Announcement: TLOTE Goes On Hiatus

November 10, 2010

Normally I spend a little time in the first paragraph or two building up to the arguments I’m going to make in this pieces, but here the title’s already given away my core point so I’ll just get to the meat of things. It’s an announcement I have a hard time putting into words, but one that’s been coming for a while and I feel needs to get out there before I find an excuse not to make it.

As of today, The Lesser of Two Equals will be taking an indefinite hiatus. This does not mean that the blog will be shutting down operations – the archive remains completely intact to all visitors – but it does mean that for the foreseeable future I do not plan to write new content. This is also not meant to imply that there will never be any new content for the site, as my contributors do still have some things in the pipeline, but that I am no longer able to say when my next bit of content will show its face.

Some (or hopefully most of you) are asking why I’d take such a drastic step after over two years of operation and 165 posts, especially when there are so many varied topics to cover in the realm of literature and its varied adaptations. Well, this isn’t a decision I’ve made lightly – I’ve been considering this for a few weeks now, and while I don’t know how many of you are out there who have this blog in your regular or semi-regular rotation, I felt I owed it to you to take a few paragraphs and explain why I’m shelving TLOTE operations for the time being.

The first, and most obvious one to me, is simple burnout. Since it’s a book review blog run without ads and on a standard WordPress design, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I don’t make my living off this site. I have a rather engaging day job to pay my bills in addition to writing this, and as a consequence the majority of my writing time tends to be on nights and weekends. And as much as I enjoy what I do here, sometimes after a particularly long day one would rather slump down in front of last night’s “Boardwalk Empire” rather than dissect the latest memoir. With responsibilities piling up at work, paired with a recent move to a larger apartment and an inexplicably full social life, those nights are becoming more and more frequent and it’s been harder and harder to make writing a review feel like something that isn’t invasive surgery.

I’m hoping that a little time away from the writing desk, rather than hitting my keyboard until the fingers start to bleed a bit one or two nights a week, will help me recapture a bit of the zest I feel for writing about writing. If I ever want to get this site up to my original ambitions of at least one review a week with regular columns, Text-to-Screen analyses and a thriving contributor base, I need to be in a mindset where I’m not simply content to average a month between reviews with other coverage that gets done when it’s done. Originally I thought I could just push myself to complete them on time, but I’ve got to be realistic: there’s only so much processing power inside my head, and it’s outside my abilities right now to get the site moving at the pace I seek.

In doing so, I’m also hopeful that I’ll be able to take what writing energies I can muster and spend a little more time using that ability to write outside literary criticism, applying myself to some of the journals and other projects friends of mine are getting together. This might not seem as much of a gripe to people who have championed my efforts on this blog since its inception, but other than this blog I haven’t written anything for publication in over a year, and to someone with eventual aspirations of making a living at this such a statistic is completely unacceptable. As Hemingway put it, I hate the feeling that the instrument I write with is “bright and shining with nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.”

The second major reason for hiatus is a little more complicated, and it’s a little harder to state without sounding like a massive egotist, but it has to do with the site’s readership. I certainly don’t expect my site to command the readership of sites such as The NYT Book Review or The A.V. Club, but other than a few pieces that keep my stats in at least tolerable range there’s a lot I’ve written that I don’t think gets the attention it deserves. Many pieces, such as my centennial review of “The Abyss of Human Illusion,” apparently go unread if the stats are to be believed, and it’s a bit of a shiv in the side when those are the pieces I’ve lavished the most attention on. I know there’s at least a small audience for the content I write – an audience for which I’m profoundly grateful – but the increased effort I’ve had to put forth to get articles written recently hasn’t felt like it’s worth the effort.

But don’t think this means that I want to stop taking the effort – rather, for the time being I think it would be better for those efforts to go towards a little more networking. There is a vast community of book reviewers who work specifically online – unsurprising given the fact that most print publications would rather add an extra sudoku puzzle than a dedicated critic – and it’s a community that TLOTE has only put minimal effort into engaging. I’m going to be doing a lot of gliding through that community over the next few weeks, seeing just what everyone else is doing and getting into those blog’s discussions to a depth that I hope will expand both my readership and horizons, and that’s a project I’d rather undertake without trying to generate new content at the same time. (Though this could itself lead to future posts for the blog as I share my favorites with you, so there’s some hope for you.)

And in doing this, I’m likely to get some of my passion back for reading – which really gets to the main reason why I’m taking this time off. Over the last few months, I’ve been reading far less than I have in the past, spending more time with television shows and video games – both mediums that are growing as storytelling mediums by leaps and bounds, so I can defend my interest in both easily. However, this means that my bookshelves are starting to gather dust, currently stacked high with titles I haven’t had a chance to read yet, reminding me more of a collection of mint action figures than a toy box full of beloved and slightly battered favorites. I can’t be the critic I want to be when all the books I have are being back-burnered, considered for articles rather than actually digested.

So a large part of this sabbatical will be devoted to clearing off the majority of the shelf. To name only what I see when I turn my head to the left, two Neal Stephenson books haven’t even been opened, I’m only halfway through “Blood Meridian,” one book of five through “2666” and classics like “One Hundred Years of Solitude” are gathering dust on my end table. I think that if I take a bit of time to read for reading’s sake, it’s going to remind me why I started doing this so many years ago and why for all the marginalization of the medium I still think that what I do is worth doing.

I know there are some of you who want me to keep doing this regularly, and of course I welcome all your comments and feedback below or through my other means of contact. Just know this is something I think I have to do, if I ever want the site and my skills to move past where they are now.

However, maintain some hope: the amount of reading I plan to do in the near future, paired with my often mercurial temperament, may well mean that I’ll be struck by inspiration in the next few weeks and some new content will spill out of me, rendering the above paragraphs moot. As the site’s founder and editor, I reserve the right to be inconsistent in everything but my quality.

Thanks so much for reading. I’ll see you when I see you.

Les “Is More” Chappell

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Book Review: Mogworld

November 3, 2010

Mogworld

By Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw

Published September 14, 2010

Dark Horse Books

350 pp.

ISBN 1-595-82529-0

Reviewed November 3, 2010

Anyone taking a first glance at “Mogworld” could be forgiven for not knowing exactly how to take it. First, it springs from the mind of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, best known as the creator of the video series Zero Punctuation, where the emphasis is less on dialogue and narrative flow and more on seeing how many obscene game-related jokes can be packed into five minutes. Secondly, it’s published by Dark Horse Books, a company whose stables are populated by legendary comic series like “Hellboy” and “Sin City” but are virtually devoid of non-graphic novels. It seems like an outlier within an outlier, and even with the impressive resumes on each side it remains uncharted territory for both.

But much as ZP’s rapid-fire simply animated style is only the shell for some truly well-considered gaming criticism, and Dark Horse’s comic book image might obscure the brilliance of its narratives, “Mogworld’s” murky origin hides what it really is – a remarkably clever novel that not only digs at the tropes of fantasy gaming but also tells a nuanced tale of unwilling heroism. It’s a book incredibly strong in both gaming humor and British humor, and while it might not win many audiences outside of that realm it’s guaranteed to please those within it.

“Mogworld” centers on the unwanted unlife of Jim, a sorcery student killed in battle and wrenched back to life by a necromancer bent on world domination. Unable to return to death’s embrace no matter how many times he throws himself off a tower, and put out of his rat-pit tending job by a series of cataclysmic events, he finds himself drawn to the mystery of angelic white “Deleters” that are reducing entire sections of the world to nothingness. As he follows them in the desperate hope of being deleted himself, he sees that not only does the rest of the world share his immortality but that the world’s very structure seems to be unraveling – almost as if someone forgot to finish it.

And it’s those cracks in the world that provide the book’s first layer of humor. “Mogworld’s” setting subscribes to the same sense of humor as fantasy webcomics such as Rob Balder’s “Erfworld” and Rich Burlew’s “Order of the Stick,” in that the world’s natural laws would better fit into a Dungeons and Dragons manual. The spirits of the dead have to float their way to temples to come back to life, and become understandably grouchy as they wait their turn. Resident adventurers approach anyone who’s standing still and demand quests, but are more concerned with “points” awarded than the actual gold.

These are standard tropes to anyone who’s played a roleplaying game, but when presented through Jim’s disbelieving eyes they take on an added dimension of absurd hilarity. Jim’s take on these events will instantly be familiar to ZP viewers or readers of “Extra Punctuation” columns, as “Mogworld” is written in the same first-person style – and even contains a few references to its shorter predecessors. The book retains Croshaw’s distinctive caustic attitudes, but it quickly dispels any notion that he can only work in a shorter medium. The narration’s fast-paced tone means that it doesn’t get bogged down in heavy levels of backstory, and his dismissive attitudes against romance and authority figures add a definite edge to the standard fantasy setting. The colorful analogies might fly a bit too freely for some – without the visual aids of a ZP video they border on repetitive – but they’re not detrimental to the narrative and never lack for inventiveness, such as “a noise like the enthusiastic mating of giant stone golems” or a comparison between zombie flesh and apple turnovers.

It also helps that as the story progresses, the analogies take a backseat to character interactions, and it’s here that Croshaw really surprises. Jim’s world-weary tones form the foundation of the conversations, but the cast of characters – ranging from a bubbly female zombie to a shifty rogue marrying a comatose adventurer to a psychopath killing himself out of sheer boredom – are all well-realized and bounce off each other in an unforced manner. The dialogue is sharply written, owing quite a bit to the dry British wit of Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse but made its own entity by its very dark sense of humor. None of these characters are heroes or even vaguely heroic – they’re all just dealing with the world the best way they know how, and that makes them more convincing as characters.

And the narrative strength makes for the most satisfying aspect of “Mogworld.” Croshaw has long railed against the poor storytelling endemic to the video game industry, and the book’s character and setting arcs prove he’s taken their lessons of what not to do to heart. When the boundaries between Jim’s world eventually break and the truth begins to enter into his world, the transition feels far more organic than expected from such a drastic shift. There are a series of climaxes in the later chapters, each one more gripping than the last, and Jim’s observations in the final chapter form a satisfying and legitimately touching conclusion to the story.

It’s uncommon for any first novel to have such a well-conceived storyline – even moreso when the creator’s most famous achievement averages a dick joke a minute – but “Mogworld” manages to take Croshaw’s writing to a new level while maintaining the wit and spirit that makes Zero Punctuation such a success. The majority of its humor may be lost on anyone without at least passing familiarity with that series or gaming culture, but it will hook fans of those elements within the first three chapters and its story and language are likely strong enough to net other readers. It’s entertaining, it’s immersive and all the other words games so desperately try to earn from Croshaw’s reviews – a book that proves he has the talent to back up what he says about storytelling.

Extra Credit: