The Role of Reviews in Furry: Another Perspective

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.

About Kyell

Kyell is a fox, a writer, and a California resident. He likes to write stories of varying lengths, often (but not always) dealing with gay relationships and foxes. You can find information about his stories on his website, and read his blog at http://www.kyellgold.com/wpblog for thoughts on furry fandom, writing, gay rights, and eagles, and for information on his upcoming books.

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12 thoughts on “The Role of Reviews in Furry: Another Perspective

  1. Hi Kyell, thanks for your generosity towards my article, and for your contribution to the conversation. There are several ideas and perspectives here that I didn’t consider in my piece.

    I appreciate your point about the value of word-of-mouth versus a review, and I’m not surprised to hear that reviews don’t seem to really figure in the choices of people who have bought your books. However I wonder if that might be a factor of your success: lots of people know your name and your books, and so you have a small army of dedicated fans out there giving recommendations.

    For those writers who are new or largely unknown, I can’t help but think that a positive review might give them a good kick-start. Some people, including myself, might buy a book on the back of a good review, and become one of the first advocates. Word-of-mouth doesn’t exist unless there are already fans of the books. I wonder if personal recommendations are only ever a factor for books/writers that are already successful.

    I’ll also add that any reviews can drive readership. If someone raves about a book simply because it has horses (or skunks), then that may well help attract other readers. I don’t think that reviews necessarily have to make a judgement about “quality”, just that they reflect the thoughts of the reviewer (and are written for a prospective reader).

    Fred is a good example. He has a few quirks as a reviewer, and often returns to a couple of favourite topics: the sexual content of a book, and the degree to which the furry characters are “animalized”. I understand that some authors find this frustrating but I think that readers are astute enough to understand that all reviewers have their own ideas about what makes a good book. (In fact I was chatting last night with a furry who appreciated Fred’s tendency to point out explicit sexual content, because that meant she knew it wouldn’t be her cup of tea either.) So while I think reviews help readers find “better” books, I don’t mean that “better” necessarily means “intellectual” or “sophisticated”.

    1. I do agree, but I am not sure that just any review will be helpful. It goes back to the recommendation coming from a trusted source: A review only holds as much weight as the reviewer’s trust with the audience. So in order for reviews to be helpful, we’d need someone to be writing them who can stick with it long enough to build up trust and a reputation in the community (this “someone” could also be a well-curated website) so that people go to them to find out info on books. Fred is really the one name that comes to mind in reviewing books at the moment, and as you point out, anyone who’s followed him for any length of time understands his particular perspective and can skew or un-skew the reviews accordingly (and I should point out that his tendency to point out explicit sexual content has always felt to me quite reasonable and non-controversial in that as you mention, there are people who don’t want to see that in books, and the failure to mention it in a review could really upset someone).

      I also believe that your position on reviews applies to a very narrow band of furry; namely, “people who are actively looking for furry books.” In my experience, that is a pretty small subset of the fandom, and those people are also generally more motivated to try things anyway. Most e-books now allow the user to download a small sample of the book, which should be enough to weed out the really poorly written/edited ones. What I think would be helpful is more lists of books/stories that people enjoyed. Awards like the Coyotls and Ursas are fine but both limited and flawed in their own way, and I have a philosophical problem with any institution whose stated purpose is to showcase the best in a field and then limits that “best” to a single book or story per year. Having a “best of” list at the end of a year would at least give those active seekers a starting point from which they could go read more, and would maybe (with publicity) encourage some of the other elements of the fandom to pick up something.

      1. I feel like JM is focusing on normative arguments (what should be) about the role of reviews in furry and you’re focusing on descriptive arguments (how it is) of the role of reviews in furry. Both are valuable, and I’m glad to see you guys aren’t arguing about A vs B when it’s really more A and B; it’s rare to see two people engaging like this in a relevant critique of the other’s points when their goals with their own arguments are different.

        I quite liked both of these articles, and I’d like to add a (normative) note to your point Kyell. You’re right that most furries will make a judgment about a book based on any number of ‘superficial’ traits of it: cover art, species of the characters, basic storyline, etc. I’ve done it myself! However, I think that’s because most furries want what I’d call ‘comfort food writing.’ You’ve referred to it as ‘cupcakes’ before. It’s books that focus primarily on reader enjoyment and comfort. Furry has a lot of it and that’s good, and reviews of such books should focus more on the Patten side of things, as you pointed out (“if you liked x, then you’ll like this.”). Because that’s what the audience cares about! However, there’s also literature that is meant to be challenging and complex, stuff that makes the reader question their beliefs and the way they view the world. Furry has very little of that. What little we have had hasn’t been particularly well-received, possibly in part because it’s rare and therefore unexpected: if I give you something and you bite into it expecting a cupcake and it tastes like beef wellington, you’re going to be upset– even if it’s gourmet beef wellington. Closer examinations of literature are heavily lacking, and I think this is a particular sort of book that heavily benefits from reviews. This sort of writing can get passed over, go unexamined by the average reader, and the eye of an experienced reviewer can help draw attention to it. Since this is a portion of writing that the furry writing community has not made a market from yet, I’d be quite encouraged to see reviewers looking at this side of things. I think it might help encourage growth in a type of literature furry lacks at the moment, but can succeed in! It’s possible there’s just not the market for it, and if so, so be it. But since online reviews can help bring people’s attention to these sorts of books more effectively than they can help bring people’s attention to the ‘comfort food’ style of books, the review community is a good place for the larger furry writing community to turn a critical eye to. Better reviewers = better chance for these sorts of books to succeed, if only by a marginal amount. They need all the help they can get.

        Glad to see this topic being discussed in a thoughtful and friendly manner, so thanks to both of you for taking the time to write these articles and talk to each other about them!

        tl;dr: Reviews encourage a certain kind of literature, a kind of literature furry has a dearth of.

        PS/NB: I realize ‘challenging literature’ may sound like a compliment, and cupcake (despite being a term used by you and others) may sound condescending. I do not mean it this way and would welcome other terms. I am quite in love with reading and writing both sorts of stories and don’t think one is more ‘worthwhile’ than the other. But for now I’m stumped on something that’s as descriptive and also more respectful.

        1. Thanks, Friday. I agree with you although one gets into touchy territory with some people when one tries to draw a boundary between those two kinds of books.

          Also, “Cupcakes” is the name of a line of books I started with Rikoshi and foozzzball, so named because they’re all novellas (under 50K words), not because they are “comfort reads” or anything like that. Just to clarify what I’m talking about when I say “Cupcakes.” :)

  2. While this is perhaps a variant on JM’s comment, I think reviews can also help introduce works to people that they might never have found otherwise — in a lot of ways, I think that’s the primary role of reviewers. I’m reading a furry book now written by someone who isn’t in furry fandom at all. C&Q published a review of a novel serialized on Fur Affinity that I sure as heck wouldn’t have found if someone hadn’t pointed at it.

    This discussion often circles back around, as it did on the FWG, to a belief that we need to have more reviewers unafraid to say negative things and that our small community hurts us in that regard. While that conclusion is correct, I’ve found myself questioning the implicit premise that we need more negative reviews. I don’t want reviewers to be afraid to jump up and down and scream “this book isn’t very good and you people shouldn’t buy it, and here’s wy,” but I’d much rather see them jump up and down and scream “this book by this person you’ve never heard is absolutely awesome and you people should buy it. Here’s why.”

    1. Completely agree–my comment about constructive negative reviews came out of a discussion with someone talking about how valuable workshop critique was and how that might benefit even already-published authors, but I was unsure about putting that out in public (or at least was thinking that it would need a lot of reworking because you’re talking about things the author can no longer actually fix). It is funny, really, because I am very much in favor of the “if you like it, point people to it, and if you don’t like it, don’t say anything” school of reviewing, and if you follow that line of reasoning to want someone who is generally positive and says “if you like these things you will like this book too,” then the ideal furry reviewer, amusingly enough, starts to look a lot like Fred Patten. :)

  3. I think you indirectly picked up on how critics can affect attitudes that pervade the writing scene as opposed to a larger overall readership in furry– as Rick also noticed in the comments section of JM’s piece. The barrier between reviewer and writer in Furry is far smaller than in the wider field of speculative fiction and science fiction, and that barrier is even smaller when reviewers are also anthology editors.

    There are better criticisms to be made of Patten than “too negative” or “too positive,” such as “I don’t have enough of an idea about what sort of questions this piece asks,” but I don’t think such a thing as “the ideal reviewer” even exists.

    To me, this has been a discussion about “how reviewers directly or indirectly influence the writing scene” as opposed to the reading scene, where I don’t think they do have as much influence.

  4. I’m torn.

    Instinctively, I think you may not be going far enough. It feels like the viewership for reviews are vanishingly small, even compared to the written works themselves. It feels like the vast majority of people who read or view reviews are the authors themselves, the writing community as a whole, or friends of the reviewers. The problem here is the phrase ‘it feels’. I would be genuinely interested to see if there’s some way to get some harder statistics on who is consuming that content. I do know for a fact that my readers mostly consist of a silent majority–people who I will never meet or interact with in any way except through my writing. I currently have no way of knowing how many of them researched something of mine before purchasing.

    I believe there’s a meaningful role that reviews and reviewers could play, especially as the furry writing scene seems to be veritably blooming. New authors–some of them absolutely astounding in their skill with the proverbial pen–can find it rather difficult to get noticed.

    1. On Flayrah, book reviews tended to get fewer hits than the average story, but a significant portion of our regular readership still read them. I’d say if there is an issue there, it’s that many furries don’t read, or at least are not particularly interested in furry fiction in book form; and hence a review is not of much interest to them.

  5. I think the problem is in this vain, but I’ll go a step further:

    Google “Furry Writer” and we find a place where writers can talk about aspects of writing.

    Google “Furry Reader” and we don’t find any community at all.

    So is it any wonder that there is this relative silence? Where do furries that enjoy furry literature go to express themselves on these works? Right now, no where.

    Sure, they could express these things on a FurAffinity, SoFurry, Inkbunny, Weasyl, they could make groups there as well. The thing is groups for readers right now is harder to find than groups for writers, and in an indirect manner writers are worse off because of it.

    1. More than a few times I’ve considered making such a site, but it always came down to one big problem… people wanted visual artwork on it too, or wanted it to support visual artwork.

      Ultimately, I think the really big problem is we don’t have as many readers as we think we do. Or those who do read are not necessarily into talking about what they read.

      There _ARE_ sites out there that do precisely what you discuss with less genre specific books. Sites like Goodreads and even amazon with their forums for each book have good discussions and groups.

      But I don’t see many furs there, even though I do see the same people I see in other places.

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