Genre needs a lot more cruel and nasty reviews

I’ve reviewed my fair share of sci-fi genre novels. I started right here on this blog…eek!..about 8 years ago. Not long after that I began doing reviews for The Fix. I began blogging and reviewing for The Guardian waaaaay back in the historic mists of 2008. And I’ve contributed book reviews here and there to a lot of other venues, including SFX magazine.

So I read Christopher Priest’s review of Barricade by Jon Wallace with frequent nods of recognition. To be clear I have not read Barricade. Even if it is a much better book than Priest’s review suggests, it’s not a book that grasps my interest. But Priest’s expertly expressed criticisms of Barricade – that it is thoughtlessly violent, inexpertly written and displays worrying attitudes towards its female characters – are equally true of hundreds of genre novels published every year. It’s because of these problems that, despite a lifelong love of genre, I now read less science fiction and fantasy than I ever have.

I will never blame a publisher for hyping a book. As a fan and reviewer I see dozens of new books published every week, all of them in one form or another declared to be the best thing since Romulan ale. That most of them disappear with barely a ripple doesn’t mean the publishers weren’t doing their job by hyping the hell out of every single book they take on. That’s what publishers do. All the more important then that we can find honest book reviews that help us find the few true gems published each year.

Which is why I find it somewhat sad that Christopher Priest’s honest and insightful review has received some rather under the belt responses. Den Patrick, another of this years crop of debut authors, accused Priest of being the school bully and said he expected more from an “elder statesman of genre”. What more exactly? Sadly there isn’t any nice way to tell someone their book is awful. Should reviewers just say every novel they are sent is lovely so no ones feelings get hurt?

We need writers and reviewers like Priest who have the expertise and willingness to reflect back the problems in modern genre fiction. Because the problems are very real. Violence of the flattened, meaningless kind Priest pinpoints in Barricade is endemic in the genre. Too many books are trying to be action thrillers or First Person Shooters when neither of these are what books are good at doing. The standard of writing is so poor in many of the books coming out from publishers that I hesitate to even call their authors hacks. It seems more like they are people who have read far fewer books than they have played video games, and are only writing books as an outlet for their frustrated desire to be a game designer. And given video gaming’s endemic problems with misogyny, thoughtless attitudes when presenting female characters become more understandable, although no more forgivable.

Priest’s review has been called both nasty and cruel. It is neither. But if that is how honest insightful reviews are perceived by some fans, then we need a lot more reviews brave enough to be considered both nasty and cruel.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

28 thoughts on “Genre needs a lot more cruel and nasty reviews

  1. I remember a science fiction site that closed down its reviews when an author threatened the editor and forced them to remove a review of one of his books. That author luckily could not read my fanzine, where I reviewed the same book after regretting that I didn’t throw it away after the first 100 pages. This was perhaps around 2003 (I’m thinking about The Alien Online). Could that happen again, at all?


    1. Any site cowardly enough to fold like that isn’t worth reading at all. While it gives me no pleasure to trash someone’s creative work, I’ll do it if I feel it’s called for. I’m pleased to have a reputation of being someone who goes against the tide of fanboy adulation that passes for reviewing in so much of this genre. Many a bestselling hit and beloved classic has been taken down a peg if I felt it needed to be.

      And yes, I’m dying to know what this book was myself.


      1. A site run by volunteers might just be upset by that kind of abusive behaviour from an author. But I agree, a review venue should never let itself be bullied. And…can’t find a name for the author!


      2. The story was a bit more complicated than just folding after one threat, but I’m not sure about the details anymore. Also since it was so long ago I feel that it’s no use talking about that author. Who knows how he (yes, it was a man) has changed in these ten years? We should not feel the need to confront him this long after. There are more relevant things to bash if you feel like it :)


  2. I couldn’t agree more. The response to Priest’s review has been a bit embarrassing and silly. Calling it bullying is bad enough, but to compare a bad review to being cut across the face with a razor blade shows a staggering lack of perspective.


      1. Second paragraph of the Den Patrick blog post: “It’s one thing to beat a kid up on his (or her) first day at school, it’s quite another to carve your name into their forehead with a straight-edge razor.”


      1. Didn’t mean to be cheap and apologies. But how can you comment on the meaness or otherwise of a review and the response to it if you can’t make an informed assessment of the review?


      2. Well, I’m not defending either the meaness of Priests review. It is pretty mean, that’s why it’s good! But I’m just going to repeat my post there. I might look at Barricade if I get the chance.


  3. I have read Barricade so I can say this: It’s a fabulous book – it’s funny, exciting and thoughtful. I have also read Priest’s review so I can also say this – never have I read anything so pompous and mean-spirited.


  4. “Violence of the flattened meaningless kind that Priest pinpoints in Barricade is endemic in the genre.” Except that said violence is being described by a protagonist who is an artificial lifeform designed to be without emotions. The consequences of this disastrous decision are exactly what the book is critiquing. The success or otherwise of the book in doing that is a moot point. But a dicussion of whether a review of a book is deserved, and by extension whether the genre needs more reviews like” that” n order to counter more books like “this” is undermined when it’s only looked at “that” not “this”.


    1. Again, I’m not commenting on Barricade here. Priest makes criticisms of that book, which echo with me because I see them so frequently in other books. To endemic levels across the genre.


  5. Negative reviews are a tricky thing for me to write, myself. I am not the cruel and nasty sort, and its not something I generally read.

    Are there books that deserve such scorn? Absolutely. Consider your short tweet review of Opera Vita Aeterna.

    The trick is, I think, is avoiding any appearance of ad hominem–that’s when a negative review goes over the line for me. Even if trying to provoke a conversation and change in the genre, attacking a person is not the right way to do it. I’m glad Priest didn’t do that here, but its awfully easy to slip from (or be seen as ) attacking the creator as well as the creation.

    Sometimes a book needs to be ranted about. At 4th Street yesterday, one of the panelists on a panel went off on an amusing, engaging tangent ranting about the deficiencies in a book she actually liked (Robin McKinley’s Sunshine). It was funny, deep and *true*


    1. I agree about the ad hominem element. My response to Kate Elliot on this topic was that reviewers need to be very aware of their own personal agenda when negatively reviewing. We all have issues that can blur our awareness.


  6. I heard something recently on a podcast about honesty. They only try to be really honest with another person when that honesty will open the other person up, not close them off.


  7. It’s a difficult subject. While I agree that we need to avoid being unthinkingly positive about books, and address the bad and good qualities that exist in every one, the way we address the overwhelmingly bad can be counterproductive if it puts people on the defensive. I don’t agree with the ‘how dare he say that?’ responses, but I think it would be naive of reviewers to think that responding with equally aggressive reviews will change that culture.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that I agree with you, but I think that changing the attitude towards negative reviews or other critical analysis involves understanding why people react that way, not just leaping on the behaviour. This recent piece on misogyny from Eurogamer (which touches on other issues raised in your article) is an insightful take on where these over-heated arguments come from, and to my mind one of the most mature responses I’ve read:


  8. I enjoy reviewing books and try to list both what I liked and didn’t like about the book. If I really can’t say that I like a particular book or would recommend it, I try to think of who it might appeal to and state that in my post. People expect different things from a book, so it’s not really fair to say that my criteria are what determine the “likeability” of a book. Good discussion here.



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