Friday, July 30, 2010

Beyond One’s Comfort Zone

Against my better judgment, I agreed to participate in an experiment/provocation by author Sam Sykes that he calls The Bravest Challenge. I’ll let his own words explain the problem as he sees it:

If I have one complaint for reviewers, it’s that they occasionally tend to find their comfort zones and settle into them. As such, they start getting a little predictable. We start seeing certain blogs going into routines: they review the same books, they give the same scores and no one’s learning anything.

First, there is inspiration.

Then, there is stagnation.
The truth is that I can’t disagree with his sentiment. This is something that could be defined as a problem if you were so inclined. There are lots of reasons why blogger/fan reviewers fall into this trap, and I don’t really want to get into them here – that’s for a different time and place. In fact it’s a pretty regularly re-occurring discussion around the blogosphere.

So for Sam’s Bravest Challenge twelve blogger/fan reviewers have agreed to attempt to read a book that Sam selects for us that he feels is out of our comfort zone and to post a fair review of said book (as I define it, fair does not necessarily equal positive). On the whole it’s a good idea – challenge some willing schmucks to get out of their comfort zone.

Sam has announced his choices, and this is where I see a problem. Anyone who has followed this blog closely knows that I don’t shy away from expanding beyond my comfort zone, though admittedly it’s not something I do all that often. So, I was a bit anxious to see what Sam would come up with. I was expecting him to challenge me – I’m a rather liberal guy and I don’t hide that fact – so I was anticipating Sam to take square aim at that huge blind spot common to the vast majority of liberals: conservatives. I’ve railed against a few douche bag authors before (that tend to be authors who announce what I consider hateful conservatism on their soapbox), so this was the ‘assignment’ I was dreading. Something that I was sure to hate and disagree with rather than allow to challenge me – as with most, I am rather certain in my beliefs, which is not only big problem but a great source of hypocrisy as I denounce certainty in others. So, what does Sykes choose for me – again, I’ll let his own (flattering) words tell:

Ken, as we all know, is the epitome of the dignified fantasy reviewer: his tastes are refined, his mind is honed to a razor’s edge and his eyes are scrutinizing enough to pick parasites off krill. I’ve never read Arrows of the Queen (though I do like some of Lackey’s other stuff), but an associate of mine who wishes to remain nameless described it as: “Telepathic ponies that are your special BFF!!!! Oh-so-spunky and rebellious heroine! It’s every 12-year-old girl’s fantasy!“ Have fun, Ken.

So instead of throwing me to the likes of Orson Scott Card, Michael Crichton, John Ringo, John C. Wright, or Terry Goodkind (yes, he’s Objectivist rather than Conservative) Sam decides that I should read Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound).

I was relieved, dumbfounded and disappointed. Did Sam choose something beyond my comfort zone – probably. Arrows of the Queen does seem to fit a rather classic epic fantasy mold, and as a big reader of epic fantasy, that’s certainly not beyond my comfort zone. It is a book that would in modern marketing parlance fall into the YA category – while I don’t shy away from YA books, as an adult in my mid-30s, it’s not quite a ‘comfort zone’. I’ve also
ranted against using YA as negative descriptor, so I don’t mean to imply that YA is bad, but YA that doesn’t aim to appeal to adults as well as the younger audience is not something I find appealing. I must stress that I have not read Arrows of the Queen (yet), so I am speculating here. The primary audience intended for Arrows of the Queen appears to be adolescent and pre-adolescent girls. Again, as a guy in my mid-30s, it does feel a bit like I’m a vegetarian who was just been recommended the extra-rare tenderloin as a nice meal. Yes, reading Arrows of the Queen may turn out to be different than anticipated and it may offer insight into what young girls are like (something I’ve certainly never understood, especially when I was an adolescent male). But, is this really an appropriate book for the challenge as it’s presented?

My gut reaction is that no, this isn’t really a good choice for a book. It’s one thing to suggest a book to challenge in some way, perhaps even a book that’s whole goal is to be that challenge. But to suggest a book that has a rather defined audience, a book meant to appeal to that audience and more or less disregard those beyond that audience (remember, I haven’t read Arrows of the Queen, so this may or may not be true of it), simply doesn’t seem appropriate. To be extreme, would it be a surprise that I would not enjoy the reading experience of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (
Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) or My Big Boy Potty (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound)? These are great books to share with my 2 year-old son, but not something I’m going to pick up and read for myself. Is my reading a book seemingly aimed at 12 year-old girls any different?

Or is the very fact that I don’t think this a good choice an indication of just how good of a choice it is?

I suppose we’ll see when I read Arrows of the Queen (don’t hold your breath, it’ll be a while).

What, good readers, do you think?


Val said...

I think that if readers actually cared about what audience a book was aimed at, or what the marketing department thinks it is aimed at, Harry Potter would not have been quite so big a hit :P

Do not let Sam stop you from having a go at Ender's Game or Wizard's First Rule though ;)

Sam Sykes said...


Neth said...

@Val - there's alway an exception, and I think Harry Potter falls into it. And the movies certainly helped a lot (though it was quite popular before the movies)

I've read and enjoyed Ender's Game, but there are some authors I simply refuse to support, and OSC is one of them.

@Sam not sure what you mean by that.

Martin said...

Given you've just spent this whole post complaining that the book is outside of your comfort zone - indeed, it makes you deeply uncomfortable - it seems Sykes has picked the perfect book.

Neth said...


Well, I wouldn't say that this makes me uncomfortable, and certainly not deeply uncomfortable. Uninspired is the word I'd use. I think it really comes down to a difference in how I would choose to challenge someone outside of their comfort zone versus what Sam decided for me (some of his challenges to other bloggers were more in line with what I would havd done).

ediFanoB said...


you agreed to participate which means you agreed to the rules. Therefore either terminate your participation or stop complaining and read and review the book.

I know why I did not participate. I prefer to stay in my large comfort zone (sff, crime, mystery, history) instead of wasting my limited time and money for a book I'm not interested in.

Point of view changes a bit when you get older - I'm 51.

By the way I never read a book by Sam Sykes .....

Neth said...

Intersting, I seem to have come across as whining about Sam's choice of book for me. That wasn't my intent. I was just a bit surprised by it and wanted to explore a bit differences in ideas about going beyond one's comfort zone.

I'll be reading the book, though I suppose my last comment about seems a bit harsh. It's not the book - it's my schedule. That's the main reason why I think it'll be a while (that and the need to track down a copy).

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Would it be wrong to say I laughed? I think he did challenge you in a real unusual manner. I don't believe I've ever read a fantasy book aimed at young teen girls, so I'm curious what your take on the book will be, Ken.

Larry said...

It was an amusing complaint, I'll admit. If I were in Sam's position, I would have chosen Justine for you. By the Marquis de Sade. Think that might make you a bit uncomfortable? :P

Robin McCormack said...

I read "Arrows of the Queen" back in the 80's when I was in my 20's and have read all the series surrounding the heralds a few times over the years. The story is an excellent introduction to the Heralds of Valdemar series. And the telepathic ponies really aren't as hokie as they sound. The story never struck as ya or geared totally to females when I read them. There is a vast array of characters. If you like Mercedes Lackey and you can get through the first book, then you just may discover you like them

Kendall said...

Robin's not far off the mark, though my problem with Arrows of the Queen is...well, it was Lackey's first Valdemar book, and it showed (IMHO). Perhaps my perception was skewed by having read the more interesting and polished Last Herald-Mage trilogy first, though.

I recommend the Herald-Mage trilogy whole-heartedly, BTW. ;-)

Ryan said...

Wow, Sam Sykes might just be a genius for this idea. This challenge will be entertaining to say the least. Good luck with that book.

BatGirl said...

Couple of points regarding "Arrows of the Queen".

1) No need to put it off, it's a quick read.

2) This first installment may come across as a bit on the YA side (not a bad thing). But Lackey isn't a YA author. A touch of violence, sex and gay sex in the rest of the series/her other Valdemar books. Not beat you over the head with...but there keeps her out of the kids section.

3) As another commenter said- you just spent an entire post complaining about the choice. It seems to be out of your zone. Or perhaps you think it's below you?

Anonymous said...

Heh. I never thought of it as a book for young girls. If anything I'd say it's well within your comfort zone.


Neth said...

@ Alex

Honestly, my first response was to laugh as well. Though that was based on the description of the book that Sam provided, since I'm not familiar with it.

@ Larry

Oh you do try to be sadistic :P The only references to the Marquis I intend to tackle any time soon is watching The History of the World Part I whenever it comes on (I'm still waiting on Part II)

@ Robin and Kendall

It's tood to finally here something about the book in question. It seems that Sam's description may be a bit misleading.

Neth said...

@ BatGirl

As I said, the reason it'll be put off is schedule - mostly my schedule. I a couple of days I'm leaving for a big work trip and I'll be gone until September. So I won't be able to get to my preferred bookstore to buy a copy until mid-September. Combine that with other commitments, and it'll probably be October at the earliest before I can read this one, and it could easily slide later (and life gets much more complicated for me in November, but that is another issue)

Believe me, I don't thing YA is a bad thing - I enjoy many YA books, though generally they do have to have some cross-over or universal appeal for that to happen. I've not read Lackey, so I don't know if it's YA or not - as I explained, my discussion of YA in the OP is based on the limited info I have on the book. (oh and voilence, sex and even gay sex could easily be found in a YA book)

AS I mentioned above, I apparently did a poor job with the OP since I was mainly curious about the direction beyond my comfort zone Sam choose. Especially since Arrows of the Queen could easily be described as classic epic fantasy, which could (arguably) described as my comfort zone.


Yeah, that was my take as well. But as Sam put it to me later, he called the book 'easy' which he described as not my thing. That point is debateable as well, but I see where he was going with it. (I think the real reason is he wanted to talke about telepathic ponies, which I believe are his thing)

Larry said...

There is no "try," Ken-san, only do. ;)

Amused that there are some who might actually read/review de Sade now :P


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