interviewed by Carl Slaughter
Lois Tilton is the short fiction reviewer for Locus Online. Previously, she reviewed short fiction for the Internet Review of Science Fiction. She won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in the short form category for her story “Pericles the Tyrant” in 2006. In 2005, her story, “The Gladiator’s War” was a nominee for the Nebula Award for Best Novelette. She has also written several novels concerning vampires and media-related novels, one each in the Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine universes. She has published 4 novels: Vampire Winter (1990), Darkness on the Ice (1993), Written in Venom (2000), Darkspawn (2000). She sold over 70 piece of short fiction between 1985 and 2009, many of which appeared in Asimov’s and Realms of Fantasy. Many of her stories have been included in anthologies.
CARL SLAUGHTER: What type of relationship does a reviewer have with the science fiction community? Do you hobnob with authors and publishers? What happens at conventions when fans, authors, editors, and publishers discover you’re the Locus reviewer? Do they argue with you, thank you, lobby you on behalf of an upcoming story, avoid you?
LOIS TILTON: Essentially, I don’t have a relationship with the science fiction community. I don’t believe I’ve been to a convention since I started reviewing. For one thing, they don’t invite me. And I don’t really see the use in it. I don’t particularly enjoy most conventions, where I find myself with nothing much to do except maybe the token panel. An author goes to these things to rub the elbow with agents and editors, bask in the presence of the famous, hang out with the posse. I’m not there anymore.
Almost all my previous interaction with the SF community has been online, but online has gone Elsewhere these days and I feel no inclination to chase it around. This makes me fairly insulated from the tides of community opinion, which I consider to be an advantage. It lets me form my opinion of a story without being influenced by prevailing views. I don’t know what stories are currently popular on Facebook or being denounced on Twitter. Think of a hermit in a cave with limited internet access.
CS: How does your background as a successful writer influence your reviewing?
LT: It’s a huge advantage that I’m no longer writing fiction. I don’t have to be concerned about the reactions of publishers and editors who might be in a position to reject my stuff. In my first column at IROSF, I wrote as my manifesto: “I consider that my mandate is to the readers, not the authors or editors of the stories I review. I have no one else to please and no one else’s opinion concerns me, save that of the editors of IROSF.” This still holds true, mutatis mutandis, with Locus. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t keep doing reviews. When I reached the age of curmudgeonhood I decided that the rest of life is too short to let other people tell me what I can and can’t say.
CS: Have an author or publisher ever tried to fire or prevent you from reviewing any more of their stories, or wrote you nastigrams, or publicly corrected your review?
LT: If any publishers have ever attempted to get me fired, it apparently hasn’t worked so far. On a very few occasions, publishers have indeed been peeved by my opinions enough that they stopped sending me stuff for review. Sometimes I review it anyway, and it doesn’t work in the case of online zines that anyone can read.
As far as author reaction goes, I find that it usually falls into two categories: “Lois Tilton trashed my story, who the hell does she think she is?” and “Lois Tilton recommended my story, what a great reviewer!” Writers tend to take critical reaction personally. I do everything I can to keep it from being personal on my side. So if it comes to that, and it has, I’ll write a negative review of a friend’s story and recommend stuff from a person I happen to dislike.
CS: Do meet or correspond with other reviewers and what do you talk about?
LT: I’ve always liked reading reviews, by which I mean reviews with something to say, not just lists with a few stars next to the titles. I like to read other reviewers’ opinions of the stories I’ve read, to see how far we agree and disagree. Have I seen many reviews from other sources that totally changed my assessment of a work? Not really. Sometimes I think, well, that’s a good point. Sometimes, “Duh! How could I miss that!”
Even where there is strong disagreement, it’s definitely a Good Thing to have reviewers who come to a work from different points of view, using different scales of critical measurement. There’s a lot of subjectivity in these things. Even in factual matters, if an author, say, misstates the size of the solar system, different reviewers will assign more or less importance to the error.
Earlier this year, the three regular short fiction reviewers from Locus â€” Horton, Dozois and Tilton â€” did a roundtable thing for podcast on reviewing the year’s stories, but there were technical difficulties in the recording. Which was too bad, I think readers would have found it interesting. One thing on which we all agreed was not having enough time to read many novels.
CS: Tell us about the reviewing process.
LT: The advantage I have, reviewing online, is the absence of space constraints. I don’t have the word limits that reviewers for print venues have to put up with. When I started doing this, it was common for reviewers to pick out the most notable stories in a magazine and skip over the rest. There wasn’t a lot of negative commentary. Because I don’t have the space constraints, I decided I would comment on every story in every publication I review, including the bad ones. This definitely means some negative reviews. Authors may not like this, but as I’ve said, I’m writing for readers, not authors.
In choosing publications to review, I first look at what I think most readers will be reading. The digests, the regular prozines, both print and online. I also like to review the little magazines and less-seen publications of higher quality, to point potential readers in their direction. I’ve made it a point to read any new publication sent to me, but that doesn’t guarantee I’ll review it if I find the quality to be sub-professional. In essence, I want to review publications that I think readers will want to read.
There don’t seem to be many high-quality original anthologies anymore, and publishers don’t always send them to me, which is vexing. I miss out on some good stuff that way. But another policy I adopted when I started this gig is “Text flows to the reviewer.” Which means I don’t spend my own money on material for review. I’m also not happy about jumping through hoops to access stuff from third-party sites with proprietary formats and encoding.
CS: Do you wear kid gloves when you review a story by a new writer?
LT: I don’t hold new authors to a different standard. If a story is supposed to be good enough to be professionally published, this means it ought to be ready for review as a professional story. It does no one a favor if I say, “Well, this one is good enough for a new writer.” I think readers want to find good stories, regardless of the author’s age or experience. What I will do, particularly in the case of excellent work from a new author, is point out that the writer is new to the game so that readers can look out for more stuff from that author.
CS: Any stories you labeled duds that won awards; stories you consider a jewel that received little or no attention; cases of the rest of the speculative fiction community agreeing with you that a story is a dud or a jewel?
LT: The trouble with awards is that most of them are made on other grounds than quality. There’s the popularity of some authors, there’s outright logrolling, there’s contagious groupthink, whereby people assume that if so many other people like a given work, it must be good. And beyond all that is the inescapable fact that most readers, including some of those who vote on awards ballots, don’t read all that widely. They may only read stuff by their friends, or stuff recommended by their friends; some people will vote for stuff by their friends without bothering to read it.
Knowing this, it’s no surprise when inferior fiction ends up getting awards. I very much doubt if a negative review by me has ever changed this. I do think that a strong recommendation from me may have helped boost some stories into contention. At least, I’d like to think so.
Carl Slaughter is a writer, reviewer, critiquer, muse, English teacher, recruiter, webmaster, editorialist, essayist, and journalist. His essay on Chinese culture is in Beijing Review and his essay on Korean culture is in Korea Times. His latest essay is on Internet piracy. He is also the editor of ESL Book Review. He has traveled to 19 countries on 4 continents. He has a collection of 1500 DVD movies and TV shows, a collection of Asian and Egyptian art, and an almost unmanageable number of ESL, history, law, business, and science textbooks. At the moment he is teaching ESL in China. He reviewed extensively for Tangent for 2 years, has participated extensively in the Critters Workshop for 5 years, contributes research frequently on the Writers of the Future Forum, and currently writes reviews and conducts interviews for Diabolical Plots. His career plans include contest judge, anthologist, magazine editor, and eventually television producer.