Sure, good reviews can be fun, too. But let’s face it—stuff you hate gives you more occasion for zingers. Roger Ebert opened his review of one infamous movie with “Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time.” (My favorite review opener, though, is from Mary Pols of TIME: “More than 24 hours has passed since I watched the new Adam Sandler movie Jack and Jill and I am still dead inside.”)
But a good review can’t be just zingers, and the point of a review is not to show off how witty the reviewer is. Ebert explained—without rancor—just what it is that made “Battlefield Earth” suck. He didn’t accuse the movie of being an assault on all that is good and holy; the movie’s creators and stars needed a thick skin to deflect the barbs, but they weren’t personal attacks. No one was writing, say, “This is a steaming pile of shit.”
“That may be vulgar, but it’s not a personal attack.”
Well, see, that’s kinda the heart of the matter.
When you’re just talking trash to your friends about something, you can get away with that defense. In a printed or filmed review, saying that becomes considerably nastier. And if that review isn’t of a movie but is of something that a single person created—like a book—the review is personal, because the work is personal.
I’ve avoided mentioning the reviewer—and specific review—that inspired this, but if I reveal that it’s a furry story, some of you may quickly guess both. When it comes to writers and publishers, this is still a small community. The phrase “steaming pile of shit” comes from that review, as does the assertion that the book under review somehow “tricked” the reviewer into thinking it would be good, except that it really isn’t. It tricked him! Then he recovered from its evil spell and realized it was shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. (I suspect I’m undercounting the number of “shits” he used.)
Without knowing the book in question, the chances are you’re already thinking gosh, even if this is self-published fanfic spewed out by a fever-gripped teenager who left no comma unspliced, you’re making the reviewer sound a little unhinged. Well, he comes across as a little unhinged. To some degree that’s clearly a schtick, but it’s still startlingly vicious.
This is, in fact, a book I saw in draft form. It’s well-written. You could definitely make the case—as the reviewer did, with stentorian profanity—that the protagonist isn’t sympathetic. Neither is the influence character. (He’s charismatic, but not sympathetic.) They’re both con men. They make bad choices. I wanted to slap both of them at multiple points. Some readers might genuinely hate both main characters.
But a badly written book—a “steaming pile of shit,” to wit—would hardly be powerful enough to make anyone angry with it. Whether you like a character or a setting has little to do with the quality of the work. The problem isn’t that this is a negative review. It’s that it’s an unfair review.
I mentioned before that the furry writing community is small, and bluntly, it’s small enough that this edges past merely irritating toward flat-out irresponsible. I doubt it’s going to hurt this particular book’s author, but public viciousness can be genuinely damaging at the scale we’re still at. Also, keep in mind reviewers earn—and lose—reputation currency as well. Authors and publishers do talk. And I can assure you I’m not the only one who’s saying, “Hey, can you believe this guy thinks this is an appropriate way to review a book?”
Let me underline that I’m not suggesting we never say negative things. Furry truly needs good criticism to advance, and we have a history of denying glaring problems in work by our community. But good criticism is well-reasoned. It distinguishes between this has objective problems in its storytelling and this story just isn’t my cup of tea.
And if you really don’t think something has any redeeming value at all—whether it’s competently written but just makes you want to pluck out your eyeballs, or it really is self-published fanfic spewed out by a fever-gripped teenager who left no comma unspliced—then you need to stop and ask yourself what your intention is in reviewing it. I’m betting the honest answer is “I want to mock this so everyone can laugh at my witty zingers, and I can be a capital-P Personality.”
If so, my advice is don’t do it. Because your review will probably be a steaming pile of shit.