 23:03

  12. I’m really glad to hear you like Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood – I started book-blogging mostly in order to teach myself criticism, and to make sure I read more closely.

    Thank you, too, for the other recommendations.

    Sam Kelly

    8 November 2010 at 23:35

  13. Excellent overview Matt!

    Your reference to SEO techniques is interesting as it does remind us that the problem is two-sided. Martin is correct that quality needs to improve at the supply side (we do all need to do better) but the picture could also be improved at the technical level. However, I don’t think that there’s any desire for us to, as a community, start learning how to manipulate google in the hope of squeezing out high-profile but otherwise crap reviewers. Do we really want to fight a google-war with Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist? :-)

    Your point about review sites serving as aggregators is a fascinating and genuinely thought-provoking one. I think that they do serve as aggregators but as a class of website they are not particularly efficient ones.

    1) Strange Horizons, Salon Futura et al simply cannot afford to carry all of everyone’s output. Even if they had the financial resources, they would not have the editorial resources to do so. As a result, there’s spillage.

    2) Editorial standards are really patchy across the field. For every Niall Harrison and Cheryl Morgan there are half a dozen people happy to put up any content as long as they don’t have to pay for it.

    3) I think that writing for another website is as much about social matters as it is about one’s development as a critic. Yes, writing for someone else forces one to raise one’s game but I certainly write for other people because I want to be a part of THAT conversation. What is problematic is that not everyone with talent necessarily wants to be a part of that conversation and because this is fandom and not the Genre Book Snob Club, some people get included in the conversation despite not really adding that much.

    Jonathan M

    9 November 2010 at 10:07

  14. [...] Lewis recently wrote a great post on saving money (feel free to take a shot about me blogging about fashion for that one Martin) the [...]

  15. Thanks for the nod, Martin!

    Matt D’s point about edited publications is interesting to me, because I began as a reviewer for places like The Alien Online, and didn’t start blogging seriously until the last couple of years. I started blogging because I wanted to write about a wider range of books than I was able to just writing for other sites — but my background as a reviewer absolutely influences the way I blog.

    It seems to me that there are fewer decent publications (online or off-) which publish reviews these days (in the UK, at least; another impetus for me to start blogging was that many of the sites for which I was writing closed a couple of years ago), and that blogs are now the dominant venue for reviews. That puts the emphasis more on individual voices, so it’s even more important that what those voices say is sufficiently rigorous and critical.

    David Hebblethwaite

    9 November 2010 at 20:45

  16. One of the ways you can tell we’re still transitioning from a print culture to an online culture is that no one is quite sure what things are for. It used to be magazines served two purposes: they provided the funds and apparatus to publish content (in this case reviews), and they served as a quality filter (both by rejecting unsuitable content and by improving what they accepted or commissioned via editing). With the advent of the Internet, publishing has become free. This makes some people think publishers will go extinct. Not at all, others say, pointing to their second purpose, that of quality filter (or gatekeeper, if you’re feeling pejorative, not to mention financier, endorser, and improver).

    We definitely need something to fill that role. But is the traditional magazine, whose structure and format were principally dictated by the economic realities of print publishing, the only way to do that? Definitely not. Is it the best way? Beats me.

    Jonathan talks about being part of a conversation. I assume he means the critical conversation, which used to mean critics reading each others work in highbrow magazines and newspapers, academic journals, or books of criticism. But one of the biggest benefits of the online medium is you can have, well, actual conversations. It’s not clear to me that the magazine format is very effective here. I only have anecdotal evidence, but it seems to me that, for example, Abigail Nussbaum’s reviews for her personal blog generate more comments than her reviews on Strange Horizons. I don’t think it’s because her blog has lots more readers than SH, but rather that people are still instinctively interacting with SH the way they do with a print magazine.

    In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that online genre conversation is centered around blogs (TQ, James Nicholl, Scalzi and other authors) and not magazines, even though the latter usually have comments and forums. Maybe this will change as people forget their print habits, or as magazines get more modern web designs, but I’m not so sure.

    Matt Hilliard

    9 November 2010 at 23:15

  17. it seems to me that, for example, Abigail Nussbaum’s reviews for her personal blog generate more comments than her reviews on Strange Horizons

    This is true, but there are many contributing factors. For one thing, my film and TV writing tends to appear on my blog rather than on SH, and posts on these subjects almost always generate more comments than book reviews (even on SH they tend to be the most commented-on reviews). For another, a review venue like Strange Horizons will tend to review newer books, and books take much longer than film or TV to percolate through even a dedicated readership, so there are less people to have a conversation with to begin with. A review of an older book, such as my recent post about Banks’s The Player of Games, will attract more commenters because there are more people who have read the book and are interested in talking about it.

    There’s also the whole issue of community. A lot of virtual ink has been spilled on the subject of developing a community of commenters around a blot or a website. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found a lively conversation about one of my posts happening elsewhere, because whoever was interested in discussing it wanted to do so not with me but with the people they know and enjoy talking with. For whatever reason, Strange Horizons hasn’t developed that commenter’s community.

    All that said, when I started reviewing for Strange Horizons it was because, as Jonathan puts it, I wanted to be part of a larger conversation, and at the time the readership differential between my blog and the magazine was such that the latter offered a much higher likelihood of doing so. I don’t know if that’s still the case, but my sense is that AtWQ and SH have different readerships, and writing for it is a way for me to reach people who aren’t necessarily interested in the things I blog about.

    Abigail

    10 November 2010 at 08:14

  18. Dear All:

    I find the lists of good places…good…but insular. Why wouldn’t you look to the best reviews at the New York Times, the Guardian, etc., as exemplar of how to do a review if you’re blogging? (And don’t say because they suck–because they usually don’t–or that reviewing SF/F requires some kind of specialized approach.

    JeffV

    Jeff VanderMeer

    10 November 2010 at 20:22

  19. Jeff — I look to the LRB, the New York Times and the New York Review of Books both for inspiration and in admiration. I *wish* that I could write like that.

    But they’re a discrete critical community. I may, one day, be a part of that critical community but I’m certainly not at the moment.

    When we talk in an insular way about the good blogs and sites, we’re talking about sites that are members of our critical community. When I talk about improving the standards of genre blogging, the sub-text is that I think that more people should be doing what I do :-)

    Jonathan McCalmont

    10 November 2010 at 21:13

  20. I wouldn’t look to the New York Times or the Guardian because the sort of reviews they publish — short, aimed at general readers — are not, in the main, the sort of reviews I want to write. But like Jonathan, I’ve learned a lot from the LRB and NYRB (and TLS, etc etc; and specific reviewers, like Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon or Frank Kermode) … although I sometimes feel that some of the reviews in those venues lack the vigour I look for in the best criticism.

    What I don’t know is what the mainstream, online-only equivalent of those sorts of venues is. Bookslut, Rain Taxi, The Quarterly Conversation … none have the consistency of an LRB.

    Niall

    11 November 2010 at 02:07

  21. I read and enjoy the LRB and I hope it has influenced me as a writer (although it can be hit or miss and I resent the way it so obviously believes fiction to be inferior to non-fiction). But I don’t see it as a good model for blogging. The average review is, what, 5000 words? If I was writing a genre review of that length I would want to publish it somewhere like NYRSF so that a) it would be rigourously edited and b) it would find an audience.

    Equally, I read the Guardian Review every Saturday and it is one of the pleasures of my weekend but, as Niall says, it has the opposite issue. In terms of this conversation, I do think someone would be better off looking at an Adam Roberts blog post than an Adam Roberts Guardian review.

    This conversation is very much about what a good genre blogger looks like. There is a further conversation about how to get there. In that case, I do think you’ve hit on the answer: eschewing insularity. Genre bloggers should certainly read widely outside the genre, both in terms of fiction and criticism.

    Martin

    11 November 2010 at 08:36

  22. Jeff’s point is surely that you can be influenced by a 5,000-word LRB review without actually having to write a 5,000-word review. Just as, in writing a short story, you might be influenced by a novel. I read the LRB, TLS, New York Review of Books, also venues for shorter more popular reviews such as the Guardian Review, the New Yorker, Prospect. I am confident that every single one of them feeds in some way into what and how I write my own reviews.

    On the more general point, how much of the difference between book blogs/bloggers comes down to what the writer thinks they are doing? There is a world of difference between setting out to write a blog post about a book and setting out to write a review of the same book. A difference of intent, a difference in how you approach the task, a difference in what you think the effect will be. Whether I write for my LiveJournal, for a blog like Big Other, or for Strange Horizons or wherever, I tend to think of it as writing a review. Not everyone will.

    Paul Kincaid

    11 November 2010 at 10:43

  23. [...] probably be obvious that a couple years ago I tried to “raise my game” as Martin Lewis later put it. This is an avocation without a lot of obvious yardsticks for how well one’s doing, so this [...]

  24. [...] It’s An Ethos – in which I summarise the bankrupt nihilism “debate”. 8) Let’s Push Things Forward – in which I implore SF bloggers to raise their game. 9) 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award [...]

    Three « Everything Is Nice

    27 October 2011 at 16:07


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