30 June 2005

A Perfect Example of Bad Reviewing

One of the problems in the SF field is that, in general, the reviewing is just so bad -- not negative, but cautious, general, fueled by hype, uncritical, and useless as anything other than a statement of, "I liked it," or "I didn't like it". There are certainly exceptions, and the problem is not limited to SF, but it is pervasive.*

When the Dark Cabal blog started out, I had hopes that the pseudonymous writers would use their pseudonymity to say things with some force, much as was done with Cheap Truth in the '80s. I'd hoped for some fireworks and bloodsport. Instead, the blog has been incredibly dull, and nothing has yet been said that justifies the writers hiding behind false names.

But I am grateful to one of their writers, who has taken up the ferocious name of Safe Light, for providing two paragraphs that are the epitome of reviewing at its worst, in a short post about Richard Bowes's story "There's a Hole in the City":
I find Bowes story affecting, but the fantastic element isn't the part that moved me most. I found it hard to read it as fiction -- it felt too much like an article or a blog entry. It felt too real.

In the end, I don't believe in Bowes' ghosts. But I do believe in his people, and in their pain and confusion and sense of being lost, but at least being lost together.
This is self-indulgent writing, not because of all the personal pronouns, but because none of the statements are supported with any sort of evidence, and so all we have here is a personal reaction that is completely and totally useless. Why should we care that Safe Light believed or didn't believe in anything in the story? The questions "Why?" and "How?" hover after every sentence in those paragraphs, and no answer is provided. Opinions are the least important part of any review -- the explanations of the opinions are what matter, because the explanations are what allow the review to become something other than a personal statement. A good reviewer is one who is thought-provoking even when the reader entirely disagrees with the opinions stated. Safe Light gives us nothing to agree or disagree with -- okay, so you "found it hard to read as fiction". So what? If this led to a discussion of what it is that makes us believe or not believe in something as fiction, well, that would be interesting. If it led to a discussion of why the reviewer finds it important to believe in fiction as fiction, that would be interesting. If it led to ... anything ... that would be at least a little bit more interesting than an empty proclamation of personal taste that masquerades as a meaningful statement.

*And before you start combing through things I've written to find passages that are cautious, general, fueld by hype, uncritical, and useless, let me just say that I'd be a fool to exempt myself. I keep thinking about reviewing because I keep trying to figure out better ways to write reviews, not because I want to hold anything of my own up as an example of perfection. Maybe in the future I'll analyze some of my own bad reviewing, which would only be fair.