The OF Blog: Don't Believe the Hype

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.


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