Thursday, 12 January 2012

On Reviewing, Critiquing, Analysing and So Forth

Mark Finn posted a most intriguing piece on the art of reviewing.  I'm glad I missed the kerfuffle on Good Reads, as it's exactly the sort of thing that would have me spluttering in disbelief and indignation, but Mark uses it as a background to an issue I'd been pondering:

When I was a book seller (for years and years) I was called upon to give my opinion about books on a daily basis. Now, this can be tricky. If I tell someone about a book that I hated, that I think sucked, and I say it's the greatest thing ever, then that's a lie. And if they buy that book based on my lie, and hate the book, then guess what? I've lost all of my credibility.

Over the years, I learned the value of tact. It's perfectly okay to say to someone asking about, say, Henry Miller, that "I'm not the best person to ask for a recommendation. I don't personally care for him. I think he's a little too gimmicky." If they asked for more, I'd tell them what made Miller's writing more of a blog trick than actual prose. But I'd always end with, "But that's just me. Other folks here love Miller and can tell you why he's great." I'm not putting down anyone who likes Miller. I'm just explaining why I don't. See how that works? Let me say this out loud, so there can be no misunderstanding: if you're not capable of doing that every time you hit a movie, or book, or record that you don't like, then you're not going to be an effective critic. You're just going to be another nameless, faceless voice in an already crowded Internet yelling "IT SUCKS" from the other side of the lake.

Take a moment to decide if you're a reviewer, or if you're just a reader. If you want to be a reviewer, then you've got to be brilliant. Or gifted. Or both. But if you just want to be a reader, and just want to be able to say what you think, without all of that other stuff getting in the way, then make the effort to say what you mean and mean what you say. Use your words. You're a reader. You of all people should know the value of written communication.

An issue I'd been wrestling with a bit: am I a reader, or a critic?  I've done a bit of both: I've offered my opinions on things without necessarily critiquing them, and I've also done breakdowns and analyses. But which of the two am I aiming for? In fact, why choose?

Marks, Smarts, and Smart Marks

Professional wrestling from the age of Robert E. Howard:
Vic Hill vs Jack Gacek

I'm going to bring in a bit of pro-wrasslin' parlance to illustrate.  In the world of wrestling, there were two types of people in the audience: the marks and the smarts.  Marks referred to anyone who wasn't affiliated with the business, and smart referred to those who were, but this became looser over time.  This dates back to the days when the staged nature of wrestling was a tightly-kept secret: marks were thus the ticket-buyers who went to see an actual competition: smarts were those who knew about it all along. If it sounds a bit like a con-job, it was: it's a bit of a shock to learn that the kayfabe mindset persisted even when it was fairly public knowledge that the bouts were predetermined.

The marks are those who enjoy wrestling purely for the entertainment: they go to see the heroes beat up the villains, thrill in the carnal spectacles of bodies being thrown and tossed and stretched in agony, all with the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy a play or film.  They don't care that the wrestlers are friends beyond the mat, or that the bouts are predetermined, or that they take incredible care not to injure themselves through the myriad bumps and tumbles they take on a daily basis: it's all about the theatre, the drama, the excitement.

The smarts, on the other hand, are "in" on it. Their enjoyment comes from an appreciation of the craft: the technique and finesse of a bout, the skill of a villain riling up the crowd, the organization and execution of a feud. They aren't getting caught up in the storyline or theatrics, they care little for the pomp and circumstance. It's like the difference between appreciating a painting for the subject and for the technique. Emotive and critical.

In modern times a middle-gound emerged: the smart mark, or "smark." These are the fans who enjoy both the theatrical and technical aspects of a wrestling bout: while they may criticize a match for blown spots or botched moves, they still cheer as the match reaches a fever pitch. Like many in-betweeners, they can be hated by the two opposing sides: marks hate them for challenging the suspension of disbelief and being overly-critical, while smarts consider them pretentious know-it-alls who think they know more than they do. Many wrestlers, especially those of an old school mindset, despise smarks, while younger generations are more accommodating.

Robert E. Howard, indeed any creative work, has its marks and its smarts.  Howard marks are the general fans: this can be the Girls, Grog and Gore crowd who just want to escape their dull lives for a bit of adventure, avid collectors, or those who simply enjoy well-written yarns regardless if they have Conan or not.  They may appreciate the fact that Howard has literary merit, and be aware of the technical and literary inspirations, but they aren't particularly invested in that aspect of Howard's work.  If we're going with the wrestling analogy, you're not supposed to look at Howard's work for anything beyond the yarn on the page: just sit back and enjoy the adventure.

Howard smarts are the scholars: those who delve into the stories, poems, letters, and Howard's own life, who analyse the possible literary antecedents, influences and parallels, the technical composition of a tale, and the extenuating circumstances leading to its writing and publication. As a rule of thumb, most Howard scholars are professionally involved in the literary realms, as authors, editors, publishers, professors or otherwise, while Howard fans can obviously be from all walks of life.

So we have Howard marks as fans, and Howard smarts as scholars: what about Howard smarks?  They'd be those fans who may enjoy the stories, but don't have a professional background in the literary field. Sounds like me, come to think of it (though I'm ecstatic that the relationship between Howard scholars and fans is far more friendly and productive than between smarts and marks) I think this, more than anything, has prevented me from being comfortable with the term "scholar," aside from simple lack of experience. I think I'll only start calling myself a scholar until I'm paid to write something on Howard: until then, I'm still just a fan.  A fan with aspirations - nominated for Emerging Scholar, after all - but a fan nonetheless.*

Being a young man, I'm still trying to sort out my voice, my goals in life, my methods, whatnot.  For a while, I was captivated by what is termed the Caustic Critic (well, if John C. Wright can use TV Tropes, I figure I may as well give in to the dark side).  The Nostalgia Critic, The Spoony Experiment, Phelous & the Movies, Atop the Fourth Wall, the Cinema Snob, Brows Held High, Zero Punctuation, and Red Letter Media presented something very interesting to me.

During that time I put some serious thought into producing my own review show in that vein: I have a background in acting, some technical expertise, and a little bit of knowhow.  Naturally, I first thought of Conan-related subjects.  There are certainly plenty of targets to unleash my flavour of broadsides against: the 1990s Conan comics, Conan the Adventurer, Conan the Destroyer, Kull the Conqueror, the live-action series, the worst of the pastiches, all of those things which need a good evisceration.  I even thought of doing it in "characters," with Good Scot talking about what I liked, and Bad Scot being somewhat less accommodating.  The two would be differentiated via elaborate costumes. Bad Scot would wear a bunnet.**

As time went on, my enthusiasm died down.  The internet has been inundated with the sires of Doug Walker and James Rolfe, and the legion of Angry Reviewers is only growing. Many have already taken on subjects I pondered addressing, such as Kull the Conqueror and at least one bad Conan comic. Luke Mochrie even pre-emptively "stole" my Good Scot/Bad Scot bit with Film Conscience.  This was about the time I realised I was spreading myself too thin over the Encyclopedia, Conan Movie Blog, this corner of the net, and real world commitments. I started to wonder if a review series really was a good idea after all.

Mark's post made me think about these reviews, why I enjoy them, and whether it would be a good idea to follow in their footsteps.  What would be gained from doing, say, a video review of the live-action Conan series that couldn't be done in text - or, for that matter, anything that Lagomorph hasn't already covered in his reviews? Is it really worth wasting more time on Kull the Conqueror when anyone with half a brain could see how terrible it is? After all, Blockbuster Buster's review of Kull the Conqueror barely dipped the surface of the many fathoms of failure, and I am most certainly not as generous towards Conan: The Island of No Return as The Last Angry Geek was. But is it really worth pointing out how the film's version of Kull betrays Howard's creation to a staggering degree when the film "homages" The Empire Strikes Back? People can kinda tell the film was bad even if you aren't a Howard fan. Misery loves company, perhaps?

Don Herron's comments and timely intervention from a true friend made me realise I'd been adrift at sea. Perhaps sometime in the future I'll reconsider, but for now, I can't afford to spread my butter over too much bread.

Not Everyone Is Wrong On The Internet

Another thing I'd been thinking about was my somewhat infamous crusading against People Who Are Wrong On The Internet.  Now, I make no apologies for calling out people on faulty research, presenting opinion as fact, or perpetuating falsehoods, but at the same time, I worry a bit that I might be seen as a much more unforgiving individual than I am in real life.

Let's take Fritz Leiber: Selected Tales. Neil Gaiman provides the introduction, and Charles over at Singular Points was bothered by a certain section that could be taken as an entirely unnecessary jab at Conan, and I can see his point:

I read Sword of Sorcery, the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser comics that DC comics brought out in 1973, and finally found a copy of The Swords of Lankhmar at the age of thirteen, in the cupboard at the back of Mr. Wright's English class, its cover (I would later discover) a bad English copy of the Jeff Jones painting on the cover of the US edition; and I read it, learned what the tall barbarian and the little thief were like in Leiber's glittering, half-amused prose, and I loved it, and I was content.
I couldn't enjoy Conan the Barbarian after that. Not really. I missed the wit.

Well, on the face of it, it doesn't sound particularly complimentary, but I'm willing to give Gaiman a pass on this one. That Gaiman couldn't enjoy Conan after reading the Lankhmar tales is something that disappoints me, but crucially, Gaiman phrases it so we know that this is his opinion. Gaiman is not saying Leiber is better than Howard, or that Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser are better than Conan, as if this was him speaking from an empirical study of the authors and their works - no, he's saying he liked it more, to the point where he couldn't enjoy Conan after reading it. It's an important distinction.

I can see Gaiman's point. Having read most of his novels like American Gods, Neverwhere, Good Omens, Stardust and enough of his short stories (including his insane Narnia fan-fiction), I think it says more about Gaiman's personal taste than being a jab at Conan per se.  Gaiman always struck me as one of those authors who couldn't take things seriously for long stretches: even with issues of immense profundity and seriousness, he couldn't sustain it entirely, and would frequently deflate the tension with some quirky humour. Just look at American Gods. It's kind of telling, because that "glittering, half-amused prose" is precisely what turned me off more than a few of the Lankhmar tales, until I came across the earlier stories with more of a sense of gravitas and urgency accompanying the wit. I can definitely see why he'd like the more "glittering, half-amused" tales.

Of more concern to me in the introduction is when he said Leiber produced some "stinkers," especially citing his science fiction: as would be familiar to anyone who followed the Fenner Flap, I can't understand the thinking behind including this.  Why would you bring that up in your introduction that's supposed to be selling me on an author? Especially considering there are SF stories within this very collection? But really, the majority of the introduction is pretty solid, complimentary and fair. No cheap pot-shots at other authors, no decrying of the current state of fantasy.

Best of all, in addition to obviously praising Leiber, he puts Robert E. Howard on the "literary road map" of great genre writers: even if I hate the misuse of "genre," the fact that he places REH alongside Lovecraft and Campbell earns me a thumbs up:

Twentieth-century genre SF produced some recognised giants—Ray Bradbury being the obvious example—but it also produced a handful of people who never gained the recognition that should have been their due. They were caviar (but then, so was Bradbury, and he was rapidly taken out of SF and seen as a national treasure). They might have been giants, but nobody noticed them; they were too odd, too misshapen, too smart. Avram Davidson was one. R. A. Lafferty another. Fritz Leiber was never quite one of the overlooked ones, not in that way: he won many awards; he was widely and rightly seen as one of our great writers. But he was still caviar. He never crossed over into the popular consciousness: he was too baroque, perhaps; too intelligent. He is not on the roadmap that we draw that takes us from Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell back to H. P. Lovecraft in one direction, from every game of Dungeons and Dragons with a thief in it back to Robert E. Howard, in another.
He should be.

All in all, a good introduction.  It's a shame Gaiman couldn't continue to enjoy Conan, but it's his loss.  Not everyone gets Howard and Conan, and at least he had the good grace to say it in such terms instead of taking the easy route and just belittling the two. So the Eldritch Dark forumers don't need to worry about me tearing into Neil Gaiman for daring not to enjoy Conan.  And my moratorium on talking the film means the many - so many - bad reviews of 2011's Conan have a minor reprieve.

That said, I never did get a response from the BBC...

*Of course, that could change easily: I'm planning on getting the Encyclopedia properly published, and while it isn't primarily intended for scholars (since they'd know all this stuff already), it should still work as a scholarly resource. And there's also the prospect of writing for Howard journals like Two-Gun Raconteur.
**I don't think I'd do stories or skits, though: if I wanted to act, I'd act. Not that I begrudge the various reviewers their fun, I just don't think it would be the sort of thing I'd do. My "style" would be more akin to SFDebris: observation, analysis and critique over comedy, narrative and exaggerated criticism. With the occasional Transformers joke.


  1. I appreciate the reference Al, but I think that for the most part.. with quite a few of the Conan Pastiches and almost all the remaining episodes.. there are almost no other voices than mine on the internet..

    I don't like to think of myself as Caustic. I try to find something good in everything I bring up. Sometimes I cannot. But I do try.

    But to be honest with you it got kind of tiring to read all those mediocre novels one after another. I'd really like to get back on that and finish the series.. but at this point I just am to busy with school. I did however just pick up the live action Conan series from the UK for a measly 15$ including shipping during an amazon sale.. that made it about 1/4th the cost of the set in the US. So who knows..

  2. I'm definitely a reader. I tend to review things that I enjoy and am always quick to point out that my opinion is only my opinion. For the most part I don't give bad reviews. If I don't like something, I usually don't review it. The recent Conan movie was an exception of course...

  3. If Finn was talking about the kerfuffle I think he's talking about, the initial review was actually a very well-reasoned critique that I didn't find at all insulting; the YA community being what it is, another author dove right in and starting slinging mud. I really wish a certain group of authors would read Martha Wells's post on how not to be an ass on the internet:

    Though I am in slight agreement that Goodreads is a den of scum & villainy. That's why I hang out there, after all.