The OF Blog: Fan Love

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Fan Love

In the 2+ years that OF has been running, we've discussed many things, from movie adaptations of Tolkien to deep explorations of the sources of inspiration for fantasy and science-fiction authors. Yet in all that time, I've learned that nothing gets as much reaction as a simple Author vs. Author or Character vs. Character discussion.

Currently, we're running a series of Quickpolls on favorite characters, in the tongue-in-cheek named Character Quickpoll Series. This is following on the heels of a very successful (and sometimes controversial) Author Quickpoll Series. Over the past five months that we've done these two series of Quickpolls, the level of reader participation has increased markedly, but at what cost?

I participate on a limited basis at a half-dozen other fantasy/SF-related sites, using a variety of screen names. At almost every single one of them, I've noticed what almost amounts to a factionalization of those sites along character/author lines. Nowhere is this more evident than at the SOIAF board. There, in their Other Authors section, one can expect to find plenty of posts devoted to comparing authors, including the linked-to one of Martin versus Jordan. But to be fair, this also occurs with too-frequent occurrance at OF as well, especially when we have been known for taking our potshots at Terry Goodkind and his interview style and how that compares with the perceived qualities of his Sword of Truth series.

Sometimes, comparing authors is a worthwhile endeavor. However, many times, it seems as though we get caught up in a reductio ad absurdum situation. Either a poster will say, "This book is kickass! Buy it now!," or on the flip side, it'll be more along the lines of, "This sucks!" (or sux, or suxx0r, depending on the person and the code language they want to use). Two months ago, Robert Salvatore mentioned the OF Quickpoll in passing when he talked about the negativity that internet websites seem to have toward the non-kosher authors. We had a very honest and open discussion about this issue and I am glad that we resolved matters to our mutual liking.

But Salvatore does raise a very important point. Why is it that many have to believe that they must bash other authors into the ground at the same time that they express their admiration for another author's work? Shouldn't the merits of a George R.R. Martin stand on their own without having to be compared to a Robert Jordan or any other fantasy author?

And that leads into an even more fundamental issue for fans who post on websites. We're not exactly known as paragons of debating. All too often, our attempts to discuss matters breaks down into simple likes/dislikes, without a clear model for determining those preferences. Over at SFF World two months ago, a mini-battle of sorts broke out over how to delineate between "quality" and "non-quality" speculative fiction. But the specifics of that debate are for another post, I fear.

There are two important things to consider here: Why do we like this character/author? How does this character/story work for me? All too often in the constricting confines of internet forums, we have little opportunity to expound upon our initial statements, due mostly to the time it take for us to compose and organize our thoughts on the matter. There are plenty of very intelligent writers that visit these forums, yet even they are sometimes guilty of writing only a sentence or a paragraph and expecting everyone else to see as he/she sees the issue. I know I'm guilty of this in the past.

But what can we do about it? For the time being, apparently not much. Although there are many that are willing to put forth the extra effort required to spark a lively and civilized discourse on how we view authors and their characters, there are many times more of us fans who are content to engage in questions that revolve around a Versus scenario, whether it's Martin vs. Jordan, Erikson vs. Martin, Tolkien vs. Miéville, or if it's a Character Deathmatch sort of setting. Sometimes, in order to get some of the former, we have to indulge others who want the latter.

23 comments:

shaza said...

I don't have much to say regarding the formation of factions (happens with everything (sports being the most obvious example)), but I do want to comment on this quote of yours:

"Shouldn't the merits of a George R.R. Martin stand on their own without having to be compared to a Robert Jordan or any other fantasy author?"

The answer is no. As far as I know, no object is inherently valuable; in a vacuum, value has no meaning. Thus, books cannot be judged without comparing them to others (value is determined only through comparison of products). Naturally, this leads to knocking one author/book in order to plug another. Now I know you are probably railing at the laconic, fan-boyish manner in which this comparison is being done, but, nonetheless, I think that juxtaposition is the only way to effectively evaluate and judge.

And it's definately true that discussion is much more difficult on the web than in real life. Laziness and time stops us from achieving what we could have in a face-to-face convo. Speaking is much more suitable for discussions (inflection, rythmn/train of thought) than writing. So, it's much harder, yes, and it can be frustrating, but I think it worthwhile to keep trying...

Freebird said...

While I agree with your basic sentiments, shazdawg, I just want to clarify one point. When I asked whether or not Martin should be critiqued based on his own merits, that was as a followup to the previous statement about how too often an author is compared to another author just to bash one. The implied statement behind that is that without a set of standards for comparison (how well do the characters interact, how is language used to describe the settings and happenings, how strong and believable is the dialogue, etc.), it's extremely difficult to convey to anyone just what succeeds and what doesn't.

Yes, there are going to be comparisons between authors, but if done in a manner that reflects upon the authors' relative skills in the areas I mention above, there's going to be a lot less conflict than if one just says - he sucks, the other is cool!

But my basic point still stands - why can't Martin be measured up to a defined criteria without having to resort to comparing him to other authors? Most of the time that I review an author's work, I compared that book to a mental list of strengths/weaknesses that I have developed for gauging the effectiveness of the work. I rarely compare one author to another, unless I'm trying to persuade fans of one to read the other, because I know that comparing authors without exploring both in depth and breadth is just asking for trouble.

Thanks for replying. Hope I've made my case a little more clear now.

Anonymous said...

This is Gavroche (damn, I really need to get an ID eventually :P ). I cannot say I'm not guilty of the simply comparing an author to another author, or the "I liked it" or "I didn't like it". But I will say, I don't often use comparisions simply for the purpose of bashing. Saying "I think Mieville and Gaiman have roughly equivalent skill" or something of that sort doesn't bash either, now does it? Yes, internet forums are somewhat limiting (though I must say, I can definately argue far better in writing than orally), but they can still work in the capacity you are thinking, so long as the people are inspired enough.

Freebird said...

Well Gav, I checked and it looks like you'll have to do a quick registration (it's free and if you want, you can continue through and create a Blog of your own to boot). Now onto what you said:

You make the point that one could compare authors without bashing either one. While I agree, but how would you support your statement that the two have similar skill levels? Sometimes, posting a review is akin to submitting a paper for a college professor to shred - you have to support your assertations and be ready for those who are going to counterpoint them all. So I'm curious, how would you set about comparing the two?

Feel free to answer here or on OF. Either place is fine with me.

Anonymous said...

Gav again.

I know what you're saying Larry, but I was just making the point that not all comparisons are for the sole purpose of bashing. With the example I gave (I obviously didn't elaborate because I didn't want to write an essay simply to give an example), you can back up your assertion by doing such things as: analyzing the works of both authors first on technical aspects (writing style, etc), then on the more internal/personal/subjective aspects (such as how well the novels worked at provoking emotions and such), and basing your judgement of merit on qualities such as those (I know there's likely many more qualities you could think of).

Freebird said...

I know - I just wanted to give you a hard time!

Kellhus said...

I know. Heh, this is an area we might be able to have SFFworld quality arguments ;)

Freebird said...

Maybe, but sometimes I would rather aspire for Phi Beta Kappa-worthy discussions ;)

Kellhus said...

As I said, I'm sure plenty of wierdness will abound here :P and check out my blog sometime. I'm writing an entry right now.

Freebird said...

I will. But in a few minutes, I'm going to sleep for about 2-3 hours and then shower, shave, and go to work by 11PM CDT. Such is the life of the working Admin ;)

Eric Joel Bresin said...

"Shouldn't the merits of a George R.R. Martin stand on their own without having to be compared to a Robert Jordan or any other fantasy author?"

Gonna disagree with Shaza partially. I'm taking a middle ground on this. Yes, and no.

The thing is different authors do different things very well. Writers progress differently. What is one writers weakness can be another writer's strength and vice-versa. Also writers have different visions and are trying to do different things. I think Martin is trying to do a vastly different thing with his High Fantasy series than Jordan is doing.

Very different, even if they are of the same tradition. One of the reason's Martin's work is so successful is he is doing something different, taking the basic medieval frame work, and some other staples of the High Fantasy genre and then playing with his own rules from there.

Meanwhile Jordan is taking the typical High Fantasy formula established by Tolkien and putting his own take on it, modernizing it, making it more exciting. I think Jordan does a fairly good job of this at the beginning of the WOT series anyway, which partially explains their popularity. He is doing what I call: following the formula step by step, yet somehow improving it.

While Martin is taking one ingredient, and then creating practically a whole new dish that still has a lot of familiarities with the same dish.

So I think when reading authors it's extremely important to figure out what the author is trying to do with his story before comparing and contrasting.

Of course, Shaza is right too. Things don't exist in a vacuum. Some comparing and contrasting is needed to establish who is really good, who is pretty good, who is so-so, and who just plain sucks.

I prefer to review individual books and not compare them to other things unless I feel it would help a review. In other words, pretend like you've never read anything else. Does this book excite you? Yet, it truly is hard to deny the things we've read in the past.

So like I said. It's a middle ground.

Freebird said...

Nice points, Eric. I agree with practically all that you say. Of course, when I said an author should stand on his own merits, that was following comments about how too often lazy readers just compare/contrast authors without going into any depth - the usual, he sucks/is cool contrast, without any real context behind those comments. And in minefields such as author/character discussions, sometimes that middle ground is also the safest ground.

Alric said...

I agree with you for the most part, Larry. It has been especially interesting over the past several months as we've worked through the different VS. quickpolls on OF. It is all too common that a person tosses out an argument that is nothing more than surface level preference. Arguments that are superficial in those ways tend to decay into nothing more than "my author rules and yours sucks..." types of scenarios.

Shaza and Eric do bring up important points in this discussion though. No set of underlying value judgements, no matter how seemingly removed from specific literary connection, are arrived at without some level of prior value judgement. We arrive at our understanding of what makes good characters, plotting, writing, etc., by finding examples of each that we accept as good or of a high quality. Yes, those judgements get more complex as they are filitered through a great mass of material as we continue to read and learn. Still, at the basic level, in any review we are responding on some level at a Character A does not live up to my ideal of a good Character.

This approach is definitely more reasoned and open for quality discussion, but we can't forget that all quality assessments are really comparisons of what has been done.

Freebird said...

True, Jake, but at the same time, the presumption of being able to analyze character strengths/weaknesses has to emphasize the guidance of criteria over simple surface discussions. But the true beauty of this all lies in the fact that regardless of how detailed and in-depth we go in analyzing books or characters, in the end there's always more and more room for further explorations.

After all, remember learning in those historiographical classes about how 19th century historians used to believe that they'd soon run out of historical topics to cover? 150 years later and we're still going strong there, yes? :D I guess the same will hold true for a Tolkien or any other author still being read then.

Eric Joel Bresin said...

Is it just me or is this much more in-depth than what we normally get at OF? I like this...

Alric said...

It is, Eric, which is part of the reason that Larry and I thought that a Blog would be a good expansion to what we already do on OF.

Larry, of course, I agree with that. My intent was to bring up that very aspect of these types of assessments. In all situations, our assumptions and models can, and often are, changed or modified through continued discussion, experience, understanding.

I have a question though. Do you think that all qualitative conversations covering points out of books, or whatever topic, should remain tightly focused on the object under scrutiny as compared to our more specific qualifications of quality, success, etc? Is there no room in your books for straight up comparative analysis?

While authors like Martin, Erikson, Bakker have their different styles and focuses, I do believe that comparative analysis is still a valid form of conversation. While I dislike conversations that have sole purpose of trying to define which character is "cooler" or more "kick ass," I do think that comparing characters, plot elements, plotting from different authors can help us understand each individual author a bit better. Sometimes, in comparison, I realize that some aspects of an author's work is particularily strong compared to other writer's in a specific style. The opposite is also true. To me, it is an interesting conversation, if handled properly, to discuss the relative strengths and weakness of authors when compared to their peers.

mapthis said...

Something to keep in mind: some (but obviously, not all) people resort to bashing authors simply because it's the internet and they get attention. I suppose bashing an author without anything solid to back it up is a mild form of trolling...I think. Eh, who knows?

shaza said...

Hmm, yes, I should heed my own advice and check the context of a quote before commenting. I just immediately saw the question about authors having merits independent of comparison without considering the preceding sentence about bashing...

Now, I rethought what I wrote (and went over the other comments (though that fact isn't really relevent at the moment :P)) and just want to clarify what I meant by "comparing them [authors/books] to others [authors/books]." In your (Larry) response to my thread, you say that strengths and weaknesses can be explained without any comparison to other authors. I totally agree. When I say "comparison" I mean tapping into our memory to access that broad base of knowledge --and opinions formed from that knowledge--about books/authors to see what it is we like and dislike; without this background knowledge, we can't really decide if a book/author is good enough. (I know I didn't explain myself well in my first post, so conjecturing on your part (and on those who followed) is perfectly acceptable and understandable...). To give an example of what I'm talking about, let me tell you guys about my first read of Jordan.

When I first picked up Eye of the World I didn't know what to expect--my experience with SFF included Tolkien, "Redwall" series, and Zelazny's "Amber" series. That's it. So when I started reading this completely accessible, modern approach to fantasy, I was blown away; it felt completely magical. Now, however, I pick up WoT and think, "How did I ever LOVE this drek?!?" Ignorance, naivete, and inexperience explain why I was so captivated. With the experience I've gained by reading more books and authors in SFF, I am better able to critique and evaluate. A constant--yet subtle, almost subconscious--comparison. See what I mean?

And, now to address something Eric said...

I understand what you are saying about authorial purpose, but I still think that it's perfectly alright to compare/contrast the respective merits of Jordan and Martin (despite their differences). For instance, could we say one is shooting for the stars, while the other is just shooting for the clouds? (Obviously this is an opinion, but a widely-held one, right?). I mean, we can't say, "Well, Jordan is supreme in his sphere, while Martin is supreme in his." (Hmm, this almost seems like relatavism, but after a closer look, I think this stance would be more objective (no comparisions/relating, just analysing the product without a standard)). In other words, they can't both be the best. Now, I understand that each has their own merits, and all that, and that they are trying to achieve vastly different goals, but I feel that comparisons can--and should!--be made.

I don't think I explained myself well (once again). Eh, I'll just have to do more responces later I guess...

shaza said...

Yeah, mapthis. In real life people have to back up what they say (or else embarrass themselves by backing out of a confrontation) but on the internet they can get away with talking shit. I suppose it is a form of trolling, somewhat (though I am not quite sure exactly what a "troll" is...), but, yeah, it's the internet. The whole idea of a community on the internet is so new (and thus wierd, uncomfortable) that etiquette and mores haven't really emerged or been established.

So, perhaps all this fanboy stuff is just a reflection of the "state of nature" that is the internet? (Well, as I said before, fanboyism exists IRL too...sports, cliques, all that...though not to the extent of "He suXX0rs!!!1! *NM*").

Freebird said...

I have a question though. Do you think that all qualitative conversations covering points out of books, or whatever topic, should remain tightly focused on the object under scrutiny as compared to our more specific qualifications of quality, success, etc? Is there no room in your books for straight up comparative analysis?Tough question. My answer is this: Yes and no. When I was having to write book reviews in my history grad classes, I was told to give enough evidence that I was familiar with the literature on the area in question, but to focus my attention on discussing the merits of such a book and how that book's contents adds to the overall literature.

So while it's good to show some awareness of others writing in the field, I think it's much better to concentrate most of the review space on the book at hand and not on other writers.

Freebird said...

Speaking of writing reviews, I think I'll be writing a post sometime soon (maybe in the morning) on what constitutes a good review. That should make for an interesting discussion, yes?

mapthis said...

What makes a good review?

Wow, that is a tough one since 1) the reviewer is giving an opinion, and 2) the reader enters with his/her own opinions. I guess there are some core things a good review should have, and I'm sure you'll write about those. But past the who/where/when/why/how stuff, the remaining elements of a good review would, I think, depend entirely on the writing ability of the reviewer. A crappy writer can have the most insightful opinion in the history of the world, but if they can't get it across to the readers in an interesting, efficient, and convincing manor, then the opinion is wasted, along with the reader's time.

This will be a tough one to completely nail down, and I'm not sure anyone can.

Freebird said...

But it won't hurt for me to comment on it, but that'll have to wait until the morning. About to leave for work in an hour and I have other things to do in-between. Should be fun reading the comments. 23 here already. Cool.

 
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