There are a few “compliments” that can be said of a story that are immediate warning signs for readers.
“It looks beautiful holding my door in place!”
“It really gets going at page 842!”
“I liked the part where all the characters died.”
“It was… ambitious.”
I’ve always wondered at what point in literary history it was that “ambitious” became synonymous with “hot mess”.
Now, to be fair, calling a book ambitious is generally describing it as a very specific kind of hot mess. Books that I’ve heard called ambitious tend to be books with big ideas, intricate interweaving plots, and/or complicated characters or stylistic choices.
The other trait that they have in common is that they fail.
Somehow the bigger pieces do not come together in a way that works for the reader who is trying to describe them to other people.
“Ambitious” also tends to be used when the reader knows that something is wrong with this challenging work, but they don’t know what exactly is throwing them out of the story.
In one way, it does make sense.
Ambition is what we hold to drive for success.
An ambitious book is one that attempts to succeed in a difficult way, but stops short of achieving the actual success.
Is it fair that it bothers me?
While I enjoy straightforward, to-the-point stories, I also love seeing people try to push the boundaries of what is available.
I like seeing people tackle issues and construction that differ from what is already out there.
I also see a number of these stories succeed on multiple fronts, even if not in every way.
I sometimes wonder if this damning with faint praise is more harmful than engaging directly with the meat and guts of the story. I wonder if it is worth it to dive in and say, “Yes, this worked and this didn’t and this was breathtaking.”
It’s hard to tackle stories that aren’t clear cut successes or failures, especially those with dreams larger than their wings.
I can only hope that we have more of them anyways because I would rather discuss an interesting failure than a bland success.
Maybe the next time someone says a story is ambitious, I will smile and ask, “Why?”
I am always interested in experimentation, especially in the genres I love.
For my own combination of straightforward writing and ambition, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.