Friday, January 16, 2009

Dear Geist: Jonathan Ball takes up the Question of Reviewing

Dear Geist

I am writing to you in response to Michael Hayward's review of Michael Winter's novel The Architects Are Here. I have not read Winter's book, and do not know Winter or his work. However, I feel that this review is typical of the poor quality of book reviewing in Canadian letters. What I proffer, then, is a review of this review.

The original review contains 10 sentences. I will comment briefly on
each of the sentences in order:

1. The opening sentence states that, in this most recent novel, "Michael Winter revisits his fictional alter ego Gabriel English" and notes the other books in which English has appeared. The effect of this paragraph is to shunt attention away from the novel and towards its author, an intellectually bankrupt move, yet one still common in
this, the 21st century.

2. The second sentence informs us of an obvious fact, that recurring
characters exist in fiction.

3. The third sentence gives us examples of this type of recurring character, information that has nothing to do with Winter's novel and,again, is meant to prove an obvious and uncontested point.

4. The fourth sentence (four of ten, remember) finally reveals
something about the novel, basic plot information.

5. The fifth sentence makes general claims as to the novel's genre. We are halfway through this review, and nothing of interest concerning Winter's novel has been written.

6. The sixth sentence finally gets around to making a value judgement on the quality of the book's writing. However, this is a rather unsubstantial judgement: the book contains some "fine writing" but no examples are given. It had Hayward "anxiously turning pages . . . a perfect illustration of how a story can compel its readers," but is this was "fine writing" does? This judgement draws its strength from an unexamined assumption in Canada that readability and narrative speed or suspense are literary values.

7. The seventh sentence returns to focus on the author and reiterates a claim made elsewhere that English is based on Winter himself, another testament to the enduring yet incomprehensible fascination of North America for its "true stories" (even fiction must be "true" at its secret heart if it is to be of interest to the Canadian reader).

8. The eighth sentence claims, in essence, that a writer cannot simply reproduce his journals to deservedly gain the attention and admiration of the reading public, but must work the writing over. Again, this is beside the point and has nothing to do with the novel as it stands.

Although it may be true that this novel is based on Winter's journals, the words of the book must be taken as written, and cannot be justified by their relation to some supposedly "true" reality. On one hand this is Hayward's point, but on the other hand Hayward is reproducing the assumption that reality trumps fiction, and so fiction
must be worked over with a steady and sure hand if it is to approach the level of reality, an unthinking subscription to the defunct values of literary realism.

9. The ninth sentence is a blanket value judgement against the novel's overabundance of "clutter," in this instance seeming to indicate excessive description, although there is no actual quotation to support the complaint.

10. The tenth sentence extends the complaint in the ninth, claiming that "extraneous detail" and "minor characters" should "have been pared away to better reveal the story at the core." This is typical of Canadian reviewing, a blind subservience to plot (under the guise of the more "literary" term "story") and an undervaluation of actual
literary qualities, an unconscious lack of appreciation for what fiction is and what it can do.

Again, I have not read Winter's book. I will give Hayward the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is correct in his value judgements. I point out, however, that only three of these ten sentences has anything of interest to say about the novel, and these claims are unsupported as written.

I don't mean to pick on Hayward in this instance. And I am certainly not suggesting that the review is poorly written or otherwise incompetent. I am just making a sad observation that this is what is expected of reviewers, that Hayward has in fact written an excellent review according to the standards of this nation, that this is what reviewing in Canada has become: a debased form of criticism that exists simply to unconsciously reproduce ideological claims as life-support for dying literary values.


Jonathan Ball
*Reprinted with permission from the author


Chris said...

Jonathan Ball doesn't really defend his assumptions there either, though -- that the literary values the reviewer espouses are "dying", that a newspaper review needs to provide examples to "prove" what they're describing about a work, and especially that the reviewer's reproduction of ideology isn't conscious.

But the sentence-by-sentence analysis is very nice.

Lemon Hound said...

Fair enough. But like you, I appreciate the line by line reading.

I would so like to come across reviews/criticism that ignited the reader, that actually illuminated the text in question, showed people a way in, or made them rush to the text with questions in mind, "does it really?" "what would that feel like?" etc.

I think readers are bored by the whole process...and I don't blame them on the whole.

Chris said...

I would so like to come across reviews/criticism that ignited the reader

Who is "the reader" here? You?

The review seems built to reassure the reader (a certain type of reader) that this is more of the same -- that if you like a particular sort of text, you will also like this text. It's not the sort of text that I would want, but then again I know I'm an outlier, as far as literary tastes go. So I have to admit that I have no idea whether such a review incites anyone to -- well, to what? to buying the book? to reading it? Some of these reactions are measurable, and if you want to say that reviews aren't inciting people, you could come up with a metric and see if it's the case. Because you are also an outlier, as these things go, I am pretty sure. Geist may not be interested in inciting you in particular, especially if all its other readers aren't incited by whatever incites you.

Which is to say, I can't tell if this argument doesn't boil down to: I wish these reviews were interesting for me to read. Which, yes, perhaps it would be nice if they were. On the other hand, I am already inundated with interesting things to read, so if Geist wants to go and publish boring reviews, well, that's one less thing I have to feel bad about not getting around to reading.

But that might not be the actual problem -- there might be a "bigger picture" at stake here than my personal interest, or a presumed reader's personal interest -- but that requires a different sort of argument.

Lemon Hound said...

Precisely, Chris. I think readers, and I don't mean me, I don't need a review to tell me what to read, are quite bored by that familiar approach. They don't want more of the same, yet they aren't being steered that way...I think editors haven't quite picked that up yet.

You suggest: "Some of these reactions are measurable, and if you want to say that reviews aren't inciting people, you could come up with a metric and see if it's the case."

Go ahead. Do it! I rather prefer my own observations, but I would be intrigued to see what others come up with.

Tired as it may be, I go back the How Poems Work column that the G&M ran. People were really excited by those posts. Common readers. They were turned on.

That's what I'm talking about.

I think readers are much smarter, much savvier people imagine. And I think writing about writing with excitement, and with a sense of wonder, can tap into that and create more excitement in general.

Lemon Hound said...

"than people imagine" I mean to say.

Lemon Hound said...

One other thing--if you have some ideas about what would make a great review, I am also interested in hearing about that.

Not sure we give that question enough time on the whole. Most people are thrown blindly into reviewing without much guidance.

Jonathan Ball said...

I really only demand three things of reviews, and feel that my demands are modest. Which is why I am so dispirited by the reviews I read.

Firstly, I think a review should actually describe the book. It is unclear from most reviews whether the author has actually read the book or not, the reviews are so lacking in real information. A cursory description is often given, so cursory that it may as well be excised, which then gives way to the reviewer's opinion. But I must say I care much less about a reviewer's opinion than I care about learning of new books.

Secondly, since I suppose we MUST hear the reviewer's opinion at some point, I want an opinion that is supported. I am sick of the vomit that passes for opinions in reviewing. I want insight and arguments. Books are serious things. They should be taken seriously. A review should, at the bare minimum, display that the reviewer has read and considered the book with an active mind. Not simply scanned its cover and contents and pronounced some judgement based solely on the "emotional journey" (or lack thereof) that the reviewer then took.

Thirdly, a book should be approached on its own terms. Reviewers consistently fail to rise to the challenge of the books they read. They deride non-realist novels for a lack of verisimilitude and they deride realist novels as depressing. Reviewers tend to display an utter and consistent ignorance of the breadth and depth of modern fiction and seem unaware that their own values are not universal.

You're right to point out that I am making perhaps-hyperbolic claims about "dying literary values," but my complaint is not that the reviewer's values are misguided, but rather that he seems unaware of these values and appears, to me, to be unconsciously reproducing them --- and furthermore, the unconscious reproduction of these values seems to me to be the sole purpose of this review, which offers neither an adequate description of the book nor even any half-supported opinion.

Jonathan Ball said...

I just want to add that I think Geist are being good sports for printing this letter.