The OF Blog: Gotta love feedback

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gotta love feedback

A little over a year ago, I reviewed Joe Abercrombie's The Last Argument of Kings for Strange Horizons. The first of a few reviews I've done for paying venues, I hadn't thought to check and see if there were any new responses to it until just now, when I checked the Referrers section of my Sitemeter stats and saw the link back to SH. So I clicked and saw that there was indeed a new comment, one from three months ago. Interesting little bit:

Posted by Paul Adrianson at February 24, 2009 1:31 AM:

The beautiful thing about fantasy novels of this caliber is that it elicits such in depth scrutiny from the likes of yourself which tells me how well written and refreshing this epic series was. You really had to dig to find some kind of critical dribble on such a well written series with such realitic characters. Glokta was by far the most well developed character. I question the depth of your assessment of this series. What is your benchmark for comparison. I would use a writer like Terry Goodkind or the like. to react to something like this? Thought about not saying anything at all, especially since it's over three months since it was posted, but it is interesting to see what someone who isn't familiar with my reading preferences thinks about them based solely on a single review. While I probably could reply with some snark about how it really wasn't that hard to "find some kind of critical dribble" when I found those asides of the author to be annoying on a regular basis, among other things, I am only left wondering how my mixed reaction to one volume equates to the response generated. I guess fanboys come in all shapes and forms.

Anyways, here's the chance to weigh in on this year-old review. Feel free to dissect it, since it won't hurt me any, being the toughened SOB that I am. Just don't mention that one author that this commentator did, OK?


MattD said...

This has got to be the third or fourth time you've asked for comments on that review. It's tempting to write something snarky--about pleas for attention; about how if you want reviews then you're on the wrong side of the writer/reviewer divide; about how you'll get more feedback when you write something insightful (or dreadful) enough that people feel driven to spend their valuable time giving it. But I do sympathize with how hard it can be to generate intelligent discussion about a book, and I have to think that those of us who are relatively new to fiction reviewing and who are actively trying to improve should help each other. In this case I think part of the dearth of feedback is a combination of book and venue--SH is not a hangout for epic fantasy fans, and the First Law books are a bit like the Watchmen movie, their pros and cons fairly apparent and all that remains is the question for individual readers of whether they like what is offered. That said, I think another part of the relative dearth of feedback is that you didn't engage particularly deeply with the book and so didn't dig up anything worth commenting on, and that your surface engagements were too non-specific and muddled to comment on.

There seems to be two components to your review: you seem to be trying to situate the First Law books in the fantasy genre based on what their aims are and how well they fulfill those aims; and you seem to be trying to make a statement on their general literary quality and thus their interest to the general reader.

With regards to the first, the comment you quote in your post is actually spot-on, as I read it: the type of story that Abercrombie is trying to engage with is the Goodkind-esque epic, the fantasy of the Moral Quest with the Wise and Benevolent Guide. Your review thus loses me from the start, in that neither Malazan nor Lamora are this type of fantasy. Both owe more to the relatively amoral sword and sorcery subgenre, and to an earlier "anything goes" pulp sensibility, than to the structures and strictures of the quest epic; and so neither comparison demonstrates your understanding of the First Law books or helps you engage with what the books do. It might have been more interesting and useful to talk about the conceptual aspects specific to the epic (as indeed seen in works by folks like Goodkind, and Tolkien, etc.) rather than more general fantasy tropes; situate where the First Law books end up in terms of adhering to vs. rejecting those aspects; and then if you wanted comparison material, bring in works like Mieville's The Scar or Bakker's PON (or perhaps GRRM)--recent works that do try to engage fundamentally with the tropes and implied meanings of typical epic fantasy. Where does the First Law sit in relation to them?

(My comments are too long for Blogger so I'm going to have to split this reply in two...)

MattD said...

(...continuing the above...)

I'm not entirely sure what you mean in the final paragraph of the review when you write that "the story itself never transcends its setting." I'm guessing that by "setting" you mean something closer to "subgenre." "Transcends" is also a problematic word as a summation of your criticisms, because it's never clear to what degree you are criticizing the books for not going far enough to effectively subvert the epic subgenre vs. criticizing them for not following a certain model for believable, coherent character development. Can one justify the other? Are the two dependent; mutually exclusive; unrelated? What did you feel the text was trying to do, in both of these regards--was it flawed in concept or in execution? These are the matters that could, if explored, have led to both a more coherent review and one that would have had more discussable ideas.

More and better quoting, and other examples, would have helped crystallize your points. The one quote you do give, the Jezal/Ardee snippet, doesn't especially support your assertion that characters think "only what they say openly to another," because there is additional characterization we can read as being conveyed in the monologue: Jezal is scared, but doesn't want to admit it to this woman.

This is the problem with the review writ large: I, as a generic reader who finds this review, have no idea who you are, so you as a reviewer must earn my trust by demonstrating a plausible understanding of the work you are reviewing. Too often in this review it is too easy for me to shrug off the evidence you give as lacking substance or as irrelevant to your claims, and thus it is too easy for me to conclude that your understanding of the book is flawed and so your review useless to me.

And yet I don't think your understanding is flawed--I just don't think you did an especially good job of conveying it.

Larry Nolen said...

That many times? Could have sworn that it might have been only once on that book (but many more posts discussing my problems when writing it 12-13 months ago). What I recall from writing it is that I did indeed struggle with it, not because I was failing to engage with the story, but rather that I was failing to grasp why I was feeling so conflicted about the story's merits when I was trying to hash out an outline for the review (one of the few times I've done a formal outline in planning a review, incidentally).

The muddled part I'll grant, as it really was a slog to write, as I did at times finding myself losing interest in writing the review (something that happened in a different form with the aborted dual review of Jo Graham's Black Ships and Le Guin's Lavinia, but that's a topic for another time) and I think that came across too much, as I couldn't decide just how much I even cared to write the review once I got a few paragraphs in. But in regards to the Malazan and Lamora references, what I was commenting on there were other readers' perceptions that somehow these books did something "different" within epic fantasy, something that is an arguable point. I could have strengthened that, yes, but it is a valid question in the sense of just how much enjoyment of these stories comes from perceived "bending" or "breaking" qualities. The other points are clearer in hindsight, but unfortunately not at the time of the writing.

The "transcending" bit refers back to the first paragraph and my attempt to look at in a brief (too brief, it seems) paragraph other novels held up as somehow "breaking" or "bending" with some conceived "genre conventions." Abercrombie's story never did that (and while Erikson's story is interesting for what it does, it really isn't all that close either; the Lynch is standard fare in my opinion in terms of how the story is laid out and executed) for me.

Could go on a bit more, but the main thing that's bothered me about this review whenever I've re-read it is that there isn't a clear thread running through it; it jumps about a bit too much and settles too much for the surface layers than for the digging in, although as I stated above, there really wasn't all that much for me to dig into as well. One lesson I took from this review (which is another reason why I have brought it up, as the reader comment reminded me) is that if there really isn't anything "deep" to explore with it, I'd be better off just saying only a few general words rather than struggling to write something that doesn't appeal to me very much.

Liviu said...

A lot depends on how you feel about a book - for me LAOK was a good ending but not on par with the first two books; something was missing, whether was that lack of transcending the genre or not; just way too much magic and way too many battles.

So I sort of agreed with your review leaving aside the fine print of reasons.

SH though is a weird place for reviews - when people there review book they love, they write absolutely great reviews, but when they review books they do not, they come upon essentially condescending - "low grade sff adventure peddled by the like of.." and to me that's a big red flag - why do you bother writing a review of a book you think is like that? Why not review Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown the same way?

I just do not get that - I get (and did myself for that matter) a negative review if the reviewer had expectations from a book, but if he/she already started with the preconception that the book is worthless, what's the point?

So pure genre books tend to have very poorly done reviews on SH and I avoid those reviews, but books on the edge of genre, literary ones if you want, tend to have very well done reviews and I think SH would be well served catering to that market...

Even great sf writers like Adam Roberts do not get it, as his review of Incandescence which totally misses the point of the novel shows...Again a novel like Incandescence may not be for purists that require x or y from a novel, but I just loved how Greg Egan essentially "novelized" General Relativity and it's something I love and appreciate much more than a stylistically perfect but empty book for me...

Books have their context and audience, and reviews outside of context are mostly meaningless...

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you that I've never requested or accepted a review assignment for SH expecting to hate the book in question, for the simple and utterly selfish reason that having lucked into a source of free books I see no reason to waste it on books I'm not interested in reading. Nor has Niall Harrison ever asked me to review a book in expectation of a negative review.

Once the book is read and the review is committed to, however, I have to speak as I find. I'm sure you wouldn't want SH to adopt a all positive reviews policy.

Martin said...

Likewise. The majority of the books I review for Strange Horizons, I have specifically requested because they interest me. For the remainder, Harrison has asked me to review them because he thinks they will interest me. So, if anything, the preconception bias is in the opposite direction.

Even if I live to a ripe old age I will still die having read only a small fraction of the books I would like to have read. I don't want to read things I think I will hate, the opportunity cost is too high.

Liviu said...

From my experience with SH reviews I found some wonderful books and the review of Omega made me buy all of Christopher Evans backlist, as well as getting Omega as soon as I could from PS and reviewing it for FBC, with the SH horizons linked to and highlighted as *the reason* I got the book.

On the other hand when reading SH reviews of most "pure genre" books, I just find a sense of tiredness in the reviews ("is this what passes for edgy", "surely this cannot be called edgy", low grade...) that I really wonder why do the reviewers bother reading sff anymore if they find it boring. I wouldn't or at best I would skim it fast and find books that I truly enjoy or ones that disappoint me badly, but books I feel about, not "meh, another sff novel to review and check the box"

Good negative reviews that engage with the book on its terms are one thing, reviews that just start from the "an entry in the sort of low-grade adventure story.." are another and (again imho) there is a huge distinction

Again when there was a scarcity of reviews around, maybe there were books that *needed* to be reviewed in place x, but nowadays there are so many reviews floating online that reviewing to check a box is much less useful.

Add to Technorati Favorites