Thursday, November 28, 2013

OPINION: Another Review Controversy

Another day, another controversy. Sigh.  It seems like we can't go five minutes without one sometimes, and it's getting a little tiresome, but it's the cost of progress and a side-effect of a system that's ever-changing whilst ever-expanding. Anyway. Today a controversy appeared in the form of L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (a favourite author of mine, I must confess) replying to a negative review of one of his books, the 2002 science-fiction novel Archform: Beauty. I think it's worth looking at both the review and Modesitt's replies, because I think this is one of those cases where no-one looks particularly good. Firstly, I'll look at the review and then, with that context done, we can move on to the comments that caused the controversy.

The review, posted on Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature, is a fairly negative one. Opening with the score of 2 out of 5, it's clear the reviewer didn't really like it. They're also, shall we say,
dismissive of the author? I'll quote the opening paragraph:
"I had never heard of L.E. Modesitt, Jr. before seeing this beautiful little paperback on the shelf of my favorite second-hand bookstore. Sounded good so I picked it up—one of those blind faith purchases. Surprisingly, he’s been writing since 1982 and has more than forty novels, thirty short stories, and a collection published. At this point in the introduction, I would usually note, “This author is most famous for his…” or “Most notably, this author has written…”, but in this case, all that fails me."
Modesitt is a NYT Best-Selling Author, but he doesn't hold a huge profile in the community, a not-uncommon position to be in. That said, he's incredibly prolific and his Imager Portfolio books once again attracted buzz about his work. What the reviewer is doing here, however, is admitting they've never heard of him or his work, and can't be bothered looking up his most famous works (note: it's basically his Recluce Saga series, which gets its 17th and 18th, if my maths is correct, entries in 2014). The first half of the review comprises of the blurb and essentially an overview of what it's about and some of the details, so we can skip that.

The review proper opens with a quote from the book, and... yes, it's definitely a Modesitt quote. The reviewer makes fair criticisms about the characters, but then makes a point I find highly amusing. That point is "There’s nothing intricate or enlightening from the words uttered other than the occasional glimpse of opinion which Modesitt decided to slide into the novel as a substitute for a soapbox.", and I find this amusing because this is essentially what Modesitt does. Modesitt does not write light-hearted, happy-go-lucky, singing-and-dancing fiction. His books almost always contain discussions about human nature, morality, religion, economics, social behaviour and so-on. That's what he's done for three decades now (two as of Archform: Beauty), so any Modesitt reader would know what to expect. It's essentially like criticising Stephen King for using slurs in his work. The third paragraph is essentially the same, and can probably be discounted.

The penultimate paragraph uses hindsight to criticise the science in the book, using an example of some technology that released *after* the novel as a reason as for why Modesitt's approach to technology is wrong. Well, that doesn't make any sense. Science-fiction authors are often ahead of, or wildly behind, the curve of scientific and technological progress. Remember Arthur C. Clarke talking about moon bases? Yeah, never happened, did it? What matters with technology and science in sci-fi novels is that it makes sense in that  specific context, and that the author makes you believe that it makes sense. This is contrasted by the final paragraph, which praises the foresight in other regards - see? Like I said, authors are either behind or ahead.

The closing line is about as constructive as a block of TNT, in which the reviewer says they won't try his (better) works. Well, brilliant. It's a review that doesn't really go into what was good or bad about the book, but essentially just slates it (bar that one moment of praise) and the reviewer states they probably won't try anything else. You can see why this review might be a little problematic. It's not really constructive, and the reviewer seems to revel in their ignorance and apathy about Modesitt's work. And then this happens...

Oops. Oh, Mr Modesitt, did you have to? Commenting is bad enough, but that's a really bad foot to start on. It's a complete and utter breach of blogging etiquette. Yes, the book got great reviews, and it's actually probably quite good (I've got it, but not read it), but that doesn't really have much relevance. We then descend into a discussion in the comments about opinions and accuracy. And, to be fair, Modesitt does not actually say anything that is untrue. Just because you have a viewpoint, it doesn't mean you're right (nor wrong), for example. This goes on for a short while until we have perhaps Modesitt's third failing (after the first comment and then continuing to comment), which is when he states he writes books for people who think.

Yeah. Now, this has me conflicted. Firstly, it looks very arrogant and is quite confrontational, and I'll agree it was a misstep. But, you know? As someone who's read maybe ten or so of Modesitt's novels, it's *true*. Modesitt does not write fiction that is 'light'. He does not write fiction that is necessarily easy or unchallenging. His books challenge the way you think, they go into the ins-and-outs of morality, about how balances must be maintained, about how evil people can do good things and good people can do evil things, and many other things. Anyone who reads Modesitt with even a hint of regularity can tell you that. If you don't like that in books, chances are you would not like Modesitt. This blog post is a perfect example of what Modesitt is like, or of course we can have a quote from the book in question. Criticising Modesitt for writing what he does, and has always written, strikes me as very odd.

I think it's a case of both parties looking bad here. The review was pretty poor as reviews go, mostly because it feels like it doesn't really go into anything except "this book had things I didn't like or expect therefore it's poorer for it". It criticised Modesitt for the very things he's loved by his readers for. The reviewer came off as disinterested and even dismissive of the author's bibliography, and it's clear from the opening that they couldn't even really be bothered to research his work. Modesitt is in the wrong for breaking etiquette and for responding in a rather bizarre (and arrogant-sounding) way. So I don't think either gets away cleanly.

But to be honest? I think the reviewer comes across worst, especially with this little addition later on:

Tip for you here, Ian Sales: A good author can write a bad book. A bad book does not a bad author make, right? Calling an author "shit" because you don't like what they've done is not an opinion, it's an attack. It is the book that is bad, not the author. And just because you don't like a book, doesn't make it "shit", okay?

So yeah, that's what I'm thinking. I think both parties involved have really not done anything to stop this happening, and whilst I don't think the reviewer necessarily instigated it, they've certainly not helped their own case by arguing back and then by posting (and arguably endorsing) a 'verbal' attack on the author. Modesitt shouldn't have commented, especially in the way he did, and for most people I think that's the core of the matter. But no, I do not believe either party is innocent, here.


  1. Ian Sales isn't the author of the review. Just so you know.

    1. I never stated he was, and I assume my screencap makes it clear the reviewer was quoting Ian (why would he refer to himself as Ian Sales?)

    2. "I think the reviewer comes off worst, especially with this little addition later on"
      The only logical reading of that is that the addition came from the reviewer.
      "The reviewer [hasn't] helped their case by posting a 'verbal' attack on the author."
      The only logical reading of that is that the verbal attack was by the reviewer.
      So you certainly imply that Ian Sales wrote the review even if that wasn't your intent.

      As for the review itself, I don't see a problem with criticism of an author doing what he always does. If it helps the reader judge the book what's wrong? And just because he always does it doesn't mean he (always) does it well.

  2. Your research, Kathryn, is as poor as the research in the SF Potpourri review that you are criticising. It's a poor review, I entirely agree -- much of its length is wasted on a plot outline, which is something I don't expect of any reviewer whose age is in double digits.

    However, to question the cognomen of a third party commenter on Twitter, when that is in fact his name? Something which could be trivially discovered by, say, clicking on his Twitter profile -- which would have led you to -- or a quick Google might have led you to

    That's a really very cheap shot indeed, particularly when I discover that it's from someone who seems to go out of their way to hide their own surname. You make yourself look just as bad as the writer of that rather wretched review that you're attacking.

    I am no Christian, but I think there seems to be something in your eye. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, check Matthew 7:5.)

    1. 1. I have no idea what you're saying. Are you, like the above commenter, under the impression I think the reviewer and Ian Sales are one and the same? I didn't say that at all, and my screencap of the review (heck, read the thing) makes it clear they're not the same. I never put it forward that Ian Sales was not Ian Sales, either, so I have utterly no idea what your point is.

      2. "Hide my surname"? Yeah, the fact I'm trans (and not 'out') is a pretty good reason for hiding my surname, and when I do give one it's not a 'real' one. Why? I quite like my privacy, and you never know who you'll cross paths with. It's for my own protection. That's it. And it's certainly none of your business, even though I've countered your point.

      So no, there is no "cheap shot" here, except the one put forward in your comment.

  3. I plead guilty to going too far with my last comment, but I still don't believe
    that pointing out there are other points of view, especially when we're talking about an older book, is a "breach of blogging etiquette." Anything I, or any other author, writes is fair game for comment. That comes with the profession. Why shouldn't the same rules apply to what anyone else writes for public comment -- especially anonymously or under a blogging name?

    The internet provides freedom to comment openly, and that's good, but to say that I can't or shouldn't comment on a "review," seems a bit one-sided, especially since the initial comment was merely to suggest there was another side. There is a significant difference between "reader reviews" as posted on Amazon or B&N or other bookstore sites and websites that provide "reviews." The former are opinions of readers and may or may not be analytical or good or bad. The latter are posted as at least attempts at semi-professional reviews. One can certainly question the wisdom of a writer who attempts to point out flaws in any review, or the fact that a review is well outside the scope of what other professional reviewers have said, but to say that a reviewer, especially one who is essentially anonymous, should be exempt from comments by an author and that such comments are a breach of etiquette?

    1. I don't believe you went too far with your last comment. It certainly didn't help matters, but it's true. I think the first comment was enough, sadly.

      It's held as etiquette precisely because this sort of thing happens when authors 'breach' it. The number of times a 'controversy' has arisen because an author didn't like what a reviewer said, for example. I think it's because with a lot of newer and younger authors especially, there's a large fan-base. I was essentially shouted down on a forum because an author and their fans didn't agree with my review of a specific book, and as such little-to-no critical discussion happened and instead I was flat-out told I was wrong. With yourself it's not so much an issue, largely because you don't "command" a fan-base like more recent authors (although there are some exceptions like Anne Rice), but with some, the author does wield the power to silence or drown-out the noise of nay-sayers, and that's not a power to be wielded lightly.

      I totally understand what you're saying, and authors can contribute constructively to negative reviews, it's just when they appear to be picking fights (not saying you were, but what you said seemed to have ruffled some feathers) that these things kick off, and many authors abstain from commenting on reviews simply to avoid any chance of this happening.

    2. Public webpages, blogs, etc are fair game for comments from any source. Tools exist to moderate if needed. The only time I am sympathetic to a 'breach of etiquette' is when it involves fan centric websites designed to be 'fan spaces'.