Right to review . . . ?

I’ve been meaning to write this blog for a little while, initially after this internet kerfuffle involving Strange Horizons, and now reminded by this one between Christopher Priest and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

I don’t mean to downplay how hurtful either incident – or the many similar ones which happen regularly on the internet – has been for the people involved because, for them, it is clearly not a light matter. But it is the ‘kerfuffle’ element in each case, more than the subject, which has made me think. More specifically: to think about reviews.

In both cases:

# an expert has read a text or texts that fall within their area of expertise

# they have posted a negative review

# the genre community has responded extremely unfavourably to it

And this is, in both cases, despite the facts that:

# on the whole these reviewers are recognised as experts in their area, who generally know what they’re talking about

# neither are likely to influence the casual reader (and thus to significant damage to their object of their disaffection), because both pieces are posted within the community rather than in a (more) mainstream publication like SFX

# we recognise people are entitled to their opinions

# there is a chance that, in there somewhere, they are making a valid point

One of the things I love about this genre community of ours is that we defend each other. I like the fact that when any reviewer is dismissive, is vitriolic, is inappropriately vehement or is actively damaging to one of ours, the community comes together to say that it’s unacceptable. In fact, I think in a genre which is so heavily online, it’s important that this happens and it’s a natural piece of community self-regulation. I also think we’re a community of people who are smart enough to make our points clearly without being offensive.

But I’m not so keen on reviewer-bashing. A negative review is part of life – and the authors who were the subjects of both reviewers have not felt the need to call anyone names in response (although Charlie Stross’ response has been particularly good), and a reviewer whose opinion differs from our own doesn’t deserve to be attacked or dismissed any more than an author does. More, in reviews we have a tendency to be positive. We expect a review to dwell more on a good point than on a bad one, and we don’t respond well to criticism. To the extent that – it seems – when criticism does appear, there is a revolt against it. There is a whiff of ‘how dare you criticise this’, in a way that there is never a revolt against shameless lickspittle praise.

Yes, insults are offensive. Yes, criticism can be hurtful. Yes, opinions are sometimes put online with more enthusiasm than tact. But if, as a community, we stamp so hard on these instances of criticism then who will encourage us to improve? None of us are so good that we cannot be criticised. None of us are so fragile that we cannot take a little criticism. All of us can be made stronger by an injection of ambition to be better.

So maybe, without resorting to name-calling or insulting each other, we can find a way to let the critics have their say. Maybe we need to. And maybe if we can accept a little criticism, then the critics won’t feel they need to be so forceful in voicing it.