The OF Blog: So there's raging butthurt on the intarwebs this weekend!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

So there's raging butthurt on the intarwebs this weekend!

I see that Liz Bourke's review of Michael J. Sullivan's Theft of Swords has stirred quite a ruckus on Strange Horizons, with around 50 comments the last time I checked.  Such things fascinate me, similar to how I used to watch a candle glow and the molten wax carve channels; I just can't look away, even if I have seen it hundreds of times before.

So Bourke writes a strongly opinionated piece that skewers Sullivan's reprinted (and formerly self-published) first two novels.  She uses hyperbolic language to create a heightened sense of her disapproval of this epic fantasy's structure, before going on to lay out the reasons why she thinks the work is crappy.  Attention is drawn from the beginning, but yet not to the detriment of her actual argument that the story is clichéd, the writing is uneven to atrocious (with quotes provided as evidence of these assertions), with questionable plot logic and characterizations.  Nothing out of the ordinary, considering that this format has a long and storied tradition in Anglo-American reviewing (see some of Edmund Wilson or H.L. Mencken's negative reviews, for example) and that Strange Horizon has a long tradition of encouraging its reviewers to be as forceful and strong with their opinions as the review merits.

So what's the fuss, you wonder?  Well, from what I've seen, there were several people tweeting and retweeting links to the review.  Several of these people had either read Sullivan's works before and either did not agree with the substance of the review or they took exception to the manner of presentation.  It always fascinates me to see which types of reviews draw the most responses.  Almost without fail, those reviews are of romance novels, paranormal romances, so-called "urban fantasies," and epic fantasies.  None of these literary genres occupy a privileged position; several critics take a rather dim view of works whose main defining traits are their ability to mimic the tone, structure, characterization, theme, and even prose of other works. 

When asked to describe why these works are liked by them despite others having misgivings about the quality of the prose, narrative, themes, or characterizations, frequently there will be variations on the apologia that the work was "light," that it was a "real page-turner," or that it was "fun."  What isn't really said here is that those words do not define any real characteristics of the book at hand as it tries to place that book in context to other, similar works whose main trait is that their supporters tend to be inarticulate in their praise of works that others find to be weary, derivative, and on occasion stultifying works. 

If we drop the above-mentioned "light," "page-turner," and "fun" from the critical examination/defense of the review in question, what is left is an almost inchoate babble that the reviewer is "too forceful" with her opinions, that since she is studying to be a classics historian that she is "not qualified" to discuss these works, that the piece is "an attack piece" or "hatchet job," and so on ad nauseam.  What is not found is an actual substantive defense of Sullivan's work, despite the requests from a few for those commentators who have read his novels to elaborate on their disagreement with the argument itself (rather than the tone and thrust of the argument, which many there have settled for doing), but instead an obfuscation of what could be an excellent opportunity to make a cogent counterpoint(s).

Many know that I have an ambiguous stance in regards to epic fantasies.  As a narrative form, it does have the potential to say certain things about how we view the world, particularly in a metaphysical way, yet too often there is this perception that writers don't go far enough, either in their development of the narrative themes or in the mechanics of the narrative (prose, characterization).  It would be nice to see those who love this form to dare be articulate about why this form is worth reading, for when they use near-meaningless platitudes ("fun," "light reading," etc.) without placing them in a better context, the more positive part of their counterarguments sounds more like a sulking child saying "No, it's not!" without ever demonstrating an ability to cast their preferred reading in a positive light.

And then there are the ad hominems and tone arguments.  Bourke has caught some flak for not being invested in the area, as if she (and by extension, Strange Horizons) were somehow aiming to take down epic fantasy releases by not showering them all with hugs and rainbows.  I suspect those making such comments are not regular readers of the site's reviews section, which has covered several epic fantasies more favorably than some (myself included) would have done.  Yet there's a nasty undertone to a few of the comments:  Bourke is not qualified because of her other interests (as if reading Chaucer means one cannot appreciate a well-told epic fantasy - that was one of my favorite dumb comments to read in quite some time) or, as could be darkly hinted in a couple of responses, because she is a woman.

Sure, that might not be directly stated as such, but if one were to parse what some said carefully, there is this sense that the "sweetheart" and "dollface" comments from a now-banned commentator are meant to denigrate her views and to dismiss what she had to say because she is a woman.  Although that was the strongest and most extreme example, one cannot help but wonder if some of these comments attacking the reviewer (while failing to provide plausible counters to the review itself) are signs of something else.  Maybe, maybe not, but that niggling doubt is now there for me at least.

As I said above, the responses have largely devolved to an inchoate mess.  I see only a little discussion of the narrative itself and that on the whole seems involved tortured logic to explain away Bourke's criticism of the prose and the female characters.  If only the comments were limited to even this rudimentary discussion, then perhaps there wouldn't be such an uproar.  But when the main issues seem to revolve around the tone of Bourke's review and whether or not she (and by extension, Strange Horizons) is qualified to post negative reviews of epic fantasy, with the ancillary concern that some of these comments are motivated by problematic concerns, it is hard for me to fail to conclude that this entire issue is a matter of what some might eruditely call "raging butthurt on the intarwebs."

35 comments:

Michal said...

I just read the review (and the comments thread) this morning. The notion that a historian has no right to try for literary criticism baffles me--especially in a genre that so often takes much of its presumed gravitas from the past.

redhead said...

Remember when Rothfuss's Wise Man's Fear came out? Plenty of people found it awkward, boring, slow, and worse than the first book in the series. Those folks blogged their hearts out from the rooftops, and NOBODY CARED. so other than there being no such thing as bad PR, why was the negative review of the Sullivan such a stinkin' big deal?

or should I be afraid to post negative reviews of books with heavy positive followings?

Anonymous said...

Butthurt, really?

Both sides of this are looking more and more ridiculous.

RFYork said...

I only read the first few comments. "Liviu" seems to think that if one does not like a book, one should not review it. Particularly, if the review is negative.

First, we would miss some of the most entertaining reviews ever written. Second, every reader should be a critic.

Sturgeon's Law always applies. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in denial.

Aidan Moher said...

"Both sides of this are looking more and more ridiculous."

This. I don't really agree with or appreciate Bourke's tone, but this.

Bill said...

Very interesting. I follow Sullivan's blog, and I'm happy for his success - his is an inspiring story for a nobody like me.

Liz's review was pretty rough, but that's the risk an author assumes when published.

On one hand, it's somewhat dull that on some of the review sites - every book reviewed is awesome.

On the other hand, is it possible to do a negative review while still being respectful, decent, etc., and remembering that the author is still a human being?

The review didn't trouble me - I tried to imagine if that was my book she was critiquing - frankly, it'd make me try harder.

Anyway, you did make a good point, Larry - I didn't see where anyone actually disproved the content of the critique. The rest? Was getting a bit tedious.

Thanks for pointing it out. Cheers.

Larry said...

When all of this activity started yesterday, I thought maybe the author was encouraging readers to protest there. So I did a search to see if he tweeted or blogged about it and the only thing I saw was that he shrugged and noted there were more positive reviews out there. It's a much more sanguine attitude than several others have had, so yes, using the hyberbolic "butthurt" does apply to the ridiculousness of some who imagine some personal slight contained in a strongly-worded review.

Michal, I found that to be hilarious, since I have a History MA.

Redhead, that's what I'm wondering for a second, then realizing that if there's this sort of faux moral outrage over a dissenting opinion, that it might be best to just spit into the wind and grin.

RFyork, yes. It's when one learns how to explore what one doesn't like in a work that that person moves from becoming a PR shill toward becoming a true critic.

Bill, that's the thing. Some authors (I know Scott Bakker is one of them, which is why it's very difficult for me when I review one of his works) desire constructive feedback to see what is not working. Some authors have benefited from being made aware of what doesn't work for some readers and what could be strengthened, so the thought that one should not critique a novel (even if it's strongly stated) is risible, because it would undermine a valuable resource for many authors.

And finally, the more I think about it, some people just have no business reviewing. Those people do not include the likes of Liz Bourke, who still has cogent points that haven't been tackled cogently in that interminable response thread.

James said...

I listed the same negative points in my review a couple years back, so there is little disputing how bad the book is. I did enjoy it, but even my review of it states that nostalgia likely had more to do with it than anything.

As for the tone, I have no issue with it. I am a familiar with and fond of Requires Hate, which is far more vitriolic in tone. I find myself wondering the same thing I do when Requires Hate turns up on Westeros, much to their chagrin: Would the response to the "tone" be as overblown if the writer was male instead of female? Half of the time it seems more a matter of male fans pissed off that a woman dare have a dissenting opinion.

Heh. I remember being disappointed that Liviu's negative review (left on Amazon) for Low Town never went up on FBC, which instead ran with a more positive review from one of their other reviewers. It would have been nice if I wasn't the only one giving that book a negative review.

Larry said...

Like I said on Twitter, I have no such nostalgia since I grew up reading histories and not epic fantasies, so that wouldn't mitigate a likely negative response to such stories (I usually dismiss them without comment, since I have limited time for reading much of the year).

As for the tone argument, yes, I do think it is part of the discussion here, although certainly not to the extent that it occurred on Westeros. Now if there had been a rape highlighted as being a cause for concern, as opposed to the questionable agency of a female character, I suspect some of the defenders would have been more caustic (not all, but certainly some).

As for Low Town, I never really read much, as a quick scan revealed it to be the sort of novel I wouldn't care for at all.

Michal said...

Michal, I found that to be hilarious, since I have a History MA.

I'm off to start my History MA this fall. Obviously this ends my prospects of writing fantasy book reviews or partaking in literary criticism henceforth.

Though we could probably chalk comments of that nature down to good ol' anti-intellectualism, which is still alive and well.

Liviu said...

"She uses hyperbolic language to create a heightened sense of her disapproval of this epic fantasy's structure"

You do this, you gotta take the heat and the hyperbolic yourself; if you are insulting people (rub faces in dog poop...), you gotta accept being insulted too and if you make hyperbolic claims, you gotta accept hyperbolic claims against you too.

At least that's the way I see it; you are polite, I am polite, you are nasty, I am nasty ...

As for Strange Horizons, what i find odd is that somehow the people that are perceived as threatening the sff establishment (eg Mark Newton, Neal Asher, JC Wright, now Michael Sullivan) are the ones that are trashed there, while for example same reviewer liked Erin Hoffman's debut which is imho on par with Theft of Swords (light fantasy with lots of suspension of disbelief required)

And the review had a few errors or at least misleading claims btw as I noted both there and on FBC in comments, but sadly its tone precludes reasonable argument.

Larry said...

That's an odd claim, as some of those you mention would seem to be writing very much within certain SF/F conventions (too much, perhaps). Having written a single review for SH nearly four years ago, I can state with confidence that the editorial staff does not put any pressure on the reviewers to weigh in a certain way (my review of Abercrombie's third book was much more mixed than the first two that a previous reviewer had done; nothing was said about that at all), so I would remove the staff from these discussions. So there's a difference in opinion between a reviewer and a reader of that review - why should one get all up in arms about it?

Is it because of the rhetoric? I've used worse (most notably when I reviewed a Robert Stanek self-published novel on a dare). Is the notoriety due to the e-mag catering to several types of fictions and not just one and that this might lead to hackles being raised because a perceived "outsider" is covering it? Perhaps. I almost did not blog about it because my take on the review itself is similar to the one I noticed Jeff VanderMeer posted: while the review is valid and honest, did it help SH by presenting a review of a work that does not merit much more thought and discussion beyond whether or not a so-called "light" (which I read to be code for "lacks substance or anything of real interest"), "fun" (which is a cover-up for a likely shallow plot) derivative work should be noted at all. I rarely ever review such books because the crap is warmed-over re-runs of other crap and I would much rather review a work that has more depth to it, even when I don't like many elements to it. But you sometimes don't get to choose the books you review for another, so perhaps it's best to think that Bourke covered what had to be covered and she wrote a review of a book that kept as close to what such a work seems to deserve as she possibly could. After all, I doubt discussing more about the (lack of) literary techniques Sullivan employs in those two novels would have benefited the reviewer or readers, as such stories tend to be, as she notes, rather weak in that department.

I'm just amused that by employing ironic hyberbole in my title that I get more comments than usual. Maybe others can weigh in more on the strengths and deficiencies of my recent reviews of other fictions, or does it take outrage and frustration to fuel responses these days?

Frank said...

Surprise, surprise. Another week, another case of meta-butthurt from Larry on his latest white knight escapade. Once more he pretends to survey an internet train wreck from the lofty perch of the wryly dismissive armchair critic, while hoping desperately that nobody would notice the naked baboon red ass he's squeezed between the cushions.

I mean that with the utmost respect.

An aggressive tone when speaking on matters of style disguises the subjective nature of the reviewer's personal preferences. It does not invite discussion, it does not even work to persuade those who would disagree but might be up for a good argument. Instead, it compels people who already agree to stand up and cheer without bothering to wonder just why it is they're clapping so damn hard. If the purpose of the review was to promote personal reflection or careful analysis of the source text, then going by the responses it was an utter failure. If it was meant to court controversy, then it was a great success. But if the goal was to get people to howl with approval, then it's been a great success for people who came to the site already sharing the reviewer's personal preferences, and an utter failure for people who came already preferring just the kind of works she dislikes.

Her accusation of the author of having a "naïve attachment to the worst kind of tropes" is no less trivial than the retorts than the book is "light," a "real page-turner," or "fun." The umlaut bedecked charge of naïveté essentially amounts to "I don't like the plot because I find it too familiar," but nowhere does she address why she thinks conventionality itself is inherently bad, or why such tropes would persist despite her argument that they're clearly nonsensical to anyone who's had any contact with "reality or actual human beings." Instead, All those quotes mean to show how silly this book sounds achieves a perfect parity of rhetorical depth against the juvenile denials of "No, it's not!"

As for saying a historian has no place judging epic fantasy, does it make sense to have a professional haiku author review epic fantasy? Well, maybe, depending on what she reads in her spare time. But does it make sense to ask someone who thinks the stock tropes of cowboys, outlaws, and the untamed west unquestionably silly and uninteresting to review westerns for their artistic merit? Probably not. Stylistic and genre preferences are arbitrary and enculturated, but people tend to have only a limited range of such preferences. Think of the "guilty pleasure." People notice when they like the occasional work that falls outside of their self perceived preference norms, whereas dyed in the wool fans would simply call such work a pleasure.

(more below)

Frank said...

The question, then, is whether being a historian whose bread and butter are texts (historical sources and academic papers) with very different narrative conventions means their personal preferences are likely to be far removed from the conventions of epic fantasy. Critiquing the merits of trope usage within a genre only makes sense if your personal preferences align close enough that you believe the tropes of that genre can actually be used in a meritorious way. In that light accusing historians, who might obsess over the now ancient diction and social portrayals of Chaucer or be awed by the matter of fact accounts of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, of having no place reviewing modern era epic fantasy no longer seems so out of the blue irrational. Of course there are counterarguments aplenty, that there are more parallels than differences between many historical texts and epic fantasy, or that people like all kinds of eclectic things, and so forth, and therein lies a conversation. But that's not what either of you two are encouraging, is it? Portraying people who dismiss a critic based on her profession as self evident dunderheads, without ever examining why these people are wrong, is to take part in the exact same kind of defective thinking as those who would believe a historian inherently has no place reviewing epic fantasy.

This even extends to the issue of gender and sexuality. You take umbrage at those linking the reviewer's gender to the notion of an inferior intellect, and rightly so, since both history and the competence of her own writing show this to be clearly false, but you don't seem to take issue with her own gender critiques. I'm not suggesting the two transgressions are equivalent, but does the implications that follow from her critique of Princess Arista and Thrace Annabell Wood make sense? Is it somehow wrong to suggest a woman might cry when escaping a near rape, or that rapists might target beautiful women? Is it unrealistic that a woman suffering extreme emotional trauma at the loss of her father might commit suicide? Should all women in fiction be shown to possess agency, even when they're inspired by historical periods when many women didn't? Is it ever acceptable to portray a woman without agency if it serves a thematic purpose? Are such portrayals acceptable, but Sullivan is somehow doing it wrong? What are the moral and technical criteria of such judgments, and what are their justifications? What impact would different ways of portraying the same events have on the reading public? What kind of challenges do such issues present for fantasy authors? Whole discussions have been preemptively brushed aside by trite dismissal and a vague notion of unease. Again that goes for both you and the reviewer. Why don't you reflect on the nature of your discomfort, instead of leaving it at the sulking petulance of "bad, bad, überbad!"?

As a last point, if all you care about is success in sales, it's not even necessary to know why people would like the works of a certain genre. Merely intuiting audience desires, following a formula you can work but don't understand, or making a big enough name for yourself that you can phone it in for a whole book and still have people buy it in droves might be enough. However, if you really want to uncover the reasons behind why fantasy genre conventions appeal to and divide readers, then it makes sense to dig just as deep at the inchoate mess of biases and motivations from both the critics and the fans.

Larry said...

I see I inspired an essay-length response! Yay!

Oh wait, not yay, as I now need to copy/paste this into Word in order to parse it. 1052 words, not as bad as I had feared. Now to paste all this back with curt commentary:

Surprise, surprise. Another week, another case of meta-butthurt from Larry on his latest white knight escapade. Once more he pretends to survey an internet train wreck from the lofty perch of the wryly dismissive armchair critic, while hoping desperately that nobody would notice the naked baboon red ass he's squeezed between the cushions.

I mean that with the utmost respect.

How sweet. I’m considered “white” here. I feel so included that I might just squee! As for my ass, it’s comfy. Thanks for asking.

An aggressive tone when speaking on matters of style disguises the subjective nature of the reviewer's personal preferences. It does not invite discussion, it does not even work to persuade those who would disagree but might be up for a good argument. Instead, it compels people who already agree to stand up and cheer without bothering to wonder just why it is they're clapping so damn hard. If the purpose of the review was to promote personal reflection or careful analysis of the source text, then going by the responses it was an utter failure. If it was meant to court controversy, then it was a great success. But if the goal was to get people to howl with approval, then it's been a great success for people who came to the site already sharing the reviewer's personal preferences, and an utter failure for people who came already preferring just the kind of works she dislikes.

Or conversely, it helps reinforce certain beliefs that another group of individuals might have?

Her accusation of the author of having a "naïve attachment to the worst kind of tropes" is no less trivial than the retorts than the book is "light," a "real page-turner," or "fun." The umlaut bedecked charge of naïveté essentially amounts to "I don't like the plot because I find it too familiar," but nowhere does she address why she thinks conventionality itself is inherently bad, or why such tropes would persist despite her argument that they're clearly nonsensical to anyone who's had any contact with "reality or actual human beings." Instead, All those quotes mean to show how silly this book sounds achieves a perfect parity of rhetorical depth against the juvenile denials of "No, it's not!"

Conventions when not used well or properly tend to lead to works that are dull, plodding affairs or those rife with unexamined biases. Bourke is right to question Sullivan’s text in this light.

As for saying a historian has no place judging epic fantasy, does it make sense to have a professional haiku author review epic fantasy? Well, maybe, depending on what she reads in her spare time. But does it make sense to ask someone who thinks the stock tropes of cowboys, outlaws, and the untamed west unquestionably silly and uninteresting to review westerns for their artistic merit? Probably not. Stylistic and genre preferences are arbitrary and enculturated, but people tend to have only a limited range of such preferences. Think of the "guilty pleasure." People notice when they like the occasional work that falls outside of their self perceived preference norms, whereas dyed in the wool fans would simply call such work a pleasure.

I feel the attempt to use the Wookiee Defense coming on.

Larry said...

The question, then, is whether being a historian whose bread and butter are texts (historical sources and academic papers) with very different narrative conventions means their personal preferences are likely to be far removed from the conventions of epic fantasy. Critiquing the merits of trope usage within a genre only makes sense if your personal preferences align close enough that you believe the tropes of that genre can actually be used in a meritorious way. In that light accusing historians, who might obsess over the now ancient diction and social portrayals of Chaucer or be awed by the matter of fact accounts of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, of having no place reviewing modern era epic fantasy no longer seems so out of the blue irrational. Of course there are counterarguments aplenty, that there are more parallels than differences between many historical texts and epic fantasy, or that people like all kinds of eclectic things, and so forth, and therein lies a conversation. But that's not what either of you two are encouraging, is it? Portraying people who dismiss a critic based on her profession as self evident dunderheads, without ever examining why these people are wrong, is to take part in the exact same kind of defective thinking as those who would believe a historian inherently has no place reviewing epic fantasy.

Now I’m close to dismissing your argument out of hand for lack of understanding of what historians, particularly cultural historians, are trained to do. Most of us have some grounding in literary analysis than encompasses fictions as elements of material culture.

This even extends to the issue of gender and sexuality. You take umbrage at those linking the reviewer's gender to the notion of an inferior intellect, and rightly so, since both history and the competence of her own writing show this to be clearly false, but you don't seem to take issue with her own gender critiques. I'm not suggesting the two transgressions are equivalent, but does the implications that follow from her critique of Princess Arista and Thrace Annabell Wood make sense? Is it somehow wrong to suggest a woman might cry when escaping a near rape, or that rapists might target beautiful women? Is it unrealistic that a woman suffering extreme emotional trauma at the loss of her father might commit suicide? Should all women in fiction be shown to possess agency, even when they're inspired by historical periods when many women didn't? Is it ever acceptable to portray a woman without agency if it serves a thematic purpose? Are such portrayals acceptable, but Sullivan is somehow doing it wrong? What are the moral and technical criteria of such judgments, and what are their justifications? What impact would different ways of portraying the same events have on the reading public? What kind of challenges do such issues present for fantasy authors? Whole discussions have been preemptively brushed aside by trite dismissal and a vague notion of unease. Again that goes for both you and the reviewer. Why don't you reflect on the nature of your discomfort, instead of leaving it at the sulking petulance of "bad, bad, überbad!"?

Yep. You’ve derailed your own argument. Congrats. You should re-read what you said and realize that your privilege is showing.

Larry said...

As a last point, if all you care about is success in sales, it's not even necessary to know why people would like the works of a certain genre. Merely intuiting audience desires, following a formula you can work but don't understand, or making a big enough name for yourself that you can phone it in for a whole book and still have people buy it in droves might be enough. However, if you really want to uncover the reasons behind why fantasy genre conventions appeal to and divide readers, then it makes sense to dig just as deep at the inchoate mess of biases and motivations from both the critics and the fans.

Oh how I am chuckling. You aren’t familiar with what I’ve written over the past decade and it shows quite clearly here.

Frank said...

If it wasn't clear, the opening was a joke. I don't actually think you're some poo flinging armchair philosophe. A small part of me was motivated by setting up a demonstration. I wanted to make the point that hatchet job uses of hyperbolic language matters. It tends to color the reader's impression of whatever logical argument you're trying to make. And if the entire aim of your text was to make a logical argument, then adopting such a tone would prove detrimental to your very purpose. The demonstration might have worked too well, however, since your dismissiveness seems show you've really taken the joke to heart.

But mostly I just wanted to call you butthurt. "No, you!" smugness in all its childishness glory. I ended up writing so much because I had so much great material to work with. If you were only wryly amused you wouldn't have gone to such lengths to paint those who disagreed with Liz as incompetent ninnies. Why does inconsequential silliness need to be dissected in such fine detail, unless you too got so butthurt by the passions of people who made no sense to you that you felt compelled to make absolutely clear the inferiority of their beliefs? Does that mean I also got butthurt? Obviously. We can split an Icy Hot if you want.

I hope this is enough to make you give the rest of my reply another once over and reconsider whether I had set myself up in some "privileged" position way above yours, but maybe it won't. In any case, I've had my fill of this more-disinterested-than-thou chortlefest for the night. To indulge any more than I have would probably cause things to spill over from amusingly excessive to grotesquely excessive at this point.

Martin said...

Fascinating comments, Liviu.

You do this, you gotta take the heat and the hyperbolic yourself; if you are insulting people (rub faces in dog poop...), you gotta accept being insulted too

You obviously don't understand the metaphor. Who is being insulted? The book is being compared to dog poop, the publishers are being compared to a bad puppy. They are being chastised, not insulted.

At least that's the way I see it; you are polite, I am polite, you are nasty, I am nasty ...

Well, that is certainly revealing.

As for Strange Horizons, what i find odd is that somehow the people that are perceived as threatening the sff establishment (eg Mark Newton, Neal Asher, JC Wright, now Michael Sullivan) are the ones that are trashed there, while for example same reviewer liked Erin Hoffman's debut which is imho on par with Theft of Swords (light fantasy with lots of suspension of disbelief required)

What I find odd is the tortuous, nonsensical hypothetical you have to invent to avoid the most reasonable answer (that the reviewer may review two different books differently based on their content). Who perceives mainstream commercial authors like Newton, Asher, Wright and Sullivan as threatening the sff establishment? Absolutely no one, that's who.

And the review had a few errors or at least misleading claims btw as I noted both there and on FBC in comments,

Let's have a look at the comments you left on the review over at Strange Horizons. First long comment: no objection to claims made by the review. Second long comment: no objections to claims made by the review. Third comment: ah ha, two claims made about the review. These are:

1) That the quote about feudalism is out of context. However, you haven't understood what Bourke's criticism actually is and she points this out in a follow up comment.
2) That the charge that women lack agency is false. You provide no evidence for this and Bourke asks you to do so in a follow up comment.

but sadly its tone precludes reasonable argument.

This is untrue, as shown by the above. The fact that you are unable to engage in reasonable argument has nothing to do with the review itself.

Nic said...

@Frank:

But if the goal was to get people to howl with approval, then it's been a great success for people who came to the site already sharing the reviewer's personal preferences, and an utter failure for people who came already preferring just the kind of works she dislikes.

Nonsense. I enjoy reading epic fantasy and I found the review entertaining and insightful. The difference is not between people who like epic fantasy and people who don't, but (apparently) between people who believe that bad examples of epic fantasy should be subject to criticism, and those who don't.

But then, I'm another of those damned historians, so what would I know...?

@Larry:

Since people seem to be offended by the term 'butthurt', how about 'pearl-clutching'? The tutting Concern that certain commenters have expressed over the puppy/excrement analogy definitely falls into that category. I think you're absolutely right that at least some of the pushback is gendered, both in terms of the concentration on tone rather than engagement with the substance of the argument (this from a fandom that flocks to blogs like Pat's Fantasy Hotlist), and in the patronisingly head-patting assumption that the reviewer couldn't possibly have enough experience of reading the genre.

On the 'Why epic fantasy?' question: FWIW, I read many different types of fiction these days, and enjoy different works in different ways. But my love of epic fantasy is undoubtedly partly a nostalgia thing (I grew up reading it), but I think it also has a lot to do with the emotional intensity of big canvas/high stakes stories. And contrary to Frank's bizarre contention, it seems obvious to me that an interest in history and an interest in epic fantasy should very often intersect; on a basic level, because a lot of these stories are set in a thinly-veiled version of the European past, but also because there's a similar process of discovery, of learning the rules and mores and aesthetics of a world separate from your own. At least, in well done epic fantasy, anyway.

I share your frustration, very much, with much of epic fantasy fandom. Not because so many of them aren't interested in reading the genre critically ("it's just fun!" etc) - fair enough, people can read for whatever reasons they want, and in any way they like. It's when they explode into rage at the idea of anyone else doing so. Why is serious critical consideration of the genre automatically perceived as an attack by an outsider? I think some of it is defensiveness born of unconsciously internalising the wider world's disdain for the genre. Partly it's also because there isn't a developed critical vocabulary for discussing this genre, or a tradition of critics who specialise in it, in the way there is for (say) science fiction.

On a different note: What baffles me most about that thread, actually, is where the Chaucer fixation came from. What does Chaucer have to do with the review, or whether or not Sullivan's book is any good, or indeed with the fact that the author studies Classics? Possibly some confusion between Middle English and Early Modern English, or else an assumption that Classics means "literature that gets published as Penguin Classics"?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Nic:

My sense is that Chaucer is being used interchangeably with Dumas, Nabokov, Joyce, and, in Liviu's blog, "Nobel-level writing," as a placeholder for high-art literary fiction. This is all part of the argument that Liz didn't appreciate the book because she went into it expecting something of that quality, a claim that one commenter after another has persisted in, in the face of a) the fact that there is absolutely nothing in the review that gives this impression, b) Liz's own claims that nothing could be further from the truth, c) the fact that Liz has positively reviewed other epic fantasies. It's one of a whole raft of anti-intellectual arguments with which critics of the review are trying to deligitimize it, as opposed to engaging with its points.

Eric M. Edwards said...

It is a fallacy that we can only enjoy one type of fiction once we're taken off the farm. I have multiple degrees. I still read all sorts of books for pleasure and in order to stay current in the fields which interest me.

I love "Nobel-level writing" AND epic fantasy. I like horror and weird tales too, though not much SciFi. I read easily three times this volume in non-fiction. In all cases, I like the better examples. In other words, good books of all stripes.

Do I expect exactly the same experience? No, but I certainly expect good writing. A command of the craft and some spark of originality or at least skillful execution.

Admittedly there is not that much Epic Fantasy that qualifies, but then that goes for all types of writing that I enjoy.

There was only one Nabokov, one Dumas, one Joyce The same goes for Tacitus or Goethe. We shouldn't be greedy, but we are.

Larry said...

Nic,

I used that term "butthurt" in an ironic fashion, but yes, your descriptor would be much more apt. It does puzzle me to see the amount of angst over a valid concern about a single epic fantasy series' structure and characterizations. Not that I never saw that in other fields (we both know historians can be snarky in their critiques of others; I remember a footnote in a book on Richard III where one historian, whose name I forget, said of another's book: "One might be pardoned if one assumed the author himself had been personally present at the Battle of Bosworth Field."), but it seems to be endemic with in-depth discussions of this particular literary subgenre.

I wonder if part of it is some residual defensiveness over "their" reading and "their" likes, as if reading epic fantasies were somehow akin to being the wimpy kid bullied at school. I did notice a blog post that utilizes this metaphor. I honestly can't relate to it (never having experienced bullying on a continual basis), but that defensiveness is rather odd. I suspect it's part of an extremely close identification with the material and that any attempts to take a step back and to evaluate it in a more objective, critical way will end up being viewed with suspicion at best and hostile derision at worst. It's as though the subject work and the reader have somehow been conflated in some readers' minds. Very odd.

As for Chaucer, I'm presuming those who are bandying his name about have never really read the entire (unfinished) work, or for that matter the other authors Abigail mentions in her reply to you. I encountered the Chaucer-as-Literature-on-High argument on another forum just this past week, so it's odd that this quasi-meme has developed in some quarters. One would think that if Chaucer, Ariosto, Tasso, Boiardo, and others who wrote stories of pilgrims, peasants, and knights errant would be cited as providing much of the basis for contemporary epic literature, but no, their absence seems to indicate otherwise.

Michal said...

Anyone who thinks of Chaucer-as-Literature-on-high probably missed a lot in The Canterbury Tales. Particularly the profusion of fart jokes.

Larry said...

Reading "The Miller's Tale" as a college sophomore made me appreciate Chaucer much more than reading "The Pardoner's Tale" or "The Knight's Tale" in high school ever did. It takes an artiste to make fart jokes into literature :D

requireshate said...

Adrian Faulkner comparing the review--amidst his "just bitter and jealous!" hysteria--to racism, homophobia and anti-semitism is funny. Is the man high or is he just a passive-aggressive, clueless asshole?

Larry said...

Don't know and I probably don't ever want to know, but I'd guess more of the second than the first.

Maenad said...

This is going to be a fly-by comment, but THIS:

“I suspect it's part of an extremely close identification with the material and that any attempts to take a step back and to evaluate it in a more objective, critical way will end up being viewed with suspicion at best and hostile derision at worst. It's as though the subject work and the reader have somehow been conflated in some readers' minds. Very odd.”

It seems to me that some people just cannot allow themselves to like bad books/films/music/any art form. It is like admitting that they enjoy bad books makes them worse/lesser people.

I am really tempted to blame protestant ethic for this.

requireshate said...

Left a lengthy comment for Adrian to explain why him demanding that I be "polite" and "respectful" to him after he's made a shitty comparison is ridiculous and privileged. Bets on him getting it, anybody?

Anonymous said...

Will post my comment here because from Strange Horizons I will safely stay well from now on.

About the whole discussion, it has clearly degenerated. However, seems to me that it was the (in)famous first paragraph of Liz Bourke's review that caused the anger.

Quote:

[quote]"Michael J. Sullivan is that rare beast, a man who self-published six books to moderate financial success, and parlayed that success into a deal with a major publisher. Theft of Swords collects the previously self-published The Crown Conspiracy (2007) and Avempartha (2009) in one volume. As of this writing, I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy. Sloppiness in amateurs is understandable. When professionals are involved, there should be consequences. I have words for these people. Bad words. But I'll restrain myself, and restrict my vocabulary to standards acceptable in polite company. The book's own words ought to be enough to condemn it."
[/quote]

The structure of Liz Bourke's review gives the impression that the focus of her "post" was to reprimand Orbit for signing up an Indie author (or , as she puts it, a "rare beast" that self-published" , etc), thus, it isn't a review anymore and simply a rant - and it is a rant in which she seems to believe she has the right to dictate not only who gets published by who , but also to dictate who "deserves" to be successful and who not. Furthermore, the derision with which she refers to self-published authors is frankly, appalling.

My comment is that clearly Orbit saw something that Liz Bourke obviously did not - and the fact that the novels are selling very well on Amazon (just checked and the first novel is #27,624 in their General Best Sellers list which is impressive if we take into account that the novels are a reprint) means that Orbit made a good decision.

While I can't offer an opinion on the novel because I haven't read it, I'm very happy for Mr. Sullivan's success and wish him many more. And hopefully Orbit's decision will open the path for more Indie authors to succeed at their projects - in spite of the Liz Bourke's of this world.

Larry said...

Maenad,

I'll have to think about that. There might be something to that, but there could be other factors as well.

Requireshate,

I don't want to lose a bet.

Anon,

The monetary argument is fine to a point (Sullivan did write something that's earning him money now, which is good for his family), but it sidesteps the artistic arguments here. Yes, publishers publish to make money for the most part (there are some non-profits that publish works I tend to prefer much more, I'll admit), but in these sorts of debates, one can question if the desire to make a quick buck trumps consequences to a publisher's reputation. I'm undecided on that, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me if others take that route if the argument continues.

Anonymous said...

@Larry (same Anon here as previous post) :

Of course I understand your points, however, specifically from the Marketing point of view (from which is where I'm analyzing the topic at hand) , artistic value is not only in the beauty of the prose or the mastery of technical skills. Artistic value is, when the finished item (book, or any other item) speaks to people. Art is only art when it touches people. It fulfills a need. It is only then that a book sells. Ergo, even if the prose is lacking, if people buy , then surely there's something that people saw in it? Because no one invests (repeatedly) money in something that people don't like. And in this case, it's obvious people did like it. Sales are only indicator, but a powerful indicator, indeed. To me, as opposed to others, a good publisher is the one who recognizes that value. A publisher that sees the potential that earn my respect. A far better example is the Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer: Prose? Technical skill? The story? All of them are flawed, at the very best. But it did touch the reader. And as awful the story, as poorly written as it is, and any other bad thing that can be said about Twilight, it sells.

To those whose argument is that poor quality and mass-marketing is a self-perpetuating cycle making readers demand worse books every time, I beg to differ. A bad product (technically speaking) with high demand usually means it managed to do (possibly) only one thing well. But whatever it was, it did it very well. Congrats to those who manage to find that little something. To many it's a one-time only experience, because although that little something may not be easily identifiable, it is there.

When there's sales, it does have something good. Bravo to those publishers who recognize that, because, Indie authoring is indeed the future. Either publishers see that and engage in talent seeking, or be out of the game in the long term. (all the while, possibly maintaining their reputation..... )

Going back to that review, again, it's not a reviewers' role to finger-point at a publisher. Reviewers review, at least the respectable ones. The not so professional ones, rant.

That said, please, don't get me wrong. Beautifully written books are a pleasure to me. The ones I don't like, I simply don't read. I will try Mr. Sullivan's first compendium. It may turn out that I don't like it. But even then, Orbit has my utmost respect for having taken that leap.

Larry said...

Although I'm not going to deny that there has to be something that appeals to those who buy these works, what I suspect is the case is more consumers wanting more of the same (witness the proliferation of movie sequels in addition to book series) than to risk trying anything new. After a while, more of the same tends to lead to stagnation and works that feel more and more derivative. I suspect that plays a role in both the defense of said works and those who are critique such.

As for the reasons for reviewing, I disagree. There is a time and place for various forms of critique. It is valid to point out the circumstances that lead to certain works being published. What could be done (and often is not) is having readers judge for themselves based on that. When I write reviews and crit pieces, I expect some disagreement. But I certainly won't take a kind view to those whose counters are weak, as I'm used to rather freewheeling group critiques from my history grad school days over a dozen years ago.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's normal human behaviour to want more of the same if the starting product provided for a satisfying experience. It's based on that fact that not only movies get their sequels , but also shampoos get their new lines and perfumes new variations in their aromas ;) . Is it a bad thing in itself? Hardly. It's how the human mind works - and it not only applies to book series, but also to stand alone novels. If someone likes the style of an author, said person is more likely to keep buying and (hopefully) reading more books by the same author. That isn't bad at all, especially considering that there is a restriction on how much resource a person can spend (and said resources can go from time, up to money , of course) . From a consumers point of view , purchasing book from an author whose previous works he/she already liked, it means he/she was satisfied with the first. And now wants to know how it goes on. Does that preclude people from trying something new? Not likely:

The percentage of early adopters in any category of products is not that high, and customers who repeat the purchase is even lower. Any author, brand or product that achieves even a small loyal fan base (or readers) , is to be commended because it's not easy to achieve, in any category of products. It should not be assumed (and not saying you are doing so, by any means) that because a product is not technically perfect (or even good) , that readers keep on purchasing out of inertia. Reading fiction is one of the rare categories where the defining factor of success relies entirely on the emotional satisfaction on a reader. Take that emotional satisfaction away, and the reader will drop the book (stand alone, or series alike) .

As to the role of reviewing, I agree that it's about critique and that critique can/even should be , exercised on all spheres of life. And reviews do certainly have an impact on the decision of a novel being either published, and/or , exercise an impact on people's willingness to try a new author. That is critique, and I certainly follow on reviews myself. Nevertheless, there's a difference between a critique and a common rant - and personally to me, from the review in discussion it looks like it's a very emotional reaction directed at an Indie publisher. Again, the wording of the first paragraph makes all the difference.

Anonymous said...

galiCorrection:
From: [...]a very emotional reaction directed at an Indie publisher.[...]

to:
[...]a very emotional reaction directed at an Indie author.[...]

 
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