Saturday, January 7, 2017

Quick Thoughts - (Posi/Nega)tivity in SFF Short Fiction Reviewing

Hello, Dear Readers. Do you have your torches and pitchforks ready? Good, because there's something we need to kill with fire. It is the idea that SFF reviewing (and especially SFF short fiction reviewing) is overwhelmingly positive. Or even, really, mostly positive.

Now, I write this even as I know the general perception is that I am overwhelmingly positive as a reviewer. This isn't entirely accurate, in my opinion, but it's not entirely unfair, either. I mean, I understand where this perception comes from. I love SFF. I am a fan. As such, I tend to like what I read in SFF. I do not feel uncritical, though. Indeed, I tend to try to examine as close as I can why I like or don't like stories. I try to be respectful. I fear that, especially given the current landscape, people are mistaking being respectful and loving SFF with being "overly positive." Certainly it feels to me like these same people are equating "balanced" or "negative" reviews with disrespect and bigotry.

But you don't have to take my word as a reviewer. Indeed, though I like reading reviews of other people's work to help me know what I might want to check out and because I appreciate the creative form of the review, there's another reason that I am intimately aware of the reviewing landscape's lack of positivity. I am also a writer. Of SFF short fiction (go figure). And while maybe this only opens myself to calls of not being "unbiased" when it comes to reviews, it also might give some insight into why I review and why I review the way that I do. SFF short fiction reviewing is a blighted wasteland of overwhelming negativity for a great many writers. I've been trying to think of venues (blogs, people, etc.) that consistently review whole issues of SFF short fiction. There's Tangent Online. There's RocketStackRank. There's SFRevu. There's Locus. There's…Quick Sip Reviews.

I don't mean to leave anyone out of this. I'm sure there are more places that review whole issues, and there are some that review only certain publications or certain subgenres within SFF. And there are a great number of people out there reviewing their favorite pieces. Which I understand. And maybe that is why there are people who complain that things are "too positive," because the reviews they tend to look at are reviews of people's favorite stories. There are many excellent reviewers who look at their favorite stories every month. A.C. Wise, Maria Haskins, Gillian Daniels, and many more provide great insights into the stories that they've especially liked. Hell, I do my own with The Monthly Round. I love these sorts of reviews exactly because they are positive, but as a writer who has very rarely been featured on such lists, they don't play a huge part of how I would judge the positivity of SFF short fiction reviewing. Indeed, if a person were to just look at the Tangent or Locus or RocketStackRank recommended reading lists, maybe they would also get the idea that SFF short fiction reviewing is super positive.

But back to me as a writer. I'll look at my latest bigger story, "The Death of Paul Bunyan." It came out at Lightspeed, which means that lots of reviewers were going to look at it (as opposed to, say, "Medium" from The Book Smugglers which did not merit a single review from any SFF short fiction reviewer that I saw (and I searched)). Because Lightspeed has a large reach, I've seen reviews of this story at Tangent, RocketStackRank, and SFRevu. None of the reviews were very long (ranging from maybe 50 words at SFRevu to maybe 150/200 at the other places). None of the reviews were positive. The SFRevu one was…not pleasant. The Tangent one didn't think the relationship between the main characters worked. The RSR one felt the need to say the sex I portrayed wasn't normal and that there wasn't a plot.

It does not surprise me that in each of these fairly negative reviews what was targeted most was the queer relationship between Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. Which, if you've been paying attention to SFF short fiction reviews in general, might not come as a surprise to you, either. Tangent regularly runs rants-in-reviews-clothing about "PC culture." RSR says outright in their mission statement that they don't care about inclusion. I'm pretty sure most people can remember a time when Locus' short fiction reviews were…less than respectful to authors and stories. Fuck, there was just a review of Uncanny (from a site I wasn't familiar with) that used the entire space not only to spew hatred at the identities and representations of characters in the stories, but at authors specifically, mocking their identities and implying they were a sort of sickness in SFF.

So, to people saying that SFF short fiction reviewing is too positive: Fuck you. That negative enough for you? Claiming that SFF short fiction reviewing is too positive simply because not every single reviewer thinks that inclusion and respect are a sickness crippling our critical potential and discourse is erasing the lived experiences of so many writers whose only interactions (or whose overwhelming experience) with SFF short fiction reviewing have been painful and discouraging.

Not that I think that all reviews should be blindly positive. No, I have no real problem with people reacting to stories. I have no problem with people sharing their opinions on stories. I do think that those reviews are just as much creative works that can then be reviewed, though. I do not think that reviewers should enjoy some sort of special shielding just because they think themselves the arbiters of SFF short fiction and want to gatekeep and attack those writers and stories they feel threatened by. I went over this in the past when I wrote about owning your opinion. What I'm reacting to right now is the idea that SFF short fiction reviewing is too positive. I have seen or heard this in many places. From authors, from editors, from readers, and from reviewers. I have seen absolutely no evidence of it. In fact, my experience with it as a writer has been mostly negative.

I do not think that I'm unique in this. I'd be willing to bet that for many writers, and especially those who don't fit into the dominant narratives, writing characters and situations that reflect who they are and where they come from is often met with negativity from reviewers. Just go onto Goodreads and start looking at works that get described as "diverse" or "inclusive" and you'll probably run into some...truly awful things being said. There's nothing stopping a reviewer from just going through and giving 1-star ratings to every issue of a publication they don't like because of the politics of the editor (or some of the authors appearing in it). I have seen this used against publications I've been published by. This is done to, what, counter the crushing positivity out there? Or rather just to excuse bigotry and hate? Just as railing against "PC culture" seeks to excuse bigotry and hate, trying to convince people that reviewing is too positive when a great many people have never received a positive review for their short fiction is factually wrong and morally bankrupt.

Now, I've been publishing SFF short fiction since before I've been reviewing it. In many ways, my decision to review sprang out of my love for SFF short fiction and not seeing it reflected in the reviews I was finding. Not of my work (because at the time I received no reviews of my work), but of those of the stories I was most excited about. So I review. And I review passionately, because I'm passionate about SFF. I like the direction I hope it's moving in and I want to see more. But it is hard. As a reviewer, because it takes a lot of time and energy that I could be using on other things. And as a writer, because the loudest opinions I seem to see about being queer in SFF (not from people who are, you know, actually queer in SFF) is that it makes it somehow easier to be successful AND JUST FUCK ALL THE WAY OFF. Being queer or trans in SFF does not make it easier. Being a person of color in SFF does not making it easier. Being disabled in SFF does not make it easier. Being neuroatypical in SFF does not make it easier. These things, in fact, make it harder, because they make life harder. Because of the way out society is structured. Because of the unjust institutions that populate our world. Pushing back against those realities doesn't erase them. But it doesn't mean that we shouldn't push.

Writing does not pay the bills. Nor does reviewing. As a writer it's easy for that to get discouraging. To make you think "Why bother?" "Why try so hard when all I seem to get is a small check, a ton of work, and a heaping helping of abuse?" Maybe you're in a bad situation otherwise. Bills pile up. Your family is awful. The world seems like it wants you dead. To hear the same things echoed in a space that was supposed to be your one escape from that can be shattering. Devastating. It can be equally affirming and uplifting to hear something encouraging, something joyous. But let me tell you, most days there's more bad than good out there. It takes a deep strength to keep going. And I want people to keep going. I want people to keep telling their stories, because I love those stories. I want people to keep making SFF into somewhere we all belong and can be ourselves without fear.

To anyone who's still reading at this point: you are wonderful. If you are a writer, please keep writing. Tell your stories. Even if I never see them. Even if I can't review them. I want them to be out there. If you are a reviewer, please keep reviewing. Own your opinions. Even if no one seems to pay attention to them. I want them to be out there. To everyone, be fierce. Be relentless. Be the voice that speaks up against the bully, the hand that reaches out to the hurt, and the tired, and the scared. If you can, reach out with love. Reach out with empathy. Keep reaching.

And before I devolve too much into a pile of tears, I will sign off. Thanks for reading!

All the best,

Charles Payseur


  1. Your reviews are always thoughtful and detailed. You appreciate writers that colour outside the lines, even if the risks they take don't always pay off. Keep doing what you're doing.

  2. SFRevu just reviewed my "Winter Timeshare" in Asimov's as "Utterly Boring." Tangent also trashed it, after misreading it completely. One almost begins to take it as a compliment. Thanks for this piece: it's like scraping the stinger off the wound with a credit card.

  3. When I used to do regular book reviews, I wrote my fair share of negative pieces. Sometimes it was cathartic, but eventually it started to wear me down. Why was I spending so much time on things I didn't like? Why was I trying to find redeeming qualities in work that I didn't connect with? It started to feel really mean-spirited, even when the negativity came from an honest place.

    I tend to consider most of the reviews I've read from you as fairly neutral. And if they are "too positive" (how have we gotten to a point where there's such a thing as too much positivity?), well, what's the problem with that? You're showcasing stories that people might not otherwise be exposed to, and a little bit of enthusiasm goes a long way. Why should reading *or* reviewing be a negative chore?
    Anyway, all of which is to say, keep doing what you're doing, because it's absolutely worthwhile and appreciated.

  4. For some reason I didn't see this article before you posted a link to it in the SFWA forum. (Probably because you didn't put spaces in "Rocket Stack Rank" so it didn't trigger our Google Alert.)

    Perhaps you've found out that I'm gay since you wrote this, but I'll mention it anyway since it should make it clear that I'm rather unlikely to have objected to a story just because it had LGBT content. In fact, I'm rather disappointed that stories with realistic relationships between gay men are so rare in mainstream SFF.

    From the perspective of a gay man who was an activist in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, it's possible to read your story, "The Death of Paul Bunyan" as extremely homophobic, and that was my original take on it. Paul and Johnnie have an abusive relationship. Paul doesn't care that he hurts Johnnie during sex, and Johnnie just endures it. The text says he likes it, but it offers no rational reason for him to. And then they both die at the end. One could easily argue that the message of the story was "homosexuals are disgusting and are better off dead." This hateful message has appeared in countless stories and movies for at least a century, and I'm quite familiar with it. And it's an article of faith among fundamentalists that gay sex is inherently disordered because it always involves one partner taking pleasure from the other partner's pain. It's hard to read a story that seems to support this and not say something about it.

    Before I wrote anything, though, I did enough research to determine that you yourself are bi. So I gave your story a second look, and came up with a different interpretation. Reread my review of your story and see if you can't see where I'm coming from. I didn't want to condemn your story (nor did I), but I wanted to counter the impression it might create that gay relationships are always (or even usually) about one partner hurting the other one.

    1. Hey, I don't want to tell you how to interpret the story. I don't really agree with your reading, and I found your comment that the sex wasn't normal rather hurtful, but I do understand where you're coming from. For me, personally, sex that leads to soreness/rough sex/pain during sex isn't necessarily abusive, and while I do think that Johnny and Paul's relationship in the story is complex/messed up, I don't really think the sex is the crux of things. If you had framed your review as an opinion, though, maybe with this very good line: "I wanted to counter the impression it might create that gay relationships are always (or even usually) about one partner hurting the other one", I would have found it less judging of not just my story but what kind of sex I may or may not enjoy. Anyway, thanks for stopping in. Cheers!
      (fyi there is a spotlight for the story, if it's of interest: