12.29.2003

Simply reviewing

Hi Gabe (and the rest of the gang)

First up, thanks for the invitation to be a part of this grand experiment. I think it should be fun and, I hope, interesting for any peripatetic reader passing through on his or her way to another site.

In a timely piece of happenstance, my joining up with s1ngularity coincides with Emerald City's 100th issue. In it my Locus colleague Gary K. Wolfe talks about the simple art of reviewing. Given what you've written in this blog so far, Gary's comment that in everything that can be called criticism there is "a quality of celebration" seemed appropriate. His description of that celebration as "celebration of the collective aspirations of a particular form or genre — even when the author under review may have failed to further those aspirations — or celebration of a highly individual but honest voice who violates or ignores the terms of that genre. It may be simple celebration that good stories can still be written in an industry that wants to present them as this year’s new model coffee makers" also seemed to fit. And his comment that "down these mean streets the reviewer must go without himself becoming mean. He is no hero, yet he should be a complete reader and a common reader and yet an unusual reader" also seemed relevant. The line that resonated most for me, though, was Gary's description of criticism as "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". To some extent what I hope to do here and elsewhere is to celebrate what seems to me to deserve celebration while trying to avoid the pitfalls of these mean streets and enjoying the adventure.

Looking back at earlier posts, I hope to talk about small presses and independent publishers at some point (though I always am concerned about overlooking some worthy). But now is not that time. Instead, I thought I'd respond a little to your irritation at, and disappointment with, the tenth issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern (republished as McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales by Vintage), which to some extent I share. I have to admit, setting aside some excitement about the proposed tables of contents, I was more than a little concerned about both McSweeney's and it's spiritual cousin Conjunctions 39. Both offered some opportunity to "rediscover" genre fiction, in the case of the former to allow the high brow to have some low brow fun, and in the case of the latter to allow the low brow to consort with their betters. Both volumes seemed to me then, as they do now, based on inherently flawed assumptions. Genre fiction is not a lesser cousin of its literary betters and does not need 'rediscovery' or some nostalgic trip back to the good old days. Nor, in most cases, do our best genre writers need some polite venue in which to publish material that would be beyond their usual places of publication.

But, in fairness, those are either the pretensions of the editors or the packaging of the publishers. If you ignored the hype associated with both books, they actually did contain some good fiction (though neither was a major anthology). I'm going to restrict my comments here to McSweeney's for reasons of brevity. You mention you thought the stories in McSweeney's by Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Glen David Gold and Carol Emshwiller were quite good. I'd go a little further. I thought Kelly Link's "Catskin" was one of the best stories of the year, and Rick Moody's "The Albertine Notes" was one of the top four or five novellas I saw in 2003. I also liked the Gaiman and Gold stories, and one or two others. The rest, for the most part, didn't appeal to me. They were either minor iterations of genre fluffery or literary bibs and bobs of little interest. However, I couldn't find it in me to get angry with this medium sized treasury of mildly pleasurable tales. Why? Maybe I'm jaded and have low expectations, or maybe I'm just pragmatic, but - setting aside those editorial/packaging claims - it was all I'd ever expected. I don't believe you compile outstanding or revolutionary anthologies by setting out to. You do it by putting together the best book possible, and if you're canny and lucky, maybe you do something important. But you can't plan it. If you could, the genre would be re-invented every year by the latest book claiming to be the Dangerous Visions of something or other.

Best, Jonathan

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