What good are reviews, anyway?
A discussion-slash-debate broke out among friends and acquaintances on Twitter earlier this week relating to the value of reviewers—specifically with respect to furry writing (and by extension other subgenres), but also in a more general philosophical sense.
“Reviewers = haters” is not an attitude unique to fandom; I know a lot of people who express disdain for movie reviews—which also happen to be the media criticism we’re most familiar with. “If I listened to bad reviews, I’d have missed a lot of movies I liked,” the thought goes. “And reviewers never like escapist stuff. They only like artsy fartsy stuff.”
Believe what you will, but I believe that just doesn’t hold up. Most critics liked “The Dark Knight” and the Lord of the Rings movies and “Star Trek Into Darkness” and countless other popular flicks. And do not tell me that critics can’t appreciate escapist fluff when “Fast & Furious 6” is sitting there with 70% on Rotten Tomatoes as I write this, okay? Critics have different likes and dislikes (surprisingly similar to normal humans), but in aggregate they tend to be fairly reflective of movie audiences. Yes, the critics probably will all hate on “Transformers vs. GI Joe: Give Michael Bay All Your Money,” but let’s not pretend it’s because they’re all horrible people who hate fun.
I think it’s easy to be dismissive of film critics in particular because we often already know if we’re going to run to a theater—or stay far away from it—before the first reviews of a major studio release come out. We’ve been seeing ads for them for half a year before opening day. If you’ve been hyped since winter to see something, you probably don’t care what Peter Travers of Rolling Stone thinks of it.
But we’re not talking about major studio films here, we’re talking about books. If you pick up a newspaper or magazine that does book reviews, it’s almost certainly going to have a few titles you haven’t heard of. A lot of what’s reviewed on Flayrah, the web site that served as a catalyst for the Twitter debate, is stuff I’d never have heard of otherwise.1 And the reason many movie critics go out of their way to review weird stuff you’ve never heard of isn’t to show off their hipster cred—it’s because they want to let you know about stuff they think is awesome that you might otherwise miss. One of my favorite film discoveries some years back, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” was something I only heard of because a reviewer put it on his “ten best” list.
I want to go back and underline that last bit. It’s important. Reviews can introduce us to terrific things we might otherwise miss. Many furry fans have no idea that there are dozens of furry books out there from a wide swath of publishers. Even in 2013 with all the Internets this stuff is hard to find when it’s neither from big-for-furry publishers nor from authors who are “plugged in” to the fandom community. And it’s even hard to find guidance on the discoverable stuff. I can point you to Sofawolf or FurPlanet’s web sites, but the majority of items there don’t have reviews or star ratings. (Including mine. Not that I’m bitter.) How do you know what’s good? Ask on Twitter? Is that really better than finding a source for well-written reviews?
The other thing reviews can do specifically for furrydom—stand back, as this may be a little controversial—is make our storytelling better.
We have some terrific writers producing work that’s absolutely the equal of anything “mainstream” publishers are. And we have a huge number of writers supporting Sturgeon’s Revelation.2 But we have a fair number who are somewhere in the middle, with a lot of promise but in desperate need of editing feedback and guidance. I’m reading a recent and moderately high-profile furry release with a lot of “first draft syndrome”: awkward phrasings, clunky dialogue, and numerous places where the prose would be made immeasurably more captivating by showing us through character action what we’re instead being merely told in omniscient narrative.
I recognize that nobody wants to hear that their work needed more work before releasing. Bad reviews can be crushing. (Indeed, if I get to the end of this particular book and don’t think I can give it at least an “interesting with reservations” you’ll probably not hear of it again from me.) But this isn’t about tearing down. It’s about building up. If we know where our problems are we can make things better. There’s terrific stuff that’s already out there that’s being missed, and there’s stuff from writers with the potential to be terrific if they’re given constructive feedback. This is what reviews can do.
Oh, c’mon, Watts, it’s not like a furry book is ever going to be nominated for a Nebula Award. Well, imaginary voice in my head I’m arguing with, first off: even if we’re writing just for ourselves, what’s wrong with writing as well as we can? Isn’t doing the best we’re capable of doing a worthy goal regardless of how wide our appeal is?
And second, how do you know one won’t?
There’s some criticisms I have with Flayrah’s reviews specifically, but that, as Alton Brown would say, is another show. Er, post.↩
Ted Sturgeon’s “90% of everything is crap” is widely misunderstood as cynical dismissiveness. It isn’t. Sturgeon wrote that it was “wrung out of me after twenty years of wearing defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc., are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other art forms.”↩