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July 05, 2005

Installment #13: Of Reviews, Fragile Egos, and "He Sure Went Ape-Shit", Part Two 

Okay, it's the 5th of July and this second part of the column is 4 days late. I was going to apologize, but then it occurred to me that had I posted this on the 1st, most of you wouldn't have read it, anyway, preparing as you were for a knockout holiday weekend. I hope it was fun and safe for all.

As you may recall, I left you with something of a cliffhanger last time concerning the identity of the reviewer who gave The Indifference of Heaven (a.k.a In Silent Graves) its first and most brutal review.

Let me repeat something: upon re-reading that review, I realized it was a good one -- well-written, well thought-out, well-structured, honest, and intelligent. It was a good review, just not a positive one. That didn't stop people from writing to me to declare that the reviewer was an "idiot", a "jerk", and "an asshole".

So who was it?

Bentley Little ...

... who is decidedly not and idiot, a jerk, or an asshole. Little is a terrific and popular writer, and one hell of a smart and perceptive individual whose crticism is always sharp, direct, and informed. The reason that this initial review hit me as hard as it did -- aside from Little's criticizing parts of the book that I myself feared might be pointed out as being problematic, thus confirming my shortcomings and total lack of talent in my own eyes, ergo making him a jerk (after all, how dare he remind me of my weaknesses as a writer? The nerve....) -- was that Little, Norm Partridge, and I sort of began publishing at the same time; at one point, the three of us were unofficially vying for the title of Cemetery Dance's Poster Child. Little and I used to publish regularly in Crispin Burnham's now-defunct (and much missed) Eldritch Tales (along with another relative unknown at the time by the name of Joe Lansdale). Little and I pretty much started out at the same time, and while Little had (and has) enjoyed a dozen times the commercial success I've known (justifiably so), some unreasonable, immature part of me thought that he'd cut me a little slack because, well, we came onto the scene at the same time. You know, "brothers in arms" and happy horseshit of that ilk.

Looking back on it now, I'm glad he didn't. I'm glad he was so brutal in his review, because you know what? When it comes to judging the literary quality of someone else's work, it shouldn't matter a damn if you know them or not, or whether or not you started in the trenches with that person -- 'cause it ain't about the person, it's about the work, and any review or opinion that doesn't begin with that rule firmly in mind is compromised before it even begins, and that, my friends, does an irredeemable disservice to all involved.

(Allow me a brief aside here. Any fiction writer who also does book reviews is arguably in a no-win situation from the start. If you write a postivie review of a fellow writer's work, you're going to be accused of cronyism -- "Hell, he knows so-and-so, of course he's going to give it a good review." If, however, you write a negative review of another writer's work, you stand a very good chance of being accused of sour grapes -- "Well, he's just jealous that so-and-so is more popular than he is, so of course he's going to give it a bad review"; or, worse -- as was the case with one person who thought Little's review was unnecessarily harsh -- "Well, he just wants to make sure he doesn't lose any readers to anyone else, so of course he's going to trash anything of quality!" You can't win, so peoples' possible reactions to your review should never enter the equation. I bring this up because in the next week or two there's going to be some updates to the web site, including a mess of new reviews, and one of those reviews is going to be for Brian Keene's latest novel Terminal. It's not going to be a wholly positive review. (For me, as a reader, the novel ultimately failed, but is still a very worthwhile read; the review is, I think, the longest I've yet written for the site). I can already hear the screams of "Sour Grapes!" and "He's just jealous because Keene's more popular than he is!" falling on my head like a curse from Heaven. Here endeth the aside.)

To repeat something that I do not think can be emphasized enough: there is a difference between a good review and a positive one. A good review pulls no punches, and comes at you with an informed viewpoint that is intelligently and reasonably articulated, even if the overall message of that viewpoint is not one of praise for the writer's work.

I'm going to give you a link here in a moment to a fine example of the type of review I'm talking about -- it's a review of In the Midnight Museum, one that is good without necessarily being wholly positive -- but before I do, I want to ask a couple of small favors of you:

1) If you have read Museum, then please read the entire review, first line to last; if you have not yet read the novella but are planning to, do me a favor and skip the 3rd paragraph, the one that begins: "They key to Martin's weird perceptions..." (I'll tell you why in a moment.)

2) Make sure you read all of the readers' comments that follow the review, because the issue of ***SPOILERS*** is raised in a most interesting way -- and, curiously enough, is the next thing I'm going to cover here.

Okay, surf on over and check out Nick Mamatas's excellent -- but not wholly positive -- review of In the Midnight Museum. Then come back here and we'll chat a little more.

Now that's a review. Sure, I wish he'd liked it more than he did (what writer doesn't want everyone to like their work?), and I wish he hadn't talked about certain elements of the story (more on that shortly), but the review was so intelligent, thoughtful, and informed that whatever disappointement I felt at his not digging it to the nth degree was balanced out by his careful consideration of the material.

Look at it again, because you can learn some things about how a good review should be done; f'rinstance: Mamatas is someone who knows my work, not just this particular piece -- he even goes as far to say that this novella would work for someone who's not familiar with my work, but since he's up-front about approaching it as someone who is a reader of my stuff, he's got a pretty strong arsenal of facts to back up his opinions about what he thinks are the weaker aspects of the piece, and why he thinks that. He also carefully balances the harsher criticisms with some fairly glowing (for Nick) praise of those aspects that he felt worked in the novella's favor. You'll also note that he had no Agenda behind the review -- excepting that of reading for quality writing and storytelling. He didn't soften anything, nor did he overpraise. It's a beautifully balanced review, and any writer would be a fool to ask for one more honest and informed.

(But please don't think that I never get really scathing reviews. I've been lucky in that the majority of the reviews for my work have been positive overall, but when I get a negative review, an outright pan, they don't mess around.)

Time is running short for this installment, so let's go right to the ***SPOILER*** discussion. You did read the readers' comments after the review right? If not, go back and do so, pretty please.

I am of two minds when it comes to this issue. The most obvious example of a ***SPOILER*** (which is a ***SPOILER*** in itself, you have been warned) would be someone telling you as you're about to view The Sixth Sense for the first time, "Yeah, man, I was blown away when they showed that Bruce Willis had been dead the whole time."

A less obvious example (again, a ***SPOILER*** in itself) would be something like this:

Someone asks if you've ever read the wonderful Roald Dahl story, "Lamb To The Slaughter". You say, no, you haven't, and they say: "Oh, man, you gotta read it. It's about this lady who kills her husbad with a frozen leg of lamb, and then cooks it and feeds it to the police so they don't have any evidence!"

Ultimately, this sort of ***SPOILER*** reveals the punch but does not necessarily ruin the story; if you've read it, then you know that Dahl expertly sets this up so that the "surprise" of the story isn't so much a twist as it is a grin-inducing moment of exquisite irony.

Still, it robs the reader of some of the joy of discovery for him- or herself, it detracts from the reading experience. Now, while I agree with the notion that something that exists solely to surprise a reader doesn't have much to stand on to begin with, and so arguably shouldn't be "protected" in reviews, there is a difference between a "twist" or "surprise" and a "revelation". A "revelation" (for the sake of this argument) can be defined as that moment within a narrative when something that has been set up, foreshadowed, and hinted at is brought fully into the light so that the reader is at last able to see how everything connects -- and has connected -- all along. It's that moment where the reader can nod their head and say, "Oh, okay -- now I see how it all fits." And while the story doesn't necessarily (and shouldn't) hinge on that revelation, it is made richer by the reader not knowing what it is going in.

It's about the joy of discovery while reading.

I asked those of you who haven't read In the Midnight Museum to skip the 3rd paragraph of Nick's review because he discusses virtually all of the revelations that occur in the second half of the story. Now, while his discussing those revelations won't "spoil" the story for you in the end, I have to admit to a certain disappointment in having seen them included in the review. Museum is structured in deliberate layers -- the layers of reality play a major role in the story -- and I worked very hard to make sure that every "revelation" was foreshadowed so that, when they began to appear, none of them seemed like something I'd pulled out of my ying-yang in order to write myself out of a corner. My hope was -- and is -- that the reader would be as stunned by these discoveries as is Martin, the story's central character, because they would make the discoveries at the same time he does.

Here's where it gets problematic. Yes, Nick wrote an excellent review; no, Nick shouldn't have to "withhold information" necessary to back up his thesis on the grounds that it's going to "spoil" something for a reader -- that would hardly qualify as an informed, inclusive opinion, would it?

But at the same time, his discussing the revelations contained in the second half does (arguably) subtract something from the reading experience if one has not yet read the novella. I've had a couple of people tell me they think his discussing the revelations actually trivializes the effort I put into the story's structure. (You'll note that one of the people responding to the review -- my wife, God bless her -- pointed out that his discussing those particular aspects of the story ultimately had no bearing on his overall thesis, that they weren't needed in order to make his point.)

You can't win here, you really can't. On the one hand, you want reviews to pull no punches, to be intelligent, informed, and honest; on the other hand, you don't want them telling you that the lady cooks the only evidence of the murder and then feeds it to the police.

I do not begrudge Nick Mamatas anything he wrote about Museum -- as I said, it's a terrific review -- and I would never be so arrogant as to demand that he or any other reviewer be required to place a ***SPOILER WARNING*** in thier reviews -- that's just childish.

Hence, we return to something I said in Part One -- that it's best for you to read something before looking at reviews. Fer chrissakes, you don't need someone to tell you why something's good or not, you've got a brain, you're intelligent, you're capable of forming your opinions without any outside input, thanks very much.

So maybe you can win in thse types of situations, providing that you do the intelligent thing and read the work first, before looking at reviews. That way, it won't matter if the reviewer tells you about the cops chowing down on the evidence, or that Bruce Willis has actually been dead for most of the movie. (Yes, I know that I'm talking about a movie with that second example, but it helps back up my point and, besides, I used the example earlier and I'm all about the continuity). Reviewers won't have to pull punches, and you won't have to feel that anything has been "spoiled" for you.

... ah, but I can hear those old gears grinding away: didn't he say that reviews can sometimes help someone decide whether or not they want to read a particular book? How is someone supposed to make that decision if they don't check out some reviews first? It's Catch-22 all over again.

So what's the answer to this seemingly impentrable conundrum?

In a word: blurbs.

Come back on July 20th, and I'll make an argument in favor of blurbs.

Until then, stay tuned....



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