The OF Blog: Interesting exchange on hype/expectations

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Interesting exchange on hype/expectations

Every now and then, one will find posts like the two I'm about to link to over on the Pat's Fantasy Hotlist blog, that serve to replay in some form or fashion certain "hot topic" metaissues regarding reviewing and responses to those reviews. In this particular case, the topic raised is that of "hype," and roiling just under the surface of that is early positive reviews and the effect such have on reader expectations.

This particular topic started when Pat wrote a review of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains that spent a large part of the review talking about "hype" and how the book "did not deliver."


Hype has a funny way of raising one's expectations to an unattainable plateau. Richard Morgan wasn't even halfway done with the manuscript of a forthcoming fantasy novel which had yet to be titled, and already we were hearing how the author would turn the genre on its head. And given Morgan's talent and reputation, all of us believed that if someone could do it, then the author was the most likely candidate. Advance reading copies had not even been printed, yet early readers raved about The Steel Remains. Fantasy, or so it was claimed, was about to get real.

The vagaries of life (or the fact that I reside in Canada) mean that European reviewers already had their reviews up before I even received my ARC. The verdict appeared quasi-unanimous: The Steel Remains probably was the fantasy novel of the year.

Now, at this point the hype made it so that anything short of one of the genre's top reads of the year would be a disappointment. Hence, with such expectations, is it any wonder that Morgan's fantasy debut failed to deliver?
Putting aside the fact that I personally am unlikely to be reading this before 2009 due to the fact that I don't receive UK advance review copies, I just don't see the fuss here. I can go through hundreds of press kits that I've received over the past year or so and there would countless remixes of "daring," "original," "must-read," "exciting new chapter," "will change the way you view..." or whatever else might have been in the new Morgan's press kit. It's just publicity. Perhaps the issue in large part dealt with other reviewers and the vague but enthusiastic praise they had given Morgan's book. Having read many of the same blogs as Pat, I do recall something of the sort, but I just chalked it up to the book hitting their literary "sweet spots," and nothing else.

So while I was nonplussed by all of the verbiage that Pat gave to that one issue (thinking, as I said in a comment on his blog, that it would have been better to write that review without such implicit references to other reviews and the "hype" and instead focus on why the book didn't succeed), I had just chalked it up to individual reviewer preferences, shrugged, and moved on. Until yesterday, when I read something else on his blog, something that makes me slightly uncomfortable to see out in the open.

Pat posted a series of emails that he and Gollancz editor Simon Spanton (editor of Morgan's book) had after Pat's review. While this had Spanton's approval, I just can't help but to feel some unease at airing out exchanges that the reviewer has with someone intimately involved in the book's creation (author, publicist, editor). Although this exchange dealt primarily with hype and not with Morgan's book in particular, it had the expected result of getting quite a few people criticizing Spanton for being "unprofessional" (to put it mildly).

What really struck me about this exchange was the constant referencing of other authors and other reviewers (even if names were removed). This part of Pat's second response is rather telling:

When the advance praise from Joe and Darrin came, we were all salivating! Then the blogger reviews went up, and things reached a new level of excitement. I'm not saying that those bloggers wrote false or exagerated reviews. But I think that in their excitement, they may have, consciously or unconsciouly, overlooked some of the story's shortcomings. I'm guilty as charged of having done that in the past concerning titles that I was really looking forward to, and I was called out on it. Nothing wrong with that. We are only human, after all, and sometimes we really want some books to be so damn good. Just to give you an example, though he wrote a glowing review, [name withheld] came out and said that TSR had nothing on Altered Carbon and Black Man. I believe that, had I read it when you initially sent me the ARC, I would probably have enjoyed it more. As it is, all those positive reviews made my own expectations go up a few notches (and they were high to begin with), and in the end no novel could have met those expectations. . .

We, as readers, in a way create and magnify the hype. We want this book to be great, and when reviews keep telling us that it is, well we just keep hoping for more, and more. So I'm not saying that you and the folks at Gollancz did anything wrong. Man, you're riding that wave for all its worth, and so you should! We rarely [see] such a buzz for a book, especially when you're not named Martin, Gaiman, or Jordan. So I see nothing wrong in the way you guys played your card. And I don't think anyone of those bloggers can be blamed of anything but overexcitement at the thought of finally reading that new Morgan fantasy book.
Might as well say that it's all just cogs in the publicity machine, huh? That or just stop worrying so much about the "hype" aspect of this or that. Other people are going to see things the best they can in their own lights and while I want to agree with Pat that people sometimes get too excited, I cannot, as it seems (and I certainly hope this is just only a misleading impression) that Pat was being a bit dismissive of other opinions there. I know that when I comment on a book, I can only speak for myself and the few times that I started to sound as though I was speaking for others, I got smacked pretty good for it (and appreciated it later when I thought about it).

Sounds as though this entire discussion revolves solely around matters of expectations and disillusionment and where the "blame" for the latter ought to be placed. Of course, ironically, 90+% of people who'll go on to read Morgan's work will never have read any of these early reviews and their opinions will be weighted by other matters, which only serves to reduce this to yet another teapot tempest, no?

Edit: I see that Morgan has replied there. He has an interesting take on it:

For me, the issue is the review itself, and the core of the issue, the thorn, is this: I don’t think, Pat, that you failed to enjoy The Steel Remains because the buzz (or hype if you will) gave you unrealistic expectations; I think you failed to enjoy my book because you just didn’t like it – and I think you’re being too diplomatic, or possibly just too nice, to come out and say that. Or you’re fooling yourself.
No finger pointing, no appeals to authorial authority, just his take on the whole matter that personally jibes with my own initial take of that review of his. Curious to know what others think about authors stepping into such morasses. I myself don't mind if any contact or question me about how I approach things; such things make for interesting conversations. I just don't care for it to be aired out in public, that's all.

15 comments:

gav(NextRead) said...

But a very interesting brew while its warm.

Larry said...

Not really; I hate tea. Have ever since a memorable childhood experience when my dad made Southern Sweet Tea...without any sugar. Traumatized for life. Still can't forget that icky flavor.

Jonathan M said...

It was certainly interesting to see Pat trying to react against hype. I mean, to be fair, Pat does more to spread hype than he does to encourage calm critical evaluation. I had kind of assumed that he was happy with his place as a fantasy evangelist/booster.

It's a bit eerie actually. Like seeing Ronald McDonald eating in Burger King.

Having said that, Morgan's new book is easily the most deliberately and effectively hyped genre work to appear in ages. Gollancz's careful manipulation of the blogosphere has been quite impressive. Especially as they tend to be and large ignore us.

Larry said...

Yeah, it was quite the blink moment there, I'll admit, but the guy can feel free to say as he pleases...consequences attached, of course. As for Gollancz, I'm not very familiar with them outside of importing a few books a year, so outside of one ARC of theirs that I received from Niall (the Abercrombie) for review purposes, I can't really comment on their promotional efforts. I did remember chuckling a bit over what I read on that one ARC, though. "Highly promotable author who has received great critical acclaim." "Addictive reading for fans of George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan." "No-holds-barred action that will set the fantasy world on fire."

Seems like standard-issue publicity, although I'll admit it's a bit more concise than certain other press kits I've read. At least it wasn't "Venom Cock"...

Elena said...

nice continuation of the "why are we so obsessed with finding the next big thing" post. i like your style (based on your stated goals for the remainder of the year), to find 10-12 more writers you've not yet read, without the caveat that they be new writers.

sadly, half the reason for looking for a new writer (at least for me) is to avoid hearing any hype and thus forming any expectations about a book...better by far to just stumble onto something in a bookstore that looks good and you've never heard about it, or buy someone just because they have the same name as a friend you have in the real world. that's how i found abercrombie. :)

Larry said...

Elena, the way I look at it, there are millions of books out there and hundreds of thousands that could potentially appeal to me. I have centuries of English and Spanish-language works to fall back upon and I have no qualms about taking recommendations. If one doesn't work out, on to the next one. No muss, no fuss, just experience gained.

One of these days I'll post about books that didn't appeal to me, but not for now. More to learn.

Liviu said...

I've read the post and comments above and my personal opinion is that Mr. Morgan got it right in his comment.

Since Pat's Fantasy Hotlist is such a hot spot for reviews, I cannot believe there was any way he could review that book negatively so he used hype as an excuse.

For me it does not matter since for once I rarely like what that blog likes - for example Black Man was the worst Morgan book by a mile in my opinion and I did not shy of saying so on sffworld, with Woken Furies second worst, while Altered Carbon and Market Forces were masterpieces and Broken Angels excellent - and for another I will buy TSR the moment it hits BD, since it's Richard Morgan and not only that but a new original book, not a rehash of everything that came before combined with cheap pop psychology.

Want to talk about alpha males and violence, read William Vollmann 7 volume treatise first or at least the one volume abridgement...

But well, that's the downside of having a popular review site - you cannot be honest unless you cherry pick your reviews and this one had to be done...

Larry said...

Good point, although I'll disagree a little bit on your ranking of Morgan's work. I seem to be in the minority (as you are) in liking Market Forces a lot and I do place AC before BA and I haven't yet read the third Kovacs novel, but I did find Thirteen/Black Man to be an enjoyable novel, even if in place he repeats his earlier novels' plotlines.

In a way, I'm thankful that I don't get quite that amount of traffic, although this blog does better than most. Different audiences, though, with different agendas. I'll tease and sometimes critique some of what Pat is doing, but that's more in an effort to give him honest criticism and not an attempt to downplay what he's achieved or what "works" for him (much as I might disagree with said approach). That being said, sometimes I can't wonder if it's using grandstanding (such as posting that email exchange, knowing the likely response of his regular readership) to mask his reluctance to discuss the whys behind his unease after reading his favorite authors' apparently sub-par works.

Nic said...

liviu:

"But well, that's the downside of having a popular review site - you cannot be honest unless you cherry pick your reviews"

Really? Why not? I'm honestly curious. (Also, and although my blog is nowhere near PFH levels of popularity, by far the biggest levels of commenter-backlash I've had to reviews has been on *positive* discussions, not negative ones...)

Larry:

Agreed on your final comment; he's right that Steel Remains has been hyped by the publisher, and it's hard not to react negatively to that, but a reviewer's job is to decide what does and does not work within the covers of the book, surely.

Liviu said...

Regarding reviews - there are authors safe to criticize in popular blog sites and authors that are not safe to criticize, and people learn that quickly. This is obvious if you follow many review sites. But so what? Review sites are useful - even if sometimes diplomatic - opinions not hard news.

Regarding TSR - any publicity is good publicity and the fact that the hype put Morgan on fantasy readers plate is excellent. The true market test will come in book 2 or 3 when the novelty will wear off. I hope the series does great.

Running a popular review site is hard work and while you get some perks, it is not that you are paid lots of money. I admire the people able to do that and I do not want to demean in any way their efforts, but I cannot say I am swayed that much by their opinions unless there is a site that chimes with me, and even then only on the wavelengths of the chime so to speak.

Joe Abercrombie said...

Evening all.

Larry,
Are you trying to imply that I haven't set the fantasy world on fire? Or merely that I am not hugely promotable? Either way my outrage knows no end.

I find it interesting that everyone seems to agree this book's been massively "hyped", although obviously one's definition of hype is probably the biggest problem here. To me "hype" has a connotation of dishonesty, or at any rate cynical manipulation, and the implication is that it was far outside of the norm with this book.

I can't see the publisher has done anything particularly beyond what any publisher would do with any book - approach a couple of their authors to read it and say something positive about it if they'd like (I did, as it goes), then send some advance copies out to folks with some stuff on the back saying it's great, and invite them to review it. They've probably sent out quite a lot of 'em, cause it's a big release, and Simon's probably said to some people that he thinks it's a great book, because I know he does. But I don't see that the "careful manipulation" goes a lot further. Maybe other folks know something I don't.

People have generally read the book when they got it, because it's a keenly anticipated book from an author with a lot of fans. And advance readers maybe tend to be more positive than more general readers because, you know, it's exciting to get advance books from an author you like. But also, at least as far as I was concerned, the book is a pretty interesting one, and almost certainly will make some waves. I don't see how you can avoid a swell of positive reviews once you've sent out books under these kind of circumstances, and the vast majority seems to be pretty much entirely created by the readers themselves.

Is that hype? Or is it just a load of people liking a book, and saying so?

Larry said...

Joe,

Neither was implied. I was quoting the blurbage on LAOK's back cover to make a point about marketing. As I said in private elsewhere, all of this is just standard operating procedure for publicity/marketing people. Everything is given as positive of a "spin" as possible. Quite similar to "4 out 5 dentists recommend Trident gum" and all that jazz.

I'm just amazed that some take it so seriously as to let it impact their reactions. As for other readers who enjoyed a book more than another, more power to them. I think some took umbrage at Pat's insinuation about them somehow being "mistaken", just because they enjoyed TSR more than he did. Morgan nailed it in his response, I believe.

I remember when I re-read LAoK and didn't have that same "cool!" factor and I had to write my SH review of it, I spent a long time trying to balance it out in my own head where those who would enjoy the book wouldn't feel that my mixed review was a drag on it. Took me weeks to get that written and I'm still not certain I did that well, but at least I tried not to speak for other readers and I think that's part of the issue with that publicized email exchange.

More later. Lunch break nears an end.

Blue Tyson said...

Nic,

I suppose you could look at it this way :-

These sort of blogs that are designed around the 'get free books and be part of helpful promotion' style of things.

If they get a few hundred books a year to look at, and reviewed all of them honestly, half of them should perhaps be below average, or lots of them average, and have plenty of flaws to point out, at length.

Does this happen?

Larry said...

BT,

I received about 100-150 books over the past year and while it's nowhere near as much as what certain others receive, it still is a bit overwhelming. I "cherrypick" what I want to review here (for pay, I'll read things outside my "sweet spot" and be quite critical as needed. Hell, sometimes for free I'll be that :P), which means that over half of the books that I receive (and certainly over 3/4 of what is sent to me unsolicited) is given either a cursory read-through and judged to be too bland to make it worth my while to write a lukewarm review or it's of little interest to me and I don't even bother to read it.

Speaking of which, I do need to donate some of those books to the local library, if they'll take it.

Ellestra said...

Hype is not bad as it often comes from people who love something and want to share this with others. There's however no guarantee that everyone would feel the same. And then it can lead to bad disappointments or misunderstandings (like with Pat and The Last Wish).
No matter what anyone says whether I like the book or not is entirely up to me. It can be praised or be a bestseller and I still won't care (case in point for me - Martin's asoiaf). That's why I try to read some samples of a book before buying even if it's a book from the author I love. After all all reviews are subjective and made by people who are not me.

 
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