It's always good when a reviewer voluntarily reveals his/her biases or preconceptions. In last Sunday's Boston Globe, Caroline Leavitt says this of Mark Dunn's Ibid: A Life--A Novel in Footnotes:
The writing's playful and witty, and there's a good bit of inventive silliness to the tale. Young Jonathan misinterprets a wink as a sign that a young girl likes him, when actually it's a spasm. There's a wry running joke that all the loves of Jonathan's life are killed in freak Boston accidents, including the Great Molasses Flood. It's all sometimes dazzling fun, but the truth is, I wasn't lost in the book the way I wanted to be. I was always aware of the writer's sprightly mind at work here, when what I wanted was the feeling that his characters were real, that they might knock on my door any second and ask for a cup of tea
Ms. Leavitt is of course entitled to her preferences, but, really, what is a reader to do with this? The reviewer refers to what seem like good qualities in the novel, but then in effect dismisses them. What if you are a reader who actually would enjoy a novel that's "witty," "inventive," has good jokes, is "dazzling fun," and reveals "the writer's sprightly mind at work"? Should you then disregard the reviewer's judgment that the novel lacks "real" characters and conclude this book is probably rather promising, despite the reviewer's ultimate "thumbs down"?
And what of this?:
What do we want from our books? Of course it depends on the reader, but personally, I think that new shouldn't just be novelty. Heart should override mind. And always, always, the characters -- be they investment lawyer or circus attraction -- should let us into their souls.
Disregarding the illogic of the claim that the new shouldn't be novel, isn't it just patently untrue that all good novels "always, always" feature characters whose "souls" we enter? Can't some good novels emphasize plot instead? Shouldn't some novelists be allowed to be "witty" and "inventive," qualities in some cases that might override the creation of character in the first place? Aren't novels that are primarily comic almost necessarily limited in their capacity to create "soulful" characters? (Such characters are by the requirements of comedy inherently two-dimensional.)
My problem is really not so much with Caroline Leavitt, who may like or dislike whatever she wants. But why does the Boston Globe print such a review? Of course reviews are matters of opinion (sometimes), and various opinions ought to be expressed. But the statements made in a review like this are enormously sweeping, to the point that they finally make the review almost impossible to use in any serious way to decide whether to read Ibid or not. If we don't share the reviewer's assumptions, are we likely to actually enjoy this novel? If we do share them, will we dislike it because it's too inventive and "fun"? The review fails in its presumably assigned task of informing readers about the book under review.
Or is this indeed the task of a book review? Is a book review primarily informative or evaluative? If the former, then the greatest hazard is that it will become a kind of book report, a record of the fact that you read and can summarize the assigned book. If a review should be primarily evaluative, then the danger is that, given the space usually alloted to book reviews, you'll wind up with something like Caroline Leavitt's review--all unsupported assertion with little effort to justify the underlying assumptions.
To indulge in my own very sweeping statement, my general impression of book reviewing in most print publications, both newspapers and magazines, is that it includes too little description of what the works reviewed actually do, what they are (aside from simple plot summaries), and too much glib evaluation. Partly this is a result of the limited and shrinking space being given to the consideration of books and writing at all. Partly it is the consequence of too often assigning reviews to reviewers who seemingly have little acquaintance with or, frankly, much interest in literature in the first place. It's probably also a consequence of the general American propensity to have an opinion without feeling much need to support it.
I don't mean to suggest that reviews of books or poems or plays or films should be free of evaluation, by any means. But reviewers ought to in effect show more respect than is often shown in the mainstream press for the variety of work being published by both small and large presses, in print and online, through devoting a little more time to describing what seem to be the goals and ambitions of the writers so published, not just expressing unexamined opinions. (At the same time, some indulgence in pointed commentary, if not snark, can itself be "dazzling fun" and the right to do this should certainly be preserved.)
That current book reviewing "includes too little description of what the works reviewed actually do. . .and too much glib evaluation" applies exponentially to Emily Barton's review of Gary Lutz's I Looked Alive (Black Square Editions), printed in the Spring 2004 issue of Bookforum.
While Barton claims the stories make for "rather anhedonic reading," I found them on the contrary to be rather moving on the whole, in addition to being structurally and stylistically challenging (the latter description being meant as a compliment.) It's the kind of book that requires patience in the beginning, but eventually becomes more compelling as you read it. But "experimental" fiction is often like that.
Even if I didn't like these stories so much, however, I would still have great problems with Emily Barton's review. It's reasonably short, so I will point out the lowlights in order, as they manifest themselves to the reader's notice. Although the review masquerades as a "description" of I Looked Alive, what passes for description is transparently a way of conveying to the reader that Lutz simply doesn't write fiction the way it ought to be written, according to the reviewer's assumptions, not as it should be done at all.
Barton immediately informs us that Lutz's fiction "is difficult to read (to some the mark of experimentalism, to others shoddy craftsmanship). . ." The opposition between "experimentalism" and "craftsmanship" is patently obvious, of course, and we know before reading the rest of the review that we ought to avoid Lutz because he isn't a "craftsman." A craftsman doesn't write something that's "difficult to read." Never mind that this amounts to a wholesale rejection of the idea of experimental fiction in the first place, but it's a hopelessly reductive concept of what defines "craftsmanship" as well. If anything, experimental writers tend to be even more craftsmanlike in their approach, since what constitutes the "craft" of writing fiction is uppermost in their minds to begin with. Too many "well-made" stories or novels are not products of craft at all, but simple repetitions of formula.
Then there's "the fault of the narrative voice itself, which may make nominal switches from first to third person but sounds relentlessly the same from piece to piece." One of the blurbs printed on the book's back cover (from Sven Birkerts) suggests that "the overall effect of a Lutz piece is not unlike what we experience reading a John Ashberry poem." This actually seems right to me. The structure and execution of Lutz's stories have at least as much in common with poetry as with fiction. Do we criticize poets because the "voice" in their poems "sounds relentlessly the same from piece to piece"?
This problem, from Barton's perspective, is presumably related to the next: ""Lutz never provides the one, salient fact that would imbue a character with vigorous life, or even make him memorable." This is a very familiar lament of reviewers whose most basic assumption is that fiction will present us with "memorable" characters. In addition to being "craftsmen," fiction writers are also expected to be portrait painters in prose. Apparently this is the only thing that makes some readers interested in fiction in the first place, but of course the very notion of "experimental" fiction suggests that these ingrained expectations of what fiction is supposed to do are going to be challenged. If the writer isn't attempting to create memorable characters, it hardly seems a valid criticism to say that after all he doesn't do this. (Nevertheless, in my reading of these stories, several of the characters do stand out, and as a collective whole the characters in I Looked Alive are memorable indeed.)
If Lutz can't deliver up memorable characters, how about his ability to tell a story? "[It's} hard to know, moment by moment, what a Lutz story is even about," Barton observes. Putting aside the fact that this largely isn't true, that it's perfectly easy to see what a given story is "about" as long as you at least temporarily abandon the assumption that a story must proceed "moment by moment," this criticism really takes us to Barton's core complaint about this book, which is further captured in this declaration: "Experimental fiction typically forgoes the comforts of storytelling in order to reveal the world in a new light. Sadly, Lutz reveals little." Thus Emily Barton would be willing to overlook the lack of storytelling, if the book would only conform in this other way to the conventions of realistic fiction, revealing the world through fiction's "light." But in fact experimental fiction doesn't first "reveal the world" in a new way. It attempts to reveal the possibilities of fiction in a new way. If it also gets us to look at the world differently, fine, but Barton puts her critical cart before the literary horse.
Perhaps the most damaging of Barton's criticisms, if it was true, is that Lutz "can't even write prose of middling intelligibility," fails to "maintain a crystalline clarity." Certainly Lutz could write prose of "middling intelligibility" if he wanted to, but he doesn't. He's deliberately confronting the standard of "crystalline clarity," asking why literary experiment can't include experiment with conventional uses of language. In the book's very first paragraph we are told by the narrator that "I had not come through in either of the kids. They took their mother's bunching of features, and were breeze-shaken things, and did not cut too far into life." This is not immediately "informative" in a "crystalline" way, but if you pause (and pause you must, throughout most of this book) and consider it, it makes perfect sense as a description of the way this man might see his children. It's just a "new" way of expressing features we are accustomed to seeing signaled in more familiar phrases.
One could decide that Lutz has failed in his experiments with language or character, that they don't accomplish what he seems to have set out to do, but it hardly seems useful to criticize him for even trying them out in the first place, which is what Emily Barton's review finally amounts to. Bookforum is in general an excellent publication, usually receptive to experimental writing. How disappointing that in this instance it is a forum for a reviewer so thoroughly uncomprehending of what experimental fiction is all about to begin with.