The Death/Decline of Nuance and Subtlety

A week or so ago, I received the worst review of a book of mine in thirty years.  Not surprisingly, it was the Publishers Weekly review of Empress of Eternity.  The only good thing I can say about the review was that it appeared almost two months after the book was released.  Now… I’ve had good reviews and not so good reviews, and questionable reviews throughout my career, but never a review that so thoroughly trashed a book, especially a book that had received numerous rave and favorable reviews elsewhere.  I’ve already been the first to admit that Empress of Eternity, like Haze, is not a book to appeal to everyone, and I certainly wouldn’t object to a review that said just that… and said why.  What bothers me about this particular review is that it exemplifies a trend in both books and movies that is both deplorable and, I believe, culturally dangerous.

By its very approach, the review essentially states that, if something isn’t immediately obvious and clear, it’s trash.  If it’s not simple and direct, then it’s worthless.  That’s like saying a one pound hamburger with American cheese is far superior to a custom-broiled filet mignon with cordon bleu béarnaise sauce.  Obviously, tastes differ, and there are times when a hamburger just hits the spot… but please don’t tell me the hamburger is superior in culinary terms.

It’s becoming so that too many reviewers and readers can’t tell the difference between a book that has no characterization to speak of and one in which the characterization is nuanced and subtle.  If the writer doesn’t effectively come out and say, “Joseph was devastated,” these readers and reviewers don’t pick up the other clues.  The same is true of foreshadowing.  The author practically has to post signposts that state “this is important,” or it goes over their heads.  This tendency isn’t new.  There have been readers with such problems since there have been books.  What is new is that, in this “new” era of “everything in your face,” there are more and more of them, and they’re infiltrating the ranks of the reviewers and critics.

The same trends have already occurred in movie-making, and it’s to the point where almost any movie trailer will tell me if it’s an “in your face” movie.  In fact, almost all the block-buster movies are these days, and it’s getting harder and harder to find movies with depth, subtlety and nuance.  Once upon a time, the banana peel humor was largely limited to the Saturday morning movie serials, and the scatological humor to pornography.  No more. Once upon a time, many movies [certainly not all, or even a majority, but enough that one didn’t have to search through a haystack of dross] actually presented brilliant dialogue and depth.  No more.

This cheapening and over-simplification of societal entertainment bleeds over into everything else, from supersizing fast foods to the Sarah Palinization of politics, where “in your face” direct simple solutions are the answer.  And because everyone has a “simple” solution, no one can understand that big simple solutions don’t work… and never have, not without an extraordinary cost to people. Unfortunately, this past weekend we’ve had what appears to be a reminder of those costs with the shooting of a moderate Congresswoman in Arizona, who, from all accounts was popular with the majority of her district, and unpopular with the extremists in both parties.

So I’ll say it again.  Big, simple, extreme solutions aren’t the answer, and never have been. After all, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was certainly a big and simple solution.  So were Hitler’s Third Reich, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Castro’s Cuban Revolution… as well as all the ethnic cleansing movements throughout the globe.  By contrast, from the beginning the American Revolution embodied compromise, a fact conveniently overlooked by the Tea Partiers. Interestingly enough, what it created lasted… so far, but will it survive the “in your face” era?

8 thoughts on “The Death/Decline of Nuance and Subtlety”

  1. Sam says:

    I don’t often read books more than once these days. I never seem to have the time. I struggle to keep up with the books I haven’t read.

    Speaking as someone who recently read Empress and quite likely missed numerous details one thing that struck me whilst reading it was Maarlyna telling Martyn about the Hive-like culture of the Ruuche. What struck me was that whilst reading the Ruuche segments I had not gotten any kind of impression of their culture being Hive-like. Of course my goto mindset for Hive-like cultures is something along the lines of the Borg from Star Trek. Which is no doubt not what you meant. I picked up that their culture was fairly repressed but I missed the Hive mentality. I also didn’t realise that they all looked alike/similar.

    I wonder about the value of subtlety. If you were writing children’s fiction would you write with as much subtlety as you write with for adults? Or would you want to be as clear as possible to maximise the child’s ability to comprehend your meaning?

    I suppose the value of subtlety is that it challenges the reader which can be stimulating. The problem is stimulation can sometimes turn to frustration when the subtleties aren’t stumbling blocks to understanding but barriers for some readers. There have been times where I’ve read the same sentence or paragraph numerous times and failed to comprehend it’s meaning.

    Also the way things are going these days I think it’s good if people read at all. None of my younger cousins read for themselves. For them it’s all about video games and television.

  2. Iron Sparrow says:

    I actually have the opposite problem while reading books. Many times an author will “spring” a surprise on me that I’ve anticipated for literally hundreds of pages – making it not much of a surprise to say the least. It can be a little frustrating as a reader.

    TV shows with subtle humor or characterization are quickly canceled whilst shows that rely on lowest common denominator appeal are renewed year after year.

    Welcome to the ADD era of American culture.

  3. Robert The Addled says:

    Books are RARELY very simple. Even a Telegraphed plot can hide subtlities that aren’t clear on a first read. Also the age, mental state, and personal experiences of a reader can completely change the tone of a book. An adventure the first time around has subtexts that register subconciously. When I first read the Ghosts trilogy I picked up on the socioeconomic and ecological threads about halfway thru the first book. I stopped and began again – with the subtext realized- the book became enjoyable on MULTIPLE levels. I often re-read the recluce saga in crono rather than published order because these threads enhance the experience and tie the series into a greater whole. Rowling and (the late) Jordan are more blatant in tying minor events into significance in later books – but the discovery and tracing of these linkages is part of the fun. My favorite Recluce link is the instrument played by creslin that later turns up in the household of the trader (name escapes me w/out looking it up) from the Magic Engineer.

  4. Joshua Blonski says:

    I’ve been short on “fun money” recently (although books are more or less a necessity anyway), so I only just recently purchased Empress of Eternity. I haven’t read it yet because I just started to reread Faust, but I plan to pick it up very soon. I’ve been looking forward to it because of my enjoyment of the layers and subtlety in Haze, and because of your recommendation based on that enjoyment.

    It does seem to be a growing trend that more and more people do not appreciate or even want to figure things out for themselves with regard to a story. An aunt of mine writes (although not professionally) and she pointed out to me a long time ago that, obviously, you want your readers to “get it.” However, it feels good to feel like you’re figuring it out for yourself. Even though a writer is providing enough information for you to do so, there is more enjoyment in finding the clues and drawing the conclusions yourself than there is in simply being told exactly what happens.

    Countless times, I have heard the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” We all have. Yet, these days, it seems like this is rhetoric instead of something that is believed. Your example of, “Joseph was devastated,” made me laugh but cringe a little because it seems that more and more entertainment these days is taking that simplistic approach. However, it lacks conviction. I don’t believe a writer when he simply tells me the state of mind of the character, just as I don’t believe an actor when she simply goes through the lines in a script.

    The dangers of surface-level detection or being told things in simplistic means is that a lot of people will suffer from a lack of careful reasoning because they no longer look for cues and try to puzzle those cues together themselves. How do you know if a salesman is on your side or on his? How do you know if a potential employer is really a good boss and a good fit for you? How can you tell if your colleagues are truly supportive or are simply offering professional courtesy? We need to be able to read deeper than simplistic, surface-layer cues. Or to borrow from your writing above, we need to find our way without the signposts.

    And by the way, the burger and steak comparison was a deliciously good example that hit fairly close to home, even though it’s going to cause me to crave a steak all day.

  5. Joe says:

    The same is true of TV. I found Caprica a very interesting portrayal of a possible future, investigating how society reacts to new technologies. Similarly, I liked 2070 Total Recall. Both were canceled because they weren’t sufficiently “exciting” to their “core audiences”. I disliked the special effects focused shows that inspired them (BSG and the Total Recall movie).

  6. Alison Hamway says:

    In the case of Publishers Weekly review, the reviewer was not fair or well reasoned in his/her critique. This is disappointing, because many of us read reviews in order to discover new writers or challenge ourselves with different styles/genres/topics. Many newspapers no longer review as many books, and many of them no longer review speculative fiction or science fiction. I for one appreciate that many of your books are different; I can’t keep reading certain writers that never change. It would be a very boring world for readers if all books followed the same formulas!

  7. Mayhem says:

    Its interesting to compare your experience with that of Steven Erikson. The amount of foreshadowing and subtle detail he embedded in his early works which are revealed in more detail later in the series is quite extraordinary, yet to Publishers Weekly ‘The fast-moving plot, with sieges, duels (of sword and of spell), rebellions, intrigue and revenge, unearthed monsters and earth-striding gods, doesn’t leave much room for real depth’.

    I suspect it reflects much more on the nature of the reviewers these days – more and more often I find myself wondering if I even read the same book as they did. I wonder too if the job of reviewer is being foisted off onto the new hires in the company, so the younger attitude of NEED IT NOW takes over.

  8. Mayhem says:

    In fact hunting Amazon for Publishers Weekly reviews of more complex novels I am familiar with, I’m seeing an increasing trend of reviews that barely have anything to do with the actual content of the book, from names being spelled wrong to characters being misdescribed and events that don’t even happen.
    Since according to wikipedia the amount paid to reviewers has been halved I wonder if the reviewers are starting to simply skim through the books to increase their throughput, and if they do that, nuance and subtlety will go right past them.

    Reading deeper into more of Eriksons reviews, an increasing tendency is the demand to be spoonfed every detail.
    ‘The mediocre maps and hopeless appendix provide little or no information. Given the abundant quantity of characters, an improved comprehensive appendix is necessary including racial characteristics, relating magical powers, and describing creatures.’
    ‘We get entirely too many perspectives, from too many characters we don’t really care about. And plot? I’m sure it’s there somewhere, but it’s so intricate and subtle that it’s difficult to turn the pages’
    In other words, the reviewer demands the author lower his standards to meet their abilities, so it appears unless you make things clean and simple your work is clearly inferior. Gah, I can see why authors get frustrated, I now remember why I barely ever read reviews any more.

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