The other day I had the pleasure of joining China Miéville for lunch. It was an oasis of great conversation in the middle of a very busy day. Our discussion was wide-ranging but kept coming back to the concept of candor, a word China used that I like very much because it doesn’t carry connotations of sneering or hurtful bluntness.
I am generally in favor of candor, which is why I’m in the profession I’m in; I believe that you can’t be a good reviewer or a good editor unless you’re willing to state your complete and honest opinion of a work in the hearing of the work’s creator. We can’t rubber-stamp or gloss over the negatives to soothe or evade hurt feelings. We must be candid.
I could say “We must be critical” but that suggests an emphasis on pointing out things we don’t like, and while I think there’s value in negative reviews, balance is key. I’ve learned over the years that it’s much easier to say “I will stop Bad Habit A” if I have Good Habit B to replace it with. We need role models and positive examples to fill the vacuum left when we abjure our past failings and swear to do better. It’s the critic’s job to say “This work is worth emulating” as well as “This work is riddled with problems”.
Candor as policy is essential. There can be no discrimination on any basis other than taste: no excessive generosity to one’s friends, no excessive harshness to one’s rivals, no favors to one’s current or potential colleagues. I don’t shy away from telling my friends when I don’t like their books, and they remain my friends because they understand that my review has nothing to do with our friendship. It’s about me and the book, alone in a room.
I understand that a lot of people struggle with this. I have a hard time finding SF/F authors to write signature reviews because they so often decline, citing friendship (or enmity) with the author whose work they’d be reviewing. One told me, “I never review anything written by someone who’s still alive.” I can’t imagine taking that stance. I feel that, like editors, reviewers have a duty to not just describe what we read but to opine, with an eye toward moving the genre as a whole in the direction of what we feel would be improvement; you can’t do that if you only review works long after they’ve ceased to inspire new writers. And are our professional and personal associations really so fragile that we don’t dare say in public that we think a friend’s book has flaws? How tragic, if so. I had hoped we were a stronger, more resilient community than that, and I had hoped we were collectively more devoted to the cause of bettering ourselves–as writers and as readers–and our genre.
China told me that he felt the SF/F writing community as a whole is not as critical as it should be, and that the genre deserves and needs honest critique if it’s going to improve. I concur wholeheartedly. So consider this a call to arms: the next time someone asks you what you think of a book, give them your candid opinion. I promise you the world will not end. You might even find that over time, the world improves.