Opposing Viewpoints

And by we, I mean book bloggers, science fiction aficionados and other assorted freelancer writer types. Earlier today, I had an interesting talk with fellow blogger and podcaster Patrick Hester, (@atmfb) where we had an interesting debate about the role that the book blogging community plays within our little world of speculative fiction, authors, conventions and publicists. This had been sparked by several comments on another blog that equated to: I disagree with Author X because of a) politics b) personal attitude or c) religion, etc, which I think is a somewhat ridiculous attitude to have. This tangentially connects to a couple of exchanges that I've had with people in the recent past about the entire purpose of blogging in general, which leads back to the question: why do we do this? And more importantly, how should we do this?

Science fiction and its related genres are akin to commercial art. As such, they tend to be incredibly complicated works that draw upon numerous influences and elements, hopefully in a nice, commercially friendly package that will sell in numerous units to a willing public and make the publisher just a bit wealthier. Over the course of the discussion that Patrick and I had today, we looked at the ways in which people approached books.

One example here was that reader X didn't like Orson Scott Card, because of an opposing political viewpoint that Card has that vilifies homosexuality and equates global warming to a sort of conspiracy. I vehemently disagree with Card on a lot of political issues, but I'm generally curious as to how people associate a writer and their own personal politics with what they write. In some cases, there's quite a bit of clear influence amongst a writer's works. Heinlein looked towards libertarian viewpoints, for example, and so forth (I've just written about this recently, for other examples). While clearly, there are elements of personal belief within every book that any such author writes. However, the privilege of having an opposing viewpoint does not equate condemning the book or an author simply because of someone's personal politics, especially if someone is acting as a reviewer or interviewer for said author. Books should be judged on their merits, not on the author's personal habits.

In the course of our conversation, how then does one avoid reviewing a book without any sort of outside influence? Should a book be able to stand on its own, completely free from its author's beliefs, offensive as they might be to the reviewer? There's a considerable amount of grey area here, and I suspect that there is no good answer to this problem. As a historian, dislike the idea of judgment of past actions, simply because said ideas don't match up completely with my own. (The same goes for music reviewing. Some bands sound amazing on concert, and recorded, but what happens when you find that in reality, they are some of the most annoying, pedantic, irritating people in the world who don't give two seconds thought to their fans or those who care about those who essentially worship them as minor deities? Or the actor/artist/writer who does the same? Certainly, there is an amount of fanboy disappointment when one's idols don't meet up to one's expectations - I've had that happen a lot.)

The duties of a reviewer, interviewer, and critical thinker are to examine said works. I myself tend to be a curious person, and I find myself wishing for more information about the book. What influenced this novel, or sparked this author's imagination to set these words down on paper? This sort of process is not something that happens completely independent of any sort of outside influence, especially in the science fiction genre. It is this sort of core understanding that I believe is essential to the arts: the drive for understanding, not only of the book itself, or merely for entertainment, but because we relish stories. The earliest stories were incredible teaching tools, ones that undertook the task of teaching ethics, demonstrating to others a slightly easier path in the race to the finish. The better stories are the ones that get away with the teaching before you realized something was up, whereas the bad ones simply expound upon their morals until you throw the book away.

Interviews are another topic all together, and it was suggested that during an interview, the conventional topics such as religion and politics should be completely avoided during an interview.  I disagree with that assessment, because such things are often a major influence on a person, especially in the case of speculative fiction. What are the responsibilities of a book blogger, beyond the usual business of product placement? I firmly maintain that any form of information dissemination is a style of journalism, and as such, has the ability to influence opinion, and has a number of responsibilities therein. As Stan Lee said through Peter Parker: “With great power comes responsibility”, and as such, reviewers, interviewers and critics have the responsibility to weed out the bad and point out the notable. They should examine the influences upon the works that they look at, ask questions and consider any and all possibilities. This obviously happens to a varying level of completion and attention, but reviewers should at least consider how their actions benefit a greater audience.

Thus, I believe that ignoring the influences upon a book, no matter what the underlying values are, does a grave disservice to the author and potential readers that follow. This is not to say that there are numerous books out there that are not worth reading, but that evaluating a book based on a few, selected criteria is not an honest look at said book and story. While I disagree with the opinions of Dan Simmons or Orson Scott Card, that doesn't mean that completely ignoring or disregarding will do much better. Reading and attempting to understand such viewpoints is far better, and does not mean that one advocates such positions.

Beyond that, books, like people, have a complicated genesis, and evaluating a book on a single issue or merit belies the complexity and background that any sort of reviewer should be judging a book on. This, I believe is the beauty of our intellect and abilities to communicate. No single person has a monopoly on what is right, and what is wrong. In the grander picture, we really know very little at all, and denying the chance to learn more or to understand is a poor action indeed.

How I Blog

I have been blogging since the spring of 2003 or 2004 (I can't remember exactly when I started), but I really began serious writing about it for only a couple of those years, running and writing for a couple of different and diverse blogs out there. Writing online is a good thing, I'm finding, and if it is something that is incredibly easy to get started. Because of that, there are a lot of bad sites out there, from people who started doing pretty much what I started with, and I wanted to share what I have found that works.

Come up with a plan.

The first major step towards creating something that will be of public interest and a resource is knowing exactly what you are intending on writing about. This blog isn't really devoted to anything in particular: I cover a wide range of popular culture, from books to films, but I also touch on history of several areas (Military, Space, etc), or political commentary. It's decidedly not like my other blog, Carry You Away, which is devoted to various types of music, and while I'm not as active with it, I've maintained a very different sort of focus for it. I read a lot of book and music blogs over the course of a day, and the thing that some just can't step away from is what they're focusing on: books? Movies? Music?

But beyond the topic, the big goal is to fully understand what (or who) you are writing for. Coming up with a small strategic plan, which helps to lay out where you want the blog to go in a week, in a month, 6 months and a year, will help steer the focus of the blog, and thus approach your material in a prepared fashion, rather than off the cuff. This is especially important for sites that depend upon revenue to keep running, through ads and so forth. Growing a blog to gain a significant audience is especially good for reviewers, because A) People will respect and look to you for opinions while B) you can do a good service towards whatever community that you are writing for. Moreover, people tend to cluster based on their interests, and communities exist for science fiction, military history and music, and being able to write for these groups helps everyone by putting a good, polished opinion out there with sound reasoning.

Write well, don't write good

Grammar and spelling is important to writers. Once you understand what you are working towards, you must be able to articulate your opinions in a clear method in which you can address the topic at hand. In the case of a reviewer, you are talking about why a product is a good one, which comes down to two parts of the equation: what are the parts that make it worth spending money on, and what is not good? In the midst of that, you begin to speak towards elements of plot and style, characters and everything like that. When looking at literary theory and analysis, you will want to have a good background in what you're writing about: know your subject, read background material and come up with an argument that makes sense. In all cases, concrete evidence and sources are essential. In talking about a good book, I'm likely to do more than simply say that I liked the book: what specific instances make the book a good one, what element of history supports your argument. Gut feelings are good, but things to point to are even better.

Beyond writing well, it is also good to edit oneself. I have long since broken the habit of writing up a blog post in the actual window: entries and reviews are typed up in a different window, with a spell check, and with at least a read through to change things here and there. This extra effort goes a very, very long way. As someone at ReaderCon noted during a panel: “If you submit work to an editor, and they consistently find that they don’t need to change much, they’re likely to go to you again.”

Don't be a fanboy. (Or girl)

This falls more towards the annoying sites that I’ve come across, but whether this is towards a specific subject, author, publisher or reviews in general, don't be completely positive with everything, and try and write about more than one or two subjects: diversify. This comes in two forms: subject, and specific instances.

The blogs and sites that I like the most have a wide variety of material on them, and they can bring some of those things together over time in their arguments. I've largely passed on sites that shill a single type of book or film, simply because there's only so many times that I can read about X, Y and Z. While I'm a huge Star Wars fan, there's a lot of things wrong with the series, and a lot to nitpick. Specializing is one thing, overdoing it is another.

The same goes for any author or publisher. There are several authors that I've read extensively on, and reviewed, and while their material is good, it's not perfect, and it's better to point out these things, to be a bit critical, to avoid becoming someone who simply gives everything an A and moves. It destroys credibility, but it also weakens the review if there are things that the reviewer misses.

(This same sort of over-grading applies to graduate school and education in general, and it's something that is very, very annoying.)

Write a lot. Then write some more.

Now that you have your direction, you have your topics, and you're taking care to review things carefully, the final step is to keep plugging away with content. This is where I have issues with most reviewer blogs, because of the sheer volume of books that are reviewed by a single person. A variety of content is good, mixing reviews and analysis, because it demonstrates that there is a synthesis of what you are reading with commentary based on the same (or similar) subject. More content generally means more people coming in to see if you've written something new, and the big sites such as io9 and SF Signal upload a lot of content throughout the day.

When I blogged extensively in the music world, I saw a definite uptick of hits when I write every day for the site - the same is true for this page as well: more posts = more readers. If it's not practical to write every single day, regularity is key. I know that I check into Post Secret like clockwork on Monday morning after the page has been updated. People fall into habits, even with things like Google Reader and RSS feeds.

The point of all this isn’t to feel magnanimous about my meager efforts writing, but because it’s something that I’ve come up with over the past seven years through a lot of trial and error. I have only come to begin writing professionally in the past year or so, and in that time, I have met a lot of people who are in the same position that I am in – people with big aspirations. Hopefully, we will all reach that point someday. In the time being, writing is like any profession: it takes a lot of work, effort and persistence.

Worlds in A Grain of Sand's New Home

For the past couple of years, I've hosted this blog on blogger.com. Recently, I've been wanting to do more with my blogging, and a couple friends of mine, notably Noel Green, recommended that I try Word Press. Looking over the platform over the past couple of weeks, I've found that I can transfer all my posts over here, and that the interface is a lot easier to use, which I like, plus, it looks better. While all of the original posts (900 +) are on here, some of the links might not work, or might lead back to the original blog site, which I'll be keeping around.

Currently, the tags only go through last summer. I'm planning on updating them over time, but at this point, it's not a priority. I'm going to be updating the links over the next couple of days. Wordpress has a feature to convert all the catagories into tags. I love this engine.

Blogger Meetup

I went to the meetup yesterday, found a very interesting group of people. There were two govenatorial candidates, a liberal activist, several webdesigners, a gun nut, reporter, two librarians and one poor guy that got caught in the corner that we trapped in.
Basically, one of the Seven Day's reporters started a weblog called 802 Vermont, and started a list of Vermont blogs. The list is quite extensive, and the first time that she tried this, she only got three people to come. This time, there was nearly twenty five, all with various backgrounds and ages. I knew one person there, Philip Baruth, who taught at the Champlain Writer's conference when I went there. I was only there for about an hour, but people exchanged names and web addresses, and what their weblogs were about, what they used for hosting, complained about comment spammers and some other random things. One of attendees I found worked at Norwich University, where I go to school, which was a funny coincidence. Overall, a very fun group of people there. I was the youngest there.
Here's Cathy's writeup, (she organized this entire thingy): Nice ta meetcha. I even made it into a couple of photographs.

EDIT: Here's one of the pictures I made it into. Got several compliments for the shirt at the meetup:

VT Bloggers: Meetup

7 Days Newspaper has an online blog section, 802 Blog, lots of links to VT blogs, various new articles from around the state, all in all, an interesting site to read. They're apparently doing a get together:

Vermont Blogger Meetup II — it's official
Date: Saturday, November 5
Time: 3 p.m.
Place: Langdon Street Cafe, Montpelier
Cost: Free, but you might want to get somethin' to drink while we're there.
Who's invited: Vermont bloggers, blog-readers and the people who love them.

Spread the word.

I might head out to this, if I'm not doing anything hugely important, which I don't think that I will be.