Tag Archives: Bad Books

Kneejerk Nerdery, or How I Learned to Calm Down and Accept That I Like Some Crap Books

I’m not the most socially nerdy person you’re likely to meet. While my online presence basks in glorious nerdiness and geekery, in my offline life I personally know very few geeks/nerds/whatever term you wish to use. This isn’t a deliberate thing on my part, just that I had a weird – and somewhat, um, rumbustious – youth and have moved around a lot because of it, combined with the fact I now live in a small village in the middle of Northumberland. Those are the breaks. Because of that, I wasn’t really aware of the massive, clumping force of nerdrage. It never occurred to me that there was a SF&F community beyond the same twenty or thirty people who got their letters published regularly in magazines like Starburst or SFX.

Ignorance, I have to admit, was bliss in many ways. I liked what I liked, loathed what I loathed and got on with my life, in a state of cheerful unawareness about the simmering fury that lurks beneath the surface of so many SF&F fans when something they love does not receive universal acclaim, from the SF&F world at least if not necessarily the world at large.

Then the internet happened to me. The real internet, not just the bit with free downloads and pictures of women in their underwear. I learned about message boards, comment threads, blogospheres and so on and it was a joy to me, the poor schlub who’d never had the chance to discuss my love of Stargate: SG1 or my cordial dislike of Farscape in any depth with anyone. Very soon after that, I learned about people who take it personally if you don’t like what they like. Then I learned about the strange phenomenon of reviews being reviewed[1]. As I took more and more notice of, and participated a little bit in, the online SF&F community I learned about storms in teacups and internet hissy fits. It baffled me. To a certain extent, it still does. For years, I shook my head in confusion about it and wondered why people got so hot under the collar.

Then it happened to me.

If you’re British, aged 30 or over and have read fantasy novels for most of your life, chances are you’ve never seen a negative review of a David Gemmell novel. Oh, there are reviews that were couched in less than glowing terms all right, but nothing that outright eviscerated one. The late Mr Gemmell was one of our sacred cows, part of the 1980s and 1990s holy trinity of fantasy which also included Terry Pratchett and Robert Holdstock. Untouchable Titans, Colossi of praise and acclaim. Add to that the fact that Legend has a very deep and personal meaning for me[2], and this review cut me like a personal wound. A little bit of what made me, well, me was under attack.

This review right here. Go and read it, fellow fans of traditional heroic fantasy and feel your nerdrage building. But rather than comment on it immediately, come back here first and hear me out.

When I first read that review, on the day it went live as it happens, I felt my own nerdrage building. How dare he? How can anyone not love this book? Yes, it’s got its faults, but what book hasn’t? So what if the plot is kind of lumbering and sags in the middle? His handling of of the women characters in the book is risible, but it was his début novel so give him a break! He didn’t paint the invaders in the best light but tried to correct that in later novels! Clumsily, I admit, race wasn’t his strong point, but he was trying damn it! The prose isn’t great, but it’s not that sort of book!

(Hang on; nowhere in the review is there any critique of the prose style, so why am I on the back foot about it?)

That’s when I took a breath, deleted the comment I was busily typing and actually thought about my reaction. I wasn’t defending the novel, not really. I couldn’t actually refute any of the criticisms levelled at it. I was defending my love of it. Why did I feel the need to do that? I don’t have to justify my love for my wife, even though she enjoys Strictly Come Dancing and On the Buses[3]. I don’t have to justify my love of football, even though many footballers are complete dicks and the fans can be wearisome and annoying, as well as occasionally violent. I don’t have to justify my enjoyment of the first Transformers film, even though it’s dumb, loud, badly acted, badly plotted, badly written and obnoxiously edited, so why the defensiveness about a book?

It’s my belief, and one I’m sure that most habitual readers will agree with, that books are by far the most personal form of art. There is no other form of art, or entertainment if you prefer to separate the two, which is so utterly reliant on the consumer collaborating willingly with the creator. The writer creates the story, but it comes to life in a unique way for every person who reads it. Everyone who reads a book reads the same words, but no two people have the exact same experience. Hence, when someone tears apart a book you enjoy, they tear apart a little piece of you for liking it. They don’t usually mean to, chances are they don’t even know you, but they do.

This, more than anything else, goes to the heart of why book reviews in general, and fantasy book reviews in particular, generate such heated debate. It’s why the craven and disingenuous objection to ‘tone’ is so frequently a part of the occasional bout of nerdgassing that goes on when someone negatively reviews a book. If we enjoyed the book being dismissed, sneered at or even torn into little pieces and scattered to the four winds, we can’t escape the feeling that the person reviewing it is judging us negatively, as well as the book.

It’s why acrackedmoon of Requires Only That You Hate is so often criticised for the ‘tone’ of her reviews; it’s not that she doesn’t like a given book, it’s that she isn’t apologetic for it. It’s why Liz Bourke’s negative reviews provoke such interminable and circular bellowing about ‘tone’; it’s not about the negative review, it’s that she wasn’t nice about it[4]. It’s why there was so much bleating surrounding Christopher Priest’s recent criticism of the shortlist for the Clarke Awards; it wasn’t about the negative opinion, it was about the fact he didn’t dance on eggshells to prevent hurting people’s feelings.[5]

If a book is called out for sexism or racism, that doesn’t make you sexist or racist for enjoying it; if it’s called out for being rubbish that doesn’t imply that you are a lesser person for liking it.

That’s step one in learning to accept you like things that aren’t very good. Accepting that no one is insulting you personally (at least, not very often) by not liking the things you like.

Step two, and it’s a painful one, is admitting to yourself that just because you like something, that doesn’t make it good. While there’s no such thing as objectively good, there are too many variables between one person and another to declare a universal standard, there’s certainly such a thing as objectively bad and it’s OK to like things that fall into that bracket. Even by the standards of fast food outlets, McDonald’s is not good, in terms of taste, quality or healthiness (or, more disturbingly, ethical business practices); I still enjoy a Big Mac meal now and again. There is no possible scale by which the Hammer (ahem) classic Twins of Evil can be measured as a good film, but I shovel crisps down my gullet and enjoy it each time I see it. This is OK. It doesn’t make me a bad person and it doesn’t constitute a personal attack when someone points out that some of the things I enjoy are rubbish.

Stop trying to defend your bad taste; own it instead. Legend is rubbish. I love it anyway. Neither should you.

[1] Observational study indicates that reviews are classified as ‘good’ when the person mentioning it agrees with the review and ‘bad’ when they don’t.

[2] Long winded and boring story which means nothing to anyone but me, so I won’t waste your time with it.

[3] If you ever think you have to justify your love for another person, I mean one who doesn’t treat you badly or make you feel lesser in some way, give yourself a ding round the earhole, you over-analytical pillock.

[4] acrackedmoon and Liz Bourke also have to contend the with the joys of misogynistic spleen, condescending words like ‘shrill’ being used against them and, in a spectacular act of shooting your attempt to defend your entertainment choices in the foot, Liz Bourke was accused of being too intelligent to review a fantasy novel. I don’t care what you intend, that’s the only thing calling someone an “Ivory tower academic” implies.

[5] Yes, I have opinions on most of the novels acrackedmoon has reviewed, that Liz Bourke has reviewed and two of the Clarke nominations Christopher Priest ripped into (I’m behind with my reading this year). No, I’m not sharing them. That’s not the point of this post.

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