Friday 5 February 2010

Righting The Left Hand of God

We're all adults here, aren't we?

Well, here's hoping the thought of a little homework doesn't discourage you from reading the remainder of this post. There's really only a very little, I swear it! For those of you who have already scrolled through my review of Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God, a free pass. For those of you who haven't, well... why not? Click through and get caught up. Don't forget to read the comments!

Go on. I'll wait.


Quite finished? Excellent. Let's get on with it, then.

I'll admit, I had a notion that a review of The Left Hand of God would appeal to many of the kind souls who frequent these pages. Penguin's incredibly widespread publicity campaign has made certain that there's a great deal of buzz surrounding Hoffman's debut - enough to have hoodwinked several of my fellow bloggers into tipping it as among the most promising SF&F debuts of 2010 - and with its publication in the States still months away, the level of anticipation for The Left Hand of God remains high enough that anyone writing anything about it is guaranteed a bit of traffic.

Skeptics: the above rationale is not why I'm writing about The Left Hand of God again. You have The Speculative Scotsman's word, and Scotsmen, especially the speculative variety, are well known to be honour-bound by their word. Also, if you believe me, I will give you each a cookie.

In any event, I expected that my review would get a bit of attention from those fantasy fans that, like me, had been taken in by the unending hype behind Hoffman's genre debut. What I didn't expect was for traffic to the article to surpass every other piece published to date here on TSS. I mean, come on, Guy Gavriel Kay fans; you're letting the side down!

To my relief, no-one got too up in arms about my reaction to The Left Hand of God. Wait, had I not mentioned that this was the first out-and-out negative review I've written for the site? Well, you should have done your homework. To surmise: The Left Hand of God is hardly fit to prop up your worst enemy's gangrenous ankle. It's a book written by committee. A committee, moreover, who hasn't a clue how to write anything more worthwhile than derivative dreck with designs on selling fantasy to legions of readers to whom Twilight represents the height of literary fiction.

But decrying the UK's bestselling book isn't going to make it any less popular, is it? We're talking about the opinion of a single, small-scale blogger, after all. If you've a mind to see the other half of the equation, there are certainly plenty of more positive reviews of The Left Hand of God out there - although I strenuously disagree with nearly every flattering thing professional critics and fellow bloggers have alike asserted regarding Hoffman's debut. Nevertheless, that very question feeds into the issue I hope to address with this post. What good does a bad review do?

Perhaps I should rephrase and ask, instead: what bad does a bad review do? Eloquent, I know, but all the same, it's an easier question to answer. In the comments section of the aforementioned review, you see, where I'm pleased to say cooler heads prevailed than I'd anticipated - consider my expectations adjusted accordingly, readers; you really are a fine bunch - the most common reaction to my so-called "sodomising" of The Left Hand of God was something along the lines of this, from Phil of A Fantasy Reader:

"I'm glad I read your review, that book was on my 2010 reading list (sadly simply because of the hype) and now it's off."

And this, from Jason, who makes his home over at the excellent Kamvision:

"For some reason I wasn't sure about this one to begin with... Something I read - maybe it was about the author - put me off. Anyway, thanks to your review I'm really not going to bother trying to cram this into an already very tight schedule. Cheers!"

Now this, surely, is one of the prime motivating factors behind why we bloggers do what we do. To inspire people to read books they otherwise wouldn't, and discourage them from wasting their time and money on something that isn't worth either.

Assuredly, I find reviewing to be a great way of collecting together my thoughts on books, films and video games that in all likelihood I won't remember with any real clarity a few years from now, but if that were the only reason I began blogging about speculative fiction in all its forms I'd have been as well to start a diary as launch TSS.

For me, the reviews I publish here are firstly my contribution to the great conversation that goes on between the various members of a community that's built itself around SF&F. Individually, whatever our respective reach and readership, we're none of us terribly powerful when you come right down to it. Together, however, as a single entity amassed at the fringes of genre fiction, we're capable of touching nearly every part of the literature we love to an incredible extent - from writers to publishers to readers, bloggers are an influential force that each of these groups would rather have on their side than on the opposing front.

But that doesn't mean we all have to agree about everything. For my money, a review is a sort of balancing act; an accounting of the various positives and negatives that make up the whole that is the product you're reviewing. A review needn't be anything so sterile as that description perhaps suggests, but I would go so far as to say it's amongst our obligations, as bloggers, to state, according to our own judgment, what does and doesn't work about a particular piece of fiction - obfuscating either the good or the bad so that your argument seems clearer seems to me the sign of a poor argument.

At this point, let me reiterate one final comment from The Left Hand of God review that speaks to the entire issue at hand. Sam Sykes, author of the hotly-anticipated Tome of the Undergates and soon to be TSS interview subject, found a high horse and rode it into the ground. Apologies for his foul language - evidently the gentleman's username on Twitter (follow him @SamSykesSwears) isn't just smoke and mirrors to disguise a specimen of infinite sweetness and light - and do note that I've edited his reaction for brevity, and furthermore, taken great glee in so doing. You can find his unaltered words in the comments for the original post.

Without further ado, then, over to you, sweary Sam:

"Reviews aren't everything and everything a reviewer hates you won't necessarily dislike.

"This is most definitely not a slight or a discouragement of Mr. Alexander or his fine blog. He definitely does a service here, as do all reviewers, but that service is still giving us his opinion, not necessarily telling us what to buy.

"The biggest thing I've learned so far is that the phrase 'different strokes for different folks' (or blokes, if you're inclined) is not just a phrase as it pertains to books: it's a goddamn mantra.

"Everyone gets some negative press. This is because what is written just doesn't work for everyone. Some people want grittier, some people want more angst, some people just want something closer to something they already know. As a result, I don't really take any review as negative anymore, because for every point that a reviewer says is not good, someone else says: 'shit, that's for me!'

"Admittedly, Mr. Alexander's review was a bit harsh and he's absolutely correct to tell you exactly what he thinks of a book; if he coddled you, he'd be a fraudster, and sentenced to the eighth level of hell to be sodomized with hot irons. But that doesn't necessarily mean you won't like the book.

"That went on a bit, didn't it? The point of this all is that you shouldn't feel poorly for buying a book that someone later didn't like. There are tons of popular books out there that I absolutely could not bring myself to like.

"Besides, even if you end up hating it, you'll want to keep it around, because you will find a sentence you just truly hate and someone will eventually ask you what the worst book you ever read was and you will want to have it on hand to quote from."

I find myself very much in agreement with Sam's argument. Ultimately, either in a review or in the case of an article such as this, what I'm stating is an opinion, nothing more concrete than that and nothing less pliable. But then, that's all any of us are doing - even those critics in the enviable position of being able to trade theirs for cold, hard cash. If you've enjoyed some of the same books The Speculative Scotsman has, you'll probably enjoy the books I've read that you haven't; equally, you probably won't like The Left Hand of God, nor be entirely blown away by the likes of Cherie Priest's Boneshaker. But in all likelihood, you'll love Tigana.

However, whether you're a reader or a fellow writer, if the opinions published on TSS diverge from your own - and inevitably, even if we find ourselves nodding in agreement the majority of the time, they will - so much the better; much as I feel a review is better when it encompasses both pros and cons, surely the community as a whole is made stronger if it's truly representative of the vast swathe of reactions every piece of fiction leave in its literary wake.

When I was growing up, my folks would fight a lot. Maybe that's got something to do with why I find fiction such an invaluable diversion, but I digress; I certainly haven't had a hard life. Nonetheless, whenever I'd ask why they were always shouting at one another, they'd say to me, "N. R. Alexander, couples who don't fight, why... they aren't couples at all," which I thought was ridiculous. Isn't that ridiculous? What's surprising, though, is that the grown-up me might agree with them - to a point. Disagreement, I believe now, is healthy. Energetic debate gives you a fresh perspective on issues you might not ever have realised there was another side to.

In the grander scheme, I'd wager that the disparity of opinion in the blogosphere coalesces, eventually, into a kind of counter-intuitive parity; that the very divergence of the opinions voiced here and elsewhere comes, in the end, to form a representational entity that can simultaneously cater to readers of every taste and inclination, from one extreme of the spectrum to the other. That one blogger might hate a book while another thinks it's the best creation since the cheese slice, I think, is of little significance in individual terms, but when taken together, this glorious collective of opinions at odds with one another is surely an infinitely more valuable entity than any single recommendation, be it positive or negative.

So you see, fighting is fun and helpful... although my parents are still loons.

Here endeth today's lesson!


  1. I agree with Sweary Sam as well. I've argued from the beginning that the goal of readers of blogger-reviewers should be to find particular bloggers whose opinions and "voice" they can generally credit and respect. It's not about agreeing in all the particulars but rather about finding those with similar leanings so you can introduce each other to new things and steer each other away from things that might not be worth one's time.

  2. Interesting point about how our diverging views coalesce to form one greater sff community.

    I might be rambling here so feel free to tune out anytime. But, in law school right now, professors are constantly reiterating the point that the American legal system works to provide justice by being adversarial. As I understand it the British one's similar, correct me if I'm wrong.

    So, as reviewers, we're working to bring about justice in the sff community by agreeing to disagree.

  3. I'll take word of mouth recommendations from fellow readers who share my tastes before relying on advertising. When I can't get that, I'll peruse the blogs of a book that interests me and read as many reviews as I can, paying close attention, as Ben suggests, to those blogs that have steered me in the right direction in the past or share the same predilections as me.
    I've read too many books considered by some to be best reads of the year candidates that have failed to live up the billing. I've been left wondering if I'm just a moron who doesn't get it (wouldn't be the first time) or if the reviewers aren't really being true to themselves and needed something to round out their list. It's probably more that Sam is right when he trots out the old 'different strokes for different folks' chestnut.