On slagging off other writers' books


I like the idea, but what I found really intriguing was this particular phrase:

If they have done anything wrong (and I am unconvinced they did), they have been punished well beyond their desert.

(Emphasis mine.)

I understood what he meant immediately, but I thought I couldn’t remember ever seeing the word “desert” used in quite that way before. So I jumped over to the OED and found, among others, this definition:

That which is deserved; a due reward or recompense, whether good or evil.

All my life I’ve heard about people getting “their just desserts”. I’ve even seen it spelled that way. So not only has Mr. Swanwick set a good example as a writer–he’s set a good example grammatically too. Now I really want to read something else by him.

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Heh, “just deserts” is one of those classic archaic sayings that’s stuck around primarily to confuse people. I personally group it into the spellings like spelt, spoilt, leapt, burnt, and so on, which are chiefly British but not unheard of around the world. Desert is also weird because, like the sandy desert and the tasty dessert, it’s a noun, and talking about things people deserve via nouns is kind of weird. I think most people say “beyond what they deserve.”

Anyway, I applaud Mr. Swanwick and think it’s a very good point that as an author, his goal is not to unnecessarily criticize another author’s books. If he was at a meeting with that author, or he and the author were working together, undoubtedly he would offer much criticism to the individual. But wasting his time and the time of his readers to focus on negativity doesn’t help anyone, considering he is well aware that his opinion will influence others much more than a friend or a book review.

I think this is also the same mentality behind creative people not responding to reviews or public criticisms of their work. At least, the classy ones don’t.

I get where he’s coming from, but I live in a very different space. First of all, this right here is the closest I come to spouting off on social media. I bailed on Facebook years ago, never bothered with Twitter, and am chronically shy about starting conversations, even online, rather than joining existing ones. Also, and probably more importantly, I am not a professional writer. Someday maybe, but certainly not yet. So there isn’t a sense that I’d be slagging my colleagues if I publicly badmouth their crappiest work. There’s also the fact that here at BBS, I’m just another voice in the forum, without a particular audience that’s paying particular attention to me over any other given commenter. So there isn’t much damage I could do at any rate.

Still, I have no qualms about telling people what I think about Dan Brown’s writing, if asked. Or the failures of Scott Smith’s The Ruins. Sure, those guys made a mint off their bestsellers, and lots of people liked them. Big deal. Who am I to criticize? Well, I’m a reader. I subscribe to the idea I first heard from Harlan Ellison that everyone is entitled to their own informed opinion, and so if I’ve read a particular book or seen a particular movie and I’ve satisfied myself that I have a reasonably well-informed opinion of its merits and shortcomings, I don’t mind voicing those. I agree that filling up the world with my negative opinions doesn’t feel as constructive as offering my recommendations of what I actually liked and why. And yet, if I’ve read something that provoked a negative reaction in me that was stronger than merely boredom or garden-variety “not working for me” distaste, that reaction might be of interest to someone, particularly if they asked. If someone asked me what I thought about Paul Haggis’ Crash winning the Best Picture Oscar, I’d fill their ears with everything I found wrong with that mindless waste of celluloid (and for once I’d go toe-to-toe with Ebert over this one). I can’t hurt Paul Haggis, nor his career (and I wouldn’t want to), but though I outwardly show respect for the opinions of those who preferred that movie over Brokeback Mountain, I privately wonder what in the hell is wrong with those people. It’s similar to my tolerance for the religiously devout. I can carry on perfectly polite and amicable conversations (even disagreements) with theists, but somewhere in the back of my mind lingers a persistent suspicion that their intellectual development is somewhat incomplete. I square this with the idea that they probably believe I’m damned to perdition, but they’ll still share a sixpack of Dr Pepper with me, and the world goes 'round and 'round.

It strikes me as a trifle disingenuous to mention in a Facebook post that something you read struck you as lame, or ill-conceived, or poorly-executed, or simply flat-out wrong, and when someone asks you what it was you read, you coyly refuse to answer on the grounds that you don’t want to incriminate the author with your negative opinion. Then why in the world did you speak up in the first place? Facebook isn’t really a private journal for one to muse out loud; there’s an audience (however small; my own Friends list never reached three figures) and it’s kinda dumb to pretend they’re not there. And it strikes me as a teeny bit rude to bring up a thought or opinion that you aren’t prepared to clarify with a corroborating fact or extenuating circumstance or two. If you post, “Boy, I read the most nauseating sonnet this morning, completely put me off my oatmeal, so now I’m starving,” and somebody’s interested enough to ask, “What sonnet was that?” now you’ve painted yourself into a corner. If you don’t want to rat out the fact that your Great Aunt Esmeralda can’t string two iambs together with both hands and a staple gun, you then say, “Oh, I’d rather not say; the point was I missed my breakfast,” and you sound like a bit of a bait-and-switch twit for selling your headline with a juicy kernel of dirt and paying it off with a high-minded platitude that makes your readers sorry they cared for a second about what you were saying.

There’s an ancient wisdom behind mom’s old proverb “if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.” Don’t just fill the air with your opinion about some unnamed hack’s failures in order to get it out of your system, and then feel everything’s fine if you just don’t name the hack. Now you’ve just alerted the multitudes about the existence of some work of (arguable) art that fails in ways you found interesting enough to expound upon, but you won’t condescend to name to said multitudes so that they may see if they share your opinion, or perhaps might like to challenge it. In my opinion, that’s about as insulting to your audience as your negative criticism might be to the artist in question.


If you’ve got nothing positive to say… be quite.

Swanwick isn’t stand out here, he’s in the majority, and ‘classiness’ isn’t the prime motivation for most authors.

In truth, there’s a definite price to be paid for honestly evaluating the bad work of fellow authors. It’s understandable that neither Swanwick nor Cory want to be pariahs in their field, but classy? It may be a nice way to treat fellow writers, but it’s a poor way to treat fellow readers and paying customers. “Classy” would either be honest recommendations or refusal to give any recommendations at all.

Writer’s blog recommendations seem to fall into two general categories. Some writers will recommend nearly anything written by one of their friends or associates. Other writers will only recommend books they have actually have found to be of high quality.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to put Cory in the first category. I totally get wanting to give your friends a leg up, but recommending crap doesn’t help friends, readers, or the author doing the recommending.


I’ve found I don’t like Cory’s recommendations, so I ignore them. It doesn’t make them totally invalid, they are subjective after all, albeit unreliable.

Agreed. My suspicion is that the unreliability of Cory’s recommendations is mostly caused by his feeling bound to compliment the works of friends and associates, whether or not those works are of any particular quality. This is routine behavior in the publishing world, so not at all surprising, but neither does it qualify as ‘classy’.

There actually are a handful of top writers who rarely recommend the works of others, but when they do, it will usually mark a must-read.


I can’t disagree.

This is the reason I feel critics are important. Science/speculative fiction has always been a little weak in the regard, as the critics are very often writers in the genre themselves, and it’s a smaller world than mainstream, so there’s more worry about toe-stepping.

Not that there hasn’t been some great literary criticism in SF, but aside from various best-of collections, actual criticism of contemporary work has always seemed hard to come by.

If you have nothing positive to say come and sit next to me.


Exactly. If you’re only going to say good things, might as well kiss criticism good bye.
It’s not about what you say but how you say it.

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Criticism offers a solution and doesn’t simply slag off people’s efforts. And unless you’ve tried something yourself, and realise how hard it can be, you don’t get to be a critic.

Well, actually I thought there was an interesting point made here. From the perspective of information theory, if you’re in a space where most things aren’t good, then saying they’re not good conveys very little information, and therefore is arguably not very valuable. In such a space, it is much more valuable to mention the good. Of course the argument can be made vice versa if the space contains most things that are good, but sadly that wouldn’t apply to the space of literature.
That said, if there is a significant cost to encountering something bad, then knowing that is useful, even if the information conveyed is small. Although I suppose you could assume that if you haven’t heard anything good, then that must mean it is bad…


I can’t help but think that analyzing why something failed is going to produce useful information. Probably more useful (certainly more useful) than scrotum rubbing PR based ‘features.’

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the space of books that I don’t think is worth reading is so large
that there’s no point trying to map it – especially since such a list
is a lot less useful than a list of books that I do rate as the good

I very much appreciate Cory’s approach to reviewing. When I spot a book that Cory has reviewed, I don’t have to try to remember if he liked it or not. If I remember it via Cory, he thought it was worth reading. And as a result, I’ve confidently purchase many of the books that he’s recommended.

It is, indeed, a useful thing to remember that Cory (and Mark too, for that matter) tends to reserve his mentions of new pop culture items like books and movies and TV shows for those about which he feels enough enthusiasm to want to recommend. These guys consume media and know their stuff, but since they’re not technically paid critics, they’re under no obligation to critique things they don’t like or don’t want to be bothered with, So yeah, a fairly good rule of thumb is, if it’s new and they mention it here (unless it’s actually newsworthily awful), then they probably recommend it.

But I treat most of Cory’s and Mark’s recommendations in a manner somewhat like I treat most critics’ reviews. I’ve bought many things that they’ve raved over, and many of the things they’ve loved I’ve enjoyed as well, whereas a few of them missed the mark with me. By now, I’ve come to know their tastes well enough to have a pretty good idea when I’m going to like what they like, and when I’m going to disagree. And reaching that point has made their recommendations more valuable to me. I’ve had to learn that no critic is a useful predictor of how you’ll like anything until you’ve had time and opportunity enough to compare your tastes.

So. Through this site I’ve learned that I like John Scalzi and Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books. But I’ve also learned that Ryan North is very hit-or-miss with me, and I’m just never going to appreciate Amanda Palmer’s work.

Years ago I found that David Elliott (the movie critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune) was a useful “anti-critic” for me, in that most movies that I really loved he tended to really hate, and vice-versa. Once I realized that, I could put his opinions to good use.

I don’t take back anything that I wrote above, but I gotta say that I don’t share Cory’s taste in music.

At all.


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Yeah I can’t say while I would go read a lot of the stuff that does so well with the general readership in the world. I find a lot of it not even interesting just from the descriptions, but I do have a fondness for the Doc Savage pulps which are nowhere near stellar writing and I make no case for them but I personally get great enjoyment from the stories and I have found that I am also a sucker for Steampunk so one mans trash and all. Long ago I realized it may be trash writing and not really my thing but PEOPLE ARE READING and that is a good thing.

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