… you’re kidding, right? It was only a couple of months ago, surely, that I lamentingly put together a post on my activity in 2017.
I don’t really obsess over my blog stats that much – after all, I don’t have enough visitors to sustain statistical interest. But I do pop in now and then to see what’s been going on, and to pick up now and then perhaps an interesting site that might have linked to me. One passing link in an io9 article two years ago continues to drive hits; in recent weeks it seems I’ve become a case study of some kind, as some small school somewhere seems to be directing students to my blog, although sadly I can’t see which review in particular they might be reading. And now a university, too! And in the last recently, someone’s been going through a couple of posts I made about Nietzsche a few years ago – which perhaps explains, if it does not excuse, the whimsically Nietzscheesque style of the title of this post… [some expressions just beg for a Nietzsche Chapter Title]
But I also happened to spot a more interesting source of visitors: from a Terry Pratchett fanzine. I’m flattered, it goes without saying, that anybody would link to my reviews, particularly fellow Pratchett fans!
Yet the tone of their remarks was not, shall we say, entirely crafted so as to flatter. I’m used to that –I’m an inherently annoying person, I’m aware. On this occasion, however, what struck me was not so much their disdain as their apparent confusion….
…whereas the almost always irritating blogger Vacuous Wastrel first wibbles on for some 2,000 words(!) in pursuit of overly faux-intellectual overthinking, before finally getting to the meat of “hang on, this book rocks!”…
Vacuous Wastrel is back with a review of Wintersmith that’s so at war with itself that it might just be Alternative Truth.
Now first things first: I’ve alway seen my writing style as more dominated by drivelling, and occasional wittering, than by wibbling. And I’m not entire sure why the thought of someone writing 2,000 words about something they’re really interested in deserves an exclamation mark, nor how anyone could look at my middlebrow, clumsy value judgements and consider them “faux-intellectual” or “overthinking”. I’d love to overthink a thing, but so far I think I’ve struggled to even reach the standard of plain “thinking”.
But there is a substantial point there. Why are my reviews Alternative Truth? Why, that is, are they “at war with themselves”? Why do they wibble around being critical about things, and why don’t they just get right down to the real meat of “this book rocks!”?
Because that is a fair criticism. Many of my reviews do list a great many flaws in the books I read – even in books that I love. And I do love Terry Pratchett’s books. He’s probably my favourite author. That’s why I’ve reviewed 41 of his novels so far (and yes, the cumulative word count of the reviews is now longer than several of those novels). It’s why I’ve spent hours encouraging people, online and offline, to read Pratchett, and laying out the pros and cons of different starting points and different routes through the Discworld cycle. It’s why I wrote a 10,000-odd word eulogy trying to explain some of the reasons I, and others, were so upset by his passing. And yet I can’t deny the charges: I have criticised several of his (later, in particular) books for a lack of novelty, for superficiality, for an indulgent flabbiness (seriously people, Unseen Academicals was around 30% longer than novels like Small Gods, Lords and Ladies, Pyramids, or Feet of Clay. Did anybody actually feel it had 30% more goodness in it?). I’ve discussed times when I found Pratchett’s politics irritating (as well as times when I found it encouraging). I’ve noted sadly times when I felt he wasn’t pushing his world and his characters forward enough, and times when he relied too much on parody and on lazy jokes.
So why have I said these things, and allowed my reviews to become “at war with themselves”, rather than delivering only the “meat” of “this book rocks”?
I thought I’d offer a gaggle of wibbling excuses for this Alternative Truth (which perhaps may also explain some of the Alternative Truth in my non-Pratchett reviews at the same time)…
- Happy families are all alike.
Tolstoy’s proverb is, of course, not true in the slightest, when it comes to people. But when it comes to reviewing, it can be a real problem. It’s hard to say what’s good about a book, particularly if you don’t want to get into spoilers, which I try to avoid. Book after book, Pterry succesfully put words in an order than was grammatically uncontroversial. He told us stories, with characters, and plots that mostly worked, and he was able to conjure up some great turns of phrase. But without giving detailed examples, it’s hard to really write a review about that, or to explain how specifically Pratchett’s good writing differs from the good writing of any other author. In particular, by the time of the specific reviews in question, I had already reviewed some three dozen or more novels by the same author, in the same setting, often with the same characters. What more is there left for me to say, without getting into fullblown spoilerific critique or literary analysis? If you’re not sure why I like Pratchett after nearly four dozen reviews of his novels, I suspect I’m not going to hit on one miraculous expression that will make it all clear in the nearly-four-dozen-and-one-th.
Flaws, on the other hand, can be very specific. If I feel that a particular book doesn’t quite get the pacing right, or ends on a bit of an anticlimax, or doesn’t serve a character well, or bats below the author’s average ratio of dud to brilliant jokes, that’s something I can say quite easily and specifically. Even if I only say that I think he’s written better books than this – well, that’s something I can say without much difficulty.
If it’s hard to say specific, detailed, non-repetitive good things about a book, but relatively easy to outline a catalogue of errors, there will be an inevitable tendency in an impartial review to devote more word count to the enumarable faults than to the ineffable virtues of a work, particularly in reviewing so many works by the same author.
And yet, I acknowledge, I have at time gone further than this, because…
- We scratch where it itches
Books make us feel things. About the world; about the book. Some of those feelings are good feelings. Some of them are bad. And, often, some of them are just plain… niggling.
My reviews may give the impression that I’m a critical, analytical reader. I’m really not. I try to make a point of not thinking analytically about books while I’m reading them, so as not to break the spell. I try to take novels as they come, and enjoy them for what they are in the moment.
So why do I write reviews? It’s not because – in most cases – I’m thinking these thoughts as I’m reading into the night. Quite the opposite. I review to stretch out the muscles that ache when I wake up the next morning. I review to calm the sensation of mental indigestion. I write these wibbly-whiffly things not in response to what I feel when I’m reading, or not directly – but rather, in response to the lingering feelings that remain within me in the hours, days, or sometimes weeks after I’ve put the book down for the last time. First we read; then we digest.
And if there’s one thing that’s hard to fully dissolve, to fully absorb through our mental stomach lining, it’s the fluttery disquiet of not being quite as happy with a book as you thought that you might have been. Something’s not quite right here, you think. Why don’t I love this?
Sometimes the answer is really obvious, and then it’s quick to state; and, once stated, we can move on. I don’t love this because although it was well told, I hated all the characters. I don’t love that because, as much as I liked spending time with the protagonist, the continual irritation of clunkingly bad dialogue left me too distracted to enjoy the experience fully. But sometimes, it’s not so simple. Sometimes… it’s just not quite right. So we think about why that might be. We think about what we enjoyed, what we enjoyed less, what we felt and how we felt it, why we might have felt it…
…a book that’s not quite right is like an itch, or like indigestion. It often is a small itch, not something that overwhelms the enjoyment of what’s right about it – just as a spot of mild indigestion doesn’t have to ruin a meal. But when you’re up late after a meal, you think more about the indigestion than about the savour of the meal. You want to put an end to the indigestion, so that you can remember the meal more fondly. When you have an itch, you want to scratch it; you want to scratch just the right spot. With a physical itch, of course, scratching rarely helps; but with itches of the mind, scratching can dissolve the distraction. And so I scratch – but sometimes it can take me a while to try to put my finger on exactly where the itch is.
A lot of people say “there was something I didn’t quite love, but I just can’t put my finger on it…”. It’s much rarer for people to say “I really loved it, but I just can’t put my finger on why!”. We don’t have that craving to put our finger on the why of it, when there is no irritation. When everything’s lovely, we say what we can say and we move on. But when there’s something bothering us, we try to express ourselves, and we’ll fight to get the right words out if it’s not easy.
To be sure, sometimes the opposite does happen. There have been a few books where I’ve been in some respect so baffled by not hating something that seems to deserve it – or where I know that anyone reading a shorter review would be baffled by my non-hatred – and I’ve felt the need to try to express exactly why I found myself enjoying it. [my most recent review, of much-maligned seminal space opera The Skylark of Space, spends more time trying to explain the good than the (quite obvious and easily expressed) bad.]
But it’s far more common for me to, as it were, assume that a book will be good, and try to scratch the itch of expressing why exactly I don’t think it’s perfect.
Yet I also have a more specific reason for examining these things in detail…
- I want to know how to write.
I’m not a writer, although I sometimes write. I may never actually be a writer – in the sense of actually finishing things, let alone in the sense of actually publishing things. I’ve no great illusions in that regard. But nonetheless, I do like writing, I do want to write better, and I approach books from that perspective, with the hope of learning something, of improving myself somehow.
Unfortunately, the positive side of things – advice like “be a genius” – is pretty hard to get a good, specific grip on, partly for reasons I’ve mentioned above. In any case, if I were to be a writer, I wouldn’t be any other writer. In this hypothetical scenario, we would have to assume I had something of my own to say, and some sort of a style (or styles) of my own in which to say it. That, we must hypothesise, must already have been taken care of somehow – and if it isn’t, I don’t see any way to take care of it by reading other people’s books (beyond perhaps very vague inspirations).
Instead, what I’m interested in more, from this point of view, is how not to write badly. If a book isn’t a complete success… why not? What did the author do wrong? What should I try to avoid if I ever write a book? Of course, these failures are most instructive against a background of success – if a book gets 9 tenths of everything wrong, it’s hard to pin down which of its flaws are serious. But if a book gets 9 tenths of everything right, that puts the 1 tenth it got wrong under the spotlight. So, particularly when I’m reviewing a good book, part of my mind is always thinking: “but what could it have done better?”
How could this book be better? To me, that’s a much more interesting question than just “does this book rock?”
Yet even if it weren’t for that, I think there are still reasons to think about the negative alongside the positive, because…
- It isn’t wrong to see both sides
A lot of things in the world are great. A lot of things in the world are awful. Quite a few things are both. Many, many things are good. Many, many things are bad. Lots and lots of things are both.
It feels as though we live in a world of increasing polarisation, on almost every issue. You’re with us or against us. You love it or you hate it. Make up your mind; pick a side; know who you are; chose your identity; don’t turn on your own kind. Stay in your lane. It feels as though it’s true at every level, from high politics all the way down to favourite crisp flavours. Suggest that you’re unsure, that you’re divided, even that you respect dissent, and people look at you funny. Pick a side. Don’t be at war against yourself. What is this, Alternative Truth?
But I think it’s important, now more than ever, to try to understand other people. From understanding comes respect. From understanding comes the freedom to choose – the freedom, as it were, to mix and match. From understanding comes independence of thought, the ability to assess a thing on its own merits, by your own lights, rather than accepting your assigned opinions. And when the chips are really down… from understanding comes strategic advantage.
Book reviews may not be important, in the larger scheme of things, but I think that if you want to try to live a certain way – to think a certain way – you have to live, to think, that way even in the unimportant things. That’s why almost all my reviews attempt to see both sides of the matter. Why might people like this book? Why might people not like this book?
Sometimes, of course, the weight of reality presses heavier on one side than another. Sometimes I’m struggling to find excuses for a book; more often, I’m struggling to find flaws. But other people aren’t insane, most of the time. If they don’t like a book, it’s not because they’re mad, usually. So if you want to understand people, here’s a tiny little starting place: why don’t they like the things you like? Why do they like things that you can’t stand?
In the particular case of Pratchett, it’s clear which side of the debate I’m on. I love Pratchett; I’ve said repeatedly that I think he may well prove to be, in the judgement of history, the Dickens of our age.
But plenty of people don’t like Pratchett’s books, and plenty more say they like them well enough, they’re funny they suppose, but nothing all that exciting, nothing to write home about. How can they think like that? It’s not because they’re mad, or stupid. Sometimes it’s big coarse-grained things like “I can’t stand anything with trolls in” or “I hate comedy”. Those sort of go without saying. But sometimes it’s smaller stuff, often stuff that they themselves may not have consciously expressed. But there are still reasons.
So even if I loved every Pratchett novel equally – and I don’t – I would still try to puzzle out the curious question of why some people weren’t enthralled by him. And things like “this bit feels drawn out too far”, “that bit feels like a lazy joke”, “so-and-so isn’t a very well-developed character”, “there isn’t enough feeling of threat”, and so on, are all potential reasons that can go together to explain why many people don’t quite love these books.
And that’s also good to keep in mind for more than purely philosophical reasons, because…
- If you want to help people, you need to know what they want
I review mostly for personal reasons. Partly it’s a way of working out for myself what I liked and didn’t like about a book; partly it’s to work out what might or might not work as a writer. A lot of it is just that it seems like a good, disciplined sort of a habit to get into, for somebody as prone to procrastination, and as easily distracted, as myself.
But a review is an inherently interpersonal thing. Even if the audience never actually shows up, is never even hoped for, its possibility is embedded within the format. I am explaining what I think about a book: so who am I explaining to?
Well, nobody really, but also everybody. And just in case anybody happens to drop by, I try to respect that audience, and include them in my thinking. I’m not just saying what I thought about the book: I’m trying to give a sense of what I think that you might think about the book. Whoever you are. I hope, in other words, that some of my reviews might occasionally help out somebody who is debating whether or not to read a book (as well as to help clarify the thoughts of some who already have).
But because I don’t know who you are – because you’re everybody – I can’t really cater to your own personal tastes; and it would hardly make sense to assume that your own tastes were identical to my own. So again, I try to see both sides of the question, so that my review might be relevent to you whichever side you come from. If I think a book is great because of its characters despite the fact that it is very slow-paced, it’s only fair that I mention that I think it’s very slow-paced, because to you that might be more important than the characters. If all I say is “this book rocks!”, that doesn’t tell anybody whether or not they should read it, unless they already know in advance that their own views match mine perfectly. So instead I try to say why the book rocks… and part of that inevitably is giving some examples of the ways in which it does not rock.
Yet even if I thought that shouting “this book rocks!” a lot to everybody would make everybody read it, and even if I didn’t care that they may not enjoy it, I still wouldn’t do so. Because, strategically…
- Don’t cry ‘bonanza!’ until you’ve actually hit gold.
If I tell you that this is the best book ever, you might rush out and read it. And if you hate it, or if you’re just not utterly impressed… then you may not pay attention next time I want to recommend you something.
So if I tell everybody that, say, The Last Continent just rocks, it’s so hilarious, seriously guys you should all go out and buy it… well maybe somebody will. But if they’re not all that impressed by it, then how do I next week persuade them to go read Small Gods, or Night Watch? When I tell them that the book just rocks, they’ll just reply that, hey, you said that last time, and the whole Rincewind plot was a waste of space, so why should I listen to you now?
A lot of people aren’t going to like everything I like, and as a result they’re going to approach my reviews with some wariness. Fair enough. But I don’t want them to feel like I’m trying to put one over on them; I don’t want them to feel like I’m shilling, or like I’m preaching to the choir. I hope that if somebody reads a book I liked and doesn’t like it, they can still say “OK, he did kind of warn me that might happen”. And then they can, as it were, calibrate their priorities and mine, and carry on reading my reviews, even if they weight it a little bit one way or the other when they’re considering their purchases.
I’ve read a lot of books that I’ve liked. In fact, I’ve read hardly any that I haven’t liked. When I give a book 2 out of 7… well, it’s a bad book in my opinion, but it wasn’t awful. Some people might like it. I may even have enjoyed it myself, in some respects. 3 out of 7? Bad but with redeeming features – when those features align with my interests, a book like that might even be a guilty favourite. 4 out of 7… ‘not bad’. A book that’s not bad is an impressive thing in its own right. It might not be for everybody, but for those its suits it can be a really enjoyable experience. 5 out of 7 I call ‘good’, and at that point I’m starting to go out and tell people they should read it, because it’s really worth it. And 6 out of 7? Everyone should look into it! And then there’s the really brilliant books, the 7 out of 7s, that are practically required reading, in my opinion.
A lot of people want this to just be a 2-tier system: is it bad, or is it good?
But if I tell people that a book like Sourcery, or Daughter of the Empire, or Blue Moon Rising (all books that I enjoyed reading, will probably read again, and would recommend to at least some readers) are unambiguously good books, that they just “rock”, and that everyone should read them… well, a lot of people who take me up on those recommendations are going to be disappointed, because those are all books that have a lot of faults, and that are only going to please you if you’re predisposed to like that sort of thing.
And then, when people have been disappointed by my recommendations, and then how do I try to persuade them to read a novel like Jurgen, or like The Rider, novels that I think are genuine masterpieces that desparately deserve more readers?
Nor is it just numbers. At the moment, of all the books I’ve reviewed on this blog, my #3 highest-rated novel is Fool’s Quest. I’m not ashamed of that: it’s a fantastic book with a great many virtues. It’s possibly the most emotionally engaging novel I’ve ever read, for one thing (for those of us who have followed the protagonist through the 7 previous novels, at least). And yet I’m quite aware that many, many readers will not take to it. Not everybody wants a low-key, glacial doorstopper of an epic fantasy novel. A lot of people who really like The Rider – a terse, tense, semi-autobiographical novella about bicycle racing – are not going to like Fool’s Quest. [although there’s probably more overlap than you might think. Both are intensely psychological stories, for a start.] So if I want people who don’t like the idea of Fool’s Quest to take my recommendation of The Rider seriously (and vice versa!), I think I have to try to make clear not just that both books do indeed “rock”, but how it is that they rock in very different ways – which means exploring not just what they do well but also, at least to some extent, hinting at what they may also do badly. Or, at least, not quite as brilliantly (since actually I don’t think either novel has any outright flaws, except in a comparative and relative sense).
And that means that to some degree my reviews will be at war with themselves.
For all these reasons and for more, I think I’m stuck writing conflicted reviews, in which both good and bad are discussed freely. For these reasons and more, my reviews are stuck being, to use the good critic’s phrase, Alternative Truth.
Now, what you do about that is up to you. If you’re exasperated because I don’t just remind you much your favourite book rocks, that’s quite understandable, I’m sure. Fortunately, fans of writers like Pratchett have a limitless supply of flattering reviews to enjoy.
But I hope that out there somewhere are people who want something a little different from that – something that involves consideration of both pros and cons, and how they might relate to one another, and how books might stand in respect of one another with a little more nuance than just “this rocks” and “that sucks”. If there are such people, I can only hope that they continue to enjoy the fact that my reviews may at times constitute an Alternative Truth.
Although I’m fairly opinionated in terms of politics, and try to keep informed on what’s going on, I have to say it’s not the evil that gets to me most.
No, it’s the sheer stupidity.
Evil – intentional or accidental – is an inevitability in politics. There are a lot of people in the world, many of them with quite odd beliefs and priorities, and we won’t always get our own way. They try to make things one way, we try to make things another. You can account for evil. In some cases, you can even respect it – most of these people are genuinely trying to make the world a better place, even if their views on how to do so are utterly wrongheaded.
But what really, instinctively, viscerally irritates me about politics is idiocy. Ineptitude. The very least we should be able to expect from our enemies – or friends – is basic competency!
Take, for example, Trump’s package of immigration restrictions. Now, I don’t intend to get into an argument about whether these are morally good or bad, or even their strategic value in the long term. Those are contentious questions. But what I think we should all be able to agree on is that whatever the merits of the theory, their implementation has been, politically speaking, monumentally moronic.
Let’s look at it this way: imagine you want to swing public opinion against a particular government policy. What ought you to do? Here’s a few suggestions…
- make the debate about real, specific people, with real faces and life stories. Far away people about whom we know little are hard to empathise and easy to ignore. Names, faces, stories, individuals are what you need the argument to be about if you want to get people on your side. And what has Trump done? He’s put specific individuals into detention on American soil, while not isolating them from journalists and lawyers, creating a ready-made cast of characters for the public to feel sorry for;
- make the debate about cruelty and unfairness. People might sigh over policies that are harsh or inhumane, but cruelty and unfairness are what get them pissed off. You can sell “tough but fair”, but it’s really hard to sell “tough and unfair”. And what does Trump do? He detains men who have risked their lives collaborating with the US armed forces. Everyone knows that that’s unfair. He detains elderly grandmothers, and he detains five-year-old children, separating them from their parents. Everyone knows that that’s unnecessarily cruel. And he has people asked about whether they personally support Trump as a precondition for entry into the country, and nobody can deny that that’s ridiculously unfair;
- make people confused and afraid by stressing any vagueness or confusion. When it’s clearcut and simple, people are glad they weren’t affected personally and move on – but when nobody really knows what’s going on exactly, they get worried and distressed. And what does Trump do? He rolls out his policy without any guidance to people on the ground and contradictory statements by senior officials, so that nobody really knows what’s going on. Why is one person let free, while another is detained, and a third is detained without access to lawyers? Are dual-nationality travellers affected, for instance? Yes and no, appears to be the answer;
- create specific times and places that can act as focuses for protest; when discontent, like sparks from a fire, is spread out and abstract, it’s easy to overlook it, easy to let it die away in the cold and the wet; but when discontent is focused in a particular place, at a particular time, each person’s anger can sustain that of others, and the fire can rage on for weeks, or even months in some cases. And what has Trump done? He has created the perfect protest sites: concentrated enough to bring large crowds together, and bring the journalists to monitor the crowds, but numerous enough to allow every protestor in America a potentially accessible site;
- find cracks in the policy that allow fruitful lawsuits to be brought and other potentially successful small-scale campaigns. You don’t have to overturn the policy itself that way, that’s not the point. The point is that if you can mount a plausible case against an element of it, it spreads doubt about the legitimacy of the entire edifice. People feel uneasy about things when they see courts taking challenges seriously, or when they see authorities backing down. And if nothing else, these challenges create a steady stream of news stories to stop people forgetting about the issues. And what has Trump done? He brought out his policies without, in essence, having court-proofed them first. His policies raise strikingly obvious legal concerns – by issuing Visas and Green Cards with one hand, promises and rights attached, and ignoring them with the other – and they do so without any of the due diligence, consultation and legal i-dotting and t-crossing that scares courts away from challenging things like this. His detain-first-and-maybe-release-shamefacedly-later-when-journalists-notice approach also maintains the story by offering a drip of releases, a trickle of new stories, new victims, rather than clearing things out of the way one way or another and drawing a line under it; and he even tried to do this when the person responsible for enforcing it, ultimately, was still an Obama appointee. When you end up having to sack someone within a week of appointing them to their caretaker position, there’s no way to come out of that looking good.
Long story short: everything that Trump enemies should have been trying to do to rally opposition to these measures… was already done for them by Trump himself. It’s like he went down a checklist of ways to screw up. And I don’t approve of these policies, but still… as a reasonably intelligent person, it’s just plain irritating to see people in power be so calamitously bad even at doing bad things. It’s reassuring in a way – the hyperbolic fears about Trump’s new fascist dystopia are plainly exaggerated, if for no other reason than that Trump’s regime clearly don’t have the elementary competence required to dictate anything to anybody. But it’s also sort of scary. There ought to be a dozen different people around Trump with the foreward-thinking (or basic political awareness) to spot these problems and steer him away from them. It wouldn’t have been hard. No self-respecting political operative should have allowed that executive order to apply to people currently in transit – that’s just so fundamental. Anonymous people not allowed on planes in Iran? That’s controversial. Specific five-year-old children in solitary detention at US airports, on US soil, within marching distance of major US population centres, and all with the awareness of US journalists? That’s a crisis. More of the fire could have been taken out of the affair by some relatively minor adjustments to automatically exempt the most contentious victims – exempt special visas, green card holders, maybe post-graduate scientists, etc. That might not make a lot of moral difference, but it would make a huge difference to public opinion. And it goes without saying that they should have lined everything up before firing – an ironclad order with clearly defined terms, guidance issued to staff simultaneously, legal loopholes addressed before signing.
So either everyone around the President is an imbecile, or else they can see how terribly managed this is but don’t have the influence to do anything about it. And frankly those thoughts are both worrying, because next time it might be something really critical that they’re bollocksing up.
Of course, it’s not just the Republicans who have problems in the simple-mindedness department. Take the Supreme Court fight, for instance. Democrats in the Senate apparently want to fillibuster any nomination Trump makes. This is understandable, given that the Republicans started it. But “but mummy, he started it!” is very rarely an effective rhetorical approach when it comes to persuading unaffiliated observers. So there are two ways that this can go:
- Say “we’ll be looking very closely at the nomination, and we hope the President will nominate somebody we can all quickly move to confirm.” This makes you look reasonable and fair, while not actually committing you to anything. Then when he nominates someone you can say “we deeply regret that the President has chosen to make this a partisan issue with this appalling nomination. As you know, we were willing to work with the President in the interests of the nation, and we were reluctantly willing to confirm even a conservative nominee, because unlike our Republican colleagues we put our constitutional duty ahead of our party – but unfortunately the President spurned that offer of bipartisanship by nominating somebody who is so extreme that we plainly cannot support their confirmation in good conscience.” And people say “hey, the nominee must be bad if they’re putting up this fight over them!” – and when the Republicans say the fillibuster is a break with tradition and imperils the functioning of government, just say “hey, nominate someone moderate next time and you’ll have no problem!”…
- Or, come out ahead of the nomination and say “we’re going to fillibuster the nomination, whoever it is”. And people say “clearly this isn’t about the appropriateness of the nominee, it’s about party politics”, and they think you’re the one being unreasonable. And then Trump has absolutely zero reason to nominate anyone even vaguely moderate, since you’ve already told him it’ll be the same level of fight no matter whom he names. And then he and the Republicans can turn around and say “look, the Democrats are misusing the fillibuster as pure obstructionism, and we’ll clearly never get a justice confirmed so long as the fillibuster remains”, and then they’ll abolish the fillibuster and the Democrats will be more screwed than they were to begin with.
But needless to say, a number of Senate Democrats have gone for the bullet-to-own-foot Option B!
This is an easy one, people. The ‘reasonableness’ gambit gives you a chance of pressuring Trump into a more moderate pick, and makes your protest when he doesn’t look more legitimate. The obstructionist approach lands you with a more extremist Justice and probably the loss of the fillibuster, while also alienating swing voters. The only upside is that this development is probably close enough to Trump’s announcement that it’ll get overshadowed and people might not notice it – but the fact it’s happening at all is a head-slapping moment.
Honestly, there’s a fight going on for the soul of the world right now, and both sides appear to be staffed with buffoons who either don’t know or don’t care how to actually win…
…Still, at least the Labour Party is still here to make even Republicans and Democrats look like they know what they’re doing…
Sorry, I’ve not been putting much on my blog recently. You know how it is… stuff. Plus, for a while now I’ve had a weird urge to re-read a particular book, and I simply cannot find the damn thing anywhere, so as a result I’ve not been reading much…. [plus, it’s TV season]
But I’m here now! With…. a post of probably no interest to anybody, but never mind. It’s just something that intrigued me, and yes, this is the sort of thing I do to entertain myself…
[I am just thinking out loud here; apologies if at times I am non-precise, or fail to use, or even incorrectly use, some element of technical jargon relevent to this subject.]
Sometimes, it is tempting to think, it is possible to disagree with everything a person says, and yet to be completely in agreement with them.
Consider two questions: first, whether it is murder for an individual to kill a person who would themselves otherwise be sure to unknowingly kill them (imagine, for example, someone about to unwittingly engage the machinary that will crush a person to death); second, whether all murderers should be condemned to prison for life.
These appear to be two very different, albeit tangentially connected, questions.
As I explained
earlier today a few days ago, I just can’t, honestly, make a list of my ten favourite authors. I can make it to three, maybe four, and that’s it. All the other contenders are either people I loved long ago but don’t love anymore, or people I might love in the future but haven’t read enough of yet.
But that got me thinking. If I can’t list my current top ten… how about a historical top ten? In a way, that seems more interesting, since that gives a story about myself, an actual arc. The authors can become more meaningful through a biographical context.
Or maybe I just like talking about myself.
Either way, that’s what I’m doing. Ten authors who would, in roughly chronological order, once have been among my favourite authors at a given time in my life. Except that this is me, and I’m terrible with respecting rules, so actually this is sixteen authors who were once among my favourites. I can’t promise that they would necessarily all have ever been my ‘#1’ author, but they would all have been up there. Here we go…
(oh, and this is just fiction, and just prose. No poetry, plays, non-fiction, or writing for TV or film)
- J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien was the first author I read, and the one who set the foundation for everything else in my literary life, and indeed, at least symbolically, the rest of my life too, for good and ill. ‘Favourite’ doesn’t really do it justice. My first book – the first adult book I read for myself – was The Lord of the Rings, and I went on to re-read it at least once a year into my middle teens. I loved The Hobbit too, and later on The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales. I have two collections of his poetry. A book I found in Switzerland about his elven languages started me on my hobby of language-creation. (illustration: John Howe’s ‘The Fall of Gondolin’)
- Enid Blyton
I didn’t only ever read Fantasy. And just because I started with Tolkien, that doesn’t mean I skipped childhood entirely. I read, or listened to, or was read, a whole bunch of kid’s books too. Lots of Roald Dahl. And I loved both the E. Nesbitt novels I read. But the one that stands out for me from my earliest years was Enid Blyton. I never read the Famous Five books (although I once had a book/game version of one of them – like a super-CYOA book, with dice and cards and stuff); I resisted attempts to ween me onto the Secret Seven. No, I was, as in all ways, a child who preferred the more recondite alternatives. So I adored her eight ‘Adventure’ novels, about two girls and two boys stranded, having to fend for themselves, in a series of exciting and intimidating locations, generally defeating the sinister plots of some evil adult criminals. My favourite of all was The Valley of Adventure, which seemed like a paradise (despite the whole ‘orphans stranded in war zone hunted by psychotic thieves’ angle). (illustration: no idea)
- C. S. Lewis
Narnia. It never seemed as important and deep as Tolkien, but it was still captivating. My favourite was The Horse and His Boy, which is set almost entirely in Exotic Foreign Parts, and doesn’t mess about with any of this ‘real people from England’ business! (illustration: Stephen Lavis’ cover for ‘The Horse and His Boy’)
- David Eddings
The backbone of my early Fantasy reading, in larger part because of his productivity. I read all five Belgariad novels (so often my parents added extra plastic binding to protect them), and then all five Mallorean novels, and then the Elenium trilogy (which took me about three days), and then the Tamuli, which took longer only because it was the first series I was actually reading while the books were still coming out one by one, an exhilerating thing. I got the last two in that strange hardback-size-but-paper-backs-and-prone-to-fall-apart format they had back then. Finally, I got his Belgareth and Polgara as hardbacks. (illustration: Geoff Taylor’s painting for the cover of ‘Magician’s Gambit’)
- Arthur Ransome
When I was young, I wasn’t just a geek – I was also a nerd. I spent more time reading the Ravenloft fansites or intently studying the complete unified timeline of Abeir-Toril than I did actually reading the books. But in the days before the internet, nerdery was difficult. Perhaps one of the earliest demonstrations of mine was the case of Arthur Ransome. I liked Ransome’s books – they were like a more grown-up Blyton – and I read three or four of them. But for some reason I decided I was going to collect him. He’s the only author I’ve ever collected, though I probably will collect others in my life. But Ransome was the first – and every week I’d check the second-hand bookshops (there were multiple ones nearby in those queer old pre-internet days) (NB the internet did exist, it just didn’t feature much… at this point, its main use was for downloading updates to Encarta. I can still remember the sound-effects for opening pages in Encarta, you know. And Encarta World Atlas! Dear gods, that astonished us. Truly astonished) for any new copies to buy. (illustration: no idea)
- Oscar Wilde
Inherited from my sister. As you may have noticed, my early favourites weren’t exactly famous for their prose style, with the arguable exception of Tolkien. Or, indeed, for their humour. Wilde was suave, polished, and savagely witty. His plays tore apart adult society, while The Ballad of Reading Gaol, De Profundis and the fairy tales had an acheing melancholy about them that appealed to my budding emo side. [I wasn’t emo, because it didn’t exist then, and because I wasn’t into pop culture. But I did listen to Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead on an endless loop in a darkened room and write terrible, melancholy gothic poetry heavily influenced by Wilde] If you ever find me prone to self-pitying martyrdom, blame (amongst other bad influences) Oscar Wilde. (illustration: Jessie King’s “White as the surf it was and like a flower it tossed on the waves”, from her illustrations for ‘House of Pomegranates’)
- David Gemmell
I got Legend from the school library in the last few years of primary school. Well, from the bookshelf of my classroom, anyway. I think the teacher may be to blame – he was a fantasy fan. I used to lend him books to read. Anyway, I qas quickly hooked by Gemmell, whose proto-grimdark violent brutality and thinly-veiled sexuality was exciting for a pre-teen boy. I read at least eight of his Drenai novels (there are diminishing returns!), as well as his post-apocalyptic semi-magical Jerusalem Man Western trilogy, and his The Knights of Dark Reknown. I might not love him the same way now, but I am surprised by how often he seems to be passed over in discussions of the genre – apparently, though, he was much less popular in America than here. (illustration: Mark Harrison’s cover for ‘Wolf in Shadow’)
Asimov may seem like an adult writer – glasses, sideburns, sociological ramifications of technological advances, etc – but he’s actually an ideal writer for kids. Asimov is an ideas man, and kids are all about ideas. Execution, that’s something that adults care about, once they’ve seen all the ideas, but kids want something enthralling, stimulating, challenging. And Asimov was those things. Asimov talks a lot about the nature of humanity, about justice and fairness and good governance, about power in all its forms. And he also talks about aliens and robots and spaceships and hive minds and robots disguised as hive minds disguised as sexy alien women, and civilisations who collapse because they’ve never before seen the night. And Asimov doesn’t speak down to you. Many of his stories have a strong ‘puzzle’ element, the reader invited to work things out for themselves. Asimov expected his audience to have the souls of children and the minds of adults, and that’s a powerful premise for a child. (illustration: Rowena Morrill’s portrait of the great man himself)
- Terry Pratchett
Well, I guess I’ve written a fair amount before about Pratchett. He was one of my first writers, but I guess he wasn’t really central until near the end of primary school, by which time he was probably my number 1 favourite. From Feet of Clay on, I got all his Discworld books (minus those marketed for younger readers, because I was a snob) in hardback as they came out – all the way up to Making Money. The increasing time between installments, combined with their diminishing quality, made me question him later on, until my re-read project rekindled my love for this great author.
Another biographical point: Terry Pratchett made me give up writing. Not for ever, of course. But at some point I “realised” that I couldn’t write the books I wanted to write because Terry Pratchett had already written them. Now you might find this arrogant – assuming that I could have written these books! – and it is, but it’s also symptomatic of Pratchett. I remember Queen Victoria’s comparison of her two great Prime Ministers (I paraphrase): “After talking with Mr Gladstone, I became convinced that he was the most intelligent man in England. But when I talked with Mr Disraeli, I soon became convinced that I was the most intelligent woman in England.” Pratchett at his best is a literary Disraeli (no offence to the real literary Disraeli, who was of course Disraeli himself…) – he makes his readers feel so smart that they could sure have written these books themselves. After all, it all seems so easy! (illustrations: Josh Kirby’s iconic cover for ‘The Colour of Magic’ , and Joe McClaren’s cover for ‘Reaper Man’)
- Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman
Sometime late in primary school, someone gave me a box of D&D novels. By early in secondary school, I was making some sense of them. Dragonlance was my ‘home’ setting, as it were, and Dragonlance, in its sprawling, slapdash-continuity way, was built around a series of seven novels by Margaret Weiss and Tracey Hickman. I don’t imagine they were great novels, but boy were they great stories, perhaps the apotheosis of the epic fantasy story, and they displayed their world to the full. Later, I found their (mostly) unrelated (or is it?) Deathgate Cycle, a fine and memorable fantasy in its own right. (illustration: Larry Elmore’s cover for the Collector’s Edition of the Dragonlance Chronicles)
- Anne McCaffrey
The ubiquity of its foundational rape fantasies and the disturbing attitudes toward gay men aside, there’s something comfortable and relaxing about the Pern novels. Yes, true, threads of an inimical space fungus fall from the sky and occasionally digests people whole within seconds in an excruciating rain of death, or sometimes merely leave people horribly mutilated and traumatised for life, but apart from that it’s a very safe sort of place, very cosy. People laugh a lot, have unexciting teenage romances (which sometimes even do not necessarily involve fetishised non-consent, except in relatively minor ways… well, using ‘relatively minor’ in a relatively and perhaps unpleasantly charitable way, at least), and have deep and meaningful relationships with their pets (who then essentially compel them into proxy rape via mind control). Lots of loners and marginalised people show the crowds their worth, sometimes by raping them, but it’s all OK because everyone likes each other in the end (except for the people who have to be murdered for the good of the many). It’s a great fantasy world for kids. Sure, it always felt like something written primarily for an audience of teenage girls – the dragons are essentially big glittery mind-rapey ponies – but for a generally insecure boy I was surprisingly unconcerned about that, perhaps because nobody else I knew actually knew what the books were about. Anyway, dragons and romance aside, I loved the way McCaffrey made music central to her culture, and actually wrote about it in a way that only seemed half nonsensical. Masterharper of Pern is the closest thing I know to a biography of a classical composer that also has dragons (and political skullduggery) in it (i.e. the perfect book). (illustrations: Steve Weston’s wonderful dragons for ‘Dragonsdawn’ and ‘Dragondrums’)
- Raymond E. Feist
I was introduced by a friend in early secondary school; for some reason, I began with the Serpentwar books, which are indeed the best and most interesting (with the exception of the co-written Empire trilogy). I guess this felt like a more grownup, down-to-earth, graphically violent realistic version of Eddings or of D&D. It was perhaps more believable, less silly, than a lot of those books, and yet fundamentally it was all structured as a jolly good yarn, easy to read and enjoy. I read forward and back from Serpentwar, and sideways into Empire, although I never read on beyond the dreadful computer game adaptations. (illustration: Geoff Taylor again, his cover for ‘Rise of a Merchant Prince’)
- Elaine Cunningham
A slightly odd one here, because at the time I probably would never have named Cunningham as a favourite author. And yet she’s one of the authors I’ve read the most by. Her Arilyn/Danilo semi-romantic fantasy adventure series was my favourite part of the Forgotten Realms setting, and I followed her over as well to her drow novels (an unsuccesful attempt to combine the flavours of her Harper novels with Salvatore’s drow novels), and the beginning of her Halrua series (I should finish that some day!). The books were very light, but they had violence and romance and a kickass tomboy elf princess, so I read them avidly. Despite my apparent grouchiness and my low level of patience with terrible YA romance plots, I actually have a secret soft spot for a good romance, and Arilyn/Danilo clearly worked for me as a kid – serious and deadly girl, flippant and somewhat girly boy, interracial romance with a hint of the forbidden and various Terrible Obstacles Imposed By A Cruel Fate, etc etc. (illustrations: John Foster’s cover for ‘The Magehound’; Kelly Freas’ cover for ‘The Radiant Dragon’. I’ve never actually read ‘The Radiant Dragon’ , but there’s no way I’m passing up a chance to put some Spelljammer on this page. Spelljammer: the fantasy setting for people who are having a puzzling drug trip. Look, a glowing translucent rainbow dragon! In space! And a mediaeval man with a cape full of pixie dust on the bridge of a sailing ship. And the dragon might be about to eat a planet and also I think its head is on fire. Spelljammer, people!)
- Robert Jordan
Yeah, I’ll admit: I seriously liked Jordan at one point (midway through my teens, I guess). And I think I was quite justified. Sure, the first book wasn’t great. In fact it was obviously bad, and obviously a rip-off. And the second was confusingly similar to the first, and the third was promising but went nowhere. But somewhere between the third and the fifth, I got really hooked.
Part of it, of course, was the shear scale. I’d never read anything this big, this sprawling. Stupid as it may be, I liked the polyamorous (and intercultural) relationship, which I’d never seen before in literature – all these damn love triangles all over the place, it was great to see some people just sit down and say ‘you know what, let’s just make this work’. On a similar note, it was originally both titillating and somewhat liberating to see the hints at lesbian sex, which previously I think I’d only read about as a defining trait of decadent villainnesses (of course, the increasingly ubiquitous casual lesbian dalliances and the author’s growing obsession with theoretically-non-lesbian all-female spanking orgies did before too long turn this mildly sexy freshness into stale, repetitive, rather awkward-feeling fanservice and authorial fantasising… but that was later). And I liked the way Jordan wove in elements of hidden SF into the background of his world – it wasn’t new to me, but it was new enough to be intriguing. And perhaps most of all I liked his willingness to take his villains seriously – the Forsaken seemed at times much more interesting than his protagonists. And yes, they may be shallow, but I appreciated the nods to history and mythology, particularly the heavy Arthurian echoes in the background.
But the really striking thing, which I don’t think he gets enough credit for, was Jordan’s use of mystery. The more you read, the less you seemed to know. I had to keep turning the pages to uncover the secrets. Who killed [spoiler redacted]? Who is Black Ajah and how can you tell? Who is [redacted] hiding as? Is [redacted] secretly Forsaken and what are the subtle clues? There are all these little mysteries to solve, and perhaps Jordan was never all that great at solving them but he was good at setting them up, in a way I hadn’t really encountered in any other work. And that let the length of the series work for it: it gave us time to work ourselves up into fever pitch waiting for the next book when all would(n’t) be revealed. The Wheel of Time was my first sortie into real book fandom, not the nerdy setting fandom I’d looked at before, and it was a vast and captivating world of forums and tributes and parodies and endless speculation. (illustrations: Darrell K. Sweet’s covers for ‘The Eye of the World’ and ‘The Fires of Heaven’)
- Gabriel García Márquez
I said above that Pratchett stopped me writing, or at least discouraged me. Gabriel García Márquez had another go at it – convinced me for a good while that I had to write something totally new and radical and ‘literary’ – but more than that he was the author who killed my love of reading. Which… well, that doesn’t sound too great, does it? But it’s a compliment.
I should be fair. What’s really killed my love of reading – or at least, killed my obsessive infatuation with reading – has been the internet. And discovering films and TV, and maybe, just maybe occasionally, vestiges of a real life perhaps, didn’t help either. But GGM was a big hammer blow.
The thing is, One Hundred Years of Solitude – I was about 16 at the time I think – just destroyed me. It was beautiful, so beautiful, and powerful, and intelligent, and mysterious, and totally new to me, and it made me cry. The ending devastated me… but then for some reason I found myself walking around with my back held straight for a week (I tend to slouch normally, and did so even more as a teenager). It was sublime, and made the world seem different for a while, in an inexpressable way. It made me look at all other books and go “what’s the point?”. I couldn’t write like that, and nor could the other authors I knew of, who suddenly I realised – with perhaps too much enthusiasm, were nothing but pale shadows next to García Márquez.
I never quite recaptured that feeling with any of his other books. Of Love and Other Demons was nice but felt familiar; Chronicle of a Death Foretold was great, but too small. His Collected Stories varied from brilliant to mediocre. And then I tailed off reading him, saving him up for later. But at that point in time, I would certainly have called him one of my favourites. (illustration: not a clue)
- Robin Hobb
GGM helped do me a service. He pushed me to grow up, in reading terms. I was 16, 17, and I was still reading more or less the same stuff as when I was 10. Well, I stopped reading it, because it seemed rubbish by comparison – not stopped as in overnight, but I just lost my enthusiasm. Authors ended series and I never bothered to find others to replace them. I felt I wanted to read more of these wonderful, grown-up, real books… but I couldn’t love them, couldn’t be excited by them. And fantasy was just a genre (I didn’t realise at the time that One Hundred Years of Solitude was also Fantasy).
I’m overstating it; I’m making it more dramatic, more narrative. But there it is. At some point, I borrowed, on holiday, a copy of Assassin’s Apprentice. Now in truth, I started reading that probably before I’d ‘given up on’ Fantasy. So it’s more that as my interest in Fantasy declined, my interest in Hobb remained, and grew as her style grew and deepened. It sparked a brief passion (and a longer-lasting interest) for A Song of Ice and Fire along the way, but it was Hobb who has lasted as my favourite, and who has gradually helped me come back to appreciating the genre. (illustrations: above, Jackie Morris’ painting for the cover of ‘Blood of Dragons’; below, John Howe again with his painting for the cover of ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’)
And you know what I conclude from writing all the above? Fantasy novels used to have really great covers. Sometimes. In the UK, at least. These days, it seems like everything’s “male underwear model glowers at the camera while holding a weapon and having a big cloak”, or even the more direct “AXE!” or “SWORD!” or the like. But paintings like some of the above, even if they often didn’t seem to have anything to do with the events of the book itself, were enchanting. Captivating, even. They promised something – somewhere – wonderful inside the pages of the book. They may have been odd, strange, weird sometimes… but wasn’t that the point? That this wasn’t just the latest Tom Clancey only with swords instead of guns, that this wasn’t a write-up of this or that computer game? That it was going to show you somewhere totally different, totally new? The books may not always have lived up to that, but the covers promised it. I wonder whether I would ever have been as passionate about fantasy – or reading in general – if I’d only had the covers we seem to get today.
Anyway, that’s me. What about you?
I was tempted to jump temporarily onto that ‘Top Ten Tuesday’ meme, because today’s meme asks for our Top Ten Authors, and that seemed like a big enough question to be interesting.
Unfortunately… it turns out I don’t have ten top authors.
The problem is, most of my high-volume reading was done as a teenager, when my taste in books was… generous. So if I look at my GR ‘most read authors’ list, it’s dominated by people like Weiss, Eddings, McCaffrey, Feist, Salvatore, Gemmell, Cunningham, Jordan, Niles, Kirchoff, Charrette…
Now, I’m past my post-teenage “ugh, all that stuff was shit!” phase. I’d like to think I’ve come to realise (again) that a fun story can make for a good book even when its writing is not Nobel-level and its plot is not entirely original. But that just means that some of these writers might be “not bad”, or even “good”. It doesn’t mean any of them deserve ‘favourite’ status – and if they do, I just haven’t re-read them recently enough to know that.
On the other hand, the writers who impress me now – well, I don’t know too many of them, and I just haven’t read enough of their books. I can’t call Christopher Priest one of my top ten favourite authors, because good gods I’ve only read two of his books! Sure, they were both seriously good books, but… well, not only have I not read his other works, I’m not sure I’ve developed the emotional attachment to him yet to call him a favourite. My favourite authors when I was young – I bought their books in hardback the moment they came out because I loved those writers. I don’t buy anyone’s books in hardback now.
Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb both deserve to go on my top ten list. Maybe Martin, because although I have reservations about his work I am going to buy his next book in hardback when it comes out (ditto Hobb and Pratchett). And I guess Tolkien needs to be there, because… well, that’s a part of me that mere time can’t wrest out of me. But beyond that? I’ve pretty much just got lists of people I used to like and I ought to go back and see how much I still like them but it probably will be ‘not much’, and lists of people I ought to read more of to see whether I’m going to like them or not.
This feels a bit sad to me, come to think of it. I miss having favourite authors.
So anyway, is this just me being weird, or does anybody else not have ten favourites they can name?
Sir Terry Pratchett has, as you know, died. The general reaction to this has been one of unalloyed and exceptionless dismay, tempered only by the comfort of knowing how close the nature of his death was to his stated hopes, and by the reassurance of the author’s many wise and uplifting sayings about death over the years. It feels almost rude to grieve too passionately over the death of a man who chose the Latin translation of “Don’t fear the reaper” as his heraldic motto.
So people have taken no doubt some comfort from knowing that Pterry (as his fans have long called him) died well – and, indeed, so far as the public can judge, lived well. But there has still been great distress, or at least a very deep grief, at his passing.
I don’t normally watch a lot of new films. I like film in theory, but in practice I find it hard to make myself sit down and dedicate time to a film – an hour of TV feels like a cheaper price (even if in practice one hour can turn into two or three). And when I do watch a film, it’s usually something from years ago – a favourite, or a classic that I’ve never seen. There are, after all, just so many films out there.
But this year, one way or another, I’ve managed to end up seeing a bunch of new things, including a few that are in competition for the Oscars this weekend. So for once, I can actually share an opinion!
So far as I can remember, in the last year (give or take) I have seen nine new films: the Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, and Whiplash; and the non-Oscar-nominated (well, non-big-prize-nominated, a couple have got technical nominations) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Robocop, Edge of Tomorrow and Guardians of the Galaxy; plus Calvary, which doesn’t really fit in with any of the others.
So, on the basis of the above, here are my own opinions on some of the key prizes on offer on Sunday…
Or you can skip through to part 2 for my ranking of these films, and some final words.