Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press




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  • Is a work of experimental fiction really an experiment? What was metafiction? Experimental fiction and tradition. New Romancers. Poetic structures. Fiction as performance. Varieties of experimental fiction.
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Why are you so averse to — some might say afraid of — critical evaluation? By making no explicit evaluation, you make your implicit recommendation by the titles you choose to cover; is that intended? The simple explication of authorial intent is, I find, unhelpful in deciding whether to read one book instead of another, because regardless of the project any book can still be poorly written. It seems evasive. Why not put forth your own criteria and judge by those?

Dan Green

"you make your implicit recommendation by the titles you choose to cover; is that intended?"

Yes, although on TRE at least I do sometimes review books I didn't like and evaluate them pretty thoroughly. I don't think anyone who reads these reviews could say I'm afraid of evaluation. The kind of criticism I want to do at CD, however, doesn't take as its purpose to recommend "one book instead of another." This kind of criticism seeks to look more deeply into one particular book. It doesn't focus at all on "authorial intent" except as that might be gleaned (although sometimes not) from the work itself.


So, actually, only most of the time. You don't make a case that a person with limited time, especially free time, and resources, ought to read this book because it is worth their reading, or not because it isn't; and you do intend to recommend books by selection, except in the cases when you don't. Is you goal to bring about a greater awareness about certain books and styles? And yet, you refuse to make a case for those books and styles? Your two goals just seem to be at odds.

A critic can certainly judge and recommend a book and still engage deeply with it. There's no essential conflict between the two.

In explicating what a given text attempts, I take that as intent (authorial unless somehow computerized) apparent in the work; are you saying that you won't judge whether the given project is well done or not, and why you believe that to be so?

Steve Mitchelmore

Daniel, I suspect your assumptions are getting in the way of comprehending Dan's explanation.

A given text attempts nothing except to be itself, which it accomplishes with ease because it cannot be anything else. To judge whether this accomplishment is well done or otherwise is therefore not only unnecessary but slightly comical (which is why Nigel Beale's pursuance of "accepted criteria of artistic excellence" is agonising to follow).

Critical evaluation is possible only when - as in genre - literature is not in question. An author's intention is thereby aligned to the form. I can't speak for Dan, but for me the kind of books that demand to be written about are those in which form (and, by extension, literature) becomes a question. This manifests in as many ways as there are interesting writers. Authorial intention becomes problematic as a result.

For example, Tao Lin's Eeeee Eee Eeee. Many have no doubt reviewed this as Cult Fiction or whatever, and have been guided by interviews with the author in which he explains how the talking animals in it came to be there. These reviews can mark it out of ten accordingly. However useful this is to publishers' marketing depts, the book itself offers a different reading, and bringing this to the fore is the main fun of reviewing. This is implicit evaluation but only inasmuch as one thinks bringing this to the fore is important. If it isn't, and you want marks out of ten instead, then perhaps you should look elsewhere. But is it really literature you're interested in?



I tell you what: I'm tired of authorial intention already, and I'm sorry I brought it up. It really wasn't my point. But since we're here: I disagree that a "text attempts nothing except to be itself, which it accomplishes with ease because it cannot be anything else." I feel that the text, as the product of human labor, is the amalgamation of choices by an author. Intent is usually apparent — call it the text's intention or the author's — and the work's success is mediated by the formal qualities of the text. The death of the author was an interesting idea, certainly one that deserves continued consideration, but it is of limited use.

The "implicit evaluation" to which you refer is my concern. All judgment does not need to be simplistic — does not have to work on a scale of ten. The successes and failures of a work, in terms of its own goals and by the standards the critic brings themselves, is an integral aspect to the critical project. It exists, whether implicitly or explicitly, in all criticism.

The extent to which a piece of criticism is successful relates to how well the piece provides assistance to readers and encourages prospective readers to engage with a perhaps challenging work. Otherwise, I think one is in the personal or purely scholarly realm. If a critic only writes up works that they enjoy or admire, that's perfectly fine — I just think they need to make the case to readers.

Dan Green

"The extent to which a piece of criticism is successful relates to how well the piece provides assistance to readers and encourages prospective readers to engage with a perhaps challenging work."

Daniel: I'm surprised you could read my post and conclude I was saying something radically different than this. "Assistance to readers," however, means something more than a "recommendation." It means reading the text closely and attentively and then offering readers an account of this experience that might help them to "engage" more fully. Or that might allow them to look back retrospectively on the experience with the text they've already had, since the kind of essay I myself will write for CD more or less assumes familiarity with the text. This is not a criticism that seeks to convince readers with limited time to read the book in the first place but to devote some of that time to reflection on the book read, which the critic attempts to enhance.

Steve Mitchelmore

" If a critic only writes up works that they enjoy or admire, that's perfectly fine — I just think they need to make the case to readers."

Damn, make the case, of course! Despite writing 1500 words on a particular book, describing it, bringing out what's unique, why I enjoy and admire it, I still forgot to make the case for it! What a dunce. No, what a dunce.


D: I agree with you that the best assistance takes more than a recommendation — it is frustrating to have to keep emphasizing that I'm not arguing for simplicity in any way, but I will (and probably will keep having this be ignored) — but I think it includes recommendation. It also includes positioning the book in relation to other similar texts, traditions, and concepts. Why not include the guidance aspect? If the work is important in some sense beyond personal feeling, why not make that case to readers?

S: Sarcasm, nice: we're all feeling young again, eh? Explication alone is not recommendation, it's just a reading guide (I've encountered many such point by formal-point guides); if you are describing "why I enjoy and admire it" then you are making a recommendation to readers.

There are very few resources for intelligent readers, especially of the kind of fiction to which you, Dan, are attracted (you, Steve, I don't know). Most of the critical work on such texts assumes, as you do, that the reader is already interested. Much of it is super-technical, or scholarly, but you are not (well, occasionally). I loathe the simplistic recommendations found in most book sections (thumbs up, thumbs down; best book ever, worst book ever) but they offer the only guide for the reading public to decide what to read next, as it were. Better outlets, such as TNYRB and LBR, don't often deal with work as challenging as you will. So, my question was about intent.

Dan Green

"positioning the book in relation to other similar texts, traditions, and concepts"

But don't you think that most critics who do this sort of thing make it pretty clear that they recommend the book in question--why else go to the trouble?


Solipsism? Boredom? Academic scholarship? In order to compare it unfavorably to similar books? It's only clear if it is made clear by the critic, which is why I think being clear is important.

Dan Green

So an essay which appends a specific recommendation--"oh, by the way, if my analysis hasn't made this clear, I think X is a pretty good book and you ought to read it"--would pass muster with you?

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