Why I Don’t Comment on Everything

As most of you know, I comment here not infrequently about social and political issues, and from time to time I even make stands on things, a good recent example of this being my convention harassment policy pledge. As a result, people will often send me (via e-mail and social media) updates on social/political things they believe are of interest to me. This is generally appreciated, since there are things I will miss. There are only so many hours of the day.

In addition to this, some folks will also occasionally suggest to me (in varying degrees of urgency and/or politeness) that I should make a public statement about the things the bring to my attention, because they believe my voice carries. In the last 24 hours alone, for example, these things have included Barilla pasta, a rather less-than-perfect convention harassment policy, literature professor David Gilmour stuffing both feet into his mouth, and Orson Scott Card. Some of these topics have been noted to me more than once. Not all of the people pointing them out are suggesting I leap to the keyboard, but some of them strongly hint in that direction.

A couple of thoughts here. The big one is to let people know I’m actually kind of not good at being a proxy for whatever things you are concerned about. One obvious reason is that I might not feel as strongly about the subject as you do, or indeed might not agree with you about it. Another, less obvious reason: I do try to know at least a little about the things I might want to write about, which means me making at least a token effort at research, which will take time — time I might not have if, say, I’m in the middle of writing a book.

Beyond this, other factors come into play. Sometimes I’ll decide I don’t have anything useful to say on a subject, and so won’t. Sometimes I will see other people saying things about it better than I would, in a way that is already getting (or has gotten) substantial play, so I’ll either just point to that other commentary or assume the people who visit here will have already seen it. Sometimes I’m fatigued regarding the particular subject and won’t feel like talking about it for a while. Sometimes I’m tired and don’t want to write a blog post. Sometimes I may just be cranky and not in the mood to acquiesce to the suggestion I make a fuss over whatever particular topic people want me to make a fuss about.

Sometimes I will decide that me butting into a particular discussion will look more like me wanting to get attention for being on the right side of the subject than me actually wanting to be on the right side of the discussion (this correlates highly with things I am unfamiliar with and which don’t directly involve my own personal interests). Sometimes I’ll decide that I’ve expended on other things the attention capital I’ve accrued, and that it’s time for me to be quiet for a bit so that the next time I have something that I want to say, it’ll have more of an impact. Sometimes there will be other reasons, not touched on here, for me not to make the fuss someone else wants me to. Sometimes I just don’t wanna.

The short version of this is that while I really do appreciate it when folks bring things to my attention, I can’t (and shouldn’t) be expected to comment on every thing, even when you think it’s something that’s right up my alley — and even when, from time to time, I’d agree that it is. I have only so much bandwidth, both in time and attention.

I realize that this is bound to be disappointing to some folks, and may make me seem unreliable or mercurial or such. This assessment is both reasonable and accurate — fact is, that only thing that can be relied on with regard to me making comment on political or social topics is that I will do it when I think it’s right for me to do it, independent of what anyone else thinks on the matter.

In a larger sense, I don’t think this should be too surprising. I’ve never been coy about the fact that this site is about what I want to write about, when I want to. But I do think it’s worth reminding people: Just because you think I should write about something you think is important, doesn’t mean I will. It doesn’t mean you were wrong to bring that thing to my attention, merely that I keep my own counsel regarding the topics I write about. I do hope you understand. But even if you don’t, it’s how it works.



The Value of Negative Reviews

Over at Metafilter they’re talking about this New Yorker article, in which book critic Lee Siegel explains why he doesn’t want to write negative book reviews anymore (here’s the MF thread). I posted my thoughts on the matter there, but it’s worth posting them here too. Here’s what I said.

I was a professional critic of film and music for a number of years and I didn’t shy away from giving negative reviews when I felt negative about the work. But it’s worth noting that when I was doing that work, I wasn’t given the option of what work to review; particularly with film, my job was to review every film that came into town. With music, what I reviewed was mostly assigned, not chosen.

These days people are interested in knowing my reviews of books (particularly in science fiction and fantasy). By and large with books I publicly offer only positive reviews. Reasons for that: One, I am on my own remit in what I choose to read and am under no obligation to make reviews, so I’m allowed to review only what I want, when I want; two, at this particular moment in time, if I were to be offering negative reviews of SF/F I would be mostly be punching downward. To the extent I want to trade in my notability in the field, I would prefer to use it to build up, not tear down. And again, that’s my choice to make.

With that said, I don’t think it’s beneficial to have all published criticism be positive. I think criticism should (generally) be honest and explanatory — if the critic finds something to be bad (or poorly made) then an examination of that is useful, even if it initially hurts the author’s feelings. One of my favorite reviews I’ve gotten as an author was from Russell Letson in Locus, when in the reviewing of Old Man’s War he noted that he kept throwing the book against the wall in irritation… and then picking it back up again right after to keep on reading. The review was not positive, but it was honest and it was fair, in the sense that Letson explained why he felt what he did. It was good criticism, if not positive criticism.

As an author I generally prefer to get positive reviews (welcome to the human ego), but I’m not lying when I say I would rather get a thoughtful negative review than a thoughtless positive one. It’s easy to say “oh, I liked that.” It’s harder to say, “I did not like it, and here are all the reasons why.” Whether I agree with the reasoning (or whether my feelings are hurt, or even whether the review might damage my commercial prospects) is immaterial — the criticism isn’t for me specifically. It’s for readers (in the case of reviews, which ask the commercial question of whether the work is worth the money) or for observers of the field ( in the case of literary criticism, which asks whether the work has existential value).

So while I understand Lee Siegel’s reasoning for not offering negative reviews, and indeed follow it for myself in the field in which I work, I hope not everyone agrees with him. There is value in negative reviews. Sometimes critics need to plant their flag and say “this is simply bad. And here’s why.”

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Brandon Sanderson

Don’t know if you’ve heard of this Brandon Sanderson kid, but something tells me one day he’s gonna hit the heights. He’s got a new book out called Steelheart, and he’s here today to talk about. And also to talk about being a geek. And how the latter matters to the former.

Watch for this guy! He’s gonna be big!


Early in my life, I knew I was a geek. I just didn’t know what that meant.

For example, I went to a Star Trek convention when I was eleven or twelve. Now, at that point, I’d only seen a handful of TOS episodes. I hadn’t discovered fantasy novels or reading yet. But I went to a Star Trek convention because…well, I was geek, right? That seemed like the sort of thing that geeks did.

Fortunately, it turns out my instincts about myself were right. During the next few years, I blossomed. In geek terms, that means I discovered comic books, role playing, and novels–then retreated to my room to pupate for the next six years, surviving on a steady diet of Anne McCaffrey novels and bags of Cheetos.

A few years ago, I got an idea. It was a great idea. A really, REALLY great idea.

This isn’t to say it will feel as awesome to you as it did to me. A “great” idea for me is a very individual thing. They aren’t always the ones that come with an accessible, built-in pitch–instead, they are the ideas that boil in my head and turn into a book that I can’t leave alone.

Many writers say that ideas are cheap, and I find this to be mostly true. A writer grows accustomed to coming up with–and discarding–ideas on a daily basis. This idea, however, was one of those powerful ones, precisely because of its undiscardability.

The idea was actually pretty simple. It came as I was driving to a book signing, and was cut off in traffic. I had an immediate, gut response: I thought to the person ahead of me, “You are lucky I don’t have super powers, or I’d totally blow your car up right now.”

This terrified me in ways I can’t explain. It whispered that, if I were to somehow have powers like this, I might not be quite so benevolent with them as heroes from the stories. This spiraled me into wondering what would happen if people started gaining powers, but everyone used them selfishly.

Finally, the idea that made me eager came–it was the idea for a group of regular people who assassinate super-powered individuals. Again, it’s not the pitch, but the entire package that made me excited. Steelheart was a book I was truly, passionately excited to write, and after finishing some thirty books, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. An idea that makes me excited in new ways and captures my imagination is something to grab hold of tightly.

In this case, the idea dredged up passions from my childhood and mixed them with plotting structures I’d been studying in recent films. It prompted a character voice in my head who was individual and distinct.

I had a several hour drive ahead of me. By the end of it, I had Steelheart–almost in its entirety–pictured and held in my mind.

Something about writing the book the way I’d imagined it bothered me, though. And it had to do with my experiences with anthropomorphic turtles.

Geek Culture
In my high school years, we had a gift exchange in my French class. In an interesting parallel to my Star Trek convention experience, the girl who drew my name bought me a comic book. (The one where Superman dies, not first printing, unfortunately.) I’d never mentioned comic books in class, and so far as I knew, this girl and I had never had a conversation. She knew to get me a comic book anyway because…well, I was one of THOSE people.

As a geek in my high school, there were just certain things that you did. You played with computers and video games. You read comic books. You hid in basements and role played. Amusingly, I wasn’t cool enough to be on the school newspaper–which was not actually the domain of the geek, but instead the preppy debate folks.

The previous paragraph might make it sound like I was ostracized, but I didn’t really feel that way. I was quite comfortable in this role–as, I assume, was common for geeks in the ’80s and early ’90s. This was our home. We adopted it, claimed it, and loved it.

We also defended it. As I did constantly in regards to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Now, you have to understand, TMNT was MY comic book. I’d started role playing because of TMNT, and its issues were the first comics I ever read. I discovered the Turtles before I even found fantasy novels, and I continued to role play TMNT games for years into my teens.

And I had a problem with the cartoon show and movies that came after it. Both were actually a lot of fun–except for the way that this new wave of Turtles took MY comic and repackaged it for a more general audience.

I think a lot of us in geek culture have felt this kind of emotion, particularly in recent years. A great deal has been written about geek culture going mainstream.

I’m not going to defend my selfishness in wanting to keep the Turtles for myself. It was an instinctive, emotional reaction from a teenage boy who saw part of what defined him–part of what society had used to define him–being stolen and made (in his eyes) more shallow.

Over the years, though, I had to confront these emotions. What was it that bothered me so much? A thing which brought me joy was now bringing joy to many others. Why had my first instinct been selfishness, as opposed to pleasure? Isn’t the core of geekdom about expertise? Suddenly, I was an expert about something that everyone else was discovering. Why, instead of being happy, had I been so dismissive, even angry?

Steelheart and the Big Idea
Now, I don’t want to belabor the parallel between myself as a teen and my later self and his desire to destroy inconsiderate drivers. I do want to mention the Big Idea here, though. It’s not the idea I had for my book–I’ve talked about how personal that particular idea was.

The Big Idea for me on this book has to do with the importance, for myself, of embracing the larger world as it discovers stories I’ve loved. Yes, maybe those stories will change as they are brought to new mediums. That’s okay.

I feel I spent my youthful geekhood shaking chains and trying to get people to take my passions seriously. Now that many do, I want to celebrate it. I’m sure many of you have made this same transition, or never felt these same emotions in the first place. But this book brought the idea into focus for me.

As a writer, the further I’ve progressed in my career, the more “epic fantasy” I’ve become. Thicker books, more intricate worldbuilding, more sub-plots and hidden allusions relating my books to one another. I do this because that’s what I find exciting about epic fantasy.

Steelheart, as I’d imagined it, was far more accessible. I imagined it like a mainstream movie–one deeply influenced by the comics and stories of my youth, but paced and plotted like modern action films. The book is a fun explosion of a story–set pieces, chase scenes, and super heroes mixed with my own individual blend of worldbuilding.

I spent an undue amount of time wondering, as I worked on the book, if I was doing the very thing I’d worried about in my youth. Was I taking something individual to geek culture and distilling it to a more streamlined package, presenting it for the general masses?

Yes, I was.

And I love that about it.


Steelheart: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

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