Friday, July 26, 2019

4000 Reviews: An Introspective

A Look Back

Every now and then I get to check in with my reviewing, for a number of reasons.

1. I am tired, and if I don’t recognize my own milestones and achievements, it seems unending and impassable.

2. I think some introspection is healthy in order to avoid getting stuck in patterns that might not be working.

3. I genuinely like thinking critically about reviewing, about my methods, and about SFF as a field.

So that said, I’ll begin as I normally do with some background. I got into reviewing a while ago, probably in 2011 or so, with a personal blog that is luckily not on the internet any longer. I did all sorts of book reviews, D&D commentary, and whatever else struck me. I really wasn’t on social media and I’d be surprised if anyone ever visited or remembers it. But it captures a bit of my approach to blogging and being an internet person, meaning mostly that I've always liked the work for its own sake, and thrown it at the internet with some abandon even when I don't get much feedback.

(I approach, say, fan fiction the same way, because while many are quick to call fic a great way to get feedback and engagement, that really only is true if you participate in the more popular fandoms. The more obscure, the less engagement. And I'd rather do the thing I want most rather than chase after what might get more attention. It's one of the reasons I hesitate to suggest fic as a cure to feeling unpopular/on the outside, because often it can just remind you that yes, you are unpopular and niche. But that doesn't mean it's not worth doing, and I have plenty of fics with ~10 hits or less that I still love deeply. Y'all are just missing out :p. I keep doing it because I like the work, which is also why I've done reviewing)

In early 2014, off a suggestion from the online SFF critique group Critters, I applied to be a reviewer at Tangent. I started rather small, reviewing what was available, and generally learning the ropes a little bit. I still wasn’t on social media, and my introduction to SFF fandom came from Tangent, which at the time was responding to the SFWA drama surrounding the bulletin. There was a petition going around and shortly after that the reaction to Women Destroy SF! All the information I was seeing was coming filtered through Tangent, and it was...a somewhat narrow view of the field and the larger trends and changes it was experiencing. I’m still rather ashamed at the opinions I held at the time, and what I said as a result, and I was still very much figuring myself out with things, and hadn’t yet really educated myself about fandom.

In 2014 I also attended my first WisCon, and it was rather important to my relationship with the field, and to my personal growth. In later 2014 I applied and became the short fiction specialist at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together. I got on Twitter. I started to get a much different picture of what SFF was and what it could be. At the very beginning of 2015, I launched Quick Sip Reviews in part out of a response to people complaining about the then-current review sites (Tangent included, which I was still contributing to at the time).

Toward the end of the first quarter the situation at Tangent had deteriorated some (I was actually reviewing much more there, but with less and less satisfaction), with many people leaving or being pushed out, and I made my own excuses and refocused on Nerds of a Feather and Quick Sip Reviews. I continued at Nerds of a Feather through 2017, then contributed to The Book Smugglers in 2018. In 2016 I had launched by Patreon, and I’ve run that alongside Quick Sip Reviews ever since.

As I’ve said in the past, I started Quick Sip Reviews in part from guilt, in part from anger, and in part because it is what I want to be doing. I’ve tried to run it as a reviewer how I would want to experience it as a reader and writer. Be the change and all that. I’ve run it consistently, rarely even taking a weekday off (and never two in one week since before I started my Patreon), for over four and a half years. In that time I’ve been nominated for two Hugo Awards for Best Fan Writer and one for Best Fanzine. I’ve made a lot of friends along the way, a few enemies, and am generally very happy with what I’ve done.

That said, I’m not perfect, have certainly made mistakes, hurt people, been less-than-charitable at times. I regret much of that, but I also own it. I’ve made apologies privately and publicly, and will let those stand. For now, I want to speak (or write, I guess) a bit about reviewing and my approach to it, mostly to reaffirm for myself the principles by which I approach reviewing. It’s not advice, exactly, but it could be, if what follows seems like something that resonates with you, as well.

What I Try To Do

Every story and poem and article that I read has something to teach me. Getting inside of them, seeking to understand them, can give me a broader and more complete picture of the world I live in and the world I want to live in. And I try, as hard as I can, to approach each piece that I’m to review with an openness to what it has to say and how it chooses to say it.

I am a product of Western creative writing teaching conventions. I have a BA to prove it. But I’ve never been comfortable with how schools push for objectivity in criticism. To almost any quantifiable metric, I am an Authority on short SFF. I have read thousands of stories and poems, have written millions of words of reviews. I have been published across a number of professional venues, from nonfiction to poetry from prose, and have been selected to appear in Best Of anthologies. I have been nominated for the highest award in the field of SFF reviewing, and a lot of people I deeply respect have said very nice things about me and my work. If I were to measure myself by those criteria, I’m impressive as hell. But no matter how much of an Expert I _could_ claim to be, I still try to approach every piece like it has something to teach me. When that stops being the case, that’s when I should probably stop reviewing.

Or let me say it a different way. Perhaps part of the reason that I have tried so hard for so long to do as much as I possibly can is to push back against the idea that it’s not possible to engage with short fiction and poetry on the scale and depth that I am doing it. So that if anyone were to try and claim that it’s not possible, or not worthwhile to attempt to openly engage with short SFF, I could carry the proof for my position within myself. It is possible to engage with short SFF openly, eagerly, and genuinely, and to respect the work of the people involved and to grow through critical analysis and reaction to written art. And it’s possible to do so without falling back on the illusion of objectivity or the crutch of literary gatekeeping.

Sometimes I will read a story and the style or the voice or the frame will strike me as different than I’m used to. Or even as outside the current trends of storytelling in SFF. And sometimes I will not like it. And it might be easy to dismiss this as bad writing, bad storytelling. But that would be, in my opinion, lazy reviewing. Assuming that all stories are trying to operate in the same way is to desire a homogeneity in storytelling that I find not only boring but harmful, because that homogeneity is inevitably tied to the dominant tastes of a single culture. I find it my job as a reviewer to examine why I might initially dislike something and actually interrogate that and find if it’s because of my own lack of empathy rather than any potential failing on the part of the story.

Part of what SFF does is break the rules. Indeed, it’s my one definition of speculative fiction, that it must break some rule of established reality. To approach it like there is a template for what makes it for me against the very heart of the genre. I want to be challenged. I want to be brought outside the familiar. That means I must carry the responsibility of approaching reading with an open mind and willing heart. Or else what I’m doing is little more than boorish tourism, invading spaces I then demand cater to my tastes and comforts.

I can’t say it’s always easy. It requires a kind of active reading that can be emotionally and mentally draining. A reviewer always runs the risk of being wrong, of making mistakes. I've missed things I reading, have misgendered characters, have had to do my best to apologize and make amends and do better. But again, part of why I do so much of it is simply to prove that it’s possible, which means operating as open to criticism and correction as possible. And I love it, which makes it a lot easier. I wish I could make a career out of it. I wish money and time weren’t things I’ve been fighting against since graduating college (in 2008, if any other Millennials want to commiserate). As it stands, I know that I won’t be able to keep up this level of coverage indefinitely. Currently, my plan is to make it through 2020. I’d love to hit 5000 reviews. I’d love to last 6 years. I’m not sure I’ll make it. But even if I do not, I will have done this. I will have put over 4000 reviews up on Quick Sip Reviews. Which is something.

I’ll end this by thanking everyone who has helped and supported this project over the years. For everyone who has been a patron, or kicked money into my Ko-Fi. To everyone who has nominated me for an award, or who has spent time reading my words. Thank you all. I hope to earn the trust you’ve placed in me. I hope to always be earning it. Cheers!


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