6.01.2004

A Review of a Review of a Review

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Matthew Cheney's name popped up on a panel in Wiscon (so in spirit, he resided with us in Madison). Little wonder. He's writing my favorite genre blog--yes, even over this one (ed. wants brief and new, which is understandable in the lamentably hip nowness of the blog aether--yesterminute's news might as well have been yesteryear's in our ever-diminishing short-term memory--but this also greatly limits critical discourse).

I'm also pleased to see Cheney taking reviewers to task regarding The Light Ages. Cheney's review was so provocative that I had to read passages for myself. Although I don't have time to do a full-fledged review, I do have a few thoughts on this review:

1) Like Theodore Sturgeon, Paul di Filippo has yet to write a negative review (that I've seen). Filippo has jump-started a number of writers' careers in this fashion (hoo-rah!). Moreover, it is a method smiled upon, guaranteed to win love and affection, beloved by tradition, etc. etc. I agree with Cheney's implicit, driving incentive to address the possibility of Filippo's effluence in the attempt to create a critical base. I'm not critiquing the book myself, but hoping, rather, that critiquing critique will heighten the genre's critical base and, therefore, the genre's basis for respect, inside and out.

2) The statement "it probably even deserves an award or two. Nonetheless, it is also a novel with some considerable flaws....such accomplishments are all but overpowered by the flaws of the book" A) sets up high expectations of being presented with said considerable flaws, but B) sounds like a kind of oxymoron in which you wonder how a book deserving to win an award or two could have "considerable" and "overpower[ing]" flaws.

3) "The narrative structure, rather than being complex, is numbingly linear." Don't get me wrong. I looove complex narrative structures. But there are quite a few great narratives that are linear. A book needs to be judged on what it did (or tried to do) as a narrative, not on what you want it to do.

4) "The fundamental problem with the book is that the main characters are dreadfully dull." I certainly cannot argue with this, not having read it. But Cheney may have missed a few crucial aspects:

4a) "Dickensian" can mean any aspect of Dickens that a person wants. It may have to do with tropes of London and class, or style, or plot, or characterization, etc. Di Filippo probably should have narrowed this down, but then it may have been a nebulous essence that he couldn't pin.

4b) A rich character portrayal is not the same thing as character development. Consider what E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel wrote about Dickens' character portrayals:

"Dickens' people are nearly all flat (Pip and David Copperfield attempt roundness, but so diffidently that they seem more like bubbles than solids). Nearly every one can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth. Probably the immense vitality of Dickens causes his characters to vibrate a little, so that they borrow his life and appear to lead one of their own. It is a conjuring trick; at any moment we may look at Mr. Pickwick edgeways and find him no thicker than a gramophone record. But we never get the sideway view. Mr. Pickwick is far too adroit and well-trained. He always has the air of weighing something, and when he is put into the cupboard of the young ladies' school he seems as heavy as Falstaff in the buck-basket at Windsor. Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they re-enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow. Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad. He is actually one of our big writers, and his immense success with types suggests that there may be more in flatness the severer critics admit."

Although I loved Great Expectations as a young laddie in junior high, I hated A Tale of Two Cities as an adult for being sentimental clap-trap, happily enough, thinking I could avoid the other toe-breaking tomes (toe-breaking from drop-kicking them), but it appears Daniel Green had to make me rethink my position on Dickens. (Mr. Green, don't I have enough to read?)

5) Regarding style, Cheney writes "just about every page of the 452 (and one fifth) pages of the Ace paperback edition has at least one interesting sentence on it. At times, there are entire paragraphs that are gems of image and sound.... even if it has one good sentence per page, there are so many pages that the mediocre sentences reign."

Most frustratingly, here and in other critical statements, Cheney's comments lack backing. How else can we see what he's really getting at? How else can we see for ourselves if we might agree? So, in that spirit, we ask where the atrocities of language are. If you make a bold claim that "[too many] clumsy [sentences]... play on the sensitive reader's ears like a chorus of banshees in a library," you should probably back it up (not that every claim needs backing--and I'm sure I forget to do it when I should, too). I did a number of random page-turnings to check for myself. As Cheney said, some of the language is gorgeously (and at times rhythmically) evoked:

"Now, Mr. Snaith's whole body was quivering as he spread the sleeves of his green cloak. It seemed from where I was sitting that he had actually started to rise from the floor. I peered around the flickering edges of his cloak and his carpetbag trying to see his feet. There were gasps from the audience. All the priest's warning and tales must have come back to them: that changeling have lost their souls, that there is nothing in their hearts, or their insides. Trails of mist then started to weep in smoky droplets from the sleeves of Mister Snaith's suit. The stuff was greenish-tinged, subtly glowing. It turned and roiled...."

Maybe Cheney has a point about variety--assuming he is not referring to occasions of stylistic choice and rhythm--but it's hard to tell from reading randomly. Sometimes the language was more "stilted" but in the sense we associate more with another era interested in erudition and breeding which perhaps shrieks like banshees to modern ears. But is that clumsiness? or is it a conscious choice where, as di Filippo puts it, "style truly supports content"? You decide (Matt may have a better example up his sleeve--but it's the last sentence in particular that possibly supports or erodes his thesis.):

"To me, born in Bracebridge to the pounding of aether engines, the distinction he was making was obtuse in the extreme. To me, if anything, it was the other way around. Aether had allowed us to tame the elements: to make iron harder, steel more resilient and copper more supple, to build bigger and wider bridges, even channel messages across great distances from the mind of one telegrapher to another. Without aether, we would still be like the warring painted savages of Thule. I understood, though, that I was witnessing a climactic moment in Grandmaster Harrat's many struggles with the medium which both drew and taunted him--an experiment in both aether and electricity which he had enacted so often in his thoughts that the actual performance of it now had the heavy air of predictability that such matter long brooded over can assume, as each moment clicks into the next."

I don't know, though. Now that I type it, it doesn't seem too shabby, so I'd like to see Cheney's examples of banshee-bad.

5a) He uses problems with grammar, however, to illustrate problems with "language." There are four problems with this: 1) This is a first-person narrative, and most people make this ubiquitous grammar mistake, among others. 2) It's conceivable MacLeod was aiming for an alternate evolution of usage (but this may be utter hornswoggling from my derriere). 3) Most problematically, it confuses the sound of language with the drudgeries of a language's architecture. I doubt much is gained for the character by misusing a pronoun, but it is a novel, which is a book full of many opportunities to make mistakes, which leads me to guess that 4) a few grammar mistakes will undoubtedly appear in Cheney's future novels (having read a draft or two of a story, I know Matt is capable of interesting work). An industrious, impatient, and dull grammarian can no doubt search Cheney's blog for grammar mistakes. A mistake in grammar does not affect the strength of an argument--only mistakes in the parts that build the argument do. Likewise, grammar should not affect the strength of a story--only mistakes in the parts that build the story should. It is unfortunate that mistakes slipped past editors into published copies, but oh well. Maybe that will increase resale value for collectors.

All in all, I was still excited to read Cheney's blog on the ethics of reviewing. Keep us in check, Matt!