12.30.2003

On Reviewing

I was pleased to see so many reviewers come out to support their view of reviewing at Emerald City.

Sean McMullen wrote some of my favorite words on the topic:

"Reviewers are actually in a very vulnerable and delicately balanced position. Should they win attention for themselves at the author’s expense by ripping fiction to shreds, or should they only review what they really like and thus get a reputation as a lapdog critic?

"The problem was that those critics, in their zeal to find something to attack, overlooked what was actually great about the works...."

"I need reviewing and criticism that attempts to say what is good about works as well as pointing out perceived flaws. I want to see future classics identified as such, rather than being ripped to shreds merely because they are published works. I read reviews to learn about what is worthwhile, so that I can go on to read those worthwhile works while bypassing the dross."

***

I tend to enjoy Clute's reviews but struggled with two pivotal sentences of this essay. He makes a good judgment call on denigrating authorities while acting as one. (I'll save his case for Joseph Conrad as "interstitial" until he writes his essay although it appears Clute may be retroactively terming "interstitial" as any work that the genre has borrowed heavily from.)

Despite his normally astute reading abilities, he seems to misread Spider Robinson's statement that "[m]ost authorities are calling this book Robert A Heinlein's first novel.... but I think it is something far more important than that, myself, and infinitely more interesting."

Clute writes, "I’ll probably comment on what Spider means (or thinks he means) when he says that Heinlein’s text is 'infinitely more interesting' than a novel."

Spider Robinson's pronoun "that" clearly refers to "Robert A. Heinlein's first novel" and not to Clute's subsitution: "a novel." First works hold a strange fascination over people as curiosities. Here, Robinson seems to be saying that it will be more important than a curiosity.

Another key sentence, however, is also problematic: "some of those who prefer to read reviews which pretend to tell the 'unpretentious' 'naïve' truth about books."

First off, I wish we would say what we mean when we use the ambiguous term "pretentious." Is it good "ambition" or bad "ambition?" I believe it's usually negative: as in "Moby Dick and Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury are pretentious because they tried to do more than a novel was supposed to" or "War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice are pretentious because they tried to encompass such broad abstractions in human terms."

Second, what is "naïve" truth? If he means finding truth in fiction is "naïve," isn't that a little duplicitous of a man who writes reviews that delve into these very truths? Regarding Bones of the Earth, he writes: "It is a tale which (like most time travel novels) exposes the savagery of sex between humans, the cod-godling manipulativeness of the bureacracies which operate the time machines, the cavitated bad-fruit texture of reality when its guts open."

He may not mean that the search for truth itself is "naïve," for he concludes with this potent last paragraph:

"We know that we, as reviewers, are in some sense agents of entrapment. And I’m also conscious that some of the more highly motored metaphors I like to use in trying to get at texts might be understood in terms of the 'need not to be found,' while at the same time, through the multivalency of metaphor, language of this sort can also give the text a little breathing room. In the end, though, it is harder and more useful to try to understand enactments of the real in words, than to luxuriate in the intuition that words are a mug’s game. Words are a mug’s game. But words, it must be added, are the only game in town."

***

Like Chouinard, I puzzled over Gary K. Wolfe's repetition of celebration, but I suspect Wolfe's choice of words intends to point out the need for reviewers to look at the positive aspects of a work (in which case the choice marginally overstates the case). I did like this, which seems to negate interpreting Wolfe as condoning unadulterated praise of all books in celebration:

"The reviewer of [the serious fantastic story] needs to know what that public knows, and to know something of the larger world as well. He needs to recognize both stories that do not come off intellectually as problems and stories that do not come off artistically as fiction, stories that are dishonest without knowing it and stories that are dishonest because they don’t know what to be honest about. He is not distracted by the power of canonical names, either within or without the genre, or by the opinions of other reviewers or readers."

Wolfe goes on to list other problems in genre fiction. I'm not sure how to take "the boys with their feet on the desks know that the easiest novel to take down is the one somebody tried to get very fancy with." Is this an indictment of lazy reviewers or another indictment of ambition in fiction? If the latter, I've already listed several ambitious novels above. I could go on. How about Steinbeck's mixing the play and the novel in Of Mice and Men? Ambition in fiction is the name of the game when it comes to serious fiction. In fact, ambitious failures can be more interesting than good fiction by the numbers.

But, again, Wolfe may not be opposed to ambition. Just in case someone else thinks all fiction should look and act the same, allow me to quote Michael Cunningham: "Of course, you had a greater book in mind than you could write. You have to. You have to. You have to be reaching beyond what you can do. If you have a sort of command of mental health in some form, you'll be able to cut your losses and think, 'Well, this book didn't turn out quite right, but the next one will....'"

I liked Wolfe's closing paragraph:

"Criticism is this reader’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a reader prepared for adventure. His range of awareness may startle you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough readers like him, I think the books we see in the shops and on the bestseller lists might be more varied and ambitious and individual, and yet not too dull to be worth reading."

***

It's good to hear so many good critics stepping forward with comments on the form. Hopefully, this will go some way toward dispelling the myth that the book critic is a peddler of books.

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