In this episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, Reviews Editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland are joined by Abigail Nussbaum to tackle one of the thorniest issues in criticism: the negative review. What makes for a good bad review? Why do reviewers feel driven to write them? And are we now in an age where the hatchet job has had its day?


Critical Friends Episode 5

[musical introduction]

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 discussing SFF reviewing: what it is, why we do it, how it’s going.

Aisha Subramanian: In this episode, we’re joined by ace critic and former Strange Horizons Reviews editor, Abigail Nussbaum, to tackle one of the thorniest issues in criticism: the negative review.

Dan Hartland: What makes for a good bad review? Why do reviewers feel driven to write them? And are we now in an age where the hatchet job has had its day?

Aisha Subramanian: We began our discussion with Abigail by trying to define our terms.

[musical sting]

Dan Hartland: If we are talking about negative reviews, is there a point at which a good but sort of skeptical or an agnostic review becomes negative? When do good reviews go bad?

Abigail Nussbaum: I mean, to start with, there’s the adage that a novel is a work of fiction with something wrong with it. And I have actually written in the past that the hardest thing to write about is something that’s just completely good because you have no access point. It’s like a completely smooth surface. So there’s never been a review that I’ve written where I haven’t found something to criticize, because there is always something to criticize. But there’s definitely a balance for me, at least. There’s a point where the tone of the review changes, where my goal is not to engage with what the book does, right or wrong, but just to say, “I’m sorry, guys, there’s nothing worth saving here.” Though honestly, that’s maybe not true, because even in books that I dislike, I will usually find something worth praising. But the final conclusion is, “No, sorry.”

Dan Hartland: That’s interesting, because on one level, we can easily spot a negative review. It’s a review of a book that the reviewer finds totally irredeemable. But I would suspect that the readers of reviews experience negative reviews across a wider spectrum than that, that they may find a review negative that does exactly what you say, Abigail, which is find some redeemable qualities, but still, on balance, decide that the book is too fundamentally flawed to recommend.

Abigail Nussbaum: Well, that’s really more about tone, isn’t it? It’s about the performance of the review, because you can write a negative review that’s fairly measured, that concludes that the book is bad but isn’t terribly heated about it. And you can write a negative review that’s a work in its own right, and what it’s doing is this almost operatic condemnation of the work in question. It’s like it’s taking pleasure not in the work, but in telling you how bad the work is. And obviously readers will perceive those two actions very differently because they are different and they’re trying to achieve different things. And a lot of that depends on what feelings the work evokes in you. Like, did you just think it was bad or did it make you angry with how bad it was?

Dan Hartland: I would agree that a lot is about performance. Is some reception of negative reviews, or let’s not say reception, let’s say perception—so when a reader approaches a review and experiences it as negative, some of that is about tone or performance. Is some of it about intent? You just mentioned feeling so angry about a book that you just want to really shake it. A good review recommends a novel. Even a middling review might say, “Well, there are things here that might be worth your time.” Is the purpose of a negative review to say, do not read this book?

Abigail Nussbaum: I think, yes, to an extent, but also I think it’s about personal anger. I’ve been sort of thinking about this since you raised the topic with me when you invited me. And I was thinking about this phenomenon of young reviewers who are often very angry, people who are just starting out, and they often have these very, again, operatic takedowns. I don’t know how common that is anymore these days, but when I was starting out, that was a very common thing to see. And part of that is just, you’re new to this. You get a lot of attention by being mad. But some of it is just genuine.

It’s anger that you spent this time. And a lot of that is that you’re young enough and new enough to the field that you don’t know how to find the things that are going to work for you. And you read this work that everyone is telling you is great. It’s been nominated for awards and it sucks. And you’re mad about that, and you want to express that anger.

I definitely write fewer negative reviews than I did when I was starting out. And part of that is just that I’m older and I’m a bit more mellow. But part of it is I’ve gotten a lot better at spotting the books I’m not going to like and not reading them in the first place.

Dan Hartland: I think that’s really interesting. I was thinking along the same lines in, sort of, I won’t say preparation that makes me sound far too professional, but pre-thinking about this podcast, which is that I definitely wrote negative reviews, not even when I was just starting out, to be honest. And I write fewer now, but I think that is because I am choosing better, but also choosing. So I was commissioned a lot. People gave me John C. Wright to read.

Abigail Nussbaum: Oh, God. I’m so sorry.

Dan Hartland: Thank you! I won’t name names, except for the authors. They gave me Neal Asher to read. So I don’t choose those books for myself! Which sometimes I worry isn’t the right thing to do. Is a reviewer’s sort of negative side important to their personality as a reviewer? Is it just as useful for their readers to understand what they hate as what they like? Is choosing good books so that you write nice reviews necessarily a good thing?

Aisha Subramanian: I wonder if this is also partly about venue and what kind of relationship a reviewer has with their readers. Because if I’m writing for, say, a newspaper where it’s not a venue where I publish a lot, the readers of those reviews aren’t necessarily going to know that there’s a body of work by me that they can look at, then that’s one thing. Whereas if I’m writing for somewhere like Strange Horizons, there’s that sense that if I’m going to hate this thing and if I know I’m going to hate this thing, I’m going to hate it for reasons that I’ve already articulated before. And why repeat myself? And why just keep saying, this continues to be bad?

Abigail Nussbaum: No, absolutely. There does come a point where you’re in definition of madness territory. And I thought about this a lot, not so much in book reviews, but when I was writing about TV, about shows like Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones, and these were shows that made me very angry. And at some point, especially with Game of Thrones, I had to say to myself, you know what? You knew what was going on here. You have chosen to continue to watch this show. So whose fault is it here? And that has to be reflected in the review. I mean, if you keep saying that something is bad but you keep writing about it, whose fault is it here? So, yeah, I think that that’s definitely a part of it in what you choose. And if you’re constantly choosing things that are going to make you angry, that not only feels like a waste of your time, that is maybe a waste of the reader’s time. And honestly, it is a lot more fun to write about something good and have people come back to you and say, I read this because you recommended it and it’s so great. That is just so much more satisfying.

Aisha Subramanian: Or even write about something that you feel ambivalent about, but that ambivalence is this text specific and you’ve got to tease that out.

Abigail Nussbaum: Yeah, something that’s complicated and thought provoking, especially if that can trigger a conversation, which unfortunately doesn’t happen so much anymore with the death of blogs and whatnot. But that was always something that I really enjoyed, that you write about something and someone responds to your post and you end up having this long conversation and that’s just a lot more fun.

Dan Hartland: So I wonder because we’re talking about intent and picking books that you know you’re going to like, because that’s just you’re—you’re picking books for yourself. You’re reviewing books that you just happen to have read, maybe on a blog, or because you have a relationship with a particular publication where you can pitch a particular book. What happens when you think you’re going to like a book? You pick it, thinking, “This will be great, I will write a good review of this book,” and then you don’t like it.

And I’m thinking here of Wesley Osam’s recent review of Legends and Lattes, which literally he picked up because so many people have been saying good things. It’s now been shortlisted for a Nebula and it’s not good. So what responsibility do you have then, if any, to write a negative review of a book that a lot of other people have been recommending?

Abigail Nussbaum: Well, to be honest, I’ve actually been fairly fortunate in that I have definitely chosen books for review. I mean, I’m talking about for Strange Horizons, not just for the not the blog, but something that I’ve committed to review. And I’ve definitely chosen books where I thought I was going to love this and it ended up just being fine. But for the most part, there has not been an incident where I thought I was going to like this and I hated it. There’s been one incident—I was going to say one case—where I accepted a book for review that I was really looking forward to and I just had no way of dealing with it at all. It’s not even that I thought it was bad, it just did not work for me on any level. And I came back to Maureen and I told her, I’m sorry, I can’t write about this because and again, if I thought the book was bad, I would have written a bad review, but I just did not have an access point to it. So I told her this is not for me to write about. And she just said, yeah, sure, that sometimes happens and found someone else.

But for the most part, I’ve been fortunate. I mean, there have definitely been reviews that Strange Horizons commissioned me that have ended up negative. And, you know, that happens. And that’s you know, you have to say what what you think, but you also have to recognize that sometimes you’re just not the right reviewer.

Dan Hartland: This gets onto a really interesting set of questions here about the presumption of a reviewer, really, that their opinion matters. So if they don’t like a particular book, there is the easy retort from fans of the book. And as we’ve discussed, there are books that lots of people are recommending that a particular reviewer won’t like. The retort is easy. Oh, well, you’re just not the right reader for the book. Is there a way to respond to that?

Abigail Nussbaum: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, actually, in the last month, and the retort is those are two different things. The reaction of this is a bad book and this book is not for me are different reactions. And part of being a good reviewer is knowing how to distinguish between them. And like a long time ago, this was when Neil was still the Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons, he assigned a book to me. It was called, I think, The Strange Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. And I read this book, and I remember that one. Yeah, I genuinely disliked it. I did not enjoy reading it at all. And I wrote a review that was a total pan. And what I usually do is I write the first draft and I put it aside, but as soon as I finished it, I told myself, this is wrong. I’ve done the wrong thing here. This book is not bad. I just didn’t like it. And those are two different things. And I went back and I just wrote a completely different review where what I was saying was, this book does what it was trying to do extremely well, and I do not like what it was trying to do, but maybe you will like it. And I think at some point, the author, even we were speaking on something else, and he said, I really like that review!

But it is part of the essence of being a good reviewer, to recognize those two reactions. And sometimes the response is to write a total pan, and sometimes it’s to write a review that says, this is a book that succeeds, but it’s not for me. And sometimes the reaction is just, yeah, I’m not going to write about this. I’m not the person who should be writing about it, but these are different things. And this tyranny of niceness thing of if you don’t like this book, then I guess it just wasn’t for you. That is confusing. Different reactions, I think, in the name of suppressing criticism, because that is simply not always the case.

Dan Hartland: So I entirely agree with that. I keep leaving space in case Aisha wants to come in, just so people don’t think that I’m just shocked that you’ve just said something.

Aisha Subramanian: No, I was just nodding along.

Dan Hartland: Reviewers need to have the space to call out bad books because sometimes it isn’t just an aesthetic judgment, sometimes it is. So sometimes a book will just be, it might make us cross, but it’s just clumsy or poorly wrought. But sometimes it will be actively malicious, either in intent or more commonly, effect. And there is a real danger of closing the spaces in which reviewers are able to say those sorts of things for fear of the retort. Oh, well, it just wasn’t for you.

Aisha Subramanian: Drawing from what Abigail said about, okay, sometimes this book is bad and sometimes this book is doing what it wants to do very well, but that is not for me. There’s also the response that is, this book is very good at what it wants to do. And I fundamentally disagree on a moral level with that project.

Dan Hartland: Exactly.

Aisha Subramanian: Which I think is where this then comes in, where we’re like, okay, so what is this aesthetic project? What do I feel about that superstructure, and then, how do I feel about this book in the larger context of that? And I think that if we, only speaking as a reviews editor, if we only place books with people who already agree with the project of the book, then we’re losing something really important from a critical perspective.

Abigail Nussbaum: Yeah, I mean, just in general, I think it’s sometimes useful to have someone come in and say, what is the value of this project? Not even from trying to tear it down, but simply, like, kicking at the foundations and trying to figure them out. I think that that can be useful, not for the specific work, then for the field as a whole to just take a step back and say, what’s going on here?

[musical sting]

Abigail Nussbaum: I honestly think that a lot of times when you have a work that you’re saying, yes, it does what it’s trying to do, but what I think it’s trying to do is not worth doing. A lot of times I find that those works fail on their own terms. To go back to Wesley’s review of Legends and Lattes, one of the points that he made in this review is that this book that is supposedly so benevolent and kind and wholesome involves the heroine making common cause with a mobster who is carrying out a protection scam against everyone else in the city. That’s not wholesome.

Dan Hartland: Wesley makes a really great point that the book lacks all … I think he uses the phrase “literary turbulence.” And this is an attempt, of course, to make a very quote/unquote “cozy book.” But the problem is that by removing all friction from the book, you make some category errors morally. And one of the category errors is this gangster that smashes up people’s businesses if they don’t pay money is fine if you just give us some cinnamon buns, that’s good! I’m not sure you can let that go!

Abigail Nussbaum: Yeah, sure, there’s work that works completely on its own terms, but is morally abhorrent. Everyone will tell you that Leni Riefenstahl was a great film director, but I think there’s a lot more work that tells you one thing about itself, and when you look at it, it’s actually doing something very different.

Aisha Subramanian: And I think it’s especially true and especially worth pointing out in genres that are so inherently about comfort, which is, I think, again, something that Wesley talks about a lot in that review, the idea of coziness and where that coziness is coming from and what we’re having to smooth over or ignore to access it. And I think that’s true of a lot of subgenres of the field that we all read in.

Dan Hartland: I’m immediately starting to think now of Clark Seanor’s piece recently, for the criticism special that Strange Horizons did earlier in the year, on the Becky Chambers books, where he does exactly this, reads the entire series and looks at the things that it is smoothing over or the things that it is doing or the centers of gravity that it’s choosing and critically reads these. And it struck me as a really important thing to do, particularly for a series that has been otherwise so lauded and has such a large following.

But what’s interesting is Clark was under no illusions when he started that piece. He knew that he was setting out to, if you like, do battle with that constituency that they wouldn’t like to read or hear these things about this series. And sometimes a reviewer doesn’t just stumble on a book and accidentally have an opinion that then they, alas, feel the need to expound upon at great lengths. Sometimes they are setting out to have that fight. I remember, Abigail, you mentioned Maureen, and Maureen’s last piece for us was “The Critic and the Clue” about Treacle Walker by Alan Garner. She just says, “Yeah, this isn’t going to be popular amongst the Garner community. I know what I’m doing and I’m going to do it anyway.”

I just wonder what we think about that approach to negative reviewers, negative reviews: the “sorry, I know this is going to be negative and I don’t care” approach.

Abigail Nussbaum: Well, I kind of wonder how possible it is to provoke on that level anymore because the environment is so different from what it was. I mean, it used to be that you’d post something and it would spread like wildfire and there would be so much conversation and argument and it doesn’t work that way anymore. I mean, the things that will go viral are just completely different. No one’s reading a 2000-word review to get mad about it. If you really want to provoke people, you have to do it with a tweet or something, or a TikTok. Sure, there’s definitely situations where you say to yourself, yes, I’m going in, but what are you going into anymore? I mean, maybe people are not going to like what you write, but the opportunities for them to get big mad are just not there anymore.

Dan Hartland: I think that’s true certainly in the genre or at a certain readership level. But I’m thinking as well about reviewing perhaps more generally. I don’t know whether any of you have seen that A. O. Scott, the film critic for the New York Times, stepped down recently, and one of the reasons given for this was fandom was the impossibility of critiquing, specifically, superhero films, which feels a too easy target when the community around that text, let’s call it a text, is so resistant to that critique. So, yes, at a certain level, no one’s going to read your stuff and it doesn’t matter so much; but at a kind of, if you like, either at the top level or just theoretically the general perception of criticism, whether or not you actually—as an individual reviewer who’s written a particular review—feel the blowback from your review … Has there been that shift?

Do you think that there has genuinely been that shift away from criticism as a cultural activity? Or is it just that people have never really liked critics but that it’s easier for them to make that known now?

Abigail Nussbaum: Well, I think really it depends on where you’re looking at and what field you’re looking at because film criticism in a venue like the New York Times, and especially when the critic in question is so accessible—they’re on Twitter, they’re interacting with people on Twitter. That’s just a different world. And yeah, if you critique superhero movies, or if you’d like this company’s superhero movies but don’t like this company’s superhero movies, that’s going to get you a lot of attention from people who … well, y’know. Who the hell wants to talk to them?

But that’s one world and it’s not the world that most of us move in. Whereas if you look at fandom, I definitely feel like the shifts in it are very different and the position of the critic is very degraded within genre fandom, that the conversation is much more dominated by authors and by fans. Like you said, it’s not so much that you get people mad at you as that people aren’t really listening.

Aisha Subramanian: I’m thinking about someone like Stitch, who has written for Strange Horizons, but also writes for places like Teen Vogue, where obviously there’s a much wider audience and the kind of blowback that they get for writing about media franchises that have these massive fandoms, particularly Star Wars in their case. So I think that there is some overlap because obviously critics do work in multiple different venues as well. Between the critic who can write the long, thoughtful piece that no one will read enough to get angry about and the critic who writes the long thoughtful piece that then has 2000 people trying to get them fired.

Abigail Nussbaum: Yeah, I mean, that overlap obviously exists. But again, I think it’s relevant that we’re talking about media criticism here then when we’re specifically talking about one of the biggest franchises in the world, that’s what gets people mad. Whereas if you write about a book, even a very popular book, I just don’t think that there are that many people who care unless you’ve written something incredibly stupid and offensive and somehow people catch on to that, which does happen. But if you’ve just written a negative review, my experience is that most of the time not much happens.

Dan Hartland: Do you think, Abigail, that reviewers are aware of this? Because speaking as … as Aisha said, we’re sort of wearing several hats in this conversation and one of them is as reviews editors who commission reviews like all the time. And I don’t know whether you have, Aisha, but I’ve noticed over the last few years in particular a more pronounced nervousness about writing a negative review. A reviewer will still do it, but they will email you first and say, “This is going to be really negative.” Or they will say, “Do you think that’s okay?” And on one level this is really good because I think perhaps even more than a positive review, a negative review needs to be copper-bottomed. You need to be certain that the reviewer has done their work if they’re going to be that negative. So that extra element of being careful, I think is really good and to be encouraged.

But we are all part of the same culture. So I hear what you’re saying, Abigail, about, “Oh, well, it’s only if you’re an extremely visible critic talking about an extremely visible franchise that you’ll really get the blowback.” And I think that’s true. But we all live in the culture where we see that blowback happening and that may have a chilling effect on reviewers and reviews that won’t get, practically speaking, get that blowback because we’re all seeing it. We’re seeing the cultural move away from critics, as you say, in action. Even if in reality we’re not going to be victims of any pile-on, we still know that the culture isn’t that welcoming towards that kind of opinion or that kind of expression of that kind of opinion.

Abigail Nussbaum: I think that’s definitely there. I think that I’ve definitely had that reaction myself, even though there was no reasonable expectation of it happening. But I also think that there’s something else going on. That there is perhaps a growing mentality that there’s something wrong with writing a negative review, that it’s being unkind, that it’s hurtful to the author. And I think that maybe the self-censorship comes from that. That you’re not trying to avoid being dogpiled so much as you’re trying to think of yourself, “I’m a good person, I’m not mean, and therefore I shouldn’t write a negative review.” To be clear, I don’t think that that’s 100% a bad thing. Thinking about the fact that there’s a real person who has written this work is not a bad thing. I mean, it’s never bad to be kind. But at the same time, you also have to remember that the author is not your audience, that you’re not writing for them. The time for someone to critique their work in a private setting has passed, and you’re writing for readers. You’re writing for people who want to know if this work is for them, and you’re writing for the field as a whole.

And I definitely think that we kind of need to push back against the mentality that there is something wrong or unkind about writing a negative review while still acknowledging that a negative review can be wrong or unkind.

[musical sting]

Aisha Subramanian: I think there’s that sense as well of, and this is obviously partly the Internet, and we can see authors having negative reactions to things. You can see authors posting their Goodreads reviews and being sometimes with the names of the people edited out, sometimes not, and talking about how sad it made them feel. And so there’s both on the one hand, yes, there’s that sense that we as critics and reviewers are aware of that person to a much greater degree than we would have been. But there’s also that kind of performance of sadness and vulnerability that becomes then very easily weaponizable against the critic. I’m thinking about the Kate Clanchy case, where, again, there was no reasonable expectation on the part of that reviewer on Goodreads that this was going to blow up the way it did. That was entirely the doing of the author. But it very much went through that cycle of, “Oh, this poor, sad, vulnerable person facing this completely unjustified criticism. Oh, wait, the criticism was justified. Well, anyway,” and it just sort of snowballed.

Abigail Nussbaum: Yeah. And I think that what’s sort of in the background, I mean, it’s rarely spoken, but in the background is this presumption of power. Like you say, the author is a poor, vulnerable little guy and the mean reviewer, and at some point you get into this whole punching up, punching down conversation and it just makes me incredibly angry because no one here has any power. Okay? We’re a bunch of people who are writing reviews as a hobby and a bunch of people who are writing books while they keep a day job, okay? No one here has cultural power, though obviously, in the Kate Clanchy case, she was able to weaponize tremendous institutional power and get media and more famous figures in the literary sphere on her side. So I say no one here has any power. There are obviously exceptions. But I think in general, there’s a tendency to phrase this conversation as if it’s the strong against the weak. And who you think is the strong and who you think is the weak depends entirely on which party you are. Whereas I think it’s worth remembering that there’s no power here. There’s people who are speaking their mind and who are putting parts of themselves out into the world, and we should try to maintain decorum and civility about this. But at the end of the day, this is not a fight. And if you start treating it as a fight, then you’ve already done something not on.

Dan Hartland: I wonder if we need to talk about positionality, because I completely agree with you, Abigail, that the idea that there are significant power relationships between a lot of the players in this arena feels untrue. I mentioned my negative review of Neal Asher earlier in the podcast. Asher did respond and did suggest that I simply had axes to grind, which was why I didn’t like his book, which was fine. But the idea that Neal Asher was in any way, shape, or form threatened by Dan Hartland’s agenda felt to me, again, untrue. But there may be situations, may there not, where the positionality of the reviewer does have some effect on how their opinion on a particular book or a particular author can be read. Let me use myself as an example, because then I’m not abusing anyone but myself. I’m a straight, white, Western guy, and I choose to pan a debut novel by a writer from the Global South. Is there not some power relationship there, however less pronounced than it might be? Do we not need to think about which reviewers get to pan which books?

Abigail Nussbaum: Well, I think absolutely, though I tend to think of it less in the sense of my situation, “My privilege gives me power.” Not that I’m saying that’s not true, it does. But I think that the issue is more of whether I’m able to engage with the work in a way that’s useful, or whether I’m just coming to it from a place where I can’t understand it or understand where it’s coming from. I think that’s a more important way of looking at that question, because, yes, there is the issue, of course there are more Anglophone venues for SFF criticism, and people from the Global North will have an easier time getting published in those venues. You have to work. You both know this. You have to work to find the critics who are not from your own mainstream. So there is absolutely an element of that. But I think the more important question is, are you finding the person who can engage with the work where it’s at and who can open it up to readers in a way that helps them engage with the work, as opposed to a critic who is either alienated by it or is unable to grasp what it’s trying to do?

Dan Hartland: Yes, I would agree with that. And I think that as editors, I would like to think that Aisha and I spend quite a bit of time thinking about those questions. Of course, a curated venue like Strange Horizons or any other magazine that carries reviews is one thing, and then we come back to blogs, of course, where people can choose to give their unsolicited opinions at any point, but of course, readers can also choose not to read them. So I think that the responsibility of the curated venues is quite high here, I think.

Aisha Subramanian: Yeah, with curated venues, there’s that sense as well, of ultimately the responsibility is with us. Right. If we’ve paired together a review with someone who is clearly not going to have useful ways to access that book, or who’s going to pan that book because they just don’t understand what it’s doing, that’s on us. If their criticisms aren’t adequately backed up by any sort of evidence, then that’s also on us. Whereas, yeah, I think it’s less that there is a power difference and more that there are multiple power differences. There are multiple axes of power at play. If you were to write a critical review of an author from the Global South, yes, there are some ways in which you’d be taken more seriously than another critic talking about what the book was doing. Well, but obviously this is also a book that’s being published, that has a marketing campaign behind it, that has a publisher’s weight behind it.

Abigail Nussbaum: Well, I know that writing on my own blog, I’ve become more aware of the way that some books are coming to me from a very different world, from a very different frame of reference, and that as a reviewer, I need to take that into consideration when I’m writing. And you know what? That’s not just for negative reviews. I remember I wrote about Han Kang’s Human Acts, which is about the Gwangju massacre, I think. I think Guangzhou is the correct name. And this is an incredibly famous incident in South Korea’s history that I was completely unaware of before I started reading the book, because I know nothing about South Korea, and it really changed how I reacted to the book and how I ended up reviewing it. But at the same time, I was cognizant when I’m writing this absolute rave, because it’s a wonderful book, that I’m also coming at it from the perspective of an idiot who didn’t know about this event. So that matters.

And I was thinking about it more recently when I was writing about The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which I also think is a brilliant novel. But again, I know nothing about Sri Lanka. Not only is that the case, but the book has sort of been written with that in mind, because there’s like, inserts in the book that are explaining it to stupid Westerners who know nothing. About the country’s history and can’t tell the different factions apart. So that’s definitely something that you have to be aware of whenever you’re writing positively or negatively about a work that’s coming from completely outside your frame of reference, but it also affects when you write negatively. And I’ve had the experience where I was reading a book that was about the Global South experience, about colonialism, about racism, and in some cases, it doesn’t work for me. And I think to myself, how much of this is this book just isn’t working? And how much of it is my inability to bridge the gap? And I think, okay, on some level, I’m never going to be able to fully answer that question. On some level, that’s going to be something that someone else is going to have to tell me, but you have to at least engage with the question. It has to be part of your reviewing process.

Dan Hartland: Yeah, I think this comes back to something that we were saying—particularly that you, Abigail, were saying at the start of the conversation—which is that the reviewer needs to be open to the idea that the book isn’t for them and that, in fact, that can be one of the book’s positives—that the book has been designed for a different audience. And as long as the reviewer has the humility or frame of reference to acknowledge that a book that is not for them can actually be a great book.

Aisha Subramanian: I think as well, though, and again, this is something I’ve done as a reviewer and had to scrap the work. Or this is something that I’ve seen reviewers do as an editor and have often had to scrap the work. There’s also the difficulty of then making the entire review about what you didn’t know. So if you are reviewing The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida and you fixate on how much you didn’t know about Sri Lanka, or you spend the entire review explaining the history of the country to your reviewer, like, “Guys, did you know this happened?” You’re not going to end up with a useful review, and at worst, you’re going to end up with just a sort of naval gazing, I know nothing, please come and condemn me for how little I know. And at best, you’re going to end up with a useful history of a country that could possibly be done by someone else. I’m thinking about something like Shiv Ramdas’s “And Now His Lordship is Laughing,” which is a really good short story that we published and where a lot of the reviews that it got were basically, “Guys, did you know about the Bengal famine?” Yes, actually!

Dan Hartland: There is an element to which the self reflexive reviewer thing is just as much of a performance as the angry, negative reviewer thing and is a sort of … you’re getting your defenses in early, and it does misshape the review. I’ve had an experience of this, so I wrote a rave review for Strange Horizons of Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, which is awesome book, but I was also conscious that it was doing things that … weren’t for me is the wrong phrase, because they were totally for me because I loved what it was doing. But it was written from a very particular perspective. And yeah, I didn’t dwell on this, but I mentioned it. And I think that you’re right, Aisha, to say that there does need to be a balance here between feeling that, “Oh, I’m going to write a negative review, so I need to explain, or if I just say that I don’t have the right to have an opinion, no one will hurt me.”

Aisha Subramanian: Again, it has to work from a position of, “Oh, here, let me explain to you and give you more background about this very interesting work.” Not as Dan said, “I know nothing. Please don’t hurt me.” Because if you know nothing, then why are you writing? There is a degree of arrogance in being a reviewer, and the solution to that isn’t to run away from that, it’s to own it and to say, yes, I am claiming a position of certain authority here and I’m going to try to earn that. And yes, humility is one way of trying to earn it, but also you can take it too far. And at some point you have to say, “I have chosen to speak. I have chosen to make myself heard, and therefore I’m going to try to earn that position to make this worth your time.”

And ultimately, anything that you add to your review has to be in service of discussing the book. Is this a good book? What is this doing? How well does it work? If you need to add information and context so that your reader can see how the book works, that’s completely justifiable. If you’re just giving context for “I didn’t know this, this is interesting, or I didn’t know this and this is my disclaimer for any further criticisms that you might have,” then that isn’t in service to the discussion of the book?

Abigail Nussbaum: I think that there can be reviews that are very personal and that bring the reviewer into the work and that are useful, but they have to actually bring yourself into the work. You have to actually expose yourself, whereas what you’re describing is defending yourself. It’s like a defensive crouch.

[musical sting]

Dan Hartland: I wonder whether we should just briefly, because we’re three diligent, conscientious reviewers, so we like to assume that all reviewers are diligent and conscientious … but they’re not. And it is true that there are negative reviews or negative writing about books which are in bad faith, which give good and diligent and careful negative reviews a bad name. And I just wonder whether we need to mention that or acknowledge that.

I’m thinking it wasn’t a review, but there was critical content. I’m thinking of the recent Wired profile of Brandon Sanderson, for example, which—right, because he salts his ramen, and that’s bad! And because the community was up in arms about this critical piece about a writer who probably deserves some sort of informed criticism. But maybe this wasn’t that piece.

Abigail Nussbaum: I thought that the most useful commentary I saw about that piece was saying, look, there is so much that you can say that is legitimately negative about this guy, and you fixated on all of the most pointless stuff. You’re basically saying this guy’s bad because he’s cringe. Who cares? And I think that’s true. I think it is worth calling out reviews that don’t engage with the work on its own terms. And I see that a lot when mainstream critics write about genre, write about science fiction, and you can just tell that they haven’t got the language for it, that they haven’t got the terms you want to say to them, “This is not your lane. You don’t know what you’re doing here. And by all means, trash this work if you’re able to engage with it and you find flaws in it, but if you’re not able to engage with it, then find someone who can.”

Aisha Subramanian: Having said that, I read the piece. I didn’t have strong feelings about it. But I think the thing that I found very interesting about that review that ties into this discussion was the extent to which it was read as a criticism of the community.

Abigail Nussbaum: Well, I definitely think it’s a move that some authors and some fans will make of collapsing the difference between the work and not just the work and the author, but the work and the fans. This person didn’t like X. That must mean he’s attacking all the people who do like X. Sometimes that’s true, okay? Sometimes people do that, but most of the time they don’t. And if you’re trying to get your fans riled up by doing that, that’s not nice.

No one ever complains about reviews when they’re good. No one ever says, “Well, that’s just your opinion, man” when you wrote a rave. If that’s legitimately their stance, then it should be like, if I write, “Well, this is the best book ever,” someone should come back to me and say, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” But they never do, okay? And no one ever says, “The reviewer is arrogating power to himself, and he thinks he knows better than the rest of us, and who let her be the arbiter of good and evil?” when you write something good. It’s only ever when you write negative reviews that you get those responses. And I feel like that’s telling.

Aisha Subramanian: Taking notes to go and troll Abigail’s blog.


[musical sting]

Dan Hartland: Well, I think everyone’s going to love this episode.

Abigail Nussbaum: Once again, I feel like you’re anticipating an outrage that will probably not materialize.

Aisha Subramanian: Are you suggesting that not everyone listens to this?

Abigail Nussbaum: I would never suggest that. I would never suggest that this is not the most popular podcast ever.

Dan Hartland: Such a good answer. You can come again.

Abigail Nussbaum: I would love to. Thank you so much for having me.

Dan Hartland: Absolute pleasure. Thanks, Abigail.

Aisha Subramanian: Thanks, Abigail.

[musical outro]

Aisha Subramanian: 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 Grande Valise dot bandcamp dot com. See you next time.

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