Over the past couple of days we’ve seen some discussion in the web fiction sphere on reviewers, and how an elite breed of such reviewers can help online fiction. An unspoken but widely-held belief underlying this debate has been that more reviewers would equal more quality, and more quality would equal more readers. This argument is best summarized as: ‘the reviewing class sets the bar for online fiction. A good reviewing class equals a high bar, and a high bar elevates the medium.’ (Forgive me for the wordplay here, I’ll soften my argument in a bit).
I no longer believe this to be true. The quality of a medium has never been measured by the quality of its reviewers. As writers, this is intuitive: how often do you write to please your critics? I know I don’t. I write for myself, and I’m pretty sure that you too, write for reasons far more important than the next glowing review. Perhaps we’ve gotten the causal relationship wrong: the bar isn’t raised because of reviewers; instead, reviewers improve in scope and ability as the bar of quality in a medium rises. And the bar rises of its own accord, driven by writers who work to improve themselves, or by writers who attempt to experiment within (or even without) the boundaries of their chosen form.
When you think of it like this, WFG’s true value becomes clear: it isn’t valuable because of its reviewer integrity; it is valuable, rather, because it makes it very easy for one writer to look at another writer’s work, and to learn from that experience. I must admit that I used to believe in such an idea: that good reviewing would improve the quality of web fiction. But a year at WFG has proven me wrong: quality happens regardless of whether or not there are reviewers on hand to catalogue it. Writers are fantastic people, and they don’t need to be told to up their ante.
That is not to say that reviewers aren’t important. They’re just important for a different reason. In indie music, independent music blogs (usually curated by a team of music lovers) post tracks from their favourite artists on a weekly basis. This helps to spread word of mouth, from artist to blogger and finally to audiophile. Reviewers play the same role. They’re not important because they improve the quality of online fiction. They’re important because they attract attention, and attention in turn translates to more readers. The eFiction Book Club is one such ‘music blog’. We need more like them. But, more importantly, we need to be clear on the form and function of our reviewer class, and we shouldn’t get too presumptuous over what the reviewer can achieve. Reviewers don’t improve the quality of our medium. We do. Let’s not mix the two up.