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Straw men and courage; clearly I need to fit the Tinman in here somewhere. - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Straw men and courage; clearly I need to fit the Tinman in here somewhere. [Aug. 28th, 2011|05:33 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Mostly in locked posts, I've seen people talking about how badly Connie Willis handled the British setting details in Blackout/All Clear, and as a result the comments I want to point to are also mostly in locked posts: it seems that a great many people feel that the appropriate response is to say something like, "Well, when was the last time you saw a book do every detail perfectly?"

Look, people. This is not just a straw man. It's a stupid straw man. Nobody is claiming that Connie Willis's books or anybody else's books need to be flawless to be worth reading. They are claiming that the flaws they're discussing are meaningful. If you don't think they're meaningful, say so. Have the guts to stand up and say that you feel the other person is nitpicking. If what you mean is, "I don't think getting the details of how your country handles things should be important to someone from my country," say so. If what you mean is, "I think that the detail you are talking about will not mislead anyone severely, and I think the author got at some very important emotional truths," say that too. But don't wave it away with, "Well, no one's perfect!" That may be the standard we'd like, but it's not the one anyone is actually using.

[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2011-08-28 10:49 pm (UTC)
It is, sadly, often the standard of evidence used to defend a popular author whose work people liked. Especially when what many people are saying essentially boils down to an unconsidered "*I* wasn't thrown out of the book, so your complaints are inoperative," or else "Why are you being so mean to Connie?"
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2011-08-29 02:47 am (UTC)
I was going to post the "Why are you being so mean to Connie?" line!
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2011-08-28 10:57 pm (UTC)
This. I enjoyed the books immensely, even though I have major issues with that particular universe (where cell phones never seem to have been invented). And even though I noticed that it had been insufficiently Brit-checked. (I have a leg up on your average American reader, having edited British-set fan fiction for several years.)

But I don't excuse those things, or give her a free pass. I wish she had got them right. I like the books despite them.
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From: swan_tower
2011-08-29 12:45 am (UTC)
Well-said. Speaking as someone on the authorial end of that particular issue, I agree with how the criticisms (and the defenses) should be phrased, and speaking as someone on the reader/viewer end, I try to approach it that way. I once had a lengthy debate with a friend about why I considered the factual errors at the beginning of the first X-Files movie to be a problem; she could not seem to understand why getting the mundane details of Texas wrong undermined the story's central schtick, i.e. the conspiracy-theory sense that all this weird stuff could be true. She didn't see why I should have that problem -- but at least we were having a debate about the right thing.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-08-29 01:55 am (UTC)
I find it particularly frustrating with 20th and 21st century settings in speculative fiction, because having a detail different from our consensus reality is not necessarily a mistake, and having it as a mistake makes it less useful as a clue or signal. I don't want it to always have to be large-scale stuff, though: President Dewey or President Lindbergh are clear signals that we are not in the same consensus reality as the one in which we currently live, but a US interstate highway system in 1920 would also be that. Or should be.

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[User Picture]From: autopope
2011-08-29 10:30 am (UTC)

I was writing a series of, ahem, paratime novels. While working on book 5 I realized I really had to telegraph the fact that this world was not our world, despite the point of divergence occurring after 9/11.

So in 2007 or thereabouts I used my LJ readers as a focus group and offered them a bunch of reference points to signal that we weren't in [our] Kansas any more:

* Saddam Hussein being killed in a coup prior to the Iraq invasion, and Chemical Ali suing for peace? Nope, didn't work.

* WMDs actually being used during the Iraq invasion, and B-52s carpet-bombing Baghdad? Nope, too subtle.

* Paris Hilton's celebrity drink-driving car crash death? That worked! But it's going to time out just as soon as PH becomes one with the last decade's B-list celeb roll of honour.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-08-29 11:45 am (UTC)
I'll be over here weeping quietly.
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2011-08-29 01:40 pm (UTC)
... Golly Moses. That's a little weird.
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[User Picture]From: autopope
2011-08-29 03:14 pm (UTC)
A large proportion of the US population do not engage with any news media that do not focus on the personal lives of celebrities and stars. Their news consumption is overwhelmingly a social bonding phenomenon rather than an attempt to make sense of the macroeconomic and historical context of the world in which they live.

(This is not unique to the USA; I'd say a slghtly -- only slightly -- smaller proportion of Brits and Australians do this.)

Also note that anyone aged under 16 today (in 2011) probably has only vague -- or no -- memories of the Iraq invasion. Which happened 8 years ago, when they were 8 or younger.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-08-29 03:38 pm (UTC)
This is the sort of thing the "things the current crop of 18-year-olds take for granted" lists almost always miss, partly I think because they are trying to avoid Being Political (which--bah), and partly because they base it on what year the 18-year-olds in question were born rather than when they got aware of various things. So when I say, for example, that no one has made an assassination attempt on a US President in my memory, what I mean is that I don't recall the one made on Reagan when I was not yet three. (Shooting at a building in which you hope someone might be does not really count, in my opinion.)
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[User Picture]From: janni
2011-08-29 04:41 pm (UTC)
There's this whole culture of "don't be mean!" and "writing books is hard!" around book reviews in some circles, which as you say, misses the point. "Don't be mean!" is fine advice for people (which is why personal attacks or insulting the author as a human being is right out), but it makes no sense for books, any more than complaining about a slightly off meal eaten at a restaurant because the chef's feelings might be hurt makes sense.

But then, I'm still having trouble (having not read the books yet) with the fact that Blackout / All Clear were considered as a single book by the Hugo folks, simply because the author felt they should be. Haven't lots of authors felt the publisher split their books unreasonably? And hasn't what the author felt generally been irrelevant before, and only the book-at-hand relevant, in isolation from same?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-08-29 04:59 pm (UTC)
I have trouble with that as well, Janni. I especially have trouble with it because there is no way on God's green earth Connie Willis is such an inexperienced n00b that she thought that the book she wrote could be published as written. Absolutely no way. And one of the consequences--I would have thought--of writing something so massive that it can't be published as one volume is that you get the volumes considered separately for awards. If not, why was Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle considered in parts? Because it clearly was. Among numerous other examples.

I haven't read Blackout/All Clear, but I have read Passage, and I am willing to state with confidence that this was not a long and lean story that could only have been told at this length. But even if it had been. Even then. Them's the breaks. If you write YA, you accept that your odds of a Hugo are lower than if you wrote adult; if you write fanfic, you accept that your odds of a Hugo are lower than if you wrote original work*. And if you write a big honkin' thing that cannot be published as one book, you have to accept that they are not, in fact, one book, and cannot be treated as such. Or at least you should.

*Original here referring to setting/characters rather than the execution of the story, which I understand varies as much in fanfic as anywhere else.
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[User Picture]From: janni
2011-08-29 05:07 pm (UTC)
Exactly. And it's not about how the author wants the book to be read. It's about how readers read it, regardless of the author's desires or whether they agree with the decisions the publisher made.
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[User Picture]From: between4walls
2011-08-30 01:49 am (UTC)

About treating them as one book

That didn't bother me because previous Hugo novel winners have been published in parts (though it doesn't bode well that the first example I found is They'd Rather Be Right, which was serialized).
I realize serials aren't the same as two physical books, but when they're published close together and are installments of one story, it doesn't seem different in principle.
To take another big honkin' thing, Les Miserables was initially published in five separate physical volumes (there's a nineteenth-century review of the first fifth here), which calls it "Fantine, the first of five novels under the general title Les Miserables.") Yet it wouldn't make sense to me to consider it five separate novels.
It would also have been weird if people nominated both books and one story took up two ballot slots.
When I reviewed it, I treated it as one work. You're right, it was not a long and lean story that could only have been told at this length. With some judicious editing, it could have been one longish volume.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-08-30 12:23 pm (UTC)

Re: About treating them as one book

I hate serials. Hatey hatey hate hate hate. I accept that many things that were serialized are really good, but I hate the initial serialization process. So saying, "It's like a serial!"...is not actually an argument likely to sway me.

Also, I accept that it doesn't seem different in principle to you, but in fact it does to me. The limit on serial short stories being considered as one published work for the Hugos is...whether they are then published as one work. Which cannot happen in the case we're talking about, at least not without Bible paper and a great deal more effort. What's the limit on series novels? Naomi Novik had the first three books of her Temeraire series come out very close together; should her publisher have made sure they all came out in the same calendar year so they could all be considered as one thing? Or Charlie Finlay's Patriot Witch series? When the publisher doesn't make sure that they come out in the same calendar year (say, October and February instead of February and October as Willis's publisher did), the work is clearly and obviously ineligible. Or do you disagree? And if you do disagree, what's the limitation on what should be eligible, since the way the Hugo rules are written would imply to me that this shouldn't have been eligible in the first place, and it appears that your take on them differs?

I am amused that your own review starts off by saying that half of the work is much stronger than the other half. When that happens normally, we nominate and award the volume we think is stronger, or try to. Why should that not have been an option here?
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[User Picture]From: between4walls
2011-08-31 11:44 pm (UTC)

Re: About treating them as one book

I do disagree that a work would be ineligible if the publisher didn't make sure the books came out in the same calendar year.
According to the rules, "3.2.6: Works appearing in a series are eligible as individual works, but the series as a whole is not eligible. However, a work appearing in a number of parts shall be eligible for the year of the final part."
This leaves room for either your or my interpretation of whether or not Blackout/All Clear should have been eligible (is it a series or a work in parts?) but it does clear up what happens if the publisher doesn't make sure they come out in the same year.
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2011-08-30 12:54 am (UTC)
If "don't be mean" is relevant, it should be "try to be fair to the book and the readers." So, criticize a book for what it got wrong, but don't criticize a book for not being a romance when it's making no attempt to be, or for being about medieval Spain when you were in the mood for a space opera. (You might criticize the marketing department for making you think it would be a space opera, but that's not the writer's fault.)
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2011-08-29 06:46 pm (UTC)
I'm still struggling with this, having finished A Discovery of Witches a few days ago. I should say first that it resonated profoundly enough in my head that I had to think for a bit about what would be the right sort of book to read next. (I do that all the time, of course, but usually it's based on what I currently feel like reading and not on having the last book still clanging around in my head.) One thing I've concluded is that the author did a whole cruiseship-load of research for the book. There are unimportant things she got wrong despite clearly having researched them (some small rowing details); things she got a bit wrong because she probably couldn't have researched them (what it's like rowing while trying to ward off a panic attack); lots of things that as far as I can tell she got exactly right (history and details of rare books); and at least one thing that is important to the plot that I'm pretty sure she got wrong (redacted for spoiler).

But that didn't diminish the impact of the book on me, just made me say "hey, wait..." after I emerged from that part of it. So I think even "meaningful" is, as your examples show, something that can cover a lot of ground.
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