Everything Is Nice

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


with 52 comments

I’ve publicised it in various places already but if you’ve read Winter Song by Colin Harvey – and if you are a BSFA member, you have no excuse – please pop over to Torque Control to join in our discussion.

Whilst reading online reviews of Harvey’s novel, I came across this review of Andy Remic’s Kell’s Legend. It is really quite remarkable:

This is a book that goes past normal violence into MEGAVIOLENCE(tm). We know we’re reading violence like we’ve never seen before BECAUSE IT TELLS US SO. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) has hacking, crushing, hammering blades LIKE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) hits THROUGH people (sometimes in ITALICS) and then hits the person behind them. IN THE FACE. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) has a sentence that is TWENTY-SIX LINES LONG (page 389-390, if you care), because MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) DOES NOT FUCKING CARE ABOUT YOUR PUSSY RULES OF GRAMMAR. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) HIT YOUR GRAMMAR WITH AN AXE. AND THEN THE PUNCTUATION BEHIND IT.

This novel, Remic’s first for Angry Robot, saw him doing a Morgan – as Jon Courtenay Grimwood has just done – and crossing the aisle from science fiction to fantasy. The difference is that whereas Richard Morgan brought his political and social concerns to blend with classic sword and sorcery and contemporary epic fantasy, Remic appears to have merely brought his extreme misogyny to a brazen re-write of David Gemmel’s Legend.

Now, I haven’t read Kell’s Legend so maybe I shouldn’t say anything. However, I have read Bio Hell which is one of the worst novels I’ve read and shares the three insurmountable flaws Jared identifies. These are:

  • Stunning incompetence at all aspects of writing
  • A vile attitude to women
  • No evidence of revision or editing or even basic thought

The reason I mention this is not because I enjoy poking the hornets’ nests but because it got me thinking about the fantasy blogosphere. After reading the Pornokitch review I quickly searched for a few other reviews. Those are the first two hits on Google and you will notice they are markedly different to Jared’s review. For example, James Long – one of the most respected British fantasy bloggers – concluded his review by saying:

Kell’s Legend is a rip-roaring beast of a novel, a whirlwind of frantic battles and fraught relationships against a bleak background of invasion and enslavement. In other words, it takes all the vital ingredients for a good heroic fantasy novel and turns out something very pleasing indeed.

I’m sure this is an honest response to the novel but I do wonder about the range of responses on the fantasy blogosphere. It often seems quite narrow. There has been a bit of hand-wringing recently about the David Gemmell Legend Award recently but I see that as the symptom rather than the problem itself. As Mark Charan Newton keeps saying, where is the discussion about the books? And (I would add) where is the discernment? Fans of good fantasy literature should be able to acknowledge that Gemmell was a serviceable writer at best (just as Robert Jordan was a mediocre one). Likewise, fans of good fantasy literature should be able to acknowledge that Remic is an unreadable writer at best. If the world made sense Kell’s Legend would never have been published. Instead, in our world, the sequel is out now and to add insult to injury it has one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen.

Written by Martin

22 April 2010 at 15:47

Posted in books, genre wars, sf

Tagged with ,

52 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. So, to summarise:

    You’ve not read the book, but you have read a few reviews – a mixture of positive and negative – and therefore feel qualified to say “If the world made sense Kell’s Legend would never have been published.”

    Whoo. From someone who hasn’t even had the common decency to read the book he’s slating.

    Thank goodness you’re not the reviews editor for a major UK genre organisation, then – that would be unfortunate.

    Oh, wait…

    Stephen Frank

    22 April 2010 at 16:09

  2. I had a bit of a crisis of confidence years ago when I read a couple of Sean Wright’s execrably bad novels and reviewed them as such. It seemed like every other reviewer of said novels was at least warm towards them, at times glowing. It wasn’t until I attended a TTA Con (a bunch of folks in a pub, basically) and discovered the now-defunct crapauthors.com that I found I wasn’t alone.

    I do think there is a paucity of either critical thought or of bravery in online book reviewing, a statement I make with two provisos: firstly that there are some superb and brilliantly honest book reviewers online in the genre sphere, and secondly that I don’t count myself among that category.


    22 April 2010 at 16:09

  3. (I’ve never read Remic and am not particularly inclined to do so, so obviously my previous comment is quite tangential.)


    22 April 2010 at 16:10

  4. I don’t consider myself a fantasy fan, although I will read fantasy. And this year, I’m reading one book a month and then writing about it. March’s book was The Blade Itself, about which I’ve not seen a bad word said. But now I’ve read it myself and…


    22 April 2010 at 16:16

  5. I have to say that that first review sounds terribly entertaining. Although I’d probably get bored reading a whole book like that, I could happily read the occasional short story.

    It sounds like the fantasy equivalent of InfernoKrusher.

    Andrew Ducker

    22 April 2010 at 16:25

  6. I don’t think this is a problem that is fantasy-specific. When I reviewed Red Claw I found quite a few positive reviews that basically parroted the press notes and said it was a rip-roaring something or other.

    It was shit.

    then I reviewed The World House and found really quite glowing reviews saying it was a rip-roaring something or other.

    It was shit.

    I think that while there are quite a lot of bloggers writing about quite a lot of books, I think that a lot of them spend way too much time being REALLY EXCITED about being bloggers and getting free stuff and not nearly enough time putting the boot in when required. Nobody benefits from this kind of universal positivity.

    Having said that, I’m not entirely convinced that Andy Remic isn’t a comic character created by the publishing industry as a front for a collective of unpublished genre writers. His facebook updates are frequently hilarious. I couldn’t finish the book of his I tried to read but there’s something incredibly endearing about that much comedy machismo.

    Jonathan M

    22 April 2010 at 16:42

  7. Riddle me this, Stephen: If I get a three burgers from the same takeaway van, and all three make me violently ill, am I not somewhat justified in thinking that returning to that same van again will be an unpleasant experience?

    Paul Graham Raven

    22 April 2010 at 16:44

  8. Hi Paul,

    Absolutely, but your analogy is flawed.

    Perhaps a closer comparison would be:

    If you bought a single burger from a takeaway van and it made you ill, but some of your friends bought not burgers, but hot-dogs and their opinions were mixed, would it make you justified in reporting to everyone you know that the hotdogs (that you never ate) were the worst piece of food, ever (despite the conflicting opinions of the people who’s opinions you claim are respected)? No, of course it wouldn’t. Especially as you purport to be a food critic.

    It could be that the hotdogs aren’t to your taste, either, but until you actually try them you have no right to make a definitive statement on them. Your opinion isn’t invalid, and is therefore either broadcast through ignorance, or personal prejudice.

    Stephen Frank

    22 April 2010 at 17:01

  9. I see where you’re going with that, Stephen, but I suggest the analogy extends well in a different direction – namely that the burgers and hotdogs have been prepared by the same staff, and that hence one can assume a similar deployment of good hygiene practice across the whole menu. Perhaps decrying them as the “worst food ever” is a contentious statement (as are all absolutes, for that matter), but would I warn people away from a burger van that made me ill? Yes sir, I would.

    Paul Graham Raven

    22 April 2010 at 17:06

  10. I declare Jonathan the winner of this comment thread.


    22 April 2010 at 17:14

  11. ‘This novel, Remic’s first for Angry Robot, saw him doing a Morgan – as Jon Courtney Grimwood has just done – and crossing the aisle from science fiction to fantasy.’

    Umm, if you skim my first novel neoAddix now available as a free download from http://www.j-cg.co.uk , you’ll find:

    800 year old Sicilian killer, recipes on how to cook small children, hidden catacombs, ancient hermetic Orders with secret knowledge.

    (And then there’s the second book, Lucifer’s Dragon, with its attractive, if rather ancient, red-headed vampire, called Passion)

    Just saying…

    Jon Courtenay Grimwood

    22 April 2010 at 17:45

  12. apologies, site seems to have killed my blatant plug on, blatant plug off code around the get neoAddix here comment…

    Jon Courtenay Grimwood

    22 April 2010 at 17:47

  13. (And then there’s the second book, Lucifer’s Dragon, with its attractive, if rather ancient, red-headed vampire, called Passion)

    I – hazily – remember Lucifer’s Dragon as a rare British cyberpunk novel which featured a free state built on artificial coral and lots of stabbings. Have I completely misremembered it? Venice does ring a bell, now I think of it though.

    More importantly, I spelt your name wrong despite knowing that a) I spell it wrong every single time and b) so does everyone else. This must be very irritating, sorry.


    22 April 2010 at 17:54

  14. Ahh, stabbings would be the Venetian influence! The past in the book is post-cyberpunk, the future strands retroVenetian…

    Really no problem about the name. I’m interviewing China Mieville for the Stoke Newington Literary Festival and he’s interviewing me, and the release publicising that just now spelt me wrong too!

    Jon Courtenay Grimwood

    22 April 2010 at 18:04

  15. There are two sides to this coin – and I’m like Harvey Dent aka Two-Face which is a confusing place to be I can tell you.

    Face 1) I want people to read. I don’t care what they read as long as they enjoy it. I’m just happy that they can sit down and let their minds imagine other lives.

    Face 2) I want people to see the wonders of the authors I love. So I want to them to read the books that I like and for them to fall for them like I did.

    Behind all that I’m beating my critic off with a stick – and when he gets his teeth into something – he won’t let go. My WTF book is Twelve that had lots of positive reviews but felt like a long intro.

    The balance is being honest. You champion the books that you really think are going to be books you love and you’d buy and spend money on.

    I’m not sure being harsher is the going to help anyone though.

    But the rule in the end is choose your critics wisely.

    gav (nextread.co.uk)

    22 April 2010 at 18:24

  16. Problem Gav is the public sphere. Or, to put it another way, what happens when you google a particular book looking for reviews.

    I think that reviewers have a duty to warn people of crap stuff as well as draw their attention to good stuff.

    What is currently happening, namely that rubbish books are getting a free ride, shouldn’t be happening. The way to solve that problem is for people to not shy away from being harsh.

    Jonathan M

    22 April 2010 at 18:36

  17. That’s what critics are paid for – it’s their job to take a book as given and review it honestly.

    Bloggers just can’t perform that function as they don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves. They don’t get edited or have to explain themselves before they post.

    There are loads of issues with free thinking critics as well as lots of positives.

    The main problem is that no one wants to ‘pay’ for reviews – they are vital but always seen as an add on to other things in paid venues.

    gav (nextread.co.uk)

    22 April 2010 at 18:44

  18. The problem is that google does not discriminate between bloggers and critics. If you google a review, particularly of a lesser known book, you’re far more likely to come up with a review written by a blogger than a paid-for critic.

    As a result, some weak books are getting their google searches filled with positive reviews.

    I would say that bloggers have a responsibility to the public sphere. A responsibility that means championing good books and warning people away from bad books. At the moment too many bloggers are welshing on that responsibility.

    A failure to accept this responsibility results not only in people buying rubbish books but also in a loss of credibility for book blogging as a whole.

    Jonathan M

    22 April 2010 at 19:25

  19. b) so does everyone else.

    I don’t. But since apparently in his new novel I’m a simpleton, I might start.


    22 April 2010 at 19:27

  20. Keep up at the back, Marco. So is Hamlet a simpleton, seen from Claudius’s pov!

    Without wishing to get into a flame war, I think Jonathan’s point about blogs coming up if Goodgled favouring novels is just as likely to work the other way round. I have a lot of respect for book bloggers, and having been a regular columnist for the Guardian I have equal amounts of time for people who earn their living writing reviews. (Critics are another matter. I mostly admire what they do, but am very aware I don’t have the ability to do it myself.)

    A blog review can be as randomly damning as it can be good, in my experience. (Not quite as random as Amazon reviews, which can almost be this man was nasty to my cat, now goes out with my ex-girlfriend, is published by the editor who turned me down…)

    One of the problems with Google is that, if you don’t know the blogger’s track record, it’s hard to judge whether your opinion will chime. Fiction is fantastically personal (although good writing is pretty universally recognised as is the opposite). And thus I’ve probably missed book I should have read by being put off and bought books I should have left on the table.

    What am I trying to say? I’m not actually sure, other than it’s still a crap shoot out there.

    Jon Courtenay Grimwood

    22 April 2010 at 19:46

  21. Hey Paul,

    I think we could both quite easily pursue the analogy until it starts to strain under the eventual pressure of its increasingly-tenuous links to the subject matter.

    What worries me is that the reviews editor for the country’s most prominent genre fan group is quite happy to make a definitive statement about the quality of a novel *without reading it* based on his experience with an *earlier* novel by the same author, written in a *different* genre.

    Now, it’s entirely possible that the author of the original post will find the book just as unpalatable as he found the first. Indeed, given his arbitrary dismissal of the book, I would now expect him to report that even if he discovered he *did* enjoy it. But you simply don’t go around saying “If the world made sense XXX would never have been published” without actually having read XXX. It’s unprofessional, and undermines anything valid you have to say about other works that you *have* actually sampled.

    As a music critic, if you heard one song from a band you’d never sampled before, and if you hated it, how comfortable would you be in declaring their next track to be unworthy of having ever been recorded, if you hadn’t actually listened to it? I suspect not very. Because you appear to value the integrity of your work.

    Stephen Frank

    22 April 2010 at 20:43

  22. As a review-consumer, I always try to calibrate a reviewer I don’t already know by finding something they’ve reviewed that I know and have an opinion about.

    Also, gosh what a difference a bit of quotation can make. I’m in no position to judge the rest of the book, but if the world made sense then the paragraph of *Kell’s Legend* that Pornokitsch quotes, at least, would never have been published. Seriously, wow.


    22 April 2010 at 21:43

  23. Stephen, I think you make a good point, but it’s let down somewhat by a) your refusal in any of your analogies to include the crucial fact that it was the specific criticisms laid against the new Remic book being in accord with Martin’s criticisms of the previous book that led to his statements here, and b) your implicit suggestion that there are some genres in which poor writing craft and misogyny are (or should be) more acceptable than others.

    Also, surely a necessary attribute of a reviews editor is to be able to make judgments about which books are worthy of coverage without having to read all them in advance?

    Jonathan, I’ve had the same thing happen numerous times: Googling a book I’m reviewing to see what others thought, and then wondering if they’d read the same book I had. It’s not by any means limited to unpaid bloggers, though: it happens with professional review sites as well. That said, as gav writes, there is the issue that “[bloggers] don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves.” For some, answering to themselves means accepting the responsibilities that you delineate; for others, that simply isn’t what they signed up for. There will always be that issue. This makes me think that a “solution” has to come from the other side, that of the reviewers who do perceive their responsibilities to readers and to genres/literature in a way akin to what you describe. If the battleground is Google, what can be done to boost the ranking of the more detailed and discerning reviews? That seems to me a more useful direction of action.

    Matt Denault

    22 April 2010 at 22:10

  24. I’m now tempted to use adjectives such as “rip-roaring” and “a blast to read” for whenever I get around to writing commentaries on Peter Burke’s Varieties of Cultural History and a selection of passages from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. There’s something about gushing about a work, particularly a work that really does nothing that others hadn’t done before, that seems a bit odd at best and at worst makes me question that other person’s sanity.

    Related to that is the pride that I’ve seen some take in having blurbs of their comments appearing on the backs of books they reviewed. I’d rather not have my (not-so) good name besmirched by having it associated with turgid crap. But opinions vary, I suppose.

    As for Remic…I read those early reviews and I found myself thinking, “Why in the world would someone want to read a work that is just a Gemmell story with 20% more added violence?” I read one Gemmell novel several years ago and thought it was a steaming load. Haven’t had any desire since to read any of them, nor would I look favorably upon an author who receives frequent comparisons to Gemmell in such a way as to make it sound like he lifted elements whole-scale from Gemmell’s stories. Might as well wondered what would have been the case a few years ago if some people were reviewing Robert Newcomb’s debut novel and they decided to compare it to Terry Goodkind (before all the shitstorms arose about the attitude Goodkind displays in several interviews). Would a similar thing have occurred then?

    I’m afraid to consider that answer…


    23 April 2010 at 00:57

  25. Jon : Well, I am guided by my experience really and my experience is that unnecessarily positive reviews easily outweigh unfairly negative ones. This makes intuitive sense because if people encounter a book they don’t like they don’t finish it and so the psychological process involved in blogging selects for positive rather than negative reviews.

    Needlessly negative reviews tend to be responses to buzz. People forcing themselves through a book they feel that they should read and then venting. when it comes to smaller books, that pressure to get through it and have your say isn’t as strong.

    Of course, I’m merely talking out of my experience as a book blogger and as someone who does occasionally use early blogger reviews as the basis for selecting which books I agree to review. Given that this has lead me to two duffers in a row, I think there’s a problem :-)

    Matt : I agree that it’s not a problem that’s limited to bloggers. I certainly don’t want to set up a generational ‘critics vs. bloggers’ confrontation because some bloggers do take their responsibilities to the wider genre seriously and some bloggers and reviewers are better than others.

    You are right though about positive action rather than grumping. Twitter might be a way forward… it could be used to draw attention to genuinely good writing. Link roundups pointing at good reviews are also useful. Not sure how solvable the problem is really.

    Larry : While I agree that Gemmell enjoys a reputation incommensurate with his talent, I think he did write the odd decent book. His problem was that he took the wrong lessons from his successes – For example, Druss was never that interesting a character, it was the structure and pacing of LEgend that made the novel work. But because the book was hugely successful, Gemmell believed that it was the character what done it and so made him the lynchpin of what felt like dozens of spin-offs, prequels and other novels. He was also quite decent at writing interesting stand-alone novels and then devaluing them by hitching them to rubbish sequels in order to form loose series.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    23 April 2010 at 07:10

  26. I forget the name of that one book (I believe it came out about 8-10 years ago in the US), but I know it wasn’t one of his more famous works. Still, that experience was enough for me to swear off of reading any more of his works. Interesting points you make, especially as I’m re-reading two lengthy series, the original Dune novels and the WoT series, and I’m beginning to wonder if each author may have been negatively influenced by believing one element was key to their works instead of another.

    But to turn all this around a bit: I have noticed that there are a few “safe” authors that most online blog reviewers will trash almost without exception: Terry Goodkind, Robert Newcomb, and Robert Stanek. I wonder if there could be fair negative reviews of their works without referencing certain “practices” that two of those three have done outside of the actual writing of their fictions. Can one trash a trash-worthy novel and still note reasons why millions enjoy them (well, Goodkind, anyways) without appearing to denigrate those readers? That’d be an interesting balancing act to witness.


    23 April 2010 at 07:33

  27. I’ve never been that bothered about appearing to denigrate readers and fans because I’m not sure why having a difference of opinion is considered to be insulting.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    23 April 2010 at 08:05

  28. True, as I’ve often been accused of that (not as much on my blog as on a few forums that I have frequented). Some people seem to take criticisms of a story as attacks on them. I was referencing, however, those times that critiques stop being about the author/text and start being ad hominems directed at other readers. I feel to do so, regardless of how tempting it might be (say with that incident of a couple of rabid WoT fans that seemed to take Roberts’ comments a bit too seriously), weakens my own argument that it’s all about how shitty the text is, as attention is diverted from the atrocious prose and characterization to garden-variety nutjobs. Of course, there is irony in that last statement…


    23 April 2010 at 08:12

  29. I would say that bloggers have a responsibility to the public sphere. A responsibility that means championing good books and warning people away from bad books.

    This would require said bloggers to (a) tell the two apart and (b) care. I submit that the enthusiastic proponents of riproar are serving their target audience: other readers who can’t tell good writing from bad, sneakily (or sometimes not-so-sneakily) favor misogyny, and are annoyed by basic thought pretty much under any circumstances but especially when it gets in the way of the sub-Frank Miller splatterporn.

    (On a side note, the presumption of the categorical superiority of “paid critics” over “bloggers” is even weirder than usual in the context of this blog.)

    David Moles

    23 April 2010 at 08:53

  30. I have to say I find the levels of condescension in some of the content here fantastic.

    “Bloggers can’t really tell what’s good and bad like we can. Their poor brains neeed help from proper reviewers and critics to tell them what they should be enjoying. They should refrain from telling other people what books they’ve enjoyed because it makes it harder for me to find out if a book is the kind of book that _I_ like.”

    It really is staggering.

    Andrew Ducker

    23 April 2010 at 09:15

  31. I swore I wouldn’t reply to this, but I am my own worse enemy I suppose.

    I don’t really consider myself a book blog in the normal sense, as I don’t receive ARC’s or review copies, and I only read and talk about the things I want to. Not very adventurous I know, but we all have our own quirks.

    That being said, I think any writer has a duty of care to the reader to be honest and inform them of the quality of the novel, even if they enjoy it. The problem seems to be trouble discerning between what people enjoy because it is entertaining, and what has actual intrinsic value (that is not to say they are always mutually exclusive, but sometimes they are). While that may sound snobbish, I would argue it isn’t because there has to be a way to objectively measure the value of a novel as a work of art. For example, I love Vance’s Dying Earth stories, but I’m not about to argue they are as good as The Sound and the Fury, or La Peste.

    I like to think I am a nice guy, and I don’t have the thick skin to be as harsh as Jonathan (I do admire him for it though) and I’m not trying to tell people what they can or can’t enjoy. I would like to see them enjoying it with a critical eye though. Larry’s current WoT reread is a great example of that, he talks about what he likes in the series, but at the same time never tries to cover up the fact Jordan is at best a mediocre prose writer.

    Paul Smith

    23 April 2010 at 09:57

  32. That’s what critics are paid for – it’s their job to take a book as given and review it honestly.

    Well, some of my reviews are paid for, most aren’t. Money surely has nothing to do with this. Anyone who writes about literature has exactly the same duty to write about it honestly. Anyone who writes about anything has a duty to write about it honestly. That is what we, as readers, expect. We approach – we have a right to approach – everything we read as an honest representation of honestly held opinions, unless specific reason is given why we should doubt this honesty. Whether I am reading a blog or an academic journal I expect the writer to adhere to some such duty of trust.

    That duty implies the expression of enthusiasm where the work generates enthusiasm in the reader, and the expression of despair when the work generates despair. No reader has the same response to everything they read. So anyone whose reviews express the same sort of response time after time is lying, somewhere along the line. When I read any reviewer’s work over a period of time I expect to encounter joy and hatred, books that occasion reflection and books that are superficial. If I don’t encounter such a variety of response, I earn not to trust the reviewer.

    But of course the trick of the matter is not whether the reviewer loves or hates a book, but why. The whole point of a review is not to say: X is great or Y is terrible. Such a review is pointless, because there is actually no way of reading it that would extract value. The review has to say, X is great because …, Y is terrible because … And that is what allows us to read the review, because that gives us some groundwork for understanding the reviewer’s approach to the novel. I should, as a matter of course, be able to read a review that says this book sucks, and know that I will love the novel; similarly I should be able to read a review that says everyone must read this book, and know that I shouldn’t go anywhere near it.

    All of which brings us back to that review of Remic’s novel: it expresses, vigorously, a response to the novel, and gives enough context for us to see how the reviewer approached the novel and why it generated such a response. But it is not an absolute statement about the book, there is no diktat here, it is perfectly possible to read the review and think, hey, I like megaviolence, this sounds cool, I think I’ll check it out.

    Changing the subject: how many of you reviewers seriously read other reviews of the books you’re covering? I can’t do it. I consciously avoid reading reviews of any book I know I’m about to review. I want what I write to be as near as possible purely my response.

    Paul Kincaid

    23 April 2010 at 10:42

  33. Somewhat ironically, I’d be the first to warn against taking any blogger too seriously. But that applies to Amazon reviews and proper reviews by paid critics for reputable sites/papers as well.

    Basically, anyone that takes anything on the internet at face value gets what they deserve. The beauty of the egalitarian nature of the internet is that we all get an equal-ish say. But no one should form their opinion from a single point of subjective input.

    Unrelatedly, Kell’s Legend really was a terrible book. I’m very grateful for the attention that you’ve given my review, as it gives me some small reward for finishing it.


    23 April 2010 at 10:44

  34. Full agreement (again, as a consumer rather than producer of reviews) with Paul on the importance of “because” in a review and of reading reviews critically. I would also love to see more direct quotation, but that’s maybe my quirk (I want to hear an author’s voice, but that’s not a priority for a lot of people I think).

    There does seem to be a problem, though, of visibility. I just googled “Kell’s Legend review” and Jared’s review didn’t show up on the first page (that may change eventually, given this discussion). Lots of enthusiasm did.

    That’s basically Martin’s point (isn’t it?), but I don’t think asking people to change their reviewing habits is going to have much effect.

    So a technology-ish question: how can reviewers and bloggers such as your good selves (google-)promote reviews and reviewers you think are worthwhile? Linking is a start, but apparently isn’t enough.

    Jared: I’m very grateful that you read that book. Your review was a joy (and a despair) to read. Although honestly, you could have stopped at page 27 and I would still say more or less the same.


    23 April 2010 at 11:10

  35. I’ve read “Kell’s Legend” and didn’t like it. After I wrote my review I read a few positive ones, but they didn’t bother me much. If the reviews are honest I respect and understand the reviewer opinion. Like the world around us, the blogging world is diverse and therefore the opinions differ (if it would be same it would reap the fun out of it ;) ). As for myself, I believe that I will not pick another Andy Remic’s book. But it is better never to say never :)
    I have an example of making an opinion without being very well informed on the matter. In college I had a guy who was a magnet for bad movies (all of them), but he recommend them to every one. So, we ended up using him as a radar for bad movies, when he recommend one we passed it and recommend others to skip it too. I wonder if we ddidn’t create an odd chain that way ;)

    Mihai (Dark Wolf)

    23 April 2010 at 12:22

  36. Martin’s three criteria of Fail are, I’d submit, two different species of Fail:

    Stunning incompetence at all aspects of writing
    A vile attitude to women
    No evidence of revision or editing or even basic thought

    Revision and editing are aspects of competence at writing, and have to do with the form of the book. Thought, for example the thought ‘women are all either virgins or whores and the whores deserve to be humiliated and physically punished’, has to do with the context, along with story and ‘character’.

    I’m not disagreeing with Martin saying this. A good story badly told is one thing; a shit story well told another; but a shit story told shittily is hard to praise. Yet I’d say the point about the lack of discrimination in Fantasy reviewing is that it’s actually a lack of discrimination on the level of style and form. Too many fantasy readers simply lack all interest in the style and form of a book, are interested only in the content, or more narrowly only in certain hypertrophic brightly-coloured features of the content. ‘Rip-roaring’ can be a euphemism for ‘kinetic and violent, and since that’s all I look for I didn’t noticed anything else about the book.’

    Not to invite Structuralism/Poststructuralism brickbats, but ‘portal fantasy’ seems to me a revealing term. It’s descriptive of the content of certain kinds of book, but it reflects back upon the form and style too. One wants a portal in order to get somewhere else; not for its own sake. As I trudge through Jordan’s enormous series what is mostly striking me is how badly written and paced and structured and characterised the books are. But people commenting on my blog tell me perfectly ingenuously that they know very well Jordan’s a terrible writer: it’s just that they don’t care he’s a terrible writer. They go to these novels not to savour them as novels, but to get through the novels to someplace else – to WoTworld where a loser like me is actually the most powerful man evah, with mighty armies to command and gorgeous busty women hurling themselves at his feet, and what’s more (the pièce de resistance) a troubled soul, like, deep, you-know? Not just some shallow Jock who likes hitting people and getting laid. Although I do like hitting people and getting laid. At least I do in WoTworld. Obviously I’m too shy and physically unprepossessing to do either, very much, in the real world. (Or mutatis mutandi, for Remic: I can’t shoot, hack, mutilate and spindle the people in the office where I work. It’s not allowed. But in Remictopia I can do all those things vicariously. And it pleases me to see others killed and hurt. Especially the women. Because they won’t sleep with me. That’ll teach them.)

    Long comment short: for some people, reading is a purely instrumental act. Reviews that treat books as other than instrumentally will tend to glide at right-angles to these peoples’ experience of reading.

    Adam Roberts

    23 April 2010 at 12:46

  37. You know what would be nice? A preview comment facility, so as to be able to catch all the little typos and glitches I inadvertently insert into my paragraphs.

    Of course you don’t have one. You know why you don’t have one? Because you’re a motherfucker, that’s why.

    Adam Roberts

    23 April 2010 at 12:51

  38. Adam, I basically agree (surely this is old news?) but I wonder what good it does saying so so vehemently. (Well. Apart from some amusement value.) Somebody who isn’t interested in style is not going to become interested because they got told off on the internet. Instead you’ll get reactions like Andrew Ducker above.

    Lets assume that lots of people are going to continue to blog about their enthusiastic reactions to books that some others of us think are stylistically rubbish. How do we sift through that to find stylistically engaged reviewing? How do we/you promote that kind of reviewing, and get it out to people who don’t think to look for it?


    23 April 2010 at 13:42

  39. While I certainly agree that most genre readers are stylistically illiterate and simply have no idea what decent writing looks like, I don’t think that this is a problem that is limited to style.

    Surely Adam’s reviews of TWOT highlight that Jordan was not just a hilariously weak stylist, he was incompetent in all other kinds of areas ranging from world-building to pacing to plotting and characterisation.

    When people say that they don’t care that Jordan was a bad writer they’re saying that they don’t care that other writers do exactly the same thing Jordan does only better and, frankly, there’s no dealing with that as it is either irrational or it is not addressing the real psychological pressures that determine why we like some books and hate others.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    23 April 2010 at 13:50

  40. Jonathan, I’m not following. You’re claiming that Jordan has no qualities readers could find attractive, and therefore they must be attracted to it for extratextual reasons?

    David Moles

    23 April 2010 at 14:20

  41. Personally I always found TWOT books to be excellent value for money. Kept me in roach material and toilet paper for weeks.


    23 April 2010 at 14:39

  42. (Applauds Paul Kincaid.) Yes, exactly. The people who write thoughtful, detailed reviews tend to do so whether they get paid or not. I don’t want to disparage the money from reviewing–I know that sometimes just a few dollars can be the difference between making rent or not, a meal or not–but I think in general the people who write for paying venues do so because those venues publish, and have an established audience for, the kind of reviews the people already want to write.

    Changing the subject: how many of you reviewers seriously read other reviews of the books you’re covering?

    I do, because I like the idea of writing reviews that add to the body of thought and discussion on a book. I’d hate to spend all the time writing a review only to end up saying what has already been well-established; I’d have rather put that time towards reviewing another book. So reading other reviews lets me know how much of my own views haven’t been expressed before and so may need more expansion and evidence, vs. how much seems generally accepted; lets me know what the key debates are that surround a book so that I can make sure to weigh in on them; etc. It helps me to write reviews that discharge my responsibilities to myself, to the reader, and to literature overall. It does require me to keep on eye on myself, to not take other’s insights as my own; but that’s just another element of responsibility.

    And also there is the factor that Jonathan mentions, although I’d expand it: often I don’t know that I want to review a book until after I’ve read it. Only half of my reviews at Strange Horizons have been commissioned, for example. The others were cases where I read the book and found myself disagreeing with what had been written about it already, or cases where I couldn’t find anything written already and decided to correct that. And I finally started blogging in part because there were books already reviewed by the paying venues that I found I had additional things to say about.

    Matt Denault

    23 April 2010 at 15:05

  43. Even if you consider there are certain standards of style and prose which constitutes good writing, and that there is some degree of consensus about what that is. As has already been said here many people, the majority in fact, will not be aware of those are and do not factor those standards into their enjoyment of reading. Therefore a review that focuses largely on these concerns, will in point of fact do the very thing you’re arguing against and fail to adequately reflect the tastes, and therefore be a reliable guide, for the majority of people reading it.

    Surely the first question here is who are your audience? Are you writing to a select group of erudite followers, or to a mass of general readers? Or are you seeking a balance? Magazines and newspapers, know their target audience, many bloggers it seems have not even thought about such things. To complain about reviews that don’t reflect your tastes, is to my mind to be reading the wrong blog. It is frankly ridiculous to suggest that all blogs should seek to write reviews aimed at the high end of the literary scale. Complaining that people are not literate in such matters is another pointless exercise, and one that is likely to lead to a very frustrated life on the internet.

    The other thing is different reviewers bring different strengths and knowledge to the field. There may a book that is very well written on a theme that many would find interesting, that is littered with inaccuracies from a subject point of view. You not being an expert on that subject may write a glowing review of the book about how stylishly executed it is etc, and a person with greater knowledge of say 15th century firearms (assuming this is a crucial aspect of the book) will pan it on account of inaccuracy. We can not all be specialists or experts in all things. It seems the only solution is to get off our high horses, find those review sources that broadly accord with our standards and leave it at that. As for writing reviews, well there a re many far more experienced than me in these matters here, my view, however, is that honesty combined with an awareness of audience is a good basic starting point.

    I do wonder though why only being harshly critical is seen as being honest? as if somehow those people who take a less harsh approach are all dishonest. It reminds me of the kind of people who take great pride in extolling the virtue of “telling it like it is” and being “tough talking” etc. To my mind many of these people are usually among the most arrogant and self obsessed people. The likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Littlejohn speak to mind. Strident criticism is a good thing, I’m certainly not intending to suggest otherwise or that a huggy-feely approach should be adopted. Some are better at insightful criticism than others, this is life. For a review to work for me at least, this must be tempered by a wider awareness of the audience, and the ego should be reigned in. For my own part as a new reviewer I’m still learning these things.

    I do have my own particular bugbear; a very personal dislike of reviews in which the reviewer is so up their own arse, so busy enjoying their own dismissive cantor, they have completely forgotten the book and the audience that is its target. If I wanted to witness an act of masturbation, I know plenty of good porn sites.

    Jason Baki

    23 April 2010 at 15:07

  44. Something I’ve been doing for a while is making my reviews searchable by rating, and even publishing the % of each rating that I’m giving out. I’d like to see more bloggers do this. (You can do it with tags, so it doesn’t necessarily take coding know-how.) It makes it easy for people to find out what you like and don’t like, for one thing.

    There’s definitely an element of people reviewing *everything* positively, for whatever reason. It’s not helpful. The internet is full of misinformation, and eventually people get fed up and dismiss all reviews as worthless to them, after a number of bad experiences.

    Not that misinformation is definitely the right word, of course: some readers really, genuinely do love some of the worst drivel I’ve ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. They adore it. There’s no telling what will float some people’s boats. All you can do is write reviews for other readers like yourself.


    23 April 2010 at 15:32

  45. Matt, the reason I don’t like to read other reviews before I write my own is that I can too often find myself in dialogue with those other reviews rather than with the book. It means someone else is setting the agenda for what I look for in the book. If I look at character, because that is what all the other reviewers have been discussing, I might well not pay attention to an interesting element of plotting that would have given me something interesting or insightful or perhaps just different to say.

    Paul Kincaid

    23 April 2010 at 16:29

  46. Paul, no doubt it’s an issue. I should note that I do jot down a lot of notes as I read about the things I’m seeing in the book that I want to write about, so when I go to read other reviews, it’s with an argument and a suite of reasoning already in mind. What the other reviews provide is a sense of what other people are getting from the book that lets me know where I should begin my argument, which reasons I’ll need to detail in greater depth, etc. When I reviewed Ryman’s When It Changed anthology, for example, there were a number of 101-level reviews already in circulation, so I felt able to jump almost immediately to a 201 level of discussion; when I reviewed Valente’s Palimpsest there was almost nothing out there, so I knew I had to cover the 101 material before talking 201. I like to think this approach has worked for me, but I’m not advocating it: I haven’t been at this long enough, and it’s entirely possible that I’ll encounter a situation that will change my mind.

    Matt Denault

    23 April 2010 at 18:07

  47. Paul — I generally only look at reviews when I am pitched a book to write about and want to find out whether it is something I am likely to enjoy. Hence my annoyance at the blogosphere…

    Jason — On your bugbear, I think of those kinds of reviews as Lady Bracknell jobs : Reviewers hamming it up and shrieking “A Haaaaaaandbag?!” in as outlandish a fashion as they can manage. Sadly that type of criticism is very much in the ascendancy (Yahtzee, Charlie Brooker, Kermode) these days.

    I do think that criticism is a creative activity and that one should be able to read criticism purely for pleasure but reviews that are nothing but insults, however wittily produced, do get rather tiring.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    23 April 2010 at 19:01

  48. […] has your reviewing debate for the week: “where is the […]

  49. Perhaps just before going on holiday wasn’t the ideal time to make this post…

    I’m sure there are undiscerning readers out there. After all, we are repeatedly told the main reason people buy books is because they physically resemble other books they have bought. This is an additude that is totally alien to me but again, I am repeatedly told that I am in the minority on this.

    However, I’m not really interested in people who read books here, I am interested in people who write about books. By the very act of doing so they have put themselves into this small, discriminating minority. Given this, I’m not sure why anyone would be interested in writing a review to “adequately reflect the tastes, and therefore be a reliable guide, for the majority of people reading it”. Besides, presumably this function can be adequately covered simply by the Book Porn posts which are so popular in the blogosphere?

    It is true that we can not all be specialists or experts in all things; however, I don’t think it is that controversial that people who review books should be specialists or experts in literature. (I’m very flexible about what “specialist” or “expert” might mean in this context.)

    Changing the subject: how many of you reviewers seriously read other reviews of the books you’re covering?

    I am somewhere between Paul and Matt. I generally write my first draft without reading any reviews (like Paul, I am keen that I am capturing my own personal response). However, once I’ve done so I will often look at other reviews (like Matt, I want to add to the body of thought and discussion on a book). There is a balance to be struck. Of course, sometimes I will read a book for review and there simply won’t be any other reviews whereas on other occasions, I read a book for review and find that pretty much everything has already been said.


    27 April 2010 at 16:48

  50. […] blame Martin Lewis for this*. After all, it was his blog post that drew my attention to the brilliant Pornokitsch review of Kell’s Legend, and furthermore […]

  51. […] Welcome to the Abyss of Inconsistency and Imagination Failure: Vampire Warlords by Andy Remic (Angry Robot, 2011) Posted on September 29, 2011 by Lal A good story badly told is one thing; a shit story well told another; but a shit story told shittily is hard to praise. Yet I’d say the point about the lack of discrimination in fantasy reviewing is that it’s actually a lack of discrimination on the level of style and form. Too many fantasy readers simply lack all interest in the style and form of a book, are interested only in the content, or more narrowly only in certain hypertrophic brightly-coloured features of the content. ‘Rip-roaring’ can be a euphemism for ‘kinetic and violent, and since that’s all I look for I didn’t notice anything else about the book. Adam Roberts […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: