Sigh

This is something of a sidebar from the ongoing discussion about The Thirteenth Child (and, at this point, the discussion about the discussion about The Thirteenth Child), but it’s one that I am bothered by, for what I am sure will be obvious reasons:

I read this book awhile back, because I was given an ARC of it by someone I’ll simply refer to as Prominent SF Magazine Editor; I was considering a gig as a reviewer for him. (I ended up deciding against this for brand management reasons — hard to honestly critique the novels of established authors when you’ve got a book coming out in the same genre yourself; there’s a conflict of interest/competition issue there, I think. Maybe when I’m established myself, I can do it? I don’t know.) But I had to call him and warn him: the review would not be positive. I read the novel with interest, but increasing frustration as the book’s problems became clear (I had no warning that this was an AU that erased Native Americans [and Latinos, though that’s fallout of the NA erasure]). The book has other problems besides this. By the end of the book I was angry, and since the Prominent SF Magazine had a policy of “mostly positive reviews”, that wasn’t going to happen.

We’ve been here before with regard to the insidiousness of “mostly positive” reviews, but this seemed worth pulling out as an example where the harm caused by the policy is more obvious than usual. It does a disservice both to readers who might have seen the review and now will not, and to the field of sf reviewing and criticism as a whole, for which full and honest discussion must be a priority; I hope, though I accept it is likely in vain, that Prominent SF Magazine Editor feels a mite embarrassed by their reviews policy today. That the writer in question has subsequently decided not to review at all, at this stage in their career, also makes me sad — it impoverishes the dialogue, in more ways than one — but it is understandable.

Posted in Reviewing, SF. Tags: , . 50 Comments »

50 Responses to “Sigh”

  1. Jonathan M Says:

    “Brand management reasons”? Fucking hell. Who said that?

    Whatever happened to writing with fire in your belly? To sacrificing sacred cows and cooking them on the bridges you have burned? What about beauty? What about truth? Christ… no wonder less and less people are reading genre if the new crop of authors have their head filled with ‘brand management’ issues.

    It isn’t only limited to authors though. I heard a rumour about a certain British SF critic having a gig as a copy-editor at a certain British SF publishing house. A gig which lead him to give a glowing review to a book he had in fact previously worked on.

    I won’t name names as I heard this from a third party and said third party might well have axes to grind or just be flat out wrong but I think the culture of people being ‘on the make’ and wanting to ‘get ahead’ is undeniably having an effect upon the climate of discourse.

  2. Jonathan M Says:

    Actually, having googled a bit, I see that it is in fact entirely true.

  3. Graham Says:

    It isn’t only limited to authors though. I heard a rumour about a certain British SF critic having a gig as a copy-editor at a certain British SF publishing house. A gig which lead him to give a glowing review to a book he had in fact previously worked on.

    Jonathan: there are relatively few people in the pool of British sf critics, and fewer still who do copy-editing work (not including me, I have to say) so this is coming fairly close to naming names anyway. I haven’t gone and started digging for reviews of Books X, Y, Z by Persons A, B, C because I don’t think that’d be helpful. In any case the core of your argument against this person is that of presumed causality (they had a relationship with the publisher about this book, and therefore their review wasn’t an unbiassed opinion), and it’d be difficult to judge that sort of intent issue fairly even if we did have the review in hand and knew the extent of the reviewer’s work on the book.

    That said, I do pretty much agree with your core point: if there is an issue that might cause a reviewer to be (or be seen to be) less than honest, they should declare it. (I sometimes get mocked by people round these parts for putting in a parenthetical “Declaration of interest: Jonathan McAlmont once bought me a drink” or equivalent at the start of my reviews, but I think there are worse things to be guilty of. )

    “Brand management reasons”? Fucking hell. Who said that? […] I think the culture of people being ‘on the make’ and wanting to ‘get ahead’ is undeniably having an effect upon the climate of discourse.

    I know I’m picking quotes there from the opposite end of your comment, but I really don’t buy the implicit narrative there that it didn’t used to be like this in the olden days, and that a specific new culture is coming in that’s corrupting things. It may be new that it’s couched in terms of “brand management” – and yes, that’s a phrase that sounds dreadful to me too – but the idea of writers having worldly ambitions really is not new, and it often does co-exist with the production of worthwhile work.

  4. Adam Roberts Says:

    Graham’s right. SF, especially UK SF, is a small world. Inevitably reviewers are going to end up reviewing books by people they know, possibly even people they like. ‘Full disclosure: X is a friend of mine’ is the very least of the Common Reader’s entitlements in this situation. Reviews are there, in the first instance, for the utility of readers, whose hard-earned money is in effect being solicited: not for the buffing of authorial egos, or the shoring up of writer-reviewer friendships or anything like that.

    Talking of reviews, here’s one:

    Jonathan M’s latest Torque Control comment was published today. Fans of M’s commenting style know what to expect — the passion, the engagement — all delivered with the formal compactness and rhetorical flourish for which M is renowned. The only negative criticisms this reviewer has to make are that he rather plays peek-a-boo with the reader over the accusations contained within the comment, and that he writes “…no wonder less and less people are reading genre …” when he means fewer and fewer.

  5. Martin Says:

    I sometimes get mocked by people round these parts for putting in a parenthetical “Declaration of interest: Jonathan McAlmont once bought me a drink” or equivalent at the start of my reviews,

    Full disclosure: Graham is talking about me.

  6. Graham Says:

    Martin: not just you…

  7. Jonathan M Says:

    Graham — I haven’t read the book and I don’t know the extent to which the critic was involved in the publishing process (though it was clearly enough that they have claimed credit for it). I am not really making a specific claim of bias or of corruption but I do think that it is a conflict of interest and it is the kind of thing that critics should be wary of and reviews editors definitely should be wary of. Particularly when said publication did once make a big deal about how objective their reviews were.

    I’m also aware that my tolerance level for this type of stuff is a lot lower than most people’s. I think that critics should be transparent about external influences and that they should steer clear of these kinds of conflict of interest. My main concern is the integrity of the reviewing process. People value reviews in so far as they think that they’re honest and, where possible, objective.

    These kinds of conflict of interest along with venues re-writing or refusing to publish negative reviews and people pulling their punches all debase the reviewing process and make it seem more and more indistinguishable from the next fanboy ranting on the internet.

    As critics we all suffer from this debasement and as fans we do too. As a result, I tend to take quite a hard line on what I see as low-level corruption. Obviously, one can draw the line in ridiculous places (buying someone a drink is not going to induce bias) but I don’t think that means that a line should not be drawn.

    As for your second point, I never meant to imply that there was a moral golden age of artistic independence (though I can see why you’d infer that from what I wrote). I was trying to voice how depressing I found it that modern authors refused to even pay lip service to the ideals of artistic independence. Whether or not they actually have it is a moot point but I do find it worrying that people are not only open about sacrificing their independence to expediency but they also justify said expediency in terms that suggest that elements of business speak have been internalised.

    I don’t expect authors to be these Ian MacKaye-like paragons of virtue living in the forest off of old bits of fruit but I can definitely live without them sounding like a contestant on The Apprentice :-)

  8. Paul Kincaid Says:

    Whatever happened to Clute’s principle of Excessive Candor?

    I don’t copy-edit (I wouldn’t know how) so I know the reference isn’t to me. Other than that, I’m not sure I want to know. But I do believe that the only valid review has got to be honest, free of the influence of friendship, bribery or what have you. Involvement in the process of a book, in whatever degree, can preclude the dispassionate judgement that honesty demands. In such circumstances, at the very least, involvement needs to be acknowledged. If it isn’t acknowledged, if a reviewer pretends dispassion for a book in which they have been involved, then the review is essentially a lie.

    As to the original point about negative reviews: who is to say what is a negative review? On the assumption that there is no such thing as a perfect book (I’ve never encountered one) then there can be no justified review that consists entirely of praise. So exactly what degree of criticism does it take for the review to be classed as negative?

  9. Jonathan M Says:

    Adam — Exactly. There’s a duty to the people who read the stuff. I think that in this post-publishing-space-scarcity age of not paying reviewers, it’s easy to forget that reviewing does exist for the community. Not just the reputations of the critics and the authors.

    And it’s nice to receive a review. I could acquire a taste for it.

    I know I’m being a tease… I am still thinking about whether or not to ‘out’ the person I have in mind.

  10. Martin Wisse Says:

    Name names or retract.

    Don’t put the boot into somebody else for using brand management, insinuate a certain sf reviewer is less than honest and then get all coy about naming names.

    Put up or shut up.

  11. Andy Remic Says:

    An interesting discussion, no less; Jonathan is of course talking about Saxon Bullock, erstwhile SFX reviewer, who on his website claims to have copy-edited Neal Asher’s Shadow of the Scorpion, and then reviewed it in SFX with a (cough) 5 star rating. Unethical? Surely not!!

  12. Farah Says:

    As far as I understand it, the Prominent Magazine has a policy of “no ho-hum” reviews. An actual critique of a book is not unwelcome.

  13. Martin Says:

    Andy, thank you for putting me out of my misery and making this a conversation about specifics rather than coy gossip. Can you do the same for the Prominent SF Magazine Editor since no-one else appears to be about to?

  14. Jonathan M Says:

    And here is what I found online when googling this morning –

    Saxon’s CV :

    http://www.saxonbullock.com/cv.htm

    “Recent Copy-Editing Projects:
    Shadow of the Scorpion by Neal Asher (Pan Macmillan)”

    SFX don’t have the review online, but Neal Asher’s blog has a quote from the review and thanks from the author :

    http://theskinner.blogspot.com/2009/04/shadow-reviews.html

    “In the Friday 1st of May issue of SFX the book is five star rated and ‘SFX Recommends’. Saxon Bullock, the reviewer says of it: Asking difficult questions while delivering plenty of full-tilt adventure and widescreen action, this is top-notch stuff from an author well and truly at the top of his game.

    Thanks guys!

    Now you’d think that all this praise would make me big-headed … and you’d probably be right!”

    So Saxon worked on the copy-editing of Shadow of the Scorpion and then gave it a wholesome thumbs up; A 5 star rating for a book that he worked on himself.

    Some might argue that working as a copy-editor for a particular publishing house would mean that you’d have a conflict of interest any time you reviewed their work. I’m on the fence on that particular matter and think it is a moral quandary that reasonable people can differ over. However, I do think it is a conflict of interest to work on the copy-editing of a particular book and then jump the fence and give reviews likely to increase sales of said title.

    I also think it reflects quite poorly on SFX. One of the last issues I read was issue 158 (July 2007) and in that they had something called the “SFX Pledge” by which they promised that their reviews would be unaffected by hype. They might want to think about a new pledge whereby people involved in the editing of books are not then allowed to review them.

    Hopefully there’s an innocent excuse for this but it does look as though Saxon has done something quite cheeky and arguably unethical.

  15. Andy Remic Says:

    Alas, Martin, no idea who said Prominent Magazine SF Editor is; if I did, I would spill the beans, for I have a big mouth coupled with too much whiskey (a trait of many authors, I think, haha).

    With regards Saxon; he’s a nice guy, I like him (although he can’t dance!) but surely if one is to be a reviewer, then one seeks to be as objective as possible? Isn’t that the whole point? I asked Saxon about this incident, and he didn’t seem to think there was a problem………

    IN SFX’s defence, maybe then never pieced together the 2+2? But then, maybe they did… which then highlights Jonathan’s point about the SFX pledge (if such a pledge is humanly possible). Surely all a critic can do is seek to be as objective as possible- these guys gain my respect :-)

    Sorry Saxon. You don’t quite hit that mark just yet.

  16. Graham Sleight Says:

    Can I suggest that a) it’d be a good idea to let Saxon give his side of all this before convicting him, and b) if he did explain the connection to SFX and they said Never mind, we’re fine with that, that’s a very different case to him not disclosing it.

  17. Graham Sleight Says:

    (Sorry, posted the above before seeing Andy R’s comment, which covers some of the same ground.)

  18. Ted Says:

    Also note that it’s possible to copy-edit a novel and hate it, so having copy-edited a novel doesn’t mean a reviewer is being insincere in his/her praise. Disclosure of the relationship would be useful, though.

    (It might be interesting to read a negative review of a novel by someone who had copy-edited it, but I doubt we’ll see one.)

  19. Graham Sleight Says:

    Ted: yes – or indeed proofreading. See the latter half of this issue of Dave Langford’s Cloud Chamber

  20. Andy Remic Says:

    Interesting points; I agree, it’s good to get Saxon in on this for defense-before-the-witch-burning begins. And yeah, to copy-edit a novel doesn’t mean one necessarily hates it; it could be a great work of liter”art”ure(ask my copy-editors, ho ho) but then to take money for an independant “objective” review seems… a bit naughty — yes? But then, we could always integrate a reviewing system where $=commentary. I know I’d pay a few dollars more to avoid some of the savage kickings I’ve had, ha! (Saxon? How much, mate?).

  21. Andy Remic Says:

    Have buzzed Saxon to let him know he’s being, err, discussed. His viewpoint would be valuable on this :-)

  22. Jonathan M Says:

    Oh absolutely. I don’t think that this does very much other than raise a question mark about the workings of the reviewing process involving a magazine, a publisher and someone who is an employee of both.

    I would, of course, completely welcome Saxon clearing all of this up and setting my mind to rest in the process. As I said, I’m sure there’s an innocent explanation.

    Graham’s also right about the difference between Saxon not telling SFX about his relationship with the book and SFX not caring either way. I did drop the editor or SFX a line and asked if he wanted to comment.

  23. Simon Says:

    Jonathan:

    ‘I’m also aware that my tolerance level for this type of stuff is a lot lower than most people’s.’

    But not as low as your understanding of the publishing process.

    Saxon copy-edited Shadow of the Scorpion. I’ll repeat that, for the slow-of-understanding: He copy-edited it.

    That means, he corrected spelling, punctuation, line-break, run-on mistakes, etc. He had no involvement in the story at all. Nothing. He took the US version (published by Nightshade last year, none of the expert panel of judges here seemed to have noticed that rather obvious fact) and would have compared it to the UK first pass proofs, checking to see if errors had crept in, tidying any that may have already existed.

    That’s what copy-editors do. They’re not structural/creative editors. They check the copy. Saxon? His creative input was, therefore, zero.

    And it seems at the end of what is, after all, a very careful read – he liked it, had a passion for it, and wanted to say so.

    Is it really a terrible crime to be keen to tell others you liked a book you’ve read? And it’s hardly a conspiracy of silence – since Saxon himself seems to have said he was the copy-editor on his own CV! Freely available, as some have pointed out, online, from, er, Saxon.

    Yes, he’s quite the Master of Shadows.

    I don’t know what he was paid for SotS – probably something around £200, if that. He’s a freelancer – not, as some have stated, an ’employee’ of the publisher. And he probably got thirty/forty quid from SFX for the review.

    And he’s probably got £200 here and (in a good month) £400 there for copy-editing other novels – but he doesn’t seem to have reviewed them. Shall we google all his reviews (of which there are many) and see how many he ‘worked’ on? I can’t be bothered – but I suspect the answer is ‘1’.

    Lordy. I hope, in these times when money’s a bit tight for freelancers, that he thinks the money earnt from Scorpion was worth a discussion that smacks of, it shames me to say, a bit of playground jealousy.

  24. Paul Cornell Says:

    I agree with what Simon says. (Now, if he says to put my hands on my head, I’ll do that too.) If Saxon has copy edited several books, I should think it’d be easy to find one he’s then given a bad review to. Or, if he believes that, having worked for a publisher, he shouldn’t then be negative about them, I’m sure there’ll be many about which he’s kept silent. (I tend to only review now, even in blog comments, if I feel real positive about something, because I regard authors in general as peers.) This whole conversation seems to regard Saxon (and SFX) as ‘those scary and suspicious things way over there’. Which makes me sigh and roll my eyes a bit. This is the internet: everyone’s sitting in the seat beside you.

  25. Paul Kincaid Says:

    Simon, what you describe is proofreading, not copy-editing. Copy editing involves more structural issues like consistency, and can indeed have an effect upon the shape and character of the fiction.

    And I believe that, whether you love or hate a book is irrelevant, reviewing a book upon which you have worked is a conflict of interest. I know a number of people who copy edit and proof read, and who also review. And those I know have an absolute iron rule that they will not review any book they have worked upon, because that way lies dishonesty.

  26. Jonathan M Says:

    I fully accept that I’m a bore on the issue of reviewer probity but I think that reviewers owe it to their audience to be completely honest and objective. They need to not only cut through the hype and the vested interests but also to be seen to be doing exactly that.

    Conflicts of interest only make it harder for reviewers to be brutally honest when they need to be and I don’t understand why one would put oneself in a position whereby one might be forced to chose between conflicting interests. There are so many books being published at the moment, surely it is a simple matter to say to one’s reviews editor “actually no, I worked on book A, I’d rather review book B”?

  27. Niall Says:

    This whole conversation seems to regard Saxon (and SFX) as ‘those scary and suspicious things way over there’.

    Hey, some of my best friends write for SFX!

    For the record, I think it’s a little cheeky, but in terms of its potentially distorting effect on sf reviewing, I find it rather less troubling than the topic of the original post.

  28. Liz Says:

    I agree with Paul on this one – I feel that copy-editing a manuscript is a conflict of interest and you shouldn’t review it. If you don’t feel it’s a conflict, then it’s easy enough to disclose it at the beginning of your review – those who don’t care will skip past, those who do feel there’s a conflict will know about it and can decide what they think. I don’t think there is a “conspiracy of silence”, but I would like to see it noted in a more direct way than on the editor’s CV. I also accept that I and the rest of the commenters on this thread are probably out to one extreme of what we think reviewers should disclose.

  29. Saxon Bullock Says:

    It may be true that ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’, but right now I have to admit I’d be happy with the latter option.

    I’m not very comfortable to suddenly find myself the subject of net gossip (it doesn’t exactly happen very often), but I’d like to take this opportunity to put the facts straight, as if anyone’s going to get worked up over anything, I’d rather they were getting worked up over the truth.

    Is it true that I worked as a freelance copy-editor on the book ‘Shadow of the Scorpion’ by Neal Asher? Yes it is (and the details of that work are on my CV on my website). Is it true that I also later wrote a five-star review of ‘Shadow of the Scorpion’ for SFX magazine? Yes it is. Did I make SFX aware of that fact at the time? No, I didn’t. At that time, I let the reviews editor know that I’d received an advance copy, but I didn’t explain the circumstances of how I’d come to read it. Was it particularly wise to do this (especially since I’d put the copy-editing work on my CV), and wasn’t doing the review something of a conflict of interest? Well… the respective answers to those are no and yes. There’s no real point in arguing otherwise. Did this fall into what in the discussion above is referred to as ‘cheeky’ behaviour? Well, yes.

    But first of all, if there’s any finger-pointing to be done, then point your fingers at me. There was no conspiracy or chain of circumstance – this was nothing to do with anyone at Macmillan or anyone at SFX. I was the only person involved in this. And the idea that this could end up causing awkwardness or embarrassment for anyone who I’ve done work for has already caused me enough stress and upset to wish that I’d never done the review in the first place (and considering I earned only £40 for it, I’d currently gladly sacrifice that amount of money if it could mean that this whole mess had never happened). The reason why it happened is, to be honest, that the last six to nine months have been a very turbulent time for me both professionally and personally (anyone who’s interested is more than welcome to look at my Livejournal entries from September 2008 onwards). I’m currently in a situation where I’m existing on a very small amount of money, and at the point in time that the review in question happened, I made the decision to do it simply because (a) it was a book I had a strong opinion on, and (b) it was a way to earn a little more money, and make it a little more certain that I’d be able to keep myself financially afloat, pay the rent and be able to eat. There was no agenda, no thought of “Hmm, I really should give this a good review so that my paymasters at Macmillan are happy!”

    Existing as a freelancer isn’t easy, particularly when your speciality is writing about science fiction and there aren’t exactly many paying gigs around. And also, for all the cries of ‘Ethics’ that this subject seems to have brought up, there are an awful lot of grey areas that I’ve encountered during my time as a freelance reviewer where the line between what’s ‘right’ and what you need to do in order to earn money can sometimes be decidedly hazy. Plus, when you start out as a Freelancer there’s nobody on hand to pass you a copy of “The Big Book of Freelancer Ethics” so you can find out what’s correct and what’s incorrect. It can be both bewildering and terrifying to try to work out what’s the right thing and what’s the wrong thing to do, especially when the wrong decision could potentially cost you money in a business where money is in desperately short supply. Sometimes it simply comes down to a process of trial and error – and sometimes, you simply have to go ahead and do something, and hope it turns out alright in the end.

    And also, I feel I need to clarify exactly what ‘copy-editing’ meant in this case. The entry from Simon above is completely correct – the work I did on ‘Shadow of the Scorpion’ was essentially dealing with the mechanics of the language and the grammar, and nothing more. Yes, there are different levels of copy-editing (depending on what state the manuscript is in) and it’s a process that can sometimes have a very significant effect on a book, but in this case the manuscript was already in very good shape (Neal Asher is, to be honest, a writer who knows what he’s doing), so the copy-editing work was, in essence, the kind of editing, changes and thorough consistency checks that have to happen with virtually any book before it goes into publication. I had absolutely no creative effect or influence on the book whatsoever – if I sat down with a finished copy, I couldn’t in any way point to a particular change or page and say “I did that bit”. What I did was the literary equivalent of tightening the screws, changing the oil, checking the spark plugs and giving the engine a thorough polish – and it’s work that essentially any copy-editor worth his salt would have done. At its heart, the book was already impressive before I worked on it, and I still regard it as a very strong and well-written example of its type.

    I also want to make it clear that while there’s lots of talk above about whether this violates the ‘SFX Pledge’, it doesn’t. The circumstances may be questionable, but there was no deliberate attempt to ‘hype’ the book, and no agenda. In the seven years I’ve been writing for SFX, they’ve never asked me to put down anything other than my honest opinion about whether I loved a book, film or DVD, or absolutely hated it, and they’ve never asked me to change a star rating so that it’s more favourable. One of the main reasons why I went ahead with the ‘Shadow of the Scorpion’ review was that (whether anyone reading this discussion believes it or not), I felt I was able to approach the review like any other, and give an honest and objective view on the book. And if that’s been tarnished by the circumstances behind me doing the review, then that’s my fault and nobody else’s.

    So I apologise for the circumstances surrounding the review. It was basically a blunder, something that if I’d been more sensible I wouldn’t have done (especially considering how much embarrassment and stress this is currently causing me). I’ve been moving more into publishing-based work over the last twelve months, and maybe it’s possible that this sort of clash of interests with my work on SFX was going to happen sooner or later, but this was genuinely just an example of going ahead, doing something, and then feeling somewhat foolish and idiotic for having done it some time afterwards. Nothing more.

    And while I apologise for the circumstances surrounding the review, I’m not apologising for the review itself. I still stand by my opinion on ‘Shadow of the Scorpion’, as I stand by all the reviews I’ve written, whether they were positive or negative. You can think what you like about me as a person, and the circumstances surrounding the review, but the review itself is what I would have written whatever had happened, and that also stands for all of my review work.

  30. Paul Kincaid Says:

    Niall, I think Saxon’s behaviour is more than ‘cheeky’, there’s a fundamental issue of trust that is being undermined.

    As for the original issue, I find the passage quoted strange and disturbing for many reasons:

    ‘I was considering a gig as a reviewer for him’ – that betokens a whole different attitude towards reviewing than anything I’ve experienced.

    To think there’s a conflict of interest because you have a book coming out in the same genre? Has this person actually read any reviews?

    By the end of this passage it is clear that the person doesn’t want to write the review because she is going to have to be highly critical of the book (and critical for reasons that seem to me, from the outside, to be extraneous to the actual quality or otherwise of the text). In these circumstances, the apparent positive reviews only rule seems more like an excuse for not doing the review than anything else.

    For the record I think, as I have said many times before, that any positive reviews only rule is narrow, short-sighted, stupid and ultimately meaningless. At the same time, I cannot mourn the loss of this person as a reviewer, and I really don’t feel that the discussion of sf is diminished one iota by any of this.

    So, in contrast to you, I feel that the putative dishonesty of one actual reviewer is a far more troubling issue.

  31. Niall Says:

    (and critical for reasons that seem to me, from the outside, to be extraneous to the actual quality or otherwise of the text).

    I’m really not sure what you mean by this, I’m afraid. Have you read the discussion of The Thirteenth Child at Tor.com? There are some fairly clear explanations of why the handling of the worldbuilding is fundamental to a consideration of “the quality or otherwise of the text”.

    the apparent positive reviews only rule seems more like an excuse for not doing the review than anything else.

    Except that — and to be fair I didn’t quote this bit, but if you click through you’ll see it — they did write up their thoughts, albeit informally, and post them on Amazon.

  32. Graham Says:

    I don’t know about anyone else, but Saxon’s post seems to me a pretty comprehensive account/answer/apology, and I hope that if I were in his position in his position I’d feel able to set out the story so fully.

    A serious point to take forward. Saxon says:

    And also, for all the cries of ‘Ethics’ that this subject seems to have brought up, there are an awful lot of grey areas that I’ve encountered during my time as a freelance reviewer.

    I really do agree with this. There have been so many situations I’ve run into over the last few years that are ethical in a way that no set of rules could govern. Is it ethical to review a book by X if I know and enjoy their work but have stayed at their home (and may do so again)? If I know that Y should have disclosed an interest when submitting that favourable review, but they’re not willing to, and explaining why to their editor would violate a confidence, should I do so? If I saw book Z in manuscript and commented on it as a favour, should I recuse myself from reviewing it, recommending it for reading lists, or discussing it if it’s eligible for a given award I’m involved with? (Let alone all the cases I can’t talk about even if I did file off the serial numbers.)

  33. Paul Kincaid Says:

    There are some fairly clear explanations of why the handling of the worldbuilding is fundamental to a consideration of “the quality or otherwise of the text”.

    Actually all the attacks on the worldbuilding that I can see at Tor.com are from people who say “I haven’t actually read the book …” These are criticisms based on the notion that the idea that Native Americans did not move into North America but instead stayed in Asia is automatically in and of itself bad, and therefore the book must automatically be bad also. That is, to my mind, a criticism extraneous to the text.

  34. Niall Says:

    Paul,

    1) Here is a comment from someone who has read the book, in that thread.
    2) Nobody is actually disagreeing with Jo Walton’s summary of the book as “Little House on the Prairie with mammoths and magic”; nor has anyone tried to construct a reasoned defence of the text of the book.
    3) And of course, the author I quoted in the original post, and who we were discussing until your latest comment, has read the book — had read it before all this broke out and, independently, reached the conclusion that it does not work and is problematic. I’m guessing that this is their Amazon review, posted on April 5 (although the other published reviews by this author that I’ve read have been rather more polished) and its reasoning seems fairly sound. Poorly thought-through worldbuilding leads to a setting that is unconvincing, offensive, and thematically inconsistent.

    Graham: indeed.

  35. Jonathan M Says:

    Thank you for responding Saxon. As Graham says, that was a very eloquent and clearly honest explanation/apology and I admire you for issuing it.

    I completely agree that we are dealing in grey areas. There are no moral codes in reviewing. No hand-holds. Just a huge great slippery slope with Paul Ross lying at the bottom of it. But then this is why I tend to worry about my footing so much.

    However, while I sympathise with the position you are in, I do agree with Paul that there has been some undermining of trust here and that this sort of thing is definitely not okay. But ultimately my opinion on such matters only really matters to me and these are all questions that we have to make our minds up about for ourselves.

  36. Simon Says:

    A minor point, for clarity’s sake: as someone who posts here as ‘Simon’ (well, it’s my name and all), I’d just like to make it clear that the ‘Simon’ above is not me. Which is not to say that I vehmently disagree with him and wish to distance myself from him. I don’t.

    A small point in support of Saxon and in slight disagreement with Paul. Yes, copy-editing does require more involvement with the text than proof-reading. Does it also denote a closer emotional tie with the book and the author? Not necessarily. It seems to me that the crucial point here is that neither the proof-reader nor the copy-editor have to like the book in order to do their job. Indeed they simply can’t avoid to be that choosy in most instances. The only person in the editorial role who is entirely free to choose whether they work on a book or not is the editor.

    Now, whether having been either a proof-reader or a copy-editor prevents you from being an objective reviewer, and the wider issue of the need for complete objectivity in reviews is something I’m not going to get into, at least not now, other than to say that given the smallness of the field we all work in expecting reviewers to have no-links whatsoever with either authors or publishers is a pretty unrealistic aspiration.

    Simon (the other Simon) Spanton

  37. Simon Says:

    That’s ‘afford to be that choosy’ not ‘avoid to be that choosy’.

  38. Peter Wilkinson Says:

    I’m somewhere between Paul and Niall on this one. The commenter Niall linked to had obviously read the book and, even though I felt that he might well be letting his repugnance to the book’s main world-building premiss colour his reaction to its other features, was responding reasonably intelligently. And there are a very few other informed and intelligent responses – this one in particular made some points that any defender of the book should answer, as did this LJ post linked to in one of Jo Walton’s comments. But about 95% of the attacks were just as Paul describes.

    From present evidence (i.e. not having read the book), I’d say that Wrede has probably been dumped on rather harder than is warranted – though that is of course typical of online arguments. She seems to have accepted far too uncritically the “lies we tell our children” version of her local history for use as the baseline for her alternate history and not properly thought through the consequences of a couple of her other world-building assumptions, but I’ve not seen any commentary that suggests conscious malice. On that basis, a very large proportion of published fantasy and alternate history could be written off for doing precisely the same with European history – except that almost nobody (except, ironically given the Tor thread, Bujold) remembers even the fact of the erasures. I won’t comment further here on this, as it’s even more of a side-bar than your original point in this topic, but if I can find the time reasonably soon, I will do so on my own LJ.

    As a final point, I note Jo Walton’s comment in the post that seemingly started this whole discussion that “it has seemed to me for a long time that there’s … not enough of the fantasy of America, secondary worlds that ‘are’ American history in the way most are western European history”. The whold meta-discussion that has resulted has I suspect shown why – the whole matter is just too fraught with traps like this one for most writers to feel like pursuing it.

  39. Paul Kincaid Says:

    Simon (Spanton): I don’t expect reviewers to have no relationship with authors or publishers, but where that relationship might be expected to have any effect upon their critical judgement of a book, then I expect it to be declared. I have reviewed books that were dedicated to me, but I have said so in the review. I have reviewed books I helped workshop, but I have said so in the review. Not to do so is to pretend to a critical distance from the work that may not be there, and that is intellectual dishonesty.

    The other alternative is to decline to review books you have been associated with – which is what most of the people I know who copy-edit and review do. There are, after all, so many other books being published that this cannot possibly result in any financial hardship or loss of business.

  40. Jonathan M Says:

    I think that questions about critics having relationships with authors and publishers only serve to muddy the water.

    Being paid for a review is being paid to give an unbiased and independent assessment of a work’s value. Saxon needed cash and instead of reading a whole new book tried to squeeze some extra cash out of a book he was familiar with. The fact that he was familiar with the book because he copy-edited makes it clear that he was not in a position to provide an unbiased and independent assessment of the work’s value.

    Yes, being a critic is a moral minefield but surely this is an open and shut case of someone’s desire for money out-stripping his sense of duty to his readers.

    I can sympathise with Saxon’s position but it’s still wrong.

  41. Simon Says:

    Paul,

    Fair enough; disclosure of interest is a sensible policy. Essential even. Yet while saying that you don’t expect reviewers to have no relationship with authors and publishers you nevertheless maintain that:

    ” . . . I do believe that the only valid review has got to be honest, free of the influence of friendship, bribery or what have you. Involvement in the process of a book, in whatever degree, can preclude the dispassionate judgement that honesty demands.”

    So even with disclosure a review by someone influenced in any way is invalid? At which point the audience had better not bother reading it, the venue not bother commissioning it and the reviewer not bother writing it.

    I also wonder (in the spirit of more hypothetical enquiry) whether even the reviewer can know for sure that their view of a book is entirely independent of factors outside the pages of the book being reviewed.

  42. Dave Bradley Says:

    Gah! I was away from the office in the middle of last week but I posted a reply in this thread on Friday – only to find that it never made it to the page. Spoke to Niall about this yesterday and it seems technology has let me down. Here goes one more time:

    Thumbs up to Saxon for his candid reply above. He confirms SFX didn’t know about his previous involvement with the book. He’s also written to me to apologise for not revealing this connection. Our reviews editor and I have been discussing it, and one action we’ll take now is to contact everyone in our pool of freelancers reminding them of their obligations to declare any relationships of this nature.

    Although the “SFX pledge” was couched in flippant terms, we take our unbiased stance seriously. You might consider the case of a one star review of Solaris’s The Laurentine Spy last month – the same book that we’re giving away on our letters page (Solaris sponsors our letters pages). This is symptomatic of how we don’t consider commercial relationships when it comes to reviews. In the case of authors who write for us (Tom Holt, Stephen Baxter and others), our reviews editor maintains a list of other authors it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to review, declared by the reviewers themselves after we asked. And we avoid giving, say, any books published by Gollancz to another Gollancz author to cover. I hope Paul won’t mind me mentioning this as well – quite recently, we published a two-star review of a collection of his Captain Britain comic by one of our freelancers, despite the fact that Paul was a regular columnist for many years, and continues to be a friend.

    This should demonstrate that we’re mindful of this issue and take steps to avoid this kind of thing happening.

    Regards and thanks,
    Dave

    PS. Can I just confirm the “prominent SF magazine editor” mentioned in Niall’s original post does not relate to us. The book being discussed (The Thirteenth Child) is not one that we have been sent for review (Tor US know that our focus is on books from British publishers). I would hate to think anybody’s inappropriately making a connection between the publication mentioned there, and SFX, which is discussed later. Cheers!

  43. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    I started to write a comment, but it got long and became a blog post: On why what people like about books is more interesting than what they don’t like.

  44. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    Um. Niall: don’t you mean “insidiousness” rather than “invidiousness”? If not, I’m not sure what you’re saying there.

  45. Niall Says:

    Kathryn: yes, thanks for the catch.

  46. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    David Hartwell points out to me over coffee this morning that he wrote a NYRSF editorial on this topic which is posted on his site, entitled Blooming.

  47. Karen Burnham Says:

    An offshoot of this discussion is continuing over at SFSignal.

  48. Roy Says:

    Private Eye often criticises ‘logrolling’ in British literary circles. Luckily ‘SF isn’t literature’ and so lurks under Lord Gnome’s radar.
    I see very little evidence of the practice in the SF review columns I read.

  49. On Reviewing, Round 63 « Torque Control Says:

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    […] to bias the public picture of the sf field away from reality (which does more than theoretical damage). Moreover, negative reviews are apparently easy to write because “When you read a bad story, […]


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