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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Ray Davis
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Past Valve Book Events

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Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Reviewing

Posted by Adam Roberts on 11/15/08 at 04:52 AM

I want to second Joe’s endorsement of Andrew Seal’s excellent Biographia Literaria blog: definitely worth your time.  But more specifically I want to pick up on Seal’s recent post ‘Some Advice on Reviewing From John Leonard’.  In the iterative down-the-rabbit-hole mode of blog links, this is to direct you to Seal’s link to Leonard’s review of Dale Peck’s collection of reviews (Seal calls the volume ‘execrable’) Hatchet Jobs.  Leonard mislikes Peck’s ‘smashmouth’ approach to reviewing, picking fights, calling authors who are trying their best ‘the worst author of their generation’ and so on.  Leonard wants more respect in reviewing, and Biographia Literaria agrees, quoting Leonard’s mild peroration:

First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet or a license to kill. Sixth, let a hundred Harolds Bloom.

Seal: ‘I’m not sure what all of these mean, to be honest (horsemen on the roof?), but I understand the sentiment, and it is a corrective one, a valuable one, and an honest one.’ Is it, though?

Certainly it looks fine, written down there like that because it appeals to something genuinely uplifting: that literature is not a passtime, a distraction or a subculture; rather that literature is life, and it is love, and we should treat it with something approaching vibrant reverence.  But then again, Leonard’s review begins by quoting the following point-scoring, ankle-biting, single-sentence review that, it seems to me, approaches genius:

Although Robert Southey was the poet laureate of England from 1813 until his death in 1843, and a Lake District buddy of Coleridge and Wordsworth, he is hardly read at all today. A wisecrack by Richard Porson may have done some serious damage. About Southey’s epic poems, Porson said, ‘’They will be read when Homer and Virgil are forgotten, but—not till then.’’

As one-line reviews go, that rocks.  It so happens I have read Southey’s epics which puts me in the position of being able to vouch for the truth at the heart of the wisecrack: viz. not that the poems are utterly hopeless, just that it’s hard to justify reading them when there are many better epics around.  But it’s also hilarious; which is to say, it’s a really good piece of writing (timing a punchline is the trickiest bit of comic writing).  And that’s worth something too.  Reviews are not merely secondary, or parasitic, things.  They are texts in their own right.  No reviewer should to be excused for writing poorly, or being dull, or being mendacious, any more than any other writer.

My cards, here, down they go, onto the table: I review quite a lot, and whilst I never, I would say, go merely for cheap shots or easy laughs--and whilst I very often praise the novels I review, occasionally dithyrhambically--I do often find myself reviewing with unrestrained negativity.  Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.  Is this smashmouthery?  Is Porson’s elegant, Wildean line smashy?  At least far as this latter goes, I don’t think so.

Trollope, in his Autobiography, recalls that when his first novel came out a friend told him he’d arranged for a positive review to appear in the Times.  Trollope was, as any author would be, pleased at this; but then it gave him pause.

It set me thinking whether the notice, should it ever appear, would not have been more valuable, at any rate, more honest, if it had been produced by other means;--if, for instance, the writer of the notice had been instigated by the merits or demerits of the book instead of by the friendship of a friend. And I made up my mind then that, should I continue this trade of authorship, I would have no dealings with any critic on my own behalf. I would neither ask for nor deplore criticism, nor would I ever thank a critic for praise, or quarrel with him, even in my own heart, for censure. To this rule I have adhered with absolute strictness, and this rule I would recommend to all young authors. What can be got by touting among the critics is never worth the ignominy. The same may, of course, be said of all things acquired by ignominious means. But in this matter it is so easy to fall into the dirt. Facilis descensus Averno. There seems to be but little fault in suggesting to a friend that a few words in this or that journal would be of service. But any praise so obtained must be an injustice to the public, for whose instruction, and not for the sustentation of the author, such notices are intended. And from such mild suggestion the descent to crawling at the critic’s feet, to the sending of presents, and at last to a mutual understanding between critics and criticised, is only too easy.  Other evils follow, for the denouncing of which this is hardly the place.

Mostly I review SF. and the world of SF is a narrow one: I am very likely to know (perhaps even be friends with) the authors about whose works I am opining, and at the very least am likely to bump into them at publishers’ parties, conventions, award ceremonies and the like.  It would be foolish to deny that this puts pressure on a reviewer to moderate the invective.  Some of these SF writers are not small.  I have seen bears with less heft.  This, though, surely only makes it more pressing that reviews not mislead potential readers.  (Isn’t the flipside of Leonard’s ‘do no harm’ R.E.S.P.E.C.T agenda a kind of reviewerish moral cowardice?) The Trollopean phrase that really nails, I’d say, is the one pointing out the intensely reasonable fact that puffery ‘must be an injustice to the public, for whose instruction, and not for the sustentation of the author, such notices are intended.’

John Clute is a leading light in this regard.  Perhaps the most widely respected of current SFF reviewers, he operates by a principle of ’excessive candour‘:

Reviewers who will not tell the truth are like cholesterol. They are lumps of fat. They starve the heart. I have myself certainly clogged a few arteries, have sometimes kept my mouth shut out of ‘friendship’ which is nothing in the end but self-interest. So perhaps it is time to call a halt. Perhaps we should establish a Protocol of Excessive Candour, a convention within the community that excesses of intramural harshness are less damaging than the hypocrisies of stroke therapy, that telling the truth is a way of expressing love; self-love; love of others; love for the genre, which claims to tell the truth about things that count; love for the inhabitants of the planet; love for the future. Because the truth is all we’ve got. And if we don’t talk to ourselves, and if we don’t use every tool at our command in our time on Earth to tell the truth, nobody else will.

Clute does not pull his punches, certainly; although he has the advantage of a writing style so ineffably effulgent that, on occasion, it is hard to tell whether his point is one of praise or dispraise.  Nor is truthfulness the only criterion.  To take for example David Langford, another highly respected and expert reviewer: this 350-review of Mack Reynolds’ Lagrange 5 is no more or less truthful than this 350-word review of Al Reynold’s Absolution Gap: but the fact that the former knocks the novel enables Langford to indulge his considerable talents for writing comic prose.  It made me laugh aloud when I first read it.  Which is to say, it justifies its existence as text on its own terms, not merely in parasitic relationship to another text.

Reading Leonard’s review has nevertheless got me thinking.  Maybe there is something fundamentally disrespectful about writing about books this way.  Of course, we might want to argue that respect is earned, not given away for free.  But then again I don’t believe (of course I could be fooling myself) that I would review bad books so mercilessly if I didn’t also write fiction of my own.  I don’t mean, when I say this, that I consider the writing of books a necessary qualification for the reviewing of books.  Not at all: Johnson’s observation, that a man need not be a cobbler to know that his shoes pinch, seems to me spot-on.  No, what I mean is the fact that my own books are liable to be reviewed, perhaps by the very people I am negatively reviewing, licenses me to a candour I might otherwise feel to be unsustainable.  It’s the difference between on the one hand standing in a field, like Pushkin, aiming your pistol at a figure aiming his pistol at you; and on the other hiding behind a wall to snipe at a passer-by.  I suppose, since my own books have received some pretty swingeing reviews, there’s a danger my own reviewing might look like redirected fury.  I don’t think it is, but perhaps I’m fooling myself.  Rather, I think my own books being in the line of fire makes me understand that bad reviews are part of the heat to which the wise old saw concerning staying-in or removing-oneself-from the kitchen refers.  I try to imagine what a literary culture would look like if its reviewers strove to do no harm.  I can’t say I like what I imagine.


Comments

The “do no harm” issue is certainly an interesting one.

I would suggest that no matter how many negative reviews I produced of Laurell K Hamilton’s books, people would still go out and buy them by the lorry load.  I don’t think that I (or anyone else at this point) is actually capable of harming Hamilton through the process of reviewing her.

I would also argue that negative reviews might lead to a) authors improving their work or b) bad authors going back to the day job and thereby clearing a path for more talented and interesting writers.  I suggest that in neither of those situations is a negative review doing any harm even if it might hurt the individual writer.

I get the impression that Leonard’s moral calculus flows from the ‘parasite’ thing and if you see reviewers as remoras then I think his points may well have some kind of wisdom but I don’t think I’m a parasite at all.  Nor am I sure that I’m swimming in the same waters as the great fish I review.  If anything, I prefer to think of myself as out of the water whilst staring into the barrel and reloading my shotgun ;-)

By Jonathan M on 11/15/08 at 07:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t read Peck, but what I’d say is wrong with him, as described, is that he has bad taste, not that he writes in a “smashmouth” fashion.  How could anyone savage all of the writers that he does and then say that they really like Vonnegut?  For a review to be valuable, positive or negative, there has to be some kind of discernment involved in it.  The one-line put-down of Southey works not just because it is witty, but because it is apparently true.

As for Clute, I don’t think that his candour is quite that candid, not that I really blame him.  It’s not that bad that he covers up for his friends.  It is bad, though, that he thinks that the amount of candour remaining is excessive.  For instance, his relationship with Disch—well, for instance, read the review here.  Clute calls The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of the best book of SF ever written by a practicing writer in the field—a judgement that I think is clearly wrong.  But Clute knows that it’s wrong.  He writes that the book includes elements that are “a cut deck. A landmine. A snare and a delusion. A twisted cue, a cloth untrue, and elliptical billiard balls.” But he can never quite bring himself round to saying that this means that it is after all not a very good book.

By on 11/15/08 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To be fair, I think that ‘candour’ can only really apply to views that are consciously held.  If you class as non-candid views that are held and articulated while you are bullshitting yourself or projecting then it would imply that hardly anyone is candid ever.

I suspect that when Clute said that Disch’s book was the greatest work of SF, he probably meant it, even if ‘deep down’ he knew it was flawed.

I remember reviewing Somers’ The Electric Church and giving it the thumbs up.  with hindsight I realise that it’s a poorly written, deeply derivative and formulaic work that completely fails to explore what good ideas it does contain.  But at the time of writing the review, I was having to deal with all kinds of stuff and so my desire to read a quick, silly and undemanding slice of action and produce a review that says nice things completely overwhelmed my critical faculties.  However, I would argue that I was being completely candid when I wrote the review as I was truthfully expressing my opinions as they were at the time.

By Jonathan M on 11/15/08 at 10:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

All right, but Clute’s own Excessive Candour article admits to his lack of candour.  Clute himself can see the problems in the book.  He just isn’t willing to say that those problems are really important enough to invalidate his judgement of the book as a whole, when really I think it’s clear that they do.

I’d be inclined to give him more of a break on that if the problems in that particular Disch work weren’t so representative of his work as a whole, and what (in my opinion) held him back from being in the very top rank of SF writers.  Over and over Disch injects his own nastiness or pessimism into not just the exterior lives, but also the interior lives of his characters in a rather unmotivated fashion.  You can be reading 334, say, and at the end Mrs. Hanson is going on about how important it is that she die before her mind goes, and it just feels false, false to that character.  The authorial thumb on the scales feels forced, actually, even with regard to external events: Disch was annoyed up to the end of his life at people calling him a nihilist for The Genocides, but the final death of the last characters is just an authorial flip of the bird to the reader—it happens in the last paragraph, and Disch could just as easily had them walk off and let the reader draw their own conclusions from the flow of the book.

By on 11/15/08 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You have a point, Rich; although to be fair to Clute in this review he’s more candid than many reviewers are, in that he fesses up right at the start that Disch was a close friend.  Readers of reviews perhaps don’t expect every reviewer to be an utterly bias-free million-IQ machine; they understand that reviewing the book of a friend and reviewing the book of an enemy calls upon different portions of the reviewer’s mind.  But the very least is that they deserve to know that the reviewer is expressing her/his opinion of a friend’s, or an enemy’s, work; and knowing that gives them a sense of how to read the review in question.  In this question I’d say the review does enough to show that the reviewer is a little conflicted about the book under review, whilst also being well-disposed towards it as the work of a pal to think very highly of those bits that work.

It’s also possible, with a reviewer who lays down a track record, whether X always praises the works of friends (or whether Y always finds fault with books, regardless of who wrote them).  I know Clute a little, and whilst I wouldn’t presume to call him a friend our relations have always been very cordial.  That didn’t stop him writing a pretty swingeing review of my Palgrave book.

By Adam Roberts on 11/15/08 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I won’t get into Clute vs. your Palgrave book, distracting though that is.

I do think that there has to be a certain principle of authorial charity involved in reviewing, which is to accept that a particular author writes in a particular way and it’s up to you to find out what can be best made out of that.  For instance, I used to get somewhat annoyed, reading Iain Banks, at his fascination with over-the-top violence.  Here was an author whose politics were a large part of his work, and who really thought that the cooperative approach of socialism was preferable to what he saw as the social-darwinistic one of capitalism, and he couldn’t resist always subverting that because of his sense of drama.  He always had to find a dark side of the Culture in each of his Culture books, not so much because he really seemed to think that there would be one, but because otherwise he thought the books would be uninteresting.  (I’m going by several of his interviews, here, but they confirm what I’d gathered from the books themselves.) But finding the books uninteresting without it is the exact same syndrome that the opponents of the Culture in his books keep bringing up as what’s wrong with the Culture, and what Banks really seems to want to argue against.

That circle is best squared by reading the Culture books not as celebrations of socialism, but as critiques of drama.  Use of Weapons, his best book, presents a highly attractive hero, both in the Greek-hero and action-hero senses, and then deftly destroys him—destroys him not just tragically, which is comparatively easy, but by showing how juvenile he is.

But a lot of this comes down to what a “review” is.  A judgement to the readers on whether a book is good or bad?  Too commercial.  A guide from a critic to a living author?  No one really believes in that any more.  As the above implies, I think that the best ones show a reader how to read a work most productively.

By on 11/15/08 at 12:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Looking back at my too-short last paragraph above, I might have given the wrong impression that I think that reviews always need to be positive.  No, I don’t think they do; sometimes the most productive reading of a text is an examination of where it goes wrong.

By on 11/15/08 at 02:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OT: At Trollblog I have collected links to obsolete praise for pre-bankruptcy Iceland’s financial deregulation and economic miracle.

By John Emerson on 11/15/08 at 02:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, as you noted, I also struggled over what to make of Leonard’s code. I certainly side with you over the question of ‘excessive candor’ and the rest.

I tried to interpret Leonard as saying that a single review shouldn’t be a total condemnation of the author, that a reviewer should never have the arrogance to try to dissuade the reader from ever approaching a writer. Peck’s reviews are basically character assassinations, intent on permanently damaging the writer’s reputation with all potential readers (e.g. Peck’s proclamation of Rick Moody as “the worst writer of his generation"). A reviewer can show the reader why a book doesn’t work (even on its own terms) but a review is simply not a place to try to kill someone’s career. ‘Do no harm’ means ‘do no harm,’ not ‘don’t operate,’ after all.

As for the parasitism thing, I tried to reconcile this with the fact that when Leonard talks about parasites earlier in the review, the host Peck is attached to is Sven Birkerts, who is also a critic. I think Leonard’s not trying to say that criticism is less important (culturally, artistically or whatever), but that the critic shouldn’t act like he’s doing the writer a favor by reviewing him. I haven’t read the Birkerts review, but it sounds like that was Peck’s basic attitude--that Peck acted like he was stooping to acknowledge Birkerts, who was being so obtuse as to review Mandelstam’s journals (the nerve!).

By Andrew on 11/15/08 at 08:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is what Martin Amis says about insulting reviews, in The War Against Cliché, a collection of his own book reviews (quite a few of which are negative):

“You hope to get more relaxed and confident over time; and you should certainly get (or seem to get) kinder, simply by avoiding the stuff you are unlikely to warm to.  enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power.  You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember ….  Admittedly there are some critics who enjoy being insulting well into middle age.  I have often wondered why this spectacle seems so undignified.  Now I know: it’s mutton dressed as lamb.”

I think the distinction between merely negative and actually insulting is important here.

By tomemos on 11/15/08 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a time and a place for both insulting and negative reviews.  It depends on the size of the thing under review.

When a great artist lets us down, or a terrible artist is held up as great (or passes him/herself off as great), I think the reviewer has an ethical responsibility to be insulting.  Lester Bangs on Lou Reed comes to mind.  Insulting can be effective for achieving three rhetorical effects: (1) to deflate the over-inflated; (2) to express one’s disappointment by a hero; (3) to attack the undercritical.

However, an insulting review of something without a shred of (real or self-promoted) greatness about it winds up as bathetic.  Attacking Rick Moody with a full-on insult-fest is like destroying your house to save it from termites.  The work simply shouldn’t work one up that much.

By on 11/16/08 at 01:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther’s comment reminds me of the death penalty debate, at the ethical core of which (for me, at least) is the question of the certainty of the deathrow inmate’s guilt. Sure: rape/torture and behead ten babies, I’d say you deserve to die. But how can we prove (in the Bangs-Reed case, for example) that Reed really killed those babies? Wasn’t Bangs the one who wrote, of The Replacements, “This is what rock ‘n’ roll is all about”? Well, I *hated* The Replacements. So much for Lester as the unerring jury/executioner for *my* legal system.

What would a 9,000-word takedown of, eg, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, James Frey, Michael Crichton, Toni Morrison, Michel Houellebecq or Dave Eggers prevent or accomplish? Does even the least talented writerly success need deflating? What’s the point? The fans will keep fanning.

Are critics there to A) illuminate an artifact from various angles as an expression of personal taste and idiosyncratically marshalled erudition or B) tell the reader what to think and how? or C) self-promote by causing a stir by attacking celebrity artists? In actual practise it’s often all three, but I’d hope that the preponderance of effect would rest on A.

By Steven Augustine on 11/16/08 at 10:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I agree that when something is terrible, there’s no way (and no reason) to say that without being insulting.  What I like about the Amis passage, though, is his idea that one shouldn’t seek out work to review that one expects to dislike.  The fact that Peck is so relentlessly negative, even calling his book Hatchet Jobs, suggests that he’s looking for blood.

This principle is for the sake of the reader, not just the artist, since the reader has a right to expect that the reviewer was open to the work when he or she approached it.  Don’t you hate it when a reviewer writes something like, “I hate U2, and their new album is no exception”?  So the twin demons of disappointment and over-ratedness that you mention seem like a good standard, since in both cases the reviewer has an expectation going in that he or she might like the work; when it turns out to be terrible, the insult is deserved.

By tomemos on 11/16/08 at 01:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I tend toward charitability in reviewing but I have written negative reviews, even scathingly negative reviews, though these were of non-fiction works. I’m thinking particularly of an essay-review I wrote of Robert Aunger’s The Electric Meme, which was aimed at the general intellectual reader and purported to set memetics on a neural footing. I came down hard on Aunger’s book because the neuroscience in it was so inept as to be irresponsible. That, taken in conjunction with glowing blurbs from luminaries (such as Dennett) and a formal review in, of all places, Nature just put me over the edge. As I said in the penultimate paragraph: “One of the attractions of writing for a general audience is that one has an opportunity to speculate more freely than one can in the refereed literature. At the same time, your audience is less likely to detect any mistakes you make as they lack the specialized intellectual skill required. Balancing speculative freedom against your responsibility to a vulnerable audience is difficult. Aunger took the freedom but misjudged the responsibility.” FWIW, here’s the full review:

http://www.human-nature.com/nibbs/02/benzon.html

By Bill Benzon on 11/16/08 at 03:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven: For me, the only value of reviews is to take one for the team.  I want to know two things from a reviewer: What’s the thing like, and should I bother with it? 

I don’t care if Lester Bangs likes something.  But he’s a great reviewer insofar as he makes it clear what about a work of art moves him or disgusts him.

Whether or not reviewers can take down a cultural bubble is another story.  At a certain point, fashion is like crowd behavior, at once coordinated and headless.  I’d say you have more of a chance to deflate a middle-brow/literary phenom than a pop culture sensation.  *Harry Potter* was untouchable a long time ago, but Billy Collins can and should be destroyed. 

Tomemos: I agree that reviewers shouldn’t be cruisin for a bruisin.  The guy who can’t stomach rap shouldn’t be reviewing it.  At the same time, that guy should be writing the music trend piece that hunts down rap and deflates it.  So I guess I’d make a distinction between the piecework review of one book, one CD, etc., and the wider-framed review of an artist’s body of work, a genre, a trend, etc.  (But wait: as long as the reviewer’s disliking is more than mere bias, why *shouldn’t* the reviewer with a principled objection to certain ways of writing, music-making, and so on comment on a single work?  Just a thought.)

By on 11/16/08 at 05:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther:

“Billy Collins can and should be destroyed.”

It is *very* hard to find fault with that sentiment. I doubt that I have it in me to try.

By Steven Augustine on 11/16/08 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

PS Luther: I came *this* close (again) to buying a copy of “Q” this weekend, but I already had 2666 in my hands, and it was raining, and I just couldn’t face the prospect of lugging both books…

By Steven Augustine on 11/16/08 at 07:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I actually haven’t read *Q*, even tho it was published under my name.

By on 11/16/08 at 08:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=3bRuTkmTIjg

By Steven Augustine on 11/17/08 at 05:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For what it’s worth, I found Peck’s review of Moody useful.  Yes, it is unfair.  But it got at something accurate about Moody’s vaguely annoying, childishly self-deprecating public persona, and helped begin to explain something that bothered me about the book, which is nevertheless worth reading (as Peck admits).  Regarding the hugely overrated and overexposed Birkerts, I am very much an unfan—it was his essays on George Steiner and Richard Powers that pushed me over the edge—and I don’t really care what Peck or anybody else has against him.

Is criticism parasitic?  Not if it’s part of the same literary culture writing novels is part of.  But there’s something … creepy … about “using” other people’s texts, ignoring what’s essential about them, in order to make your own points.  That’s true even if your points are phrased as some kind of universalist criticism.  Criticisms can be made without end, of anything, from any direction.  To suggest that, unless a writer under review can answer all your objections to your satisfaction, your position is stronger than his or hers, is disingenuous—and much too easy.  Maybe what grates about Peck’s “hatchet jobs” is that he uses the language of that kind of highfalutin criticism—but arguably the place Peck writes from is the same place where Moody is—and yet, no matter, Peck broke a rule and is outside the club again.

By on 11/17/08 at 04:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll try to phrase this in a negative way, without actually being insulting:  the word “creepy” is already way over-used; it seems to apply to anything and everything.  But even in that context, Bianca’s use of it is the most gratuitous I think I’ve ever seen.  Can we think of other ways to express our displeasure with people we’ve dated, online behavior, book reviewers we don’t like, etc., than by using the word “creepy”?  (I’m tempted to say that it’s getting creepy to use the word creepy.)

By on 11/17/08 at 07:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, if you think that’s not insulting, you’re entitled to your opinion.  I certainly don’t care what you think.

If I did, I might ask what you have against “creepy.” That’s it’s colloquial?  Adolescent?  “Emotional”?  In some way you’re obviously incapable of defining, more negative and thus more inappropriate than “parasitic”?  That what I’m criticizing is a sacred cow at this particular site?

I’m trying to imagine a literary criticism that excludes the colloquial, the adolescent, and the emotional, and that feels pseudoscientific terms, being definitionally unemotional, must lack any offensive connotations.

By on 11/17/08 at 09:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"That what I’m criticizing is a sacred cow at this particular site?”

No one really speaks for the site, as far as I can tell, except possibly the editors.  “A suggestion” certainly doesn’t.

By on 11/17/08 at 11:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Very interesting discussion. I have fallen foul of this issue in the past, incurring the public ire of Zadie Smith after I wrote a negative review of _On Beauty_ at Eve’s Alexandria. You would think that winning the Orange Prize and the-almost universal praise of the mainstream literary media (such as it is) would have lessened the blow of being slighted by my piffly blog post but alas not. Apparently I had wounded her so deeply as to make her question the point of ‘getting up in the morning’. Dear me. 

At the time I was repeatedly asked why I wrote negative reviews, despite the potential for hurting people’s feelings. Several literary bloggers proclaimed that they wouldn’t have written about a book they didn’t like, and suggested that only positive comment was constructive. In other words: if you don’t have anything nice to say,don’t say anything at all. (I assume because they cast themselves as people sharing book suggestions, rather than critics.) I wrote a post in response making three points that I still, largely, agree with.

First, that the duty of a reviewer is to engage with the work at hand thoughtfully and determinedly, to consider its virtues, to question its failings, and then to *write* back. Writing back sometimes involves sharp opinions and sharp words.

Second, that the author should only be an incidental consideration in this process. The review is about a book and not the person who wrote it, so: personal attacks are unacceptable, but literary attacks, where properly explained and justified, are admissable. This means being critical about your own responses, and making sure that you’re being honest rather than prejudiced.

Third, that a negative review should not be a dead-end rebuke - it shouldn’t write off the writer, but only the text in question (or texts previously experienced).

All of this rests for me on the provisos expressed in Adam’s main post: that a review should aspire to be a worthwhile piece of writing, and that it is written for a body of readers rather than to puff the writer’s pride or feed the publishing industry’s collective ego.

By Victoria on 12/03/08 at 09:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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