discussions genre stuff

Everyone’s A Critic

Two good articles in the Guardian today on the role of critics in the world of social media.

Here’s the first:

Once upon a time, critics could close that breach through a process close to cultural brainwashing. They could get people to see and love The Social Network, to read Freedom, to watch Boardwalk Empire. Now they can’t.

And then the critics respond, which, though touches on the classic elitism vs popularity debate, also sees the critics react positively to online debate.

The reason why professional critics agree a lot is that they tend to be of a type. They’ve often had a go at what they’re reviewing (they went to art school or were in a rubbish band or tried acting), they like writing and they’re a product of their age… But that’s because we all want our culture to do the same things. We have similar taste. The big difference Facebook and, especially, Twitter has made is that it is easier for critics to hear other people’s opinions. Even then, though, you tend to hear similar views to your own

I was talking about the other side of this – promotion – with my US editor on the phone the other night. We both said that it seemed difficult for anyone to make a splash in the blogosphere anymore (unless you have a fat pile of marketing cash, which is why you saw many bloggers wanting to talk about The Passage). There’s so much white noise out there, to be heard (of course, as an author you’re interested in your book being talked about) is increasingly difficult. Now you want to have your book discussed in big venues – newspapers, for example, or Publishers Weekly – so that people might hear of you.

It struck me then: with so much white noise, people tend to look for opinion beacons. So I’d say that the former (genre) institutions of value that have survived web 2.0 – SFX magazine, the Guardian review section (no matter what people think about it) (as well as the bloggers who started off years ago, stayed at it solidly and who now have a great following) – may find themselves with greater influence once again. Given how forward-thinking SF fandom is, we’ll probably start seeing this being repeated in other forms of media soon.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

24 replies on “Everyone’s A Critic”

Completely agree re: the opinion beacons. I think (see your earlier post on mega-blogs) that publishers are trying to create their own as well.

I do think (again, like the mega blog thing) we’re working with a very small sample size and a very short period of time. I don’t think that the hyper-incestuous world of UK genre book blogging is a good example of the UK, genre, books or blogging.

I would point out that most bloggers aren’t trying to be critics. This isn’t a cheeky jibe towards anyone in particular (take THAT, thefingersofgod!) – rather an acknowledgement that 85%+ of blogs still hold true to the original meaning of someone’s web-based journal, and, accordingly, their book-related content is ‘I saw this, I liked it.’ or ‘I am excited about this thing coming soon…’.

This is completely fine as far as the marketing budget is concerned: the more people that cut-and-paste the plot synopsis & throw around the cover art, the better. You get 99 out of the first 100 Google results that way. That’s using social media to raise awareness – a bit of a square peg kind of situation, but a pretty good idea.

Speaking just for me pesronally, this is not true. It’s true that there’s a lot of white noise out there, but every now and again I come across a little fountain of knowledge and good taste on the Intertubes and follow it. So I found your books via the (now sadly discontinued) site Speculative Horizons. And I’ve found other stuff through recommendations by Charlie Stross or Jeff Vandermeer.

The main stream media otoh seem to be solely useful for counterindication, i.e. if certain publications absolutely hate something I’ll check it out because chances are I’ll find it interesting.

Unless I misunderstood, I don’t think Mark was saying that the Pillars of Reliability have to be from traditional or print media.

I don’t see either Charlie Stross and Jeff VanderMeer would counting as your average bloggers. Or “bloggers” at all, really.

An interesting trend in blogging is one of not standing out – that is some sort of unconscious heard like mentality is kicking in – I think that’s partly to do with looking like you’re knowledgable by having read the ‘hot’ books that everyone else has read and partly because it’s hard to stand out and to do something that other people will appreciate and respond to.

The other side of the white noise thing that is that all publishers have now ‘discovered blogging’ as a tool to get their authors read and collectively (though this isn’t a criticism) have flooded bloggers with books – levelling the playing field but also making it harder for one or two titles to stand out.

In an ideal world everyone would be talking about less books on their own blog but each blog taking a wider spread of new and old. Doing that think where when I was growing up we could just indulge in whatever direction we fancied – though blogging opens you up to thinking about what image your reading presents of you and sometimes it’s easier to present something that isn’t going to rock any boats?

Jared – I think you’re right on the blogging/critic disparity, and that’s no bad thing. Do bloggers speak a better / more powerful language? Possibly. That said I like a John Clute review as much for the value of what can be read into a book, even though I know it’s not a language most can digest.

As for snippets and discussions – yeah, I never thought about those things you know. We talk largely of reviews or criticism, but not the infrastructure of it all. I’m all for the scrapbook approach. It’s something extra.

WordofMouth – thanks for stopping by. I guess perhaps that’s also what I meant by review beacons – Speculative Horizons was one of the early bloggers and built up a big following. I think amidst the white noise, sites like that really do stand out – and that’s all for the good.

But that’s an interesting point regarding certain publications hating something – do you mean as in, they love to hate things? I like to think that such fashionable negativity has a decreasing value these days.

Gav – I agree on much of that, yes. Publishers have stormed in to try and influence the field (as their job requires). Interesting about the herd mentality – I’d not noticed that (though I wasn’t looking for it).

It’s a shame there is a bandwagon, though; variety was what made internet book discussion good in the first place.

As far as fantasy readers goes, it’s kind of a close-knit community, yeah? Closer than, say, thriller readers or whatever.

No one wants to be the one who stands up and says: “You know what? I just didn’t like THE WAY OF KINGS.”

Sam: the fantasy blogging community is close-knit, sure, but it’s pretty fractious. I suggest that this group tends not to disagree because their tastes are similar (e.g. block quote #2 above)rather than because they don’t wish to rock the boat.

Gav: Nope. I’m saying that fantasy bloggers tend to share tastes and opinions about the materials they review. There are definitely outsider blogs; I wouldn’t begin to suggest that people don’t blog because they think people won’t like what they have to say.

I follow a few blogs, and I don’t really see the same sort of content to be honest. The main ones I look to for reviews are The Wertzone, Between Two Books and The Speculative Scotsman (This one got me onto Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), and I don’t see a lot of overlap. The thing that blogs have over published reviews is that they’re from ‘real people’, and if you can find bloggers with similar tastes to you then you’re probably more likely to buy the book than if it was Mr Generic Guy writing a review for the Independent or a magazine.

As for making a splash; I’ve never done it, but then again I’ve never really tried. I’ve had a few blogs over the years and none of them ever really got more than a handful of followers at most. Unless you’ve got something to offer, or somehow get a lot of hits/visitors, then you’re just one more drop of water in the blogopool. No one’s going to pay much attention to a blogger if they’ve nothing to offer.

I think I missed the point again. My brain isn’t in gear yet.

I’m surprised to see publishers concerned about blogging being a network of too widely distributed reviewers which lack central arbiters of taste.

This has always been the way blogging seemed to work. It has never had the cohesion of print media. The closest equivalent has been the cross-polination at times between active bloggers who are also established, existing critics or reviewers in print or in their own popular media (TV or long established internet sites) such as Roger Ebert or Harry Knowles – or others who have already been mentioned.

Roger Ebert is a fine case in point: a critic who spans both a populist appeal and the more traditional role of the critic. He is also a inveterate Twitterer and blogger who has really embraced social media’s ability to distribute his message (and to engage in discussion with his fans).

SFF may be a smaller section of the overall market for blogs, but it has long been one of the earliest adopters of new media. And it has and continues to be supported by enthusiastic fans first and critics a distant second.

Bloggers have a rapacious hunger when it comes to new releases – only a handful seem to delve much deeper into older or less accessible works. Their tastes, while rooted in their own individual peccadilloes, tend towards the broadly popular – at least within the larger genre. So, while the influence of any one individual blogger may be widely distributed and few readers will limit themselves to the opinions just a select few – I’ve certainly observed a wildfire like effect when it comes to books and the blogsphere. The flames of PR may not last for weeks or rest in the hands of a single set of critics, but a lot of smaller voices carry the torch in all directions.

This would seem to be ideal for the PR departments of publishing who need expend very little effort and cash outside of an initial seeding of ARCs. Of course, they have less say and little control over the end results; and such campaigns may be snuffed out quickly by the next wave of new releases. But as already pointed out, the *majority* of bloggers tend towards a herd mentality and are still shy of overly negative reviews. So at the very least, you get a lot of people recommending and talking about your book all at once.

I think that the latter tendency naturally changes in many cases, as individual bloggers both mature -in the sense of gaining confidence not that their approaches are juvenile- and grow disillusioned with mediocre offerings. I’ve seen this in action, even over the course of just a year.

Finally, what holds hope for me personally, is that the fan quotient seems not to have diminished. Fans still power the vast number of blogs, not professional bloggers or even a new generation of critics. This has its downside if you are looking for in-debth, unstinting literary criticism – but even here, there are sites and individuals who cater to such needs. And it does mean that enthusiasm for the genre as a whole still dominates.

Surely that is a good thing, for all those who want their SFF books noticed and talked about and ultimately purchased by the people who are most likely to enjoy them.


I think that there are such things as critical communities.

Different communities value different venues in different ways and allow them to effect the discussion accordingly. For example, despite reading quite a lot of genre, I find it genuinely surprising that anyone would pay attention to SFX.

These critical communities are partly about taste but they’re also socially constructed. It’s not just about trust, it’s also about social standing within a wider community.

I’d even go so far as to suggest that a large chunk (though not all) of the evaluative processes that go into working out who is a good critic are in fact sub-vocalised acts of social submission. When we say “X is a good critic” we’re reflecting the values of a certain community and thereby easing our own integration into it.

So when we talk about pillars of opinion, what we are really asking is ‘who has social standing?’

Obviously, this ties in with what Gav was saying about a herd mentality among bloggers. Bloggers (and reviewers and critics too) allow their critical agenda to be influenced on the basis of the critical community they belong to and what the publishers have managed to do is to essentially ‘buy’ the critical agenda through parties, exclusive interviews and review copies.

If you want to see the alternative approach to all of this then look at my blog. I read, watch and comment upon a wide array of topics but I’m read by like 3 people and the only time my reviews are really discussed is when they happen to intersect with the trends surging through various critical communities.

In many ways, the challenge facing the blogger is the same one facing us as individuals. Do we go our own way and exert our autonomy at the risk of winding up on our own, or do we go with the flow and join existing communities by sacrificing our autonomy for the respect of the group and a sense of belonging? for some people the challenge is non-existent because their tastes and values and interests map quite neatly onto existing critical communities. But for others, the tension is quite a challenging one.

@Jonathan M

but I’m read by like 3 people and the only time my reviews are really discussed is when they happen to intersect with the trends surging through various critical communities.

Hah, yes. That said, I personally like your blog precisely for the reason that you do cover the stuff which I might not always find out easily.

Though is the discussion problem because of the 90/9/1 rule. I have to admit I’m terrible for reading peoples blogs and not commenting. I wonder if it might be nice to pop in a “hey, interesting post” type comment, but then worry that that is terribly inane even if it would let people know that someone cares.

I used to have a blog, it ran for three years, and was riot of book reviews, thoughts on cinema, navel gazing about music, some social commentary and comics too. Not exactly a tight focus, I grant you, more a lefty, pop culture ramble. I think I topped out at around 12 followers a day. The point was, I enjoyed writing. I think it made me a better writer just for the simple fact I kept at it for so long. I wouldn’t say my critical facility improved particularly but I had fun. My professional reviews were posted at so I am a critic in a sense, but I couldn’t honestly say my blog was anything more than enthusiasm and ranting.

Bloggers need to be self aware enough to admit when they are fans who want to enthuse about books they love, or whether they are seriously going to dissect the novel’s themes, prose, pace and merit. This being the internet, they’re going to need to defend their reviews from (shock!) differing opinions, and not take it personally when people dare to have (shock!) differing opinions…

So what I’m trying to say is – bloggers, we need some collective honesty. Being on a ARC mailing list doesn’t make you a critic. Simply reading new releases and joining the bloggosphere chorus of ‘X’ author is teh awesums!’ isn’t going to cut it. There’s absolutely no shame in just being a fan who enjoys reading, and enjoys writing about reading. However, if you compose thoughtful, well-researched, knowledgable reviews that actually dare to say when something is bad (and why!) then you deserve Mark’s excellent title of ‘Opinion Beacon’.

We’ve been through a period when the big media companies could define taste because, while most people could afford newspapers, they couldn’t afford to run one. That’s gradually gone away. I guess it started because ordinary people had the purchasing power to make the likes of Elvis and the Beatles popular despite what the gatekeepers said about them, and it has been greatly accelerated now that anyone can start an online newspaper.

The media companies, however, still need to make money in large quantities, because the bigger you are the more money it takes to stay in business. So now, while they still hope to define taste, they spend a lot of time trying to spot future trends and exploit them. If they get it right they will appear to be taste leaders.

We might expect that popular taste is fairly broadly distributed. The default assumption is that distributions follow a bell curve. But popular taste tends much more towards a power law with a much sharper peak to the distribution. As various people have pointed out, within any community there is a process of positive feedback because people want to be seen to be in with the crowd, not an outsider. Thus there still seems to be a standard for popular taste.

One of the beauties of the Internet is that we can also see a whole host of sub-communities in which people don’t follow the main herd, but have their own herd instead. Mandelbrot-like, they tend to mimic the way the bigger group works. So mainstream culture might look down on SF&F, unless it is marketed for young people. But there will be a fantasy fan community where, as Sam notes, no one wants to say they don’t like The Way of Kings. And there will be other, smaller communities where people don’t want to say that they do like The Way of Kings.

What is means to be a “critic” in such an environment is open to debate, but personally I don’t see much sense in wanting to be an authority, a taste leader or whatever, because you only end up getting caught in the sort of social games that Jonathan describes. What I try to do instead is ask questions. Why does this book work for me? Why do other people like it when I don’t (or vice versa)? How does the author make this work? Hopefully people will find that interesting, whether they share my taste in books or not.

“the publishers have managed to do is to essentially ‘buy’ the critical agenda through parties, exclusive interviews and review copies.”

The odd press junket can be entertaining for the purposes of catching up with people, but beyond that it’s not something you’d compromise your principles for. The access-to-authors argument is more interesting, which is why the few interviews I’ve done on other sties have been organised directly with the author, not the PR department.

The review copy one is more troublesome. I note that if I buy a book and it sucks, I’m damn well going to finish it and thus can review it. If an ARC is rubbish I’m more likely to drop it halfway through due to the lack of personal investment in it. From that angle I agree ARCs can actually be counter-productive, if only on rare occasions.

Still, whilst there are legitimate concerns over blog reviewing practices, I have considerably less about them than any venue where money is exchanged and especially if advertising is involved. That muddies the waters to the point of uselessness, even if book reviewing hasn’t reached the same blatantly compromised level as computer games yet (where Triple-A releases routinely get maximum scores despite being bug-ridden messes).

I think people are running the risk of painting everyone with the same brush, here. There are communities online, now, and it does allow you to self-ghetto-ize your blog-reading, but this doesn’t necessarily mean we all become homogenised. For example, all the blogs I read adore China Mieville – I’ve only liked “The Scar”, and found his other novels very difficult to get into, despite appreciating his way with words. True, when I first noticed this, I did wonder if there was something wrong with me for not “getting it”, but that’s normal for newcomers in any situation. As people read and write more for their blogs, they’ll become more comfortable with voicing their own opinions, ignoring authors they don’t like despite saturation coverage elsewhere.

Blogs can use big titles/releases to draw an audience, but what then makes a difference is how good their stuff is – maybe someone comes to your site because you reviewed “The Way of Kings”, or a new Horus Heresy title from Black Library (my site traffic usually explodes when I review the latter), but if they stick around? If they subscribe to the RSS feed? That is what we want, surely? If you review a broad range of novels – within the genre or otherwise (which is why I like Amanda’s Floor To Ceiling Books) – then readers who stick around will see other titles that might catch their eye. I’ve discovered plenty of authors by reading/following certain blogs (I admit that I follow rather a lot of them), and I hope my own blog does the same – that is, after all, why I write it: I love reading, and I want to tell people about it. Other posts – artwork, interviews, etc. – add some other stuff that I find interesting and hope others do, too.

The other problem for reviewers is that many people don’t want to read long reviews. They’re window-shopping for opinions on a book they want to read. They don’t want to read a 1,000-word review, they want a paragraph or snippet of “I liked this”, “I didn’t like this”, or “it’s ok”. My reviews are LONG, I’m aware that sometimes they are too long, but I like writing about the pace, characters, politics, social commentary, and perceived influences and comparisons that can be made.

It would be nice if more people left comments, though – that might help to start the discussions that are apparently lacking, but also let bloggers know what works and what doesn’t (which I know I would welcome).

Well, I leave you kids alone for a minute…

Eric – I’m not sure publishers are concerned about that, per se, just with so many voices (many of which have little audience) , it’s tough to work out how to spend their resources. Hence the bigger venues becoming increasingly important once again (a shame, I’ll admit).

Jonathan – yes, I agree with a lot of what you say there. I especially think that self-questioning becomes more important the more the internet evolves, and there are more layers of complexity.

Den – yes, as you say, important that you enjoy the act of writing in the first place. I think that certainly shows.

Cheryl – I like the theory you bring in there, especially with popular tastes, and the social games you and Jonathan mention, really are interesting elements to this. The very fact that feedback can be given openly leads to an interesting bunch of psychologies. Perhaps things were a great deal easier before that was the case, but now there isn’t just the review, there is the contemplation of an agenda (whatever that may be).

Then again, I suppose that’s often been the case with magazine reviewing in the past – and whatever the case, being open is a damn site better than cronyism (even if it’s a sort of monetarism).

Adam – thanks for sharing there. You mean canapés don’t buy good reviews? Dammit! I’m not familiar with the computer games scene, though I do know it has a huge amount of money and power compared to literature. Is it pretty nepotistic then?

Tangent: I’ve operated The OF Blog for 6.5 years so far. During that time, its audience has changed at least twice, as I seem to drop quite a few followers of one sort and gain a whole new set without seeing any long-term dip in numbers. Now that I don’t often cover the “hot new genre releases”, my audience (or at least those who comment) seems to be largely different from those whom I’ve seen comment on other blogs and that there are more female readers than before, which is very nice to see since I haven’t covered those subgenres that seem to be more dominated by female readers than the average.

Maybe those “beacons” are just more like pulsars, flashing intermittent signals for different audiences over time?

“I’m not familiar with the computer games scene, though I do know it has a huge amount of money and power compared to literature. Is it pretty nepotistic then?”

Fairly. Computer game mags are seeing dwindling circulations (SF mags like SFX have actually remained constant) so the role of advertising is getting more and more important. Advertising deals with a company like EA or Activision can keep a magazine afloat, so when their latest hyped mega-release shows up and is badly-optimised cack, the chances of it getting a bad review is non-existent.

It’s a fascinating debate but I do think the writer of the original article makes some undefended and bizarre assumptions. The Social Network is a flop because it’s only the 29th highest grossing film? For a complex movie of ideas – that’s good! Not everyone in the world has read Freedom? Well, maybe they don’t want to. But it’s still sold an awful lot of copies for a dense literary novel.

I don’t see the evidence for the cultural brainwashing argument either. There was a time when the scourge of Broadway, critic Frank Rich, could destroy a show with a single negative crit; and thankfullly those days are gone. But I don’t believe there was ever a time when critics could TELL audiences/readers what to like. Otherwise, Stephen Sondheim would be richer and more successful than Andrew Lloyd Webber – which he’s not! (I love Sondheim, and prefer him to Lloyd Webber, except for Evita; but hey, his kind of cool witty irony is not to everyone’s taste!)

The writer’s guiding assumption is that the greatest art should be the biggest box office. And sometimes that’s true – as when Philip Pullman became a best-seller. But dumb action movies have always been more popular than difficult movies of ideas. And more people want to read a good thriller than want to read Freedom. Blogs don’t make a difference to that.

I do agree very much with the points about opinion beacons and the wildfire syndrome. And by and large, we trust the critics/bloggers who earn our trust.

To me, after a career in films and television, the blogosphere culture in SFF is hugely liberating. I remember when a high end drama show might get just ONE review, from one lazy wise-cracking critic – all that work, just to be the butt of a cheap gag? Or sometimes, not even that.

No one wants bad reviews; but no reviews are worse!

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