In this episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, Reviews Editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland talk to novelist, reviewer, and Strange Horizons’ Co-ordinating Editor, Gautam Bhatia, about how reviewing and criticism of all kinds align—and do not—with fiction-writing and the genre more widely.

Transcript

Critical Friends Episode 4

Critical Friends logoAisha Subramanian: Welcome to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF Criticism podcast. I’m Aisha Subramanian.

Dan Hartland: And I’m Dan Hartland. In every episode of Critical Friends, we’ll be talking about SFF criticism: what it is, why we do it, how it’s going.

Aisha Subramanian: In this episode, we’ll be talking with reviewer and critic, Strange Horizons’ Co-ordinating Editor, novelist, and superstar lawyer Gautam Bhatia, about reviewing, novel writing, criticism, and the genre.

Dan Hartland: We began by asking him about his first contact with the reviews department at Strange Horizons. Gautam Bhatia speaks to us from a park in Berlin where there were many dogs.

Gautam Bhatia: I was writing a whole bunch of reviews on my blog, and I wanted to write a little more formally. But there didn’t seem to be any venue for writing science fiction and fantasy reviews. All the magazines that I checked—and I checked on Wikipedia and just Googled around—they all seemed to be accepting only solicited reviews. And Strange Horizons was the only place I found that just said, “Send us a review!” So I took my chance.

I wrote a review of Howard Jacobson’s J and I sent in that review to Abigail Nussbaum, I think, who was the Reviews Editor back then. And she just got back in a day saying, “We’d like to use this,” and sent me edits. And that’s how it began. It was surprisingly informal and easy, which I think really has been—is—a characteristic of Strange Horizons over the years. You know, there’s none of that standoffishness. And that’s what I have come to love about Strange Horizons, and that’s how it began. So, yeah.

Dan Hartland: So I have so many questions. So the first is: you talk about wanting a venue in which to write more formally; what were you writing before you wrote a review of Howard Jacobson’s J that was informal? Like, what was the shift there?

Gautam Bhatia: So I was writing on my own blog. So I, you know, I think I began with what everyone used to do in the 2000s, which was LiveJournal. <laugh> So I used to write on my LiveJournal account and, and then I shifted to a dedicated WordPress blog—which, again, was my own blog. But the thing is that when you’re writing reviews on your own blog, I mean, the the only person really pushing yourself is you, because ultimately it’s you writing for yourself, and—sorry about the dogs! <laugh>—and your friends. But the moment you shift to writing for a magazine, you get the sense that people reading it will be strangers. And in that sense you have to be, in a certain way, more rigorous and more careful about the claims you’re making.

And of course, there’s no reason why this should be the case. I mean, ideally, even if writing for yourself, you are holding yourself up to the highest standards you want. You know, that you want, you want to, you wanna do. But at least for me, it doesn’t quite work that way in practice. So I feel like if I know that I’m being read by unknown people I feel a lot more, I guess the word is responsibility: to be careful about what I’m saying, which wasn’t coming with my own blog. So I think that was the reason why I was really keen to write for a forum that wasn’t my own blog.

Dan Hartland: So, last episode, we spoke a little bit about that, the idea that when we’re talking about trusting a review, we’re talking about trusting a review to sort of be testable—so to have, as you say, a rigor that you can inspect and it doesn’t kind of fall apart when you look at it a bit more closely. Did you find the editing process—because you mentioned Abigail got back with edits and all that sort of stuff—did you find that the editing process, although not intimidating and all of those sort of Strange Horizons things you mentioned, helped you understand how to achieve that, that kind of testability? Or did you already kind of know how to do it, you just wanted the audience to force you into it?

Gautam Bhatia: So I think that, again, when you’re writing for your own blog, you are editing yourself. And I think whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, that process has limits. There are things you just can’t see that an external eye can see. And that was definitely the case with that review. It’s been eight years, so I don’t entirely recall the specifics of what Abigail said! I do remember, you know, her kind of gently pushing on certain claims and saying, “Okay, maybe you need to substantiate this point a little more. You know, this doesn’t entirely follow from what you’ve just said.” And I think over the years you become better at identifying those things on your own. But nonetheless, you always need that external eye telling you, “Okay, look, here is a place where you may have been a bit too quick. Um, this is not entirely convincing. This needs a bit more substantiation.” All of that.

Aisha Subramanian: Just sort of agreeing with the Gautam here, because I also had that experience of sort of writing for a blog first and then eventually being edited. And I think my understanding of structure has really changed since other people started editing my work. So I’m now able to apply a lot of those ideas myself, but I really needed other people—a kind of audience of other people—to be able to make that switch in my head. So this sounds really familiar to me.

Dan Hartland: It’s quite interesting, isn’t it, that a review—because we see a lot of reviews, there are reviews everywhere, but what we’re talking about is, I’m not gonna say the next level, but a kind of review which is tested. So it’s not just an opinion, it’s something else as well. Is that right?

Gautam Bhatia: I think that it’s, it’s basically, and I guess with all the caveats that you bring to bear on a claim like this, it’s basically someone else telling you that. So both you and the editor both agree that there is a certain kind of rigor that has to accompany a review, and that, you know, certain claims have to be backed up, you know, by various other things. And you start with that common ground of agreement, and then your editor is telling you that, look, here are the places where you haven’t quite gotten to that level of rigor and you need to get there, and this is how you might do that.

Dan Hartland: I wonder whether, when you submitted that review, did you have in the back of your head the idea that you were also eventually going to write novels?

Gautam Bhatia: Oh, oh, yeah. Yeah. So I’ve been writing novels way longer than I’ve been reviewing actually. It’s just that I happened to get published, after—substantially after! I think like many people, when I was a teenager, I had like ten unfinished novels. I did NaNoWriMo every year. I used to do this fiction roleplaying on Dragonmount, in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time fandom. And in fact The Wall, which was finally my first published novel, the first draft was written in 2008. So I always knew that I wanted to be a fiction writer, but I also really enjoyed analyzing texts and writing reviews. So when I was reviewing J and then reviewing more after that, I didn’t actually think of the two as connected. Now in various ways I do, and we can talk about that. But at the time it seemed … there seemed to be two way-different things that I enjoyed in their own right, but were not in any way connected.

Dan Hartland: This is really interesting and I do want to talk more about it. <laugh> So, um, so, at least initially, in your head, or at least consciously, the two things were not connected at all?

Gautam Bhatia: No, no, in the sense that I, in fact, I had shelved my fiction writing because I was practicing law at the time, and it was taking up a lot of headspace. I was writing nonfiction, I was writing a book on the Constitution. So I knew that there just wasn’t … I didn’t have the time to give to writing fiction at that point of time. But I also felt like I needed to stay in touch with the genre, as well. And so to that extent, yes, there was a connection in that this was a way of making sure that I was, you know, in touch with what was being published and thinking critically about what was being published. And so not losing touch with the genre. But that was it! I mean, the main motivation was still that I just enjoyed reviewing. It made me think more closely about what I was reading, and it was just a fun process.

Aisha Subramanian: I’m interested in—and this may be quite a frivolous way of approaching this—but I’m interested in the idea sort of how you then think of yourself. As you’ve always been a novelist, which is something you said earlier. Do you then define yourself primarily as a writer of fiction? And then the criticism thing is something else that you do as an aside? It’s … it’s an interesting hobby?

Gautam Bhatia: Oh, no, no, no. I think I’d say that I’m separately a writer of fiction and also a critic or reviewer or whatever the term is that, that is most appropriate. I think that both those things are challenging in their own distinct ways, but also equally important to me in my engagement with science fiction and fantasy. So I think that if you were to take out either of them, I’d feel incomplete. I think there is a larger point to be made about how if you achieve, say, a certain kind of public prominence as a writer of fiction, it becomes a little dicey to continue being a reviewer because then you are effectively reviewing your peers. But I think I don’t quite have that kind of public prominence at this sort of time. Maybe at some point it might be a choice for us to make. Uh, but I think right now, I see both reviewing and criticism on the one hand and writing on the other as being equally important to me and as being equally important to the way I position myself within the community and the genre generally.

Dan Hartland: We’ve spoken before on the show, I think in episode one, about how science fiction, the genre “SFF,” is quite a small ecosystem for reviewers, fiction writers, readers: they all inhabit it without overlapping. So I’m really interested, Gautam, that you are aware of the difficulties perhaps of that, and I’m entirely on board with the idea that reviewing your peers is really difficult, and it is something that we at SH Reviews try to navigate within the confines that this is a small area of literary activity. But that aside, is there a process now by which you go for texts to review: are they just books that you read and have something to say about?

Gautam Bhatia: So I think first of all, there is a process of elimination where I wouldn’t review friends—you know, because when I began back in 2014, I didn’t know anyone in the community and now I know many people. So I wouldn’t review books by friends. I think, you know, that a) the optics of it are wrong, and b) you tend to overcompensate because then you start second guessing yourself: okay, am I being, you know. So ultimately you’re not quite sure about yourself in that kind of an equation, so I wouldn’t do that.

As far as picking, I think it’s basically now, I look at the blurb—because, you know, Strange Horizons sends its list of books to review to reviewers every few months. So basically, when I get that email, some books I’ve already, you know, heard about, some books, you know, I’ve asked you if I can review. So for example, I had read, A Memory Called Empire, and I knew that there were a range of themes in that book that really interest me, and that I think I would have something to say about, so I asked you if I could review A Desolation Called Peace, and, you know, very kindly said yes, and I did that. Um, so that, that’s one, that’s one approach.

The second is I look at the blurb, I look at what the book’s about, and if I think that it’s … again, if it’s something that has themes that I would, you know, be interested in. And again, if I think I have something to say about that, I ask to, to review that book. I mean, I think, for example, recently I asked for, uh, for, for Suyi Davies’s Son of the Storm. And that’s again, because I had read Davies’s David Mogo, Godhunter, and I really enjoyed that. And when I looked at some of the themes that Son of the Storm was about, I thought to myself, “Okay, this would be fun to review and interesting.” So I, I picked that! So I think that’s broadly what my process is.

Dan Hartland: Are your reading habits in any sort of focused way related to your novel writing? So would you, in the process of this elimination or the approach to books that interest you—that have themes you feel you can say something about—presumably those are often themes that find their way into your fiction as well. So do you try and put a—haha—wall between the two things? Or are you okay with themes bleeding over, if you like, from the review writing to the novel writing?

Gautam Bhatia: So it’s not a conscious wall, but I think there is an unconscious wall because when I pick up … let’s say there are three reasons why I read something. One is reading purely for pleasure. The other is reading to review a book for Strange Horizons, or another venue. A third is reading because there are themes in that book that are relevant for my writing and for the state of, you know, that state of play in the subgenre. Right? The thing is, when I’ve noticed about myself that the third … when I’m reading in the third category … I end up doing, taking a very almost a detached, almost clinical view of that book. So for example, presently my work in progress, a lot of it involves the collective consciousness, dissolving minds and so on. So I was reading a book by Peter Hamilton that had to do with that theme. And I was reading it just purely to understand how other writers have dealt with the idea, to make sure I’m not, you know, copying something too bluntly and just to kind of have a sense of the layer of the field. But that’s not how I read when I’m reviewing. When I’m reviewing, I’m obviously, you know, as I said, I pick a book to review if I think I’m going to, you know—independently of its relevance for my writing—enjoy it, if I have something interesting to say about it. And often of course—I mean, I’m not saying that I did not enjoy the Hamilton book, it’s just that my approach to it was very different from my approach to a book I’m reviewing. So I think that that automatically then creates that little wall where I don’t end up normally reviewing books that are directly overlapping with what I’m presently working on, because the approach I have to those books is different.

Dan Hartland: Yeah, I would certainly say that I do not associate detachment with your reviews. Some reviewers I do, and it works for them. Your reviews are empathetic. Definitely. So the wall … the wall holds. It may be a subconscious wall, but it works for you.

I wonder whether we could move a little bit over to the other side of the wall. So we’ve talked about how you approach reviewing. You mentioned at the start that when you began reviewing, there didn’t seem to be much of a link between your review writing and your novel writing, but that over time you have seen one develop. So I just wonder whether we could sort of look from the perspective of the novel writing part of you and how that person is fed by the reviewing. Like, what is that link that you now perceive to exist?

Gautam Bhatia: Yeah, so I, I knew this question would come, so I actually prepared an answer for this. <laugh> So I was thinking about this and the example I actually have is in The Wall and The Horizon, which are my two books, a lot of it has to do with changes in power structures that flow from popular acclamation. So, you know, various factions vie for power, and they need the support of the people to do that. So it’s less of, you know, conquest in battle, and it’s more town-square debates that lead to those power shifts. Now, when I was writing and my editor, whose name is Naomi, when I was writing she of course was editing. And, and she at one point observed that what you’re doing here is you are really treating the people as a category, as completely passive and as people who could just be swayed one way or the other by eloquent speakers.

And she had a point, and this was completely correct, and I tried to change that. And I also began noticing at that point of time that a lot of fantasy I was reading that involved appeals to the people in this way was doing the same thing where, you know, the people became this mass. Individual people in the crowd didn’t have individual agency. It was almost too easy for the aristocracy or whoever it was to really, you know, move them under the other. And so it was … I was trying to improve that part of my books and also noticing how it was, how it seemed to be a prevalent thing in the genre more generally. I came to call it the Mark Antony Syndrome. I think I wrote this in Strange Horizons , a review, you know, where it’s basically … the origin story of this whole scene is Mark Antony, you know, coming up to the stage and just giving this one speech that completely turns the crowd after Brutus has turned them one way.

And what you have is like Pleb 1, oh we’ll go one way, and Pleb 2, on no we’ll go Caesar, Pleb 3, oh, you know, bloody, bloody traitors, and then the whole crowd … and so it’s basically even literally like Pleb One, they don’t even have a name. They’re like Pleb 1, 2, 3, and 4. And it just seemed that that, first of all, a lot of fantasy and science fiction, you know, ignores the people first, you know, altogether, a lot of it is elite power conflict, right? Uh, some fantasy goes beyond that and does involve the people, but there again, it seems to be a very common trap. And I think that in that way, I saw it in the books I was reviewing. It reinforced the weakness I saw in my own writing, which I tried to plug, I don’t know with what success, but I tried. And then it kind of fed back into reviewing, where I began to be even more aware of it having grappled and struggled with it in my own writing.

So I think in that way, the two became almost symbiotic, where I began to see things in my writing that I then saw in books I was reviewing. And as I was grappling with them as a reviewer, I began to develop, you know, terms for them, thought about them more closely, and that then fed back into what I was dealing with in my own writing. And this, the Mark Anthony Syndrome, I think is kind of the starkest example of that that I can think of. I’m sure there have been many others that really established this in a certain sense. It’s a very interesting feedback loop. Things you see when you put your reviewer hat on, then you tend to see in your own writing, and then it goes back and forth in this really interesting way.

Dan Hartland: So I will put my critic hat on really briefly and say you did achieve it—because for me, The Wall in particular is a novel as much about interior shift—as like an individual person changing their mind—as it is about structures. So in that sense, you absolutely embedded the process of how an individual changes their mind into the novel, rather than just Pleb 1, Pleb 2: “Oh, yeah. Sounds a good idea. We’ll follow that guy.”

Gautam Bhatia: Yeah. Yeah. It was at least even more in The Horizon, because that’s when a lot of the power shifts take place. And it was much more of a challenge because the people so to say are, yeah, they are involved in the world, but they’re involved a lot more as actors in The Horizon. And that we’ll actually begin to see that, you know, subconsciously we’ve all been so influenced by that Mark Anthony scene that, you know, we don’t really know it, but we end up rewriting that scene, I think, whenever we feature the people in this kind of a context. And I think, again, being a critic really helps you to analyze that and then perhaps think about how you might solve that. I think, again, just to add, I guess as a caveat, it’ll always be limited in that way given the class position that most of us SF writers occupy. We are far more likely to be in the position Anthony was, or his cohorts were, than we are likely to be Pleb 1, 2, 3, or Pleb 4.

But in that sense is always a limit to what you can do. But yeah, it’s always, I guess, about trying to work within those limits.

Aisha Subramanian: The Mark Anthony’s speech kind of reminds me in a way … that idea that there’ll just be this one person with an argument that—well, with an inspirational speech—that just blows everyone away. It reminds me very much of sort of bad courtroom dramas and just the idea that there’s just going to be this one figure, and this person is just going to have this narrative and everyone’s just going to go, “Yep, sounds fine.” But as you say, they’re not the protagonists of that scene. They’re just sort of the audience cheering.

Gautam Bhatia: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if this is where you’re heading, but I think that that is really a problem with—I guess “problem” is too strong a word—that is the feature of a lot of science fiction that has law and courts as a part of the story.

Aisha Subramanian: Yeah. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to ask you where you stand on that as a lawyer as well as a critic and a writer, but I feel like it’s sort of … they are connected in that sense that … that idea of, again, that sort of relationship between the individual and the sort of larger social structural narrative.

Gautam Bhatia: No, I think that’s completely correct. And one piece of science fiction that falls into this trap is one you wouldn’t expect, which is the “A Measure of a Man” episode in Star Trek, where the question is, “Does Data have rights that you afford to human beings?” And it comes down to this really stirring courtroom scene, effectively a court martial, that has four actors: the Judge Advocate General—and I’m really annoyed, by the way, that in this far-future Communist utopian society you still have Judge Advocates General in the military, I can rant about that—but has the Judge Advocate General, Picard as one lawyer, Riker as a second lawyer, and Data, right? Just like, it’s great theater. And, you know, I think it’s very entertaining and the drama caused is immense.

Uh, I just think like, that’s just not how—and I don’t want to be that lawyer who says, “This is not how it works in real life”—but I think that … it’s not how it works, you know? That’s not how the legal process works. I think it romanticizes the legal process a lot, which would in itself be okay, but I think it does link up into what you said with larger … I think, again, problematic is a strong word … but the focus of the genre, even in an era where we talk about, you know, being progressive and being anti-colonial and anti-capitalist, so much of fantasy and science fiction still depends not on collective action, coalition building or that messiness, but still depends upon heroic individual or group action. And even Star Trek! It’s supposed to be, it’s all about how people working together have eliminated the worst kinds of capitalism. But you still come back to the heroic Picard making a heroic argument that convinces the judge and saves Data’s life.

I think that does reflect about how so much of the contemporary genre is still stuck in that very capitalist, individualistic paradigm. And there’s still … it also explains why unions play so small a part in modern science fiction. Teah, there are all these things. So I think, in that the individualization of the legal process in these pieces of science fiction, I think you’re right, reflects you know, a broader issue with the genre right now.

Aisha Subramanian: I was thinking a broader issue with the world right now as well. But, but of course, the genre is part of the world.

Gautam Bhatia: For a long time, the genre, or the dominant works in the genre—popular works in the genre—were unapologetically on the side of power in certain ways, right? This is science fiction’s long and troubled history with colonialism, racism, and so on. Right now, the way that science fiction wants to position itself is in opposition to power, right? And I remember recently the letter that was opposing the Chengdu Worldcon, and I don’t want to get into like a specifics minefield, but I do remember being struck by how one of the things that that letter said - it was signed by a lot of prominent writers in the genre - was that, as science fiction writers, you know, we stand in opposition to power centers, we like to imagine alternative worlds or alternative forms of power where oppression doesn’t take place.

I think, again, going back to personal Ursula Le Guin’s famous speech where she says that the task of science fiction is to imagine alternatives to the way we live and to capitalism. I think that presently the self-image of the genre is that—that’s the way it wants to be seen, and I think therefore we have to take that claim seriously and to therefore hold up the genre to what it aspires to be in its outward-looking identity. Then this question does arise: why are so much of the prominent works still so focused on individual heroism, individual tragedy, and still don’t have unions, you know?

Dan Hartland: Yeah, we spent a lot of time on this show and just in our unrecorded conversations trying to figure out what reviews and criticism are and, and how they’re different if they are. But we started this conversation with you, Gautam, talking about how a review needs to be testable, how its claims need to be checkable, and I think you’ve just made a really passionate case for how criticism can check the claims that the genre makes about itself. And I hope that’s what we try and do at the Reviews Department, because I would agree that—yeah, the, the ideals sometimes expressed aren’t always met in the texts as they are published.

I just wonder whether, talking about texts when published, we could talk briefly if you’re at all interested in doing so <laugh> talk about once you have a novel out there. So you are a novel writer, forget these reviews things, and then someone writes a review about your book. So this thing that you’ve been doing to other people for years gets done to you <laugh>, and I just wonder how that feels as a reviewer: so someone who reviews gets reviewed, is that odd? Is it easier? And then b) how, if at all, the reviews affect the next novel or the novel after that?

Gautam Bhatia: Yeah, so I mean, I think that first of all, when, at least when starting off, right—this might change over time!—you’re just very curious to know what people have to say and how they’re responding to your work. So in that sense, when you get a new review … and I guess I must mention of the fact that, uh … So I know that many people say that they don’t look at Goodreads because, you know, various reasons. But that’s a real luxury because, for various reasons, if you’re published outside of the US and the UK, the reach that say Harper Collins India has is minuscule compared to the reach that Tor and Orbit has. So you don’t really have the luxury of ignoring Goodreads because, you know, you probably have like, 70-odd maybe reviews after a year or so.

And I think at that point, at least I was—speaking for myself!—I’m just so curious to know what people have to say that I just am not in my reviewer hat at all when I’m reading those reviews. I’m just very, very curious and very eager to know what people are responding to. So I don’t look at those reviews as a reviewer. I look at them just as a very eager writer, really keen to know what people think. And I think that that one thing, though, that reviewing does teach you is that it really helps you to know when a review is criticism and when it’s bad faith. So I think that you can distinguish that. Being a reviewer helps you make the distinction. Because you know what a fair critique looks like because you’ve read so many reviews, you’ve written so many of them, and when it’s spilling over into a person who clearly has a problem, like with you personally or something else. So you can, you can tell that, that that the difference I think pretty clearly.

The second question that I think is really interesting. For me at least, it really, really informs writing going forward. And I found Goodreads really helpful there because people on Goodreads pointed out a whole bunch of things with respect to The Wall while I was writing The Horizon. And I took them on board because, you know, there were points people made about the main character, points about certain kinds of dialogue, that when I thought about them were really fair points and had escaped, both my notice and the notice of my editor. Because again, you as an editor, I guess it becomes so closely involved with the book that, you know, you, even the best editors, I guess tend to sometimes miss some things or, you know, just a fresh pair of eyes, right?

And so I took them very seriously and, and I really changed things about Book Two that were based on Goodreads reviews. And I think even going forward in what I’m working on now, many of those comments, you know, are are still informing how I tweak writing style and this is the way I to improve as a writer. Because again, I mean, people are responding and you are always writing for people, right? So, what people’s responses are, pretty much—I mean, what as a writer I think I personally would live for? And if people are saying that, “Look, this is something that is perhaps, you know, not working as it should work, given if that’s what the author intention is,” then that’s something that I think is really important to take onboard.

Of course, if somebody gets the intention wrong, then of course that’s a more fundamental disagreement. And then it’s more of a function that they want to be a certain way. And that of course is perfectly fair. But I think as a writer you don’t really change that about yourself. But if the reviewer or the commentator has got what you’re trying to do and is then saying, “Look, in that context”—and I think for me personally, that that’s the reviewer’s task, the reviewer’s task or the critic’s task is to say, “Look, this is what the author is going for and here’s why I think it works at X, Y, and Z places and might not entirely have worked at A, B, and C places.” And if that is … if you are on board with that, then I think then that’s good advice to, to take going forward.

Dan Hartland: The really interesting thing about what you just said was the respect that you gave to Goodreads, because it is so easy to dismiss Goodreads. And I’m sure that we’ve been guilty of it in the past, because it’s just like a sort of knee-jerk response. But it’s really interesting to hear how reviews that aren’t like the ones that SH publishes or the New York Reviewer of Books publishes or whatever else, can still have an impact upon writerly practice.

Gautam Bhatia: Yeah, and I think, like, I think Goodreads did a lot for me. It still does a lot for me. And I think I really am grateful to Goodreads again. I think, you know, I think I understand … I think writers who are like, you know, very, very well marketed, very well sold, you know, if they see … If you have 10,000 Goodreads reviews out, which like a thousand are full of reviews, I get it, right? Like, you don’t want to see a thousand abusive reviews, right? I’m lucky enough that I think only two, three people really cared enough to write an abusive review. So I could compartmentalize that, but the majority of the reviews were, you know, like, they were really helpful.

I mean, there was one person who said, “You know, I found the main character so annoying,” er, which is kind of the point!  I mean, the main character is meant to be annoying <laugh>, but also not annoying enough to be alienating, right? And so where the … I think I was kinda figuring out where the balance is between annoying and alienating and those comments really helped me to figure out how to try and at least turn the right side of the annoying/alienating divide. So in that way, I think that those kind of—I guess, to use the word in the beginning of this podcast—those informal reactions that people have put on Goodreads, I think sometimes really help because I guess … again, in a Strange Horizons review, you are filtering your reviewing, your writing, through a certain kind of formalistic lens. You aren’t saying entirely what you … you aren’t saying everything you think, right? Whereas in Goodreads, you are saying more of what you’re saying in a direct way. I think SH’s form of reviewing is really important in the sense of, you know, locating a book within the genre, as communicating what an author is trying to do to readers. I think the Goodreads form is more helpful to an author, you know, in that—okay, you’re just getting that reaction directly to you.

Aisha Subramanian: And now I’ve been curious enough that I’m now looking at the Goodreads reviews of The Wall. <laugh> There, there is, there’s a wide range, as you said, between on the one hand some quite substantial reviews, and on the other end of the spectrum is someone who doesn’t like you because you were abusive about Harry Potter on the internet. <laugh>.

Gautam Bhatia: There was a one-star review that was pissed off about my Harry Potter views. I remember that one, yes! <laugh>

Dan Hartland: I should say that I wrote a review of The Wall! I was asked to write one by BSFA, and it was a very positive review—very, very positive. I just said one thing about your use of dialogue, and the way in which dialogue was used to sort of power the novel. And I was rightly, I’m sure, picked up by a friend of the podcast and Strange Horizons reviewer, Maggie Clark, on Twitter, who said, “Yeah, side-eye on that. It’s a novel of ideas for goodness’ sake!” So the reviewer got reviewed and I was happy with that. <laugh> But, yeah, I just wanted to mention while we’re talking about people reviewing your book, that I did!

Gautam Bhatia: That point on dialogue actually was something many people made. So your review unfortunately came out too late to influence the writing of The Horizon.

Dan Hartland: Not unfortunately!

Gautam Bhatia: Yeah! <laugh> But the substantive point you made did influence writing of The Horizon. So, uh, so yeah. <laugh>

Aisha Subramanian:  Partly bouncing off Dan being critically reviewed by a critic and reviewer (!): just that idea of community. One of the things you talked about was the shift between reviewing for your blog and for Strange Horizons at the beginning of this was that sense of being read by other people, right? And there’s this sense that once you start reviewing for a venue beyond the one that you are in full control of, you become part of a wider conversation and part of that conversation. And part of your responsibility within that conversation is to do with making your ideas testable in a way. But it’s also about things like context, rather than, as you said, the kinds of reviews, the kind of things, that you can add in an informal review, where it can be quite impressionistic. And I was just thinking about that idea of criticism and community, and the structures of critical community in science fiction, and how much being a part of that has affected you as both as a writer of fiction and as a critic.

Gautam Bhatia: I would say that the structures are there, and I wish there were a lot more of them. I mean, you know, I wish that they could be conventions for example, that were like critics’ conventions, you know? Like we have, you have seen I think, more attention being paid to reviews in recent cons of FiyahCon, even Worldcon last year there was a panel, like, if I remember correctly, on reviewing that I was perhaps moderating, I can’t remember now. So I think that conversation is increasing now, but I think it should be even more. But I do think that to a certain extent it’s been good because specifically with a place like Strange Horizons that publishes three reviews every week, most weeks, you’re constantly seeing other people engaged in the same enterprise as as you are, and you can learn a lot from them.

And, I do sometimes see that other reviewers like M. L. Clark or John Folk-Williams, you know, they kind of actively read reviews and share their thoughts about them. I remember for a while, Nina Allan used to, I think at the end of the year, talk about the reviews she’d liked reading a lot. I don’t know if she still does that, but she did do that for a while. And I think that that sense of community is really important because you sometimes feel, in the very, very heavily marketized world of genre today, that a lot of the attention is being focused on raves, you know? People raving about books. And that is important. And, you know, it feeds the world and I think it’s great.

But you do feel that what ultimately ends up getting shared much more, amplified much more, are raves, you know? That all this, “This book was phenomenal, X, Y, Z,” which again, I’m not complaining about, right? I think that there’s a space for that, but it tends to take up, I think, space that could otherwise also be shared with a more critical form of reviewing. And so I think that in that way, having this small community is important. Because it does give you a sense that there is a point or a purpose to this kind of reviewing and criticism as well. And I, and I obviously could see it, you know, perhaps a little more. And I think Locus is another space that does it, that really pays a lot of attention to reviews. I think that perhaps you could think about going forward, more structures where reviewers can come and talk to each other about, about the craft.

Dan Hartland: I was just briefly horrified by Gautam’s suggestion that I’m gonna have to talk to other reviewers and have social occasions with people.

Aisha Subramanian: Yeah, I was just thinking when, when you said “a convention of reviewers,” I was just thinking that sounds amazing. And I would not go. <laugh>

Gautam Bhatia: I feel like it would be OK if they would all be like you?

Aisha Subramanian: Would it?

All: <laughter>

[theme music]

Dan Hartland: Thanks for listening to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast. Our theme music is “Dial Up” by Lost Cosmonauts. You can hear more of their music at grandevalise.bandcamp.com. See you next time.



Aishwarya Subramanian and Dan Hartland are Reviews Editors at Strange Horizons.
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