Why reviewers don’t often say “This sucks”.

In the comments to my “Series that go downhill” post, Kluelos writes:

When the computer game “Myst:URU” was released, and reviewers were panning it, but giving a grade of “B”, I recall thinking that if this game had any other pedigree than the revered Rand brothers, it would have gotten the “F” it deserved. We do too much of that, forgiving writers for a real stinker because of prior work. And it’s not just SF: Hemingway’s “Across the River…” just bit it but nobody was willing to frankly say so at the time.

We need to be readier to say and think, “but what have you done for me lately?”, to be less forgiving and quicker to evaluate a story on its own merits rather than its ancestry.

I may hear in person, but just about never read a reviewer saying in print, “Don’t read this. It’s a disappointment and worse than a waste of your time, it will spoil the previous one for you”. Reviewers and/or their editors just don’t have the, whatever, to say that in print most of the time.

I was reminded of this recently when reading Catherynne Valente’s review of Adam Roberts Yellow Blue Tibia. And here’s Roberts being snarky about Martin Amis. I was also reminded of David Hines review of John Ringo’s Paladin of Shadows series. (That link goes directly to Ringo’s response, scroll up for the review.) There is a joy all of its own to seeing something awful getting ripped to shreds—why else would I be glued to Fred Clark’s page by page demolition of the Left Behind books? And of course there’s the inimitable Nick Mamatas, who does occasionally say something about a book other than “this book sucks”, but he’s very entertaining when he hates something. Also, do check out Jim Macdonald’s awesome Red Mike reviews of awful movies. Reviews saying that things suck can be a useful warning, and they can direct people towards something they like and the reviewer hates—I bet than Ringo review helped sales—and they can be extremely entertaining.

There are, however, a whole pile of reasons why reviewers may be reluctant to say “this sucks”.

First there’s the one Kluelos mentions—”What have you done for me lately?” If it’s a new novel by a respected author, or in a series, some reviewers might be prepared to cut it more slack because they liked the earlier ones and the fond memories make them more forgiving. I don’t have this particular problem, as you can probably tell from my review of The Other Wind. It may also be that sometimes, as with the Hemingway example, that sometimes the author’s reputation is such that nobody wants to be the first to say they’re not wearing any clothes.

Then there’s the straight money problem. Lots of magazines only publish positive reviews. They don’t say “You must love everything.” It’s much more insidious. They’ll send a reviewer a pile of books and say “Here’s a pile of books. Write reviews of the ones that are worth it, get them to us by Friday and we’ll pay you $50 (or $100, or $25…) per review.” The corrolary is that they pay nothing for the ones you don’t review because they’re not worth it. The reviewer is then in the unenviable position of having a pile of books they have to spend time reading before Friday, knowing they’ll only be paid if they produce a positive review. Lots of people can find something nice to say about anything if it means the difference between being paid and not being paid, eating and not eating. I was sometimes in this position when I reviewed for the old British RPG magazine Arcane. I tried hard to be ethical and often succeeded. Only publishing positive reviews is as terrible an idea as it was when Orwell wrote against it.

Third, some people just don’t like to be mean—and sometimes books really are awful, and being honest seems like being mean. There’s that piece of advice about if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything. And even if people don’t mind being mean about a work written by an abstract and distant writer, they might not like being mean about something written by their friends—and the more anyone hangs out with SF and fantasy writers, online, in cons, wherever, the more of them they know.

These days it a fact that, especially with Google Alerts, with any review that’s online you can count on it that the author is going to see it. They might not say anything—they almost certainly won’t, but they will see it. It’s also likely that they’ll remember it—I bet Adam Roberts remembers that review forever. I don’t remember all my bad reviews, but if you review a book of mine and state that it doesn’t mention Oxford or Cambridge, when it’s mentioned several times that the protagonist is looking forward to going to Oxford in September, you can be sure that this will stick in my mind. Even after I’ve forgotten the details I’ll think of you henceforward as someone who doesn’t read with attention, and have less respect for you. Similarly, Robert Silverberg upbraided me at Anticipation for conflating the character’s opinions with the author’s in my review here of Dying Inside. (Brilliant book.) Writers do remember these things.

Beyond that, there’s an extra layer if you are a writer reviewing—and this is why I stopped writing about everything I read. If you are a writer, there’s a way in which all the other writers are your competition. This is quite different from them being your friends. You’re competing: for awards, for review space, for attention, for sales. I don’t think it’s a zero sum game like this so that if someone buys my book they don’t buy someone else’s. But some people do. In this worldview, if I trash someone’s current book, not only am I hurting their potential sales, but they imagine I am doing it on purpose to put down a rival. The fact that this never occurred to me before someone accused me of doing it—on my livejournal ages ago, not here—is irrelevant. That was their perception. And I can only deny intentionality. I’m a midlist writer. I’m also a reader. From my point of view, I was a reader warning other readers to avoid a bad book. From that author’s point of view, I was one midlist writer putting down another midlist writer to my own potential advantage. This is so repulsive a thing to have thought about one that I’ve been extremely careful ever since.

What I do here is write about books I’m re-reading. I’m not a masochist, I don’t re-read things unless I like them—well, except sometimes. Anyway, I’m not always unequivocably positive about everything I read—I said the Darkover books were orthogonal to good only last week, and I did a post about why Feintuch’s Midshipman’s Hope was a bad book that I liked anyway, and I entitled my post about Heinlein’s Friday “The worst book I love”. You may notice however, that Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Heinlein and David Feintuch are all dead. This means I won’t hurt their feelings, and they won’t think I’m saying mean things about them to somehow advance myself. There’s also the case when the writer really is my friend, not just a vague acquaintance, and I know they’ll read what I’ve said in the right way—so I felt quite happy saying how I didn’t enjoy Jhegaala for instance.

I do sometimes review new books here if I feel extremely enthusiastic about them. But I don’t accept books on the expectation that I’ll review them. And you won’t be seeing any posts from me merrily ripping something to shreds anytime soon. But I won’t be telling any lies or selling anything either.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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