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.