John Ottinger III is the man behind Grasping for the Wind, the home of good reviews, Geek Media Round Ups and the weekly #sffwrtcht’s. John’s style of reviewing is eloquent and analytical and one that closely aligns with how I like to review—though whether I achieve it, is debatable. John is also closely linked to the National Buy A Book Day Foundation, a charitable institution which we can all support whole-heartedly I think. So I decided to ask him for a Blogger Query and here we are. Let’s have a look at his answers!
Let’s start with the basics. Who is John Ottinger III?
Little old me? Who am I? Nothing spectacular. I’m a 32-year-old father of a newborn who currently owns and operates his own classical education center and is undergoing the unique torture that is a master’s degree in literature. I’ve been a private school elementary teacher, a financial underwriter of nonprofits, a part-time janitor, surveyor, and Chick-Fil-A employee. All of which makes me uniquely un-qualified to write about books.
What got you into blogging?
A friend. I believe the conversation went something like this:
(A comfortable couch in a nondescript suburban home.)
Friend: Hey, John, you are a loudmouth and pretty opinionated. Have you ever thought of starting a blog?
Me: What’s a blog? (This was before texting or I would have said “WTF?”)
Friend: It’s a website thingy where you write your thoughts and post them to the internet. I’m running a host for free blogs, I can hook you up.
Me: Sure, why not?
And a legend was born…
Why Grasping for the Wind?
As a name or favorite pastime? Seriously, though, the title comes from Ecclesiastes, where Solomon states that “all is vanity and grasping for the wind” on more than one occasion. It has always been a favorite saying of mine so I thought I’d use it as a blog title. Then, as the blog matured, it made sense. I’ve gone through year after year of many of the same literary arguments being hashed and re-hashed, perhaps differentiated by new tech, but philosophically the same. That’s not to say those arguments aren’t (A) fun and (B) worth having – though they do sometimes feel like a lot of grasping for the ineffable. Do these literary things matter? Really? To me, yes. To a starving kid in Africa? No. So I hope the title helps me remember that while literature and all its attendants are fun, interesting and even important at times, in the scope of eternity, they lack touchable substance.
What is your unique selling point? Interviews, humour, news coverage?
Since I have taken on several contributors, I can now say that interviews, reviews, and news coverage make up the bulk of the material. I handle reviews, Bryan Thomas Schmidt is on interviews, and Pipedreamergrey handles news coverage. Between the three of us, the band rolls on strong – though more players are always welcome.
I think too, the fact that the blog has stayed focused on books has kept us smaller in terms of rankings and readership, but has also let us appeal better to likeminded individuals – those who might not even own a TV, or who at least prefer the written word over the hurly burly of television and movies.
What are your goals for your blog?
Goals? I have to have goals? Truth is, I don’t really. I want to write about what I want to write about. If people want to read what I write, awesome! If not, that’s cool. I just want to share what I love, and so do my contributors. [Ed. Note: That's a great goal!]
One of the eternal book reviewer debates is to rate or not to rate? Where do you stand on the issue?
I don’t rate. Having been around since 2004, I have seen the same dogs eat this same vomit over and over again. Ratings are great if your goal is to get quoted on the back of books – publishers love that stuff. If you are writing for others, ratings might be useful, if your readers can get a grasp on your system and you are consistent over time in your blogging career. I feel that is impossible to do if you do it for any length of time. Rating, to me, dampens the overall conversation about books that I try to foster. A rating puts a numerical value on the quality of a reading and to me, numbers just don’t speak (ask the fifth graders I used to each – I couldn’t add to save my life – and then I went to work in finance. HAH!). Words tell me so much more than any number can. Those are the readers my reviews speak to. So to me, ratings dull the perception of the nuances of a book. They undermine the ability of a word-only review to educate the potential reader as to the multiplicity of the good and bad elements that are inherent in every book.
Negative reviews, yay or nay? And why?
I’ve done a few in the past. I think of most of my reviews as part positive, part negative. I like to point out what I liked and don’t like about a work. Therefore, all of my reviews are negative in that sense. However, the only time I will post a massively one-sided negative review is when an author has massively disappointed me or the hype I bothered to read led me astray. This does not happen often, and usually only with established authors that are either overhyped or have begun to believe their own press and by extension stopped working hard on writing and instead work harder on churning out something to publish to make some more money. They have name recognition, so success is in the bag and publishers will lap up anything spit out of their pens with no regard for quality or completeness. (I’ve got a review of Legion by Brandon Sanderson coming out soon which falls into this camp.) [Ed. Note: This is the review John mentions.]
Sorry for the length but you hit one of my soapboxes. At any rate, negative reviews occur in my writing, but more by chance than design. As I write the review, my thoughts coalesce, and the review – intended to be both positive and negative – may find itself skewed one way or another. More than once someone has said I wrote a negative review when I thought what I had written was positive. So one person’s positive is another’s negative. Which goes back to ratings. Ratings, at least would make this clear. But I don’t want to be so clear. Sometimes, after re-reading a review someone else thought was negative, I realized I really did not like the book, though I thought I had. Ratings would have left no room for discussion – the book club conversation – on the merits or detractions of a narrative.
How important are blogs to your reading choices?
NOT. AT. ALL. I know that is ironic, given my hobby, but my perceptions are easily skewed by others when it comes to reading. I’ve read too many bad books as a result. I let the publishers and authors promote, and I pick from what they have to say rather than peers. Though I will admit to being an avid fan of several professional book blogs – those usually attached to media empires and news organizations. Oh, and Hugo Winner SF Signal, who I very rarely contribute to. Them, I’ll listen to.
This is not to disparage my colleagues. Many book bloggers are online acquaintances, even – dare I say it? – friends of mine. What they do is important to many and they ought to keep on doing it, I just personally find it all rather distracting.
How do you think blogs and reviewers fit in the book business?
Very well. We are needed. Ebook publishing has opened to door to so much that someone needs to provide filters. Even when book blogs all review the same book we are providing this service. Any books so widely covered lets readers know that the book was worth several looks by multiple personalities. To me, that says, “Hey, there is something to what the publisher is saying about this book!” And when a blogger/reviewer touches on a book that is getting little traction or fits into some small subcategory, s/he asks their readers to take a second look. And of course, on a higher plane, reviewers are adding to the conversation about a particular work. I believe the conversation is paramount. We write about books because we love books, and we want others to love books, and want to take to other people who love books, who then talk back. It’s a massive circle, but it is beautiful in its perfection.
September 7th of this year was the second annual National Buy a Book Day. Where did this celebration of everything book originate and how did you get involved?
Three places can explain all this to you.
I know your reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in several distinguished (online and print) publications. Are you also a fiction writer? If so, where’s your focus? Long-form, short-form? SF or Fantasy?
I do not write fiction. I have no talent for it. I’m an analytical mind (think: Lit Prof) rather than a creator. I wish I could be, I yearn for it on occasion, but the truth is that Tolkien’s subcreation is out of my reach at the moment. Given time, maybe I’ll try, but for now, I’m content.
What is your current read and what book are you most eagerly awaiting?
Currently, I am reading Erin M. Evans BRIMSTONE ANGELS: LESSER EVILS, the sequel to her Forgotten Realms novel BRIMSTONE ANGELS. I’m reading it because (A) my review is blurbed on the inside cover and (B) Erin M. Evans’ is a sword and sorcery writer par excellence.
I’m looking forward to reading A MEMORY OF LIGHT, Terry Pratchett’s DODGER, and the Forgotten Realms books slated for the end of the year. Otherwise, I’m open, and let whimsy take me to my next read.
Is there something else you’re obsessed with other than books?
Nope. Why would I? I kid you, of course. I’m obsessed with my wife, my 3-month-old son, classical education, and my church. Who has time for more? [Ed. Note: Well, I think that's enough to being going on with! Plus Gawain (how awesome is that name!) is adorable. Proof!]
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Thank you, John! Again, you can find John on Grasping for the Wind and on Twitter. You can also like Grasping for the Wind on Facebook.