The Role of Criticism Within Furry, or: Buy This Article

04 May 2015 |

The majority of furries create and contribute to our community in one way or another. Few furries are just consumers.

Our art encompasses a wide range of media, with a focus on creations that help bring our imaginary furry world to life. We have a lot of visual artists and a lot of writers, and it's no surprise that two of our biggest online gathering places—Fur Affinity and SoFurry—were originally settled by each of these two groups.

With so many contributors and contributions, it's inevitable that the quality of art is often pretty poor. That's a good thing, because we are an inclusive community, where the emphasis is on contributing and sharing, rather some race for a prize. Furries draw and furries write because they enjoy the process, and because they are contributing to the collective community. In many cases, people hope to improve and aspire to take their art further. It's the sort of collaborative environment that creates artists, and we within furry can be proud to have bred and encouraged so many talented people.

Some artists—the focus of this piece is on furry writing, but it equally applies to visual art—look to sell their works, in either hard-copy format or as ebooks. Those works that are for sale, ideally, should represent the best of furry writing and be worth their cost to the buyer. Sadly that is not always the case.

Visual artists who sell their work can be judged easily enough by a prospective customer: a quick glance will give an idea of the quality of the art. This creates a meritocracy, where the more (commercially) successful artists are those who are better able to meet demand. This does not work so simply with writing, because it's not always possible to quickly sample before buying, and because a significant time investment is required to consume a work.

The challenge for we furry readers, then, is to identify good writing and good writers based on other information. In the past, publishing companies were the only route to sales, and therefore they acted as gatekeepers, choosing to publish only works that were of a certain quality. Someone buying a book would be more likely to enjoy a published work than something unpublished on SoFurry. The cost of the book was more than just paying the author: it was also paying the gatekeeper.

This has changed. There is now almost zero barrier to self-publication, and just about anything can be made available for sale as an ebook. To make the point, I have made this article available for purchase—the sale version contains absolutely nothing extra and is a complete waste of money—you can download it from Amazon for an inflated price here.

Obviously you'd be better served spending your money elsewhere. But where? There is a lot of bad writing out there for sale, but instead of offering it for free on SoFurry (or on [adjective][species]), writers are taking advantage of the low bar to publication and hoping to make a few extra dollars, or maybe become the next Kyell Gold.

You have a few options to increase your chances of ending up with a good read. Your first is to buy only from specialist furry publishers, like Furplanet or Sofawolf, to take advantage of their gatekeeping.

You also might wish to read some reviews.

Way back in 2012, Phil Geusz wrote a piece here on [adjective][species] thanking one of furry's gatekeepers, Fred Patten. Fred is furry's most prolific reviewer by far, writing about just about any and every furry book he can get his hands on. Reviewing is a largely thankless job—the joy of books is in the reading—and Phil wanted to acknowledge Fred for his unheralded contribution to furry.

Fred had a long association with Flayrah, but has recently started publishing his reviews on Dogpatch Press after becoming frustrated with editorial delays at his old home. His reviews at Dogpatch don't seem to be on any obvious schedule, but they turn up regularly, and I understand that there are several dozen more reviews already written (and undoubtedly many more planned). His reviews are a good place to start.

There are a few other places to read reviews of furry books. The rebooted Claw & Quill seems to be staking out ground as a place for in-depth reviews, and Flayrah will undoubtedly continue to publish reviews now their editorial backlog is cleared. However the biggest source of reviews anywhere are places like Goodreads and Amazon, full of largely informal opinions offered by readers. Here we have a significant issue.

Sites like Goodreads and Amazon offer the opportunity for readers to offer up a rating and/or a review. This is great in theory, and works well when there is a large, engaged readership. However because of the low bar to publication, a new furry reader is presented with a dizzying array of choices, very few of which have a large number of reviews. The result is that it's very difficult, if not impossible, to tell what is worthwhile. The rating system doesn't work.

As an example (or perhaps cautionary tale), a friend of mine decided to dip his toe into the waters of furry fiction back in 2012. He purchased a couple of furry ebooks based on their blurb and their Amazon rating. He came away with two books, both of which were clearly labours of love for the writers, neither of which had been edited to anything resembling a reasonable standard. I would describe the quality of these books—both currently available as ebooks for around $10 each—to be somewhere in the vicinity of "embarrassing".

Part of the problem is that the rating system on Goodreads/Amazon is easily manipulated. One furry author over at the Furry Writers' Guild noted: "There have been some absolutely terrible pieces that have been 5 star reviewed because they are the author's friends, and others marked 1 star because of either a disagreement or 'war' between the authors."

There are annual awards given for furry writing, which help sort the needles from the hay. The Ursa Major Awards have three relevant categories, and the Furry Writers' Guild run the Cóyotl awards. The Ursa Majors are awarded based on popular vote, and the Cóyotls are semi-juried, with guild members voting on a winner from a shortlist. Both systems work pretty well, and tend to recognize higher-quality works. But awards can only be given to a small number of books each year.

Some furries question whether reviews have any value at all, because they can be seen as a form of elitism, with high-profile reviewers (like Fred Patten) able to single-handedly determine the quality of a work of art. This might be considered contrary to the values of the furry community—creative, nurturing, and collaborative—although arguably this no longer applies when the author is asking people to buy their works. Reviewing does have value - it is a judgement of quality, and quality is valuable to consumers.

As furry author Renee Carter Hall says: "when you get to the point of asking people to pay money for your work, with that work you're now operating on a level that to my mind has gone beyond that sort of fun fan spirit, and thus you're operating in the realm where criticism, in some form or another, is to be expected".

The complaint, that a single review from one gatekeeper is too influential, has a simple solution: more reviewers. (Furry authors were universal on this need in a forum discussion.) However reviewers are subject to a lot of negativity from authors, negativity that all too often becomes somewhat abusive. It feels at times that authors treat their reviewers as the enemy.

Fred Patten reviewed Bonds of Silver, Bonds of Gold on Flayrah in 2012. Fred's review is a long one, featuring an introduction to the plot and several quotes directly from the book. Any reader of his review would get a good idea of the Bonds of Silver, Bonds of Gold's themes and style. The bulk of his criticism is a single, short paragraph:

"There is a good dramatic plot here, but it is buried under the constant nonstop graphic sex, the beatings, and the humiliation. The beatings and the humiliation are [one character's] alone; everybody participates in the sex. Buy according to your taste for this sort of thing."

 

The author, Kristina Tracer, took exception to this review, stating in a Furry Writers' Guild Forum thread—two and half years later (!)—that Fred is not a "credible" reviewer because of a (perceived) bias against explicit sexual content:

"I'm angry with the situation with Fred because it feels like our most prolific reviewer is letting his biases show in a way that isn't healthy for the community as a whole".

 

Kristina's frustration is understandable—reviews are difficult for any artist—but in this case it feels unfair to Fred. Fred is writing in good faith and—unlike Kristina—isn't offering his words up for sale. He deserves acknowledgement and thanks for his time.

If there is a problem with Fred's criticism (and furry criticism in general), I suspect it's the other way round: reviews of furry books are too positive. I think that reviewers shy away from making criticisms that might be perceived as negative. I have a couple of examples to support this, one bad, one good:-

A bad book: Fred reviewed The Cat's Eye Pub last year, a book that obviously fails to meet minimum standards for publication. Fred noted several major issues with the book, such as a failure to perform basic copyediting, which suggested to me that the author hadn't bothered to reread and self-edit his own work. Errors mentioned by Fred included obvious punctuation mistakes, missing quotation marks, misused words, missing words, and "common misspellings such as "to" for "too" and "use" for "used"".

Yet, Fred concluded his review with a recommendation for purchase: "Recommended? Yes; despite the book's problems, The Cat's Eye Pub is a feel-good story featuring charismatic non-humans whose difference is more than window-dressing. I enjoyed it; I think that you will, too."

A good book: Fred reviewed Kyell Gold's Green Fairy in 2012. Fred gave Green Fairy a rave, concluding his review by calling it "a piece of magnificent literature".

As part of my research for this article, I cast about on Twitter for book recommendations, and Green Fairy was a popular choice for the best furry novel written to date (God of Clay by Ryan Campbell was the other collective recommendation). I read Green Fairy and wrote a long review, which was recently published at Hooded Utilitarian - you can read my thoughts on the book in detail there.

The short version: I enjoyed reading Green Fairy. But it is not a piece of magnificent literature.


It's understandable that Fred, or indeed any reviewer, might err on the side of being positive. Furry is a tight-knit community and negativity has the potential to cause friction. And as we saw with Bonds of Silver, Bonds of Gold, even a neutral-to-positive review can create some long-simmering problems.

The issue here, for authors and reviewers is this: who are you writing for? If you are writing a story for yourself and for your own enjoyment, then by all means enjoy and post it on your SoFurry account. But if you're planning to sell your work, you must write with the reader in mind. Copy-editing and editing are needed to demonstrate respect for the reader, even if they are a lot less fun than writing your first draft.

And for reviewers: you are writing for the prospective reader, not the author. Authors will of course take a very close interest in any review, and they will always be interested and perhaps vocal. Readers who avoid picking up The Cat's Eye Pub and instead read Green Fairy will be grateful, but may not think to thank the reviewer once they have enjoyed their purchase.

So, from me and all those silent readers, to Fred Patten and every other reviewer out there: you have our thanks. Keep helping us spend our money wisely.

This article is available as an ebook from Amazon.