Bloggers, writers and 'negative' reviews

There has been some renewed debate in the blogosphere around writers writing negative reviews, and as with all debates and questions out there, I thought I’d offer a few points of my own following on from what Megan and Sam have raised.

From what I understand of the debate: some bloggers who are both writing their own fiction and reviewing other people’s fiction, are concerned that writing a ‘negative’ review of any of their peers will damage prospects for publication in the future, damage relations with other writers. I’ve seen it discussed before and the question is always posed about what the reviewer should be doing, as in whether to write negative reviews or not, but never the role of those being reviewed.

I sporadically write reviews for this blog but due to how slow and unfocussed I am as a reader, don’t do it as much as I’d like, but I basically review all the books I finish reading both for people’s interest and as a kind of record of all the things I’ve read and what I think about them.

And I place a premium on being honest about how I feel about what I read, both for my own integrity but also as a mark of respect to those who I am reviewing. I am not interested in back slapping and false praise in the interests of everyone feeling good about themselves. This is just like when exchanging critiques of unpublished work and I think critical reviewing is essential to our growth as writers.

You just can’t improve as a writer if you can’t take on constructive criticism of your work and not fall into a mess, at least in public. Alan Baxter touched on this a few weeks ago.

As far as I can see, if a writer gets a ‘negative’ review from a peer and is pissed off, or takes some sort of action to hinder that reviewer’s publishing chances, that is the fault of the writer who’s working is being reviewed, not the person being honest about what they think. If you put your work out into the public for people to read, you need to expect that people are going to be open about what they think.

A great example of this is Tom Cho who actually quoted the most critical part of my review of his book Look Who’s Morphing when he linked back to my review. It’s the complete opposite to what I’ve seen elsewhere where all you hear from a writer is what good things people have to say about them.

Now there may be an issue with how someone writes a negative review. If you just write “The tale of the Bunnies by Bogus Writer was an absolute pile of crap” and don’t at least elaborate on why Bogus’ tale about rabbits was a pile of crap then the writer is pretty justified in being pissed of, though going to such lengths to ruin that person’s career appears to me to be a bit psychotic.

But I think so long as you are honest, constructive and measured in how you construct your criticisms; I see no problem, or even why you would have to call it a ‘negative’ review. I actually lean the other way and feel strange if I don’t offer something at least a little critical because no piece of literature, no matter how much I enjoyed it, is perfect.

To be honest, I actually think the extent to which bloggers claim writing ‘negative’ reviews is going to be met with damage to their own careers is overstated, but even if it was so, it is a blight on the writer being reviewed if they can’t take critical comment about their work when they’ve put it out in public for people to read and inevitably comment on.

Movie Review: Daybreakers

Daybreakers bucks the trend of modern day Vampire film with a nod to science fiction whilst going back to the dark and sinister.

DaybreakersThe first thing you notice about Daybreakers is the dark and stylised aesthetic. It pulled me into the film, along with the world it slowly unfolded for me. It’s all set in very modern and corporate type settings, illustrating a kind of dark mood to a society driven by vampires.

This society is very much on verge of crisis. With vampires having taken over, the minority of humans are quickly becoming extinct and therefore the blood supply is running out. It has some parallels with real life; with economic crisis, food or oil shortages as well as global warming and climate change.

And I felt that it dealt with this with class. The division between the rich and poor was an obvious element to the world with those unable to afford the dwindling blood supply suffering.

Add to this the richer elements like Charles, played by Sam Neil. He heads a company researching a blood substitute but remarks “There will always be those willing to pay more for the real thing.” And Charles is evil. Not only did I enjoy the rich being the bad guy, but it’s a return to vampires as vicious and evil characters unlike the current trend of vampires like in Twilight.

I found the conflict between Edward and Charles as well as the underlying crisis within the society much more interesting than the more central plot which was with Edward fleeing with the humans and to help them find a cure to Vampirism.

Part of it may have been that I’m not much of a fan of Claudia Karvan, but there wasn’t a lot of inner conflict with this thread.

Another aspect that had more conflict was between Edward and his brother Frankie, who was in the army and had the job of trying to hunt humans. That kind of battle between Edward trying to regain his humanity and Frankie being faced with that and the purge of the ‘Subsiders’ – those that were mutated due to being starved of blood – made references to soldiers turning against the Iraq war.

There were lots of these seamless nods to real world events though they were never so obvious or jarred with the storyline. It all fit within the world and the story.

I’d have to say that the ending was a bit sudden and didn’t tie up a lot, but otherwise this was a great movie with the return of vampires as being sinister and a movie that relates to the world in a way I can agree with.

Book Review: The City and The City – China Mieville

The City and The City is definitely the most amazing novel I’ve read this year but that sounds a bit grandiose because I haven’t read much this year. Anyhow, it blew me away with how rich it was and the message lying underneath.

The City and The CityChina Miéville seems to take on a new genre with each novel, excluding the trilogy which is the same genre. The City and The City takes on the hard-boiled crime genre all within this rich and incredibly deep world of the fantastic, where two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, exist in the same space.

The first thing that strikes you is how much detail Miéville has put into the world; the history behind it, the mechanics of how exactly two cities exist on top of each other and the variations between the two. The descriptions of the buildings are amazing and I could put myself in Beszel and Ul Qoma. It was like the cities were characters in and of themselves.

The mechanics of the two cities work so that if someone from Beszel is walking down the street and walks passed someone in Ul Qoma, sometimes on the same street, they aren’t allowed to see each other or interact with each other. If they do, they must ‘unsee’ before Breach, a body that oversees the borders, steps in.

The crime begins around this idea. A young Canadian student studying archaeology is found murdered and it is believed the killer may have breached in the process.

The investigation takes us into the world of Nationalists and Unificationists, political groups either fighting for one or other city, or with the ‘Unifs,’ the eventual unification between the two cities. I found all of this fascinating with Miéville most probably drawing on his own knowledge of political groupings.

This may be a bit of a pedantic point but I was conscious that as a socialist, I was reading a novel by another socialist from the point-of-view of a police officer. But despite knowing that socialists are against the police, I did not see a problem with this. Miéville has entered into the genre and has to be respectful of its boundaries, but also, he mentioned in his interview that you don’t have to agree with everything your main character does.

The character of Tyador Borlú, the investigator is a sympathetic character at times with a kind of liberal bend on crime fighting. There’s also a healthy disdain for much more unpleasant characters like the Nationalists that makes it easier to side with him.

The other thing about it being a crime novel is it very much written in that style whilst still merging with his own slant on description and prose. I found it easy to read and the story progressed smoothly.

The City and The City is essentially about borders. It’s a very strong metaphor and Miéville was at pains last year when it came out, to deny all of the assumptions of what the novel was about like Israel/Palestine or Berlin. That would be a very lazy interpretation and there is even a nod to this when Borlú mentions going to a conference on duel-city crime fighting alongside police from these places where he makes the comment that they just don’t get it.

The metaphor runs much deeper than that and whilst trying not to spoil it for you, it brings borders to their extreme conclusion, talking about the arbitrariness of borders and how they force people apart who are much closer than they realise. And this metaphor is something that runs through the life of the novel, it is essential to the story, not something laying on top or shoved in your face.

The City and The City is an amazing novel that plays with your head at times whilst fascinating you with the world and how vividly it is described. It comes highly recommended.

Movie Review: American History X

American History X is a confronting movie dealing with American neo-Nazis, but beyond the violence and disturbing element that the movie is known for, I found it actually has quite deep character development.

American History XConfronting really is the most appropriate word for describing this film. I know I use it a lot. I described Tsiolkas’ The Slap as confronting but this is even more so.

Danny, the younger brother in the film looks up to his older brother Derek, a notorious neo-Nazi in Venice Beach. The movie opens after Derek has been released from prison for killing two black men, but the movie effortlessly switches between the plot in the present and revealing backstory that shapes the characters.

The flashbacks and insight into the world of skinheads leave you seething with rage at their actions and their ideas, but as much as you hate Derek in the beginning of the film, he exits prison a changing man and the film deals with how people’s ideas can change for the better due to their experiences and circumstances challenging pre-existing ideas.

American History XThe film is known for its violence. But I think the violence is overstated. The incidents of violence are rare, which I think enhances the impact. The scene where Derek demands the black man bites the gutter almost made me look away. It is probably the most violent piece of film I’ve ever seen, and stands out for me compared to the rest of the film.

Cinematically, the film is brilliant in the way it uses colours and images. The black and white lens in which the flashbacks are viewed are well done, unlike tacky fuzzy lenses.

The film ended imperfectly, and it made it realistic by not wrapping up the plot neatly even as the characters were on a trajectory toward a happy resolution. The unfinished business of the whole thing leaves you with a bittersweet feeling in the end.

Comparing American History X to Romper Stomper and This Is England, I think this film makes the issues of Fascism, racism and how people come and go from these ideas much clearer. I think the film is stronger in a cinematic sense as well as the political points being clearer.

Book Review: The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

The SlapAfter finishing Christos Tsiolkas’ powerful novel, The Slap last night, I’m left wondering whether I need to leave more time for it all to sink in. The Slap is confronting and deep, full of contradictions and messiness. It is easily one of the novels I will remember for a long time.

It’s very much a character driven story, rather than something driven by plot. It tells each chapter from the point of view of a different character, with their own actions and reactions to the events.

It all stems from an incident in the beginning where a man slaps another couple’s child, causing riffs in families and friendships but it would disingenuous to say the debate over slapping a child is what the novel is about. To me, it merely provided the base for characters and their values to interact and clash with each other.

The family, relationships and issues of sexism are front and centre. And the trivial moral debates to me seemed almost a distraction to the deeper issues, and the subtext of the novel.

Where they positioned themselves on the debate over the slap didn’t really determine how I felt about the characters. But almost every character had some form of prejudice, such as racism or sexism. I found many of the characters, particularly the men, unlikable, though this was in no way a bad thing and was all part of the honest and ugly aspects of the novel.

The younger characters, Connie and Richie, were the most likable, perhaps because they were the closest to my own world view but even they had flaws and made mistakes.

The contradictory nature of many of the characters ideas, how some were likable but had values I’d disagree with, brings to mind the Marxist idea of mixed-consciousness. The idea that people can have varied levels of progressive political ideas, whilst at the same time having reactionary ideas and these seeming to come into conflict.

The fact that the characters didn’t have pure morals, nor absolute prejudices portrayed a realism to me. Though it brings into question the legacy of post-modernism, that ‘every opinion is valid’ etc. and that whether or not writer are compelled to insert grey areas and contradictions into their characters for the sake out of it.

I found many of the scenes quite in your face. They have left a lasting impact on me, particularly a scene with Connie. The sex scene, told through Connie’s point-of-view, came complete with her internal thoughts that brought everyday experiences of sexism to the fore.

Not wanting to spoil the ending, I agree with Angela Meyer when she said that it could’ve ended much darker. For a novel that was so dark and uncomfortable, I was feeling uplifted and hopeful for the majority of the characters in the end.

The Slap really stands out to me compared to many of the novels I’ve read. It is so unique and strong that I found myself talking about it, dying to discuss it, even before I’d finished it. I really recommend it.

[Rating:4.5]

For more on The Slap, Angela Meyer’s interview with Christos Tsiolkas at LiteraryMinded is amazing.

TV Series Review: Dead Set

Dead SetWatching British TV series Dead Set in two days this week, I really enjoyed this original twist on the zombie genre, adapting it to today in the age of reality TV as well as providing a strong example of class divide.

For those that don’t know, Dead Set is set around a fictional Big Brother season in Britain, at a time when the world is engulfed in an outbreak of zombies. Whilst the producer cares more for the ratings of the show, this all goes on with the housemates totally ignorant of the situation on the outside world for the first part.

This is a considerable twist whilst still incorporating an often used plot in the zombie genre of one small group fighting for survival. But its execution as well as the ending means I don’t think this is just a cliché.

The characters managed to elicit strong emotional responses from the beginning, and I hated the producer, Patrick almost immediately and even more as this character became more and more vile.

This and other things, like an encounter with the police, provide an underlying class dynamic to the first few episodes which, for me, increased the realism in the way the characters interacted.

Dead SetThis class dynamic became starker in the final episode and the logic of this divide played itself out with themes of individualism and competition, as well as divide and rule.

This message was raw and simple, and therefore expressed well and clear to the audience, which I think made it a fresh contribution to the genre, as well as a pretty good zombie series overall.

It is well worth watching for zombie fans and class warriors alike.

Other Reviews:

Movie Review: Avatar 3D

Anything that right-wingers like Miranda Devine attack as leftist propaganda is usually good in my books. And James Cameron’s Avatar is one of the best left-wing films I’ve seen, using awesome special effects in 3D to illustrate a powerful allegory with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Avatar 2

In Avatar, Jake Sully, a disabled Marine, takes over his dead brother’s role in the Avatar program, where a bunch of naive small-l liberal scientists connected with the military use their minds to remotely control man-made Na’vi bodies to mix with the natives on the planet Pandora they’re trying to rape resources from.

I found the naivety of these scientists irritating at first, thinking they could some how create a peaceful solution agreeable to both the Na’vi and the greedy corporate miners and military set on invading.

Avatar 1But as Jake gets to know one of the Na’vi, Neytiri, he becomes intertwined in the lives of the Na’vi and begins to disagree with the aims and goals of the military and the mining corporation. It is kind of materialist in a sense that their naive ideas are changed by the reality around them as they realise Earth are not interested in a compromise that will suit the Na’vi and invade anyway.

Avatar is kind of like other anti-imperialist films like the Disney tale Pocahontas but the language used by the Colonel and the head of the mining corporation make the parallels with the War on Terror, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan obvious.

It’s no wonder that supporters of these wars have attacked the movie. Anything critical of the actions of the United States overseas is always going to be seen by these people as propaganda. Other critics have hidden their criticisms behind claims that the plot was ‘thin’ or ‘weak’ but I think this is like when post-modernists attack Marxism for being too simplistic and not understanding ‘complexities.’ Others are more open about their hostility to any political message.

The motivation of the war is obviously linked with profit and class society, and Avatar is almost Marxist in its explanation of war and imperialism, extending to soldiers committing mutiny in the final stages and women Na’vi fighting alongside their brothers.

Though the effects seemed to overshadow the obvious left-wing message, I still found them spectacular, especially the 3D visuals which look like becoming more of a feature in the future with other films. But I can’t hide my bitterness at apolitical and apathetic people flocking to see the movie for the effects and choosing to stick their head in the sand regarding the critique of the wars.

Against the other major left-wing film of 2009, District 9, I think Avatar did a better job in making the message clearer with it obviously relating to the real world today. Cameron, who to my knowledge doesn’t have a track record of making left-wing films, needs to be commended for attempting to spread an anti-war message to the mainstream and I’m curious to see if it has sparked discussions about war and imperialism at the moment.