6.03.2004

Revisited: Wiscon & Reviews

Alan DeNiro has rectified the missing order form for Rabid Transit.

Artist and author, Janet Chui does a hilarious Wiscon report in headline/photograph format.

Strange Horizons editor, Jed Hartman discusses a few disappointments with Wiscon this year.

Pondering further Kelly Link’s change in style for her latest story, could it in any way, consciously or unconsciously, be prompted by a spate of new writers who want to sound just like Kelly Link? Who doesn’t?

Gwenda Bond, who also blogs a handful of Wiscon events, reminds me that Christopher Rowe has a recent story in Sci Fiction, based on the same world of his novel-in-progress.

Belatedly, I recalled reading his lead story for the anthology trampoline, “The Force Acting on the Displaced Body Well-Moistened with Cheap Wine, the Sailor and the Wayfarer Sing of Their Absent Sweetheart.” While somewhat imaginative, the longish picaresque vignette’s main strength is its title. I was relieved to read that this was an unusual experiment for him. Instead, get a load of the characterization in “Bourbon Queens,” the piece he read aloud at the convention. This baby is rich: “KT, famously, despises basketball; a hard road in Kentucky.”

I get giddy about these sorts of discoveries, so I’ll try to contain myself. I hope to look at him in more depth later.

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Is Our Test for Bias Biased?

Wiscon attendee, who anecdotally was frustrated by two jabs at Atwood in a row on a "science fiction" panel, Benjamin Rosenbaum blogs an interesting site which purportedly detects bias. Rosenbaum buys into it. I’m afraid I cannot.

I did the young versus old, and it said I had a strong preference for young; however, I think the methodology is off. It initially lumped old and bad together, which pissed me off. Anyway, I uneasily adjusted to this ordering but then once accustomed to one set of methodology, it was a question of mental dexterity to remember that the ordering switched. What if they had initially paired young and bad? I'd have had a similar mental hurdle to leap with the switch. If this blog is any indication, I may have a slight bias toward the old, but I’m not the best judge. So it's probably a crock, but still another interesting internet oddity to ponder.

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What We Read for When We Read for Reviews

Over in Matthew Cheney's comment box I found this from Nick Mamatas:

"I compared your review of the book to this one in Emerald City and very much prefered yours. One thing, I like that you take work on its own terms rather than trying to force it into some (generally reader-contrived) history or conversation.

"I also generally skip over extensive quotes in reviews, so don't mind not having them. In reviews of MUG I'm amused to find that nearly every critic who bothers quotes something very different, which suggests to me that no real rigor goes into finding exemplary quotes. Not when digging up whatever supports a pre-made thesis is easier."


To what degree, if any, is this a generality of reviewing? Will Morgan make me regret thinking her Wiscon commentary insightful?

Let me address the first paragraph regarding Cheryl Morgan's review of The Light Ages. It does seem she began with a "pre-made thesis" in her starting with the book cover, but recently reading Tim Pratt's journal suggests that her point of MacLeod's either mimicking or entering into Miéville's dialogue is probably an astute observation that I might not have made without reading Pratt's journal or otherwise having inside knowledge of the industry (perhaps this can be deduced intuitively).

Her plot summary may be long-winded, but her final assessment is intriguing and profound. She is actually digging deep into the heart of MacLeod’s matter. I don’t care much for the dismissive tone, however, but perhaps I’d feel the same. So I am pleased to say that my original statement concerning Morgan held up.

Her statement that “[t]he bulk of The Light Ages is more reminiscent in style of Dickens and Hardy rather than Miéville” is clearly false--at least in my mind. Compare this vibrant exuberance of Dickens’ to the MacLeod passages quoted below (all I have on hand is “A Christmas Carol”):

“No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he; no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him....

“Then the shouting and the struggling, and the onslaught was made on the defenseless porter! They scaled him with chairs for ladders to dive into his pockets, despoil him of brown-paper parcels, hold on tight by his cravat, hug him round the neck, pommel his back, and kick his legs in irrepressible affection!”


Looking up Bleak House online, we find that even in “dreary” descriptions, they tend to spark with enthusiastic sound:

“My Lady Dedlock's place has been extremely dreary. The weather for many a day and night has been so wet that the trees seem wet through, and the soft loppings and prunings of the woodman's axe can make no crash or crackle as they fall. The deer, looking soaked, leave quagmires where they pass. The shot of a rifle loses its sharpness in the moist air, and its smoke moves in a tardy little cloud towards the green rise, coppice-topped, that makes a background for the falling rain.”

I just didn’t find this in MacLeod. She is right that MacLeod is not Miéville, a stylist more attuned to the fiery tug of verbal inventiveness:

“Dragon-fly snakes corkscrewed in thermals and bit at prey.

“The flight-styles of the liberated animals were as distinct as their silhouetted forms. One dark shape flitted towards a streetlamp, unable to resist the light: a fell-moth.”
--from Perdido Street Station

But such a lapse on Morgan’s part is more of a problem in aesthetic judgment, which even her wording seems to hint that she’s not too certain of, either. Mamatas’ preference for Cheney’s reviewing over Morgan’s is becoming apparent (although, strictly speaking, Cheney’s was more of a review of a review, which is a definite dialogue, despite Mamatas’ stated preference for no dialogue within reviews) based on Morgan’s critical strength being deep but less aesthetic than Cheney’s--more on this.

Mamatas’ oddest comment is “I'm amused to find that nearly every critic who bothers quotes something very different.” I would be surprised to find two reviewers of a short story to be struck by the same line, let alone reviewers of a novel.

Why quote? As I said before, how else can we tell what you’re referring to, especially in works larger than a short short? It makes a judgment critically sound since it can be more or less verified by looking at the evidence provided. This is what Morgan was doing when she drowned us in plot summary. Perhaps the amount of it was necessary. If we're going to discuss style, for instance, larger passages are needed to get a better feel. But I don’t think the amount is what bothered him. Reading Mamatas himself, we find few buoys of critical assessments in a sea of clever witticisms:

“I gave Enterprise all of two episodes when it first began and couldn't bear it. Actually, I turned off my brain during the first episode's ‘get nekkid and smear the Vulcan in jelly’ scene as it was just so much pandering.”

This energy is his strength, making him a sheer pleasure to read viscerally, but not intellectually stimulating. His collection title, 3000 MPH in Every Direction at Once, summarizes his style, which is no doubt why he chose it. In his Flytrap column, “Life Among the Obliterati,” he discusses the tired old questions readers ask writers. The discussion and conclusion are a little tired, too, since writers have written exhaustively on this topic, but it’s his delivery that makes it an agreeable read.

This is not critical of the authors in a layman’s sense, but critical in a technical sense. Each of these authors can be enjoyed for reasons--Morgan for critical depth, Cheney for critical aesthetics, Mamatas for verve--too different for a comparison of worth.

How can I simultaneously appreciate what Mamatas and Morgan or what di Filippo and Cheney do? Isn't that sort of ambiguous? Stay tuned....

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