Today my reading made me sad.
I've been blessed to have crossed paths with a number of personalities in the New Pulp movement over the last couple of years. The expansion of cheap online publishing has recently made it possible for a variety of talented editors to create new publications in which they make available the work of new authors. On occasion, I've been one of those authors. My work has been deemed acceptable by publications such as Storyhack and Broadswords and Blasters. In every instance, I've enjoyed working with the publishers of these periodicals, and found that my story has been surrounded by work of authors like me. Semipros, mainly. A bit rough around the edges perhaps, but eager to please, and reasonably skilled--many of them better at the craft than I am.
One of the pleasures of being a writer, and a pulp writer specifically, is that I get to hype the work of my fellow authors and of the publications in which they work. Reviews at sites like Amazon and Goodreads can lead to increased referrals by the sites in question to new readers, and real revenue for the publishers. They're also a pleasant ego boost to the artists in question, who in most cases struggle for recognition. So, when I can, I post a review. I do this both for publications which have bought my work (though I never review any issue or anthology in which I was published) and for those other publications which also lurk at the margins of the market, looking for a big break or, at minimum, for some respect. For instance: I recently posted a favorable review of the debut YA novel of a real-life acquaintance, who landed a contract at a small press. It was fun to do so. People who put themselves on the line should know that they did a good job.
I made a promise to myself at the outset, though: I would, in all cases, be honest in my reviews.
Being honest does not prevent me from emphasizing the positive. If I review a magazine or anthology, I'll focus the review on my favorite stories and identify the authors by name, but I won't hammer the stories I disliked. If I read a book, I'll hype its best attributes and avoid mentioning the weaknesses.
But I do not OVER-hype work, even if I appreciate the impulses that led to its creation. I do not say something is good if I think it was bad. Nor do I say something was great if I think it was merely good. If, one day, I give a five-star review to a pulp periodical or a self-published book, it will mean I think that the work is of elite quality in all respects and can stand with the very best stuff in print. I've felt that way about individual stories I've encountered in pulp markets--Shannon Connor Winward in Storyhack #0, Misha Burnett in Cirsova #5, L Chan in Broadswords and Blasters #5--but I've never quite been able to drop five stars on a complete issue of a pulp periodical or of a self-published book. I hope I do so soon. I haven't done it yet. I'm saving that review for something truly amazing.
Four stars, to me, means that a piece of work is really, really good, and stands alongside stuff by people who do this for a living full time. Three stars means that I genuinely enjoyed it, even if I felt that parts of it were flawed. Two stars or less...
Two stars or less is a rating I have never assigned to semipro work.
I have been known to give two stars or less on Amazon and Goodreads to PROFESSIONAL work, because people who are asking me to pay pro rates for their work are held to a higher standard, and if they're not good at what they do, other readers deserve to know it before they drop twenty bucks on the book. But it's just plain wrong to watch a person labor in obscurity to improve their craft and entertain an audience, and then tell the world, "This is substandard, and everybody should know that."
Today I had that experience with a pulp periodical. Not a periodical where I've been published or am under consideration by, but a magazine that I've heard about, and had my eye on, and wanted to float a couple of bucks towards, just to see how they were doing. I ,bought an issue and gave it a look-see. And it was...okay. Everybody involved clearly put in their best. Their efforts were honorable, and commendable, and I hope they all improved as artists in the process of producing it, and derived pride from the experience of publishing and being published.
But I couldn't call it good. Not publicly. It was two-star stuff. Ambitious, but messy.
I've put in some two-star stories over the last few years--a few of which even made it to print--so I don't think I'm better than the people I'm critiquing. But I remember what it was like to "labor mightily, and bring forth a mouse." And for that reason, I don't post two or one star reviews of semipro work.
I think of it as the lesser of two evils: to say nothing at all is less nasty than to say "meh". But in truth, it's more accurate to say that it's the least of THREE evils--because to read something I thought was "meh" and praise it to the skies would be worse than either of the above. I'm a harsh grader and a mean bastard at times, but at least I'm not a quote-whore.
And if you share my outlook, and you happen to be contemplating work by me that you consider less than my best, and are wondering whether to be honest about that fact...
...then DON'T, for God's sake. Get to Amazon and LIE YOUR ASS OFF about how awesome I am. Because those five-star reviews are CANDY to me, my friend, and I can't get enough.