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Friday, January 13, 2012

On Some Recent Reviews (by Liviu Suciu)

There is no secret that my top two books of 2011 were "1Q84" by Haruki Murakami and "Parallel Stories" by Peter Nadas and that both are books I expect I will be reading for a long time.

Even so, I greatly enjoyed this scathing review of Parallel Stories written by Tibor Fisher in The Guardian. While I have no idea why the review was written since when relatively well known authors like Tibor Fischer discuss other even better known authors like Peter Nadas, there may be a lot of history behind, there is a kernel of truth in it and the book may easily turn readers off.

Another notable point of the review is the placing of the novel in context and suggesting a few "substitutes" the reviewer finds much better, suggestions which are quite useful in themselves.

As for "1Q84" I also saw a lot of criticism that amused me as a large part was directed toward its "genre" elements. There were even some very funny Amazon reviews from people who thought they were getting a sff novel and found explicit scenes in the novel; horror of horrors, explicit writing in genre, oh no that should be banned immediately!

But that at least is somewhat funny; however when you read a review that starts with a paragraph like the one I will quote below and that clearly indicates a hostile agenda - in this case to successful indie authors - and when said review is published in a venue like Strange Horizons that supposedly has review editors, that needs calling attention to.

In many ways I was saddened to see this crude genre bashing as I thought the venue has improved markedly from a few years ago when genre bashing was regular as I noticed in a few comments there, as comparing the two reviews of the same author, same series, books 1 and 2, linked above will show.

Anyway read the opening of this recent review of Theft of Swords and wonder at the envy that it projects and the agenda it at least honestly admits of following:

"Michael J. Sullivan is that rare beast, a man who self-published six books to moderate financial success, and parlayed that success into a deal with a major publisher. Theft of Swords collects the previously self-published The Crown Conspiracy (2007) and Avempartha (2009) in one volume. As of this writing, I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy. Sloppiness in amateurs is understandable. When professionals are involved, there should be consequences. I have words for these people. Bad words. But I'll restrain myself, and restrict my vocabulary to standards acceptable in polite company. The book's own words ought to be enough to condemn it."

Note that while I greatly enjoyed the first few books in the series and loved The Emerald Storm and Wintertide, I was disappointed to a large extent by Percepliquis and talked about why recently, but I still find The Ryria Revelations a very entertaining and well executed traditional fantasy series that started light and improved markedly with every volume, except for the too cute wrap-up imho...

Anyway as I put it in the comments to this hit piece masquerading as review, the success of indie authors is the future so just deal with it!

Edit Later 1/16/12: As this issue has degenerated and our purpose here at FBC is to discuss interesting books and pursue our love of reading, I will close the comments here and refrain from mentioning this issue again as it is not useful. For anyone interested in pursuing this further, feel free to use the email linked on the site.

I also want to make clear that while I question the judgement and the way of expressing it in the above linked reviews and a few others alluded in the comments, I do not know personally the reviewers involved, have no reason to question their motives beyond what their public words say and I deeply apologize if my comments have been construed as personal attacks. I also do not condone attacks based on race, ethnicity or gender.

Talking about books is a very subjective matter and I am quite happy that it still can give rise to such passion, but let's keep things in perspective. And to close on a personal note, I want to note that I have been involved in the online sff scene since the rec.arts.sf.written of the early-mid 90's when the excitement at finally having a place I can share my interests with people from everywhere, gave quick rise to disillusionment due precisely to everything boiling down to attacks, mud flinging and all, so I may be over sensitive at such and too quick to react when I see the kind of review that reads to me very vitriolic.

The sff online community is a great thing and I think we are all better for it, but it is also an easy thing to shatter and I again apologize for contributing to ill will feelings.

Edit 1/16/22: As Mr. Martin Lewis had this blog post "On Being Libeled by Liviu Suciu", I posted there the following comment which I will re-post here:

"For what is worth I apologize explicitly for attributing any personal bias to you and as an organization to Strange Horizon. I stand by my claim that your review mentioned and the one of Theft of Swords are both misguided and use language I find objectionable, but that is my personal opinion.

As for claims about Strange Horizons, while in the heat of the argument sometimes strong words are exchanged, my argument that this harsh language of the two reviews mentioned is used only selectively still has not been addressed. It may simply be a coincidence as I do not have the time and interest to follow all reviews, so I sure could have missed a few similar ones and as you and the editors have assured me that this so, I am happy as mentioned to recognize it and retract my claims as I do now.

I will post this as a second update on FBC and I hope that this will put the issue to rest. I am flattered by your words: “rather he is considered a respected reviewer by a large chunk of the fantasy blogosphere”, while for the rest I leave the words said to stand by themselves.

I do not want to escalate this but I also want to note that using terms like “libel” is a major escalation and can be construed as a threat and I think that we do not want to go there as it’s not worth it."


Anonymous said...

I find it odd you call the SH review "genre-bashing"; it is clear from the review that reviewer has read and enjoyed plenty of fantasy, but the evidence provided in the review shows some absolutely appalling gaffes that even the least talented editor should have picked up on a brief run through. The arguments presented by the reviewer are solidly backed up by evidence from the book, whereas your responses are not - it's fair enough to have a differing opinion, but it's pretty rich for you to insult both the reviewer and the venue without being able to provide any meaningful substance to back yourself up.

Liviu said...

sorry i do not see that the reviewer has that much experience of reading in the field, and that paragraph I quoted is very revealing as her agenda.

As for textual examples, a phrase out of context is irrelevant as I am sure i could comb anything written of enough length and find similar gems.

There is an easy way to check btw as you can read for free both the prequel short and the first chapter of the novel on the author's website.

Also as someone who read both the original and the Orbit edition, I can attest there was a lot of editing and quite a few examples where the author originally broke the flow were smoothed out.

Anyway the review stands by itself and its publication in SH is a low mark for the venue

Abigail Nussbaum said...

i do not see that the reviewer has that much experience of reading in the field

Perhaps because you didn't look for it? For SH, Liz has reviewed Kate Elliott's Cold Fire and Erin Hoffman's Sword of Fire and Sea, quite positively in both cases. She's also been a regular reviewer for, and frequently covers epic fantasy on that site - again, often quite positively.

As the person who edited that review, I can tell you that I feel absolutely no qualms about having published it. The opening statement is harsh but the rest of the review backs it up with arguments and examples. I note, by the way, that other than straw man attacks on both the magazine and the reviewer - she's jealous, she doesn't like epic fantasy, she's looking for Nobel-level writing - you haven't made any significant counters to any of the arguments she brings against the novel. For example, here you say that "a phrase out of context" doesn't represent the novel (though in fact Liz brings some half-dozen quotes and puts them in context) but you don't explain how, in context, what seems like awful prose is actually serviceable writing.

Liviu said...

I posted a comment on SH showing how some of the review claims are misleading or false and how at least imho a lot of the prose is just tongue in cheek and the book simply does not take itself too seriously - in the second novel there is a play called The Crown Conspiracy about the events of the first novel and if that is not a huge hint about the "tongue in cheek" aspects, well i do not know what can be.

There are lots of women with agency in the series - actually the women are smarter than men at least as the main guys (Hadrian and Royce) keep being manipulated left and right, while Alric is a whining prince/king etc

There are a lot of criticisms you can bring to the series sure - eg the world building, the 1000 year fetish - but this review simply seems very misguided while the first paragraph reads "how dare this self published author have success, let's take him down a peg or two..."

I am even more surprised when you mention Sword of Fire and sea which to me is even more full of tongue in cheek action and stuff that can be trashed badly if you take it seriously rather than in the fun spirit I for example (who enjoyed greatly that one too) took it, while for a really bad idea, the patronising patois of the natives in Cold Fire has few equals though I still enjoyed the novel quite a lot

Anonymous said...

Abigail. Really? REALLY?

You see no problems with that review?



Just wow.

Liz actually doesn't back up what she has to say at all. She certianly seem to enjoy ranting. But an objective, balanced review? Yeah, she doesn't have a clue.

Liviu is correct in his supposition that Liz has little experience in the genre.

Lastly, she's written stuff for TOR. Consdiering that a site that posts the review of a totally biased, militantly feminist reviewer named Teresa Jusino for TV.....I'm not surprised they published Liz's stuff.

She's behaving like a child, not an adult in her review. It is card carrying nastiness for nastiness's sake.

And i for one hope that review goes viral, so you KNOW that you were wrong in letting such crap stand/

Sean said...

I read the review in question on SH and for what it's worth left a comment there. My interest was twofold, the series itself and the content of the review.

I have indeed read the first five books in the series, and was looking through the reviews to see if and when I should get the last, since the series wasn't on top of my list, but I remembered that the later books had piqued my interest.

As for the review on SH, I think the issue for me rather than its validity is the form of expression. I'd also find some of the examples that the reviewer has provided objectionable, regardless of context. However, the post is so mired in vitriol and aggrandized language that makes it impossible to take the criticism seriously.

I wouldn't want to question the sincerity of the reviewer (though she makes it hard no to), but rather her temperament. From personal experience, I can imagine her, disliking the book more and more as she read more. Reading further on for the sole purpose of gathering the evidence for the scathing "review" to come, and writing it immediately to vent the pent-up anger. Whether it's due to inexperience or the sheer perceived failure of the book, at this point the reviewer has all but forgotten her critic's specs and given into self-indulgence. (I'd highlight the oversight of the editor here, if indeed it was edited).

Martin said...

I thought the venue has improved markedly from a few years ago when genre bashing was regular as I noticed in a few comments there, as comparing the two reviews of the same author, same series, books 1 and 2, linked above will show.

Just so I'm clear the comparison between a review of one book written by one reviewer with a review of a different book written by a different reviewer shows what exactly?

Liviu said...

site "philosophy" as in praise the establishment (the scalzis, the tors, the oldies, the pc's), trash the newcomers eg Mark Newton or Mr. Sullivan and the un-pc's (Neal Asher, JC Wright) to make your quota of "criticism"

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You are aware, of course, that Martin's review was edited by Niall Harrison, while Liz's review was edited by me?

site "philosophy" as in praise the establishment (the scalzis, the tors, the oldies, the pc's)

Not sure what "the pc's" are here, but John Scalzi was last reviewed in SH in 2009. As for Tor, I don't keep close track of who publishes the books we review, but a quick review of our archives shows that of 150 or so reviews published in 2011, only 11 were of Tor books, and four of them were negative. In fact, we reviewed far more books by Orbit, Sullivan's publisher, than by Tor. As for new authors, in 2011 we positively reviewed debuts by Col Buchanan, Charles Yu, Ben Aaronovitch, S.L. Grey, Kameron Hurley, Livia Llewellyn, Erin Hoffman, Genevieve Valentine, Erin Morgenstern, and Rob Ziegler. But, you know, don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Liviu said...

Well, you deal in over the top claims, you gotta take them too.

This incidentally shows why having insulting reviews is pragmatically bad as it invites precisely these kinds of attacks; what's wrong with being polite in dismissing a book rather than invoking dog poop?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

This incidentally shows why having insulting reviews is pragmatically bad as it invites precisely these kinds of attacks

My reviewer made a strong claim and then backed it up with examples. You made a strong - and serious - accusation despite either being aware that the facts were against you, or not even bothering to check. How is that the same thing? Do you honestly expect me to treat you as an authority on ethical behavior after that sort of display?

Martin said...

I'm gobsmacked. Strange Horizons shouldn't publish negative reviews because it encourages you to tell lies about the magazine? Wow.

Liviu said...

Sorry I do not claim to be an authority on ethical behavior; my point was very simply - you indulge in nastiness and in hyperbola, you gotta take it too.

So take my statement as a bit hyperbolic like yours, backed for examples by the names I mentioned that got thrashed and somehow happen to be authors that do no fit into the pc/establishment places, while utterly similar (or worse and we can discuss that too btw if in the mood) books and authors (eg Sword of Fire and Sun which is on the same level with Theft orf Swords from quite a few points of view) get the plus treatment.

And you mentioned that your reviewer writes for as badge of honor; fine but again then do not cry when I use that in my rhetoric either....

You dish it, you take it but I see you want it both ways - you dish it, everyone else gotta take it; sorry that does not fly and as mentioned somewhere else, you are polite, I am polite, you are nasty, I am nasty - one reason reviews like this (Theft of Swords) are bad whatever your opinion of the book, is that they invite precisely the attacks they do (though my points about its wrongfulness or at best its mis-interpretation of the book) still stand too btw

The Reader said...

@ Abigail

Let’s be honest here that review was less of a review and more of a hatchet job. Ms. Bourke’s credentials as a reviewer aren't being attacked here, simply put her style of deconstructing a book is being highlighted.

Like Liviu said earlier, she takes part and parcel of the story and from it draws conclusions about the characters and overall story line. Granted she didn't enjoy the story, she could have said so in a much simpler way.

Michael J. Sullivan has written a medieval fantasy book in which the grammar isn't corresponding to Early Modern English, So? The book isn't set in some historical era, it is fiction. The author reserves the right to have some leeway with his "archaic grammar" in his story. The reviewer's background in Classics might hearken her to note them but for the average reader such a point is most likely not even registered.

Overall I'm not a regular visitor to SH, but I expect basic decency in any professional/semi-professional review site. If you don't like a book, state the reasons and do so without any condescension. Don't indulge in vituperative behavior because you have a soapbox of a sizeable audience, it showcases narrow mindedness rather than true genre criticism.


Eric M. Edwards said...

Everyone has the right to enjoy a book. Or find it inadequate.

A reviewer's job is do potentially both as a proxy, with even more rigor and thoroughness than someone just reading it for pleasure.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing in the SH review that isn't exactly this. And if you think somehow the tone or the phrasing used to denote the disappointment and dissatisfaction of the reviewer in this case are unprofessional, I suggest you check out the literary sections of The New York Times, The Guardian, or the Paris Review of Books.

Better still, Google up some old reviews from Gore Vidal or H. L. Mencken. Both extremely professional writers and critics, and whose stuff makes SH look like a gentle chiding.

One of the problems here is that most people making comments against the review, are I suspect, not at all familiar with professional book reviews or professional critics. The internet is awash with amateurs but very few of the former.

Little wonder in a blogsphere where positivism and gushing reviews especially of genre are the norm - and they are among fans and blogs such as this one far more so than the reverse - five star reviews given on Amazon like party favours, for books that are at best page turning commercial works and not of exactly age-defying brilliance - that people can be shocked by reading a negative review, however professional or no matter how well backed up by the critique it contains. But that's not SH or the reviewer's fault if this happens, but your own.

A lot of people keep trying to move the blame to some perceived "issue" with the reviewer - her education, her mental health, her sex, her previous background with genre. It's rather like watching people building sand castles while the tide is sweeping in, but more boring.

Again, no one would mind a divergent opinion on the book itself - but these attacks on the reviewer and SH only firm the belief of many of us who dwell, I suppose, on the fringe of the SFF community, that said community really can't take negative commentary. That despite all the eternal winging that "literature" doesn't take genre seriously, genre can't handle the normal forms of critique and review that the rest of writing is subject to.

Either way is fine but you can't demand both. Special treatment, softly softly we're just light entertainment (and even this is an art form, with good, middling, and god-awful examples), or we're just writing - full stop, with all the benefits and responsibilities.

I'd choose the former, but it seems like a lot of people would rather hide behind lowered expectations.

Eric M. Edwards said...

And above all, I take issue with the use of "dishonest review" and "dishonesty of the reviewer" being bandied about. It is infuriating and shows those throwing it around interwebs are not able to form even the most basic argument in their defense.

I'll return the favour. I say this is cowardly. Base. It shows an utter inability to engage with the criticism itself, so of course, you must try to smear the critic and their forum instead.

How "female" of the reviewer! How "queer" of her! What next, shall we say that she's being "-insert racial slur here-"? Or perhaps she's just a big fat liar? Does she have a weight problem, or just one with telling the truth? Really?

To suggest that a reviewer is being fake, dishonest, lying, is shameful indeed - much as if you'd made one of the accusations above. Far more so than any amount of snark or imagined vituperativeness.

Show me the dishonesty or slink off to the shadows where such cowards deserve to dwell.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I think it's very telling that you perceive this to be a matter of politeness and impoliteness, not truth and lies. What you're saying is basically, "I'm angry at you, therefore it's OK for me to spread lies about you" - lies that you have continued to spread in your latest comment despite having been called out on them.

I'm actually grateful to you for spelling this out so clearly, because it's crystalized something that's always bothered me about your comments in SH. You don't bother to engage with the arguments of reviews you disagree with because you don't care about the arguments. All you care about is tone. A negative opinion and a negative lie have exactly the same moral value to you.

So it's probably a good thing that you don't claim to be an expert on ethical behavior. But the thing is, politeness and ethics are linked to one another, and you can't very well expect me to take anything you say about politeness seriously when you obviously don't give a damn about ethics.

Liviu said...

Eric: I do not condone attacks based on sex, race, etc and i do not engage in them; the reviewer's words speak for themselves as to what her online persona; as for the oft cited Mencken, etc, the only thing I say, in the past it was easy for such like him to dish it and not have to take it, but today, you dish, you must take it.

I have been around since the newsgroups of the 90's and i know how easy is to descend into mud so I try to be polite, but Strange horizons started the mud with the paragraph I quoted; who in the world are you to claim "I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy"

Abigail: this is getting close to slander so beware of the thin line as I do not want to have to nuke the comments and be accused of censorship etc; I do not spread lies as I simply note my perception of what SH stands for - you can refute it sure, but you still did not explain how is that authors that were/are perceived as marginal (Mark Newton when he dared being a 20 something to have success, Neal Asher and his conservative views, JC Wright and his Catholic views, Michael Sullivan who dared to self publish and be successful) are trashed on your site. Coinicdence, maybe, but one has to wonder when the tone of this latest review is like that

I am happy to be shown the error of my ways but with deeds not with accusations.

And yes what i find offensive is the tone which basically throws the debate in the mud; you are civilized, I am civilized, but do not expect niceness in return for mud; you started it and now that you got taken to task you go even deeper into the mud; your choice again but keep in mind that mud sticks to everyone

Elfy said...

I've been interested in reading Sulivan's work for a while now and this was the first genuinely negative review I'd seen for it, so I read it largely because of that reason. It wasn't just that it was negative, constructive negative criticism is good for both reader and author, but this review had a nasty tone that I didn't like at all. I can see that some of her criticisms are valid, I've seen examples of the same sort of things that irritated her in other books, and they've annoyed me, too, but the overwhelming tone of the review seemed to set out to attack and insult both the author and anyone who read and admitted to enjoying the work. It hasn't put me off trying the Riyria chronicles either, mind you.

Martin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Liviu said...

Comment deleted for being not in accordance with our policies; no further comments on the issue will be allowed as this has degenerated.

Liviu said...

I will add an edit to the post and from then on I will disable comments; if anyone wants to pursue this further feel free to contact me through the blog email address

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