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Strange Horizons

Wow, lots of blood spilt over this review, this reaction (supported here, the author himself reacting somewhat more mildly) and the reviewer's defence. I'm simply baffled by the fuss: I don't understand how anyone could have taken Morrison's speculation that reviewers are bribed to lie as anything other than hyperbole. If there have been muttered accusations round the blogosphere, or any part of fandom, to this effect then I missed them completely.

Anyway, that's beside the point I wanted to make, which is to respond to Nick Mamatas' renewed attack on Strange Horizons and its review policy, as personified by coalescent. (To whom, Happy Birthday!) To declare my own exposure here, I have had three reviews published on Strange Horizons myself, with a fourth in the works; which represents roughly 1% of all the books I have reviewed on-line. I have not been paid for any of them (indeed, did not even get review copies for all of them).

I have to say that my experience of Strange Horizons' editing process is that they are more thorough than any other on-line publication outfit I have been associated with, with the sole exception of my own current employers. Deadlines are serious; feedback is meticulous and timely; and thought is given to which reviews are published when. So in terms of the mechanics of the reviewing process, and given that few of the reviewers are being paid (despite rumours to the contrary), I give them pretty close to top marks for professionalism and for effort in editing.

As for content: it seems to me that the criticisms I've seen directed at Strange Horizons' reviews are on the whole not very substantial. I wrote about this before, but just to condense the argument: I am not sure where those who want to see better reviews are going to find them, and from reading their complaints I don't have a good idea of what they are looking for in a review anyway. I like the fact that Strange Horizons encourages its reviewrs to write entertainingly, even if this means they sometimes raise hackles - indeed, especially if this means they sometimes raise hackles.

I subscribe to sh_reviews, and suggest that you do so too, if you haven't already.

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( 46 comments — Leave a comment )
grahamsleight
Jun. 27th, 2006 03:59 pm (UTC)
I have to say that my experience of Strange Horizons' editing process is that they are more thorough than any other on-line publication outfit I have been associated with, with the sole exception of my own current employers. Deadlines are serious; feedback is meticulous and timely; and thought is given to which reviews are published when. So in terms of the professinal mechanics of the reviewing process, and given that few of the reviewers are being paid (despite rumours to the contrary), I give them pretty close to top marks for professionalism and for effort in editing.

Given similar declarations of interest to yours - and the obvious caveat that I don't know what your employers are like! - I agree with every word of this.
swisstone
Jun. 27th, 2006 04:26 pm (UTC)
I find it interesting when Lynch sums up the offending phrase in Morrison's review as "Which is to say: 'When I don't like something popular, I wonder what the hell is wrong with everyone else'" (correct - that's exactly what she's saying), and then describes such an attitude as "paranoid, rude, and goofy". Which may be true (though I think 'arrogant' is a better description), but everybody in the world thinks like that about something. With me it's the inexplicable popularity of the works of Stephen Donaldson, Oasis, and the last season of Angel.

And I rather think the assumption that if you are out of step with the popular mood you must consider that you are wrong and they are right is potentially a greater threat to reviewing than any hyperbolic suggestion that a bunch of people who liked a particular work are on a retainer, or on crack, or whatever. Because this undermines the reviewer's belief in the rightness of his own judgments. And whilst one should always be prepared to re-examine one's own critical views, they should not be subject to democratic overthrow. Because maybe it'll turn out that you were right after all.

As Alexei Sayle so rightly said, "They laughed at Arthur Askey, but history has proved them wrong."
nwhyte
Jun. 27th, 2006 04:35 pm (UTC)
Yep. Myself, I can't stand the works of Catherine Asaro, C.J. Cherryh, or Robert J. Sawyer; but it doesn't stop them winning awards!
(no subject) - blue_condition - Jun. 27th, 2006 07:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - scott_lynch - Jun. 28th, 2006 10:22 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nwhyte - Jun. 28th, 2006 10:27 am (UTC) - Expand
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i_ate_my_crusts
Jun. 28th, 2006 12:18 am (UTC)
And I rather think the assumption that if you are out of step with the popular mood you must consider that you are wrong and they are right is potentially a greater threat to reviewing than any hyperbolic suggestion that a bunch of people who liked a particular work are on a retainer, or on crack, or whatever. Because this undermines the reviewer's belief in the rightness of his own judgments. And whilst one should always be prepared to re-examine one's own critical views, they should not be subject to democratic overthrow. Because maybe it'll turn out that you were right after all.

That's interesting, and yet almost the opposite to my personal thoughts on the matter. If I don't like J_Random_Popular_Work I will assume that I am wrong, for certain values of wrong.

That is to say, I will assume that many, many people seeing value in a book means that there is value in it. That I don't see the value means that I have missed as aspect, as a reviewer. It doesn't make my dislike of the book incorrect, or my judgement of its value incorrect -- after all, I am a reader, and I believe that where I have a reaction to a work, others will also, so expressing my opinion even where it goes against the grain is therefore important and valuable -- but it does mean that I need to assess what value others are seeing in it, and describe what makes *me* different, so that other readers who share my difference can identify themselves, and know whether they too will fall against the grain.

I don't believe that simply reacting against the hype is valuable if it doesn't inform the reader of the review which side of the line they will fall on.
(no subject) - i_ate_my_crusts - Jun. 28th, 2006 04:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nwhyte - Jun. 28th, 2006 10:34 am (UTC) - Expand
pgmcc
Jun. 28th, 2006 08:54 am (UTC)
the inexplicable popularity of the works of Stephen Donaldson,

I can't agree more. I am embaressed to say that I read 6 of his novels, two trilogies worth (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), not enjoying it one iota. I felt I had to finish the set.

It cured me of finishing books I don't enjoy. From that day onwards, if I find myself reading a book that is not interesting me, I just throw it away. I suppose I have to thank Stephen Donaldson for that lesson.
(no subject) - talvalin - Jun. 30th, 2006 03:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
luned
Jun. 27th, 2006 05:15 pm (UTC)
I've seen this more in amateur romance genre journalism than I have in sff; this being the worry that "omg the author sent me a review copy, this means I need to say something nice about it or I won't get any more free books."

So you get what is derisively termed the "fangirl review"--all hype and fluff, no actual criticism.
blue_condition
Jun. 27th, 2006 07:32 pm (UTC)
You're going to get that in a lot of fandom situations though, aren't you? -- people who fele the urge to say something nice about everything. I post a lot of book reviews to a forum on the history of motor racing (somewhat akin to fandom in its microcosmic aspects - a lot of the guys whose books line my shelves are participants) and I'm prepared to say that something's overpriced, tedious crap with no new research, bad pictures, awful production values and appalling use of English -- which means that if I say something's good, people tend to believe me!

Then again, I buy books on my own coin, so I'm unbiased ;)

(no subject) - luned - Jun. 27th, 2006 08:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - i_ate_my_crusts - Jun. 28th, 2006 12:14 am (UTC) - Expand
matgb
Jun. 27th, 2006 07:04 pm (UTC)
OH, drama! I like drama. Especially when it's people being petty, missing points and inflating small things into huge issues.

Hype is distrusted, so a reviewer says she wonders if the hype may be paid for, and people start bitching. I read the comment as a fairly witty aside myself, ah well.
luned
Jun. 27th, 2006 08:09 pm (UTC)
And of course hype is distrusted. Is it genuine enthusiasm, or is it another case of (as MetaFilter users term it) Pepsi Blue?
(no subject) - matgb - Jun. 27th, 2006 08:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
blue_condition
Jun. 27th, 2006 07:27 pm (UTC)
At the height of the long wet summer of the Seventy-Seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy.

Flamin' Nora. If that's not a natural Bulwer-Lytton winner, I don't know what is.
seawasp
Jun. 27th, 2006 07:28 pm (UTC)
Well, for my part...
... the bit about being bribed seemed to me to be a humorous joke, the same as many people watching, say, "Highlander 2" and asking "what gun did they have to Sean Connery's head"? Clearly no one actually threatened Mr. Connery with firearms to participate in that turkey. The reaction I'm seeing in this case is really quite amusingly over-the-top.
nihilistic_kid
Jul. 3rd, 2006 04:40 am (UTC)
I don't understand how anyone could have taken Morrison's speculation that reviewers are bribed to lie as anything other than hyperbole.

The main reason I don't take it as hyperbole is because of her very defensive post on the subject, where she attempted to stitch together a defense of the claim by pointing to faux shelf-talkers, logrolling blurbs, and viral marketing campaigns. Of course, she didn't have any evidence of paid-for reviews (though she — in a burst of intellectual dishonesty — claimed that shelf-talkers were reviews) but she tried to make the charge stick anyway.

By the by, I've mentioned Morrison's post several times in response to the "It's hyperbole!" claim, and most of the rejoinders have been a mere pregnant pause, followed by a repetition of the "It's hyperbole!" claim somewhere else. Real pro, that is.

As far as this:

To declare my own exposure here, I have had three reviews published on Strange Horizons myself, with a fourth in the works; which represents roughly 1% of all the books I have reviewed on-line. I have not been paid for any of them (indeed, did not even get review copies for all of them).

I have to say that my experience of Strange Horizons' editing process is that they are more thorough than any other on-line publication outfit I have been associated with, with the sole exception of my own current employers.

So basically, given your vast experience, of which 0% involves working with professional publications, you feel that SH is the most professional of these non-professional publications? Is that right?

As far as what kind of reviews I might want: I want the sort of well-written engaging reviews that one gets from most book pages and book reviews. I've reviewed books for professional publications (Village Voice, Spex, Artbyte) and have written about writing, reading, and publishing in general for professional publications (the above, plus Poets & Writers, Pages, The Writer, Silicon Alley Reporter) and – to be perfectly blunt — had I handed in a piece like Morrison's, it would have been killed, and I would have found it very difficult to get subequent queries taken at all seriously by the editors. Your defense of it just means that you haven't taken the time yourself to familiarize yourself with the professional standards of reviewing.

nwhyte
Jul. 3rd, 2006 01:29 pm (UTC)
The main reason I don't take it as hyperbole is because of her very defensive post on the subject

- which included the explicit statement:
Do I literally think that prominent critics were bribed to say nice things about it? No, of course not.
I'm frankly astonished that you cannot read that as a clear statement that the remark about reviewers being bribed is hyperbole. It doesn't say much about your reading comprehension.

I would take this a lot more seriously if I thought that many people are in fact darkly muttering behind their hands that all reviewers are bribed. But they are not.

given your vast experience, of which 0% involves working with professional publications

As a matter of fact, I have some experience of working with professional publications, starting with my own employers (as you would have realised if you had bothered to read what I actually wrote). We publish dozens of reports every year, which are edited meticulously and thoroughly in-house, a process with which I am very closely engaged. Some people seem to think we do a decent job.

I have also published an academic monograph myself, co-edited another book of essays and co-authored a less academic volume; I have had a number of articles published both in on-line media and in the international press.

Not a lot of my professionally published output has been book reviews, though my livejournal makes up for that deficiency (if it is a deficiency). However I've had a number also on Infinity Plus, as well as for more work-related reasons on the Ethnic Conflict Research Digest, and I believe I also have a review in the current Survival, though I haven't seen it.

So I think I do have some experience with professional publications. I admit that I don't have any experience with professional on-line book reviewing, and that not much of my professional writing experience in general has related to reviewing at all, but I like to think that my other experience with the publication process may give me some standing in judging whether or not someone's approach is professional or not.

Your inability to parse correctly my own statements about my experience of professional publications reinforces the impression I had already formed about your reading comprehension.

I want the sort of well-written engaging reviews that one gets from most book pages and book reviews

So do I. I get them in Strange Horizons, among other places. Your taste obviously differs, and that's all there is to it.
(no subject) - nihilistic_kid - Jul. 3rd, 2006 01:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
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rosefox
Sep. 1st, 2011 07:16 pm (UTC)
I know this entry is eons old. Do you mind if I point people to it while discussing the current situation?
nwhyte
Sep. 1st, 2011 07:18 pm (UTC)
Be my guest.
(no subject) - rosefox - Sep. 1st, 2011 07:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
( 46 comments — Leave a comment )

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