15 June 2010

I Hype, You Hype, We All Hype

My previous post on Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, hype, and taste has sparked a bit of discussion in other online places, and I thought I would add some further thoughts related to what I read in those places.

     First of all, author Mark Charan Newton, in his post Good Hype, Bad Hype, offers some valuable insight on the role of hype in the book trade. Good hype, he writes, is the traditional "word-of-mouth" talk about a book, "decentralised" and of "the people" -- which now occurs in "internet forums and blogs"; this sort of hype is good "because it causes discussion, gets people excited and ... is not influenced by corporations." Bad hype, on the other hand, involves a process beginning, essentially, with publishers/publicists and the "marketing blurbs" they use to "get reviewers excited" about and so "raise expectations" for a book, which they hope are passed on to readers; this is hype as seduction, as "marketing speak," and must be distrusted. Newton concludes with the observation that, from an author's point of view, "it's better to be talked about than not talked about" (alluding to one of the fine witticisms of the estimable Oscar Wilde).

     The corollary to Newton's conclusion, I suppose, is that all press is good press, particularly if such "press" keeps an author and his or her books on people's shelves and in people's conversations. In a highly competitive marketplace such as publishing, and more specifically such as the SF&F field, being part of the conversation is certainly crucial, and authors have an array of tools now to do so. My concern in my original post on Boneshaker, though, related to how the conversation about the novel -- to use Newton's distinctions -- predominantly assumed the tone of seductive "marketing speak," misleadingly raising expectations for it. Thus, there can be bad hype masquerading as good hype, influencing readers' tastes and potentially straying from more honestly critical assessments of books (whether positive, negative, or neutral).

     Gav's post on NextRead, Comment: When a good book is just a good book..., makes for a fitting companion piece to Newton's post, as he spends some time delving into the matter of hype from the perspective of the reviewer. He acknowledges that publishers want to "sell" a book as "the best thing since xyz" and considers how reviewers might or should handle these situations, where a publisher's hype may find its way into the "hyperbole" of a review. He suggests, "Bloggers though should probably ... take care that they are actually saying something of substance." Furthermore, he wonders whether reviewing can sometimes involve a "nervousness to be more direct" about a book's flaws, which entails the risk of steering readers away from "a book that we on the whole liked." At the end of his post, Gav closes with a rather self-reflective promise: "For my own part I'm going to try and be more sensitive [to] hyperbole and try my best to keep calling a spade a spade." Thus, he identifies a way in which reviewing can manage expectations for a book, perhaps better serving readers through more honest appraisals.

     Such honest appraisals are important, otherwise the "wrong impression" is communicated, potentially leading readers to believe a book is "the next blockbuster" that could "change your life." In this context, Gav quotes from my original post as an example of what happens when reviews create the "wrong impression," which certainly occurred in my case. I never expected Boneshaker to change my life (I leave that to the bonafide classics, inside and outside of SF&F), but I did expect what a great number of reviewers claimed I would get in the novel: fun, entertainment; fast-paced action; something new and fresh. Reviewers, I discovered, had not called a spade a spade. Hence, I became interested in thinking about the consequences of hype as seen specifically with online reviews.

11 June 2010

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, Hype, and Taste


Guy Gavriel Kay, in his June 4th guest blog for BSC on "Under Heaven, and the Book World Under Siege," discusses how the internet has fundamentally changed the relationship between authors and their works, between authors and their readers. "The principle consequence," he writes, "is the disappearance of spaces ... between author and consumer and between author and work." One such space is that of privacy: authors increasingly lack this privacy, Kay observes, as readers/consumers believe they have a "connection" with a "writer online" and so can feel justified in attacking an author for, say, being late with a new novel; yet authors participate in this wearing away of their privacy by blogging about their daily lives, by needing to maintain an online presence in order to market their works and their personality (or, brand). From Kay's perspective, this lack of privacy for authors risks "eroding . . . the space that can be necessary to produce not only good art but a good life." Certainly, Kay reveals a nostalgia for a perhaps simpler time when authors truly enjoyed a kind of distance from readers. Yet, from the perspective of a reader, I see a further implication of the internet's effect upon Kay's "spaces." Namely, we are potentially also witnessing a lessening of the distinction between the critic and the general reader, with the consequence that authors and their works can quickly receive a great deal of hype -- often at the expense of more critical assessments of those works, of more considered reflection upon the grounds of taste.

     My experience with Cherie Priest's Boneshaker (Tor, 2009) led me to thinking about these issues.