The OF Blog: Trying to grasp a poor, beyond muddled review (May 2011 edition)

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Trying to grasp a poor, beyond muddled review (May 2011 edition)

Due to being extremely busy with work, I somehow missed this clusterfuck of a review posted on SF Crowsnest (Jeff VanderMeer says a lot on it and I'll try not to follow too closely what he observes about it).  It was enough to make me decide to bring out of hiatus that occasional feature called "Trying to grasp a poor, muddled review."  Well, let's see what (doesn't) make this review 'tick,' shall we?

‘Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy Volume 3’ contains twenty stories by various authors and even though I read them all (honest) the best review tactic is probably to pick out the highlights. There are damn few but here they are in page order. 

It is tough reviewing an anthology or collection, as I well know.  But when the first sentence has to employ the parenthesized "honest" in order to stave off any possible accusations that the reviewer did not read the entire thing, one might be pardoned if she begins to wonder if the reviewer himself senses that he only "read" the stories and didn't read them.  As for the "highlights," that's a subjective thing and nothing else really to be said but that.

‘Uncle Chaim And Aunt Rifke And The Angel’ by Peter S. Beagle has trouble with the first sentence where, if you ask me, putting the last clause first would have saved having a clumsy hyphenated sub-clause in the middle. Nit-picking aside this long story, thirty-five pages, was brilliant. A blue angel appears in a painter’s studio and becomes his only model. He paints her for months on end, sometimes watched by his nephew and our narrator. It had nice touches of humour, some tragedy and a glorious ending. 

 I'll content myself with returning the nitpicking and noting that the first sentence works for me precisely because of placing of the clauses:  "My Uncle Chaim, who was a painter, was working in his studio - as he did on every day except Shabbos - when the blue angel showed up."  What I noticed when re-reading this story for the third time is that by structuring that first sentence so, Beagle has made it known that the blue angel is not going to be the sole focal point of this story (this is also borne out in the title). 

‘The Pentecostal Home For Flying Children’ by Will Clarke is about the children of a second-rate super-hero called Redbird. His only super-power is flight which isn’t that great so he is taken on as town super-hero by Shreveport, Louisiana. It soon becomes clear he’s been busy with the ladies and he departs under a cloud but leaves many offspring behind. The trouble they cause is great entertainment. 

The story is much more than just that, but hey, I'm just another reader, seemingly one more sympathetic to the subtle commentary found within this story on small town life and expectations.

'Pride And Prometheus’ by John Kessel is the story of young spinster Mary Bennett and her encounters in England with Victor Frankenstein, a disturbed gentleman from the continent. This is neatly tied in to Victor’s own story - the novel by Mary Shelley, not the various Hollywood versions. Perhaps because of my fondness for Victorian prose and manners, I found it quite agreeable.

‘Serials’ by Kate Williams is an amusing story about a high school girl trying to cope with the many serial killers around now that it has become such a popular pastime. She suspects her maths teacher may be one. An entertaining story leavened with spoof academic footnotes for the various information given on killers.

There is a time and place for summary, but when this serves to set up the foil of what follows, it begins to feel even less than perfunctory.  Here, opinions (positive in these two cases) are tossed about, but very little substance is found within them.  Which of course leads to the second half of the review:

An honourable mention for ‘Rabbit Catcher Of Kingdom Come’ by Kellie Wells for its lively language but this pied piper riff went on a bit too long. Stephen King delivers a pretty good yarn in ’The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates’. Chris Gavaler wrote ’Is’ and could give Mister King a run for his money when it comes to describing everyday life in excruciating detail. The story mentions therapy which marks it as truly American. It may surprise our cousins across the Atlantic to know that we British don’t all have therapists, not even the middle classes. I felt I might need one after reading ‘The Torturer’s Wife’ by Thomas Glave. If I was a casual reader I would have given it up after four paragraphs but as a dutiful reviewer I finished all thirty-three pages of this rambling, disjointed mish-mash (Oh so arty, with lots of things in brackets) that is not really a fantasy. It’s a psychological story about the wife of a high placed state torturer in a totalitarian regime cracking up with guilt. I highly recommend you avoid it like the plague. 
 To quote the venerable Astro, "Rut-roh, Rorg!"  Here is where the distorted generalizations come out to play.  The "truly American" part, that is quite amusing to read, as if therapy was some quintessentially "American" entity! (This Southern commentator is baffled at this.)  Must be some crossed connections along the Trans-Atlantic Cable or something.  The provincialism on display in that sentence is almost breathtaking.  But this merely serves to set up the apparent real point of this review, Thomas Glave's "The Torturer's Wife."

Eamonn Murphy, the erstwhile, intrepid genre reviewer, feels as though what he is now reading (cue The Twilight Zone theme song) "is not really a fantasy."  It is something else, he opines, in fact, it is something psychological!  The horrors!  As if there can't be a psychological component to a fantasy or (presumably, based on what follows) speculative fiction.  Must one not see the phantasies within fantasies?  For some troglodytes, apparently not.

Most of the other stories were okay but they lacked a certain something and, after some consideration, I think I know what. Firstly, they did not lack fine writing. Finer writing has never been more evident and this is hardly surprising because nine of the contributors have creative writing degrees and five of those teach it. The list of contributing magazines at the back has many that are published by universities.

Also lacking was the classic notion of a story as commonly understood, namely a protagonist facing a series of challenges which he overcomes by dint of his character and which changes him in some way, usually for the better. In too many of these stories something happens to someone and that’s it. This being modern urban fantasy the thing that happens is sometimes quite daft, like coughing up a little Bach who grows to full size, but never mind that. Many of the stories are mildly depressing. Perhaps they are meant to send you off to your analyst.

I find it all too arty, too academic and too refined. I also fear that a bright young Jewish chemistry student (Asimov) or a navy midshipman retired with tuberculosis (Heinlein) or even an English graduate working in a laundry and writing in his spare time (Stephen King back in the day) would find it hard to break into this world of writing professionals. The other thing is that the general public don’t buy this sort of thing. They buy the three volume fantasy novels with swords and elves and a hero who overcomes obstacles and gets changed by his troubles. I fear the fantasy short story has left the general reader behind, perhaps forever. Too bad.

 So much to unpack from the final three paragraphs.  If Murphy's review is emblematic of what is found at SF Crowsnest, one might begin to wonder if "fine writing" is anathema to those folk.  Going further, one might also wonder if "fine writing" is a code for prose that makes the reader have to think more, to anticipate, and perhaps to be surprised at what unfolds, rather than experiencing anew (oxymoron here?) familiar plots, familiar characters, and familiar narrative structures.  It is one thing to dislike a story or an anthology on its own merits (or lack thereof), but an entirely other matter to criticize it in a fashion that reveals the reviewer's apparent own lack of understanding or appreciation of what has unfolded.  Perhaps Murphy is speaking for a particular audience and using the code words which that audience would grasp readily, but after reading these final paragraphs, especially when the dreaded "arty," "academic," and "refined" make their appearance, I can only surmise that the "general reader" to whom Murphy writes this screed of warning must be imagined by many as being a hidebound, callow sort who must remain distant from this sort of writing that does not fit neatly into their own pre-defined concept of "fantasy."  Such a useless review for those apparently non-"general readers" who might not know all the genre handshakes or have the special club code rings.  Would have been better if this review had engaged the stories rather than blithely settling for reinforcing a viewpoint that fails to do anything more than console like-minded people.


Liviu said...

To be honest this review is not worse than many sneering reviews coming the other way from place like Strange Horizon and their ilk and from reviewers like Adam Roberts and his ilk; being on the receiving side though makes the perception different.

I still believe strongly that if you do not enjoy reading specific genres (whether it is the 12,oops 14 volume epic or literary fantasy or whatever), reviewing it is generally pointless since you will review your prejudices not the book; and that is not to argue for only positive reviews btw since I bet that there are enough books you dislike that compare in topic, mode, style, etc with books you like

Lsrry said...

Personally, reviews that fail to engage the work at hand and to avoid as much as possible gross generalizations are reviews that fail. As for the reviewing of works that one might not enjoy as a whole, I disagree in that if the reviewer tries to understand the substance of the material being reviewed, some insight might be gained, whether or not that review might be positive or negative in tone.

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