Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

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with 7 comments

The Guardian Weekend had another fiction special yesterday:

I’ve read the Mitchell and the Boyd, neither of which are very special; they are both character studies of mild existential crisis. I might read the others, although probably not the Myerson.

Elsewhere in the paper, Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels gets a rave review from Meg Rosoff and Eric Brown provides his pointless monthly round up of recent SF titles. It is a thankless task: four hundred words on four novels, striking a balance that manages to avoid being either comprehensive or informative. Even given this though, the column is not as useful as it could be. Consider this review of Child of a Dead God by Barb Hendee and JC Hendee which I will quote in full:

Magiere the dhampire (half human, half vampire) and Leesil the elf, accompanied by Wynn the sage and Chap the canine protector, leave the elven territories on a quest to discover a mysterious artifact concealed in a castle in the ice-bound southern mountains. The object in question – a magical orb – is a powerful relic from the times of Forgotten History, and Magiere must find it before it falls into the clutches of her evil vampire half-brother Welstiel, who follows her with a pack of feral vampires.

Already half the word count has disappeared in synopsis but, fair enough, Brown conveys not just the plot but its essential lameness. Who is this review aimed at though? “Chap the canine protector”? How many Guardian readers were likely to have any interest in this novel? With such limited space available for SF it would be nice if the coverage was more target at books that might conveicably hold some interest to anyone beyond the most generic of genre readers. Next we get a sentence of criticism:

Book six in the Noble Dead series treads standard fantasy territory, with cliché piled on cliché, and too much travelogue between set-piece confrontations.

An almost text book assessment of the problems of commercial fantasy and one that is already evoked in the reader’s mind as soon as they have read the synopsis. It is unusually negative for Brown but only reinforces the lack of any need to review this book in the first place. Book six, indeed. There is just time for one more sentence of analysis:

But the Hendees go about their business with obvious affection for Magiere and Leesil, who are portrayed with a depth rare in formula fantasy.

For the first time I must take issue with Brown himself, rather than his editors. Obvious affection I can ignore as irrelevant but rare depth? Considering the previous three sentences, does anyone believe this? I don’t, even taking into account the slightly paradoxical “formula fantasy” caveat. This reads like the false evenhandedness that says every piece of criticism must be tempered with a piece of praise. This sort of “fair and balanced” assessment is common in SF reviewing but here, as usual, it rings false.

Written by Martin

2 August 2009 at 12:32

7 Responses

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  1. Martin – I think this posting / criticism of Brown’s round-up shows a spectacular hebetude on how the industry works, how a major national newspaper views the genre, how many battles are fought to get the limited coverage; even the sheer importance that, in a world where column inches are shrinking in publishing coverage, this limited coverage provides to SF and Fantasy books.

    And how many Guardian readers would have interest in what *you* think they should be reading, and what they should be presented with? You seem to suggest there is some objective reality which happens to coincide with your own view. Convenient, really.

    Mark Newton

    6 August 2009 at 16:05

  2. That needs a bit of unpacking, Mark. Firstly, I’m not sure hebetude is the right word here – I looked it up – as you seem to be complaining about my ignorance, not my dullness. As for this supposed ignorance of how the publishing industry works, I’m not sure why this is relevent. As a consumer of both SF and the Guardian I am sure entitled to criticise the Guardian’s coverage of SF.

    I don’t think coverage is inherently a good thing, I only think good coverage is a good thing. As it happens, the Guardian has the best SF coverage of any British newspaper. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better. I don’t think capsule reviews are particularly useful and, as I say, I think the current set up of the column is the worst of all worlds: neither “comprehensive or informative”.

    I find it highly unlikely that Child of a Dead God was one of the four most interesting SF novels published in the last month. So yes, implicit in this is the belief I could select four more interesting titles (even considering the best titles – like Tender Morsels – get creamed off for feature reviews). Whether these would actually be more interesting to Guardian readers, who can say? There is only one we would find out if that is true.

    This is all just, like, my opinion, man. This goes without saying and there is no need to trot out the tired old line about “objective reality”. It is, however, an opinion presented with evidence and I don’t see what is so controversial about this.


    6 August 2009 at 17:10

  3. Merely “a bit slow on the uptake” – allow me some artistic flair, squire.

    Look, it’s all well and good sitting on the sidelines and bitching about stuff, but some of this stuff needs context and greater understanding. It’s pretty pointless complaining when you haven’t a complete picture of just what goes on behind the scenes to present a certain set of reviews in a national newspaper; the to and fro nature of extending coverage, the quality of coverage, the endless debates; you’ve no idea of what the editors have set Eric to do; no idea of just how much editing was done on the reviews (which was out of the reviewer’s control).

    I can’t speak for that particular novel; merely that Eric chose that title above others, and he’s the book reviewer in the Guardian and he’s chosen a wide selection of novels in the past and always supported small presses. He’s often gone for the interesting books.

    The old line about objective reality is a classic because it’s still suitable in the age of internet comments boxes. Did I say anything was controversial?

    Mark Newton

    6 August 2009 at 17:34

  4. I only assumed it was controversial because you were objecting it. I’m not at all clear why it is pointless to criticise something from an outside perspective. You’ve repeated this assertion but not explained it.

    I can’t speak for that particular novel; merely that Eric chose that title above others

    It is strange you should make that assumption given the fact you are chiding me for my lack of knowledge about the process. Maybe Brown chose it, maybe his editor did; my post is directed (quite explicitly) at both.


    6 August 2009 at 17:56

  5. Nothing controversial about that; it’s a common complaint from the stands.

    Well, so far as I know, Eric chooses what he wants to review, he submits those, and some don’t make the final cut. But I never assume anything. Unless it’s on the internet, of course, and then I’ll assume absolutely anything I can.

    Mark Newton

    6 August 2009 at 18:03

  6. […] Robinson’s new novel which strikes me as a better use of a couple of hundred words than these round ups. (Same contributor name fail […]

  7. […] a comment » When I’ve moaned about Eric Brown’s capsule review column in the past, people have complained I am being […]

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