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May 20, 2002

Brilliant Sri Lankan novelists, go home
Posted by Teresa at 09:24 PM *

“Brilliant Sri Lankan novelists, go home” by John Bloom is not actually that staple of unabashed Philistinism, the rant about highfalutin’ literature. Rather, it’s a rant about which books get reviewed, and how the reviewers describe them; and I’m not going to pretend I didn’t laugh when I read it:

The movie critic seems perfectly capable of praising Spiderman without thinking that it somehow demeans his critical reputation and makes him unfit for reviewing the next Merchant-Ivory saga about old ladies in India.

(…)

[Y]ou can forget entirely the guys at the next level, the the mid-list mystery and thriller authors who sometimes have one book out of ten reviewed by a major newspaper.

Instead, what have we got in the book review sections? Sri Lankan coming-of-age novels. Slice-of-life multi-generational family sagas about the Idaho back country. Painfully personal memoirs about single motherhood. Last week I read a review of a book called Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood by Nega Mezlekia. It had everything a book review editor wants — exotic to the point of obscurity, internationalist, multicultural (by virtue of the translation), with the promise of making us all Better People by condescending to understand the agonies of a Third World situation that we don’t really know diddly squat about.

But is it a GOOD STORY? You’ll NEVER FIND OUT by reading The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, or any of the other Sunday supplements. Some of the reviews don’t even bother to DESCRIBE the book, much less tell us why we would want to read it in the first place. Instead they go on about “new voices in East African fiction.” My question is, “I don’t really care that much about East African fiction. It’s not high on my list of priorities. Will I like this book IN SPITE OF THAT?”

(…)

The strangest term the reviewers use is “unassuming prose.” They say it in a GOOD way, as though the BEST prose is unassuming. So how come they never review a book with ASSUMING prose? I don’t like my books unassuming. I want them to ASSUME something. I want the prose standing on its head like a Chinese acrobat and doing back flips.

(…)

A book of “literary snapshots” means nothing happens.

“A lyrical small-town reminiscence” means nothing happens.

“Full of wry insight” means nothing happens.

A “rumination,” a “pastiche,” a “twinkling little jewel of a novel,” “a quiet catharsis,” “a journey through memory” or a “poetic elegy” all mean NOTHING EVER HAPPENS.

(…)

Anything called a “three-generation family saga” will have a scene in which the bastard child of a ruthless entrepreneur is delivered by a midwife in a slave cabin.

Thank you, Dr. Doyle.
Comments on Brilliant Sri Lankan novelists, go home:
#1 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2002, 08:07 AM:

I'm in general agreement with Bloom's comments
on the state of the novel. I feel I ought to read
more "non-English" novels, but have spent the
last two years reading mostly American and British
authors. I like interesting writing - give me more
Ian McEwan, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Cunningham, Rick Moody, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon and Connie Willis. I want plot, characterization and interesting dialogue.
I'm not all that interested in new voices that say nothing or franchise writing.

#2 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2002, 11:06 AM:

Read Michael Ondaatje. He's a brilliant Sri Lankan novelist, but don't hold it against him.

#3 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2002, 05:50 PM:

Although Michael Ondaatje was born in Ceylon, calling him a "Sri Lankan novelist" in the sense of the original essay or Laurie's comments is beyond a long stretch and into outright dislocation of nationality in the literary sense.

You could almost as well call him a British writer, and so far as I know the last time Ondaatje benefited from accidents of geography, it was when he got his early work published by Crown-subsidized Canadian publishers as an emerging figure of Canadian letters.

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2002, 12:27 AM:

I'm sure he's a perfectly fine writer, wherever he's from, and dislocations of nationality bother me not at all; you should see a standard publishing contract's notions of what is and isn't part of the British Commonwealth.

The point of John (no relation) Bloom's rant wasn't the books themselves. He's ticked off by the way they get reviewed.

Some years back I got to listen to an oddly similar rant delivered by a couple of fourteen-year-olds in a used bookstore on Staten Island. They'd eavesdropped on my conversation with the owner, and divined that I was one of the people of the book. They hit me with a barrage of questions, then moved on to a free and frank airing of opinions. (And if either of them, reading this, remembers that afternoon: Thank you! I've seldom spent a more valuable hour.)

Their most emphatic remarks were about cover copy. They didn't care about quotes from reviewers; who cared what those guys thought? They wanted to know =what kind of a book it was=.

#5 ::: Steve Cook ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2002, 01:41 PM:

I think the essential thing that Bloom's rant misses is that the professional (and to a lesser extent, the amateur) critic has two functions: to be a descriptive critic (does this piece of art achieve its goals? does it entertain?) and a prescriptive critic (does this piece of art represent a worthy addition to the canon? how does it relate to its artistic ancestors? did it succeed as an artistic work?). Bloom wants more of the former and less of the latter (or else wants the critic's role as gatekeeper of the canon to shift slightly, but that's a different argument).

[wild generalizations follow:]
What science fiction does get reviewed in the mainstream press is almost invariably spared the first treatment, and then people complain about ghettoization. But modern prescriptive criticism is largely uninterested in many of the things that genre criticism values highly (plot, across genre; maybe that elusive and ill-defined sense of wonder for science fiction, as well as credible technology and futurism); similarly, science fiction tends not to value the things that high literature currently values (prose, most notably, but also highly developed psychological realism and exploration of internal character).

I just finished Gravity's Rainbow, which was fabulous, but I'm not at all sure that the SFWA was wrong to give Rendezvous with Rama the 1973 Nebula, even though it's a parodic riff on science fiction in its own right. GR is a fabulous book, but is it better science fiction? Dunno. I will note, however, that when prescriptivist critics approach material that doesn't meet their criteria for judgment, it is often entertaining but tends not to be good descriptivist criticism; consider Edmund Wilson's Classics and Commercials, in which Wilson, a very perceptive critic and a champion of Fitzgerald and Joyce, was completely baffled about what people saw in Agatha Christie or The Robe.

And just to toss this out: Does a magazine like Locus review tremendously popular writers like R.A. Salvatore or books within tremendously popular franchise universes? I think there's a prescriptivist/descriptivist split even within s.f. as a genre.

Movie critics tend to avoid this problem, possibly because prescriptivist and descriptivist criticism often focuses on the same thing (good acting, say), perhaps because the movies were a low art and simply haven't been around very long, perhaps because there's less of a high-art/low-art split in film.

#6 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2002, 02:26 PM:

I remember being one of those 14-year-olds -- not those particular 14-year-olds, unfortunately, but I remember being 14 and having that same frustration. These days I find myself judging books by unfamiliar authors mostly on a combination of (1) cover design (which gets it off the shelf) and (2) a random paragraph from somewhere in the middle of the book (which gets it into the basket). Still not infallible, unfortunately.

Saying Michael Ondaatje isn't a "Sri Lankan novelist" in that sense is kind of like saying Gene Wolfe (or Connie Willis, or Iain Banks, or your SF prose stylist of choice) isn't a science fiction writer 'cause his books are too good. :) Yes, he's a Canadian writer (as a Canadian friend of Indian descent was quick to point out to me), but if you read Running in the Family or Anil's Ghost it's hard to argue that he isn't a Sri Lankan writer as well.

(Actually, Running in the Family, while it's nonfiction, is a great illustration of Bloom's point about the reviews. It's a slice-of-life multigenerational family saga, an inquiry into the consequences of colonialism with a postmodern sensibility, and it's just chock full of unassuming prose, written by a professor returning to his rural home. Sorta. But it's also chock full of characterization and interesting dialogue -- which you'd have trouble guessing from the Ingram description: "As he records his journey through the drug-like heat and intoxicating fragrances of that 'pendant off the ear of India,' Ondaatje simultaneously retraces the baroque mythology of his Dutch-Ceylonese family. An inspired travel narrative and family memoir by an exceptional writer." About the only thing missing is the pregnancy.)

#7 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2002, 01:01 AM:

Thank you - this needed to be said. I've read some wonderful books by non-English authors, or authors writing about situations such as politics in East Africa.

But by and large, I've read a lot more of the same type of thing that was badly written, and also badly translated. Sometimes both at once.

I wish authors would realize that if they want their readers to care about a subject, especially if it's a subject that the reader has to step outside of their comfortable little boundaries to understand (such as East African politics, in most cases), they not only have to do their homework on it, but they should write well about it. Provide the reader with a meal rather than just food.

#8 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2002, 08:19 PM:

The third thing, of course, is that book reviewers are trying to be entertaining.

This is only fair: if you write a boring review, I'll stop reading, even (or especially) if it's of a book I'm already curious about.

Also, in response to Cassandra: writers aren't trying to write badly. Most are writing as well as they can (though some, sometimes, are writing as well as they can finish by Tuesday); having a good topic, or good things to say, doesn't make a writer.

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