JM Horse wrote an article Monday titled “The Role of Criticism Within Furry, or: Buy This Article,” which described pretty well the state of reviewing within the furry community (defined both as reviewing of furry works and reviews by furries, which are more or less a perfect circle Venn diagram at this point in time). There were a couple things he missed, namely describing some of the reasons particular to the furry community that shape the state of reviews. He also only really touched on the role of reviews in the fandom, so I’d like to offer my perspective as a long-time author in the fandom.
As he wrote, furry is a tight-knit community, and most members are also creators of one sort or another (note the number of disclaimers in this post). This is why I don’t generally review furry fiction unless I think it is something worthwhile that most people will overlook (Rukis’s “Heretic” was an example). Many other authors take this tack, and we have very few people in the fandom who are, like Fred Patten, dedicated readers, not authors, and good enough writers to pen a review.
Several years ago, a friend of mine attempted to set up a review site with honest, critical reviews that highlighted the positive and negative of books (disclaimer: he published reviews of my books that were generally positive). The result was at least one angry letter from a creator and numerous refusals to provide review copies of books to him because he wasn’t “taking them in the spirit in which they were written.” He got discouraged and busy with other projects, and in the end the site wasn’t worth his energy.
This kind of response, as JM details in his article, is not unknown in the community (and outside it). It’s likely that the person reviewing your book is a friend of a friend, especially in the small furry writing community—because who outside the furry writing community is going to have the proper context to review a furry book? More importantly, where else would furry readers go to find book recommendations? I have had books reviewed on romance blogs and on SF Signal; I doubt strongly whether more furry readers than I can count on one hand saw those reviews. So if someone reviews your book, it’s much harder to just ignore them and go about your life secure in the knowledge that you’ll never run into them in person or online. On the flip side, reviewers often know or get to know the authors they're reviewing, and when an author replies to a review with an angry or hurt letter, that can discourage the reviewer from doing more. I'm not surprised that few people have taken the time and energy to read books and write thoughtful reviews.
But to get back to JM’s article title, what is the role of reviews in the fandom? I am not sure what the readership of Dogpatch Press or Flayrah is, but anecdotally, the number of people who have picked up one of my books and told me it was because they read a review of it is vanishingly small compared to the number of people who say, “My friend said I have to read this.” In a tightly knit community like furry, where the number of books is not as overwhelming as it is in science fiction or literary fiction, do reviews really play a part in people’s decisions? I think for a few they do (and the writing community tends to be the ones who read reviews the most, again anecdotally), but for the majority, word of mouth is how people decide what to read.
(This is also not necessarily unique to furry. I have previously worked in market research, where studies have shown that the single most influential factor in persuading someone to make a purchasing decision is a personal recommendation.)
Yes, we as authors would like to have someone write reviews, to tell the world how much work we’ve put into our books. But I am not sure that most furries are out there clamoring for more reviews. And this is the second thing that is particular to the furry fandom: many furries enjoy books that reviewers might not.
To be honest, this isn’t unique to furry either. There are millions of readers worldwide who enjoy romance novels that many of us might charitably describe as “formulaic” or “unreadable.” But furries often fixate on the species of the lead character. If you’re a skunk and Amazon has a novel about a skunk on its Kindle store, you’re going to buy it, and chances are that even if it’s riddled with typos and a plot as flimsy as a skunk’s tail, you’re going to enjoy it. Because you relate to that character! She’s a skunk too!
Here, too, reviews are unnecessary. People will buy at conventions from publishers where they can see the book and get recommendations from the people working the table (both Sofawolf and FurPlanet—disclaimer, again: I have worked both tables—are good at the “if you liked this you’ll like this” game), or online where they can see the cover and read a summary of the book. Often they will get as far as “It’s the story of a fox” before clicking the BUY button.
And look, as an author who has spent years and years trying to improve my craft, I get the undercurrent of resentment that JM has in his article for books like “The Cat’s Eye Pub,” which in his words “fails to meet minimum standards for publication.” Why should this book be recommended to people when “the author [didn’t] reread and self-edit his own work”? It’s frustrating, just like artists in the fandom who spend days or weeks on a technically beautiful picture only to see it get a quarter of the faves of a sloppily drawn porn piece.
But here’s the thing: people like what they like, and all of those likes are valid. People through the ages have railed against the tastes of their community, from the people who decried Shakespeare as “common” to the people who hate “Twilight.” (I am not drawing an equivalence between Shakespeare’s plays and the Twilight saga, only the critics of their fans.) So I feel like JM thinks that the role of reviews in the furry community should be to gently or not-so-gently direct people’s tastes toward “better” books. But I’m not sure that the people he’d like to direct in that way would actually read reviews. They enjoy the books they enjoy, and furry is a small enough place that they can find the “better” books and decide if they want to read them. Heck, there are basically three sites on the Internet and three tables at conventions to browse. It doesn’t take long.
And for the record, I don’t think Fred Patten errs on the positive side in his reviews to avoid friction in a tight-knit community; I think he genuinely finds something to like in everything he reviews. I’ve seen a lot of his reviews end with “If X is to your taste, then you will like this book.” That’s a pretty good review. (Again looking to the romance community, there are several review blogs where the policy is “if we don’t like your book, we won’t review it.” In that field, little is accomplished by negative reviews other than to annoy the author; they would rather point people to books they like a lot than take out time and energy to criticize ones they don’t. I do think that there is room in furry for constructively negative reviews, especially in the writing community, because it’s such a young community relative to most other writing communities and most people in it are actively interested in learning.)
I’m not opposed to more reviewers by any means. But I think what we authors need to do is encourage our fans to talk about the books. Those are the reviews that most people listen to and the reviews that matter.