I’ve been very quiet during the second half of this year blogwise, especially when it comes to book reviews. That’s cos I’ve been going through a kind of extended epiphany about my relationship to media analysis and the cultural environment in which we read books and watch films or TV shows. For a long time the way lots of people talk about and relate to the media they consume hasn’t sat right with me, but I could never put my finger on what it was because I’m actually quite the philistine when it comes to art. When I first started reviewing books I was barely even aware of the media criticism ecosystem and I understood it even less; I just wanted to review books cos I like reading and wanted to start thinking more deeply about why I enjoy the things I like and why I react negatively to the things I don’t.
Spend some amount of time on book twitter and you’ll come across a variety of reader types (or at least actively-tweeting reader types). The “let people enjoy things” crowd; the toxic positivity crowd; the “portrayal of messy marginalised identities is bigotry” crowd; and others besides. I think probably this speaks to a particular kind of terminally online category of person more than it’s representative of readers as a whole, but weirdly I think some editors and publishers have started catering to that hyper specific target audience because they’re the people who can be relied on to consistently buy and talk about books in the online spaces they inhabit (but I digress, that’s a whole other conversation). I started getting a bit peeved at the people who respond to criticism by declaring it a form of gatekeeping, by the people who vocally think it’s disrespectful to write negative views and by readers who engage in social media hate campaigns against writers who don’t write queer characters who are perfect role models or don’t cater to their precise individual desires.
These things are all related in that they’re symptoms of relating to media as a consumer product that you pay a fee for in exchange for making you feel good or validating your identity as a fan of that media franchise, instead of relating to it as a piece of art that might challenge you in some way or make you think about the world in a way you hadn’t considered before, or any of the other thoughts and feelings art can invoke in a person. So over the course of the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the dominance of corporate media, the rise of fandom and the empty, slavishly pro-corporate analysis that kind of environment produces. (As an aside, I realise the word ‘analysis’ sounds kind of stale and dry, but I do include a wide range of stuff within that term, from professional film critics to the twitter ‘hot take’ of the day to online book reviews). Consequently I started thinking about the reviews I write and what I talk about in them, the framing I use and what I think is important in a book. Bearing in mind I’m still working through a lot of stuff, but I have come to a few conclusions about what I value in fiction.
One of those things is weirdness and risk-taking. This is why I made the conscious decision to read more small press fiction at the start of this year; they just publish more weird, niche, experimental stuff than most of what the big publishers are putting out. Which isn’t to say the big publishers aren’t putting out any good stuff; some of my fave books of recent times have come out of Tor (P. Djeli Clark’s Ring Shout) and Orbit (Jade City by Fonda Lee) but I do find the bigger a media conglomerate gets, the more inclined they are to produce bland, inoffensive stories that don’t ask anything of their audience and are often conceived of as vehicles to deliver profit to shareholders rather than as good or meaningful storytelling. Besides, even if all the experimental stuff I read or watch doesn’t always work or fully stick the landing, I’d much prefer to to experience them than any piece of media that decides to play it safe to appeal to the widest possible audience and produces a much less interesting story as a consequence.
I didn’t plan for my month in review post to turn into an essay on the emptiness of media criticism so I’ll stop there, but you’ll probably see me talking about this stuff a bit more in the future. I’m gonna try and write more meaningful book reviews going forward, ones that incorporate the things I’ve discussed her and attempt to situate the books in some kind of cultural context, while also talking about character work and plot and worldbuilding and all that other stuff that book reviewers talk about. So yeah, thinking about all this and seeking out stuff to read and listen to that’s helping me clarify my own thoughts is how I’ve been spending a lot of my time recently, hence why the reviewing has taken a back seat of late. If you’ve made it this far into my esoteric ramblings and are interested in any of the stuff I’ve mentioned here, I can recommend you check out Blood Knife Magazine and a podcast called Rite Gud, both of which have been invaluable to me as someone taking an interest in the wider media criticism ecosystem for the first time.
I’m not even gonna bother rounding up the stuff I have posted in the past month cos this is overlong already, but of the limited posts I have put up lately, the one thing I absolutely recommend you read is my interview with Matt Blairstone. Matt is the founder of new small press horror publisher Tenebrous Press and his philosophy on publishing and the kinds of stories he wants to put out into the world and why really align with a lot of what I’ve been saying here. It’s genuinely a fucking great interview, go read it. Other than that, I’ll probs actually start getting involved in SciFi month soon, so keep a look out for some reviews and interviews in the next few weeks. In the meantime, happy reading bookwyrms.
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I‘m happy to never have touched Twitter. And I have a different opinion on the big publishers: SF is a niche market. Everything published here is partly a dangerous experiment. If they find another Scalzi to earn money with and cross-finance a Ring Shout, I‘m happy.
Generally I’ve have a pretty good relationship with Twitter, but that’s cos I heavily curate my feed and only descend into the discourse pit if I’m feeling particularly robust that day lol.
For some kinds of SFF (mostly certain kinds of fantasy) I think there can be a tendency towards unimaginative stories. But yeah, they are also publishing stuff like Ring Shout which was fucking awesome.
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There’s another good example: SF and F Masterworks by Gollancz. They keep those titles alive, and many of them are really worth reading. Now, smaller publishers like Open Print Media do a similar thing, but still, Goolancz is a publisher that you seem to avoid.
My very limited experience with Twitter seems to point toward it being an outlet for the more vocal and less informed sections of the “internet population”: with the exception of my fellow book bloggers and a handful of writers I follow, I usually find only weird ramblings (when I’m lucky) and totally “out there” opinions (when I’m not lucky) about a variety of subjects, not only books. So, when I want to talk and think about book, I still prefer to cater to my fellow bloggers, which are a far saner crowd 🙂
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Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond! My life is a bit of a mess at the mo lol. Yeah twitter is kinda dumb for actually wanting to be informed about stuff in a meaningful way, I’ve found a pretty good way to use it just to chat to a select few people about books. Most people tend not to do that though, and the algorithm expressly discourages in favour of rage engagement. It’s not great.
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