Saturday, July 27, 2013

OPINION: *That* Emperor of Thorns Review Apology

A couple of days ago, the Twitter-sphere had another minor explosion in the wake of Marc Aplin's review of Mark Lawrence's Emperor of Thorns, in which Aplin called out popular reviewer Liz Bourke over her comments on the earlier Prince of Thorns. There were claims of sexism being thrown around, and essentially it became a large mess. It wasn't aided by Aplin altering his review and then issuing what was essentially an aggressive non-apology.

I think the best place to start is with Aplin's non-apology, as can be found on the Fantasy Faction forums (titled 'Upsetting Liz Bourke') and website. I will quote the full apology (as found on the forum at ~10am on 27/7) and offer my opinions on how it made matters worse.
Dear Miss Bourke,

I apologise if I offended you. However, being an advocate of 'good' fantasy books, it kind of hurt to hear you slander one of the very best.

In addition, I have to say, I found parts of your review quite insulting; and not just your comments towards the author either, but to me as a reader and as a person. For reference, the bit that most offended me - for there was much more - was as follows:

If you like bleak, bloody, and gruesome novels about cold-blooded unprincipled sociopaths who achieve their murderous dreams, then this book will be perfect for you … Me, I need to go scrub out my brain.

To me, that seems an attack on my character - am I weird for enjoying this book? Are the many Fantasy-Faction readers who don't need to scrub their brain weird too? I'm not so sure I like 'cold-blooded unprincipled sociopaths who achieve their murderous dreams' (it is also worth pointing out you have only read the first book and therefore cannot say whether he achieves his dreams or not), but what I like is the fact that I'm setting out on a journey with this character who sheds the shackles of my expectations and who, I can proudly say, I'm excited to follow and see where he ends up.

Many people would say that great literature is the deviation from expectation and  very often, therefore, constraints. If that's true, Mark Lawrence certainly deserves all the attention he has been getting. I'm just sorry you were so offended and couldn't enjoy it to the extent such a large percentage of the community has.

Once again, sorry.

Marc Aplin
The very first paragraph itself is problematic. It basically reads as "I'm sorry if I offended you but you're wrong because I like it". It's not slander to criticise a book, because slander is to tell baseless lies that defame a character or an organisation. On top of that, it is wildly out of place in an apology, because it shifts the blame. It is now not his fault for being offensive, but Bourke's for sharing her opinion in the first place.

Here we go again into "it's your fault 'cos you started it" territory. It's not Aplin's fault for making the comments he did, no! It's Bourke's fault for writing a review two years ago that levels a heavy criticism at Prince of Thorns. It is a bleak, bloody and gruesome novel about a cold-blooded, unprincipled sociopath who achieves his murderous dream. How is this offensive? It is a commonly-accepted fact, by those on both sides of the debate. I will admit I think Bourke's tone is somewhat strong in that quote, but I don't think she is exactly wrong.

Then the next paragraph, which switches the Victim-Aggressor blame back to Aplin. It's *his* character under attack. But this is where he makes two huge mistakes that blow wholes in his apology and truly and undoubtedly reveal how fake his apology is. The first is by saying "I'm not so sure I like 'cold-blooded unprincipled sociopaths who achieve their murderous dreams'" after spending a review (and the first part of the apology) fawning over the series, calling it one of the 'very best'. If you don't like those kinds of characters, then you would not think The Broken Empire books to be so good, because they do revolve around that kind of character. And here we go into the second massive mistake, in which Aplin calls Bourke out on not having read the sequels ("(it is also worth pointing out you have only read the first book and therefore cannot say whether he achieves his dreams or not)"). I think this shows just how desperate Aplin was to portray himself as the victim here. Bourke's review came out *when Prince of Thorns did*. There is no way she could have read the following books! Her review was contextually correct for the time it was written.

Aplin picked up on something he tried to play off as offensive, and then again tried to point out that Bourke was wrong. But she wasn't in either case, and on top of that we are talking about *her opinion*. It is based in her interpretation of the book, and on that book as a singular read, because that's what it was. Aplin is free to love the books, Bourke is free to hate them. Neither viewpoint is wrong, because they are opinions.

The final paragraph returns to patronising Liz Bourke, yet throws in heaps of praise for Mark Lawrence, whilst again taking the victim stance. Aplin plays it off as if Bourke's dislike of the book offends him whilst making her seem wrong for it with 'I'm just sorry you were so offended and couldn't enjoy it to the extent such a large percentage of the community has.' See? It makes Bourke look like a minority in disliking the book (actually, those of us who hate the book are a minority).

Taken as a whole, the so-called apology is an exercise in blame-shifting and fanning the flames. It's reminiscent of Hugh Howey's behaviour after being called out on a controversial, sexist blog post he made, in that they both fumble to make the blame seem as if it lies elsewhere, whilst at the same time digging themselves deeper. Liz Bourke wrote a review that criticised the book two years ago (and she was not alone in that), and there were also long, critical reviews of it that called it out for what it was.

Even if you don't believe the original review (which as since been edited and can only be found via archives, unless someone has saved it) was sexist towards Liz Bourke, it's impossible to deny that the subsequent apology was a sham and only made matters worse.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

REVIEW - We Can Fix It by Jess Fink

Jess Fink is one of those names that keeps cropping up in comics circles, yet whilst she's never worked on mainstream comics (to my knowledge), her sexually-charged comics and approach to sexualities has seen her become a prominent figure in independent comics and her work is frequently discussed on major comics sites. We Can Fix It is a semi-autobiographical comic, and it has surprising similarities to the hourly comics fad which saw releases like Marc Ellerby's Ellerbisms and The Everyday by Adam Cadwell (obligatory Great Beast plug now over).

We're shown various parts of Fink's life via a jumpsuit-clad futuristic version of herself, as she attempts to correct her mistakes in the past in order to better herself as a person. It's also the story of a young woman wrestling with her sexuality, her identity and the world around her. It's about her trying to account for the mistakes she's made in the past, but also the consequences of trying to correct them.

There is a surprising honesty to this comic, too, with Fink not shying away from details of her sexual life and her use of drugs, or even some rather traumatic events involving her family. This honesty gives an emotional link, and if you don't agree with some of what Fink may have done in the past, you can't help but identify with the situations she's in on some level. Amongst the crude jokes, there are deep messages that we can all learn from and they easily push this comic into the realms of excellence.

A highly recommended read. We Can Fix It is available digitally via ComiXology, and is also available in paperback. Both editions are published by Top Shelf.