Critics and Credibility

10 Aug

Consider, if you will, the following quote:

The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive, book I’ve ever read.”

It is, I will agree, a dramatic statement. But it also suggests a certain lack of credibility on the part of the reviewer.

Credibility? Yes. The statement calls the book ‘dangerous,’ ‘offensive’ and insists that it is the most dangerous and offensive book the reviewer has ever read. This suggests that the reviewer is either using comically-exaggerated hyperbole or simply hasn’t read many books in their life. Neither one gives the reviewer much credit. To claim that The Black Witch is more offensive, let alone dangerous, than either The Turner Diaries or Time Slave – to pick the first two examples that came out of a life spent reading books – or that the heroine is the worst protagonist in existence is to suggest a very limited reading sphere.

I have read the first third of The Black Witch. I stopped reading for various reasons I will probably get into, if I decide to finish the book and then write a review. But I can say, in all honesty, that The Black Witch is nowhere near as thoroughly unpleasant as either of the two books I mentioned. I’m sure that my readership is wide enough that plenty of my readers can name a handful of even worse books, if they wish. Compared to some howlers I’ve read – even ones by people who share some of my political views – The Black Witch is very small beer.

To review a book – and I speak as a reader, a reviewer and a writer – requires a firm grasp of two skills: comprehension and contextualisation. The review must understand what the author is actually saying and place it in context. A book set in 1860s America, for example, would probably include a number of uses of the N-word, as well as social attitudes that we find disgraceful today. Should the author be penalised for this? No, because such words and usages make sense in context. And it is difficult to make it clear that the social attitudes are wrong because the people of that age didn’t necessarily consider them wrong. Objectively, a slaveholder might be the bad guy; subjectively, he isn’t going to see anything wrong with keeping slaves.

The Black Witch’s heroine was raised to consider herself part of the ‘master race,’ which is – let’s face it – a fairly common delusion. She was taught a number of ‘truths’ that, when she discovered the outside world, rapidly proved to be anything but. Such a discovery is not uncommon in human history. It is easy to think of a particular group of people as one vast faceless mass if one does not actually know someone who belongs to that group. There are no shortage of absurd stereotypes that blossom in the darkness of ignorance. A person can be as intelligent as one could wish – and part of the reason I stopped reading was that the heroine struck me as stupid – yet draw wrong conclusions from false data.

In context, this makes sense. And a story showing a character’s slow passage from ignorance-fuelled racism to being ‘woke’ – if I may be pardoned for using such a term – would have to start in a place that, to us, seems uncomfortable or disgusting.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the author, even though I didn’t finish her book. Not yet, anyway. This is partly because I faced the same problem myself, when I was writing the Twilight of the Gods series. Gudrun – the heroine – was born and raised in Nazi Germany and educated by genuine Nazis. She absorbed social attitudes that would have made her profoundly unsympathetic, if I had chosen to dwell on them. And while she was smart enough to realise some of the problems with her society, she was not spurred to challenge it until she was confronted with something she couldn’t ignore. Before then, she lacked the context to understand the full evil of the regime.

It isn’t uncommon for reviewers to dislike a book. I’ve read plenty of novels I didn’t like. I could give a full list of things I dread to find in a book, tropes and patterns that lead to me discarding the book by throwing it out the nearest window (which is a little harder to do with an eReader.) I cannot fault the reviewer for disliking the book, although I do question the value of writing over 8000 words in a review which is really nothing more than a list of quotes and suchlike the reviewer found problematic. If the book is that bad, there is really nothing to be gained by taking so much time and trouble over reviewing it. I honestly don’t think I have ever wasted quite so much time writing a bad review. I don’t think I’m the only one who wondered if outrage was the true motive here.

And part of the reason I wonder that is because of what happened next.

The reviewer started a campaign to boycott the book. She urged others to write bad reviews – when the book had barely come out – and demand that the publisher pull it from the shelves without delay. This would have been bad enough, but others started slandering the author, accusing her of being everything from a racist to a sexist (and worse.) The campaign died down rapidly, once the book was actually launched – and Amazon cracked down on non-verified reviews – but a great deal of damage was done.

This affair has resurfaced. And it serves as a grim reminder of just how toxic social justice bully politics can become.

There is no shortage of books that feature ‘problematic’ characters and situations. Harry Turtledove, for example, has written books featuring a surviving Third Reich. Does this mean that Turtledove, a Jew, is a Nazi-sympathiser? John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire has a female aristocrat who is effectively a rapist. Does this say anything nasty about John Scalzi? SM Stirling’s Draka books focus on the terrifyingly-effective Draka bringing the entire world under the yoke and turning everyone they consider inferior into slaves. Does this imply that Stirling would want to live in such a world? Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold turned the racial balance of power upside down. Does that imply that Heinlein was prejudiced against whites? Is Naomi Alderman problematic because The Power turns women into monsters? Is …?

I could go on for hours, listing problematic books. But it would be pointless. It wouldn’t be that hard to come up with reasons to declare every book in the world ‘problematic.’ An author who presents a bad situation, or creates a character who is flawed, or doesn’t tick every last diversity checkbox, isn’t necessarily a bad person. And people who assume that they are – particularly when the character’s journey serves as a refutation of racist concepts – come across as bullies. The hysterical screeching makes it impossible to take the reviewers seriously.

The problem with social justice bullies is that they believe they can make problems go away by preventing people from talking about them. This is absurd. The real world is that which doesn’t go away when you cover your eyes and sing loudly to drown out everyone else. At best, everyone else feels bitter resentment, contempt and hatred – a hatred that will eventually explode into violence. At worst, you get blindsided by something your beliefs refuse to let you even consider a possible threat (like the people you regard as victims turning out to be victimisers instead). Just because someone got the short end of the stick, once upon a time, doesn’t automatically mean they are (or were) the good guys.

Fiction allows us to talk about social problems and work our way through them. Fiction can teach us that the ‘other’ is actually human, as well as many other important life lessons. But this can only work if the writers are allowed to write and the critics are allowed to criticise … calmly, reasonably and without hurling insults at the writers. Pointing and shrieking has its limits, when reviews are concerned. A reviewer who cannot put together a coherent explanation of what they didn’t like about a book – and one who missed the fundamental point – is a reviewer who lacks credibility.

Saying that one didn’t like a book is fine. No author in his right mind expects everyone to love his book. Bad reviews are an occupational hazard. But actively sabotaging the author is disgusting, despicable and nothing more than outright bullying. It makes everyone involved look like thugs. And all it does is make fandom more and more toxic, which isn’t good for its long-term health.

16 Responses to “Critics and Credibility”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard August 10, 2017 at 10:28 pm #

    IMO To say a book is “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobic” or [Fill In The Black] is a meaningless statement unless the reviewer can “quote large passages from the book” that actually show that the reviewer is correct.

    And IMO to attack the author of that book unless “you” can show strong evidence says more about “you” than it does about the author.

    What’s “funny” is that I hadn’t planned to purchase or read the attacked book until I heard about the fury about it. Mainly because I hadn’t heard about it. Now, I’m tempted to purchase it just to see how “good of read” it is. 👿

  2. An Marie August 10, 2017 at 11:23 pm #

    Reviews and people like that are just not worth even thinking about. There has always been people that think some books should be banned and/or pulled from libraries etc. Back in the day Payton Place was banned and wasn’t there something about Tom Sawyer and Uncle Tom’s cabin? hmmm, sorry don’t remember the details

    Wouldn’t it be a pretty bland life if all books were written in such away to not offend anyone?

    But also keep in mind that the hoopla may have been orchestrated to get people talking and interested in this book as Paul said he will be looking at it now so will hundreds of other people that wouldn’t have without the controversy …

    Note: I just did a search to see if I was remembering the above books correctly and was I ever surprised at some of the other books that some US Libraries banned, it my be more of a US thing then the other 1st world countries.

    • Jack Hudler August 10, 2017 at 11:25 pm #

      Little Black Sambo

    • Bruce Johnson October 20, 2017 at 9:28 pm #

      no one could ever write a book that didn’t at least offend someone. It would be impossible. a Christian book will offend muslems or jews or atheists or vise versea. a book about gays will offends the religious heck a book with one gay char. will do that but then a book without a gay char. and the author is suddenly a homophobe. Thus “Wouldn’t it be a pretty bland life if all books were written in such away to not offend anyone?” is a flawed question because there would be no books period.

  3. Jack Hudler August 10, 2017 at 11:25 pm #

    It’s so offensive, I’m going to buy the book, Beside, it looks interesting.

  4. kd7fds August 11, 2017 at 12:43 am #

    I rarely read reviews until after I have read the book. And I like books where the MC grows into a better person over time.

    How boring would books be if there was no conflict, no character growth, everything was sunshine and roses PC bs.

    I might actually look into this book now. I hadn’t heard of it before.

  5. RandyBeck August 11, 2017 at 9:03 am #

    That last paragraph says it all: “But actively sabotaging the author is disgusting, despicable and nothing more than outright bullying. It makes everyone involved look like thugs.”

    They should have learned this lesson with “RequiresHate” and Laura J. Mixon’s Hugo-winning essay that put her down. But it’s as if that never happened.

    Left-wing writers must walk on eggshells with every step they take.

  6. Bryce August 11, 2017 at 9:20 am #

    This I think is the problem in the world today, if you say anything against the norm that you are the most evil person in the world and you should never get to talk ever again. That is the same as reading books I have started books and did not like them where other could not believe I could not like it. I would not say that it was a terrible book just wrong for me. This is why we have so many genre of books, music, tv shows and movies.

    But I do get very tired of everything being politically correct. Chris is write I would put book down very quick if the author was using 21st century mind sets in 10st century book it was a totally different time and thing were done very differently.

    I am from the old school where getting the strap in school was just what was done not suspending them but a few swings with that. It was okay to pull you child’s pants down in the middle of a store and give them a spanking or was there mouth out with a bar of soup you had at home no matter what brand it was.

    To do most of those now you would have people calling the police or the CPS on you.

    IMO the reviewer needs to be objective and review types of books they like or look at it and say the writer was good at making sure they stayed within the context of the world for the period that the book is writhen in, but I thought that they did not keep the flow of the book going well.

    Nobody has a wrong opinion as long as it does not physically harm another person for real. But in the context of fiction we should accept all the different writing but say I m not in favor of that type of book.

  7. Billy August 11, 2017 at 4:23 pm #

    I wonder if the SJW’s realize in the USA , in every public school.

    There is a book with the N-word all through out the book, not just the regular N-word, but the
    more offensive version of it.

    * Of Mice and Men – Google it.

    It is required reading in English / History classes in most every school in the USA.
    (The students and Teachers even read it out loud)

    I asked a Teacher about it, she said it was history.

    • Jack Hudler August 11, 2017 at 8:49 pm #

      Here’s my daughters English Lit Pre-AP reading list for the 8th grade (Texas).
      All of then are excellent, but you’ll like that last one in the list.

      • Fall Semester
      Great American Short Stories
      The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
      The Crucible by Arthur Miller
      • Spring Semester
      Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
      The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
      To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
      Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

  8. Pyo August 11, 2017 at 6:52 pm #

    Ah, reviews. As a reader, I can firmly say that I found those on by and large utterly useless. I get that 5-star ones are important, with how the ama-system works, but largely I feel that it’s just mocking potentially critical readers: doesn’t matter how mediocre the novel is, there’ll be a ton of 5-star “this is the greatest thing ever!” reviews and beware anyone who says anything different about it!

    So I suppose that’s kinda the other side of the coin. Personally (if I’m unsure) I look at the 2-3 star reviews and see whether I feel they make a good point or not. Just raving about some politics is most likely not going to cut it. But they might have legitimate concerns about author’s handling difficult themes, so – who knows? Depends on the individual case, I suppose.

  9. Kristophr August 11, 2017 at 8:46 pm #

    I’ve talked to Stirling.

    He describes his politics as Athenian. If the Draka came for us, he’d be at the wall shooting them.

  10. Ihas August 11, 2017 at 8:54 pm #

    If I ever get around to publishing a book, I plan to hire someone to rally a boycott of it. Great publicity. “There’s no such thing as a bad review.”

  11. georgephillies August 12, 2017 at 1:59 am #

    Indeed, when books were banned in Boston, there were doubtless unfair suggestions that publishers paid the police officer banning things to make sure their book was banned in Boston.

  12. Anarchymedes August 14, 2017 at 10:06 am #

    All right, I don’t like Leo Tolstoy. I just don’t get him – not to mention I don’t know French, and a half of ‘War and Peace’ seems to be written in it. I have no problem saying this: I don’t like Leo Tolstoy. My mom’s reaction? All your sci-fi and fantasy is b/s! It’s nothing but commerce – speculation on base human instincts, selling the lowlives the mental drugs, instead of pulling them back from the spiritual abyss… And so on – until I stop her, or just hang up.
    My point being two-fold: first, there is nothing shameful about admitting that you don’t get something. I also don’t get all those superhero movies, for example: all those spider- and other verminmen. Is it the movies’ problem? Does it make them bad? No. It’s just that I haven’t grown up on comic books, and they don’t bring back sweet childhood memories to me. Is this Leo Tolstoy’s problem, that I don’t get him? That’s ridiculous: he’s one of the world’s classics. And that brings me to the second point I’m trying to make: just because you didn’t get, or didn’t like a work of art doesn’t make it bad. Remember that when you review it – or you may embarass yourself. Like, for example, you announce on the net that a book is ‘the worst, most evil, yada, yada, yada book ever’, and the author comes back with, ‘here is the biggest D-head to have read my book, ever.’ Who will be more credible?

  13. Christopher M. Chupik August 15, 2017 at 5:08 pm #

    People who declare something to be “the worst” are usually speaking from a very limited experience.

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