The Duty of Candor

The other day I had the pleasure of joining China MiĆ©ville 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.

19 thoughts on “The Duty of Candor

  1. Adam Lipkin

    This, a thousand times. I hate the ludicrous logrolling that pervades so many genre reviews (although I suspect it’s at about the same level as in other genres and mainstream fiction), and there’s an almost secondary level of (for lack of a better word) fanrolling in which folks are unwilling to criticize an author they’ve previously liked.

    I’d love to say that I’m immune, but while I consider myself damned good when I do my PW reviews (and the anonymity helps), I know I’ve shied away from saying something at fan gatherings where folks are praising some book that I thought was unbelievable. Part of that’s a desire to just not piss in people’s Cheerios, but it’s also because it really does feel awkward to criticize something in the presence of the author or people who are one layer removed.

    That said, I happily trashed an (imho) overrated book on my horror list today, and it felt good, not because of any catharsis, but because I really hope to have added something to the discussion.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      I’ve had to train myself pretty rigorously to tell authors directly that I don’t like their books. It’s extremely hard to overcome the social conditioning of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. But if you do it consistently and analytically and kindly, it can earn you a lot of respect as a reviewer in addition to freeing you to speak your mind. And it hasn’t cost me a friend yet.

  2. John Williford

    I agree. Perhaps if reviewed more I would be more inclined to put it into practice. However, I rarely get to cover more than two titles in a month. Given that I have the wonderful freedom to review whatever I wish (within the boundaries of genre fiction, at least), I feel like I’m doing more of a service to the community by touting books that I loved rather than warning readers off of books I didn’t like. Candor is great, but is there some ethical superiority to saying “This was horrible” versus saying “That was great”? I assume that most people read reviews to get ideas on what to read next. If I warn them away from something badly written, I may have done them a service but I haven’t brought them any closer to their original goal.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      I’ve written about the value of negative reviews before, but in very brief:

      1) Showing a willingness to write negative reviews tells people that your positive reviews are honest. If you only write positive reviews, there is no benchmark; you could be praising everything regardless of what you really think.

      2) Warning people off a bad book is a valuable service because it frees them to look for and read good books. That goes double for a bad book that’s gotten a lot of advance praise. When someone tells me “All the reviews of my book were positive except the PW review”, I think “Good, I hope we saved someone from being taken in by those positive reviews and then finding out that your book was bad”.

      3) Making yourself read books you dislike and review them thoughtfully is an exercise that stretches and improves you as a reviewer. Anyone can trash something that’s crap. It takes a good critic to analyze and explain why it’s crap. And that analysis is more useful than the trashing, because the very things you single out for criticism may be elements that someone else wants in a book. For example, if you scorn a book as juvenile and fluffy, a reader who’s looking for something easy and lighthearted may be motivated to pick it up.

      There is no ethical superiority in writing a positive or a negative review, taken on its own. I think the ethics of reviewing mostly come back to, well, candor: an honest opinion, an honest explanation of how and why a book is chosen for review, an honest admission of one’s biases.

      1. John Williford

        I have read at least a couple of your opinions about negative reviews before, but this is the most cogent yet. Thank you!

  3. Laer Carroll

    I never read reviews, even the brief blurbs given by authors I respect and whose works I love, who I believe would not lie to me.

    I’ve no interest in anyone else’s opinions of the books I read, or do not read. No one in the world can know my tastes, not even the woman I have loved for more than 20 years, who is a very smart and wise woman. It is not that I do not respect other people’s opinions. They just are not mine.

    A book must sell itself right off the bookstore book rack to me. I am happy if others find reviews useful. I do not disrespect them. But every person is unique. No one else is me. So reviews are simply useless to me.

  4. Andrew Porter

    You missed the great days of reviewing, when Damon Knight and James Blish, to name perhaps the two major ones, were reviewing. P. Schuyler Miller in Astounding/Analog also did an excellent job.

  5. greggarious

    Sometimes I enjoy the creativity and insightfulness of the reviews themselves, whatever they have to say about any book. Some of the John Clute reviews I’ve read were very entertaining. Charles de Lint’s reviews in F&SF are intriguing, erudite, often penetrating and expansive. They teach me how to evaluate a book. They make me think about what makes for a good book, not just on its own, but within the current and historical context of the field. Sometimes they are hilarious–especially the negative ones.
    And that’s okay. I don’t always need a grimly focused review to direct me toward or away from a particular book. I agree with Laer–I’ll choose my own books, thank you (and I have my methods for doing so, and they don’t often include remembering a review I read).
    It’s just enjoyable to me to see what other people think and feel about books–and how cleverly they express themselves.

  6. Anne Lyle

    I heartily agree, though I confess that if I read a book by a friend and I really hated it, I’d rather not review it at all. I might give them feedback in private, but in public – no.

    Having very recently been on the receiving end of feedback from an author who didn’t like one of my reviews, I can say that it does take guts to stand up for your opinions. But I think it does a disservice to readers to only say good things about a book when you believe it to be flawed. I always try to find positive things to say rather than negative, but sometimes it’s the negative aspects that provoke the strongest reactions!

  7. redhead

    my reviews are casual, but some of them are negative. I find the negative reviews are the hardest ones to write. Saying how much I loved a book is a piece of cake. Figuring out how to best phrase why something didn’t work for me is a challenge.

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  9. Alana Abbott

    I recently was in a situation where I was conversing with an author whose first series I very much enjoyed, but whose second series I couldn’t get into at all. The author has a new series coming out, and I expressed my excitement — and, in the conversation, did say that I was only a fan of one of her two other series. She took the very rational response of, “Not everyone can like everything!”

    It’s true that I am far more likely to practice polite tact to people I’m conversing with directly — or to people who are doing me a favor (like guest blogging on my site, for example). The people I correspond with in this industry are just so darn likable that I want them to succeed! Having a shell of anonymity between me and some of my reviews is very helpful, but since most of my reviews have a byline, I try to be fair, not rant, and express my opinions honestly. I imagine sometimes I err on the side of tact — but I hope that most of the writers I know would also take that stance above. Not everyone can like everything, and that doesn’t necessarily reflect flaws in your work — sometimes it’s just a mismatch between story and reader.

  10. marta

    Being honest to, “Did you like my book?” is different than a review. Publicly criticizing someone is always tricky, and if it is a friend–who you know worked hard on their work–is just a place I don’t want to go. I read what I want regardless of a review. A reviewers thoughts on a book is his or her truth, not mine. You can find many great books that have been trashed by someone, and many bad books that have been praised. Honestly praised.

    I love to read reviews. But a good review to just a well-expressed and thoughtful opinion. It doesn’t mean I won’t feel differently about the book.

  11. P.I. Barrington

    Being an ex-journalist, I know the need for candor. In my opinion if you’re giving a less-than–honest review you are doing a disservice to that author. Without honest response and constructive criticism, an author cannot hone their craft and grow that craft as well. I also agree that no preference toward the author themselves is necessary–I may dislike an author personally but if they’ve written something great I give credit where it’s due. It’s not only the candid thing to do, it’s helpful and gives you credence as an editor or reviewer.

  12. M. R. Mathias

    I think that the Agents and Published Authors who all blurb each others books, should be held accountable for this too. Stephen King will blurb you in a positive light for 10 grand. He said so. What does that say? If I could afford it, I would pay him to blurb on of my many self published fantasy bestsellers. It sounds to me that China and some of the bigger named authors are getting bad reviews because the indie authors are writing better novels. Just MHO

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      I’m not sure where you get the idea that China’s been getting negative reviews. PW starred his most recent book.

  13. Jeff VanderMeer

    Great post, Rose. I totally agree. It always surprises me, when I do a negative or mixed review, how often the writer in question thinks that there’s something else behind it or that that review carries over into our professional relationship beyond the review. No, it doesn’t. It is a specific critical reaction to a particular reading experience, the end. And I generally distrust reviewers who are always writing positive reviews. (Although I also distrust reviewers who engage in a ton of snark.) JeffV

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