David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Whatta Fiasco… The Book’s Got a Glossary!

While I’m doling out unflattering reviews, here’s another unflattering review of Infoquake from Sam of the Whatta Fiasco blog. This one’s short enough to cite in its entirety:

There were parts of this book that had me excited and intrigued, but then things would wander off into emotional dead ends. The tech and some of the social ideas were cool and nifty, but the business model stuff just never made it for me. And a glossary in the back? That’s just never a good sign. There are plenty of interesting bits in there and lots of promise, but the book as a whole just never gelled for me.

GlossaryMost of the review I can just kind of shrug and say, “Well, if it ain’t your cup of tea, it ain’t your cup of tea.” But I’m a little puzzled by the comment about the glossary. Glossary = bad?

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this sentiment. A few other reviewers of Infoquake have stated that the book had a strike against it from the outset just by including a glossary and appendices. For another example, here’s what Paul Kincaid had to say in his (generally quite positive) review of Infoquake for The New York Review of Science Fiction last year:

Occasionally we have become used to extraneous material being introduced, a list of characters in a sprawling Russian novel or a map in a second-rate fantasy, but generally the more an author feels the need for this material the more justified we are in feeling that the author has failed in the primary task of telling it all in the story. David Louis Edelman has devoted the last 40 pages of his novel to no fewer than six addenda, including a glossary, a timeline, a history of the Surina family, a (cod) explanation of the (cod) science in the book and so on. There is nothing in any of these addenda that should not have been crystal clear through the story alone.

I don’t understand this sentiment, and I’m wondering how widespread it is. I mean, The Lord of the Rings, Dune, A Clockwork Orange, 1984, and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant all have glossaries, to name a few off the top of my head. Do they have strikes against them too?

I can’t speak for why Mssrs. Tolkien, Herbert, Burgess, Blair, and Donaldson included appendix material in their books. For Tolkien, the humbug-scholarship aspect of Middle Earth was clearly central to his work. (See my post about Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales for more on this.) Herbert’s seem like something of an afterthought.

The Architect in \'The Matrix: Reloaded\'For me, the appendices were a way of compromising with the reader. Personally, I tend to enjoy the long-winded infodumps in stories. My favorite chapter in The Lord of the Rings? “The Council of Elrond.” My favorite part of The Matrix? Morpheus’ explanation to Neo about the world of the machines (followed by that near-incomprehensible speech by The Architect in The Matrix: Reloaded).

If I had written Infoquake solely for my own benefit, I would have filled it with chapter after chapter of people lounging around talking about the ethical implications of multi technology over dinner. But given that I’m writing stories for other people to enjoy, I realized that it would help move the story along if I excised some of these narratives from the story proper. Moving them into appendices seemed like a nice way to keep the rising tension while still satisfying the irrepressibly curious.

(As for the glossary? The world of Jump 225 is quite complex and filled with invented buzzwords, I’ll admit. That part of the story is entirely intentional, and meant to both reflect on and satirize our own society. Imagine how many footnotes you’d need to explain to a resident of 1965 how you used your Blackberry’s GPS to track down the closest Mickey D’s from an address you got on Google.)

It might sound like I’m starting to get defensive here, but I’m really not. I don’t get mad at people who have problems with my books, I get curious. So. The sentiment that glossaries and appendices are to be avoided. What to make of it?

My initial temptation was to write it off as the opinion of someone who doesn’t want to read anything they have to think about too hard. (Honestly, the reader who picks up Infoquake at the airport just because they want to stay awake on the plane isn’t a reader I care too much about.) But that’s clearly unfair to the two reviewers cited above. The NY Review reviewer clearly engaged with the material, even if he had some problems with it. And from what I can tell by browsing through his blog, the Whatta Fiasco guy seems to be well-read, engages with the material, and has generally good taste.

But after giving it some more careful thought, here are what seem to me to be plausible reasons an intelligent and engaged reader would object to seeing lengthy glossaries and appendices in the back of a book:

1. It’s a sign that the author is taking him- or herself too seriously.

2. It’s a sign that the author is really in dire need of a good editor.

3. It’s a sign that the author is falling prey to the (perceived) genre shortcoming of unnecessary complexity.

4. It’s a sign that the author is too lazy to introduce these terms organically into the body of the story.

5. It’s a sign that either the author, the editor, or the publisher don’t trust the reader’s intelligence enough to remember the important terms in the story.

Any that I’m missing? Any thoughts from glossary-lovers or -haters out there?

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  1. Bob Nolin on April 30, 2008 at 8:08 pm  Chain link

    I don’t get the objection at all, nor the comment inferring that maps are indicative of second-rate fantasy. That I do not get at all. I love glossaries, addendums, maps…I have no problem with any of it. Maps are too often left out, in my opinion. You need to see the world being created as a graphic, sometimes. Words are not enough. The reviewer in question seems to have a rather narrow view of what a novel should be. Wonder what he’d make of “Infinite Jest”, with it’s thousands of footnotes. Or “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, which has 150 full-page illustrations that tell large parts of the story INSTEAD of using words. (Wonderful book that is, btw.) Maps and glossaries are always welcome, in my book. Or your book, as the case may be.

  2. Cindy on April 30, 2008 at 11:14 pm  Chain link

    The only possible objection I would add is that I find it really irritating when I don’t realize there is a glossary or appendix until I get to them at the end of the book. Just when I think that there are 40 more pages of the plot, the book ends and I’m left feeling cheated. That being said, I have read Infoquake many times and never needed to look at the glossaries. I did glance at the extra material, but I’m not one to delve in in that way. I think that glossaries and appendices and timelines are good to *add* to one’s enjoyment of the book, but the author needs to be sure that they aren’t *necessary* to the enjoyment. I think you did that well.

  3. Yaron on May 1, 2008 at 9:10 am  Chain link

    I don’t think glossaries are bad by themselves. The only issue with them is when the author is not able (or just didn’t bother) to explain everything through the narrative.

    As long as everything is explained, or can be understood, by reading the actual story, the glossary is a good thing.
    It can provide a quick reference for a reader who hadn’t paid attention to something that appeared a minor point at first glance, or help with the main incomprehensibilities after taking a long break and then resuming the book.

    Just as long as the glossary isn’t, as Cindy wrote in the previous comment, necessary. When the author uses a term in a book, without explaining it, and just expects readers to go look for it in the glossary, that‘s bad. The same when the term is explained briefly in the story, and the glossary just expands on it, but the narrative requires knowing the extra stuff in order to make sense.

    As for maps, well, I rarely pay attention to them, but I also don’t quite see why they should be considered harmful.
    The maps are only a problem when they don’t match the plot. But that rarely happens. (though, unfortunately, not never. Cue protagonists crossing a huge continent on foot in a week, then spending a gruelling three months or so making their way back to a city in the middle of the road, or maybe just a couple of miles to the north.)

    Generally maps would only be an issue if the book involve a lot of travel, but the travel is only described by stating that someone left city X and reached city Y in country Z some time later. If you have a lot of places in the story, but nothing in the story to connect them, a map can help to understand how the world looks like.
    But if a map is needed for this, that can indicate bad writing. (Teleportation technology excluded. In that case we don’t need the travel stories. Though a little geographical, political, and socio-economic background details may still be in order)

    Or, well, most (or a lot of) fantasy books, good or bad, include a map. Sometimes it almost feels like a pre-requisite. You hardly ever see maps in pure SF books, and they’re right there in almost every fantasy.
    So if the reviewer thought there are more second-rate fantasy books than first-rate one, the statement can make sense, without actually indicating that he thinks the maps themselves are a problem.

  4. John League on May 1, 2008 at 11:47 am  Chain link

    I would have to think that engaged and well-read folks should know that the presence of lengthy glossaries or appendices is, as you say, only a “sign” of potential shortcomings in the book. It’s what the author does with the material that counts. In most fantasy novels, the ubiquitous map is often a mere gesture to reader expectations. Its presence is neither good nor bad, and often unnecessary. Any science fiction novel that deliberately incorporates jargon begs for a glossary, be it a single page of acronyms or something more involved. Even Agatha Christie prefaced her books with long lists of dramatis personae. Is this offputting, too?

    Besides, if the book–that is, the actual text of the novel–is done well, I find myself poring over the extra stuff because I wish there was more of that story to read.

  5. […] David Edelman, Matter has a big old glossary in the back, I don’t think it’s hurt Banks. Share and Enjoy:These icons link to social […]

  6. tobias buckell on May 1, 2008 at 6:07 pm  Chain link

    Dude, I didn’t have a glossary in Crystal Rain, and one reader somewhere complained about the fact that Crystal Rain had a glossary.

  7. Joe Sherry on May 6, 2008 at 12:52 pm  Chain link

    My complaint is that Robert Jordan, at some point, stopped having in depth glossaries. The ones in the earlier books were much better than the glossaries by Book 6 or 7.

    It isn’t that readers are too stupid to remember everything, but sometimes it is nice to have a brief refresher on who exactly a character or unfamiliar term is.

    Plus, nothing says we *have* to read the glossary. Most of the time I won’t read the glossary, but I think it is way cool that some authors take the time to put in a glossary and an appendix for those readers who just want a little bit more detail than was necessary to tell the story.

    I figure that you sold the novel on the strength of the story, and not so much on the glossary. It’s like a bonus feature on a DVD. You don’t *need* it, but it’s nice to have.

  8. Edward Einhorn on May 7, 2008 at 12:42 am  Chain link

    I personally love glossaries and maps and such, but only when I love the book. I think the reaction against them comes from the writers who become so enamored of Tolkien (or another favorite writer who uses those techniques, but the worst offenders do see to be Tolkien-ists) that they lose sight of the fact that even Tolkien was using this as a backdrop for a story, not a pure end in itself. The best science fiction and fantasy comments on our world of course, and when it comments on itself or the obscure minutia rattling around in an obsessed writer’s brain it has limited interest for those not equally obsessed. Tolkien’s strength, of course, was that his story was strong enough to make a number of people equally obsessed. I say this as one who, in junior high school, with the help of my friend Doug Barre, came up with maps and glossaries of our own for a world in which we never actually managed to set a full story.

    I still have them, and most of one story that went with them….some day…

    All that being said, when the book draws me in, I always am glad that there’s a glossary. And I love a good map. Really, for a great map, it can stand on its own as a work of art. I just saw a huge exhibition of maps of all types. Amazing.

  9. Kevin Lahey on June 24, 2010 at 7:28 pm  Chain link

    I don’t mind a glossary, but if you’re going to introduce so many new words that a glossary is necessary, it ought to be for a good reason. In _Clockwork Orange_, the slang helped convey the shock of the new. In _LoTR_, there were plenty of concepts for which no word existed. _Dune_ felt the same way.

    OTOH, I’ve suffered through books were authors seemed to introduce jargon just for the sake of jargon, without it having much artistic effect. If it looks like a cellphone and works like a cellphone, why call it a ‘jeejah’, unless you’re making a larger point!?

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