Sunday, August 29, 2010

In Which I Get Cranky Beyond Reason...

I really need to stop reading author interviews, or indeed anything which gives me any insight into the character of writers whose writing I (try to) enjoy.

It started with Orscon Scott Card. I LOVED Ender's Game when I was young, and I read the entire series with glee...until I learned more about the real guy behind them. Things like raging homophobia, his somewhat nutty views on Global Warming (It's all a conspiracy, man...) and the like colored my perceptions of the man, and thus his writing. I can't read a single Card book now without thinking, do I really want to support this man with my money and my attention?

The answer is no.

It's a similar story with Dan Simmons. His books have been such a pleasure to read,with such erudition, that when I found out the man is full of ridiculous anti-Muslim and anti-Hispanic hate (he actually complains that Spanish language education helps the "reconquista" on his blog), I nearly cried.

So it is with some sadness (which quickly turned to anger, as I'd already bought the man's book) that I read this interview that Aidan Moher had with recent World Fantasy Award nominee Jeff Vandermeer.It's not that Vandermeer is in the same nutjob/douchebag crowd as Simmons or Card, but reading that interview just put my teeth on edge. The guy's a pompous clown...every question was turned into "Gosh, what did you mean by that, you don't know anything!" and, frankly, I think the guy's a jerk. What's more, reading the story of the publishing of his first book, I think he's not only a jerk but a narcissist...I mean, he has a contract with a publisher and then DOUBLES THE SIZE OF THE BOOK, just because he wanted to. And you know what? I've read that book. The extra stuff is silly, pointless in-jokes and more ego-boosting. What kind of person writes an entire story in CODE, for pete's sake? Who thinks that I, as a reader, have the time and energy to devote to decoding an entire short story, which is in the end, not particularly enlightening or edifying? It is, at most, amusing. But hey, it's ART, right?

What was the point of such an exercise? First, it is important to the frame/plot of the new material. Second, the reader gains the experience of actually writing the story, word by word. The effect of decryption also slows the reading of the story, making each word have more weight, an effect usually specific to poetry. The sting in the tail of the decrypted story frees the reader to take over the author's role on a permanent basis. The intent is to liberate the reader from the author's manipulation, in a sense.
(Taken from City of Saints and Madmen: The Untold Story Part 1
by Jeff VanderMeer, The Agony Column for April 6, 2004

But you know what? The thing that got me going about the man's attitude could be summed up in this quote, describing the reaction to a rather peculiar piece called "The Early History of Ambergris," one part of City of Saints and Madmen:
My first readers sometimes didn't know what to make of it. Granted, about half of them enjoyed it. But among the others, one frequent response was "that's not a story." Another response--the one that irritated me--went like this: "Jeff, you've done a great job of background writing here. Now you know the entire history of Ambergris and you can write actual stories about the Silence and other events, fleshing out what you've summarized here." To which I replied, no--this is the story; the summary is the story. I wasn’t at all interested in fleshing out those events. A couple of people even advised me not to try to publish "Early History" because "it isn't a story." Did I agree? Not really. I have no defense for summarily rejecting half the advice I received on "Early History," except that it didn't seem to pertain to the actual text I had written.
(Taken from City of Saints and Madmen: The Untold Story Part 1
by Jeff VanderMeer, The Agony Column for April 6, 2004

So fully half of his readers felt that this "thing" wasn't actually a story. But he says no, the story is there, it's just missing details or cohesion. Why did he bury his intentions? Why make it harder for readers to know what you actually want them to know? WHY FOR CHRIST'S SAKE would you prevent half of the people who read your story from understanding what you're writing?

Oh, I know, because you think you're an "artist", and the thing that makes an artist is lack of understanding. Because of course, if people don't understand you it's THEIR fault, not yours, right?



If you can't understand that, it's YOUR fault, not mine.


Ruth Seeley said...

The work really does have to stand alone. Having read all of Thomas Hardy's work and as a great admirer of the work, I foolishly embarked on the first of a two-volume biography of him. I discovered he was nothing like any of his characters (in fact, almost the opposite of the ones I admired most), and promptly stopped reading biographies.

Mostly the author interviews I've seen talk about the most recent work - they're still fairly safe.

Anonymous said...

Could you reformat the quote below as part of your blog post instead of as part of my quote...because it isn't part of the quote. Really bad form.

"If you didn't understand that, it's all your fault for being bad readers."

I respect my readers unbelievably highly. I never talk down to them. I always think of them as being smarter than I am.



JimR said...

Ruth, thanks very much for reading and commenting. You're right, the work SHOULD stand alone. I just can't separate my gut reaction to my perception of an author's character and the work itself. Maybe that's why I still enjoy Cormac Macarthy so much--he remains largely out of the public eye, and the work speaks for itself.

Mr. Vandermeer, I apologize for the mistake and have corrected it.

As for you respecting your readers, even the ones who like Robert Jordan? Or how about the ones who nominate and vote for the Hugos (Which you could "take or leave", I think you said?)?

Respect is an interesting word for it...


Anonymous said...

It is an interesting word. For example, if you're saying that no one can say they don't like a writer's work then you shouldn't have written this post. So obviously you don't believe that. Anyone can say whatever they like re what they enjoy and don't enjoy. You don't enjoy my work--either because of the interview or because of the work. And you've stated as much. That's fine--I respect that.

However, I'd also say that I would never invoke a homophobe and a bigot in the same contest as someone I thought was pompous. That, to me, would be heinous. To you, it isn't. So...what does that mean with regard to respect?

My wife won a Hugo. I was intensely proud for her. But, for me, it's not one of my career goals. Sue me for it not being one.

Do you see what I'm saying? I can have a different perspective without being labeled in an ad hominem attack by you, based on an interview where I was put in a very difficult position by an interviewer who insisted on asking questions that were actually answers. Let's hope you're never in a similar situation. I'd be curious to see what you would do.

I respect your right to not like my work. But the rest of it...really not cool.


JimR said...


I explicitly stated that you were not the same as the other two writers "invoked". The common thread is that there are writers whose words outside of their fiction painted a picture of a person whose writing I don't want to read.

As for it being uncool to say things about you instead of your writing, perhaps you should have approached that interview with a more open, forgiving attitude. Perhaps if you had framed your opinions without the dismissive tone, I wouldn't have felt the way I do. But you did, and indeed the interview is not the sole cause of my reaction--the article you wrote about the publishing of your book rubbed me entirely the wrong way as well. Exploiting the good will of someone who had agreed to publish your book despite monetary risk, then exploiting your readers' good will by writing stories that people don't get and indeed require hours of work just to read, all strike me as the actions of someone who values his work and ego above anything, including his readers. I felt it pretty uncool of you to say and do a great number of the things you said and did.

This is, however, not an ad hominem attack--saying that the personality I see in your words caused me to dislike your writing is not at all an ad hominem attack; there is no disputation of points here, no logical arguments being debated. Simply me saying, "This guy sounds like a jerk, and I hate the fact that I bought his book before I knew that." is no statement on the truth or validity of any argument you make.

Additionally, your comments here have not done anything to change my perception. You saying that a Hugo is not one of your career goals is not at all the same as saying "I could take it or leave it." Saying that a fan-decided award isn't important to you, that you wouldn't be happy to win one, is a rather large slap in the face to your fans. No one should make winning an award a career goal, but being so dismissive of the idea is uncalled for.

"King Rat" lol said...

I was repulsed by Jeff V as well when I was reading the interview. Then I read his comment on Aidan's blog where he ridiculed another commenter on their choice of screen name. Then I read how crudely he responded to criticism in the above comments. I mean, blaming the interviewer for how he came across in the interview? That's all kinds of petty.

Eric M. Edwards said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric M. Edwards said...

Excuse me,

But are you deleting my posts, or is there a problem with your site?


Eric M. Edwards said...

Part I

I'm bemused by this, although I suppose I wouldn't be if I were Jeff.

I found the interview in question, with all due respect to Aidan Moher whose blog I quite like, a rather odd kettle of fish.

It certainly wasn't a Patrick (of Pat's Fantasy Review) and Glen Cook train wreck (more's the pity), but I think quite a few of Aidan's questions were confusing. I didn't detect any willful ill-intent on the interviewer's part, but in Jeff's defense, I think most authors would have found this a slightly off-putting interview - at least in parts. And again, I think this wasn't out of any desire to trip up the author or to expose your supposedly detected "pomposity." Rather, considering theat Vandermeer has built his reputation on less than standard fare, Aidan was in all likelihood trying to keep things interesting and discover more than perhaps the usual questions and format allows. A fine sentiment and I think that Jeff responded in kind.

Personally, I found your response to it far more puzzling. But then I mistrust writers who use too frequently the All Caps. It seems like shouting, of the mad, standing on a street corner with either an unkempt beard or a placard that says God Saves/Jesus Loves/The End is Nigh, sort.


Eric M. Edwards said...

(Part II)

And before you say I'm just standing up for Jeff Vandermeer out of misguided loyalty as a fan, let me assure you, that's not the case.

Nothing could be farther from the truth:

I have a feud with Jeff, declared in his absence, outside of his knowledge, sworn on the branch of the purple amaranth and before the altar of the boundary gods and so eternally binding until discharged all the same. This has nothing however, to do with his personality online or otherwise, or a comment on his innovative and fine work as an author. It is strictly between him, and me, and the men of the Juvina Amaranth.

Why this interview got under your skin, is a mystery to me, but obviously it touched a nerve in you somewhere. Yet to dismiss the work of an author simply because they have an overweening ego? I'm not really sure what to say. I think it is ludicrous, really. In the realms of art and writing, what more would you expect to find? A wealth of meekness and the milk of human kindness? Wrong business, I'd say.

Some of our finest writers in the English language (and in many others as well) were downright horrible characters. Not people you'd have wanted to invite over to your house or to marry your sons or daughters - if they hadn't been also famous, fiercely intelligent, and creatively driven practitioners of their craft. To limit yourself to the fiction of people whom you find utterly without flaws of a personal or private nature, is to impoverish yourself.

How many of the world's great writers would you have been forced to leave behind should you spent an hour in their (dubious) company? And what better way to pay penitence for their (perceived) sins than to enrich our lives and our culture.

It seems a fool's quest then, to whittle down your library on such things, a tilting at imaginary windmills, and above all, unnecessary.

Best wishes,

E. M. Edwards

JimR said...


Goodness. I do apologize for using caps, but then...who is madder, the person who uses all caps, or the person who submits (roughly) the same comment on a blog 6 (or was it 7?) times?

Indeed, ego is a common affliction of writers. Many great writers indeed were ego-bound. But are you seriously arguing that Jeff Vandermeer is a great writer? That he has made the world a better (or indeed different at all) place by writing about hyper-intelligent squid? I'm doubtful.

And your false dichotomy of "Utter dickhead" or "pure paragon of virtue" is a bit odd, nicht wahr? Isn't it possible to be a flawed, deeply human person without acting like a jackass in public? Writers I enjoy reading and also happen to seem, at least in public, like decent folks are many many. Sure, they have egos, but they don't bludgeon people (namely, readers) with them.

But the point is moot. The reality is, why oh why would I want to buy books by people who irritate me, for any reason whatsoever, unless their work is going to fundamentally make me or my world a better, or at least more interesting, place? With my limited time, money, and inclination, wouldn't I be better served expending all of them in support of not only writing I like, but people I like as well? I can't read every book written, whether great or the heuristics I use to pick and choose include "writers who are not actively behaving like people who suck."

Call it ludicrous, but how do you choose which books to read, and which to toss by the wayside?

Eric M. Edwards said...

I'm merely saying that shouting rarely works in your advantage - certainly not online.

Clicking and pasting a few times, does not madness require. I wasn't sure if you didn't like my dissenting opinion or an honest problem was occurring with what was, I'll happily admit, a long reply.

The purpose of a good book is exactly what it says on the tin: to be a good book. Some may go further and as you state, change the world, or at least, change the reader which is a start. However, that wasn't my argument. I've read Vandermeer and at the very least, I'd say he's an innovative, interesting writer who has much to say and frequently says it rather well. That's surely enough to be worth reading, even if he hasn't yet changed the larger world?

And actually, most people, talented or otherwise, have great difficulty it seems these days, not acting like jackasses in public such as in the many online blogs and forums. Less accountability I suppose, is behind it in part. Few would have the courage to express their opinions so rudely, and without much to substantiate them, if they had to deliver them in public, face to face. Or they'd get their arses kicked more often.


Eric M. Edwards said...

That aside, I think an easy perusal of classic literature and the attendant biographies of their authors should be enough to dissuade you of any starry eyed stance on the benevolence of most writers - certainly at least from a historical perspective. And I still fail to see how "large ego = utter dickhead" or why it would change the nature of the work you're reading, provided you didn't feel that way about the work before said author raised your hackles outside of its printed pages.

Admittedly, one can argue for truly racist or homophobic authors who include such tirades or support these antisocial traits *in their actual written work* or I suppose, fund groups who do so in real life (which is unlikely considering their relative penury as a group - Michael Crichton aside) but, even here, I'd not choose to pass up H. P. Lovecraft because he was an absolutely horrible racist and I don't want his estate to benefit. Nor would I necessarily punish a writer for a difference of politics unless their book was riddled with the same - and here, only because I wouldn't enjoy it much, page by page.

But fiction is fiction for good reason, and should be judged on its own merits I feel, not the swagger or sneer of its creators. A lot of questionable people still write very good, and very worthwhile novels. Even taking away the changes in socially acceptable behavior which occur over the course of time, there are likely more great writers you wouldn't like, if you knew more about them. Answering questions in an interview, is hardly bludgeoning you over the head with their ego, either.

You seem a bit eager to posit this argument in a tone which comes across as weighted towards a rather acerbic belligerency on your part. Hard to say if this is actually the case, in fairness, as humour and irony are often lost online. I'm not trying to put your back up either, as this rarely will assist in moving someone out of their already established corner. And I'm certainly not discounting your arguments because you come across as a bit of jerk, we all have our bad days, but rather because I don't think they hold water. All I ask is that you'll do the same.

Really though, blacklisting an author over such tame remarks and for such minor flaws (and I don't necessarily agree with you here regarding Jeff but your feelings are your own) doesn't damage the author; it only hurts yourself. It seems a bit juvenile to stamp your feet and say I won't buy this man or woman's books because they're not, gosh-shucks, nice by my standards. I don't want my authors to be nice. Frankly, I don't give a damn about their personal lives and minor foibles. I just want them to write good books and books well worth reading. If they do that, then my few pounds worth of patronage is a piffling sum to pay for the enrichment that their stories, even those that simply entertain rather than enlighten, bring.

I'm afraid that part of this creeping desire to shape the sort of writing we'd like to see in the marketplace, is a fine example of the very egotism that you decry. And more importantly, I think it is wrongheaded. Somehow, that the minor pique of one unimportant consumer with a bee in his bonnet is going to stop publishers from paying for worthwhile fiction, isn't a conceit that annoys me, but it does give me a good chuckle.

I choose books carefully as well, even though I'm an omnivorous reader and a voracious one. But I've never had to use a writer's off-page personality to do so. There are few enough good books written as it is, that to cut off one's potential access to those that do, just out of spite, seems woefully misguided.

I wish you better, and happier reading in the future,


Eric M. Edwards said...

As if I haven't said enough:

One last point - I'm a staunch atheist who feels that organized monotheism is one of the world's greatest stumbling blocks. Yet, I'd never dream of blacklisting books by Christian, Jewish, or Islamic authors simply because I find these beliefs to be morally suspect.

As long as the books themselves were not solely about or filled with preaching on the subject, why on earth (or in heaven) would I care what they thought on such matters?