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July 25, 2002

Reviewing fiction
Posted by Teresa at 02:49 PM *

“Speaking of housekeeping,” Janet Lafler writes, “have you seen the article in Salon about Dale Peck’s trashing of Moody?”

I have. They miss a few bets. For instance, when they’re talking about US vs. UK reviewing protocols, they quote Charles McGrath of the NYTimes Book Review on deliberately setting up trashing reviews:

“There’s a certain kind of review that makes news. The Brits have a formula for this. You call up the author’s ex-husband or ex-wife and ask them to write something; it makes for lively copy. On the other hand, there’s a question of fairness and responsibility. We’re talking about writers’ livelihoods, after all.”
Very pious of him. But neither he nor Salon mentions some of the other tricks. For example: getting an author who technically writes within the same genre as the author whose book is being reviewed, but who’s way over at the other end of that genre, to do the reviewing — as when Marion Zimmer Bradley was persuaded to review Tom Disch’s The Businessman, a book she both trashed and (as was all too obvious) was incapable of understanding.

I think it was the NYTimes Book Review that did that. Or perhaps not; it was a long time ago. It does makes for lively copy, and it’s entirely within the rules as they explain them. Never mind that you’d have to be insane to set MZB to review Disch. They might as well have set Jerry Pournelle to review Marge Piercy.

There are other ways to misuse authors. It was Salon its ownself that ran the article Information Poisoning by Caleb Carr, when it must have been obvious to everyone on staff that Carr was in way over his head, didn’t understand the internet, didn’t understand—no, I don’t even want to list the related subjects he didn’t understand. Let’s just say he didn’t know that he didn’t know what he was talking about. The man made a fool of himself in public, and Salon helped him do it.

But I’m wandering away from the subject of reviewing. Consider this portion of the Salon piece:

Just because a critic doesn’t know the author he’s reviewing, though, doesn’t mean he’s free of personal agendas. Some of Peck’s detractors have cattily pointed out that his books, while generally well received, have been less celebrated than Moody’s. Peck, who has written three novels, considers himself, as he modestly told Elizabeth Manus of the New York Observer a few years back, “one of the best writers around,” a phrase perhaps unwittingly echoed in the first line of his review of Moody.
That’s an artful piece of bitchiness. They don’t demonstrate any actual connection between Peck’s good opinion of his own writing, the critical reception it has received, the relative glory of that reception compared to Moody’s, and the pursuit of personal agendas in reviews; but they manage to string them together suggestively just the same.

(Is Peck jealous of Moody? We don’t know. It’s clear he doesn’t wish he could be Moody. Judging from his review, he’d rather slide down a giant alcohol-soaked razorblade.)

It’s a double bind. If you’re less eminent than the author you’re reviewing, you’re open to accusations of jealousy. If you’re a much bigger deal than he is, you’re unworthily stooping to squash one of the small fry; or perhaps you’re insecure, afraid your reputation will be usurped by the rising generation of new writers. Et cetera. Add to this the difficulty of establishing who’s a bigger deal than whom: Does a short rave-up last year in People beat a twelve-year-old encomium in Sewanee Review? Do sales figure count? (But nobody mentions sales figures in these spats, except to sneer at them.)

There is no safe ground. Authors who write on similar subjects, or in similar styles, or for the same audience, are likely to find each other’s books interesting. This can lead those authors to review each other’s books in turn. Is it logrolling, or natural affinity? Is it better or worse than having someone review them who has no affinity for that sort of book? The answer is that, aside from the usual small number of exceptions, you can’t tell without looking at specific cases; and even then you can’t be sure. Not that that stops anyone.

I don’t want to cast myself as Peck’s defender in all things, but the entire second half of the Salon piece is stiletto-work. I could spend a lot of time explicating all the little moves that are going on there, but if you know to look for them they aren’t hard to spot, so go have fun.

And I do think Salon ought to have mentioned their publication’s historically friendly relationship with Rick Moody, not to mention a certain financial interest. Last year’s softball fangirl review-cum-interview of Moody’s Demonology could have been ignored, but this promo piece from August 2000 is a little harder to overlook:

The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors

An opinionated, irreverent look at the most fascinating writers of our time.

An all-original, A-to-Z guide to over 225 of the most fascinating writers of our time, penned by an international cast of talented young critics and reviewers, “The Salon.com Reader’s Guide” contains profiles, reviews, and bibliographies of the authors who matter most now — from Margaret Atwood to Tobias Wolff, Paul Auster to Alice Walker. Also included are essays and recommended reading lists from the authors themselves: Dorothy Allison on the books that shaped her, A.S. Byatt on her five favorite historical novels, Rick Moody on postmodern fiction, Robert Stone on the greatest war novels, and Ian McEwan on the best fiction about work.

Peppered throughout with marvelously witty illustrations, “The Salon Guide to Contemporary Authors” will reflect the intensity of your best (and worst) reading experience — it will inform, captivate, delight, and stir debate. Most importantly, it will answer the question close to the heart of any fiction lover holding a novel in his or her hands: why should I read this?

(Emphasis mine.)

Every rhetorical stance has its built-in costs. You can get away with blowing your own horn this hard, and publishing an audaciously gossipy literary guidebook with a preface titled “Who’s in the book, who’s not and why,” and an introduction titled “The death of the Red Hot Center — the story of fiction since 1960,” if you know your stuff right down to the ground.

How embarrassing, then, to have your chosen expert on postmodern fiction be denounced as the worst writer of his generation, and an incoherent fraud. It sort of throws doubt on your entire enterprise.

Comments on Reviewing fiction:
#1 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: July 25, 2002, 04:17 PM:

Hmm. I didn't see the article as so boosterish of Moody. But it's certainly true that Salon publishes some dumb and ill-informed stuff.

#2 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: July 25, 2002, 04:38 PM:

Yes, it was definitely sneering in tone. (And why, by the way, bring up the man's sexual orientation? Does it have any relevance beyond perhaps trying to shoot him down some more with readers who don't like gay writers?) Thanks, Teresa, for the tip on Moody and Salon's relationship. I personally found Peck's article pretty bracing, in a good way.

Some time perhaps you could go into more detail on the NYT Book review re: subjects like Marion Bradley trashing Disch. Who would they get, do you think, to do a really serious piece on Gene Wolfe, for example? Or do they just not bother because he's too niche? Too hard to comprehehend...?

#3 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: July 25, 2002, 05:07 PM:

The author of the article isn't a Salon regular -- in fact, as far as I can tell, she hasn't published anything with them before. She's probably a freelance writer. Salon may have bought the article for reasons having to do with its relationship with Moody, but I seriously doubt that boosting sales of Salon's "Reader's Guide" was the author's main goal or surreptitious intent. (Salon relies a lot on freelancers, which is part of the reason its quality is so uneven.) Anyway, I don't think that it's reasonable to frame things as though the article was a simple mouthpiece for Salon's publisher. They're just not that editorially coherent.

I thought the stuff about Peck's sexuality was beside the point and, to say the least, unfortunate. Actually, I think the author did have a point: she just didn't make it. She starts to point out that none of the writers that Peck names in the article is female or gay. (I pointed out the female part myself, when I commented on the original discussion here.) What she doesn't do is explain why this is interesting. And I think it is, not because Peck might be bigoted against straight white men, but because it would something about "postmodern literature" if indeed it's mainly written by straight white men. (I can't think of any cubical, Gravity's-Rainbow-type books written by women. I'd love to hear about any that exist.)

My guess about the MZB review of Disch is that it was simple (if unforgiveable) ignorance. "Oh, we need a sci fi writer to review this. Who writes sci fi?"

#4 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: July 25, 2002, 05:26 PM:

Peck makes quite clear in the review that he doesn't like Joyce, Nabokov, Barth, Pynchon, et al., so I don't really care what he likes and doesn't like.

#5 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 25, 2002, 08:34 PM:

Janet, if it is a piece of agenda-pushing, it doesn't need to boost Moody. It's enough to cut up Peck. And if it isn't a piece of agenda-pushing, it's careless. The point is that anyone can be accused of discreditable motivations. I produced more substantiation for my remarks than the Salon article did.

John, those are complicated question, and I don't have time to do them justice today. Here are some short answers:

1. Bringing up Peck's sexual orientation devalues him to whatever extent that particular datum has that effect on the reader. That's for starters. The article is also suggesting that in spite of his having edited an anthology of gay fiction, and in spite of his being on record as admiring women writers, his failure to include any women in his general denunciation means he doesn't think they're up to snuff -- no doubt many perfectly worthy and creditable writers among them, but no real literary heavyweights.

This is not, of course, a valid conclusion to draw about him from the facts presented. What it does is implicitly position him as one of those stereotypical gay guys who doesn't like women. This robs him of the sympathy of another large segment of Salon's readership.

The article caps this off by quoting Stanley Crouch -- a writer whom Peck has given a sound thumping -- saying "Dale Peck is a troubled queen, and the only person who cares about him being a troubled queen is himself." We don't know exactly what Stanley Crouch means by that, or how he comes by his knowledge, or what the context of the remark was aside from Crouch being pissed about the bad review, but it's the kind of nasty remark that, true or false, automatically sticks to your brain.

To summarize what we have learned from this: Dale Peck is a troubled queen who only goes after straight white guys. Eeeeeuw, ick.

2. Attacks on Our Beloved Genre are neither as comprehensive nor as crude as they used to be; note that Salon's Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors had the great good sense to enlist John Clute to write about science fiction. Do we still get snubbed and redlined? Hell, yes. Just not quite as much, and not quite as blatantly.

Gene Wolfe is brilliant, but he doesn't get as much critical attention as Ursula Le Guin. Nobody does. The academic critics adore Le Guin. A couple of editors who shall remain nameless have theorized that this is because she recognizably reads like, you know, literature. (They are not, however, responsible for the line about her prose reading like it was translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett.)

They have further theorized that Le Guin is esteemed by mainstream critics because you can tell what's going on in her books even if you've never read any other science fiction. Gene Wolfe is working from deep within the genre. If you don't know SF but want to understand what he's doing, your required reading list just grew by several dozen books, and many of them are not masterworks of literature. Easier to just read Ursula Le Guin -- and, more recently, Philip K. Dick.

None of this is her fault, by the way, and she's used her access to the microphone to tell people to read other worthy SF authors.

Gene Wolfe doesn't lack critical attention, but almost all of it comes from within the field. His work sends the genre's mandarin-level critics into what one of them has characterized as "a frenzy of interpretation". It makes them happy, and Wolfe certainly gives them a lot to chew on.

In my opinion, the author with the greatest disparity between the importance of his work to the field, and the amount of criticism that's been written about that work, is Fritz Leiber. Everyone knows he's huge, but no one can think of anything to say.

#6 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: July 25, 2002, 11:11 PM:

TNH: Interesting comment about Leiber. Years ago, a friend of mine cribed a fantasy work as "very Leiberian", and I realized that even though I've read lots and lots of Leiber, that phrase evoked no specifics at all.

#7 ::: Chrysostom ::: (view all by) ::: July 26, 2002, 11:49 AM:

Just wanted to mention that Marion Zimmer Bradley's review of Disch's The Businessman was in the August 26, 1984 NYT Book Review.

http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/08/09/specials/disch-businessman.html

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 26, 2002, 12:10 PM:

Thank you! I'd looked for that, but for some reason didn't find it. I've incorporated the link into the post.

#9 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: July 26, 2002, 05:17 PM:

"Fritz Leiber. Everyone knows he's huge, but no one can think of anything to say."
Mary Jane Engh [who seems to be acknowledged only by critics] said it - thank you - as well as anybody in her own dedication to Leiber.

#10 ::: Sigivald ::: (view all by) ::: July 26, 2002, 06:57 PM:

"How embarrassing, then, to have your chosen expert on postmodern fiction be denounced as the worst writer of his generation, and an incoherent fraud. It sort of throws doubt on your entire enterprise. "

Obvious (semi-catty) comment: Well, it *is* postmodern literature, after all.

Postmodernism (at least in philosophy, which is more my field) isn't known for either coherence or good writing, after all.

#11 ::: Vicki Rosenzweig ::: (view all by) ::: July 26, 2002, 07:03 PM:

I have no idea of whether Peck is a troubled queen, whatever that means (are we not all troubled, some days, in some lights?)--but I know for sure that Stanley Crouch cares about this (alleged) fact.

Oh, and I suspect that another reason that Le Guin (whose work I adore immoderately, by the way) gets extra attention from outside the genre is that, in addition to being obviously and clearly one of us and caring about style, she's a poet.

#12 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: July 26, 2002, 08:55 PM:

I think there might be a dry, but fascinating, article to be written about the several dozen (if that many) s-f novels that might be prerequisites to fully appreciate Gene Wolfe.

In trying to unpack this, I came up with some works that strike me as, perhaps, precursor elements in the stfnal dialog, but not absolutely essential. For the New Sun, I thought of Vance's "The Dying Earth," and "Five Demon Princes," maybe "The Humanoids," "Behold the Man," "By His Bootstraps," and the C.S. Lewis' "Silent Planet" trilogy for the "Urth" sequel.

But, for me, "The Seventh Seal," "Give Us Barabas," Bob Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm," Robertson Davies' "What's Bred in the Bone," Kazantsakis' "Last Temptation of Christ" and Shaw's "Back to Methusaleh" are what strike associations with the New Sun.


There's Heinlein's "Universe," of course, for the Long Sun books, and most of Wolfe's novels that deal with gods and goddesses have hints of Thorne Smith and Roger Zelazny.

I'm curious about what else you had in mind -- and who you'd consider to be John Clute's fellow mandarins.

(Just working my way through the Short Sun books, now, and geeking out on a Friday evening.)

#13 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: July 26, 2002, 09:06 PM:

Definitely "Gormenghast" in there, as a flavor Wolfe re-evokes in the New Sun books....

#14 ::: Ray ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2002, 03:10 AM:

Kneejerk (from a kneed jerk) response to The Salon Whatsit:

Dale Peck seems a moron to me for similar reasons as to Mr. Hlavaty.

I don't at all care for Moody's work either.

But that's how the mainstream (in every form of discourse) stays in power: by only paying attention to (whether pissing on or lifting from the waves) its fellow members. Wolfe and Engh and so on (including Joyce, in his time) are kept in their place by not being included in any such debate.

This set of mainstreamers are only fighting guys their own size, which I suppose is admirable. What I don't understand is why we should direct our attention to midget wrestling when there's so much other entertainment available. Let them squabble; we have Karen Joy Fowler to attend to.

#15 ::: Ray ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2002, 03:14 AM:

My kneejerk went astray! Damn this postmodern technology.

http://www.kokonino.com/cgi-bin/mktopical.cgi?Salon.com+Reader%27s+Guide

#16 ::: cd skogsberg ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2002, 04:29 PM:

In re: postmodernism, I'm fascinated by the postmodernism generator.

#17 ::: James Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2002, 09:31 PM:

Speaking of MZB -- while she was alive I spent an inordinate amount of time telling young authors that her rules for writing and submitting fiction were idiosyncratic to the point of being bizarre, and were only to be paid attention to if one were planning on submitting to MZB herself.

The Mists of Avalon itself I threw against the wall. You want a killer review? Ask me to review that tripe. But first I'd have to finish it....

#18 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2002, 10:16 PM:

Lenny: I can state with authority that one does not have to have read Vance's The Demon Princes to appreciate The Book of the New Sun, given that I had thought of The Book of the New Sun as The Great SF Work for at least fifteen years before I read any of the Demon Princes novels. And I've still never read Gormenghast, though I understand that it casts deep shadows across the New Sun.

I actually find myself wondering how much specific sf one needs to have read to appreciate New Sun. Certainly one has to be familiar with the major tropes--one loses a great deal if one doesn't recognize the Matachin Tower as a spaceship. If one is not familiar with ray-guns, flying cars, magic swords, and time travellers, one misses how different Wolfe's are than everyone else's, but at this point, who isn't familiar with those?

The more one knows about everything, the more one is likely to appreciate in Wolfe--Borges? The battle of the Merrimac and the Monitor? Matthew chapter 4? The Arabic word for "hyena"? The sayings of Chairman Mao? Feynman diagrams? Got 'em all; I still don't know how much I don't recognize.

#19 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2002, 06:08 PM:

Kevin, Lenny,

I appreciate the precedents as much as anyone, and I've read a lot of SF, though not nearly as much as most visitors here, I'm sure.

But for me, re: Gene Wolfe: it's the man's prose. I think even a total stranger to SF, say a William Trevor fanatic (which I also am) who's never read SF, could open New Sun at any random spot and be captured by the prose.

And it's getting so damned difficult these days to go into the book store, open up something new and not be disappointed by the prose these days...

#20 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2002, 11:12 PM:

I was kind of asking Teresa whether there are really _that many_ s-f novels and stories necessary as prerequisite reading for a deep appreciation of Gene Wolfe's stuff.

I think Kevin's observation that so many s-f tropes are now embedded in pop culture is a good one. Do you need to be familiar with Jack Williamson's "The Humanoids" or Asimov's robots and androids to appreciate the plight of Severian's pal Jonas and the Mayteras? A good many people may have experienced Asimov's memes, second-hand, these days through Startrek's Data. Is some knowledge of Talos, the legendary watchman of Athens, more to the point?

But, maybe there are genre s-f tropes so ingrained in my consciousness that I can't separate them, anymore, from a "mainstream" reader's perspective. I'd certainly be interested in reading the case Teresa might present if she feels like expanding upon her original comment.

#21 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2002, 03:22 PM:

I can't say if those things are necessary for an appreciation of Gene Wolfe, but I can tell you that knowing is not sufficient to endow one with appreciation of him. I am familiar with most are all and have been and sf reader for 30 years, but Wolfe is on my short list of writers I Don't Get. (Connie Willis and Jonathan Lethem) I can see there is excellence there, but it leaves me cold and unmoved.

MKK--another datapoint heard from

#22 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2002, 01:15 AM:

Mary Kay: I long ago realized that not everyone was going to like everything I liked, and that Gene Wolfe was a particularly polarizing taste. Those of us what likes him, tend to love him; those who don't, doesn't.

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