The OF Blog: September 2004

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Don't Believe the Hype

Hyberbole seems to be a part of our everyday lives. From listening to television or radio ads proclaiming Product X to be the "next big thing" to promoters trying to establish a certain artist as being the créme de la créme, we are constantly being bombarded with a constant stream of talk and information urging us to consider a certain product. This is also very true for genre fiction and the choices a prospective book buyer has to make.

As an administrator and book reviewer, I'm often stuck in a quandry. Being someone who is by nature very distant toward bandwagon approaches toward product promotion, I yet am faced with the situation of either giving the Caesarian thumbs up or down to a book. I'm expected to glean through the chaff of recent book releases and pick out books that I think are true gems of imagination and storytelling, just so others can read my words and consider whether or not they too would want to purchase and read the books I just finished and enjoyed.

But there are many pitfalls along the way. As a reader pointed out recently on the OF Messageboard, sometimes we reviewers can give off the odor of being hype machines, people who are just out to promote a specific author or genre style at the expense of a detailed critical look at the story we just read. There is some truth to that, as there are certain authors that I happen to just enjoy more than others and so I make a variety of pitches to encourage others to read them. But I do try to refrain from saying such things as, "This is the greatest series of all time!" or "Wow! This story has changed my perceptions on everything! So cool!"

Another risk of hype is that of perceived insincerity. For example, I had been planning on buying Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for over six months now, ever since I read about how impressed Neil Gaiman was with the story. Now many of you know that Gaiman has a controversial quote on the back cover of Clarke's book, which says that he considers it to be the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the past seventy years. Unfortunately, this quote has caused quite a few indignant squawks from fantasy fans, from those who consider Tolkien to be the Man to others who happen to champion works by other outstanding English writers. Not many bothered to check with Gaiman to see what he meant by the quote. John Clute, in his review of Clarke's book, did so and Gaiman's reasoning was a bit more understandable. While I had no problems with what Gaiman had said (mostly because I tend to read his Journal on a regular basis), I can understand how such quotes can backfire in an environment where genre readers are inudated with proclamations that such-and-such is the best thing going since Tolkien/Herbert/Asimov/etc.

So should we believe the hype? It depends upon the reader and the situation. I, for one, use the hype as one measure of weighing whether or not I should consider reading a story. But I also like to search the web for various reviews, if possible, or to thumb through the book or read online excerpts before deciding. But there's always a caveat emptor, because what I believe should be touted as an excellent piece of work is not necessarily what others would enjoy. Maybe this explains why Adolfo Bioy Cesares languishes in relative obscurity. But what should a reviewer do to counter the accusations of overhyping? I guess the simple solution is just to be as consistent as possible in praising works. Sometimes, trust in a reviewer's ability to discern the good from the bad is a valuable counterweight to misleading hype. Sometimes. This is a market-driven society and even our books are subject to its whims and fancies. But judging a book based on the shifting winds of mass cultural taste is a dangerous proposition. Only time and shared memories can tell whether or not a book was truly worthy of the hype it had or had not received when it was first published. Bulwer-Lytton or Stendhal: the choice will be up to us readers, not to the promoters, into which of these two broad categories the hyped books will fall a generation or two from now.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Just a quick updatish sort of thing

I thought I'd just post this little personal bit (although this blog most certainly will not revolve around my personal life) in response to some who were wondering about the state of my health. I had made some comment about a week or two ago stating that I was uncertain about my health situation. I guess here will be the place to address that, as well as to let people know when more regular entries will be posted.

Back on September 5th, I felt very faint at work. I work in a residential treatment center for boys with severe emotional/behaviorial issues. Sometimes, we have to use passive restrain techniques to make sure these boys don't harm themselves, us, or the property. I was called upon to restrain a very aggressive boy, one that had already blown up beyond normal verbal redirections. As I was trying to hold him and get him to calm down, my heart rate and breathing shot up and I felt very dizzy and dropped to a knee. I went to the nurse's station at work and my pulse rate was close to 150 beats a minute (over two times my normal rate) and my blood oxidation was very low.

I scheduled a series of tests and learned the week after (on Sept. 14th) that I had bad blood pressure. More tests are scheduled for the heart and lungs, but I was put on blood pressure meds and ordered to four weeks of light duty at work. I had a reaction to those meds and for the next four days, I was suddenly sleepy at odd times. That has since cleared up and my blood pressure is back in the normal range, plus my breathing and pulse have stabilized to around normal levels. Still have a round of tests next month to determine what caused it, but after a blood test revealed that my cholesterol was normal and that I didn't have diabetes, anemia, or rheumatic arthritis, it's looking more and more like I just have a chronic case of exertional asthma. At least I hope it's that and not the doctor's earlier fear that it could be pulmonary hypertension, which is deadly within 10 years of diagnosis.

But I've been feeling much better the past few days, as I've been taking it easy from most computer-related management issues. Thus no blog and thus my relative absence from the various messageboards (minus the odd, quick post here and there). However, I do plan on writing a new entry sometime either Monday or Tuesday which will deal with my thoughts on hyperbole and certain bestsellers. After that, I'd like to aim for 1-2 entries a week, again, health providing.

Thanks again for those who expressed concern. I am doing well and am looking forward to writing more discussion-worthy posts in the very near future.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Placing Fantasy within the larger Story

But suppose the world is in fact now coming to an end, the world of Meaning we have always lived in. And suppose that the Powers who must make from it a new one - one that will be just like the old one in most but not all respects - are mulling just now over what sort the new world might be, and what garb they themselves might appear in too. If that's the case, then that old multilayered earth and its shape-shifting travellers would have to be among the worlds from which they could choose - mutatis mutandis, the same but never exactly the same, take a little out of the waist and plump the shoulders. More likely not, though; more likely they'll choose something entirely different this time, something in a fierce hound's-tooth maybe, or a moiré taffeta, eye-fooling, iridescent: can't you see them (I can) moving amid the racks and counters fingering the goods, unable to decide, all possibilities laid out before them once again before they make their choice, thereafter to pretend (once again) that everything has always been this way, that they themselves have all along had these aspects and not others, rank on rank, the army of unalterable Law?

And who is that littlest one among them, wide-eyed, just awakened and believing he has never made this choice before? You know, don't you?

John Crowley, Dæmonomania

Imagine a world just like our own. A place of conflict, beauty, sadness, and success. A realm where meaning was more than just the expression of scientific concepts. A condition in which beliefs were not bound up in what was provable or disprovable. A time and space so similar to our own and yet so utterly alien. Let's call this world our past.

Gazing back on our past, we might feel as Pierre Menard did when he set out to recreate Don Quixote bit by painstaking bit. The sunrises might appear to be the same, the blooming flowers might still exude the same scents, or people might still have hopes and fears, but the meanings of these have changed even as the structures have stayed virtually the same.

There is a gulf that divides us from our past interpretations of the world and its realities. A wall of perception that is so high and so thick as to make earlier conceptions of our world to be almost incomprehensible. It might be a world of beauty or a realm of horror, but whatever "it" is, "it" is not what most would call real. There is something that lies between this conception of a world and our own selves. Sometimes, the very attempt to define this something creates an even larger rift, causing this fleeting apparition to fade into the mists of our collective subconscious.


This is the very rough beginning to a paper I've been working on for almost two months now, after being challenged in a discussion over at SFF World to elaborate my stance on the value that fantasy in general and epic fantasy in particular can and should have in describing our historical (and pre-historical) interactions with the world around us in a way that provides some sense of context and meaning in a world that often feels bereft of both.

While I'm nowhere near finished with this paper (it might take me a few more months at the current rate, due to some personal issues with work and my health), I thought many here might be interested in reading this, as well as digesting some of the ideas I plan on developing over the course of this paper. For one thing, I tend to view Fantasy (and it's sometimes-estranged sibling, Science Fiction) as part of a deeper dialogue that individuals and societies have had with themselves over the millenia. While the media of communication might have changed quite drastically from the days of bards reciting Gilgamesh or The Iliad, I do believe that there are certain key elements contained within these ancient epic texts that have been repeated in stories over time and space in the intervening millenia.

Now some might argue that while there are certainly some key surface similarities between the ancient stories and modern texts, the old stories just cannot be fantasies in the modern sense due to the conditions under which those tales were created. There is some truth to that, but one could counter by noting that there might be something in the intervening centuries that has led to an artifical division. The Crowley quote and the reference to Jorge Luis Borges's famous short story, "Pierre Menard," are included to highlight this sense of almost-the-same but not quite.

Among other topics I think might be important in placing Fantasy with the larger Story (or Historia, seeing as I'm very biased in my belief that all literature and other artifacts of human existence ought to be included under the larger umbrella of History, or the Story of human life) would include a look at Marxist interpretations of history, discontinuities, the dichotomy between patrician and plebeian cultures, as well as the rise of mass culture and how that has influenced the ways in which we interact with each other and with our own selves.

Hopefully, this will make for an interesting paper. Just thought I'd give a tease for those who might have some curiosity as to what I've been working on these past few weeks.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Awards, Schwards: Should We Even Care?

Sorry for the delay, but I've had to work a lot of overtime. C'est la vie.

The Hugos have come and gone. The Nebulas are a fading memory. While we still have the World Fantasy Award, the major award season is drawing to a close. What do we make of the results?

Judging by the commentaries I've seen at OF and elsewhere, it seems as though the Hugos were a mixture of the ho-hum and the outraged. The usual suspects won, which in turn sparked the usual comments of "Oh, she/he always wins! I wish they'd pick another sometime!" or "Who the hell are these guys?" Sour grapes? Maybe, but I suspect there's more to the story than what we're seeing at first glance.

The Hugos, Nebulas, and World Fantasy Awards are decided in three distinct fashions. The Hugos by fan votes of those at the WorldCon or those who pay a fee (I believe it's around $40) to vote, the Nebulas by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and the World Fantasy Awards by a panel of judges appointed months in advance to read through a nominated list of contenders. Yet while these methods on the surface should guarantee that different voices and approaches should be heard, this is often not the case.

Let's start with the Hugos. Needless to say, the way the voting is established is going to exclude Joe Schmo from the process. You have to be an active fan, willing to pay the big bucks to travel to the various WorldCons (this year's was held in Boston) or to pay a hefty $40 to mail in your vote. These people are not your typical spec fic fan. From what I can tell, there's much more of a bias toward science fiction and away from fantasy. If I remember correctly, there even was a debate once as to whether or not fantasy should even be considered at all. So there's already a sizable percentage of yearly work that's almost certainly going to be excluded. Also, and this is just an educated guess on my part, but many of the ones who attended this year's convention have been regulars at other conventions, especially those within the United States. This leads to a rather stable body of voters, many of whom might have developed certain attachments to certain authors or styles of work. Not familar with Lois Bujold's work that much (other than a few excerpts I read for two of her stories that were up for past Nebulas - both of which left me distinctly unimpressed), but from what I've heard from others, it seems as though she won as much on her Name as on the story of the book (Paladin of Souls). The same might be said for Neil Gaiman's latest winner, even though I am much more familiar with his work and have liked most of his stories.

The Nebulas present a different challenge. Authors are being asked to nominate and vote for other authors. While some might presume that it'd take an author to know an author, apparently the process is not as clear-cut as that. Sometimes, the author voters are only familiar with only a few authors and they might nominate as much out of a sense of loyalty (or out of hopes that they too will be nominated later as a reward, although this is probably too conspiracy theory-like to consider seriously) as out of high regard for the story at hand. Like the Hugos, the Nebula voting pool numbers in the low hundreds, from which a top novel, novella, novellette, and short story (among other awards) are chosen.

The World Fantasy Awards are decided by a panel of judges (authors and/or respected critics within the industry), who must meet and vote among themselves which book is to be deemed most worthy of first prize. The problem with this method is that often the judges have different standards of excellence and often must compromise with the others in order to develop a final ranking of books.

So each of these systems have their shortcomings, many of which stem from the paucity of voters as much as from other factors. What can be done, if these are the natures of the award beasts? On the surface, probably not much. Maybe awards given by magazines such as Locus should be given equal consideration, seeing as there's a larger number of voters (in the thousands, I believe) and the voting pool extends beyond the subscribers to the magazine to those who visit the online site and cast a vote there within the deadline. Maybe there should be new categories for the Hugos and Nebulas, such as Best Fantasy Novel and Best Science Fiction Novel, although the case can and will be made that defining which is which might be an exercise in futility.

But until someone reinvents the wheel and develops a new system, the readers are often left wondering what's the fuss.
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