Tag Archives: reviewing

On objectivity

This essay by Cara Ellison is both a fairly bravura bit of internet-era confessional rage-ranting and an insight into the lifestyle and finances of the freelance games reviewer (which is much like that of many freelance writers, I suspect; I certainly recognise the bit about measuring gigs in terms of what percentage of one’s next rent payment they represent). For my money, though, this ‘graph is the slamdunk:

The necessary rise of the satirical website ‘Objective Game Reviews’ is enough to make me feel depressed, but if you want to see what an ‘objective’ review looks like maybe go and fud yourself silly on that site and come back to me when you are 1) older than sixteen 2) would like my goddamn experienced opinion on a game. The only reason game criticism exists is so that you can orientate yourself around a particular critic’s taste. If the critic is any good you can tell from their analysis whether you will like the game or not, regardless of whether the critic in question actually thought the game was any good at all.

Amen to that; I suspect there will be readers who misunderstand the role of criticism for as long as there are readers, and I am reassured to find that I give less of a crap for what they think as the years go by.

Oh, while you’re here — did you fancy buying a copy of Twelve Tomorrows so you could read my story, but didn’t fancy getting a copy shipped from the States? Well, everyone’s favourite disintermediatory retail-disruption corporation has got you covered with a £6.21 UK Kindle edition, available now. Let me know what you think, if you like.

Distinguishing the good from the great

The Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones on why the creative world needs critics more than ever before:

It is the job of a critic to reject the relativism and pluralism of modern life. All the time, from a million sources, we are bombarded with cultural information. A new film or the music of the moment can enter our minds regardless of quality and regardless of our interest. In fact, in this age of overload, indifference is the most likely effect of so many competing images. If we do make an aesthetic choice it is likely to be a consumerist one, a passing taste to be forgotten and replaced in a moment.


Real criticism is not about distinguishing good from bad; it is about distinguishing good from great. There’s plenty of terrible art around, but it usually finds its level in the end. The curse of our time, in the arts, is mediocrity and ordinariness: the quite good film that gets an Oscar, the OK artist who becomes a megastar. Truly remarkable art is rare and to see it when it comes, to fight for it, to hold it up as an example for the rest — that is the critic’s true task.

Not sure I agree with him entirely (I’m not letting go of pluralism just yet, because I see it as less of a creed and more of a phenomenological map of the human cultural consensus, if that makes any sense), but I like the general shape of his argument. What about you?

Science fiction and pornography, the myth of critical objectivity and anonymised reviewing

Three things make a post, as the old gag goes. So, try this for size:

Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep?

That’s the title of an intriguing book I reviewed recently for SF Site; the subtitle reads “Critical Perspectives on Sexuality and Pornography in Science and Social Fiction”, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Funnily enough, I don’t think anyone else expressed an interest… I guess I’ve finally found my niche in the genre criticism ecosystem, eh?

It’s an interesting book, albeit something of a mixed bag. Skip to the money-shot:

Like good science fiction, the material collected in Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? leaves us with more questions than we arrived with; if you can stomach the subject matter (which shouldn’t really appall anyone but the most prudish and conservative, to be honest, though my perceptions may be somewhat skewed), this is prime fuel for your imaginatory engines. The focal character of James Tiptree, Jr.’s story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” suggests that, as humans, “we’re built to dream outwards” [pp 239], to project our desire onto “the other”, whoever or whatever it may happen to be. It’s an insight that makes more sense each time you read it, and serves to underline the basic commonality between sex and science fiction, or indeed art in general — they are both ways in which we try to subsume ourselves into (or control and dominate over) that which we are not.

Love makes us do strange things, after all.

It really, really does. 🙂

The (Schis)matrix reloaded; criticism and subjectivity

I can’t remember where I saw the first link to There Is No Genre, but I do remember Casey Samulski’s opening post made me think [he/she]’d have interesting things to say in future, and subbing to the RSS feed. Today, that trust was rewarded with a repost review of Chairman Bruce’s Schismatrix (which I fully intended to review after re-reading it late last year… and so it goes) with a coda born of hindsight:

… this really is the tricky part of good criticism. Ultimately, it is subjective. An author can do their best to ensure that a particular effect resonates with his or her readership but it’s no guarantee of that outcome. No two people read something identically. We each take to a work our own experiences, including previous works read, our own sense of beauty, and our own preconceptions about the novel at hand. This is not to say that you cannot have some objectivity in this process — I have read things that I haven’t enjoyed but that I have appreciated for their craftsmanship. Instead, I would argue that objectivity is something of a distant shore to be paddled towards but never landed upon.

Preference. Mood. Taste. These are all culprits at various times and they are inevitable, responsible for sabotaging even the most sober of inspections. In order to criticize well, you must remember that these reign over your judgment, tirelessly skewing your sense of direction. Most importantly, I think you can never pretend that you understand a work completely — there must always be the admission that you are only witness to what you were able to discern and that, like all art, this does not define what is actually there.

Yes, yes, and thrice yes; I always thought that subjectivity was implicit in any and every review ever written, but the peridic cycles of angst und wagling about negative reviews and uppity critics serves to demonstrate that’s surely not the case. And now for the resonant chime in a passing pair of sentences from Jeff VanderMeer in a Booklife post:

… there’s also the uncomfortable truth that no one is ever going to perceive your book exactly the way that you intended for it to be perceived. In coming into contact with the world the text changes, given an additional dimension by readers.

temple bell, Korea

[image courtesy nurpax]

Reviewing while blindfolded

But what if, to stymie future complaints about reviewer bias and preconceptional baggage, you inverted the normal anonymity curve of the reviewing process, namely naming the reviewer (generally uncredited in a lot of non-genre venues, or so I’m led to believe) but concealing the author’s identity (and, presumably, publishing details) from said reviewer?

… the editors of this magazine asked if I would be interested in being part of an experiment in criticism. They were curious what would happen if we inverted the standard “anonymous review” formula—if instead of the reviewer having the cloak of anonymity, we were to keep the book under review anonymous from its critic, and thereby shield it from any and all prejudice—whether positive or negative, whether directed at the author, the publishing house, the blurbers, the cover art, etc. I swore several oaths to stay true to the project (Eds.: “No googling”), and soon enough a book arrived at my house. Its covers, front matter, and endpages had all been stripped, and the spine blacked out with a Sharpie. I didn’t know what it was called or who wrote it or who was publishing it or when. I didn’t know if it was the author’s first or twenty-first publication. Fiction? Nonfiction? Genre? Self-published? I didn’t know anything (and at this writing, I still don’t) except that it wasn’t poetry. What could I do? I began to read.

Rose Fox of Publisher’s Weekly (thanks to whom I found that post) mentions that it mirrors periodic calls for genre venues to anonymise the slushpile – a suggestion plainly motivated by the “good stories lose out to established names” theory of short fiction publication.

The ones most readily identifiable–written by writers with very distinctive voices, or making use of familiar and copyright-protected characters or settings–would presumably be routed directly to the editors anyway, so generally anonymizing the slushpile seems like a reasonable way of reducing possible bias against authors with certain types of names. It wouldn’t do a thing to reduce unconscious bias against certain types of stories, but it would probably make it more obvious, which is not a bad thing.

Moving back to book reviewing, though, the point is made in the comments that with genre fiction, some sort of filtering is required (so that a romance reviewer doesn’t end up with a Greg Egan collection, f’rinstance)… but as I see it, that truism actually weakens the original thesis, which seems to be predicated on the ongoing fiction that there is some sort of objective measurement of quality that can be applied to all writing in the same way. With reference to the above links and quotes, I suggest that the myth of critical objectivity is long overdue for burial; there seems to be an evolving collective consensus on such matters when viewed en masse and at a distance, but once you zoom in close it’s subjectivity and personal opinion all the way down.

That this is unclear to so many people is a source of perpetual bafflement to me, but then so is Dan Brown’s status as a bestseller. So there you go. 🙂

This Is Not a Game

This Is Not a Game by Walter Jon WilliamsNor is it a drill – my review of Walter Jon WilliamsThis Is Not a Game went up at Strange Horizons yesterday, so you can go read my attempts to taxonomise a genuine (and really pretty decent) hybrid of near-future sf and technothriller.

In some respects I’m kind of grateful it hasn’t generated the same degree of fierce controversy as the review preceding it (or, indeed, any feedback at all)… though the mean little voice at the back of my head likes to tell me that’s probably because my opinions are pedestrian and equivocal.

Shut up, mean little voice.

[In case you were wondering, I’ve used the US editon cover art here because I was distinctly underwhelmed by the UK version. YMMV.]

Friday Photo Blogging: sawtooth skyline

Yet another week of digging in the Flickr archives … though this is a comparatively recent shot.

Factory with a sawtooth skyline

I walk past that building every day (every work-day, at least), and the outline of the angles of the roof against the sky is always eye-catching. I’m sure I could do something more interesting with it, though. Selah.

Writing about music

As I expected, last weekend was a CD reviewing marathon thanks to the late arrivals of promos. There was a fair amount of other stuff to cover during the week, too – a real backlog situation, and no mistake.

I get the feeling the long-term repercussions of the postal strike will probably endure until the end of the year, to some extent at least. The fact that this week’s batch of CDs still isn’t here (four days after being posted from London) is not greatly encouraging.

Typed up my review and interview from the Oceansize show, and sent them in – hoping they’ll run next week, but can’t be sure. Scheduling is a funny old business, and one that I’m glad to be uninvolved in, to be honest. My review and interview with Electric Eel Shock is available now, if you’re interested.

The Dreaded Press is live!

After much faffing and fiddling and sorting things out, my independent reviewing site is pretty much ready for business, and is available for all to see (and mock my amateur design chops, no doubt – there’s still an amount of polish and tweak to apply). So, go take a look – and if you want to link it from your own blog or site, please feel free:

The Dreaded Press – rock and metal webzine

Of course, that’s just the easy bit finished. Now all I have to do is contact and build trust with a big bunch of PR outfits; solicit for albums and shows to review, and for artists to interview; write quality material on a daily basis as soon as I have enough subject matter; get the stuff posted up and looking pretty … and encourage people to read the thing, of course.

Not for the first time in recent years, I’m questioning my sanity – if not my basic ability to assess whether or not I’m capable of achieving as much as I think I am. Still, only one way to find out!

Writing about books

Nothing fully fleshed, but I’ve been scribbling notes in the wake of finishing Brasyl … which is a great book, but somehow not as great as I thought it was going to be.

Whether that’s a function of raised expectations or something else, I don’t know – but I don’t mean to demean it in any way. Vivid and fascinating, and rife with themes that persist at every layer of the narrative, there’s plenty to get enthusiastic about. It just didn’t blow my brains out quite as thoroughly as River Of Gods did. *shrugs*

Anyway, I’d better get on with writing it up this weekend, because I’m waaaay over my deadline for this piece, and not very happy with myself on that account. I haven’t sent out the list of books to the T3A web reviewers team yet, either … 🙁

Books and magazines seen

The much-delayed (but well worth the wait) BSFA mail-out arrived yesterday. Lots of good stuff in there, as usual, including interviews with Jo Fletcher and Richard Morgan in Vector.

Vector also includes my review of Rudy Rucker’s Mathematicians In Love, and I have an article in Focus on how and why writers should go about building their online presence (which a nervous part of me expects will raise some opprobrium from persons who, although not quite as tech-savvy as myself, know a lot more that I do about the actual "being an author" bit).

As a side note, the BSFA has a shiny new website – and about time too! I get the impression there’s more to come yet, but that’s a much more up-to-date and functional looking front-end for the organisation. More on this when I get a moment or two to poke around and think about it properly.


So, Halloween weekend. Days much shorter. Clocks going back. Meh.

I have a curious relationship with late autumn and winter, in that I like them on an intellectual level (seeing them as a natural and necessary regenerative part of the yearly cycle, not to mention a damn good excuse to stay indoors and read books) but loathe them at the physical level (as a sufferer of Seasonal Affective Disorder).

I recently invested in one of those energy-saving bulbs that imitates the spectrum of sunlight, and I’m hoping that having installed it in my lounge office will prevent me from getting quite as low and mopey as I usually do. That said, this year I have more than enough work to keep me distracted from negative thinking, and it’ll be interesting to see what effect that has on my physiology as well.

And they say maintaining a cheery attitude helps, too – so here’s me facing the end of summertime with as defiant a grin as I can muster, which I shall wear on my way to fetch The Friday Curry Of Tradition And Justice.

I hope you all have fun celebrating Halloween (or Samhain, as I believe VCTB has a few practising pagans in its readership) in whichever way you find most appropriate, and that you have a good weekend in general.

[PS – no Friday Flash from me this week, due to other commitments leaving me not so much devoid of time as unable to think in the relevant creative manner when time was available. Sorry, gang.]

[tags]friday, photo, factory, sawtooth, writing, reviewing, blather[/tags]