The OF Blog: Going against the flow

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Going against the flow

It is always tough going against a presumed (near) consensus. The more others seem to believe that something is the best, the greatest, the cream of the crop, the harder it is to muster up the courage (yes, courage) to say "No." Although I am far from a well-known literary/genre reviewer, there are times that I have felt the temptation to blunt my criticisms or to silence myself just because others seemed to dig something that, for whatever reason, didn't appeal as much to me.

Taste is a very personal thing, of course, and sometimes one's own taste is derided because it differs from that of others. Recently, there has been a growing trend on many genre forums (and quite a few blogs) to declaim those who favor works that require a bit more effort to grasp or those that are polarizing because they contain uncomfortable elements for many. I have lost track of the number of times that I myself have been called "pretentious" (never mind the poor use of that pejorative, as it's now one of the presumed illiterati's catch-all slam words) or "elitist" or "snobbish," just because I found myself questioning why certain works are so highly praised.

Recently, I was asked to write a review of Joe Abercrombie's Last Argument of Kings. I had read the first volume, The Blade Itself, back in January, but while I liked the trilogy opener well enough to consider reading the other volumes, I then was in no rush to acquire them. As part of the arrangement, I received copies of both Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings in mid-February and read through both in about a week's time. I thought they were an improvement over the first volume, making for a solid debut story arc, but that they weren't revolutionary or the end-all, be-all of epic fantasy storytelling. But I delayed writing the reviews, hoping that re-reads and a "longer perspective" (to paraphrase the Annalists) might help me grasp better what it was about the books that appealed so strongly to others.

Over a month went past before I could attempt a re-read/review of the second volume. In the interim, on a few epic fantasy forums, the praise got to the point that if one had done the Folger's Coffee switch of Abercrombie's name with that of the much-reviled Terry Goodkind's, many of the superlatives would have read much the same (not comparing those two in any way, other than noting the nature of the extreme fannish responses to the authors' works). But I wasn't getting it, I'm afraid. Or rather, I got it in part, the part that thought that despite some flaws in the storytelling and (later) in the characterizations, the story ended up being a well-told tale. But best of the year/decade/century level prose and story? No.

But I waited some more, struggling to identify what it was that appealed to others, thinking that my own reactions might be the "wrong" one. I read and considered quite a few responses in various forums' spoiler threads for LAoK, but the comments (which were near-universal in praise; something had struck a chord with them, something that didn't resonate with me) made me question even more why it didn't work as well for me. Was it because I have different tastes? Was it because I saw some flaws in the story mechanics that others didn't? Or was I just plain wrong?

Finally I forced myself to gather my thoughts and to write an outline for the review:

I. History of recent epic fantasies (Erikson, Lynch)

II. Audience expectations/reactions to authors playing with epic fantasy archetypes

III. Summary of Abercrombie's first two volumes

IV. How Abercrombie approaches characterization and how the archetypes differ from older models.

V. LAoK - strengths and weaknesses in its mechanics, especially characterization.

VI. Abercrombie's concluding volume as a whole

It still took almost a week to finish writing out a review of almost 1500 words and to an extent, it still reflects my ambiguous attitudes towards the book and series. I think part of that is because I know that almost certainly there will be fans that will read my review after it has been edited and posted elsewhere, under my full name even, and attack me for having an opinion contrary to theirs. Not question, not attempt to establish a dialogue, but instead attack.

Mob mentality seems to be the name of the game more and more when it comes to discussing "hot" items, such as the musical flavor of the month or the presumed "Next Big Thing" in publishing. Despite knowing better, there is still that reluctance to go against the flow, to question why the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Sometimes, daring to be honest and open about one's own conflicted opinions is too daunting of a task to accomplish. Shall be interesting to see the fallout in the future.


Cheryl said...

Been there, done that, stopped writing reviews.

But there is something interesting about this. If you say on a blog, "I didn't like that book", that will probably be OK. But if you write an in depth review explaining why you didn't like the book then people will be all over me explaining why I am WRONG!!!

Jonathan said...

The main duty of a reviewer is to be honest. Regardless of all the other rules of thumb and technical principles governing how to put together a proper review the central one is that you share your real opinion. Otherwise you might as well do what Kauffman does and churn out reviews of books you haven't read based on the PR material.

Sometimes you'll take a hammering from people who disagree. Most of the time you won't.

Interestingly, my experience is completely different to Cheryl's in that I've gotten myself in far more trouble with off hand remarks than I ever have with reviews largely because the kind of idiots who give reviewers a hard time on the basis of you criticising their favourite authors tend to lack the attention span to crawl through 2000 words... they'll just see that it's bad, reject your opinion off hand and move on.

Abercrombie doesn't even have that big a fan base Larry so you'll be fine :-)

A willingness to voice unpopular opinions honestly is what differentiates a proper reviewer from a fan.

Go forth and stir the pot... fandom needs honest people with opinions far more than it does boosters.

Larry said...

What made my review much more difficult was that I liked the book overall, but there was so much that I needed to niggle about that I felt the review could read as being rather disjointed in places (I'm my own worst critic when it comes to looking at the mechanics of the review).

Jonathan, you're right of course, but what frustrated me in trying to write all of it was just trying to find that "right" way of expressing my opinions. Liking something ultimately but with having problems with quite a few issues is a very difficult thing to express. I do have to deal with quite a few of the "unwashed masses" and I wanted to take an approach that recognized what they probably saw in the series before I dissected some of the flaws in it, so there could be a conversation starter there. Then again, nuanced reviews are not highly valued in many places.

I believe I did the best job I could with the review. I just thought it'd be interesting to post the internal thoughts that went on before writing it, so others could read, comment, and perhaps think about. At least I wasn't asked to defend my MA thesis here! That was much more stressful than this little bit of writing!

Jonathan said...

Nuanced reviews can be a pain as they can easily come off as fence-sitting or indecisive.

It's also clearly the case that writing about books that you think are "okay" is a bit dull and difficult to get excited about and so it can take ages to formulate exactly how you feel because your feelings are genuinely ambiguous.

I don't think you need to apologise or prime the pumps or even agonise over failing to step in line with popular opinion. To be a reviewer means being arrogant enough that you think other people are going to have an interest in your opinion.

I'm sure the review will be received fine.

Larry said...

Yeah, it's just that I thought I owed myself a post about all of this, since I had been alluding to it for over a month now. If I hadn't agreed to write this review for Niall, I probably wouldn't have bothered in the first place, since it is indeed such a pain in the ass to write about something that's decent, but which isn't controversial, brilliant, or mindblowingly stupid. It was a decent, mildly enjoyable book, the sort of writing that I've found the hardest to write about at length. I guess I deserved having to write that review after certain comments in the past, though! :P

And as for my reviewer's arrogance, that'll be back in full force shortly. I do plan on writing reviews of Sharp Teeth and The Raw Shark Texts and those are much, much easier for me to write about, even though Barlow and Hall's styles are far from the norm for a fictional piece today.

Cheryl said...


I think it depends what sort of offhand comment you make. If you say, "this book didn't work for me," few people are likely to object. But if you say, "this book was pure, unadulterated crap," then they'll be after you for a justification.

I think it is all a question of what is seen as "opinion" and what is seen as "judgment". Although many people will dismiss reviews as "just one person's opinion" it is pretty clear that they see reviews as an attempt to pass judgment. So if a reviewer says a particular book is bad then someone who loves the book will feel that her admiration for it has somehow been challenged or even denigrated.

Larry said...

I personally rather use such direct terms, preferring to use more nuanced expressions, where those who are well-read can read behind the lines and get the picture, so the illiterati can have it slide past their heads.

I think there'll be some criticism on the rather "disjointed" feel it has at this point (although editing/revision might remove some of it) due to my decision to let my conflicted thoughts be seen in the review itself. As I've said before, if I hadn't agreed to write it, I never would have reviewed it feeling the way I did after reflecting at length upon it. It was as if someone were to meditate upon the rhythmic interplay of "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands." But live and learn, I suppose.

Sara J. said...

I've been wondering about some of these very popular volumes that I've seen reviews of for the last few months like In The Name of the Wind and the Abercrombie books you mentioned. I have the sneaking suspicion that I will not be blown away--I might, but it takes a lot to blow me away.

I recently reviewed a book that had only received good reviews and I gave it an unabashed thumbs down. I think the author was somewhat annoyed with me, but I almost felt as though I had to get the truth out, and if his book proves extremely popular with other people, so be it.

I agree though, that it's important to be truthful. Anything else comes across poorly for the most part, unless you are a master of spin.

Larry said...

That's my general attitude about things. I usually only review things that I can say something about at length. I rarely buy wretchedly-written books (and don't read the ones that I receive as review copies that I know won't appeal to me after a cursory thumb-through), so my reviews probably are skewed more to the positive as a result. But even then, I still try to find possible points of weakness to highlight for those whom such things would be a hindrance for them enjoying a book.

And as for authors disagreeing with what I say, they can do so, but unless they can persuade me to reconsider the work based on new information, my opinion still stands.

The Wolf Maid said...


I'm Abercrombie fan, and I'd be very interested to read your, ah 'going against the flow' review of the TBI books. It's always helpful and interesting (at least in my opinion) to see a different viewpoint/opinion on the books.

(and IIRC, you're not entirely alone in not liking TBI; there are others who didn't like it either. Also, I doubt the Abercrombie fans would go crazy on you and name you the anti-christ or something. ;))

SQT said...

I still have to finish "Before They are Hanged" and I think I know where you're coming from. I was one of the one's who gushed over "The Blade Itself" and I meant it because it was so original in it's execution, if not the actual storyline. But the second one seems to have middle-book-syndrome (at least so far) so I know my review won't be as favorable as the first one. But I'm a little hesitant to put it out there because of the hype. But I think if, like you, I keep it along the vein of here's what I's what I didn't like it should be okay.

MattD said...

Larry, this has got to be the most-mentioned-before-publication review ever...frankly if it isn't a "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" or an "Epic Pooh" that we're all still talking about decades later, it will have failed to live up to its pre-release hype! ;)

Seriously (well, I was serious, so more seriously) it seems you're talking about two different things here, that may be linked in this instance but are not intrinsically so. First, the titular "going against the flow" when reviewing; second, the difficulty of reviewing mediocre, good-but-not-great works.

With the first: I imagine there's the appearance of a flow of consensus at a place like Westeros because the only people who are talking about the book have already self-selected as liking the first two books enough to buy the third -- and most forum members have already self-selected for liking the mode of epic fantasy that is typically called "gritty." But I suspect stating that LAoK is not the best book of the year will cause no shock to most regular readers of SH.

I suppose that in general, the ease whereby someone goes against a flow is partially a matter of personality, and partially of how aware and invested in the particular flow in question they are.

Your other point involves reviewing mediocre books: I do agree that this can be tough. Nobody wants to read (or write) a review that's nothing but a litany of nitpicks, and it's easy to slip into that sort of reactive review when evaluating a book others have rated highly. Ideally you find some interesting commonality in your concerns: is there a root cause to the story's problems; are there limitations or incompatibilities in the book's various elements and drivers?

(I'm actually surprised this is difficult to do with Abercrombie based on what I've read, although I have not yet read the complete trilogy. Heh, you can always send me the books and I'll see if I can write something about them for SH -- or if not, I can send them along to someone else. I too hate the idea of having to write a review if I have nothing interesting to say.)

The other thing you can do with mediocre books is focus less on pinpointing where the book falls on the good-bad scale and more on telling what the book is, in such a way that what "flaws" the book has are made evident without dwelling on them in minutely excruciating detail. John Clute often does this well: the way he writes in his SH review of Dragons of Babel about nichedness and Dictates; or in his latest Excessive Candour about The Dreaming Void's function as a social lubricant to set the mood for what follows. There are, on an absolute or literary scale, criticisms implied in these descriptions, but the point is more to tell what the book is, and let readers decide how much that appeals to them.

Anyway, cheers for finishing the first draft; I do hope you whip it into something you're happier with.

Larry said...

Matt, it's hard to disagree with what you've said there, but I'll just add that what I aimed to do in the opening section (and to an extent at least I think I succeeded) was to explore what it was that might have made a story such as this appealing to many (because we've read similar spiels about why Scott Lynch is so popular, why many love what Steven Erikson is doing, etc.) I've been baffled/intrigued by some forum members' claims (not just at Westeros, but on a few other places) that these authors "subvert" clichés.

Part of my problem, beyond what I listed earlier, is that of how far does one delve into a story that really isn't all that conducive for exploration? It is there as much as anything that made for a rough patch.

And yeah, I know this was talked-about by myself much more than I ever intended to, but believe me when I say that I have had more difficulty formulating what is was about the book that both appealed to me and simultaneously made me think it was was merely decent and not excellent than I ever had with my graduate papers, for example. I thought since I had spent time looking at what I thought constituted poor approaches to reviewing books, that I would treat mine with equal time, because it's interesting to me at least why I spent so much time trying to grasp what it was about a somewhat shallow book that both appealed to me and which bothered me. And yes, hopefully the finalized product will reflect even more of this tension.

Garlick said...

If it makes you feel any better, I outright didn't like The Blade Itself. Stopped reading about a hundred pages in, because I found myself agreeing with the Publishers Weekly review (now *there's* a scathing one) more than not.

I might pick it up this weekend and give it another shot to try finding out what all the raves are about, but I don't expect my opinion to change substantially. For whatever reason, I just couldn't engage with the book. At all.

So you are not alone. ;)

Larry said...

Yeah, while my review is nowhere near as scathing as the PW one, writing a mixed review-type one still doesn't make for a pleasant writing experience, but it is comforting to see there are others who seem to have similar takes on particulars.

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