International Bon Vivant and Raconteur (nick_kaufmann) wrote,
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur

Reviewing the Reviews

For the longest time, there was a review crisis in modern horror fiction. The big organs like The New York Times Review of Books weren't reviewing much of it, if any at all. That left it up to the small horror magazines, newsletters and websites to fill the lit-crit void.

Unfortunately, a rampant problem quickly presented itself, all but nullifying the validity and trustworthiness of these reviews. A startling number of horror magazines, newsletters and websites refused to print bad reviews. At all. Mostly they claimed it was a matter of economy, that they didn't have a lot of space for reviews and wanted to use what they had to spotlight recommendations instead of warnings. While this is somewhat understandable, I believe it was a damaging practice that made it seem like every piece of horror lit published by even the smallest of fly-by-night presses was a nugget of gold. (There were also reviewers who loved everything they read, mainly because they wanted to "support the genre," regardless of quality, and see their names on cover blurbs while they were at it, but that's a different topic for a different day.) This led to an industry-wide feeling of victimhood: Why was something like Michael Cunningham's The Hours selling so well when Author X's extreme horror novel of bloodthirtsy werewolf rapists written at a 6th grade level was not? The reviews all said it was awesome, right? So people started thinking horror was being unfairly ghettoized, instead of thinking maybe they had to write better stuff.

Another reason this happened was the Internet. Namely, horror message boards. Suddenly everyone knew everyone. And as we all know, it's very hard to give a bad review to a work by someone who's a friend. So some reviewers stopped giving bad reviews and started blowing smoke up asses, thereby doing a disservice to any and all readers who were wondering whether or not to spend their hard-earned money on something. But hey, at least no one's feelings were hurt, right? Well, except the feelings of those who spent their paychecks on books that turned out to be unreadable.

This was the moment in history where we went through the looking glass when it came to reviewing modern horror literature. The paradigm shifted in such a way that suddenly reviews were no longer seen as being for readers who wondered whether or not a book is worth their time and money, and became for the author of the book instead. If a book received a bad review, suddenly there was an outcry of "How could you say that about him? He's so nice!" As if criticizing a work of art is the same as criticizing the artist. We still see this a lot, by the way.

If we went through the looking glass with that paradigm shift, we traveled to the fucking Star Trek mirror universe shortly afterward, when suddenly authors were urging readers not to read reviews at all because of spoilers. This was utterly insane. The authors were delusionally certain that any tiny bit of plot revealed in a review would destroy the experience for any reader, which is nonsense borne of an overprotectiveness of one's work that most authors learned to do away with, or at least keep under control, after college. (I am reminded of a [in my opinion] misguided editorial haceldama wrote some time ago urging readers to hold off on reading reviews until after they've read the book, to avoid spoilers and to see if they agree or disagree with the review, as if reviews serve some purpose other than letting readers know if the book -- say it with me now -- is worth their time and money.)

All of which is my way of leading up to this: Hooray for mssrcrankypants and S.T. Joshi's Dead Reckonings, a journal of literary criticism dedicated solely to horror fiction (with a little sf/f thrown in). I just finished reading the first issue, and I thought it was marvelous. It's about time we had something like this in our field, and it's especially about time we had something that isn't afraid to print bad reviews, talk about plots, or -- *gasp!* -- use big words.

It would be foolish of me to review a journal of reviews, but I will say that Dead Reckonings can be hit or miss -- thankfully with a lot more hits than misses. Michael Marano's exemplary review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and James Newman's The Wicked is a perfect example of the kind of literary criticism we need more of in our field. But some of the reviews are curious head-scratchers: Paula Guran's take on David J. Schow's Havoc Swims Jaded and Glen Hirshberg's American Morons does little more than summarize all the stories in these collections before wrapping up with a couple of lines about how good both authors are. Darrell Schweitzer's review of Alexandra Sokoloff's The Harrowing opens with a full paragraph about how the book wouldn't make a good movie, which is more the kind of thing you'd expect to see in a fifth grader's book report than in a journal of literary criticism.

Such gripes aside, Dead Reckonings is a welcome new journal in the horror field. Highly, highly recommended. Seek it out.
Tags: books
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