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.

     Author Sam Sykes also posted on these matters, in Hype: Let's Talk About It, styling hype as, today, "a problem" that for many must be "confronted and destroyed," for it carries the stigma of meaning a "book is somehow awful." Yet authors, he observes, "don't really have a choice but to hype ourselves to at least some degree." Hype, Sykes suggests, shows that authors are "proud of their work and . . . think it's worth your while." Most intriguingly, however, Sykes turns the response to hype back upon readers: "at the end of the day," he writes, "the book will either work for you or it won't. . . . But avoiding it because someone said you might like it? Buddy. Buddy." On this last point, I agree wholeheartedly, for I believe Sykes implies that readers bear a measure of responsibility in how they manage and approach hype. I think, though, that Sykes overlooks how the rhetoric of hype not originating from authors themselves can in concrete ways sometimes distort what makes books "work" -- and thus the need for caution. In this respect, there is hype as, let's say, legitimate self-promotion for authors and hype as the response to and discussion about books that takes place without or even in spite of authors. The latter was my concern.

     Finally, Larry Nolen (OF Blog of the Fallen), summarily dismisses discussions of hype as irresponsible in his post, I see the book blogging equivalent of herpes has become active again. His tone of exasperation with this subject is clear, calling its reappearance an "interminable cycle" and asserting that "it matters so little." The main point of his post, however, focusses on the responsibilities of readers:
The underlying question, one that is barely ever addressed in these hand-wringing posts, is the apparent lack of critical evaluation and thinking skills on the part of the readers. If people want to accept recommendations and publicist blurbs blindly and then bitch about it afterward, it's their own damn fault. . . . So until those benighted, bedazzled readers start taking more responsibility for their role in creating false expectations for a work, all of the questioning as to how "good" or "bad" publicity or "hype" may seem to be a bit misplaced [sic].
Nolen makes an important argument here, bringing together the key elements involved in the hype of a book: authors, reviewers/critics, (general) readers. I doubt many would disagree with Nolen that readers must exercise "critical evaluation and thinking skills" when sifting through "recommendations and publicist blurbs." I don't know if Nolen read my original post, as he links to the posts by Newton and NextRead. Whether he did or not, however, I wonder about his dismissive and exasperated tone, particularly because I consider myself anything but a "benighted, bedazzled" reader.

     When conducting the informal survey of blogs and reviews last year that led to ordering Priest's Boneshaker, I did so, I like to think, with a purpose and with eyes wide open. I looked at several reviews and comments about the novel in a variety of online venues, enough such that I developed what I believed was a fairly good idea of the novel's quality and story. (I also focussed on blogs that consistently appeared in other bloggers' blog rolls, one or two of which Nolen has links for.) Moreover, at the time, I wanted to try something new and different from what I tended to be reading (mostly SF and some epic fantasy), something fun, and Boneshaker's steampunk/zombie "mash-up" seemed to fit the bill best. I never expected Boneshaker to be the best thing since Neuromancer, for my "critical evaluation and thinking skills" were very active. All that hype resulted in Hugo and Nebula nominations for the novel, suggesting that from a certain perspective the hype was not unwarranted, the nominations confirming that enough people see Boneshaker as one of the best SF&F works of 2009.

     All that aside, I am not sure I would characterise my original post as "hand-wringing" or as bitching. True, I identify my disappointment with Boneshaker and with the hype that effectively brought me to the book. True, I outline what disappointed me about Boneshaker in relation to other reviewers' assessments of the novel.

     Yet as I signal in my introduction and closing paragraphs, my aim was to discuss the role played by the internet in possibly reducing the distinction between reviewer/critic and general reader, which occasionally results in misleading hype. I wanted to explore how hype can affect readers' tastes, for online reviewers can carry a kind of authority that readers turn to, if not rely upon. When the rhetoric of apparently critical appraisal of a book shades, upon reflection, more into hype than calling a spade a spade (good or bad), asking questions about such a situation is not "misplaced" but perfectly fair. Moreover, these questions "matter." If critics/reviewers function as arbiters and mediators of quality and taste, what are we to say when their "critical evaluation and thinking skills" were perhaps not brought to bear fully in their response to a book? If they became "benighted, bedazzled readers" instead of reviewers? Why should asking these sorts of questions be thus equated to a venereal disease?

     In the end, Nolen's response to the discussion of hype amounts to cutting off the opportunity for and denying the legitimacy of debate. This response is odd, considering how Nolen likes to urge his readers and other bloggers to challenge their critical assumptions, the possible limitations of their reading, or the purpose and form of their reviews. I, for one, would in fact appreciate his thoughts on this subject.


Larry said...

Although I had read your post a few days prior, I was not thinking of your post when I wrote my curt retort to the ones I linked to. As for the "cutting off of discussion," my first paragraph hints quite strongly that I have discussed this issue multiple times in the past and that I just was not interested in doing the same again without something else being added to it. Thus the reason why I noted the responsibilities of readers.

But no, the "hand wringing" was not in reference to you, but toward those who keep bringing up the same topic and worrying overmuch about whether or not they are "responsible" for the "hype."

Mike Johnstone said...

@Larry: Thanks for stopping by to comment -- and for the clarifications. I truly appreciate both.

I was not aware of nor have been party to previous discussions about these issues, so in effect they were (mostly) new to me regarding SF&F blogs/reviews specifically. If these issues have popped up before and repeatedly, I suppose something new would need to be added to the discussion in order to avoid walking over the same ground without truly moving forward. I wonder, then, what that something new might be?

I do think that asking questions about hype, taste, and the state of SF&F is still valuable. If they pop up every so often, perhaps they serve as a kind of check and balance, an occasional reminder for reflection (by all parties involved)?