The OF Blog: August 2004

Friday, August 27, 2004

Some Problems I See With Reviews

The recent entry regarding Fan Love has generated plenty of discussion, with some of us raising the issue of how one goes about evaluating an author's work. I thought I'd take a few minutes and expound upon the position I took in that discussion.

Book reviews are by their very nature a difficult beast to tame, much less master. In addition to the almost countless personal differences between authors, there are just as many idiosyncracies that reviewers reveal in their commentaries on the books they have read. Some might employ a direct comparison model, examining one book based on another author's work. That approach can work for those familiar with both, but the possibility of reader confusion is greater, especially if that reader is not very well-read on the other author being compared in the review.

Other reviewers tend to focus on the book itself, but without providing much in terms of a frame of reference. One review that bothered me recently was Michael Dirda's review of China Miéville's Iron Council. In his review, I found a few flaws that rendered this review very unhelpful for me. Now I had already read the book by this time, but what I observed not only failed to persuade me to consider the book from his vantage point, but it also made me wonder if he detected any weaknesses at all in the story.

First, I noticed that he uses almost hyberbolic language to describe the author. Adjectives such as "dazzling," coupled with non-contextual comparisons to Nabokov and Alexander Theroux made this occasional critic wonder if Dirda was writing a press release or a balanced review of the book. Sometimes, a little more pedestrian language can go a long way with certain readers trying to decide whether or not a book is right for them.

Secondly, Dirda jumps back and forth from discussing the book and the author, giving the review an uneven feel to it. Is his purpose to discuss the merits of the book or to convince others that Miéville is a cool author? One or the other would be very valid approaches to take, but I was left feeling that his combination of the two weakened his case.

Another thing that bothered me about his review and this is a common complaint I have (and one that I myself have been guilty of in the past) is that of too much plot exposition. While Dirda is not nearly as bad as other reviewers in repeating a book blurb (Harriet Klausner being infamous for doing this), there are still too many comments that resemble a plot synopsis rather than a critique of a book's merits and weaknesses.

But the thing that bothered me most was that Dirda did not seem to address any possible weaknesses in the work. A reader who had read only Dirda's review might be misled into believing that Miéville was a practically flawless writer who wrote universally praised stories. Now I'm not implying that I think Miéville is a bad writer (I happen to enjoy his scenes more than I am frustrated by his buildup to them), but sometimes a brief examination of the problems that many have had with his earlier works would have made a positive review of Iron Council all that much more compelling in comparison.

To be fair to Dirda, however, it is very difficult to write a review that is going to meet most reader expectations. It might be that he expected those reading his review to be unfamilar with China Miéville and that he believed that he needed to introduce the author. However, one could then argue that most neophytes would be better served reading his earlier Bas-Lag novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar) first, but that is beside the point. Sometimes readers want to be sold on the author before committing to buying the book.

Another problem reviewers face is that of reader expectations. Do they expect to be wowed by the review, or do they want just to know the gist of the plot? Or would they rather know more about how the author constructs his/her sentences and characters and not to have the main focus of the review be on plot exposition? Very difficult set of questions to answer indeed.

So what do reviewers do about it? The answers are as numerous as the number of those reviewing. Some might be unapologetic for coming across as cheerleaders (or for being catty), while others might strive painstakingly for a pros/cons approach to a book. There is no "correct" answer, although it can be argued that for those such as myself, reviewers in general should try to focus more on balancing book description with an analysis of what works and what does not work.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

This is highly illogical

Sometimes, one must accept that life truly is highly illogical. Maybe this explains our love for all things tribble, not to mention pondering the deep connections between a fantasy author's beard and his style of fantasy. But then again, where else but in the madcap world of fantasy/SF fandom can we embrace our Inner Elvis getting in touch with his Imperial Stormtrooper?

Yes, life being a fan of fantasy and science-fiction works is sometimes the greatest!

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.

Hot ARCs

Publishers Weekly is running a two-part series on the forecasted best new books due to be released in the coming months. Autumn is traditionally a time where booksellers are exposed to the hottest new wares out there, and here are a few books that PW thinks will be big hits with the readers:

Margaret Drabble, The Red Queen (Oct. 2004). Novel focuses on an Englishwoman who on the eve of a trip to Seoul, South Korea, receives a 200-year old manuscript written by a Korean princess. PW lauds her for her characterizations and writing style.

Donna Leon, Death in a Strange Country (Jan. 2005). Mystery story about an American soldier who drowns in Venice after being caught in a high-level conspiracy.

Cassandra King, The Same Sweet Girls (Jan. 2005). Story that explores the friendships that six young women have developed over the years and how they deal with one's bout with cancer.

Simon Singh, Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe (Jan. 2005). Lauded as being a great popularizer of science and an intrepid explorer of some of the more fascinating and baffling scientific mysteries, Singh tackles the Big Bang theory. PW notes that this book might do much good for readers of serious non-fiction who are tired of political books.

Someday, ev'rything's gonna be diff'rent

As Bob Dylan sang in "When I Paint My Masterpiece," someday, everything truly will be different. This is just the first step in an experiment to expand the scope of what we discuss over at wotmania's Other Fantasy section. Needless to say, this will be a work in progress and you can expect a lot of variety and occasional bouts of abject weirdness as this Blog develops its own identity.

In the coming months, it is safe to expect reviews of books that aren't necessarily related to the speculative fiction genre. You can look forward to links to other sites and the burning topics related to the spec fic field. And you can even find out the lyrics to the Safety Dance if you wanna. Whatever strange and twisted roads we might travel over the coming months, it should be a long, strange, fun, and warped trip. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
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