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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
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LET'S REVIEW: BOOK REVIEWING AS LITERARY CRITICISM

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03/24/2004

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Sam

I guess you're saying it's like Salieri on Mozart: too many notes.

Asking a scientist for advice on metaphor is like going to a poet for instruction in statistics. Still, that doesn't in any way alter the defectiveness of the Lethem passage.

I agree entirely with "While these images are fun and evocative, they are a dead-end. They do not heighten our understanding of the idea of this cat. It's a passage full of nonfunctional, decorative metaphors . . " I can't agree with "all style no substance," since style is an impression created through conscious effort, and there's little evidence of that here.

Lethem got a little lazy; so what? I like his stuff generally. I just think you set yourself a challenge trying to defend this particular passage.

Daniel Green

First of all, the passage has been deliberately foreshortened by the critic to emphasize what she thinks are its deficiencies. Whether's it's evidence of Lethem's "style" can only be judged in context.

Second, that the passage contains several different kinds of metaphors is itself no criticism of the writing. Mixed metaphors often work just fine.

sjtennent

The cat itself is a descriptive element. It's scene-dressing. The cat pressing its claws into Lionel's pants does nothing in itself to move the story forward--not should it.

If one dislikes the descriptive element of some writers, preferring instead stark minimalism, where the sentences serve only one purpost--to move the story to its conclusion--than the fact that Lionel is describing a cat at all should be cause for annoyance.

If, however, one appreciates the detail of setting in addition to the action of plot, then the cat belongs, and so too does the description of the cat. Therefore, it's silly to say the images are a dead end, that "they do not heighten our understanding of the idea of this cat." They most certainly do! The cat is white and black--specifcally a white head with a black spot on its mouth (hence the "hitler" metaphor is not a dead-end; it's arrived precisely at its destination). Likewise the "cackling purr," in its odd juxtoposition of adjectives ("cackle" and "purr" are seeming opposites, aren't they?) gives the cat an awkard voice--I can picture it even moreso (destination reached!). Pulling up the thread on the trousers, intent on reinventing velcro--ah! we've established the texture of the situation (destination number three!).

So we have arrived at a detailed description of a descriptive element. It seems Lethem has succeeded at exactly what he set out to do. "It's a passage full of nonfunctional, decorative metaphors." Yes, it is! The train has entered the station! You may not like where you've gotten to, but it's not a dead end.

Sam

Agreed that it's not possible to judge his style based on a couple of sentences. And Fitzgerald's ellipses aren't going to win her any awards for fairness in journalism. But the metaphors *are* "non-functional" (i.e., don't work) for me, in the sense of conveying an interesting image or idea. And the word choice just seems careless -- outstretched thighs (I know how you stretch a leg, but how do you stretch a thigh?), kneading with front paws (even seen a cat knead with her back paws?), etc. Whatever Lethem's strengths, these particular sentences? Not gems.

Daniel Green

On the other hand, this style is first of all not Lethem's but Lionel Essrog's. He may indeed feel his thighs to be "outstretched." And he can probably be forgiven for inserting the "front" before the paws. Ultimately it's Essrog's voice--his written voice--that carries the day in this novel, and the passage in question helps to manifest that voice.

Sam

The fact that it's Essrog's voice does makes a difference, and probably makes Fitzgerald's choice even stranger.

First-person narrative doesn't get you off the hook for holding interest, though. My experience of Lethem is that, regardless of how carefully you excerpt him, a few sentences won't show what he's got. He's not a writer who struggles for the mot juste, but he's very good with tone and you enjoy the cumulative effect more than the sentence-by-sentence.

Trent Walters

I'm with Sam. These aren't striking descriptions. But again, it might help to read them in context.

I imagine the article's author highlighted the passages that had the cat described--assuming she was trying to be faithful. I guess my complaint for such a use would be "But maybe the cat isn't crucial...?" But then if the cat isn't crucial to unveiling character, plot or theme, does the cat belong? In a novel, a handful of lines would hardly matter, but was she pointing to a symptom illustrated by the cat?

I love style, but I do get tired of authors so in love with their writing that they forget about character, plot and theme. Hemingway had a few choice words for writers of this type. Style is best conveyed through the artifices of fiction lest it become a watered-down prose poem.

Daniel Green

But then Hemingway was himself as focused on style as any writer ever has been. He was in fact preoccupied with it.

Trent Walters

Exactly! He was able to convey his stories through style.

No disagreement here.

Daniel Green

By the way, Trent, I agree with you that the Lethem passage quoted is not especially striking. But this made Fitgerald's critique of it seem all the more over-the-top to me.

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