On Why I Decided to Start this Blog and Other Illuminating Subjects
Last night I noticed something very curious. A review I had written on my long-dead first blog attempt had made it rather high into the google search index. If I googled “schismatrix” “review,” I was elevated to first page status. Not only is my review of Schismatrix going on two years old (as of this March,) the blog itself has been rather obviously abandoned since then. And yet it is bizarrely prominent.
Which got me thinking.
You see, one of the reasons I decided to abandon that blog was out of pure, terrified self-interest. Being an aspiring writer myself, I considered the consequences of continuing to do serious, no-nonsense reviews of work by authors who would potentially become my peers one day. I considered how I would be co-habitating in our rather intimate ecosystem and what effect a critical voice would have on my future career. I became concerned about how my own fiction would be received as a result of anything I had said about anyone else’s. It seems something of an unspoken rule that authors tread lightly when appraising each other’s work or simply avoid it entirely so as to maintain a safe, Swiss-like neutrality. Having no opinions themselves, they are safe from any potential retaliation that would come their way if those opinions were to offend or incite their peers.
This is not to say there is a particular shortage of offensive material being dribbled onto the net today by these same theoretical authors. I assume (perhaps egregiously) that many agents/publishers/marketers would encourage an author to engage with firestorm topics to drum up debate and get their name parroted around “the right circles.” As the saying goes, there is no bad publicity.
But that’s only true up to a point. Because there is bad publicity. There is devastating publicity. And worse than any political rant, unprofessional screaming match, or even display of true bigotry, for an author it begins with the sentence: “This book is not worth reading because…”
Bad reviews on Amazon or Strange Horizons or any of the other blogs I frequent can damage the livelihood of an author and adversely impact their sales. I know. I have avoided books for precisely this reason because life is short and one shouldn’t have to waste it on a bad book.
I think authors understand this quite well themselves. It’s why I’ve seen scant evidence of any prominent author completely disparaging another. (And I mean this beyond a purely personal level – someone trashing someone else over a vendetta is irrelevant because the opinion is already disingenuous by that point.) Finding an author to say nice things about a book they like is simple. Is this not “paying it forward” in a nutshell? Finding an author publicly dissecting the shortcomings of a major novel from a well-respected voice in their industry? That’s like finding ice cream cones in Hell. Tell me when you spot a mint chip.
“Pay it forward” is a nice bit of advice that gets recycled through young wannabes’ ears enough to know that there is a certain amount of reciprocation expected from their ambitions. It may be as nebulous as karma or as real as industry connections but I think, unwittingly or otherwise, those who wish to participate in the grander system of publishing fiction can find themselves forced to choose between diplomatic silence or cautious enthusiasm.
Or at least this is my own experience thus far, considering this dilemma while looking at the dearth of criticism available from authors I respect. It would seem that the worlds of author and critic are mutually exclusive to some degree – that to participate in one begets your extraction from the other. So while I can find scathing dismemberments from the talented Martin Lewis, I have yet to see John Scalzi‘s furnace-like wit immolate any of his contemporaries’ books. Perhaps this is the informal détente of expected decorum in the world of the published. “Thou shalt not piss in thine own garden” or something along those lines.
And all this is fine and dandy. Except that I want to be an author. And I want to talk about the stuff I read. And I don’t want to diplomatic or cautious or friendly about it. I want to be brutal. I want to examine what succeeds and what fails, even knowing that the entire exercise is subjective and chronically governed by that ephemeral reality that is taste. Even knowing the audacity that is attempting to encapsulate a novel within a few paragraphs.
The problem is that I think these kinds of voices are needed. Separating the noise from the sublime is not something achieved by that supposedly impenetrable fortress that is the publishing house, holding back the black, barbaric tides of the slush pile, like the gatekeepers of civilization. Their wall stands high and daunting, the task of conquering it a monumental exercise of patience, persistence, skill, and luck. But…
Here is the punchline, readers. Here is the terrible truth of it all.
The slush gets in.
It masquerades as other things, as wonders of beauty and delicacy or under the simple coverings of pulpy entertainment and schlocky adventure. It crawls on its belly, slithering past while wearing the benign camouflage of an exciting first chapter or a compelling character. It lurks in the harrowing outline that is executed without the slightest attempt of craftsmanship. Even a disguise as flaky as an intriguing concept is sometimes enough to fool the ever-vigilant watch.
The slush gets in!
And when that happens, there is nothing standing between you, dear reader, and the long, entropic darkness a bad novel conceals. The soul-deadening void of dull writing. Nothing but the placid spruce of a friendly cover, a positive blurb, and an innocuous synopsis.
Even worse, some of our fellow citizenry, rightly allowed passage into these hallowed grounds from beyond the nether realms have not quite shaken the grip of this darkness. In truth, it waits for all of us, for our inattention, or our sloth, or our greed to get the better of us and when that happens, it strikes. Yes, even those select few who scale the wall and are published and published rightly may yet sink into the miring swamps of mediocrity and never return.
There is only one recourse, as far as I can see. Someone has to watch the watchmen.
So, getting back to the beginning, I realized that good criticism is in desperate need. Not easy, casual criticism. Not one paragraph, smells okay to me criticism. Criticism that pokes and prods at a novel, that hunts for the mediocre and decries it even in the works we most cherish. And before I sound too self-important, please don’t take this to mean that I consider myself the only one doing this. All that I’m saying is that, for whatever reason, an obscure blog written by a nobody like me wound up on the front page of google and while all of that may be cosmic chance, I’d like to think it was a sign that there are others out there willing to go to great lengths to find well thought-out criticism and that maybe, despite whatever misfortune it should bring me, I can provide that again. Here.
So in the coming days and months I’ll be reposting that review along with others and beginning to build up a new repository. I’m not entirely sure what it’s all going to look like. I should warn that I don’t want to spend my time entirely on what’s newly released because there are some very great books I’ve read that have a tragic lack of good criticism attached to them and some of them are already quite a few years old. I also encourage anyone with recommendations to email me as I’m always looking for more books to read.
Finally, humbly, I remind that while I will try for diligence, I make no guarantees that this will continue into the future. Writing the novel is still priority uno and it will take precedence above this as I see fit.
With much sincerity,
Your Friendly Neighborhood Watchman