Good reviews aren’t necessarily positive

Update 12/14/09: Gary K. Wolfe’s review is now online.

Today I read two reviews of The Devil’s Alphabet, one by Karen Burnham at SF Signal, and the other by Gary K. Wolfe at Locus (printed on actual paper). Both were pretty positive — Wolfe starts the review calling me “amongst the most interesting of the newer writers to emerge in the past decade, and rapidly becoming one of the most unpredictable,” which is nice, and Burnham gives me 4/5 stars — so I’m not complaining. But what I most appreciated was the thoughtfulness of the reviews.

Gary Wolfe is pretty much the dean of SF critics, the reviewer I’ve been reading the longest, and the person I most wanted to be reviewed by when I started writing novels. When I get my copy of  Locus, I read his column first, every issue. He’s such a good writer that I find it difficult to disagree with him, even when I don’t agree with him. So it was with some sense of trepidation that I read his review — if he said I sucked, what was I supposed to do with that massive cognitive dissonance?

Karen Burnham has been reviewing for a couple years, and when I met her at a convention a couple years ago, I was immediately struck by her excellent taste — because she immediately told me she liked my short stories. She hasn’t been reviewing enough lately — she’s works for frickin’ NASA, for crying out loud, so her day job’s a bit busy — but her review of Pandemonium last year pointed out something I hadn’t been conscious of, that you could read the story as one family’s struggle to take care of someone with mental illness. It’s the mark of a good review that afterward you think, damn, maybe that IS what I meant.

So, two reviews in one day. Wolfe (I’m going to call him Wolfe, because in his review he uses my last name, like reviewers do) pointed out that while Pandemonium was a mash-up of content, Devil’s Alphabet was a mashup “of form and genre.” Then he goes down the line sighting echos and references that seemed to have informed the book, all of which made me think, damn, he must be right.

On the one hand, the novel hovers around a sort of evolutionary hard SF of novels like Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio… on the other, it returns to an earlier kind of evolutionary SF that we’d seen in novels from van Vogt’s Slan to Sturgeon’s More Than Human, in which the focus is more on the pariah status of the victims than on the biological puzzle, and on the inability of the larger society to cope meaningfully with the implications of the event. But then again, it’s also a homecoming tale about a young man (unaffected by “the Changes”) who has escaped his rural origins for a life in Chicago. Finally–and this is what drives the novel’s main plot–it’s a small-town southern Gothic murder mystery. No one can accuse Gregory of being a one-note author.

Wolfe then goes on to describe the overstuffed plot, and says, “While Gregory does an impressive job of keeping all these plates spinning without losing his narrative’s coherence, there is still a sense that a bit much is going on all at once, and that some of those plates are starting to wobble.”

This is definitely something I struggled with while writing the novel. How to pay off all those plot lines? How to keep them in balance? I think it’s something I’ll continue to struggle with. I was happy, though, to have him end the review with this:

The larger question, of what eventually might become of these evolutionary exiles as they move into second and third generations, seems to move us back into Theodore Sturgeon territory, and it’s fortunately a territory that Gregory has mastered well. The novel’s quiet ending, in a snowbound South Dakota winter, is haunting.

In Burnham’s (not Karen’s) review, which I won’t quote from as much, ’cause you can read it yourself, she points out something that is kind of my modus operandi — I try to wed a mainstream, character-driven story to sfnal weirdness. In fact, it’s pretty much all I’m trying to do, every outing.

But Burnham takes a couple paragraphs to do something that the best critics do — consider the work in context of a career. One, she doesn’t think Pandemonium or Devil’s Alphabet measure up to my short stories, and she’s particularly sad that neither book has a female character as the main protagonist, as some of my stories (her favorites of mine) do.

This is an interesting problem for me, in a couple ways: one, I don’t want to be writing the same characters over and over, and having the main protagonist always be young, white, and male is boring and a bit odd. (Besides, I want to stay as unpredictable as Wolfe thinks I am.)

And it’s not like I don’t like to write about women. Burnham mentioned some of the short stories, and in  the novels some of the strongest and smartest characters are female. In Devil’s Alphabet, as a reviewer on SFF World pointed out last week, most of the power structure of Switchcreek is female, led by Aunt Rhonda, the mayor of the town, who shares some of the POV duties in the book. But none of these women are the main character, as Burnham points out. So what’s up with that?

Now, I realize that this is a sample size of 2 novels, and hopefully I’ll have more opportunities to write more books. But the problem for me is that I don’t have much choice in these matters. When I wrote “Second Person, Present Tense,” the main character walked on stage, and she was a teenage girl. There was never any question that she’d be a boy. In “The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy,” I likewise knew that this was the story of two boys who were best friends. In “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm,” the welder and minion of the supervillain was always going to be a woman– and so on, for every story.

With secondary characters, I have a bit more leeway. They’re more vaguely defined in my subconscious, so when they walk on stage I can ask myself if they’d be more interesting, and better for the story, as female or male, gay or straight, of color or not. But with main characters, they pretty much arrive as-is, with no refunds, packed alongside the idea that carried them into my brain. Maybe it’s different for other writers.

So, will I ever have a female protagonist in a novel? I can’t believe I won’t at some point. If the short stories are any indication, some woman’s going to walk on stage with a novel-sized idea under her arm and demand to have her story told. I have to admit, though, that in the book I’m writing now, the main character is another guy. Maybe Book 4, then.

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5 thoughts on “Good reviews aren’t necessarily positive

  1. Daryl-

    Thanks for being OK with the review! And thanks for mentioning me in the same post as Gary… that’s my fan-girl squee for the week!

    Very interesting comment on your creative process, with the main characters coming fully formed. I always appreciate that sort of insight, not having any fiction-leanings myself.

    Also, you need to be following me on Twitter. http://twitter.com/SpiralGalaxy

    Hope that “Devil’s Alphabet” does well (my review at least sold one copy to the library in Grand Junction, CO; my mother-in-law has asked them to order a copy). Looking forward to the next one!

  2. I’m looking forward to reading the Locus interview, because I know that there must be some more things going on in TDA that I didn’t catch or grasp the larger significance of, but that a great review will be able to point out. It must be in the December issue? My local library doesn’t have December on display yet.

  3. Thanks for posting Wolfe’s interview. His review just piques my curiosity enough to want to ask you which aspect of the story were you most driven by and passionate about? I thought you did a good job with keeping all the plates spinning, personally, though I did wonder in the end what element of the story was probably your favorite and maybe why? I like that it felt complete as a story and still made you think about some SF themes and societal issues, but I’m curious about your personal relationship to the story and themes involved, and maybe what you wanted to leave the reader with?

  4. @Karen — of course I’m okay with the review, what choice did I have? Seriously, I was thrilled to receive such a thoughtful review. And I appreciate somebody looking out for my career, such as it is.

    @Moses — I’m going to need more time to think about your question. I will say this — the part of the writing in any story that gets me most energized is the emotion in the story. I love writing about the way characters relate to each other, and how people who love each other wound and take care of each other. In TDA the biggest challenge was to take a guy whose main problem was that he felt disconnected, who didn’t want to be in relationships at all, and then make him deal with people. As I wrote the book, I thought many readers would throw up their arms at how reluctant Pax is to engage — he’s a distant jerk throughout much of the book — and would get impatient with him to grow up. (And I think that’s exactly what happened, judging from some reviews.) He’s the real alien in the book — all the freaks are much more human.

  5. Ah, that makes so much sense. I didn’t grasp it until you said it, even though it was hidden right there in plain sight. That’s the kind of insight I’ve been waiting for a reviewer to point out to me; the sort of grand irony or message that I may have missed. My own personal made-up reading into that is that the regular joes next door (heh, the folks that read Sarah Palin books) are much more alive and interesting than we give them credit for.

    I felt moderately torn about Paxton, though it was clear enough that you either wanted the reader to feel that, or knew that the reader would. And I think it is true that characters like Rhonda and Deke (heck, even Jo–nice accomplishment imo) kept you engaged with their “humanity.” You also had the “blanks” or betas in there, which meant you pretty much had to form your attachments to the argos or charlies. Luckily, that wasn’t tough to do. But Paxton was interesting, because he’s like a like of disconnected young men today, and the book reminds me that those guys aren’t always the easiest to root for.

    I think by the time Pax starting taking risks for his dad, he was much easier to care about. One thing I was a bit surprised about was that the resolution with Pax and his dad. I would’ve been tempted to go for more melodrama with them (that’s probably my style, for better or worse–probably worse), but I still thought your resolution of their subplot was quite believable, plus there were a lot of rich emotional moments involving them throughout the story anyway.

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