Sunday, July 26, 2009

Reviewer Time: John Ottinger ІІІ from "Grasping for the Wind"


“Grasping for the Wind” is from the very first generation of review websites and blogs, dating back to the year 2006, and as such it has managed to create a name, gather an audience and earn both trust and respect from readers and fellow reviewers alike. My hat of praise is low on compliments, so I am going to let the accomplishments of the man behind the blog speak for themselves.

John Ottinger ІІІ has written reviews, articles and held interviews over well known websites such as The Fix, which puts short stories under the spotlight; Flashing Swords, Sacramento Book Review, Tor.com and even Publisher’s Weekly. If that is deemed insufficient for people to follow “Grasping for the Wind”, then how about if I tell you that John’s made it as far as appearing with a cover blurb. As a reviewer myself I can only admire what he has achieved only through perseverance, patience and constancy for the past three years as well as staying true to himself and his principles. “Grasping for the Wind” sets an example how a homemade Internet page, indulging into a deep passion, can gradually lead into personal realization and serve as an entryway to a bigger stage. To me, as cheesy and sickly sentimental as it sounds, “Grasping for the Wind” is an inspiration for me to aspire and know that I too can receive validation and recognition. I also think that quite a few from the second generation reviewers feel the same way or receive a similar message the very least. And just one more thought as an addition here. If authors such as Tobias Buckell and Chris Evans as well as publishers such as Orbit and PYR start complimenting you, then you know you are doing something right.

But I sidetracked for awhile and need to discuss the site and not the creator. What I like about “Grasping for the Wind” is its uncanny similarity to a vault for free fiction. On a regular basis I receive updates from “Grasping for the Wind” about new and free digital books, thanks to Edifanob my blog reading conscience. I really don’t mind reading from the screen and have a compulsive need to hoard books, so as a typical hoarder I am delighted that there is a site that keeps my addiction healthy and under a control. It also pumps my reading list on steroids, but I am not complaining.

Apart from this I love that John thinks about the community. He is responsible for the famous Book Reviewer Linkup Meme, which cause a chain reaction through the blogging scene and created a very rapid response. Despite the practicality of having most, if not all current blogs at one place, this meme also revealed how many of us, the SFF reviewers, exist on the web. The answer to that is probably hundreds, since we do cross the 100 line as a number.

“Grasping for the Wind” is pretty much like every other review site. You will encounter fun news and updates. You will stumble upon articles and interviews. And you will read reviews in different shapes and sizes. Then again though what make “Grasping for the Wind” a spot you return to is the simplicity, honesty and soundness of reasoning behind each review. When John is not penning shorter reviews for Sacramento Book Review, he writes long winded and detailed recollection of his experience with a book. He refers to his reviews as “Average Joe” reviews, though to me each review possesses a level of sophistication and class [hope I myself don’t sound pretentious with this description], which makes all the difference.

Conclusion from me, follow “Grasping for the Wind”.

___

HM: We usually know so little almost to none about the people behind the reviews, so I think it’s appropriate to kick off this interview with some personal questions. Who is John in the life outside “Grasping for the Wind” and what does a regular day look like for him?

I am married, have not kids, am raising a mini-dachshund, and currently am unemployed. I am actually a church mortgage underwriter by profession. Since I was laid off in April, I have started my own company, Darra Consulting (www.darraconsulting.com) which provides financial strategies and financing for churches and non-profits. I spend most of my day on the phone or internet making connections and seeking financing for my clients. I work from home, which is great because I have more time to devote to clients and to my own personal interests (such as blogging, reading, and reviewing). I also love swing dancing and world traveling, passions I share with my wife.

HM: In the fun spirit of list-making, please tell us three things that people would probably never ever guess about you.

A. I have a tattoo. I dress conservatively, talk conservatively, went to a religious college and move in religious circles. When people find out I have a tattoo, they are usually quite surprised.

B. I don’t always vote Republican. For the same reason above, people are often surprised by this.

C. I don’t own a TV. That doesn’t mean I don’t watch movies or shows, it just means I use my computer to do it, and even then it is not often. I don’t think TV is the devil, I just find it sucks away time I could be reading, reviewing, writing. I once was an addict, but I have seen the light.

HM: Now to go nearer known territory. What’s the origins story behind your site?

In 2004, a friend of mine who likes opinionated people suggested I start a blog on the blog hosting site he was setting up. I posted a few times, did some random posts, but didn’t really do much with it until I moved to Georgia (USA) in 2006. I started posting reviews of what I was reading, things that I had bought or that interested me. Lo and behold, people liked what I had to say. They started linking to me, I linked to them, and my popularity grew from there.

HM: “Grasping for the Wind” is an awesome name. How in the world did you come up with it and as an additional question how did you pick the lit genres you discuss?

The name is actually a quote from Ecclesiastes, a book of the Christian Bible and part of the Jewish tradition of wisdom literature.

“And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind. For in much wisdom is much grief, And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:17-18, NIV)

I felt that this phrase encapsulated me and my outlook at the time I was choosing the name of this blog. Sometimes all our striving for knowledge is a vanity, a thing the writer of Ecclesiastes (the fabled Solomon the Wise) would certainly know first hand.

As to the second part of your question, I have been reading speculative fiction since I could turn a page. I love to read it and I love to talk about it. It seemed to be the obvious choice, because I had the historical knowledge needed to criticize new works based on what had come before, and old volumes based on new writing techniques and/or differences in culture.

HM: Now let’s rewind to the beginning in a barrage of questions. Did you feel it was easy? Was it easy to supply enough books and how were you received at first?

It came rather easy to me. Admittedly, some of my early reviews were rather slapdash and lacked any sort of true critical analysis, but I never found it hard in the beginning. In fact, I find it harder now to find something worth saying, because I do not want to repeat myself too often, and the author deserves something new, different and fresh from me as a reviewer, even if I don’t like their book.

As to reception, I don’t think anyone much cared. I got a few kind words from people who enjoyed my reviews and I just kept plugging away at it. I was enjoying myself and was happy to bring others along for the ride, if they wished. Thankfully, others did and I now have the semi-successful blog you see today.

I did do a lot of self-promotion by ensuring I ended up in various databases of reviewers and such (most of which are now defunct), but otherwise I usually let my content speak for itself.

HM: What’s your approach to writing reviews, your signature so to say that makes you different from all the others? Can you give a tip or share something insightful about the craft?

I would say that my key signature is probably the length and/or thoroughness of my reviews. The reviews I write on my own and not for other publications tend to be lengthy because I am so desperately seeking balance. I want to look at all aspects of a work and I want to make sure I highlight both the good and the bad that I see in a way that is not filled with jargon, or an attempt to impress the reader with my literary knowledge. I am an “Average Joe “reader writing “Average Joe” reviews. A review, no matter how well-crafted, is still just an opinion. What I may find detrimental in a work could be a strength to another reader. I owe it to those who read my reviews to point out what I did and did not like, and to say why. I also feel I should point out, on occasion, how something I don’t like may actually be a strength of a novel. Some may accuse me of not being hard enough on authors, but I don’t see my role as a destructive one. I want to present review readers with the facts, my assessment of them, and a concluding statement of my perceived value of the novel and perhaps its contribution to the field in general. This makes my work rather lengthy. And if you are looking for insights into the craft, re-read my answer, you’ll find all the tools you need in there to write your own worthwhile reviews.

HM: What’s your reading schedule? How do you arrange your day to find time to read and review to keep up relative activity?

As I mentioned before, I watch little TV or movies. That frees up a lot of time for reading. On average, I like to read 2 to 4 hours a day. I have no children, so I have little else to distract me after I have called it quits for the working day. I usually turn to reading almost immediately after work and then read until I turn out the lights, with a pause for dinner. I usually read two to three books a week.

I tend to post material throughout the day as I find something interesting when I take a five minute break from my professional work. RSS readers and a quickpost link make this fairly easy and takes little time. Too, as I have been writing and posting to the same blog for some time, I have learned little shortcuts, from learning basic CSS to having a definite style of layout for review posts, making it easy to replicate from post to post.

HM: In retrospect, have you ever done a negative review and how did you handle the situation? Every once in a while a book comes that doesn’t agree with a reviewer and there was a heated discussion revolving around negative reviews and what comes afterwards. Was there any fear of ruining your relationship with publishers?

I have done several negative reviews and in fact just wrote one (not yet published) of a book I was rather conflicted about. Negative reviews rarely get any sort of reaction from authors and only a few from reviewers. I think this is due mostly to the fact that what I review is material that has not been read yet by the majority of the population and there is not really any sort of feelings about the work yet. Ultimately, even my most negative review generated very little discussion. My reviews are informative, not really discussion generators. I assume that people read my negative reviews and simple choose not to read a particular book if they trust my judgment, or read it if they don’t.

I don’t fear ruining my relationships with publishers. I give enough positive reviews that the occasional negative one is not going to ruin my reputation. Some authors and publishers have worked through what I thought was a negative, and have even improved the sequel partly due to my commentary. Publishers aren’t stupid, and they rarely let a book that won’t sell or is badly written get by them. Hence the few negative reviews I write. It is hard to be negative when the publisher has already acted as gatekeeper for quality. Of course, publishers aren’t always right, and I have lambasted a few books that they published, but it didn’t harm my relationship. Actually it strengthened it, because the publisher now knows that I mean what I say and that my praise is deserved and my scorn is earned. I have credibility because of my honesty. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t scary at first to write those negative reviews, and that I didn’t fear losing a relationship, but no publisher has dropped me from their list of reviewers for a negative review as yet, and I would be surprised if they did.

HM: Now, how do you think you and your blog have grown from your first post up until now? Did the formula ever change and can you describe the path of your evolution?

I have a formula I am sure, and I know I have grown as a reviewer and writer, but it was so organic that there is really no way to trace it. By writing and writing and writing some more, I have gotten better and better and better, and each review by me is an attempt to top the quality of the last one.

HM: So as we know some bloggers that review books and know enough about literature, have writing aspirations. Do you want to stand on the other side of the business?

I’m not writer, nor do have such aspirations. I would like to write a few stories of my own more to be a better reviewer than to become a published writer. Of late, I have been bothered by the fact that I am a reviewer who has never attempted to write fiction and has little education in literature or writing. My thinking is that I should have at least some working knowledge of the craft before I attempt to critique it. I think that making my own attempts would make me better able to appreciate the difficulty of writing.

I do have some aspirations to becoming an anthologist, but have had little time to devote to it. I am currently working on a plan to release some fiction at Grasping for the Wind by authors and bloggers which would be free to read but would ask for a donation to charity if you liked the work. My hope would be to use this as a way to increase awareness for that as-yet-unidentified-charity and promote the various authors. This is still in the planning stages while I get my consulting company up and running.

HM: Whose your favorite author and why? In the same vein, there must be an author you had the misfortune of reading and will never ever approach. Who is it in your case and why?

This is dangerous territory. I don’t want to offend anyone. But in truth, my favorite author is probably the late David Eddings, who died only a month or so ago. His epic fantasies were what got me reading adult works, and although his final series was lacking in quality, the Belgariad and Mallorean series are some the best works of speculative fiction I have ever read.

Terry Pratchett is also so funny and pleasant to read that I always recommend his works to anyone, no matter their reading preferences.

There is not author I would not approach. Even if I didn’t like their work, I would still love to discuss it with them and maybe lay out my reasons for disliking the work and seeing if maybe my assumptions were wrong and needed correction.

HM: What are your personal pet peeves when it comes to the speculative fiction genres?

The circular nature of our arguments. This is especially evident whenever a “new wave” of bloggers arises. They tend to rehash some of the same old arguments. But at the same time I recognize the need to everyone to think through the argument for themselves, and this cyclical nature of topics is really just one generation of bloggers following in the footsteps of those who came before. I did much the same, and have different opinions of things than I did when I first began blogging because I was part of such cyclical arguments and learned from those who had come before. Nor does such rehashing mean that new ideas can’t crop up. So while I dislike seeing the resurgence of an argument over “race in spec fic” or “rape in fantasy” I also recognize that these arguments need to be made again and again as culture changes over time and as new minds enter the fray.

HM: Is there a tendency for these pet peeves to resolve?

No, but then again, if they did, what would we have to talk about?

HM: What do you think of self publishing? This is a very interesting topic as of late with the numbers of authors self-publishing on the rise and the treatment they receive not only from reviewers, but the whole book publishing community including readers.

I am generally against it. Though there are some gems, the majority of what is self-published lacks either quality or the necessary editing to make it quality. When I first started out, I reviewed quite a few self-published works, making myself sit through torturously long info dumps or boring characterization or inept plotting. I run into that even occasionally with published works, but in self-publishing I can be almost assured of it. I don’t want to sound snobby, as there are good books out there (Michael Hicks comes to mind) but they are few and far between.

And don’t even get me started on people who create publishing companies just to seem to have an aura of authenticity.

I get a lot of people asking me to review their self-published work, but my blog clearly states I do not take them to review anymore, and I usually politely decline after a quick Google Search shows that they are self-published. The poor quality of the query for review is usually a dead giveaway too. Here’s a suggestion: if you are in self-publishing, get your hands on a professional book press release and copy what they do. You might even fool me into reviewing your work.

HM: I have to ask how does one grow from a sole website to being featured with reviews on Publisher’s Weekly and Tor.com? Also how does that feel and do you have further ambitions?

Well, over time, Grasping for the Wind became known as a destination for reviews. As I built mutually agreeable relationships with publishers I got invitations of various sorts. Tor.com came about because of my relationship with a most excellent publicist at Tor. She had been considering asking me on to write for Tor, but hadn’t had time to ask. When I went to her with a proposal she was pleased because all she had to do was say yes and set me up with the appropriate people.

The PW gig came about because I heard from another blogger that they were looking for reviewers. I sent in my application and a few tailored reviews and was accepted as a reviewer. I’m sure others were rejected even as I was accepted. That gig was simply fortuitous circumstance coupled with reviewing skill. I could never have gotten the gig in my early days. It took two years of reviewing and some practice of writing short reviews for Sacramento Book Review before I was ready for the big time. I am pleased and honored to be one of that select crowd of PW reviewers.

I do have ambitions beyond even where I am now. Rich Horton is one of my heroes in this field, and I hope that like him I might become a regular columnist and writer in various publications, as well as an anthologist of fiction.

HM: Do you think there are still areas fantasy has slipped that you would like to cover in other mediums? And how far do you think the fantasy/sci-fi culture will enter mainstream? This I ask because art purists denounce fantasy and sci-fi on a regular basis and yet they keep coming back full speed ahead.

SF and Fantasy IS mainstream already and has been for a long time. This is one of those circular arguments that I mentioned before. We SFers like to pretend we have been put upon by the establishment, but more and more we are becoming the establishment. We are mainstream, and we are here to stay, so lets make the most of it while still creating new and interesting subgenres that will eventually join the mainstream. I say, lets both keep our independent spirit and share our passion, feeling neither put upon nor superior.

HM: Also there has been much denouncing of urban fantasy in pretty much the same vein mainstreamers give fantasy and sci-fi the cold shoulder. Where do you stand in this matter?

SF moves in fads. Right now it is urban fantasy, in the 90’s it was epic fantasy, in the 40’s and 50’s it was galactic expansion stories and sword and sorcery. The pendulum swings back and forth, back and forth, and what was old will become new again, and some new stuff will crop up, and some new ways of doing things will become old. Any denouncement will one day be turned on its head to denounce the denouncers so we ought to be careful about speaking of any genre in generally derogatory terms. We should instead deride or praise individual works separately or comparatively to similar works, but bold statements about a genre or even subgenre as a whole is giving over oneself to hyperbole and logical fallacies. I like urban fantasy and I like epic fantasy and I like sword and sorcery. Each has strengths which make it unique from the other and allows diversity to coexist within the genre of speculative fiction in wonderful ways.

HM: I am not sure what a closing question sounds like at this topic, so you are free to some some closing words on your own regarding reviewing.

If you are a reviewer, keep reviewing. If an author, keep writing. If a publisher, keep publishing (and talk to me about my anthology ideas). And if a reader, keep on keep on reading.

8 comments:

Ben said...

Great Review! I love "Grasping for the Wind"!

Ben said...

I meant to say: "Great interview!" not "Great Review!"....I just say the latter so often that I got mixed up L)

Ana said...

Great interview Harry and John - I am also a fan of Grasping for the Wind and loved to hear more about it.

Daya said...

Great interview, John! And thanks Harry for doing it!

Kat @ FanLit said...

I rarely read every word of an interview, but I did this time. Nice job!

We adore John at FanLit and feature some of his excellent reviews there.

Harry Markov: daydream said...

Thank you for all the wonderful comments. :) John is a pretty neat guy and has always meaningful things to say. :)

Carl V. said...

Great questions Harry, and John, I appreciate your thoughtfulness in answering these questions. It was a pleasure to read.

It is always fun to find a kindred spirit not just in the choice of fiction one likes but also the similarities of going to a religious university, etc.

I really liked what you had to say about sci fi and fantasy being mainstream. I too get tired of the cry for respect when I think the genre is out there and certainly has gotten plenty of attention in various forms of media.

Enjoyed every word, thanks guys.

Harry Markov: daydream said...

Carl, I have little to do with how informative this turned out. The questions remain the same for each of the reviewers and I think it is John's experience [wisdom in my mind] and eloquence that this worked so well.

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