Mansfield and the Art of Reviewing

Katherine Mansfield’s perfect diagnosis of forgettable fiction:

Her standards hang on intangible qualities — strangeness, passion, a divergence from the worn path even at the expense of simple enjoyment. “Readable, yes, eminently readable,” she says of F. Brett Young’s The Young Physician –“readable to a fault. If only Mr. Young could forget the impatient public and let himself be carried away into places where he thinks they do not care to follow!” Hugh Walpole’s The Captives is faulted for that finest of distinctions: “we feel that it is determination rather than inspiration, strength of will rather than the artist’s compulsion, which has produced [it].”

Despite the cavalry/Calvary mix-up — one of my chief annoyances in life, really — this look at Mansfield’s book reviews is full of interesting insights, not just about Mansfield (whose Letters and Journals I’ve been dipping into for a few months now) but about book reviewing as well:

It can be a little bit staggering wandering through the book graveyard of this collection, encountering title after title that no living soul has ever heard of, much less read — Stephen McKenna’s Lady Lilith, Horace W. C. Newte’s The Extra Lady, J. C. Snaith’s The Adventurous LadyLady Trent’s Daughter, by Isabel Clarke, and those are just the ladies. Yet there’s a bracing reminder for the critic as well, that reviews are destined to be entombed alongside those books like so much pharaonic paraphernalia unless they save themselves by containing something brilliant or beautiful — unless they can stand alone as works of art.

It’s a worthwhile point (and incidentally Horace W.C. Newte is hands down the best name ever). One of several reasons I’ve been writing fewer reviews on this site is that I see what someone like Abigail Nussbaum or Ethan Robinson can do when writing about a book, and I feel a bit inadequate. Why spend an afternoon crafting a review of Use of Weapons (which I just read, and had complicated but basically positive feelings about — Banks sure had a weakness for the pointless plot twist) when Nussbaum delves so expertly into its virtues and faults?

I think there’s a distinction to be made between criticism on the one hand and reviews on the other. Certainly it’s not an airtight distinction; but generally criticism takes apart a book or film and looks at how it works: how its themes resonate, how effectively the style and content are integrated, problems of execution. Reviews, meanwhile, basically answer the question: “Is this book or film worth the time I would invest in it?” (Obviously, the distinction wouldn’t apply to the visual arts, since you invest no real time at looking at a painting or sculpture — “Don’t even commit five seconds to gazing upon William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World! It’s schlock!” — though certainly it could apply to an art exhibit, since there’s a time investment there).

I think the work of Nussbaum or Robinson would fall in the criticism column of my little rubric, whereas I’m not sure if I’m writing criticism or reviews. The questions I’m interested in are generally more about the book’s effect on the reader — either intellectual or emotional, though I tend to feel that that’s a false distinction. How does the book’s structure create a narrative resonance for the reader? Does the climax fit in stylistically with the rest of the book and spring naturally from the characters? Is the language fresh and evocative? What are the problems of execution? (Now that I’m writing this, I think both Nussbaum and Robinson, and a dozen others, do this as well. They’re all-rounders, I guess.)

ready-player-oneI recently read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I could imagine a critique that looks at the larger questions posed by this book’s existence, questions that weren’t the ones the author is necessarily interested in: questions about cheap nostalgia, fan wankery, the art of catering to the reader’s prejudices. Those are interesting questions and they certainly occurred to me while I was reading it. But what interested me more, what really engaged my critical faculties, was the question of the gormless lack of tension through the latter half of the narrative. Why did Cline whisk away Wade and his friends to the safety and comfort of the videogame magnate’s estate for the book’s climax, rather than ratchet up the tension? Why slacken the urgency? Why, after the wonderful, horrible turn of events that led to the destruction of Wade’s marvelously imagined RV-stack neighborhood, do we spend the rest of the book meandering from one silly plot token to the next?

These are worthwhile questions, but only insofar as they relate to the actual reading experience. Why do we read? Nostalgia is one reason — certainly it must be the reason Ready Player One was so popular, as the narrative itself is utterly artless (in both senses of the word, I suppose). But I read because I’m hoping for a complicated kind of enjoyment — not just nostalgia, or in-jokes, or “characters I like.” I’m not looking for, and am indeed usually uninterested in, a formal challenge à la Robbe-Grillet. What I really value is a sense, as the book goes on, that I’m being surprised, even skillfully and subtly manipulated, by the turn of the plot. I want the sense that my basic yearnings from actual life — that the evil be punished and the good prevail, that people act in sensible and comprehensible ways, that tensions resolve themselves — are being frustrated in some sort of paradoxically satisfying way that feels organically grown, rather than consciously jury-rigged for critical approval.

At this point I’m looking around quizzically wondering “Wait, where did this post start, again?” I realize I’m rambling a bit but I want to touch on one other reason I’m not reviewing much here. It’s related to another point Sacks makes in discussing Mansfield’s review work:

This is the truth so often ignored in the perpetual debate over the ethics of negative reviewing: Book reviews are a genre of literature. Just as you can’t dictate to novelists how likable they should make their characters or how happy their endings ought to be, you can’t insist on lip-service praise without consigning a reviewer to irrelevancy.

This is something I realized quite early on in this blog’s existence. In person, I can be quite scathing about books I think are bad (including one or two I’ve written myself). But I’m very reluctant to be too negative in print. It’s not just about books: I might be the only person on the internet who has never written something nasty to someone in a comments thread, even anonymously. I find it impossible — not because I’m a shining beacon of benevolence, because I’m emphatically not. I just have a hard time committing cruelty to print, possibly because it feels so insidiously effortless when you’re not doing it to someone’s face.

On this blog I’ve written two negative reviews — one on China Miéville’s Kraken, and one that was quicker and more ambivalent on Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief — and I had to grit my teeth to do it. I did it because it feels necessary to point out something that’s not worth someone’s while. I think Kraken is, by any standards, an awful book (Rajaniemi’s book had good qualities and I could certainly see where someone would like it, whereas someone enjoying and admiring Kraken seems frankly incomprehensible to me).

Again: this is bad

Again: this is bad

The thing is, though, me giving a negative review of Miéville is absolutely not going to hurt Miéville at all. Really, he’s going to be just fine. But when I recently read a favorably-reviewed debut SF novel that was epically awful, in a lot of ways that would’ve been interesting to write about, I just couldn’t do it. The author is young, and I would’ve felt shitty about putting such a negative assessment out there for Google to index.

And maybe there’s an element there of wanting to be liked — or, more accurately, not wanting to be disliked. I really admire Adam Roberts; I haven’t yet read any of his fiction, but his criticism is fearless, and the thought of writing the kind of brutal takedown he recently wrote of Ramez Naam’s Nexus, when he could in fact meet Naam at some point, seems crazy to me. That is the sort of socially awkward moment I devote a fair amount of time to avoiding.

So, given that I’m reluctant to write negative reviews, what is the point of writing them at all? There’s certainly value in pointing folks to works that are less well-known, like Maureen F. McHugh’s After the Apocalypse; so for now that’s my focus. Debut authors can’t use my negative reviews, and Iain Banks doesn’t need my on-balance positive review of Use of Weapons (even when he was alive he didn’t need it) but maybe a deserving author like McHugh will benefit from it.


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