It was Gene who pointed out that I would be able to review works by friends again when it's OK for me to pull everything to pieces (no matter how genius) and to explain it and offer insights. The need for distance won't always be so. Or if I moved to the UK, where criticism *is* more robust, then I will be able to choose interesting works regardless of provenance. It's only here and now, when politeness prevails and even the mildest comment causes a flurry that it's sensible to keep that distance clear.
I'll always be a mild critic, so it all seems a bit daft. My idea of "This book totally fails at what it sets out to do" is "I think that the author could have looked more closely at such-and-such." This means I find it odd when I come over as the tough critic on a panel, as I did, on that particular panel. Also, if people are scared of my gentleness, then yes, Australian spec fic is going to be slow in rediscovering robust criticism.
I rather suspect that the wonderful burgeoning of book availability for online reviewing and the general literary and enthusiasm of many of us who review mean that the fluidity of the writing style and the love for the book is more important for most than the critical assessment. On the panel, at least one reviewer said outright "I review friends, but that's OK because I only review books I like reading anyway." It's the difference between a good appreciation of an enjoyable volume and a critique/review.
In some ways it horrifies me, because I'll always prefer a stiff criticism that shows me the work from ways I couldn't have seen it myself and that opens my eyes to the wonders of story. I do not want to be told to adore a book - I can work that much out for myself - I want to hear thoughts and be challenged and grow in my understanding of the writer and of what they do.
In other ways, it's delightful, for it means more fans read and communicate about more books. If we're all writing about the same books, then that's a problem (for it reduces the world to a few stories), but there'll always be an important place for love of books, communicated effectively and eloquently.
This means I'm conflicted, but less confused. Which is an improvement on being both conflicted and confused, I guess.