Sunday, March 18, 2007


I read this review by Terrence Rafferty of Dan Simmons' The Terror with a rising sense of disgust. The opening paragraph is a lovely example of damning with faint praise:

Writing fiction isn’t an activity for the faint-hearted, and anyone who has managed, as Dan Simmons has, to generate two dozen books (in an impressive variety of genres) in just 22 years clearly deserves credit for discipline, diligence, resolve and, most of all, confidence. His will to persevere — to see every story, short or dauntingly long, through to the bitter end — has been regularly fortified by the recognition of his peers: his résumé includes a Hugo award (from the World Science Fiction Society), four Bram Stoker awards (from the Horror Writers Association) and a couple of World Fantasy awards. His latest opus, however, raises the disturbing possibility that this energetic writer’s hard-earned self-assurance may be tipping over into something more like hubris. “The Terror” is a 769-page novel about men stuck in the ice.
Congratulations, Simmons, for doing whatever any writer does--finish your freakin' stories and novels. But now you've gone and done it--you're not just content with finishing your work. You're showing some ambition. Oh, Hyperion might have been the height of hackery, what with it being based on the structure of that festering cancre of mediocrity the Canterbury Tales, not to mention the low-born origins of your other work, but now you're at least trying really hard. Here, sit up and have a milkbone. This energetic writer’s hard-earned self-assurance. Give me a break.

Rafferty then ends with:

The attempt to produce a massive historical novel — one that might achieve the commercial glory of, for example, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” or “The Crimson Petal and the White” — isn’t, of course, a folly on that level. The quest for the Big Book is neither as heroic an endeavor nor, fortunately, as lethal. (“The Terror” won’t kill you unless it falls on your head.) But when a writer as canny as Dan Simmons can talk himself into something as foolhardy as “The Terror,” you know there’s a kind of insanity loose in the world of publishing, and all I really want to say in my one little page is, Stop the madness.

I.e., this is something Simmons did on purpose--a calculated attempt, not something from his heart. Simmons is a commercial writer, therefore what he does isn't personal. I don't want to read too much into it, but this is a skillful example of effing someone over while appearing to be half-way reasonable. (Not to mention this sudden veer, this sudden rampant twist of the steering wheel into the divider of the median strip: "there's a kind of insanity loose in the world of publishing, and all I really want to say in my one little page is, Stop the madness." What the f---?! Lazy does not even begin to describe this review.)

It's not even clear that Rafferty read the entire novel, from the analysis part of his review. He makes no mention of some of the most chilling and strangest scenes in the novel. He is not even willing to give Simmons his due for creating some of the weirdest and least commercial situations in a book given this kind of push by its publisher. Not to mention the muscular beauty of the prose. If you were to read Rafferty's review, you'd imagine a monkey had been dictating a novel to a walrus with a keyboard.

No, instead he notes the genre background of the author, makes some snide jibes at Simmons' personal intent as a writer (which are unknowable except to Simmons) and utterly fails to address the actual book in front of him. Out of seven paragraphs, only two constitute analysis, and it's hardly that--it's mostly summary. So out of a seven-paragraph review, we have two paragraphs devoted to "smearing" Simmons as a "commercial hack" without using those words (one can only imagine how much time Rafferty spent choosing the words in that first paragraph). We have almost two paragraphs just talking about the historical context of the novel. And the rest is lackluster, freshman-year college reviewing at its most banal.

Let's say for the sake of argument I'd read this book and not liked it. I would hope that my review would have at least acknowledged some of the bona fide triumphs at the level of scene and detail. But Rafferty isn't even willing to do that. Probably because he hasn't even read the book properly.

I'm sorry, but if a book of this scope and ambition appears on your doorstep and you're assigned to review it in one of the, if not the most, prominent book review publications in the country, don't expose yourself as a hack by presenting this kind of retarded, half-assed, snail-brained stew of received ideas and misbased assumptions as if it's a measured or intelligent review.



At 10:13 AM, Blogger Chris said...

I hope you fire this broadside over the NYTBR's bow.

At 12:37 PM, Anonymous Caleb Wilson said...

That review pissed me off. I couldn't believe the amount of time wasted talking about how history books on the Franklin expedition were so short and brief (and this is relevant how, exactly?) and that even thinking about writing a long novel about the expedition was somehow hubristic. I'm still not convinced the reviewer read the whole thing, despite one or two references to the Inuit mythology portions of the book, because I remember how in middle school I would skim a book for quotes and then weave them into a whole lot of nothing, going on for paragraphs about irrelevancies because I had nothing meaningful to say.

At 7:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would have been useful to know if the reviewer had read (and liked) any of Simmons's other books. It's also not clear if he liked any of the other 'big' books that he mentioned. Is this just a cry against long books, because the reviewer gets easily bored or is it a specific problem with this book?

--Eric S.

At 9:39 PM, Anonymous John C said...

Well...Rafferty, thy name is tosser. I've got 700 pages of Norman Mailer fiction about Ancient Egyptians sitting on my shelf. What was the page count on those historical doorstops, Mason & Dixon and Against the Day?

Every time it seems the fiction debate has advanced a degree or two and we're beyond these snobbish dismissals, up pops another troll to prove that there's more slops on their way down from Edmund Wilson's ivory tower.

You know the interesting thing, Jeff? The most open-minded readers I know are all genre fans, equally at home with pulp fiction as they are with high Modernism or literature with a capital "l". Too often it seems you scratch a literary editor and you'll find a fiction bigot.

We have our own dismissal for people like this in the Savoy office: fuck 'em and feed 'em beans.

At 3:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

remember to breathe Jeff!


At 6:08 AM, Anonymous Ariel said...

Rafferty accuses Simmons of hubris? He should look to the walls of his own somewhat brittle-seeming glass house. This seems like nothing more than a classic of example of a soapbox review on the subject of "Look how clever I am! Me! the reviewer! Book? Oh, yeah, there was one around here somewhere..."

(Have to confess I'm particularly averse to this sort of thing, having been guilty of it myself in my younger days. Contact embarrassment can be a horrible thing sometimes...)

At 6:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm breathing, Mo, I'm breathing! LOL.

I dunno--I guess between this and the last couple of actual SF/F columns in the NYT Book Review, I feel like they're getting ever further from anything approaching the reality of the exciting things happening in the field these days.


At 7:33 AM, Blogger The Editor said...

This review reads to me like nothing more than "Shit! That review is due tomorrow and this book is fucking huge!" What is Rafferty, a sophomore in high school?


At 8:36 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Wow. I know the NYTBR is everyone's new whipping boy, but I'm sorry to say that I more or less agree with this review. At the VERY least, Simmons could have easily trimmed 200 pages from this book and not lost anything other than bloat. Simmons is technically a really, really good writer, but he tries to get a LOT of mileage out of material that just isn't that interesting - certainly not 766 pages worth.

Then again, I really fell under the spell of the deluge of Shackelton books a few years back, and once you read a bit about Arctic/Antarctic exploration, there's not a whole lot else to say about it...

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Matthew Cheney said...

Back when Rafferty was a movie reviewer for The New Yorker in the '90s, I quickly learned that he was a pretty reliable barometer: if he panned a movie, I'd probably like it, and if he praised it to high heaven, I'd probably think it was insipid.

The NYTBR is, with rare exceptions these days, a travesty in many different ways.

At 9:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the problem to be with the laziness of the review. If someone pans the Simmons in a thoughtful way, that's fine. But in this case, there's no fairness involved. I'm not arguing that everyone will like this book.


At 11:49 AM, Blogger Michael Berry said...

I was unimpressed (though not actually incensed) by Rafferty's review. In preparing to review "The Terror," for the San Francisco Chronicle, I put aside the book for a couple of weeks, because I couldn't take any more arctic misery after a while. But I'm glad I came back to it (and still managed to publish the review a month ahead of the Times).

The length is something of a problem, and I don't think the book would be seriously diminished if it lost 100 pages. But I think the impact of the novel's climax is so powerful BECAUSE the book is so long, because the reader has been taken on a hard march through madness as Crozier has. There would be little terror with a capital T at 350 pages.

At 7:39 PM, Anonymous billcap said...

I actually wrote that night to the NYTBR in response to such a horrible review, wondering for instance if Rafferty had noticed the irony of spending "hundreds and hundreds of words" to write a review that could be "reduced" to "Book big. Book too big. Me no like big books." Talk about bloat.
And what was with the readers get "naturally impatient" past page 600" I wasn't aware readers "naturally" did anything. And why is 600 so magical? Is it like the sound barrier? That funny glowing light around the galaxy in Star Trek? Why not pick 500? Or 400? I actually find myself crying out for a more active editor (sometimes literally crying, sometimes literally out loud) much more often in books between 300 and 400 pages than in books over 600.
I actually agreed that the weakest part of the book was its jump off into Inuit myth; but if my biggest complaint about a 700+ page book is its last 50 or 60 pages, I'm pretty happy.

At 9:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book yet although it is sitting here to be reviewed (along with Martin Sandler's Resolute about the rescue attempts sent after Franklin). I was bothered by Rafferty's review though because of the way he writes about the Franklin expedition - as if he cribbed a few facts via wikipedia or something. Particularly this part:

"The history of the Franklin expedition is, at its core, a tale of stasis and slow death in a stark, nearly featureless landscape."

Sorry - that's not true. Some of the men were found buried by the crew and clearly died before they all were trapped. (Their bodies have been exhumed and studied.) And it is clear that the survivors seem to have gone mad when they abandoned the ship - from the items that were later found it is clear that they were making bizarre choices about what to drag across the Arctic (fine china, books, silver, etc.) and could not have been in their right minds.

I'm not saying anything new here - historians have been writing this about the expedition for over a 100 years. And the belief that these particular explorers went mad before they died may very well be what attracted Simmons to their story in the first place. Why Rafferty chose not to address that - how this fictional story really only fits for this expedition - is a puzzle. It's key to what Simmons did with this book and deserves to be addressed far more than "writing fiction isn't an activity for the faint-hearted."

A big part of my polar exploration grad class was about Franklin and the men who went after him so I'm thrilled that Simmons has written a book that gives a creepy answer to one of the north's most enduring mysteries. I'm really looking forward to writing about the book and Franklin this summer over at Bookslut.


At 3:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every worthwhile book gets stupid reviews here and there. I know a couple people who didn't like Shriek, and I feel for them because I think they missed the whole point. Sounds like that's what happened to Bonehead.

I'm about 2/3 through The Terror and it's causing me to forgo sleep. I've been sitting up far past my bedtime in awe of Simmons' ability to imagine the utter impossibility of this situation and the absolute Balls the men of the expedition swang (I made that up) in the face of miserable death. Such understated heroism in the face of pure adversity just makes me want to stand up and shake my fist at God too. The unremitting cold and grinding inevitability of the ice is terrifying enough that once in a while I forget all about the Thing out there. Sleep is my antagonist and I don't have enough vacation left to just take the day off to finish this book.

My wife on the other hand has found it slow too. Her bookmark stalled about halfway through, while mine has marched past it and moved into regions of despair for these men that I've never felt for anyone. I keep turning the pages, willing the clock to stop counting the sleep I'm giving up, smoking and reading. My face may not be so frost bitten I'm unrecognizable, but my soul feels like it is.

I'm not a 100% fan of Simmons but this one is kicking my ass and I'm so thankful for Jeff's recommendation that I could shake his hand till his knuckles ground together.

Fuck a bunch of lazy readers.


At 7:13 AM, Blogger Matt Staggs said...

Remind me not to piss you off with one of my reviews.

At 12:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know why the review irritated me so much--maybe it just hit me at the wrong time. I guess it was mostly because I could have been reading it in any third-rate publication and there it was in the NYT. And all of the baseline assumptions. Mostly, reviews of any kind don't get to me.

Dave--re Shriek, you're probably alluding to Abigail Nussbaum's review on Strange Horizons. I think she's wrong, of course, but the review didn't bother me because she took a great deal of care with the book. A lot more care than Simmons got from Rafferty.


At 2:39 AM, Blogger skinnyblackcladdink said...

just a thought after reading the review, but: couldn't it be that Rafferty simply had such an awful *subjective* reaction to the book that there was no other way for him to articulate it? i mean, i dunno, maybe it isn't laziness; maybe he hated it but couldn't properly explain it, which only made it seems lazy because the inexplicable reason he *disliked* the book can only be put in the terms he put down here...i get the feeling that Rafferty's review *is* successful in one thing: essentially dichotomizing the readership into those who do or will like Simmons' book and those who don't or won't, by actually having pinned down the plain, simple, *exact* reason someone might not enjoy this book...and because most of the people here seem to be the sort who *did* like it, or who *will*, it comes off as wrong-headed...when someone of a different temperament might simply agree that, yes, that is *exactly* the problem with Simmons' book).

just a long-winded thought there. again, i haven't read the book, so can't really put this out as a definite opinion, but that fact at least possibly spared me from having an intensely subjective reaction myself.

At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay skinnyblackcladdink, I agree with you in principle. I can grant that Numbnuts may have had a bad subjective experience. My wife has too. But at least he could say so; Jeanie did. At least Jeanie was specific about where the book lost its credibility with her.

As we were talking about it the other morning, Jeanie said something to the effect, What frozen and starving men would be able to create such a grand Carnivale? She believes in the actual world, they couldn't; and that's when she gave up.

This got me thinking so I looked it up on wikipedia. The only document known to exist from the Franklin Expedition is Crozier and Fitzjames' note in the cairn on King William Island.

Archeological and forensic investigation suggest lead poisoning and possible cannibalism. Simmons has done a wonderful job as far as I'm concerned in making what's known of this expedition into a riveting novel. Nothing I've read so far actually contradicts any known evidence - except maybe the Carnivale. And the Thing on the ice. (But I dig the monster, so I'm not prepared to argue with that!)

But anyway. All I'm suggesting is that we have a right to expect thoughtfulness from reviewers. We don't have to agree with them but their comments should give us something to hang from. I subscribe to the notion that we can learn enough about revewers' tastes to know which side of their line we fall on, and so judge whether we could expect to enjoy the given work. I also follow the tenet not to give hit counts to dreck, so based soley on Jeff's opinion I haven't read this review. I doubt I'd disagree with Jeff; I seldom do. His recommendation is why I bought this book, and damn! he's right again.

Okay, time to go read my book. Maybe this is the night I stay up until I've finished.


At 6:49 PM, Anonymous John C said...

I'd suggest that if you're being paid by the NYT to write reviews and aren't sufficiently articulate to state your case then you're in the wrong line of work.

At 12:59 AM, Blogger skinnyblackcladdink said...

don't get me wrong, i love picking at books that way myself, often to the point of overanalysis, and i *do* get rashes when snarks enter a room...but sometimes, i find myself feeling that reviews that *do* successfully intellectuallize their critical views aren't always useful to a potential reader; don't always help 'predict' whether a person will like a book or not.

it's true, maybe Mr Rafferty was just lazy. but, i dunno, sometimes, reviews like this do turn out to be more useful than truly intellectual ones (maybe even more honest and true to a work, given that intellectual analysis by critics is often necessarily post hoc).

i doubt anyone's going to hate the book just because this guy did. but to my mind, he has at least suggested one possible negative subjective response someone might have picking it up.

and there are, after all, people who *do* agree with Rafferty's review...

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Mark Teppo said...

As someone who gave up on Simmons a while ago (some of his more mainstream thrillers I found to be unreadable), I gave The Terror a shot after Jeff said glowing things about it several months ago, and I am damn glad I did. I couldn't put it down, and was even more astounded when I looked into the historical details of the expedition afterward.

This whole accusation of "hubris" just riles me up. What else are we supposed to do but extrapolate on the mysteries in an effort to -- aw, criminy, never mind. We get it. It's annoying that major publications can't be bothered to kick their writers in the ass when they turn in crap like this.

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous John C said...

Slightly off topic, there's a haunting (as it were) folk ballad, Lord Franklin, about the doomed expedition. Pentangle recorded a great version of it on their Cruel Sister album.

At 9:40 PM, Blogger banzai cat said...

Heh gotta disagree with you, skinny. I figure that as reviewers, it's their job to turn in an honest work (describing why or why not they liked a book) and being lazy to articulate it won't cut it. To be exact, I thought Rafferty's review pretty empty and definitely no help at all for anyone interested in the book.

Ironically, as you say, it does seem that Rafferty's lazy review will appeal to lazy readers who don't like big efforts ("book too big! stay away!"). So maybe, as you mentioned, it was successful in that aspect.


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