Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gandalf the Urban: Jim Butcher's Terrible 'Dresden Files'

It's rare to discover that a novel was spawned by the the same mentality that one might devise for a dismissive straw man argument, but Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files manage to be so comprehensively conventional that even their conception seems born of the worst kind of stereotype. From the author himself (bold emphases mine):
The first several books I wrote were nothing but swords and horses. I had been discussing things with my writing teacher every semester and I had written several very mediocre books. At some point she had told me "You know, Jim, you're always going on about how much you enjoy these Anita Blake books by Laurell K. Hamilton and how much you like Buffy, why aren’t you writing something similar to that because that would seem to be a much better use of your interests to serve your writing?" I said "No, I'm a fantasy writer" and I'd done that for a long time. Finally, one semester, I had been arguing with her on several different points on writing craft and so on, and I finally decided that this semester I'm going to do just exactly everything she tells me to and I'm going to show her how wrong she is about all these different things because I had my English Literature degree so I knew better than she did. Just because she had 30 or 40 novels under her belt, that didn't mean she knew anything. So kind of to prove her wrong, I set out to fill out all the little worksheets she had in her class, and proceed according to things she had suggested for new writers to do and I was going to show her what terrible unimaginative pablum was the result... and I wrote the first book of The Dresden Files. I wrote it to prove how much my writing teacher didn't know and learned a valuable lesson about humility as a result.

She read the first three chapters of the very first book and she looked up at me and said "You did it. This will sell." I said "What?"
The average reader of his first novel, Storm Front, probably has the same reaction. He's an orcs-and-hobbits fantasy writer repurposed to riff off another fantasy writer who's repurposing crime procedurals for the fantasy genre. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Butcher has an excess of praise for other authors and genres. He's taken Laurell K. Hamilton's crime thrillers away from the Marshal Service and toward private detectives; in the process, he's crafted a retread of every detective motif, glossed it with some Tolkein and filled it with the sort of flourishes that belong in a writers' workshop. He succeeds in every way but competent writing.

Storm Front follows wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden, a duster-clad, tall and thin man whose use of white magic is available for hire to any citizen who can't get results via conventional means. He also consults for the Chicago PD about cases that cannot be explained by natural causes. In the midst of working on a private case and one on PD consult, Dresden becomes embroiled in a mafia-related drug war, the vengeful motives of a vampire brothel owner, the doubts of police and his potential execution at the hands of a minder assigned to him by a wizard-run court. Not to mention that women coo at him lustily.

It seems interesting until you realize, a few chapters in, that it's basically Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler projected through a Laurell K. Hamilton lens — only it stars Gandalf as the gumshoe. He's tall; he carries a staff of wood that controls his wizard powers; he walks a lot. His jokes are bad. In Tolkein, the jokes come from the author's humorless dedication to immersing the audience in his involved environment. In The Dresden Files, Butcher, despite the privilege of penning the set-up lines before his own punchlines, is simply not funny.

Unclever people aren't, and this is the sort of book unclever people write. Butcher has little trouble imagining the worlds of vampires and faeries and wizards but his book exhibits little demonstrable knowledge of human beings. The main character, Harry Dresden, presumably the one with which he shares the most emotional connection, almost qualifies as an Asperger's case. He lives in a basement and talks to a skull that has more of a sex drive than he does. He doesn't have any friends or family — although the latter, not the former, is incidentally dismissed. His strongest relationship is with a bartender who doesn't actually make sounds that resemble words while providing him a food service routinized and paid for.

He doesn't understand girls. He acts like a deferential and gesturally-prone gentlemen toward them, but within about 25 pages, he opines about how "witches" are capable of being more evil, emotional and damaging than wizards. It's exactly the sort of paternalistic misogyny that extenuates from a mind unable to cope with human beings possessing different agendas — one that thus assigns them a courtly role, whereupon they can be incorporated within a ritualized context that precludes their being people and instead makes them moveable pieces within a graphical human framework. Men are, like, Y, but women... they're the X factor. And bitchy.

Jim Butcher writes about people as if they're theory, and it's a theory drawn from a mind unfamiliar with non-mathemagical complexity. Paradoxically, his paranormal universe seems fairly normal, and it's the real world that feels like it's been written mostly through conjecture. Usually this kind of situation calls for a look at where the main character/author relationship breaks down, but it's tough to see much of a divide between Butcher/Dresden. Butcher kept writing his books the way he wanted to, thinking that they would succeed. To spite someone who told him that his writing was bad, he tried to follow the rules of writing and then stumbled into improvement. He was literally surprised by this. Then, even though his book didn't get published, he determinedly wrote two sequels to it anyway, immersing himself in a universe that had garnered only token approval if not outright disinterest. Then he sneaked into book conventions and shadowed authors until someone paid attention to him and, ultimately, his book. Even in Butcher's real-life narrative, the real world was mostly an inconvenience and irrelevancy that could be got round sooner or later.

Meanwhile, he writes about a main character with four names and a giant cat, and in real life he has a giant dog with four names. He knows a lot of martial arts and has a haircut that shouldn't have escaped 1990, back when wearing giant-ass overcoats and long hair was last non-comical to anyone. His main character wears a giant-ass overcoat everywhere and has long hair, but aside from one or two comments about them, he's assumed to be a cool and capable guy.

Butcher's interview writing shows that he has a suitably deferential shame about himself, at least early on, but it's that kind of pro forma patter that says, "I'm not very good" while the rest of the text says, "I rule." Fittingly, his main character spends most of Storm Front getting his ass kicked to further the plot, but as soon as his obstacles seem to be overwhelming, he starts declaiming the weakness of those challenging him, taking comfort in his own unknown reserves of crafted and expert power. In short: "I'm no good. You think that, because I've let you and because you lack vision. Ahahaha. I'm actually really good. Rad as shit, in fact." Maybe in subsequent books, HarryJim will tap into The Matrix.

That aping choice would not be surprising, because adhering to formula informs Butcher's characters' reasons for being far more than his writing does. Formula is much on display, to the extent that it defines the drama better than any sudden omniscience Butcher can over-adverbially offer. Consider the template for your hard-boiled detective noir:
Cash-strapped detective takes a case.
Case comes from a distraught woman.
Detective accidentally comes upon another crime.
Has a perfect relationship with a secretary, but he will never see that, because he's too focused on the case, and anyway, she'll never understand him.
Is pursued by a woman who really wants him for some reason.
Someone in the press is too curious about what he's doing.
Some authority figure blames him irrationally for some evil he clearly didn't commit.
A powerful crime boss gives him an indulgence... or does he?
The women interested in him meet or come to blows somehow.
He gets the shit kicked out of him by everyone.
For reasons that don't make sense, he won't tell anyone everything he knows.
The scared woman he met at the beginning of the book knew more about his case than he did.
It turns out his two cases were connected.
Give or take a line or two, most of these could be Chandler plots. Add a wife and a dog, and it could be any iteration of The Thin Man. But let's take a look at Storm Front:
Cash-strapped wizard takes a case.
Case comes from a distraught woman. (But she's afraid of wizards.)
Wizard comes upon another crime, this time bidden by the woman he has...
...a perfect relationship with. Not a secretary but a cop. But he will never see that, because he's too focused on the case and on trying to be professional, and anyway, she'll never understand him because he's a wizard.
Is pursued by a woman who really wants him for some reason. (Journalist.)
Someone in the press is too curious about what he's doing. (The same woman who wants him for some reason.)
Some authority figure blames him irrationally for some evil he clearly didn't commit. (The wizard Morgan.)
A powerful crime boss gives him an indulgence... or does he?
The women interested in him meet or come to blows somehow. (Ambiguous: BUT there's a scene where he's concussed and being taken care of by the cop, while he's expecting to meet up with a voluptuous witness, and the cop answers the phone and says "wrong number" before he goes to sleep and wakes up to find the hot journalist expecting a date.)
He gets the shit kicked out of him by everyone.
For reasons that don't make sense, he won't tell anyone everything he knows.
The scared woman he met at the beginning of the book knew more about his case than he did.
It turns out his two cases were connected.
Strip out the Gandalf, Chandler and Hamilton, and you're left with nothing, just a skeleton of other plots and formulae on which Butcher has hung nothing new. This probably doesn't bother most fantasy fans, because it doesn't really matter if all the elements are derivative and predictable so long as they're mashed up in a new way. After all, we're talking about a fanbase that has large overlap with the people who love it when fake pirates rap to old Nintendo game themes.

Why formulaic writing and mash-up sensibility doesn't trouble the sci-fi/fantasy readership gnawed at me for a couple days. This last weekend, I got together with a friend who used to read fantasy as a teenager, and I brought up my questions and mentioned that this series sells extremely well. From there, the discussion turned toward what I've always felt is the essential fallacy of sci-fi/fantasy writing, to which he added a critical initial fallacy that I think rounds out my thoughts on how it's received by the fanbase. To wit:
1. Anything that has not been done before will probably be deemed a good book simply because it hasn't been done before.
2. The quality of a book's writing is indivisible from and probably synonymous with whether the story was entertaining, a factor strongly influenced by point number one.
Metrics like this omit anything about the author's style, his ear for dialogue, the efficacy of his expository text, his imagery or the strength of characters and boil all books down to, "Was it enjoyable?" And while there's certainly no shame in experiencing things on this level, it's a terrible way of evaluating much beyond story. It reduces literature to something like fast food — i.e., "Was it good while I was having it?" Essentially the same critical process that makes Jim Butcher "good" is what makes a fast-food hamburger amazing because it has a shitload of bacon on it. The ingredients, the fatal number of fats and oils and carbs, the cheap meat, the wilted or nonexistent vegetables, all these are secondary to whether the thing was salty, bacony and burgerlike.

Now, there's a school of thought that most sci-fi/fantasy fans use the originality/fun-story rubrics because they're smart enough to realize that going any deeper is going to lead to disappointment. To continue the burger analogy, it's like having a preference among the Big Mac, the Whopper and the Wendy's Big Classic. Look, you know they're all mostly garbage, but that doesn't stop you from thinking one sucks the least of the three. In this case, savvy fans realize that any serious examination of a book will only highlight things they know are objectively clunky and ill-crafted. But, hey, they like orcs and people with swords and magic powers, and where else are they going to get this stuff? The books cramming the shelves in this genre will mostly not be deftly styled studies of human nature written through the perspective of someone who wastes demons, but there aren't any alternatives.

I sympathize; I used to be one of these guys. When I was younger, I liked Star Trek a lot. Star Trek books are mostly garbage. But I could go to a used bookstore and buy 20 for $10 and read all of them in less than three weeks, be entertained by characters I liked and feel that I'd accomplished something by blasting through 20 books in no time. If I went to visit family anywhere for a long stretch, there were always local libraries that had a ton of the books, and they always at least had a few I hadn't read yet. But if at any point I'd stopped to break down the prose seriously, I would have ruined my fun. Best to shut the brain off and just roll with it.

While the optimist in me wants to adopt this attitude toward the reception of books like Butcher's and other fantasy authors', I can't. I've spent pages and pages on multiple message boards arguing with hundreds of different fans, and it's hard to walk away without the impression that, after a certain age, these people cleave to these books because they're in a permanent state of arrested development. Half the time, all you need is a picture of the posters involved for all the (negative but all too often true) stereotypes to fall into place — unattractiveness, obesity, absence of popularity, dead-end job, ambition struck down early. Suddenly the fact that their favorite books are about otherwise unremarkable or outcast young men who discover that they have special gifts that can literally save civilization makes sense. I even work with a guy who's a paid reviewer of fantasy novels, a grown man and a parent, and he looks exactly like you'd expect him to look: like Scott Ian of Anthrax LARPing as Grigory Rasputin. His public profile picture is in black and white. He's wearing all black and making a constipated "metal" face. I literally can't remember the last time he engaged a topic that had any bearing on anything that exists in reality at all.

Wish fulfillment then goes some way to explaining the popularity of badly written fantasy books. Nobody really needs three-dimensional supporting casts if they're reading to experience themselves as the main character. The main character himself can be something of a human cipher anyway: establishing him as a full-fledged human being only prevents readers from inserting the things they like about themselves into the text to become the things they like about the character. The emptier he is, probably the better the reading experience will be anyway, since he's meant to be a vessel for the thwarted desires of the readership. The wide appeal of a Mary Sue character like Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden thus explains itself. Beyond being Butcher's own Mary Sue, as said above, beyond being the creation of an author who looks like an avatar of his fanbase — metal hair, self-serious authorial chin-on-fist pose, elevated Spock eyebrow that's probably supposed to look insouciant but mainly makes him look like a giant dorkass — is the fact that Harry Dresden works as a universal Mary Sue. He's so accessibly and pristinely not there that anyone can plug into him and play Gandalf of the Great Lakes.

This degree of emotional/personal investment is just as well because, as said, it obscures clunky or poor prose, and Storm Front has a surfeit of it. Butcher's met few milquetoast verbs he's unwilling to surround with a couple adverbs as traveling companions, and he enjoys showing and telling. There are many "Number One" rules in writing, but the one most commonly expressed seems to be show, don't tell. Butcher seems to think that doing both makes paragraphs twice as good. For instance:
She came into the room like a candle burning with a cold, clear flame. Her hair was a burnished shade of auburn that was too dark to cast back any ruddy highlights but did anyway. Her eyes were dark, clear, her complexion flawlessly smooth and elegantly graced with cosmetics. She was not a tall woman, but shapely, wearing a black dress with a plunging neckline and a slash in one side that showed off a generous portion of pale thigh. Black gloves covered her hands to above the elbows, and her three-hundred dollar shoes were a study in high-heeled torture devices. She looked too good to be true. (109)
First off, the whole thing reads like he'd written too many pages of exposition in a row and went back and told himself he had to insert a paragraph that was "all arty and shit." It doesn't so much try too hard as it does gruntingly labor. Every sentence in it is bad, but some are worse than others. She comes in like a cold-burning flame, which I suppose is different from sliding across the floor like it's hot-as-fuck ice or tumbling down the stairs like liquid gravel. He's just throwing out a sophisticated-sounding juxtaposition that means nothing. To make her seem otherwordly — this woman is a vampire — he describes her hair in copout language as being a polished red that isn't red but is red anyway. Spooky. There's no reason to go for this eerie supernatural flourish if, a few sentences later, you describe her as having such messed-up hands that her gloves cover them "to above the elbows." Granted, that's merely an error, but in case anyone was in doubt that this passage was in the hands of a poor craftsman, they reach the end of five sentences describing a woman as preternaturally gorgeous only to be told, "She looked too good to be true." Jim Butcher writes a paragraph like a fumbled football in the night air. He piles words together like a mistake built on an error and corniced with poopiness. He is a bad writer.

Passages like this thud in the middle of pages so frequently that I gave up making any note of them. At first, I dog-eared any page that had something unintentionally funny printed on it, but I stopped about 100 pages in when I realized that the folded-down pages made the top half of my book a half-inch taller than the bottom half. Still, enough jumped out that I made note of a few:
"They were having sex," I said.

"No," he snapped. "They was playing canasta. Yeah, sex. The real thing, not fake stuff on a set. The real thing don't look as good. Linda, some other woman, three men. I shot my roll and got out."

I grinned, but he didn't seem to have noticed the double entendre. You just don't get quality lowlife often enough anymore." (236)
Nevermind that "I shot my roll" isn't a sexual expression and is, at best, a very weak reach. As said, Butcher is not a funny person. There are a few jokes like this in the book, and they're all groaningly horrible. Under normal circumstances, a fundamental rule of writing is that those who are not funny should not try to be. There's really no excuse for bad jokes in literature when you have control of both the setup and the payoff. An author doesn't have to worry about timing and delivery, because beats and pitch don't really come through in text. The joke just has to be decent, and he has no excuse for failing to pay off what he chooses to establish. As it is, the multitude of other writing sins subsumes this one in Butcher's book, rendering it less glaring. Here the joke's badness gets obscured by the fact that, evidently at his wit's end for something like a different sounding character, Butcher's made himself some sort of clown version of a streetwise guy. At this point, it's so embarrassing he should have gone whole hog with the guy and written him in dialect: "No, dey was playinz Monopoly. 'Course dey woz screwink! Dis woz da woik dey wanteds me ta do for dem. He woz givin 'er da buziness real hot-like. Shaddap goddamn fuhgedaboudit goes back ta Joisy GO METS STERN RULZ BABABOOEY."

The book's standout passage comes near the end, as Dresden is about to confront a dark wizard and is trying to get a handle on the dangers he faces:
So I opened my Third Eye.

How can I explain what a wizard sees? It isn't something that lends itself readily to description. Describing something helps to define it, to give it limits, to set guardrails of understanding around it. Wizards have had the Sight since time began, and they still don't understand how it works, why it does what it does. (288)
Woe betide he who drives the freeway of consciousness without guardrails of understanding. To be fair to Butcher, he uses the subsequent paragraph to try to describe the wizard's "Sight," and it's not especially worse than the rest of the book. This passage, though, represents a neat summary of what he has to offer.

Somerset Maugham wasn't a great writer. In fact, he perhaps generously described himself as in "the very first row of the second-raters." What he was good at was equivocation and embarrassment to put his ideas and feelings out on display. His narrators exhibited a kind of sophisticated reticence that were as much windows into himself as they were artful tools meant to elide his weaknesses. Put simply, he usually wrote well-spoken but incomplete people, shades of himself in different circumstances. Because he often struggled to differentiate the voices he wrote, he would have the narrator recount a long story told to him by another character, putting their interactions into his voice and making his inability to create another whole person work in service of the perspective of the narrator. The Razor's Edge can be seen as something of a collection of instances of his most famous rhetorical stroke: before gamely trying to describe something beyond his experience, he apologizes to the reader for his profound inability to understand.

With Maugham, this personal failure serves the narrative structure, which invariably involves people incapable of connecting with each other. His shortcoming thematically underscores the pity of human relationship. Butcher, on the other hand, writes like a third-rate Maugham, offering the aw-shucks apology as prequel for not getting what he himself can have no excuse for not getting. Whereas Maugham's narrators couldn't possibly enter the minds of others and fully disclose what lay there, Butcher's Dresden stumbles over his own direct experience and somewhat pitifully forfeits an understanding of what it is he supposedly capably taps into on a regular basis.

Put simply, this mystical realm conceptually underpins the entire universe Butcher has created — it is the point of origin and return for the mythology he's attempting to establish — yet he begs off the task of giving it anything like depth. The only thing that makes Harry Dresden unique or worth reading about is magic, and yet at the most critical point in the story, he has to frontload his description of it by telling you he's just as hapless as his reader. Given that this is the denouement, that we've flitted around magic throughout the book but never really gotten into it, the stylistic choice is poor and unsatisfying. It's like reading a book about a quarterback who periodically explains football drills and what a defensive scheme is, reaches the last chapter when the big game starts and says, "Unfortunately, no one can really tell you what a 'forward pass' is...." The effect is hacky and lazy, but then again, so is the ending and every other part of the book.

It doesn't and shouldn't have to be this way. Any book about wizards and vampires should probably be entertaining without too much effort because wizards and vampires do cool stuff. In fact, this book can be pretty entertaining if you're willing to completely shut your brain off. (Do you like to get drunk while reading? This might be a perfect book for that.) Its main problems extend from the fact that you have to do this. If your criterion for a book's being good is that it has a story you have not read in exactly this form before, it's probably satisfying. If being entertained because you don't know what comes next is all you require, then it will succeed for you.

However, any kind of critical approach, even a laconic unintentional one, will destroy your reading experience. It's a unique story in that this specific story has not literally been already spelled out somewhere else, but beyond the surface changes, it's one or two fantasy tropes slapped on any number of instantly familiar hard-boiled detective stories. It's the same wish-fulfillment elements found in thousands of other fantasy novels, with a thin main character you can plug yourself into for instant personal escapism. But most memorably, it's terrible, terrible writing.

The author of this book literally adopted the baseline demands of mainstream storytelling purely to spite an instructor and prove to her the idiocy of her demands on a writing class and then was stunned to have blunderingly achieved basic competency. There is perhaps only one greater testament to the quality of this book than the fact that its having any flabbergasted the writer, when he thought all these things that people expect from books were just idiotic inventions for people who can't deal with awesome stories about swords. That is that, despite his efforts, he still came up short. Telling trumps showing time and again. When in doubt, Butcher does both, perhaps afraid you won't get it. He overwhelms verbs with adverbs and prefaces nouns with enough adjectives to stun even a fulminating emcee about to introduce a keynote speaker. You could tear out any random sequence of pages and have a lesson plan for a writing workshop about what not to do.

That is, if you dare try it, knowing that this book was penned by an arched-eyebrowed suburban ninja perhaps all too ready to brush away his metal locks, put on his bigass vengeance-overcoat and reach for his katanas.


Rating: 1
Probably the perfect airplane novel for people who have to take lots of drugs to be on a plane. Decent library novel if you like sitting down with a large amount of booze and blitzing through a fluff book in a mindset where it doesn't matter if you can remember it the next morning. For anyone looking for a book version of Buffy or a hip update of vampire or wizard lore, it can be a satisfying story, but probably not something you'd feel great laying out cash for. Not recommended for purchase. Not recommended for gifts. Not really recommended.


21 comments:

  1. longest bad review i've ever read.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I like the Amazon link:


    Best Price $1.99
    or Buy New $7.99

    ReplyDelete
  3. IF you hate this, you'd absolutely loathe Star Wars novels. You have this whole universe to play and all the writers do is rehash the original trilogy.

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  4. Ahaha. I remember the Timothy Zahn books and reading them when I was much younger and liking them quite a bit, but I should never have gone back once I got older. The whole racial determinism thing, as well as the artistic determinism, seemed like such patrician colonialist trash. It's also a complete bullshit way of conducting a war, an ethnography or a plot. It was one of those tossups where I had no idea whether to be offended or just laugh my ass off at it.

    Zahn also managed to preserve Lucas' shitty naming scheme (Talon Karrde??? A guy who's got an eagle-eyed grasp of intelligence and is a good gambler??? OMG RILLY???), but he also could NOT write a dramatic ending to a scene at all. His idea of conclusion was always: conjunction+prepositional phrase+sudden act=MOMENTOUS THING.

    You can read it pretty much once a chapter:

    "And, with a sudden flicker of pseudo-motion, the ship leapt into hyperspace and disappeared from their scopes."

    Anyway, I remember enjoying those as a kid and then not having any idea that there was a FRANCHISE of books built on it. One day I wandered into the BIG-TITTIED LASERBABE sci-fi section of a bookstore and was blown away by all the titles there. That's when I reread the Zahn books, thinking I might check out more. I was about to pick a random author when I had the presence of mind to go online and ask some people I know if I should bother. Some guy jumped in and said, "Dude, fuck that. They have SUN CRUSHERS in the new books," and I just said fuck it then and there.

    And, with this signing off, I am ending this post.

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  5. Wow, that was a long review to essentially say that the book sucked because the author has bad hair and all his fans are fat.

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  6. Yes, that's what was "essentially" said, except for all the parts that criticized the plot, the writing style, the dialogue, the one-dimensional characters, the hand-waving misogyny and the fact that the author sincerely saw no value in the craft of writing and was surprised to discover that attempting competency paid dividends.

    I like how you think you've burned me by suggesting I wrote a lot of words to fail to attack something on its merits. Maybe you think there's a greater inherent value in the fact that you did as much in a single sentence. This doesn't change the fact that you literally did the exact same thing you were attempting to ridicule, and that you are unequivocally wrong.

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  7. The vast majority of your post was spent opining that Butcher borrowed from a host of other authors, and this makes him derivative and boring, ignoring the fact that all literature is derivative, to some extent, and giving no reasons as to why Butcher's writing is the worse than any other. You state that Butcher is writing in hard-boiled noir, and then complain that his book fits within that genre, and offer this up as evidence of unoriginality.

    Meanwhile, you equate Butcher with his character, and imply he's an anti-social loner, complain about his bad hair and claim that his self-deprecating interview style is really telegraphing an over-inflated ego. You describe fantasy readers as "people who love it when fake pirates rap to old Nintendo game themes", "in a permanent state of arrested development", victims of "unattractiveness, obesity, absence of popularity" with a "dead-end job, ambition struck down early" - and then you imply that these characteristics make it impossible to enter rational debate with them.

    You only actually get down to cases halfway through the article, and even there, your criticism is nonsensical. You start by examining his description of a woman entering his room, who is soon to be revealed to be supernatural. He starts off the description with two contradictory descriptions - her as "burning with a cold, clear flame" and having hair "that was too dark to cast back any ruddy highlights but did anyway".

    You throw away the first by claiming it means nothing. Obviously the author couldn't have been symbolically linking fire or heat to the force of personality and authority, and cold to concepts of control and self-possession, while constructing a paradox to indicate that something here is unnatural. After all, Jim Butcher is a bad author, therefore the things he writes must be bad, which in turn means that this passage is meaningless, am I right? The second you at least give some thought to, stating that it's a device designed to hint at the supernatural nature of the woman in question. Your criticism comes down to a sarcastic "spooky", ignoring your own analysis that the passage wasn't designed to be spooky, but otherworldly.

    You claim that this is undermined by the woman wearing gloves, which are obviously hiding some deformation instead of, say, going with her outfit. Because beautiful women dressing to kill would never wear gloves without some ulterior motive.

    Your second criticism stems from two lines of dialogue. I assume this is where you think you were criticising dialogue. You weren't. You spent that whole paragraph saying the joke wasn't funny, then put some words into the character's mouth to make him sound like a stereotype.

    Lastly, you spend four paragraphs complaining that Butcher doesn't explain magic. You draw this conclusion from one paragraph, in which Butcher begins describing a phenomenon by saying the only way to really understand it is to experience it, but he'll do his best. You ignore the following paragraphs, and the rest of the book, which actually do exactly what you're complaining about it not doing. You make plenty of assertions, and offer little to back them up.

    So yes, after dismissing half your article as the hand-waving waffle it is, we reach the essentials. You think fantasy writing is inherently tied to adolesence, and the only people who read it are pubescent mentalities trying to escape their meaningless existence. You wrote this post, not to review a book, but to parade your pre-existing assumptions and wave some stereotypes around.

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  8. The vast majority of your post was spent opining that Butcher borrowed from a host of other authors
    Classic. So you begin your post by attempting to undermine my point by insinuating that all I'm doing is opining. I'm not opining that Butcher has borrowed heavily from other authors; he's said as much himself, especially his writing in the style of Laurell K. Hamilton — which is mentioned in the first quote. Now, your substituting the suggestive word "opining" for "saying" or "stating" here is a niggling point, and ordinarily I wouldn't mention it. But this is evidently a pattern with you. Facts you don't like simply aren't, and evidence that flows to a conclusion you don't like is inconsequential. Those are just, like, an opinion, man


    and this makes him derivative and boring, ignoring the fact that all literature is derivative, to some extent
    Ah, yes, we open with the reductive turtles-all-the-way-down of "all literature is derivative," which makes pointing it out pointless. This is sort of a Fisher Price™ argument deployed almost universally in response to criticism about sci-fi or fantasy. Since failing to escape the charge of non-derivativeness is a logical impossibility, all literature from Pynchon and Rabelais to Xanth novels and Dragon Lance stand on equal footing. Not only can no one criticize on this basis anymore, it also attempts to force those in the discussion to put sci-fi/fantasy on the same footing as literature, despite the fact that we all recognize there are different levels of being derivative and different talent levels of writing that pardon predictability of plots, etc. Granted, you elaborate a bit later:


    and giving no reasons as to why Butcher's writing is the worse than any other.
    This is that "evidence that points to things I don't like doesn't exist" thing I was mentioning earlier. I gave plenty of reasons why his work is worse than others: it's the bulk of the review. Now, if you're objecting that I didn't list all the literature he's worse than, I'm sorry the absence of the words "virtually anything" has unhoused you so much. Also, it's odd here that you've gone from making one point about the futility of comparing literature — since everything is derivative, it's a distinction without a difference — to demanding the comparison. It's an interesting approach, and I can only think of one productive endgame for it: "You've only said that Butcher's book sucks in isolation, illustrating how you think it sucks on its own merits. You can't do that, you have to explain why it sucks in relation to other books. But since all books are derivative, including serious literary efforts, Butcher's book is no different from them." (Shakes long hair like the Undertaker and walks into distance wearing a big-ass coat...)


    You state that Butcher is writing in hard-boiled noir, and then complain that his book fits within that genre, and offer this up as evidence of unoriginality.
    Yes, you're right; that was the complaint. Not that it's grossly formulaic, which is of a piece with his clichéd exposition, cardboard characters and hackneyed dialogue. I could be persuaded to see the point in saying that calling out a genre novel for being formulaic is unnecessary — they have certain beats they have to hit; the murder mystery needs a body and a cop, etc. — if it weren't for the fact that every other part of the book is formulaic. It's not that he has to hit some of the same beats to stay within his genre: it's that he hits every single one, unnecessarily, as if it's a kind of compulsion.

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  9. Meanwhile, you equate Butcher with his character, and imply he's an anti-social loner, complain about his bad hair and claim that his self-deprecating interview style is really telegraphing an over-inflated ego.
    Suggesting that fantasy writers create Mary Sue characters is neither extreme nor even uncommon. Also, the man literally tried to follow basic rules of creative writing out of spite. He himself has said this. He not only scoffingly disbelieved that a successful person paid to teach him might have had something helpful to say about fundamental craft, he only embraced it to prove how it would fail. What else can one possibly classify that as other than anti-social and arrogant? Further, you divorce this from its context, which is that someone who not only rejects the normative currency of communication and dismisses the value of someone trying to help him probably doesn't understand people very well. And, hey, look at that: he writes one-dimensional non-people who are moved about a story like a child arranging green army men. Additionally,


    You describe fantasy readers as "people who love it when fake pirates rap to old Nintendo game themes", "in a permanent state of arrested development", victims of "unattractiveness, obesity, absence of popularity" with a "dead-end job, ambition struck down early" - and then you imply that these characteristics make it impossible to enter rational debate with them.
    The point isn't to beat up on fantasy fans for no reason. It's an attempt to reconcile how terrible Butcher's writing is with how well it sells and to try to work out why it would be popular when it's so clunky and predictably. The Mary Sue phenomenon is part of that. You find an awful lot of it in fantasy fiction because the target demographic — teens and young men — are often awkward, unpopular, etc. Self-insertion in fantastic worlds is very empowering and affirming, and some writers (reared on the genre) learn to do this from a kind of osmosis, and others are canny enough to cynically rely on it to draw more potential readers. (I work in both online marketing and publishing. We exploit this. The genre makes a lot of money out of the male teens/young men demographic, and we target them, and it's very easy to make money off them. And the people who spend a lot of money to figure out who to sell these books to considers the core demographic "white male nerds." This just is. It's a reality that everyone involved but the people who are actually described by this has long come to grips with and accommodated.)

    Then you write a bunch of stuff about the woman with gloves thing, handwaving away whatever I said because you didn't like the conclusion I made that this was standard-issue, hackneyed fantasy writing. Basically your assertion here is that the emperor has no clothes because he's quoting something and saying it's bad or nonsensical, and you do so by quoting something you say is bad or nonsensical; and now I can quote you and say you're bad or nonsensical. The only determining factor for what constitutes a valid critique, with you, seems to be if you like the outcome. Well, that and you seem to think "otherworldy" and "spooky" are two mutually exclusive concepts and that describing things as "cold hot" and "bright dark" and other 1:1 antonyms evokes anything deep and is more than just baby's-first-human-mystery juxtaposition.

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  10. Your second criticism stems from two lines of dialogue. I assume this is where you think you were criticising dialogue. You weren't. You spent that whole paragraph saying the joke wasn't funny, then put some words into the character's mouth to make him sound like a stereotype.
    Ah, yes, I had to put words into the character's mouth to make him sound like a stereotype. Before I did that, Butcher's natural and easy wordplay flowed like a limpid stream. The exaggeration couldn't have been used to point out how artificial the dialogue already was; it was actually my cunning deceit to trick people into thinking my horrible dialogue was Butcher's, tearing down his empire from within.


    Lastly, you spend four paragraphs complaining that Butcher doesn't explain magic. You draw this conclusion from one paragraph, in which Butcher begins describing a phenomenon by saying the only way to really understand it is to experience it, but he'll do his best. You ignore the following paragraphs, and the rest of the book, which actually do exactly what you're complaining about it not doing. You make plenty of assertions, and offer little to back them up.
    I draw the conclusion from the whole book, Jocko, which while it has numerous asides and occasional nuggets of information like "this thing I did put sunlight in this cloth wad" and "magic can be powerful if you're feeling X, whatever," never attempts to craft an understanding of the broader world of magic. Magic exists because it does, and people do magic because, and there you go. At the end, when Dresden opens his third eye, he: has an opportunity to reify it for everyone; admits he can't do it and thus soft-pedals whatever's about to come; then Butcher writes a bunch of vague and boring imagery that does little more than add another word salad of supernatural words on the previous 300 pages' salad bar of them, never having created anything like a world that has rules or boundaries or means something. It's interesting only if you're already on board with the idea of, "Cool, magic shit just happened," but if you have any expectation of its being purposeful or freighted with heavier shit than antonymic ideas like, "Everything moved in perfect stillness," then you're out of luck.


    So yes, after dismissing half your article as the hand-waving waffle it is, we reach the essentials. You think fantasy writing is inherently tied to adolesence, and the only people who read it are pubescent mentalities trying to escape their meaningless existence. You wrote this post, not to review a book, but to parade your pre-existing assumptions and wave some stereotypes around.
    Thanks again for going on the warpath about handwaving by doing it with enough vigor that someone could stick you in a small room and throw out their oscillating fan. Thank you too for condemning making assumptions about people's motives for enjoying/creating art by posting your assumptions for why I would not enjoy this book or enjoy writing a criticism of it. Thank you for making a strong case for the sovereign importance of evidence in crafting an opinion by making an argument dependent on the idea that evidence leading to conclusions with which you disagree must not exist or not be evidence.

    This is another half hour of my life that's been wasted by Jim Butcher in some peripheral way, and I don't like that. Please stop posting here.

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  11. How could you not mention his half-smile, balancing out the people's eyebrow, when you described his picture? Great job, you dumb motherfucker.

    Enjoyed the review.

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  12. I smell what you're cookin', and I feel like missing that joke is me hitting rock bottom.

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  13. Jim Butcher should really consider accessorizing... like this guy: http://www.iconfilmstudios.com/REMlynxCU.jpg

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  14. I found myself in the scifi/fantasy section of the bookstore recently, just browsing over what used to form the bulk of my adolescent reading from about twenty five years ago. There was a brief feeling of nostalgia and I did contemplate actually buying one of the books. I was however, fortunately for my wallet and my sense of adulthood, totally overwhelmed by an intense moment of non-describable emotion that Seymour Skinner probably would have referred to as "why don't I just go drink out of a toilet instead?". I quickly fluttered a few aisles downwind from the combined stench of novelized WarHammer 40000AD and LOTR-ripoff #22,319, and was lucky enough to find a new release by Dan Simmons instead. Tu'unbacq? Indeed!

    I have no problem saying it. Dr. Mobute is 100% right. Almost all contemporary fantasy (and sci-fi too) is shit. I can't tell you exactly when word processor programs came into existence and became easily accessable to the population en masse in the 1980's, but I can confidently say that it was a disasterous moment for an entire genre. What was previously defined by a professorial Tolkien or even an acid-tripper like Michael Moorcock was rewritten, redefined, and repeatedly raped by a million different writers most of whom, BTW, appear to be females from the Handy-J demographic (if one goes by their dust-jacket photos anyway). From what I've seen and, shamefully, read of this genre, the sole contribution of all these home-based writers who grafted soap-opera styling onto something that used to be marked by British literary tradition, was that they merely made up new words to describe new fake races that are normally called "hobbits". And that somehow always find themselves in places that can charitably called Mordor Jr. where they courageously summon their innately awesome little-people power (e.g. Hornswoggle vs Big Show) and somehow manage to win.

    It is kids stuff. Some of it can rise up and be somewhat compelling kids stuff. But it'll never be grown-up. And, try as hard as they might, the creators of this stuff will always be the D&D kid from high school. The stereotype fits perfectly, in an unshakeable high school year-book photo sort of way, and all you have to do to confirm it is to go to the nearest Star Trek convention. It's not a bad thing, and congrats to all these people who have manged to make money off of what appears to be an inexhaustable cash cow. But the way it is, with all it's bizzare nerdish affectations and true-to-life stereotyping, is just the way it's always going to be.

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  15. You're a bad writer. It was only morbid fascination that dragged me through this stink-fest. Your perplexity at Jim Butchers success is pretty funny, though. Hmmm... Let's try to solve this mystery. Maybe it's because sci-fi/ fantasy fans are dorks... or maybe they are just using the wrong criteria for judging books...
    Try door number three: Jim Butcher just happens to be a good writer. He is obviously someone who likes a really great burger, to use your metaphor, as do a lot of people. You really can judge something on how much you enjoy it. There is nothing wrong with that. I'll take a really good burger over a poorly cooked steak any day and you, sir, are serving burnt bull.

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  16. I'm glad to have wandered here from Something Awful, this whole adventure made my 6.15-in-the-morning.

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  17. Wow, I can't believe I bothered to even read half of this. This whole thing reeks of someone with their head up their rear trying to sound intelligent while trumpeting their biases toward a genre.

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  18. Lol, you just described the opening Jim Butcher quote. Sorry you didn't keep reading after that.

    Also lo-o-o-o-loved the empty tactic of attempting to undermine the other person with the old "trying to sound intelligent" line. Obviously something clearly—if objectionably or incorrectly—reasoned and competently written must have failed to sound intelligent because...? Well, actually you don't explain why, probably because you can't explain how either.

    That's probably for the best. You are, after all, in the unenviable position of trying to explain how a world of mediocrities have scrabbled and failed to achieve the razor-sharp analytical skills that led you to champion the worth of The Dresden Files to strangers on the internet.

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  19. You know what? I'm just disabling comments on this piece. The few so incoherent that I declined to post and the angry ones here follow familiar themes, make similar comments, and I am really tired of repeating myself.

    Suffice to say, everyone reading this and incensed at my temerity because Jim Butcher is everything I'm not: thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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