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I'm not a sexbot, I'm just written that way
June 26, 2014 1:21 AM   Subscribe

In case you are thinking otherwise, I was not scouring the text for these solecisms, setting out to set you up, but like all people who are preparing a review I was keeping notes throughout the reading. The protocols around a first novel by a young writer do matter. I kept noting all the bad stuff (much more than reported here), but I was looking for good bits with which to try to encourage you. I found none. It gradually dawned on me that I was wasting my time. Barricade was unyielding in its awfulness. It was a book I did not wish to write about.
Christopher Priest is less than complimentary about fellow science fiction writer Jon Wallace's Barricade.

For fellow new boy Den Patrick, Priest's review was akin to being bullied on the first day at public school:
t’s one thing to beat a kid up on his (or her) first day at school, it’s quite another to carve your name into their forehead with a straight-edge razor. It's the worst sort of grandstanding, designed to cultivate an infamous reputation. It is ugly and unnecessary.
SF reviewer Damien Walters disagrees:
We need writers and reviewers like Priest who have the expertise and willingness to reflect back the problems in modern genre fiction. Because the problems are very real. Violence of the flattened, meaningless kind Priest pinpoints in Barricade is endemic in the genre. Too many books are trying to be action thrillers or First Person Shooters when neither of these are what books are good at doing.
Jon Wallace meanwhile, doing a blogtour to promote his book, talks about his main female character and why she is the way she is, one of the main sticking points in Priest's review:
Then, in my late twenties, I came to write Barricade: my first real attempt to write a complete novel: the perfect opportunity to showcase my improved skill at creating proper female characters.

Only something odd happened: I ended up doing the complete opposite. The lead female character, Starvie, is in many respects a construct of unrealistic male expectation and base desire. Why? Because she was designed that way.
Fellow writer Suw Charman-Anderson is unimpressed:
Many authors talk about being surprised by what comes out when they write, but the unexpectedness of their creative process does not relieve them of responsibility for what the final story says. Wallace wrote Starvie because he wanted to, because he chose not to stop himself, because he didn’t change her, or Kenstibec for that matter, as he edited and rewrote his work.

His juxtaposition of his efforts to write “believable, fleshed-out female characters” with the fact that he “ended up doing the complete opposite” implies that this was some sort of freak occurrence, inevitable and outside of his control. This is Wallace glossing over his conscious decision to write Starvie exactly as she reads, it’s him attempting to abdicate responsibility for how she turned out by blaming… what? The story itself? It doesn’t wash.
Finally, Cora Buhlert notes briefly that compared to some German reviewers, Priest is a pussycat.
posted by MartinWisse (149 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think it's silly to pretend that sf (and f, for that matter) isn't drowning in a tsunami of utter shit, speckled with a few interesting diamonds or flawed gems.

By the same token, I think one should remember that some the genre's most beloved authors and titles are indeed quite shitty, in fact some are spectacularly shitty and shit sells and it's obviously working out pretty well for a large number (if not the majority) of writers and readers.

I guess for me, if it looks like shit, and smells like shit, there's no need for me to taste it to confirm it's shit.

It's the cases where the appearance belies the content where the good reviewers can make a difference. Exposing the naked emperors or plucking diamonds from the rough. I do think advocacy is important, but there's no point in shooting fish in a barrel, it doesn't help anyone.

The author in question clearly wants to have his sexist cake and eat it too.
posted by smoke at 1:42 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]


The lead female character, Starvie, is in many respects a construct of unrealistic male expectation and base desire. Why? Because she was designed that way.

"Because I designed her that way."
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:49 AM on June 26 [24 favorites]


Most 'genre' anything is shit. The trick of course is finding the 10% gold. This is true of SF, horror, heavy metal, reggae, jazz, video games, you name it*


* Who said internet commenters? Out. OUT.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:51 AM on June 26 [6 favorites]


Christopher Priest is extremely smart, knows how to express himself and says what he thinks. more than that, if you read his reviews over the last few years (and his writing of course) he is obsessed with the craft of writing in spec fiction - which makes him almost unique as a reviewer in a genre full of bad writers and worse writing. Sadly, commentary on the quailty of the writing is usually an afterthought for most reviewers in the genre because they, (in part, unlike priest not having spent 45 years writing fiction) lack the skill to explain/enunciate what makes a writing good or bad in the way that priest does.

We could do with many more critics like him because alot of SF/F criticism is essentially bunk - not quite the advertorial model of games journalism or fashion but closer to that than serious critique.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 1:54 AM on June 26 [10 favorites]


The author in question clearly wants to have his sexist cake and eat it too.

So I thought for a minute about why this really bothers me and this is exactly it: acknowledging the problem only counts if you don't go on to perpetuate it.

He's utilizing the acknowledgement of misogyny as a cop-out, not as the first step in real change. It's like making an excercise plan and feeling good about your progress, then never following through.

It's just a way to excuse pat yourself on the back for something that you haven't actually done. It's more execrable because he's not ignorant; he knows that there is a problem but wants to indulge in these fantasies anyway.

I'm pretty tired of these "edgy" portrayals of female sexbots. It's not edgy if it's just another tired iteration of the same trope!

I haven't read the novel under review, but the excerpts give me the same gross feeling as The Wind-Up Girl--another story where the author created a female sexbot. I think book was decent overall, but the way that the female sexbot was written was obviously, uncomfortably written by a man--one who couldn't get far away enough from his own fantasies to make her actually subversive.

Dear male authors of sff: If you really want to be edgy, give your female characters the same narrative roles and depth as the male characters. That'll really blow their minds.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:06 AM on June 26 [21 favorites]


His last name is Wallace, not Wallance.
posted by fearthehat at 2:06 AM on June 26


I know many people, including people I'm friendly with and whose tastes - in general - I respect, consume vast amounts of SF I just cannot stomach, both in print and in pixel. How should a critic approach such things? I guess you take SF according to its target audience and if that's not the audience you as a critic want to address, you don't do the review. If you find something that's peculiarly good for its genre/subgenre, then by god it's good to say so. All critics aspire to being the bearer of good news, I hope. But if you care about style, craftsmanship and art and you find something with pretensions (of its own, or by its publicity) to such that it does not meet, then provided you can demonstrate why, get stuck in. Otherwise, what chance has the really good stuff got? If you love (as I do) SF at its best, what other approach works for you?

I haven't read Barricade. I doubt I will. But if it is as grotty as reported then a ruthless evisceration by a skilled critic is to be welcomed. I feel for the author, but you're asking your readers to give up a chunk of non-refundable life in exchange for your enrichment: if you're not up to the task, then don't be doing it.
posted by Devonian at 2:08 AM on June 26 [5 favorites]


A critic can accomplish one of two things (speaking broadly about a work). They can review it, or they can critically discuss it. The two can be intertwined, but are not exactly the same. In particular, a review is almost always, at its heart, a consumer guide. This book is not free, and Priest is providing us with a guide on whether we should purchase it or not. He does so admirably. Ultimately, if you find a book lacking in value you need to say that. It is unlikely that you will be able to do so without being harsh, and, to be honest, theres nothing wrong with making your review more readable by doing so, provided you stick to the facts.

As to Wallace's argument on his female character, it is indeed bunk, and obvious bunk at that. He sat down to write a novel involving a "real" woman and ended up writing a misogynist stereotype instead? Funny that.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 2:18 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


The sexbot character seems to be a trope of modern SF, but if then author is just including them in order to abuse them then they deserve everything you get in the way of bad reviews.

By way of example I hated the way the lead character in the Windup Girl was treated by her author - if you're going to systematically abuse your character† at least give them the minimum respect of describing their moment of glory when they take back power over their abusers, even if it is through the ritualised notions of physical dominance that substitute for character interaction in much off the shelf genre fiction. But no, in Bacigalupi novel we get page after page of lovingly crafted prose describing her abuse and a few words describing the aftermath of her revenge. Not an author I intend to read any more of personally.

By way of contrast, I don't remember Charlie Stross's sexbot book feeling exploitative in this fashion. Admittedly, his POV character has the (inevitable?) borderline non-consensual sex (with a spaceship IIRC), but as a reader, I didn't feel that Stross was writing a thinly veiled excuse for author & reader titillation.

At this point I am very over authors motivating characters by raping them. The next novel that does this is likely to get thrown against the nearest wall.
posted by pharm at 2:20 AM on June 26 [11 favorites]


Theodore Sturgeon set the original standard: "90% of everything is trash/crap/crud/$#!+". But 'internet commenters'? The open, unedited and usually unmoderated nature of the Internet obviously raises that to 98-99%. (Which is why I admire the MeFi Mods & Members for keeping it down under 80% here)

But if the case of "Barricade" fits an all-too-common pattern in many parts of pop culture (especially SF writing), this negative review will sell more books than a 'meh' review. And yes, I'd love to hear MeFi'sOwn cstross' opinion on this.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:23 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


The titular character in The Windup Girl wasn't the lead, she was the MacGuffin. The environment ministry girl was the lead, and her revenge didn't happen offscreen.
posted by Phssthpok at 2:26 AM on June 26


She got a fair chunk of point of view time in the book, with (IMO) an outsized chunk of it being spent describing her being repeatedly raped.
posted by pharm at 2:32 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


She got a fair chunk of point of view time in the book, with (IMO) an outsized chunk of it being spent describing her being repeatedly raped.

I haven't read Windup Girl since it came out, but that matches my memory of the book. I ended up feeling like I was reading a flawed draft that should have been reworked before publication but wasn't.

If the review is correct, this book has action (read: violence) with no reaction, poor writing, and an unreflective portrayal of the main female character. (And why is she named "Starvie" anyway?) Based on the author's response, the unreflective and poor writing charges look more than substantiated; personally at this point I'm tired of and uninterested in reading endless action without reaction but I know it remains popular and certainly was a staple of the genre books I loved when I was young.

Much of the book reads like an inverse zombie novel: the engineered Ficials are the normals, while the Reals, who appear to spend their days wandering around in groups and attacking the Ficials, are of course the substitute zombies. I assume this was intended to be funny or paradoxical? It is in fact neither.

On the contrary, this sounds to me like far and away the most interesting element there, and I'd read a book that was centered on this. (And have -- that tension goes back at least as far as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and probably much further.)
posted by Dip Flash at 2:48 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


I used to read almost entirely SF-inal books, but more and more books like Barricade started cropping up in my local library; books that had some of the trappings of SF (a grimdark future and robot people, for instance) but ignored the exploration of ideas in favour of mindless violence. Usually with a few sequels in the pipeline too, because modern publishing loves a series. These terrible books need to be called out on their shit, especially when perpetuating the squicky sexbot category.
posted by The River Ivel at 2:51 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


His last name is Wallace, not Wallance.

And that's why we need an edit window on posts as well.

Or at least commenters polite enough to not notice these things
posted by MartinWisse at 3:09 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


The mods are usually happy to fix that sort of thing if you ask.
posted by JaredSeth at 3:28 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Because she was designed that way.

What a peculiar time to make use of the passive voice. Designed by whom, I wonder?
posted by rmd1023 at 4:10 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


In the grimdark future of SF, there is only sexism and fanservice.
posted by Avenger at 4:11 AM on June 26 [15 favorites]


“Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”
--Jean Sebelius
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:14 AM on June 26


Designed by whom, I wonder?

Milton the engineer, from Sinfest.
posted by sukeban at 4:15 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


I don't really understand why a first novel, of no great literary ambition, which is apparently not very good, is getting this much attention.
posted by Segundus at 4:23 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]


“Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”
--Jean Sebelius


Counterpoint.
posted by logicpunk at 4:26 AM on June 26 [23 favorites]


“Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

Oh yeah?
posted by ersatz at 4:26 AM on June 26 [5 favorites]


Please note said statues existed when Jean was a teenager.
posted by ersatz at 4:27 AM on June 26


I don't really understand why a first novel, of no great literary ambition, which is apparently not very good, is getting this much attention.

And currently:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #142,524 in Books
posted by empath at 4:38 AM on June 26


Given how wide and varied Ruskin's career was I'm not sure he counts as a critic for these purposes.

The Ebert statue on the other hand pretty much destroys thesis.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:53 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


Oh man. The spec fiction industry needs more reviews like these. So many crap stories told badly. Ever has it been so, of course.
posted by clvrmnky at 4:56 AM on June 26


I have two impulses here:

1. Don't waste my time, so don't give good reviews to bad books.

2. Don't punch down.

The solution is to only write positive reviews of really worthy books, and just ignore the schlock.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:14 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]


The Books Smugglers also did not like it.
At one point when reading Barricade it struck me how there were only but a few women present in this narrative. The three main characters (two men, one woman) travel around Britain for weeks and they meet dozens of people and barely any of those are female. This world seems to be populated mostly by “he” (soldiers, survivors, fighters, scientists, workers, heroes and anti-heroes ) with the occasional “she” (pleasure “bots”, incompetent supervisors, victims, a kindly old woman, a dead wife and one rapist) thrown in for good measure.
They're also annoyed at whatever happened to Starvie at the end.

The problem with ignoring the schlock is that sometimes the schlock gets a big push and then you never get any warning when books aren't actually any good.
posted by jeather at 5:19 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


> "The solution is to only write positive reviews of really worthy books, and just ignore the schlock."

No, thanks. I read a lot of books, and a this would cut the utility of reviews considerably.

Not to mention that proper criticism isn't "punching down". It isn't even actually punching.
posted by kyrademon at 5:23 AM on June 26 [15 favorites]


> I don't really understand why a first novel, of no great literary ambition, which is apparently not very good, is getting this much attention.

If the book is emblematic of a trend, Priest is singling out one novel but is using it as an object lesson regarding the problems similar titles have in common.

In the 80s, there was a fresh wave of swords 'n' sorcery fantasy trilogies, hot on the heels of Dungeons & Dragons' popularity, most of which exhibited similar rote mechanics. In that case, the characters would face an insurmountable challenge, win, and all-but-literally level up. Then do it again.

This seems to be a similar sort of thing, but set in a computer-game-stock dystopia where swarms of baddies have to be dispatched/evaded/manipulated through a series of increasingly difficult puzzle traps. The only professions people seem to hold are game-relatevant story-relevant: People who make or carry weapons or plot-relevant props, people who can heal, and people who can harm.

If this can help nip in the bud the prospect of hundreds of video game derivative counterparts to Sword of Shannara, I for one will be happy.
posted by ardgedee at 5:30 AM on June 26 [10 favorites]


I can understand not wanting to punch down, because the reviewer was probably once a young author themselves who showed a lot of promise but hadn't yet filed off all the rough edges in their writing; Priest acknowledges this at the start of his own review. But your job in a review should be to help the potential reader, not give a boost to someone that might end up on an SFWA committee with you someday. That's why I've come to mistrust in general the reviews that at least one writer writes on a prominent blog; in one case, I bought the book on his recommendation, and it was quite awful.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:33 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


It's important, at least on occasion, to have an object lesson in what's terrible, so that others may avoid the same error.
posted by aramaic at 5:34 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


I don't really understand why a first novel, of no great literary ambition, which is apparently not very good, is getting this much attention.

The reason it is getting the attention it is ("much" seems a stretch) is because Priest is a high-profile figure whose review has re-opened a couple of fault lines within the SF community, namely the acceptability of negative reviews and the treatment of women in fiction. Or, in other words, exactly what Martin Wisse set out in his post.
posted by ninebelow at 5:38 AM on June 26 [5 favorites]


Sometimes you just have to roll up a newspaper, smack a book on the nose and say "Bad book! Bad, bad book!" in a disappointed voice. It's not out of meanness, it's trying to prevent it from happening again.
posted by delfin at 5:47 AM on June 26 [16 favorites]


But how did it end up on Gollancz? I practically grew up between yellow covers...
posted by Devonian at 5:57 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


Not to mention that proper criticism isn't "punching down". It isn't even actually punching.

Priest's review is clearly punching. Maybe that means it's not proper criticism? It's not clear.

A negative review by a prominent novelist against a newcomer has the following characteristics: 1. It redounds to the benefit of the prominent person. 2. It harms the reputation of the newcomer.

A lot of novelists you love had crappy first novels. They got better. When the world champ takes a newbie to task so publicly, it effectively ends their career before they can improve.

Ignore them, fine. But don't make a name for yourself as a tough guy on the backs of those weaker than you. That's bullying.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:03 AM on June 26


As a relative n00b to this genre, and a former editor of a book review journal, I really appreciate reviews and critiques that go beyond "This is the plot, this is my opinion on whether or not you should buy the book," - not that those don't have their place. I don't have a longstanding knowledge of the history of this genre, who's done what over the years, which modern authors are paying homage to (or ripping off) writers from decades ago, what the tropes are, and so on. I look forward to reading all the links here, and everyone's comments on them. FPPs and askmes on this genre have been really helpful in me figuring out how and where to get my feet wet in this enormous pool of literature.

Because she was designed that way.

And that made me laugh out loud. If he didn't know he had suddenly switched to passive voice ("someone else who is not me and did not write this book magically made this happen!), then he needs a better editor and more intensive critiques of his drafts. If he did and though readers wouldn't notice, then I don't even.
posted by rtha at 6:07 AM on June 26 [6 favorites]


Not wishing to be tactless, I think Priest would be forgiven if he were to say that he has a dwindling amount of time available on this planet, and he would like to spend less of it reading bad first novels.

One editorial strategy might be to make a list of characters' identifying traits - age, gender, race, weight and so forth - and use dice to reassign the characteristics of all the characters at copyediting stage. It wouldn't make the prose any better (and, to be honest, that's the most offensive thing for me. Ironically, perhaps), but it might make the books more interesting. This would be something that the publisher could invoke at their discretion.

If the author were to complain when they get the first proof that their musclebound Norwegian hero is now an endomorphic Thai woman and their curvaceous sexbot is now a 70-year-old Peruvian man, they could just be directed to a line in the small print of their contract that they'd not noticed before.

If they were then to go ahead with their second novel with the same publisher they might take more care to create characters that would withstand the changes.
posted by Grangousier at 6:11 AM on June 26 [6 favorites]


"If the author were to complain when they get the first proof that their musclebound Norwegian hero is now an endomorphic Thai woman and their curvaceous sexbot is now a 70-year-old Peruvian man, they could just be directed to a line in the small print of their contract that they'd not noticed before. "

Lolita in a new light.
posted by I-baLL at 6:16 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


Be great if he just wrote the review without feeling the need to swirl his cape about every couple of paragraphs. Sure, you're right. Get on with it and stop taunting the other guy.
posted by aesop at 6:17 AM on June 26


Ignore them, fine. But don't make a name for yourself as a tough guy on the backs of those weaker than you. That's bullying.

Would you care to elaborate on this? Do you think Priest had a moral obligation to ignore the novel, or just that he had an obligation to be gentler?

("Professorial" is how I'd characterize that review. I've heard harsher criticisms in writing classes. I remember when a friend of mine got a piece back with the comment "You have nothing to say and you do that poorly.")
posted by octobersurprise at 6:18 AM on June 26 [27 favorites]


It would be one thing if Barricade was a self-published eBook, but it's not. It's backed by a publishing house, who are clearly throwing a bit of marketing dollars into sending out books for review. It seems like a huge disservice to the genre to say, "Well, if I think the book is terrible, I won't review it." How about, "If you don't want me to read and review the book, then don't send it to me."

Priest's review is clearly punching.

Sure, he's punching the book, but surely we can separate criticism of a work from criticism of the author? Priest seems almost overly concerned about the author's feelings, in my opinion.
posted by muddgirl at 6:22 AM on June 26 [12 favorites]


My own feeling is, if I were Priest, I wouldn't want to spend my time reading bad novels. But saying I wouldn't want to do it is different from saying it shouldn't be done.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:23 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


"Unyielding in its awfulness" is "professorial"? That's not how I give feedback: maybe your professors are assholes? I bet if Priest's Indoctrinaire had received a massive take down from Kurt Vonnegut, he'd never have had a chance to write The Prestige.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:24 AM on June 26


I thought it was a fair, constructive and not really that harsh review. Not every first novel is worthy of a good review. Not every first novel is worthy of getting published. A lot of first novels aren't. I don't really read sci-fi, but I've read Christopher Priest and it strikes me that having someone of his talent and relative celebrity take the time to critique your use of language and character is sort of cool, even if his ultimate message is, "This one kinda sucked. Do better next time."

Some books are just not very good (though, of course, with all things subjective, you're entitled to disagree). No one is obligated to pretend otherwise. And criticism that is only positive is not criticism.
posted by thivaia at 6:34 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]


"Unyielding in its awfulness" is "professorial"?

It may not be professorial, but it's also not mean. Mean would be something like "Wallace is a hack" or "Wallace's first book is awful and he should never, ever write another one." etc.

This review does not make the mistake of equating the novel with the novelist. It even states right up front that this is a first novel, and that Wallace's later efforts will likely be much better.
posted by muddgirl at 6:34 AM on June 26 [5 favorites]


A bunch of years ago, Dale Peck garnered a huge amount of attention when he began a piece with "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation."

Moody wasn't a new novelist at the time. But criticism has a very long history of this sort of very opinionated opinion. I prefer when it's pointed at the work and not the writer, personally, but it's certainly not unheard of.
posted by rtha at 6:39 AM on June 26


Furthermore I think extended reviews of books that the reviewer didn't like serve an important purpose, too. There are readers out there who WANT books with soulless action and sexbots set in some dystopia where humans are zombies. If Pierce had just written a one-line review "I did not like this book", or no review at all, the reader is much much less informed.
posted by muddgirl at 6:41 AM on June 26


A review isn't feedback. A book review is an initial assessment, presenting first impressions to a reader with the aim of aiding commercial decision making. Criticism, on the other hand, is about evaluating a work's function within the larger context of it's genre and tradition.

Priest's review here is quite mild. I was expecting something savage, but it boils down to, "Your book is filled with mindless violence, poorly described, and your treatment of female characters...well, I'm not even going to get into that."

Priest seems to honestly care about SF and, moreover, about the quality of writing within SF. I wish more SF writers were like this.
posted by fryman at 6:42 AM on June 26 [13 favorites]


"Unyielding in its awfulness" is "professorial"?

Eh. I haven't read the book. Maybe it really is that awful. But it seems like you're saying that regardless of the quality of the book in hand, when reviewing it a critic is obliged to consider the writer's possible future career. I see where you're coming from—and I won't dispute the effect a powerful critic can have on a young writer's career—but it seems like you're laying a heavier burden on critics of first novels than on the authors of first novels.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:43 AM on June 26 [5 favorites]


Part of this is that in literature there's a big tradition of punching down, and it sucks. People pride themselves on that behavior, they go out of their way to show disdain, and the literary reviewers make names for themselves that way. I'd like that not to happen in sci-fi, especially when the alternative model (praise good work, ignore bad) is more effective.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:46 AM on June 26


In addition to punching down and bullying, maybe we could work in something about Priest's privilege for the trifecta.
posted by adipocere at 6:48 AM on June 26 [8 favorites]


I bet John Ringo would be more kind.
posted by pseudocode at 6:49 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Angela Carter did a lot with reviews of terrible books, in that she used them as a window into what was happening in society at large. Her reviews of Judith Krantz's Scruples and Princess Daisy were scathing, but also wonderful essays on the nature of capitalism, lust, and romance, among other things.

I sort of wish Priest had taken this tack and written an essay on what this book said about our obsessions with violence, women, the obvious video-game effect, etc. etc. But maybe there wasn't enough "there" there, or maybe it was simply too tedious to get through and he had better things to do with his time.

If you write a book, you have to accept a) that not everyone is going to like it and b) that some people might dislike it quite vociferously. I don't think critics have any obligation to pull their punches for somebody who has managed to sell a novel, even their first novel. So long as the criticism is about the book and not about "Writer X smells bad and his mother dresses him funny" it's fair.
posted by emjaybee at 6:52 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


Question for Mr. Den Patrick, who found the review ugly and unnecessary: What is a "straight-edge razor?"
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:59 AM on June 26


It appears to be full of weightless violence which is nevertheless described in rote, fetishistic detail, and one of the characters is a sexy woman who is objectified about as much as it is possible to objectify a female character (in that she is literally a sex object), so yeah, John Ringo probably would have found a lot of good things to say about it.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:00 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]


Question for Mr. Den Patrick, who found the review ugly and unnecessary: What is a "straight-edge razor?"

It's another term for a straight razor.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:02 AM on June 26


It appears to be full of weightless violence which is nevertheless described in rote, fetishistic detail, and one of the characters is a sexy woman who is objectified about as much as it is possible to objectify a female character

So this is basically a Mickey Spillane knock-off, but with robots and zombies?
posted by thelonius at 7:05 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


It's another term for a straight razor.

Yeah. I didn't really think it was a ruler you could shave with. It just seems ironic that someone so sensitive to unnecessary ugliness would use that particular construction.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:11 AM on June 26


That's why I've come to mistrust in general the reviews that at least one writer writes on a prominent blog; in one case, I bought the book on his recommendation, and it was quite awful.

I can only assume you mean Cory Doctorow, and oh ghods are his reviews ever untrustworthy. The man's as apt to sing the praises of a gourmet meal as he is an upended tin of Spam dripping fat.
posted by johnofjack at 7:14 AM on June 26 [10 favorites]


My own feeling is, if I were Priest, I wouldn't want to spend my time reading bad novels.

I'm pretty sure Gollancz didn't print "This Is A Bad Novel" on the cover of their review copies.
posted by ninebelow at 7:28 AM on June 26


Ignore them, fine. But don't make a name for yourself as a tough guy on the backs of those weaker than you. That's bullying.

How about not establishing yourself as an "edgy" new novelist on the backs of women? That seems like a bigger deal than writing a tough review.

I appreciate knowing which books to avoid. I don't like paying money to feel marginalized and demeaned, weirdly enough. It makes me feel like I've been cheated. I might go ahead and buy a book that has enough redeeming qualities, but this one appears to have none. Maybe the terrible sexism wasn't the main focus of the original review--just one of its several points--but the review as a whole is what tells me not to buy this book.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:29 AM on June 26 [21 favorites]


2. Don't punch down.

The solution is to only write positive reviews of really worthy books, and just ignore the schlock.

This is a good reductio ab absurdum of how vapid and silly "don't punch down" become when one treats it as a universal moral commandment handed down from Mt. Sinai, rather than what it is, which is a useful rule of thumb to be evaluated in context. When you're at the point of abolishing negative book criticism because it's not consistent with a slogan, it means you're taking the slogan too seriously.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 7:39 AM on June 26 [28 favorites]


I can only assume you mean Cory Doctorow, and oh ghods are his reviews ever untrustworthy.

Yeah, I'm not one to join in on the rote Cory-bashing but yes, he does single out for praise and recommendation things -- not just books -- on some sort of categorical grounds: a thing that he feels ought to be good because of some association with something he approves of, rather than actually is good.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:42 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


A lot of novelists you love had crappy first novels. They got better. When the world champ takes a newbie to task so publicly, it effectively ends their career before they can improve.

Well, there are a couple of things. First of all, if a first novel is this bad, why should there be a second? Second, you are assuming that Priest is writing primarily for the author as opposed to Priest's readership and, perhaps, other new authors. I know Priest writes it as a direct letter to the author, but that's a piece of artifice in itself -- he distributed it for general readership (this is a trick that goes back at least to the 18th C, maybe the mid-17th) . SF&F are currently awash in "dystopias," and a lot of authors seem to take that as license to be nasty rather than to construct social commentary (which is what dystopias are usually used for). If Priest's article causes other aspiring writers to rethink their first novels, then that's a good service, in my book. Lastly, Priest is not especially savage in this review. He's not nice, but I've read more brutal takedowns from UK SF critics (David Langford has some extremely memorable ones).

So, yeah. A lot of novelists have had crappy first novels. Many others have had OK or brilliant first novels. I'm not sure why an author (and their editors) should be let off the hook for that.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:46 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


So long as the criticism is about the book and not about "Writer X smells bad and his mother dresses him funny" it's fair.

"Sixteen bitchy comments from John Simon’s Movies Into Film: Criticism 1967-1970."

(John Simon, about whom Ebert wrote, "I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can't help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat.")

I'm pretty sure Gollancz didn't print "This Is A Bad Novel" on the cover of their review copies.

Imagine how much easier that would make things if they did.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:47 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]


This is a good reductio ab absurdum of how vapid and silly "don't punch down" become when one treats it as a universal moral commandment handed down from Mt. Sinai

It's amusing to note that your metaphor refers to one of the most extreme examples of critical punching down in all of Judeo-Christian mythology.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:49 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


Imagine how much easier that would make things if they did.

Indeed. Until then though, we'll just have to rely on professionals like Priest to help us out.
posted by ninebelow at 7:50 AM on June 26


Ignore them, fine. But don't make a name for yourself as a tough guy on the backs of those weaker than you. That's bullying.

Priest's review is not bullying, it's pest control.
posted by jamjam at 7:54 AM on June 26 [8 favorites]


This is nothing new; over half a century ago, Damon Knight was savaging incompetent sf writing and raising hackles, notably for his takedown of the much-loved E. E. "Doc" Smith. In fact, this guy, though he appreciates the general brilliance of Knight's criticism, still whines about the "shallow" attack on Smith! Dude, I enjoyed the Lensmen books too, but the writing is pure crap.

There's an inherent dichotomy in all reviewing: doing right by the reader is often (as here) being cruel to the author. There's no way around it, and people who are too gentle of soul probably shouldn't review books. (And people who are too thin of skin probably shouldn't publish them.)
posted by languagehat at 7:55 AM on June 26 [6 favorites]


2. Don't punch down.

I think part of the problem here, too, is that the author, Wallace, is already punching down at women and adding insult to injury by saying, in effect, "what's interesting is that I WANTED to write a well-rounded female character, hell, guys, I tried, but gee whiz female characters just don't want to be written so here we go, have a sexbot, but don't get mad at me for this because I did TRY. Turns out 'proper' female characters just aren't possible!" (not a literal quote).

I understand not using a position of relative power against those without it but in this case, I think that started with Wallace and not with Priest. When one author has begun by "punching down", I think a criticism of that is really useful because it's helpful to know and think about how this book treats its female characters. It feels a lot less like punching down if you're defending a marginalized group using your criticism.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:56 AM on June 26 [19 favorites]


I agree that Wallace's comments about his female character are abhorrent, but I don't think "she was designed that way" is a dodge. Isn't he saying that she was designed that way by the characters in the novel that designed the sexbot?

Still a copout, clearly, but not necessarily an odd switching to passive voice to abdicate responsibility for writing the book.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 7:57 AM on June 26


By claiming that it's OK that she's a passive sex-bot (or whatever) because she was designed that way by some organization in the book is still an odd switching to passive voice to abdicate responsibility for a decision that he made. It's not like the "organization" that designed the sexbot is a historical fact. Wallace designed the organization. Wallace designed the sex-bot.
posted by muddgirl at 8:02 AM on June 26 [12 favorites]


Part of this is that in literature there's a big tradition of punching down, and it sucks.

A big Fenimore Cooper fan, eh?
posted by kmz at 8:02 AM on June 26 [8 favorites]


Isn't he saying that she was designed that way by the characters in the novel that designed the sexbot?

Those characters are actually fictional and he created them and made their decisions for them.
posted by jeather at 8:03 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]


I agree that Wallace's comments about his female character are abhorrent, but I don't think "she was designed that way" is a dodge. Isn't he saying that she was designed that way by the characters in the novel that designed the sexbot?

Still a copout, clearly, but not necessarily an odd switching to passive voice to abdicate responsibility for writing the book.


I mean, on the one hand, yes, but on the other hand he's the one who created the characters in the book; he's the only person in this scenario with any actual autonomy. Ultimately, the design is his. I think the dodge is that he CHOSE to create a "designed" female character instead of an actual person, and this is made all the worse by his claim that he was going to Get It Right but instead decided to explore the the field of Getting It Wrong, and it's kind of exhausting to keep having these situations where writers come up with increasingly sophisticated justifications for why they didn't actually include real women in their works. Saying "but it was on purpose!" doesn't really cut it for me.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:04 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Obviously I haven't read the book, but it really is hard to imagine any context in which that fight scene excerpt isn't terrible, artless and unreal dreck.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:06 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


By claiming that it's OK that she's a passive sex-bot (or whatever) because she was designed that way by some organization in the book is still an odd switching to passive voice to abdicate responsibility for a decision that he made. It's not like the "organization" that designed the sexbot is a historical fact. Wallace designed the organization. Wallace designed the sex-bot.

Sure, I get that. Yes, at the end of the day, everything came from Wallace's head. I just mean that the sentence itself makes internal sense, even if it's still essentially bullshit. He's not saying "some magical force took over my body and wrote this character", he's saying "the character is how she is because of the intentions of other characters in the book who created her in the fictional universe." He just then leaves out the fact that he created those characters and their motivations.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:09 AM on June 26


He just then leaves out the fact that he created those characters and their motivations.

Yes, and that elision is what people are complaining about. The character ISN'T how she is because of the intentions of other characters in the book. Those characters are fictional. They don't have intentions separate from Wallace's.
posted by muddgirl at 8:10 AM on June 26


The discussion here about "punching down" entirely fails to address what went on in Priest's review. If the author showed promise in his work the reviewer could be forgiven if he handled it too gently, or cursed if he was too cruel. This book was bad and lacked any signal qualities of promise. By saying so, Priest not only helps the reader-as-consumer, he points at finger at a major publishing house for voluntarily vetting the bad book. The stakes would be different if this had been somebody's vanity project and Priest had decided to savage it publicly.

> First of all, if a first novel is this bad, why should there be a second?

More pointedly, Jon Wallace now has a challenge to either better himself or prove that he lacks sufficient capacity for self-criticism to discern his own good work from his bad. If he tried to write a strong character and ended up with a sex puppet, he could have chosen to join the ranks of good writers who shelve good ideas that go badly. Instead he joined the ranks of hacks who'll churn out whatever they can sell.
posted by ardgedee at 8:11 AM on June 26 [5 favorites]


. . . his claim that he was going to Get It Right but instead decided to explore the the field of Getting It Wrong,

Especially since (from what I can tell), it seems that his decision to make the vapid sexbot came at the expense of a fully-realized women. If he were actually committed to getting it right, he would not have such a limited stock of female characters to draw from. Maybe he could have kept his sexbot if he had made a larger effort to create other, better female characters.

He's not saying "some magical force took over my body and wrote this character", he's saying "the character is how she is because of the intentions of other characters in the book who created her in the fictional universe.

I think the problem isn't so much the "she was designed that way" is the excuse, but the fact that he skips over his responsibility of designing her to be 'designed that way'.
posted by Think_Long at 8:13 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


I've mentioned before the Watsonian vs Doylist concept, where a Watsonian perspective is looking from the perspective of a character in the book (tv show, comic book, movie) and gives in-universe explanations, while the Doylist perspective considers the book as something created.

Watsonian explanations are important -- you need to be able to use those for your story to have any universe that is consistent. And sometimes they're a lot of fun to do. But if you just use Watsonian explanations ("well, that world just IS sexist/racist/whatever"), you never get to the basic concept that those worlds are actually fictional worlds and the writer decided to make them sexist/racist/whatever.

And essentially, people are sick of hearing "well, the world [I made up] totally is sexist I had no choice", so they're rejecting Watsonian explanations from creators and also other fans, because it seems to be a way to excuse sexist/racist/whatever worldbuilding and storytelling.
posted by jeather at 8:13 AM on June 26 [13 favorites]


2. Don't punch down. The solution is to only write positive reviews of really worthy books, and just ignore the schlock.

It's not "punching down" to pan a lousy book if it has been overhyped or overpraised or comes from someone who can do better, or ought to do better. It isn't punching down to trash Dan Brown, for example. But yes, there's an interesting question here about who is best served by a top-notch writer beating up a a bad book by a newcomer as opposed to just ignoring it and letting it die of neglect. I think the answer is "the newcomer", if he has any potential to do better.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:17 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


Sure, I get that. Yes, at the end of the day, everything came from Wallace's head. I just mean that the sentence itself makes internal sense, even if it's still essentially bullshit.

Except that the primary purpose of the passive voice as it is used in common English is to remove the subject from the sentence and, thereby, deny agency and responsibility. There is a reason why it is beloved of politicians, lawyers, and corporations (and scientists, where it is more excusable but still somewhat complicated/complicating.

Remember: Wallace is a writer defending himself. Either he's using the passive voice as a dodge, in which case we are under no obligation to let him off the hook, or he doesn't understand the passive voice, in which case he needs to go and study grammar a bit more.

Yes, one could write a sexbot where the point of the character was that she was constructed to be a sexbot, so her decisions and actions are constantly constrained by the sexual and ideological biases of her creators, but that does not sound like what Wallace was doing at all.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:18 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


I don't think "she was designed that way" is a dodge.

Having read this piece, it's a dodge because he isn't quite willing to just say "Look guys, I wanted to write about a sexy sexbot, okay?" It's *cough* dressed up instead in "Oh I'm writing about a future that makes people and oh of course such a future will have sexbots in it. I'm just following the implications of my future." But, in fact, it looks like he's doing anything but that. It's a dodge because he isn't writing about the implications of a future with sexbots, he's just using his sexbot as decoration.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:20 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


Sure, I get that. Yes, at the end of the day, everything came from Wallace's head. I just mean that the sentence itself makes internal sense, even if it's still essentially bullshit. He's not saying "some magical force took over my body and wrote this character", he's saying "the character is how she is because of the intentions of other characters in the book who created her in the fictional universe." He just then leaves out the fact that he created those characters and their motivations.

I'm really really not trying to attack you, Ben Trismegistus, but continuing to argue this point in really hyper-specific detail is the kind of thing that often derails discussions; it's very hard to have an actual conversation about the actual effects of the book that this person wrote when we keep getting bogged down in semantic matters. I don't think you're trying to participate in bad faith and I understand why this point feels important but I'd like to say, respectfully, that is very frustrating to try to have a conversation about how women are represented in various media and have it continually bogged down in points like this.

I say this to explain why I'm not continuing this conversation. It's not because I agree with you, it's because it feels exhausting and distracting to have to argue each point over and over again in every specific case in which women are badly represented. Please consider that, while I think you are probably making these points in good faith, they are serving to distract from the actual conversation and that, in this way, you are actually, if unintentionally, compounding the issues we're discussing.

At the risk of being unfair, I've also noticed that you're a lawyer and I've known lawyers who, when this kind of point is made to them, say "all lawyers do that" or "it's because I'm a lawyer". My husband is a lawyer and he is able to have a respectful discussion with me without picking apart everything I say until I'm too exhausted to continue. Really really not trying to be unfair, and I'm sorry if it comes across that way, just want to preempt a response I've heard before. Very very sorry if it wouldn't have applied in this case.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:22 AM on June 26 [17 favorites]


I just mean that the sentence itself makes internal sense, even if it's still essentially bullshit.

But who cares if it makes internal sense, given that we all agree that it's bullshit?
posted by jeather at 8:24 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


the reviewer was probably once a young author themselves who showed a lot of promise but hadn't yet filed off all the rough edges in their writing

And now he's an older one.
posted by RogerB at 8:34 AM on June 26


I know I'm late in the thread, but I just want to point out how utterly absurd call-out culture is becoming now that negative book reviews are considered bullying.
posted by Avenger at 8:38 AM on June 26 [20 favorites]


OK, I'm dropping it, because I agree with you all. I was making a semantic distinction which I am happy to concede is completely irrelevant to the overall point. Sorry about the derail.

Mrs. Pterodactyl, points well taken. (And you're totally right on the lawyer stuff. It's a curse.)
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:40 AM on June 26 [14 favorites]


OK, I'm dropping it, because I agree with you all. I was making a semantic distinction which I am happy to concede is completely irrelevant to the overall point. Sorry about the derail.

Mrs. Pterodactyl, points well taken. (And you're totally right on the lawyer stuff. It's a curse.)


Thank you so much! I really really appreciate this and think this is a super classy move (not sarcasm, I really do!). Thank you for being understanding!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:42 AM on June 26 [6 favorites]


I got two things out of this thread and they're both "don't read this book": the first one being the book under discussion and the second one being Windup Girl. (I liked the first of the Shipbreaker books but that was a hard read, hard enough that I haven't gotten to the second one yet.)
posted by immlass at 8:46 AM on June 26


Thank you so much! I really really appreciate this and think this is a super classy move (not sarcasm, I really do!). Thank you for being understanding!

No problem! Unlike many lawyers (har har), I know when to admit that I'm wrong and shut the hell up.

Back to the regular point: As for the "punching down" thing, it doesn't read that way to me. Yes, it's dismissive, and is devastating for the author to read, but that's criticism for you. The specific critique seems valid here, and is directed at the author's craft rather than him personally.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:48 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


I don't think "she was designed that way" is a dodge.

I can't speak for others here, but I don't think you get where I'm coming from. It's not a dodge because it's in the passive voice; it's a dodge because he's putting the responsibility for creating a female sexbot on the characters and setting that he also created.

He could have used the active voice and made the same dodge--and indeed other authors have. "She's a female sexbot because [fictional agent] designed her that way." To which my response would still have been, "No, you designed her that way."

We know that this sentence is consistent with the story he wrote. The point is that that's not actually a reason.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:50 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


“Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”
--Jean Sebelius


Priest is quite an accomplished novelist. The Inverted World is excellent. THe Prestige was made into a movie that's supposed to have been quite good.

So this artists-vs.-critics rhetoric is misplaced, and often is, especially as regards writers (for writers, artist and critic wield the same instrument). Many towering writers were also great critics. Eliot and Nabokov come to mind. A more contemporary example would be Zadie Smith.

More broadly, doing good criticism really requires a fine understanding of the art that is your subject. Perhaps not the same sort of understanding as a good artist's, always; perhaps not as important in some ultimate stakes. But not to be scoffed at. And although we are accustomed to give praise to the great creators, artistic movements are shaped by both critics and artists.

Daniel Mendelssohn on critics.
posted by grobstein at 8:51 AM on June 26 [7 favorites]


We had a previous Priest jeremiad on the blue a while back.

I think this supplies a helpful context as to whether a negative review like this is "punching down."

Priest sees himself as speaking against the times, against trends in SF. He thinks too much of what's being praised and encouraged by the SF community is actually dull crap, the wrong books are winning prizes, the wrong new authors are being encouraged, etc. And this is a case that must be made in specific terms. Specific books and authors must be criticized -- probably many of them (see link above).

It's impossible to undertake what Priest wants to undertake while simultaneously being nice to everyone. If criticizing a first novel is "punching down," then it is impossible to argue that there is a trend of bad new writing; you are left with only generalities. So if there is to be any conversation at all about where SF is going, then writers must be able to engage at the level of telling us individual books bad.
posted by grobstein at 8:58 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]


This is no Dorothy Parker snarkfest of a review.

I don't think a negative review (and not a particularly scathing one, really), even of a first book, is any kind of punching down. If it were excoriating the author for who he is, then maybe somewhere it might be, but it really does look as if Priest is focusing on the book.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:08 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


When the world champ takes a newbie to task so publicly, it effectively ends their career

Citation needed.
posted by yoink at 9:17 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Only something odd happened: I ended up doing the complete opposite. The lead female character, Starvie, is in many respects a construct of unrealistic male expectation and base desire. Why? Because she was designed that way.


Ah yes, the Sucker Punch defense.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:33 AM on June 26 [5 favorites]


Question for Mr. Den Patrick, who found the review ugly and unnecessary: What is a "straight-edge razor?"

A razor that rejects alcohol and drugs and hence can't be used to cut up cocaine in lines.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:37 AM on June 26 [19 favorites]


I found and read the first two chapters of Jon Wallace's Barricade and in my opinion, Christopher Priest was too kind.

I was strongly reminded of the sort of material that would show up in undergraduate fiction seminars as part of a workshop exercise.

That's not a good thing.
posted by truex at 10:08 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


His juxtaposition of his efforts to write “believable, fleshed-out female characters” with the fact that he “ended up doing the complete opposite” implies that this was some sort of freak occurrence, inevitable and outside of his control. This is Wallace glossing over his conscious decision to write Starvie exactly as she reads, it’s him attempting to abdicate responsibility for how she turned out by blaming… what? The story itself? It doesn’t wash.

This reminds me of a conversation I had about Man of Steel recently. Basically, this person was arguing that Superman was smashing the hell out of Metropolis and not saving innocent people because the circumstances dictated he could not. He was up against more than one person who was as powerful as he was, and he was doing all he could just to hold his own in the fight.

I don't buy that premise to begin with, but if I did I would still blame the filmmakers and criticize the film. The filmmakers have agency. The filmmakers designed the circumstances the way they did and the film suffers for it.

I'm sorry for the derail, but this fatalistic view of the creative process is just so weird to me.
posted by brundlefly at 10:18 AM on June 26 [9 favorites]


Point of information: I don't know how Arc got Chris Priest to do that piece (I may be able to find out), but in the days when I was an SF book reviewer for a mainstream newspaper what happened was the newspaper collected all the SF books it received in a big box, and once or twice a month it sent the box over and basically said "Pick three you want to write about". Sometimes I got asked to do a specific book if it was by a big name that the newspaper readers would have heard of even if they didn't like SF, and sometimes if it was (say) one from a spectacularly successful SFF writer who didn't have any visibility among the straights. (I enjoyed those - there were some really successful and terribly bad fantasy novelists at the time). I could also ask the section ed. if there was something I particularly fancied doing but hadn't received.

In other words: don't assume how that review got up there! It could have been Priest whinging in the pub to the Arc guys and getting a "Do you fancy writing that up?".
posted by Devonian at 10:22 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


There's definitely more backstory here, based on a few oblique references. For example:
You are already alerted to some of what follows...
posted by muddgirl at 10:33 AM on June 26


If all these great writers started out with bad books then it's probably not insurmountable to have your first book identified as bad, is it?

Anyway, to cultivate talent and champion good work is one possible role of the critic, but I'd say telling people what is or is not worth reading is more fundamental. This isn't even really the kind of over-the-top snide comedy takedown the internet so loves it's just a bad review.
posted by atoxyl at 10:34 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry for the derail, but this fatalistic view of the creative process is just so weird to me.

It seems to go hand in hand with the kind of mindset whereby a writer will insist, "Oh, my characters totally surprised me!" or, "This character is supposed to do thing x but wants to do thing y instead! My characters just won't cooperate with me!"

Which, it turns out, are things terrible writers say.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:13 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]


There's definitely more backstory here, based on a few oblique references. For example:
You are already alerted to some of what follows...


I assumed that was in reference to the first paragraph of the review more than anything else.
posted by dng at 11:22 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


It seems to go hand in hand with the kind of mindset whereby a writer will insist, "Oh, my characters totally surprised me!" or, "This character is supposed to do thing x but wants to do thing y instead! My characters just won't cooperate with me!"

Which, it turns out, are things terrible writers say.


"My characters totally surprised me by being exactly the same as all the other characters in all the other books, instead of being the incredibly exciting and original creations I'd envisaged them as. I just don't know how it happened!"
posted by dng at 11:28 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


FAMOUS MONSTER: "Which, it turns out, are things terrible writers say."

I've heard that from good writers and from bad. I think what it indicates is that the book the author really ended up wanting to write isn't the one they thought they were writing. In the case of a good outcome, this will often make the book more interesting because there are themes and plots coming up from the writer's subconscious which end up adding depth to the book; in the case of a mediocre-to-poor outcome, it often means some kind of regression to the mean because of an inability to escape tropes.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:33 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


THe Prestige was made into a movie that's supposed to have been quite good.

I enjoyed the movie. It has a lot of how-magic-is-done stuff, and good acting, and Nicola Tesla.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:35 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


Not only Nicola Tesla, but David Bowie as Nicola Tesla.
posted by Grangousier at 11:37 AM on June 26 [5 favorites]


I've heard that from good writers and from bad. I think what it indicates is that the book the author really ended up wanting to write isn't the one they thought they were writing. In the case of a good outcome, this will often make the book more interesting because there are themes and plots coming up from the writer's subconscious which end up adding depth to the book; in the case of a mediocre-to-poor outcome, it often means some kind of regression to the mean because of an inability to escape tropes.

True, true. I was thinking of it more as when writers talk about characters as though those characters and/or places exist entirely externally to the writer.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:38 AM on June 26


I assumed that was in reference to the first paragraph of the review more than anything else.

Yeah that's a strong possibility. I've been reading some of Priest's other essays on the state of modern sf/f and his review is coming off more ascerbic than when I originally read it. But I still don't read mean. Just disappointed.
posted by muddgirl at 11:43 AM on June 26


Especially since (from what I can tell), it seems that his decision to make the vapid sexbot came at the expense of a fully-realized women. If he were actually committed to getting it right, he would not have such a limited stock of female characters to draw from. Maybe he could have kept his sexbot if he had made a larger effort to create other, better female characters.

Imagine if he had kept his premise, but changed the gender of the other character to female. Then you'd have two women and their male guide, and one women is the sexbot and the other a construction worker/taxi driver and both interact in what grows to become a critical take on both sexbot-ism and dystopia.

I'd read that. I don't think that Wallace is capable of writing it, however. He hasn't got past, going by the evidence, indulging his fantasies instead of writing fiction.
posted by jokeefe at 11:56 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Oh, and writers need critics. They especially need critics like Christopher Priest. I've read dismissive and terrible reviews, and this particular one is many notches above that. It's precise, it's informed, and takes apart the book's flaws in specific, concrete ways. It would be very good for Wallace to take it seriously, if his ego with allow him to.
posted by jokeefe at 11:59 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


The Prestige is indeed a great book and a great film. The book is spectacular, and has one of the most shocking and unexpected twists I've ever read.

The film is a remarkably good adaptation of a very complex book - better than I expected it to be. And yes, David Bowie as Tesla is every bit as awesome as it sounds.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:02 PM on June 26 [3 favorites]


I like reading passages as terrible as that, it makes me think "wow, even *I* write better than this idiot, maybe *my* novel could get published" and then I remember that drivel like this gets published most likely because the author Knows Somebody
posted by Mooseli at 12:28 PM on June 26


Oh, and you can read the first two chapters here, if you are interested.

I am a bit flummoxed to find the first few pages engaging and workmanlike.
posted by jokeefe at 12:36 PM on June 26


I have to say that, as someone attempting to write a first novel, it's somewhat gratifying to see an occasional negative review. It gives me hope that there is some discernment, at least among reviewers. Maybe to a degree this review was also written for other writers or aspiring writers.
posted by newdaddy at 12:55 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


I can see why Pierce objected pretty strongly.
He’d worked in specialised conditions for so long that he was evolving into a kind of praying mantis. His skin was dyed grease brown, his hair was combed in a thin oil slick, and he walked with a hunch from a life spent underneath cars, holding his hands out before him like raptorial forelegs.
Why say that he's "evolving into a kind of praying mantis", and then go on to describe him? That's not workman-like, that's a waste of time. I love myself a fast-pased genre novel, but this is the opposite - it's very slow, in the modern "style" of narrating every move the protagonist makes. "Then I went through the hatch. Then I saw Charlie. Charlie looked like this. Then Charlies said 'Hi' I replied 'Hi Charlie how are you?'" and so on.

I don't think it's irredeemable, per se, I just think it needs a "beta-reader" or a more forceful editor. I thought that was the whole benefit (for readers) of traditional publishing houses. Maybe not liking this style of novel makes me a crotchety old woman at the ripe age of 30.
posted by muddgirl at 1:10 PM on June 26


Also, 'raptorial forelegs' is my favorite part of that quote, but it raises more questions. Presumably the protagonist means velocirators, because actual raptors do not have forelegs, in which case this is a dystopian future where androids or cyborgs (or whatever, I didn't make it that far) still watch Jurrasic Park?
posted by muddgirl at 1:19 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


I think The Prestige is the best of Nolan's films. The Batfans can suck it.
posted by brundlefly at 1:38 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


That's not dystopian! Jurassic Park is great!
posted by grobstein at 1:49 PM on June 26


True, true. I was thinking of it more as when writers talk about characters as though those characters and/or places exist entirely externally to the writer.

Agreed. Whenever I hear a writer say something along the lines of "It's such a thin line between reality and fiction" I think it's time for them to get out of the house a bit more.
posted by lumpenprole at 1:49 PM on June 26


This is the second or third Metafilter thread that is specifically down on The Windup Girl, and yet that book won both a Hugo and a Nebula award. Not to derail, but the fact that that book won such awards, and is objectively such a bad book, depresses me immensely. (Plus I bought it, based on the jacket copy. Shame on me.)
posted by newdaddy at 1:50 PM on June 26


A Hugo is sadly no guarantee of quality newdaddy.
posted by pharm at 1:59 PM on June 26


he walked with a hunch from a life spent underneath cars

wait, how would lying on your back under cars lead to a hunch?
posted by Hoopo at 2:37 PM on June 26 [4 favorites]


Paolo Bacigalupi can certainly write (I haven't read Windup Girl but have read Shipbreaker) and I imagine there's room for disagreement on whether Windup Girl works as a critique of exploitation or just an example of it. I've seen it happen before that a well intentioned and well written book comes out and everyone gets so caught up in the hype that it takes a while for naysayers' critiques to gain traction, and then - it seems like consensus suddenly turns around and we can't remember liking that thing. (Go through the last couple decades of Oscar winners for an object lesson.)

Of course, sometimes Hugo voters just vote for awful stuff.
posted by Jeanne at 2:47 PM on June 26


>I imagine there's room for disagreement on whether Windup Girl works as a critique of exploitation or just an example of it.

Honestly, our culture is just not good at recognizing sexism in media or at regarding it as important. It would take a shocking amount of overt sexism for there to be no room for disagreement.

Critiques from a feminist point of view, while getting some exposure, are still "niche." It's just not something many readers think about--and when they do, they might be at the "hey, this female character gets revenge for her rape, so she's strong, right?" stage of evaluating the representation of women in the media.

That is to say, I think that if you read the book you would probably agree that it's exploitative. It's just that obvious that it's written by a man with an attraction for certain tropes about female victimization (sexual exploitation, revenge)--a man who does a pretty poor job of getting outside of his own head and into the heads of his female characters.

Like a male author describing a female character lovingly evaluating the jiggle of her own "pert" breasts.

You might believe that it has redeeming qualities and deserves recognition despite this, but seriously, it's pretty egregious.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:26 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


Oh, and you can read the first two chapters here, if you are interested.

Wow, that really is terrible. The review was far, far too kind.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:45 PM on June 26


Critiques from a feminist point of view, while getting some exposure, are still "niche." It's just not something many readers think about--and when they do, they might be at the "hey, this female character gets revenge for her rape, so she's strong, right?" stage of evaluating the representation of women in the media.

This is true. I've read some really positive, thoughtful reviews of Windup Girl from critics I respect -- Niall Harrison in particular -- and that's the place where I'm forced to wonder, does he give the egregious sexism a pass because it isn't egregious sexism, or because he has the luxury of not seeing it for what it is? And that question I hate having to answer of how much egregious sexism I'm willing to wade through for a book that's good in other respects.
posted by Jeanne at 3:57 PM on June 26


Just a data point: I thought Windup Girl was pretty bad.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:04 PM on June 26


Priest's review falls into the trap of trying to criticize a work by presenting a pile of small complaints and hoping that they will coalesce into a substantial critique. That's not to say that Priest's wrong about Barricade, but this review isn't going to sway anyone who doesn't already agree with him. (I mean, taking potshots at the writing style is the most boring and subjective criticism you can make).
posted by Pyry at 4:51 PM on June 26


Did you read the sample chapters? It really is pretty bad.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:53 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


I just don't see why so many men can't write full female characters in science fiction and fantasy. OK, I'm unpublished so I'm unproven. Who knows, my writing could be as bad as this guy. But I do know that my female protagonists pass the tests for agency and control, etc. And it really wasn't hard to do that. I'm a dumpy fifty something boomer male but writing a woman who has control over own agenda in the story and didn't have a description of what she looked like naked really didn't seem that hard to do. I cannot fathom why the fuck so many male writers have issues with this.
posted by Ber at 5:37 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


i've read some really positive, thoughtful reviews of Windup Girl from critics I respect -- Niall Harrison in particular

Niall Harrison also liked Barricade.
posted by jeather at 7:48 PM on June 26


That's Niall Alexander, a different Niall altogether.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:49 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


She grabs me just about everywhere she can. It is like being pinned under an enormous, suffocating fish.

the last line from the preview. Do.. do enormous, suffocating fish tend to grab people everywhere they can? Do they have hands? Is this a mutant fish?
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:54 AM on June 27 [3 favorites]


I agree with the criticisms of The Windup Girl. I thought it was excellently plotted, Bacigalupi's prose was mostly precise and engaging, and his imagined, diminished future felt fresh. But I agree with Adam Roberts' take that he fails to get 'the balance right between critiquing Emiko's sexual objectification and simply reproducing it.' The rape scenes are squickily titillating, and the most charitable position one can take is that it represents a failure of craft and awareness.

I don't agree that the sample chapters of Barricade appear especially badly written, in terms of raw sentence-by-sentence clarity, stakes-raising and world-building. I get through a couple of novels a week, read a mix of literary and genre fiction, and am generally hard to please, and - for what it's worth - IMHO on a craft level, those chapters seem like a fine, if unadventurous, opening bid.

But I'm glad the lazy sexism is being called out. I can take Wallace at his word that he wrote the novel in good faith, and didn't intend it to be sexist, but being unaware of falling into tedious misogynist killer-sexworker SF tropes (yes, I'm looking at you, Neuromancer) doesn't make one's work not sexist, anymore than sitting on someone's hamster 'because you didn't see it there' makes it any less dead than if you hit it with a croquet mallet.
posted by RokkitNite at 3:01 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


That's Niall Alexander, a different Niall altogether.

You're right. My mistake.
posted by jeather at 6:14 AM on June 27


I think Priest was actually rather nice in that review. I've read far, far meaner and worse. I think he was trying to be nice about a total turd. The Book Smugglers one is the one that stuck with me.

"At one point when reading Barricade it struck me how there were only but a few women present in this narrative. The three main characters (two men, one woman) travel around Britain for weeks and they meet dozens of people and barely any of those are female. This world seems to be populated mostly by “he” (soldiers, survivors, fighters, scientists, workers, heroes and anti-heroes ) with the occasional “she” (pleasure “bots”, incompetent supervisors, victims, a kindly old woman, a dead wife and one rapist) thrown in for good measure.

Where are all the women in this world, I asked myself, how can you imagine a whole future and not imagine women in it? "

I don't know, but a lot of guys sure do.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:58 AM on June 27 [2 favorites]


It's not that surprising. From the eyes of many male writers:

post-apocalyptic future = limited resources

women = resource for men

ergo

post-apocalyptic future = limited women
posted by Think_Long at 7:10 AM on June 27 [3 favorites]


There are few female characters in this novel because there are few women among the targets in the video games it is (at least subconsciously) based on. This is my theory.
posted by newdaddy at 7:25 AM on June 27 [3 favorites]


The problem with Windup Girl is that with the terrible treatment of the exploited character comes a really good exploration of a world economy based on food insecurity.

Which doesn't mean I defend the former, but it explains how, if you are a reviewer who is unattuned to blechiness towards women in fiction, you can gloss over that part.
posted by lumpenprole at 10:04 AM on June 27


That's Niall Alexander, a different Niall altogether.

Wonder what Niall Ferguson thinks of it
posted by grobstein at 11:21 AM on June 27


if you read his reviews over the last few years (and his writing of course) he is obsessed with the craft of writing in spec fiction...

Where can I find more of his reviews? I found his review of Atonement. Seemed like he'd missed the point on that one, though. I stumbled across some reviews in his journal, but no way of picking out just the reviews.
posted by Coventry at 1:26 PM on June 27


The problem with Windup Girl is that with the terrible treatment of the exploited character comes a really good exploration of a world economy based on food insecurity.

Not really?

I mean, this is a world where the running out of fossil fuels is "solved" by using erm lots and lots of springs and bioengineered animals' muscle power, rather than sensible stuff like wind and solar power (and lets not even think about all the shale oil, gas and coal reserves still around).

That was actually the first complaint I saw against the book, the implausibility of the setting; the Thai geisha sex doll nonsense is just the sexist part of it.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:54 PM on June 27


Yeah, it's much more a world economy based on weird religious taboos than it is on food insecurity.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:27 PM on June 27


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