Confessions of a Guilty Reviewer

Howard’s Review Rooster of Doom.

I used to write occasional reviews for Tangent Online, and once I wrote one that I still regret. I’ve rarely found a slice-of-life story or flash fiction that I enjoyed, so I probably had no business evaluating a piece of short fiction that was both. Yet I read it and I slammed it. Not because it was bad flash fiction, or because it was a bad slice-of-life story (I had no kind of qualifications for adequately judging either) but because I didn’t like flash fiction or slice-of-life stories. It was the epitome of ill-informed reviewing, where the writer is arrogant enough to know better than fans of an entire genre. Or two.

I didn’t understand my mistake for a while and when I met the author of the story at a convention years later he was kind enough not to mention my idiocy, or, more likely, hadn’t remembered the name of the idiot who’d written the review.

You’d think that my epiphany about having written such a bad review would have arrived when I started to get my own fiction published more regularly, but it actually hit me faster, probably because it took a loooong time for my fiction to get published regularly.

I began to evaluate game products for Black Gate and it finally dawned on me that I had to consider both a work’s intended function and its intended audience. For instance, if I was looking at a role-playing product, I couldn’t evaluate a retro dungeon crawl by the same standards I looked at a modern story-based adventure with plot arcs.

Nowadays when I get a bad review for one of my works it sometimes means that the book wasn’t the right one for the reader. That happens, of course. My friends love some authors who just don’t do anything for me. (And some people actually like anchovies on their pizza.) But sometimes not liking a book comes from a disconnect between what the reader wants from the work and what the work is intended to deliver.

My favorite bad review of The Desert of Souls came from a reader who believed the book was supposed to be a comedy, a la Terry Pratchett, despite the fact that there has been no marketing to suggest anything of the kind. One assumes that I would have gotten a one star review as well from someone who had desired the novel to be a story about cross-dressing penguins or a feminist literary tract set in the 19th century.

When I started to see these disconnects happen with my work I first felt sorry for myself (sniff) and wished all reviewers had to pass some kind of course so that they knew to approach a work by its own standards when they’re reading it. Does it succeed or fail as, say, a romance? Or even as a big fat fantasy, which is going to have different conventions even than other kinds of fantasy novels?

That, of course, is ridiculous, and instead of wishing they’d change I’ve learned to toughen up. When you’re on the other side of that fence – the critiqued rather than the critiquer – one of the first things you need to develop is a thicker skin and the ability to laugh, and I’ve gotten a lot better at both of those. Still, sometimes you can’t help but wince.

There is an art to review writing, and an art to taking a work apart. We need reviewers willing to call out a work when it doesn’t, uh, work, and who aren’t afraid to tell us the unvarnished truth. A well-written bad review can be a work of art. A really good one actually requires courage, especially if it flies in the face of the expected.

Yet as much as I strive to better my writing all the time, and as much as I desire to be courageous, I decided a while back not to send forth my review roosters of doom anymore. I only call attention now to works that I really enjoy.  I lean on reviewers to tell me when I should avoid watching a movie or reading a book, but I only ever talk about the stuff I love. Probably because I still cringe a little when I think what it must have felt like to get that stupid, scathing review I wrote all those years ago.

An earlier version of this essay appeared at Black Gate in 2012.