Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: Bad Reviewers Write Bad Reviews

One of the reasons that Red Wheel/Weiser rejected my Operant Magick was that they were concerned the material in the book was too advanced for a general audience. That is, they felt a rank beginner who knew nothing about ritual magick would be confused by some of the ideas presented therein. This is in fact probably the case, and I was very clear about it in the introduction to the book. I even recommended that rank beginners start with some sort of introductory book before moving on to mine, carefully explaining that the book did assume some level of familiarity with the concepts of ritual magick.

Personally, I have little interest in writing some sort of introduction to magick book with a whole chapter devoted to "is magick evil?" or other similar nonsense. Anybody who worries that magick might be evil and needs reassurance shouldn't practice it - such individuals are either too bound by religious conditioning to get much out of the discipline or are simply too stupid to comprehend many of the basic concepts that must be understood by any successful practitioner. An individual of the first sort might be able to practice magick successfully, but only after working through their conditioning loops and hopefully replacing them with more adaptive ones. An individual of the second sort is best off leaving magick alone entirely.

The idea that every book needs to be accessible to everyone, regardless of background, has resulted in an occult marketplace that is glutted with beginner-level material. Practitioners like myself have complained for years that there are no advanced or even intermediate level books being published on a regular basis. My goal in writing a more advanced book was to fill this gap. Certainly there must be enough serious practitioners in the world to support the sales of at least a few titles! Since all of the beginner titles are in competition with each other, it seems to me that you might be able to sell more books as the author of one of five available advanced books rather than one of five hundred available beginner books. Basic economics, that, but I was unable to convince the folks at Red Wheel/Weiser that this justified publishing the book. Perhaps they were really just worried about seeing book reviews like this one.

Some background - Frater Barrabbas is a friend of mine who recently published his second book, Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick, Volume 1: Foundation, an actual intermediate-to-advanced level title broken up into three volumes of which this is the first. As far as I can tell this reviewer picked up the book expecting it to be a beginner's guide, got all confused when, well, it wasn't, and proceeded to slam it on that basis.

What is needed is a clear, welcoming book that sets out the basic principles of ritual magic at the beginning, moving coherently through the most useful techniques such as breathwork, visualization, yoga, and the direction of energy, and giving plenty of practical exercises to do along the way. We need a sensible guide that leads you through safely, securely, and with a solid foundation in common sense understanding of why these things are as they are.

So is the reviewer's point that the hundreds of books in print covering this material from a beginner's perspective all suck? Every single one of them? I find that pretty hard to believe - I've come across at least a few that I consider decent for what they are. But unfortunately making a book "clear" and "welcoming" often has the added effect of dumbing down the material.

This is everything that Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick is not.

But do we really need 501 beginner-level books rather than 500?

Never before have I emerged from a book on this subject so confused and alienated – even after reading Crowley!

As far as Aleister Crowley goes, I don't know what the reviewer found confusing but a lot of Crowley's stuff is not that difficult. You can actually train yourself to become a competent ritual magician with a copy of Liber O vel Manus et Sagittae, all of 13 pages long in print, and the tables from Liber 777. There's more advanced material in his works, of course, but those two texts are really all you need to get started on your practices.

The title of this book, by Frater Barrabas

Note that the reviewer didn't even read the book closely enough to spell the author's name correctly. It's BARRABBAS.

suggests to the casual observer that it is a beginner’s guide of some kind, or is the first in a series of books that will focus on giving the reader a solid foundation of practice, theory, and experience.

In fact, it isn't, as the quick Amazon search that the reviewer obviously neglected to do would have revealed. Frater Barrabbas' first book, Disciple's Guide to Ritual Magick, is in fact the "beginner book" of the series. From the reviewer's comments and background it's clear that she should have started the series there.

However, I found this title extremely misleading as throughout the book Frater Barrabas writes about techniques and theories that he barely touches upon: they are briefly mentioned, almost like one might name-drop a famous author you know very little about but whose name sounds impressive in your work, but not discussed at any great length.

One might think that "mastering" in the title would suggest that the book is not for the "casual observer," but to be fair the occult market is full of books with similar titles that promise all sorts of "mastery" and then open with yet another exposition of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. Furthermore, I would point out that much of the material "touched upon" is (1) in the beginner book, which the reviewer clearly did not read, and (2) is mentioned briefly because if every technique mentioned in the book was given the full "beginner book" treatment the damn thing would be over a thousand pages long. Furthermore, toward the end of the review we find this comment:

Overall, Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick presents material that is not new (although Frater B. declares it to be in his Foreword, in which he also states that the material in the book was “too advanced” to be published ten years ago…)

And yet the reviewer expects the book to be totally comprehensible to a beginner with no background in ritual magick? Or does the term "advanced" not mean what she thinks it means? For the record, there is a fair amount of original material in the book, but perhaps the reviewer was too unfamiliar with the Golden Dawn/Crowley school of ritual magick to realize that. I found this comment telling as well:

For instance, the chapter entitled “Ritual Performance” looked promising, and I was hoping to read a thorough examination of how to make ritual look pretty, sound effective – the theatrics of magic. Indeed, Frater Barrabas mentions it briefly at the beginning of the chapter, but the rest of it is taken up by stuff that should have been discussed earlier in the work: ecstatic dance techniques (should have accompanied the section on trance), drawing lines of force, and circumambulations

Ritual magick is not psychodrama and it's not theater, despite some overlap between theatrical and magical methods. Way too many people in the occult community make that mistake. Magick is a technology that you use to produce specific results - change in conformity with will. It's not something that you put on for your friends so they can tell you how cool and magical you are. Combining the various energy-raising techniques and methods for drawing lines of force is exactly what "ritual performance" should consist of. It doesn't really matter how a ritual looks or sounds to an outside observer as long as it gets the job done.

So when I finally do get my book published, is putting up with bad reviews like this what I have to look forward to? Probably. Hopefully as more intermediate-to-advanced books become available reviewers will start to figure out that these books need to be reviewed by an expert in the field. I mean, this particular reviewer is a 24-year-old Pagan Tarot reader who practices Vodou. That gives her expertise in ritual magick how? You would never see anything similar going on with academic or scientific writing, and once we get past the "beginners only" mindset of the major publishers I hope that the review process for magical writing will evolve along the same lines.

UPDATE: I appear to have started a trend. Two more counter-reviews along similar lines have shown up here and here. Maybe one of these days publishers will finally figure out that there's a market for more advanced material.

Want to buy your own copy of Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick by Frater Barrabbas? Order from my Books and Media page and you can help support Augoeides.

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Michael Lujan said...

The question is, *will* we ever get past that mindset on the part of the major publishers, or will one continue to have to go to smaller publishing houses with much smaller print runs and a smaller readership, in order to publish what would customarily be described as "specialist" material? Sadly, it's no different in academia, either, and I don't see this changing anytime soon if ever, seeing as I don't think the demographic the publishers target are about to change (i.e., progress sufficiently en masse past "beginner") either.

Scott Stenwick said...

I think what has to happen is for a small-press intermediate to advanced title to become particularly successful. Once the big publishers see that there's money to made I'm guessing that they'll suddenly find themselves interested in pursuing more advanced authors.

While it is true that beginners are the biggest demographic, just because a book is complex or in-depth doesn't necessarily mean that it will sell poorly. Look at somebody like Ken Wilber - he writes some pretty involved stuff about consciousness and esotericism and he still sells a lot of books. Somebody needs to come along who can do for Western Esotericism what Wilber did for Buddhism.

Unknown said...

>>What is needed is a clear, welcoming book that sets out the basic principles of ritual magic at the beginning, moving coherently through the most useful techniques such as breathwork, visualization, yoga, and the direction of energy, and giving plenty of practical exercises to do along the way. We need a sensible guide that leads you through safely, securely, and with a solid foundation in common sense understanding of why these things are as they are.

Well, he should have done such a bang up beginner book that it came alive each time a new copy is made and grants the buyer not 3 but 7 wishes.

It's a book, not a diary. Whatever happened to exploring what basics work for yourself? Better yet, the author should have held the newbie's hand even harder by doing profiles of all his potential customers and ship them personally to each person, so they can know about themselves without doing jack squat.

>>a thorough examination of how to make ritual look pretty

Look pretty?

You can try self-publishing.

yuzuru said...

It is a pity, I was waiting for your book.

Scott Stenwick said...

Oh, the book will make it into print, I just don't know when. Red Wheel/Weiser rejected it more than a year and a half ago, so none of this is recent news. It's currently being considered by another publisher and what I've heard back from them has been favorable.