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The Absence of Criticism (Guest Post by Ravi Mangla)

The other week a discussion opened up at HTMLGIANT, in response to Justin Taylor’s post, that raised some interesting questions about the current tone in the independent community, one that – to cop a quote from the post – “encourages people to get awestruck at the drop of a hat.” Hopping around lit sites all day I do think there is a very real tendency in the small press world to inflate the merits of newly published works. I know most of it is done with good intention, since most of us want to see each other succeed, but how can a community gain legitimacy without forthright criticism? When each new book release/story publication/issue launch from an independent venue is groundbreaking/incredible/a must-read, the praise begins to blur together, cancel out, and you’re left reading what’s most familiar.  And the upshot of this aggrandized, across-the-board style of praise (beyond having to flail your arms and shout when something groundbreaking is published) is that it creates a dilutive effect that ultimately favors writers who produce a high volume of work as opposed to writers who produce high quality of work (though many times the two intersect).

I think one of the problems is that we all wear multiple hats – writers, editors, readers, reviewers, interviewers – and between Facebook, Twitter, blogs, literary hubs like Big Other and The Rumpus and HTMLGIANT , etc, it can feel like we all live in one big house together. Who wants to say something critical, even if it’s grounded in truth, if there’s the possibility it will hurt/anger someone in our networking circle? Exhibit #1: Last month I closed out my Goodreads account because I was getting paranoid. With so many authors on the site I couldn’t click on the stars without feeling like someone was looking over my shoulder, and I found myself giving some books more favorable ratings than I thought they deserved.

Problem two is the perception of fragility. We’re a fiercely dedicated community, but also a very small one. And there’s an unspoken fear that the whole enterprise will come crashing down if a single less-than-enthusiastic word is uttered about an independent title.

The other problem I see as a symptom of what Justin Taylor talked about–that meek and modest tone, the cult of rejection blogs, a community that values excessive humility and self-abasement over personal confidence. Self-criticism functions almost like an immunization against external criticism. In other words, you don’t kick someone who is already down.

A community without criticism, saturated in praise, begins to veer mighty close to support group territory. God knows we as writers need support. But we should be getting that support through private channels and using the public arena for fair and honest review.

So here are the questions: Do you think this tone (that is, if you agree that it exists) is detrimental to the continued growth of the independent literary community? If so, how could we go about setting a new tone, or creating a forum for more candid criticism?

77 thoughts on “The Absence of Criticism (Guest Post by Ravi Mangla)

  1. Hi Ravi, Greg, everyone,

    These are great questions. I know that I tend to tune out most of the “cheer-leading” (my word for it) done in the small press world. And I hope I’m not guilty of it myself. (One of the rules I wrote for myself when I started writing here was “NO CHEER-LEADING!”)

    I’m never swayed by claims like, “This book will rock your socks off!” Praise like that is highly ineffective, I think (excessive hype actually turns me off). If someone really loves a book, old or new, I’d rather that they take some time and try to tell me why they love it—not why I will love it (how could they know that?), but why they love it.

    Nor am I ever moved by the “abstract babble” some people use when blurbing/promoting books. You know what I mean—stuff like this:

    In the pint-sized carnival that swiftens, William Shakespeare makes a daily breaking of the image—and thereby the self—spooning up emptiness to re-impress the memories of manic youth.

    Such writing may occasionally be pretty—a poem in its own right—but for the most part it leaves me thinking: …

    (Actually, both excessive hype and babble leave me thinking the exact same thing: This person doesn’t actually like the book, because they can’t say anything real about it. So they’re saying this.)

    All of this is really to say, sincerity and thoughtfulness tend to carry the day.


      1. Oh, yeah, me, too. As I think I’ve mentioned to you, I tend to be attracted to outliers—stuff that doesn’t look like 90% of the field. I want the books, movies, music, etc. that’s either really, really good, or really, really bad (by conventional standards). It’s the mediocre, middle-of-the-pack stuff that I have no patience for.

        I should add: I don’t think honest criticism requires being mean, or nasty. I definitely understand the impulse to cheer-lead, and to not say negative things about writers who are still just starting out. It’s not nice at all to pile on the weak, and I think that real criticism should always be directed toward the strong. (I once wrote a very hostile review of a young filmmaker’s first film—one of like three reviews that ever appeared of it—and I’ve regretted having done so ever since.)

        But that doesn’t preclude being thoughtful.

    1. Given Adam’s response above, it’s somewhat ironic that his review of Evelyn Hampton’s book begins with: “this one really knocked my socks off!”

  2. 1) Yes, it is detrimental, because the rest of the world – i.e. the rest of the publishing world, where I’m afraid its hard-as-nails criticism and not all about cheerleading – will just look upon the small press / indie publishing scene and not take it seriously because it will comes across as a scene that celebrates itself.

    2) I think one way to tackle the problem would be for litblogs in particular, but also blogs by writers in the “scene” (yeeuurrggh, I really hate that term) not to immediately jump down someone’s throat and want to tear their heart out if they print a negative review. Or even only a mildly critical review. I have seen posts which virtually froth at the mouth with indignation because AN Other Cool Writer got a less than sparkling review for their limited edition chapbook. Well, so be it. No one likes bad reviews, but the lynch mob mentality that sometimes overtakes the “scene” (oh god, it’s happening again) on these occasions is not only distasteful but also ridiculous. No wonder the community doesn’t get taken seriously.

    If the small press/indie scene doesn’t want to be part of the “real world” of publishing, then fine, go on back-slapping, celebrating each other and proclaiming each new literary endeavour as the greatest thing since the discovery of DNA. But if it does, then it needs to learn some realism, some objectivity and train itself to dislike excessive hype.

    It would also mean that I don’t spend ludicrous amounts of money ordering a book from the US to get sent to the UK, on the basis that people have been praising it to the skies, and then feel an enormous sense of disappointment when I discover that it’s Just Another Book.

    1. Vaughan,

      Maybe the key is to find reviewers one trusts? Are there any?

      Yes, I’ve seen the mobs come out after a negative review. Why should we live in a fantasy land where everything is wonderful? Thoughtfulness is key. I doubt there is an Emily Dickinson or James Joyce in the small press world – we all have things we need to improve on.

      1. No, there is no Emily Dickinson and no James Joyce in the small (I prefer to use the term “independent”) press world. Those are singular, inimitable writers. But the so-called small press world has no shortage of singular, inimitable writers: Gary Lutz, Joanna Howard, Eugene Lim, Noy Holland, Mary Caponegro, Thalia Field, Renee Gladman, Brian Evenson, Lance Olsen, Ken Sparling, Terese Svoboda, Dawn Raffel, Eugene Marten, Norman Lock, Michael Kimball, and, fortunately, so many, many more.

  3. Good article, and it does raise certain questions.

    I’ve written some reviews, and have had my work critiqued out there as well, and for me, basically, if I don’t like/love something, I just don’t write about it. Now, you may say that I have a responsibility to come out and say how I feel about every book that I read, and if I read something and don’t like it, to post up about WHY I didn’t like it – was it fragmented, did it not make sense, was it too abstract, or whatever reasons I have for not liking it. The things I don’t like may be things that other people like. That same fragmented, abstract book that I don’t like, could be something fantastic for somebody else.

    I guess, my thought is that the small presses (especially), that all writers, work hard enough to get their work out there, that if I like something, I’m happy to review it and say why. Does that mean we need to post negative reviews as well? I’m not sure. I’d rather review, and FB/Tweet, and generally pimp books that really move me, than make the effort to criticize other books that didn’t work for me.

    As far as your Goodreads account, I think you need to open it back up and live without fear. Whether you give a book 3-5 or feel like it should get a 1-2, post it up. But at least say WHY. Explain what did or didn’t work for you. Think outside your circle of friends and peers. Read other books from larger presses. I don’t see a lack of criticism of FREEDOM, as well as people that love it.

    It’s not that every small press book or chapbook or journal is the best thing ever. It’s just that most of us in and around this community aren’t going out of our way to criticize it. Listen for the silence, and you’ll hear in that gap, that void, quite possibly the criticism you’re seeking.

    And believe me, if any of us break out, and get big contracts at big presses, there will be plenty of criticism to go around.

    1. It goes both ways. The things you like may be things other readers don’t like.

      I follow the same policy, dissent as silence, but more and more I’m realizing the system doesn’t work. Without that point of contrast, the positive reviews are white noise.

      1. I guess I don’t know what the solution would be then, the alternative. I generally try to pick up books that have a good chance to succeed with me. So most of the time, they get 3-5 stars. I can’t remember the last time I gave out 1 or 2 stars. I know I’ve started some books lately that I’ve put down, only to not pick them up again, but I also know they are books that a lot of people have enjoyed, and I’m probably just not in the right frame of mind (I’m talking about Selby’s LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, the accents bug me, and Stephenson’s THE DIAMOND AGE – two voices I’ve never read before, and steampunk, re: Stephenson is somewhat new to me – but I’ll try them again later).

        I’m quicker to say a big book isn’t “good” because I know the author can take the hit. I’m very reluctant to say that a small press author failed, because there is usually SOMETHING compelling there. AND sometimes things just go over my head. :-)

        For example, I struggled with THE ROAD at first, but in the end, loved it.

        I just don’t see the point in running to Amazon to give a bunch of books 1 or 2 stars, big or small press. I guess I’d just rather spread sunshine.

      2. Ravi, that’s an excellent way to phrase it. If you know 95% of reviews are going to be effusive, you probably start skimming or skipping. If you feel they’ll balance a bit, hoorah!

        Last night I read an engaging review of An Island of Fifty, from Mud Luscious Press, on PANK (http://www.pankmagazine.com/pankblog/?p=5960). The reviewer details what he finds as the weaknesses of the novella, but he also details the successes. The tone is honest, respectful, and wouldn’t dissuade me from checking out the book necessarily–it’s not a pan in other words. I’ve read part of the book and I identify with the reviewer’s dilemma–some of it works and some of it doesn’t. And overall the review felt very fresh, needed.

  4. Good stuff, Ravi.

    I’ve always like this Chekhov quote:

    “Isolation in creative work is an onerous thing. Better to have negative criticism than nothing at all.”

    One other big offender, I must say, is Fictionaut. I like the idea behind it and what they’re trying to do, and before they went public it seemed to be heading in that direction … but once they opened it up to the public and more and more people began to join, it became one big house, like in FULL HOUSE. Even if a story isn’t good people will still find something to praise. Of course, I know there are locked groups where people are supposed to give criticism, and maybe they do give honest and hard feedback, though I also have to wonder how many writers out there actually want to be told the truth.

    1. Fictionaut is an interesting case, for sure. The creators let the users form its identity and they* chose to turn it into a self-esteem building exercise. It’s a very good question: How many writers want to be told the truth?

      *I was an active member during those idyllic beta days, so I should say “we.”

      1. But is there truth? There is opinion, that’s for sure. Aren’t rejections a form of truth? But then we think, how the hell couldn’t they like that? So it’s taste then?

        Ultimately we have to be truthful with ourselves. The people that press on and follow their motion in the face of constant rejection, Van Gogh, Gaddis (most everyone buried his first book but he went on).

        James Salter: “The secret to art is very simple, throw away everything that is good enough.”

  5. I often wonder if I should erase all the stars I’ve given books on Goodreads and let my comments speak for themselves. Those stars are fairly meaningless — they’re mostly high ranks because if a book doesn’t engage me at least that much, I may not finish it. And as a reader, I don’t care if a reviewer ‘liked’ a book — I want a sense of the questions it raises and how it made them see the world differently. I want reviews to make an argument that looks beyond the book, and to look beyond the immediacy of any particular scene to do so. (Nb I’m not saying I’m any good at doing this as a reviewer, just that I like to see it done.)

    What troubles me more in the online lit world are the conflicts of interest. Writers review (cheerleader-style) work by close friends, co-editors, collaborators, etc. without acknowledging those conflicts. Those are the reviews I can’t take seriously, and the books I’ll probably avoid.

    1. I mostly like Roger Ebert’s policy: the star reviews are there because readers expect star reviews. (He himself has said that he’d rather get rid of them.) (Although then one wonders why he doesn’t. Who’s more powerful than Roger Ebert?) But, anyway, he says that the real review is what he writes about the film, regardless of how many stars it has, whether it’s thumbs up or down, etc. And he sometimes does write really positive reviews of films he’s given only one star.

    1. Yes, we live in a ‘I’m sorry’ culture where any word of criticism is met with chagrin. I can’t help thinking the overloading politically correct tendencies of (when did they start? 1992 onwards? 1988?) have done us in.

      The disclaimer under the review is even more interesting to me. I guess the no-criticism mobs have their hands poised over the mouse to click and eviscerate. We don’t take rejection well, and I don’t mean just in writing. Many people don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and so they will lie – breakups, workplace politics.

      1. jesus. i didn’t even notice the disclaimer. that’s saying something, i think.

        on the flip side of ravi’s post, there are joshua cohen’s recent reviews in bookforum which are quite aggressive.

        whether he’s taking gordon lish down a peg or one-upping tao lin at his own game, sometimes the reviews come off as antagonistic instead of critical. smart either way, i guess.

      2. A big part of the problem is that small scenes tend to be circular firing squads. The small press scene is fairly incestuous, and so many people play multiple roles (author, editor, publisher), that it operates smoothly only if everyone agrees not to criticize anyone else. (But what’s wrong with rough trade?)

        You can see this even more clearly in the academic poetry scene, which is even smaller, and where everyone is everyone else’s reader as well (not to mention boss or colleague). A few of my poetry friends are always complaining about how it’s essentially verboten to criticize one another—and there, it’s not just a matter of getting piled on, it’s also a matter of possibly not getting tenure.

        Never seemed like anything I wanted to be part of.

    2. David, great link. (I linked it above without seeing your comment here.) It was very refreshing to see the balanced review. And it doesn’t read as a take-down, but as a balanced, respectful engagement with the piece. DeMary’s essentially saying Here’s what works for me in the book and what doesn’t work for me and maybe you’ll have a different experience and here’s how to know if you might want to find out. It’s exactly what we need from reviews.

      If I was the author I’d be thrilled someone had gone to the trouble of engaging so critically with the novella.

  6. Thanks for this posting Ravi. I am really enjoying chewing on these thoughts and following the comments as they come in.

    Interesting for sure in tandem with the recent Pank review of Brooks’ AN ISLAND OF FIFTY (thanks for mentioning it David), which I believe makes some smart points about Ben’s writing, though for sure the disclaimer is unnecessary.

    I do though believe that the conflation of ‘critical’ with ‘honest’ is problematic. Often if the review is critical, then people seem more prone to say thanks for being ‘honest’ – I recd. the same note on my very short review of Lin’s RICHARD YATES posted here at BigOther – and while I was being honest in that review, I have been honest in every review I have ever written. So if I say in a review that this is a book people should read, be it small press or big, that is an honest statement.

    Plus, there are some review venues that only publish positive reviews (The Collagist is one of them). So in reviewing for them, if you don’t like the book or find massive problems with it, then they would prefer to simply not run a review of it. And while some may take issue with that, I like that they want to use reviews to highlight good books instead of tearing apart bad or mediocre ones…that they would prefer to spend their time praising those works that deserve praise.

    1. I’m with on the problem of instantly linking criticism with honesty. I definitely don’t think praise-heavy reviews are dishonest. It’s more a case of selective criticism – pulling our punches, biting our tongues, either out of some irrational fear or misguided generosity.

      1. I just don’t think it’s honest to say things like, “This book will rock your socks off!” I’m not saying that such a claim is a lie, but I don’t think it honors the work (and honor is the root of honesty).

        By all means, if someone likes something, they should praise it. But I think they should be sincere in their praise. As we all know, when you love someone, you don’t say to them, “Wow, you’re really amazing.” You try to find something personal and meaningful to say.

        I really liked the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and as such want to say many nice things about it. So I might write, “Edgar Wright’s wonderful new movie is meticulously and skillfully directed. It effortlessly pulls off the difficult trick of being both emotionally giddy and fun for broader audiences, but also crammed through with an overwhelming abundance of geek details that its more hardcore fans will really delight in. Wright has one again demonstrated a finesse that most other Hollywood directors lack.” And then give examples of how that is so, all the while trying to communicate to people that this is a good thing (and that they should consider seeing the movie).

        I don’t think it honors the movie at all to write something more like, “Scott Pilgrim will melt your eyeballs! It really brings the business! I heart it!”

        Why praise good work with thoughtless, lazy nonsense? Like I wrote above, if a book motivates someone to write, “This book knocked my socks off!”, I have to wonder about that book.


        1. I’m responding to the love comment and trying this out for exercise:

          “Greg Gerke’s wonderful new girlfriend is meticulously and skillfully put together. She effortlessly pulls off the difficult trick of being both emotionally giddy and fun for broader audiences, but also crammed through with an overwhelming abundance of geek details that her more hardcore fans will really delight in. The new girlfriend has once again demonstrated a finesse that most other girlfriends lack.”

          1. Well, if that’s what you like about her, then you should tell her!

            She sounds nice, but I prefer women who are in black-and-white, subtitled, and have runtimes of under than 90 minutes.

  7. There are good points here but frankly, I find these kinds of discussions so frustrating because people don’t really want honesty. We catch SO much shit for publishing “honest” reviews at PANK. You would not believe how people react via e-mail to the notion that we “dare” to say anything less than glowing about a given book or writer. Our review policy isn’t going to change (haters gonna hate) but I feel compelled to say that this call for honesty all well and good in theory. In practice, these lofty ideas aren’t as practical. When I start seeing all of us writing the kinds of reviews we wax poetically about in these discussions, I’ll feel less skeptical. I also want to say that when I review a book, I’m not thinking that the writer is the second coming. I’m just enthusiastic. I’m busy and so I only review books I love. When I get a review request for a book I end up hating I simply don’t review it because that’s not something I choose to spend my time doing. It’s not because I can’t do it or because I think everything’s awesome. I simply don’t care to.

    1. Wow, people really email you on the side saying “how dare you.” That’s amazing, it’s also their problem.

      I keep hearing people say they only want to review books they love, but this is a little easy because they probably pick and choose what they want to review. If it was their job and they HAD to review specific things I doubt this attitude would persist.

      It seems we are doing a disservice then. Should someone who doesn’t garner many reviews or any reviews of their book think they’ve written a piece of junk since no one is reviewing it? Is it the ends justifying the means? as in it’s about selling books and bad words will hinder that? I’d rather write things that will be reread than sell books.

      1. And if I had a REAL job where I got PAID to review books, sure, I’d probably be more critical. That’s what professional critics do. And if I had to read a book a day or every 2-3 days, I’d probably find a way to get through them faster, especially ones I didn’t enjoy. I’ve edited some journals and been a workshop moderator for a Chuck Palahniuk anthology we’re working on where I read 100+ short stories a month, and you start to skim, you start to eliminate pretty quickly, and learn to spot “lesser” work. BUT…since I’m not being paid a lot of money, and personally, I find writing a good review actually a pretty difficult task, most of the time, I prefer to write a solid (hopefully) review about books that I really enjoyed. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t think it’s a disservice, but actually, a service.

        Most of the novelists and short story writers who are flourishing (or struggling) with the smaller presses, well…we probably won’t be able to have a career as a writer, in other words, make enough money to survive. We’ll probably supplement income by teaching, editing and often working other full-time jobs. SO…I don’t think there is anything wrong with finding strong work at the small presses, and trying to give it some attention, putting my focus on those books, instead of being harsh on something that didn’t blow my socks off.

        1. This is a critical point, I think: “If it was their job and they HAD to review specific things I doubt this attitude would persist. ”

          I mean, hardly any of us is getting paid to do any of this. So we do it out of love. It becomes a lot harder to review and spend time on a book you didn’t like, to be honest and potentially jeopardize your own career when you’re not getting paid to do it. Plus I think reviewers are taking more seriously when they’re “professional,” or paid to write the review. A negative review is seen as brutal honesty, rather than just an unwarranted slam on the author.

          I have no remedies for any of this. Just thought it was a point worth highlighting.

  8. thank you. yes. i wrote something similar a while back: http://stories-like-stories-you-know.blogspot.com/2009/11/not-saying-only-nice-things.html.

    i feel like this is an important problem that needs someone brave to push through even the good words, because without someone exposing the flaws and the breaks and poor choices and ungood mistakes, i don’t think we get too far.

    someone then?

    going to read those cohen reviews now and am hoping. andy linkner, while pleasant, seems too cursory.

    nice to see this.

  9. I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of being a rooster. I hadn’t thought much about it. I think this is helpful criticism. My thinking has been, like, “Well I love Artifice and I want them to succeed but I can’t write a review now, and I’m not a good reviewer ever, so just: c’mon world, buy this and remember who sent you.”

    But I can see how that would add to the din that becomes white noise.

    Good points, Ravi.

  10. Really good points, Ravi. Because I’m a big fat wuss, I don’t do reviews most of the time and I’ll only talk up a book on my blog if I really, really do like it. Sure, I may have completely hated this or that book, but since I don’t consider myself a critic I just keep my mouth shut about it. Unless there’s something really really offensive or ridiculous about it, of course, and I just can’t be quiet.

    Someone braver than me needs to start a site called “What I REALLY thought of Trending Book X by Totally Hot Now Young Author Y.” Because while I appreciate people pointing me in the direction of great stuff, sometimes I read the stuff and think, am i the only person in the world that thought this sucked? Seriously? Or is everyone just so busy trying to catch a ride on Author Y’s gravy train that they can’t be bothered to tell the truth? Not that this site would be devoted to meanness–I think too many people in our culture these days (probably for reasons Greg pointed out above) equate meanness with bravery. I don’t think it’s brave to be mean. But I think it’s brave to be honest, especially when your opinions deviate from the herd’s.

    1. I thought about proposing an anonymous book review site in the post, but the idea just didn’t sit well. Probably too evasive.

  11. i put this up on htmlg, also.
    you guys can yell all you want i’m *snap, snap

    “If a book is getting a print run of say, 2,500 and to even be considered for best-seller stats a book must sell 4,800 copies, the math don’t match. if a critic sees a work which they feel hits 3 points outside of the paint, why shouldn’t it be given a glowing review? if a critic doesn’t like a book, don’t write a shitty review, the old if you don’t have anything nice to say addage comes to mind. then again, if something is great, then say it’s great. a positive review doesn’t mean it necessarily has less merit as a review, it’s just a review of a different kind. if indiejoe/jane has written a book (and you’re a fiction writer, you know how much work it takes to write a book nevermind get it placed at a publisher) and if it’s great, why shouldn’t it be recognized? dactyl is a loely non-profit which has been operating for a decade and a half which gives writers the option of apply for a 1,000 dollar fellowship if their work has been reviewed on the site. if this 1,000 dollars will help a writer pay some bills to buy more time to keep writing then what is the problem? critical-looking at books is important but why slam somebody? there’s a difference”

  12. A responsibility to write a negative review of a book you didn’t like? That sounds like the position of someone with a lot more free time than most people I know…There’s such a flood of material out there to ingest that I can’t even be bothered to finish something that doesn’t get my juices going, much less spend the time to take it apart and analyze the scruffy detritus of its inner (non)workings. Unless it’s a good friend who’s asking for the feedback, or a bonehead that I feel like whacking because his content is insufferable…I like the “listen for the void” comment: if people aren’t loving it and saying why clearly and specifically, caveat emptor–your reading time is your least abundant resource; spend it wisely.

    1. this is just the sort of thing that needs revised in our reading. almost every book i read can be critiqued thoughtfully, even if i like it. especially if i like it. my favorite authors and my favorite books are flawed, and even if i think the flaw is cool, it’s still a flaw. this issue, to my mind, has nothing to do with “negative review[s] of a book you didn’t like.” this has everything to do with being honest about the books we do like, and instead of just kind of blindly praise-blurbing them, really getting into what makes these books work – that is criticism, exposing how these books work and if what the way in which they work is successful or not. even a very strong book is not going to be wholly successful on each and every page, each and every chapter or story.

      there’s a difference between a “review” and a “critique.” i for one want to see thoughtful critiques, not negative reviews of shitty books.

      1. Hear, hear, Alan.

        I, for one, prefer writing criticism to reviews (though I still write dozens of reviews). I like what Golden Handcuffs Review has done: rather than publishing reviews, they run longer, critical pieces.

        And, again, it’s thoughtfulness that really matters. You can say interesting things about anything, really, regardless of its merits. (I regularly wish reviewers would move past very simple dichotomies like love/hate, great/terrible.)

        I thought Inception was a “terrible” movie, obviously, and I tried to point out what that was so, but I also obviously found it worth discussing in great detail. And I don’t think that Scott Pilgrim is the Second Coming (far from it!), but, again, it’s worth writing about. (And it’s especially worthwhile to contrast the two films.)

        1. thank you for that mention of Golden Handcuffs. i just read your piece in the current and like it muchly. this is the sort of criticism there needs to be more of. again, it’s out there, but it’s not really (it seems to me) made quite as necessary as it should be.

  13. i tried to comment earlier but something didn’t work out. did the moderators not like my comment? anyway, trying again:

    this is a good post and an issue that needs some attention. many reviews out there of independent literature are far too quick to praise certain books. or are just simply too cursory (i think this of linkner’s mainly pleasant-reading blog). the pank example is nice. there was one in the collagist about justin taylor’s book which i thought critiqued one story fairly well, analysis and evaluation, etc. i don’t mean to be overly hard or unfair here – no one deserves a whipping needlessly. the problem, as far as i can see: it’s not the fact that people like certain books, it’s the language with which these books are discussed, as though they are the only newness around or the first-to-be-the-first or the whatever (something akin to what A.D. is saying). i posted about this here, some time ago: http://stories-like-stories-you-know.blogspot.com/2009/11/not-saying-only-nice-things.html. i guess it’s lame to link to yourself but i don’t feel like re-articulating my points.

    i like anoelle’s points. it’s going to take someone brave to do this needed work. and not because we need to “negative” or “more critical” reviews to contrast with the positive ones. we need more critical reviews because such criticism is what pushes good writing, what makes us see the old tricks in the new experimentals or the poor choices and ungood mistakes in that more story-like story. those things we maybe don’t want to see, that are easy to let slip, because we all want to be nice and have niceness aimed back.

    1. Hi Alan,

      Comments are held in moderation if it’s the first time you’ve posted a comment at Big Other. Also, if you have a hyperlink of some sort, it’ll be held for review. I’m not sure, but it might even hold it back if you haven’t posted a comment in a while. Maybe some other reasons, too. An expert on WordPress might have to advise me further.

      1. saw the ‘moderator’ thing the second time i posted, which made me wish i’d seen that the first time.

        anyway, good thoughts here. i like.

  14. Fortunately, there are many writers out there who write great book reviews, like William Gass, Brian Evenson, Joyelle McSweeney, Lance Olsen, Vanessa Place, Steven Moore, and Gary Lutz (to name a few), offering probing, inspired criticism that sends me back to the writing desk focused on aiming higher.

  15. ‘So here are the questions: Do you think this tone (that is, if you agree that it exists) is detrimental to the continued growth of the independent literary community?’

    no, because i see the independent literary community as exactly that, a community.

    i posted an essay ive been working on that touches on this at abjectives new blog… http://abjectivevitcejba.wordpress.com/

    1. Very nice Darby.

      Here is a key paragraph from your post: “We can’t write blog posts that critically and/or honestly evaluate a work of fiction online because we know the author is going to google themselves. And now there is a threat of actually being confronted by the author, not to mention the editor who chose the work, and since we are all writers at about the same point in our careers (because we are the only audience of these journals), the author and editor become people we need to be nice to because our own manuscript is, or may be in the future, in their slushpile.”

      I think this easily turns into a moral quandary. Do we have that much fear in ourselves? Ultimately I think many of the initial questions have nothing to do with writing or the quality of the writing, they have to do with what is advantageous for us (our ego). I would hope that people would not reject someone because they wrote a critical review of their book, or solely for that reason. Let’s let business be business and let the writing have it’s say.

      1. i enjoyed reading your essay, darby. i agree with greg, though. just because there is a particular community of writers all writing together doesn’t mean we have to act in ways that sort of sublimate what we we really think about fiction – this is all ego it feels like. that said, i’m fearful of doing this work, too. but still, it’s important to really critique, not in a mean way, certainly, but in a productive way. gass’s essays are unbelievably good, not only because the essays thoughtfully critique work or rip john updike or whatever, but because they are so full of that writer’s eye – they let us see what fiction does and can do and maybe should. we need this.

        it sometimes seems like the online, independent world has taken the task of writing the fiction or the whatever, without taking the task of really looking-on of this stuff, which is what pushes the writing of fiction or whatever to new places (or helps to).

      2. Yeah, I personally don’t care, really. Maybe I’m suicidal? But I try not to think about such things when I write/review/etc. If it comes back to bite me…well, at least I was honest. And I find that there are always people out there who both agree and disagree with me. It’s a small scene, but it’s also a big scene. Above all, we should avoid becoming a scene wherein everyone’s afraid to speak honestly.

        That said, I don’t believe in piling on emerging authors. (I try to save deep criticisms for those who are established.) But I also don’t believe in blowing smoke up anyone’s ass.

  16. great post, Ravi…….. it has knocked my socks off!


    quick thoughts, somewhat related…..:

    1. if i consider these 2 variables–‘independent,’ ‘online’–i think that ‘online’ may have more to do w/ the situation that’s being described. Social media and blogs–it’s a one-click culture…. Allows for instant expression of enthusiasm, or, seen differently, promotion through meme…. (it can work in the other way too–expression of dislike–but people are more likely to consider that a slur: it’s unethical/uncivil if not accompanied by some kind of argument…. which is why there’s no ‘dislike’ button on facebook)

    2. how often have i wished that html giant went the way of Pitchfork instead of going the way it has?

    well, not that often. a couple times.

    (there you have it: insta-expression)

    but there’s a reason indie lit doesn’t have a Pitchfork. if you want committed criticism, you’ve got to pay for it. Committed criticism–that takes time….. And it’s worth time…… I hardly ever hit the facebook links for reviews of books by my friends on there… Why? Probably I already know if I want to read the book or not. And since that’s the case, I’m only going to read the review if I think it might be–‘in and of itself,’ as they say–worth reading. If it’s written by Joshua Cohen, like. Who puts more time into reviews than I ever would. And who gets paid for his trouble.

    i really hate to argue what it looks like i’m arguing: but the prob. w/ indie lit that Ravi describes probably isn’t going to get solved until there’s more money in it……

  17. like in everythng there are the very talented reviewers and then the functional ones. but what does this have to do with ‘honesty’? i think little. it has to do with writing a review that, like anythng, makes you go, oh yeah or wow. the call to action to be more ‘honest’ just seems pretty meh to me. to what purpose is it? to get your book better attention? i hate to say it, but it sorta sounds like it. like, if these other books didn’t get so much praise my book would stand out better. not only that, i see less mercenary impulses in the call to action, but that’s part of it, got to be. but if it’s hard to tell the ‘good’ books from the ‘bad,’ this means i or he or she should stop writing the reviews they want to write? that’s like saying that i or he or she should stop writing the books we write. because, that’s advocated too–if there just were less damn books in the world then the noise level surrounding other (eg, my) books would be lessened. the thing is, the really good books, and the really good reviewers, the ones that go wow, eventually do rise over the noise (as long as the writer is letting people know about them, which, yes, is also part of the ‘noise.’). i don’t know why we should we want to stop any of it.

    1. see, again, i think there is conflation of terms here. there is a difference between a “critique” and a “review.” reviews are reviews, meant typically to plug a book. here’s what i say a couple comments up: almost every book i read can be critiqued thoughtfully, even if i like it. especially if i like it. my favorite authors and my favorite books are flawed, and even if i think the flaw is cool, it’s still a flaw. this issue, to my mind, has nothing to do with “negative review[s] of a book you didn’t like.” this has everything to do with being honest about the books we do like, and instead of just kind of blindly praise-blurbing them, really getting into what makes these books work – that is criticism, exposing how these books work and if the way in which they work is successful or not. even a very strong book is not going to be wholly successful on each and every page, each and every chapter or story.

      rather than going “oh yeah wow,” i’d rather go “so that’s how he/she did that.”

      and again, a critique isn’t to “get your book better attention.” it’s to learn, in some way, the art of fiction, poetry, to expose some inner workings maybe not readily identifiable. this is not work for all, not even to be read by all. but interesting and i think worthwhile to some.

      go on with the happy reviews, sure. let’s see some solid critiques as well.

      1. Joseph, I agree with you (broadly), in that people should always do what they want to do, and respond with enthusiasm to anything they like. But Alan’s making good and necessary distinctions. And he’s right: there should be more criticism, which is necessary and instructive.

        In general, I read Ravi’s post as a call to reconsider writing excessive praise:

        When each new book release/story publication/issue launch from an independent venue is groundbreaking/incredible/a must-read, the praise begins to blur together, cancel out, and you’re left reading what’s most familiar. And the upshot of this aggrandized, across-the-board style of praise (beyond having to flail your arms and shout when something groundbreaking is published) is that it creates a dilutive effect that ultimately favors writers who produce a high volume of work as opposed to writers who produce high quality of work (though many times the two intersect).

        I agree with him 110%.

        Additionally, I’ll try to boil down my own arguments (after seeing how they’ve been influenced by reading Ravi’s post and the various comments in this thread):

        1. Reviewers/bloggers should be more thoughtful (more honest) in what they say about books, and try to avoid mere cheer-leading (which does little to distinguish any one book, and which rather contribute to a general noise that is overwhelming the community).
        2. There should be more criticism in addition to reviews. Journals and blogs and websites should do more to encourage both of these things.
        3. It doesn’t benefit the community to either over-praise or over-criticize emerging authors.

        Those, at least, are the principles I think I’m coming away with. (Of course, I’m biased toward my own beliefs.)

        Thanks to Ravi and Greg for such a great discussion!


      2. i didn’t mean the purpose of reviews was to get your book better attention (although yes, that’s one function) but rather that the call to more honest reviews is a veiled attempt to get your book more attention. see, because your book will get the good reviews while all the rest will get the not so good. this is cynical and i don’t take it wholeheartedly at all, but calls to action of this type, when they have to do with ‘reducing the noise,’ have, i believe, some of this veiled motive. but i agree, a great review (or critique or whatever–i haven’t followed your argument regarding the difference) would ‘expose inner workings.’

        1. It helps everyone, though. How can I as a reader decide where to look when everything’s “totally awesome!!”?

          I mean, consider these three brand-new books, complete with blurbs:

          Chunky Things by Jerry Babbit, 2010 Dark Dark Disco Books
          “OMG! Chunky Things blew up my mind!” —Destro Hoggins

          I Can Be Just As Horrible As You If Not Even More Horrible by Melissa Emins, 2010 Humming Budgie Press
          “Emin proves once again why she’s so eminently awesome. You better read this book now!” —Samantha Rees

          The Miscellany of Bellany’s Castellany by Roger Muddis, 2010 Scattershot Press
          “Muddis’s latest is pure waves of rollicking awesomeness.” —M.E. Zorn

          …So which one do you most want to read? Or do you, like me, unable to distinguish between them, just ignore them all?

  18. Another thing to consider is simply getting the word out. And, simply in the nature of sharing (and who wants to share something crappy unless you are warning others away from something) or wanting other people to enjoy something that was found to be entertaining, moving, and maybe inspiring, I sometimes review books that aren’t maybe on the radar of everyone out there, thus bringing some more attention to something I’ve found to be worth reading.

    For example, my first review at The Nervous Breakdown was of a collection of short fiction called The Physics of Imaginary Objects by Tina May Hall. If you’d asked me who Tina May Hall was or about this book or the press (Univ of Pitt, giving out the Drue Heinz Literature Prize to this book) I’d have shrugged my shoulders. Now, I did hear about this first from Dan Wickett (Dzanc/EWN) and Roxane Gay (PANK) so it wasn’t like I discovered it. And sure, maybe in some of my circles (HTML, Rumpus, TNB, etc.) this book is already on the radar, but I have to assume there are still a lot of people in these communities (and others) that haven’t heard of this book or author.

    So, I think part of MY role as a casual reviewer/critic is to bring to light books and voices that I find to be exceptional. Or at least, worth checking out. I’m sure most of us have already heard of or read people like Blake Butler and Amelia Gray and Mary Miller, but maybe not. Maybe we all know about Benjamin Percy and Kyle Minor, but what about Holly Goddard Jones or Lindsay Hunter? I may be preaching to the choir with 50% of my audience, but I’m happy to imagine turning on another 25-50% to a new voice.

    I think that’s important, above and beyond critical essays.

    1. Isn’t it a a proven fact that people reach first for what they recognize first. If you’re in an airport and you want a coffee and there’s a Starbucks and a place you’ve never heard of, most people choose to go to Starbucks. (Of course some people like to try the unknown, but they’re in the minority.)

      The same thing is true in publishing: readers are more inclined to pick up a journal with a name they recognize—even if they don’t particularly like that author—than a journal with a list of names they don’t recognize. (This is largely why journals try to publish work by established authors.)

      This idea plays out in many different ways. Editors are more inclined to consider submissions by people whose names they recognize rather than people they don’t recognize. Even their pausing for a few seconds while trying to recall where they saw that name before helps that person’s chances. Etc.

      And so having your work reviewed, even negatively, if it helps people remember your name, ultimately benefits you. (This is why it helps to submit a lot, even if you get rejected: “Running your name past the editor’s eyes.”)

      …Still, none of this precludes reviewers from trying to say something thoughtful about books they like. If you want to get people to notice something, then you should help people actually notice it.

      If Ravi is complaining that too many books get meaningless false and excessive praise, then I think there’s a some motivation in trying to do something different than simply replicating that. The ideas in this thread can very easily be applied toward better marketing. (i.e., Don’t give potential customers more of what they’re complaining they’re already sick of.)

  19. Right, I agree 100% about meaningless and false praise. The examples you listed above, I wouldn’t be compelled to read any of those. We all have a process by which we decide to read/purchase anything, such as fiction. It may be a mix of knowing, respecting and enjoying the author and their work, the press, the publication, the editor(s), the blurbers, digging the blurbs, liking the quality and overall look, and of course, reading a synopsis and/or excerpt. Ultimately the writing has to be appealing to you, the individual reader.

    My hope, with my reviews, is to use language that compels people to do more research. If I use a word like “haunting”, that may appeal to somebody. If I compare the work to Evenson or Bender, that may strike a chord. But simply saying something is good or great or the best, by itself, that means nothing.

    I would disagree that any publicity in regards to fiction, positive or negative, still helps sell books or get people to read the work. If I read 10 people that say that Jimmy Sucks has a new book out and it is horrible, and then read an excerpt, and agree, and then he has a new story up at some site online, and I read it, still curious as to why he is getting so much attention, and I hate the story, I’ll probably not go out of my way to read more of his work. Doesn’t mean that somebody else won’t like it.

    I think this is a great discussion, and I certainly will try to bring more critical analysis to my future reviews at TNB and other places, but I do enough academic work for my MFA, and would prefer to enjoy writing my reviews, and to share that excitement with others, whether it comes from the language, setting, mood, characters, story or overall experience of a particular collection or novel.

    1. Sorry, for some reason it’s calling me Wickerkat now (that’s my email) but this is still Richard.

    2. The only thing there is that you’re spending some time to pay attention to Jimmy Sucks. Rather than someone else.

      And, years later, you might be more inclined to look at a journal he’s in, or a new book he’s written, even if it’s only “to see if he still sucks.”

      How many people will go see M. Night Shyamalan’s next film, or George Lucas’s next film (if there ever is one) if only to see if it’s terrible?

      There are many different ways of capturing your attention.

      1. Mmmmmmmm, maybe. If I think an author (or director or band or whatever) is bad, it’s pretty hard to get me to shell out money for them again. I don’t ever remember going to a movie to see if some director still sucks. I may go to a film that looks questionable, thinking “this may suck, Lucas has sucked in the past, but he’s also done some good stuff” but when it comes to books, if I read one or two bad books, I doubt I’ll read that author again.

        For example, I grew up reading King and Koontz. I used to really enjoy Koontz but then he had a couple in a row that were really bad, and now I won’t pick up anything by him.

        Koontz could have a band performing on my street, and give away copies of his books, but I doubt I’d read him again.

        I think controversy can draw people to an event or book, but if something stinks, and you agree, I can’t imagine still spending time and money on it.

        The difference with MNS is that at least he has something going for him – had some great movies, tries to be experimental, gets some hype going, creates interest. But in time, if you get “fooled” won’t you give up on the artist?

        1. I tend to be drawn to folks who make unusual things, regardless of whether those things are “good” or “bad.” So, the less people like M Night Shyamalan’s movies (which is to say, the less convention and innocuous they become), the more interested I become. …Although, that said, I haven’t seen any of his films since Lady in the Water (which I thoroughly enjoyed, although probably not in the way he wanted me to).

          If there’s one thing I like, it’s perversity.

          Anyway, I do think there are a lot of folks out there who can’t stop looking away from certain things. Like a for instance, nobody I know personally has ever said a nice thing about Tao Lin’s books. But those very same friends love bitching about him for hours and hours and hours. So my interpretation is that they actually like him—they like bitching about him, or about something.

          …I’ll add here, in the interest of honest disclosure (and the spirit of the thread), that I myself don’t really have an opinion about Tao Lin. I read some of his early online stories and though they were nice reads, often funny and charming. Then I read his Eee&c. novel and thought it was an OK read, mildly dull, but OK, especially at the end, where it got going a bit more. And I started his first short story collection and got so bored forty pages in that I stopped. (I kept wondering where the funny online pieces were.) After that, I haven’t looked at his work, although it seems to have gotten more interesting. (Perhaps.) He’s good at coming up with titles, if nothing else. And he seems to have clarified a certain dramatic, conceptual element he’s mining, which is good, I think. (I’m very interested in conceptual art, and by and large I don’t think literary folks tend to be all that good at it—mainly because they do watered-down versions of pieces that were done 50 years ago.) But I admire his skill in promoting himself, although I wonder to what end he does that. But, by and large I’ve mostly been tuning him out, due to my encounter with his first two books.

          But, see, here I am, still talking about him!!!
          (That’s what I’m saying.)

    1. Hilarious.

      There is something to be said for digging the unknown, the indie projects, being hip to something before the rest. You love the band until everybody loves the band.

      “Oh, Dr. Seuss? Man, I’ve been reading him since Green Eggs and Ham. But his later work, Hop on Pop? Derivative.”

      I get that.

      And Tao Lin, well, that’s the perfect example and also almost the exception to the rule. But I think the point in the end is that you decided he’s not for you, and probably won’t buy any more work of his.

      I like perversity too, I get that.

      1. No, sooner or later, I’ll circle back around, and check Lin out again. It just isn’t a priority right now. (And I didn’t buy those two books I read: I borrowed them from a friend. I rarely buy new books—that’s why I write reviews!)

        And it isn’t a popularity thing, at least not the way you phrased it. I don’t dislike things when others start liking them. And I especially don’t start liking things because they’re obscure. I like what I like regardless of who else likes it. And that is that.

        But I do perk up when I see a popular artist start becoming unpopular, artwork by artwork. Because that’s sometimes a sign that something interesting is happening…

  20. Maybe there is something to be said about the distinction between criticism and reviewing here. Coming from a fine art background, we would always be asked/forced to take finished work (or what we thought of as “finished” work) into a group atmosphere, and a very critical environment. It hurt a lot of the time. But in retrospect, now ten years out of graduate school, I would kill to have 15 engaged, super smart, often insightful fellow artists picking apart my work for three hours. It made the work better, and most likely has a lot to do with how I look at my time in the painting studio and the questions that I am now able to ask myself, most often critical and in the service of making the work better, or at least more thoughtful or well-thought-through (I hope that makes sense outside of my own brain).

    So then — are these reviews supposed to be critical? After all, we put so much work, indeed, into writing, editing, publishing and then marketing, maybe we all think we only deserve to hear from the people who liked the poems, stories or novel. It’s easy to baby the finished product, the book, and decide either subconsciously or consciously that it’s truly done, and not still at once both a finished work of art as well as an index of a point along your career path as a writer. In the second vein, what isn’t open to criticism? And who is going to argue that the critical engagement isn’t (often) going to be helpful, even if you reject it but have to think about why you are rejecting about it, thereby creating greater insight into your own work.

    I think some of this responsibility needs to be shared on both sides, the writers doing the writing of the work, and the writers doing the reviewing of the books — and maybe this is also about the reviewers being careful. Talk about what works in the book and why. Talk about what seemed to fall short of the mark, and provide some textual evidence for those opinions. What worked for you as a reviewer might just help another reader get introduced to something they will search for, purchase and love — and what didn’t work for you, if treated with care and some grace, just might in the end make that writer even better when they sit down to work on another book.

    PS This is a really great comment string. I’m sorry I showed up a couple of days late!

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