review

Criticism vs. Reviewing

Back in April, I recommended people read Cynthia Ozick's article "Literary Entrails" in the April edition of Harper's Magazine. In that article Ozick differentiates between "literary critcism" and "reviewing" as two distinct activities. Ozick is not alone in making this distinction; The Reading Experience, for instance, recently pointed out the frequent conflation of the two, calling reviewing a "genre of arts journalism." He even accuses the National Book Critics Circle of "deliberately (dishonestly?) blurring the lines between book reviews and criticism." Yet he doesn't quite give a definition of criticism, or tell us how, exactly, to recognize the one from the other. On our own website I once called New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani a "major critic" and had one of our readers comment "Kakutani is not a major critic -- Kakutani is a major reviewer. There's a big difference." At the time I thought this was a good point, but then the more I thought about it the more confused I became.

The Future of the Fantastic: Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists

After being thoroughly blown away by Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, it was with great anticipation that I picked up Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, it's corollary across the aisles, as it were. And indeed, The New Wave Fabulists should be the more notable effort, since Feeling Very Strange pleas for SF's legitimacy from within the SF section of the bookstore itself, which strikes one as preaching to the choir, while Conjunctions places SF writers in the "Literary Fiction" category and tries to get the attention of those people not already reading it, people who might have never heard of Gene Wolfe or Neil Gaiman. This is the harder sell, and the work presented needs to be really compelling. Some of it is, but a distressing amount of it is not, is in fact not even particularly well written, especially compared to the stellar level of work presented in Feeling Very Strange.

Round the Web on Friday

Probably the biggest single conversation starter in the Lit Blogosphere right now is the NBCC's blog Critial Mass's campaign to "save book reviewing" in the wake of a number of newspapers getting rid of or shortening drastically their book review sections. Right on, of course, to saving book review sections, but unfortunately what this has resulted in is a lot of NBCC members complaining about technology, which makes them sound like crotchety old people who just don't understand kids these days. And it's not just the Internet that bothers them but, um, television. You kids these days get away from that thing, it'll melt your brain! The TV causes all our problems! I'm old! ARRRR!

Chasing Ray has a a nice round-up and Ed Champion always knows the right things to poke fun at. But then, Ed's been tops on my list ever since he linked to our n+1 article along with a picture of that magazine's editors in such a way as to suggest "Look at these guys. Don't they just LOOK like a bunch of assholes?" Yes, Ed, yes they do.

Also, an article in the New York Review of Books about books about the novel reminds us what criticism looks like. Excellent.

The Future of the Fantastic: Feeling Very Strange

Unevenness is a problem endemic to anthologies. With most of them, when I come to each new story, even one by a name I know and enjoy, I often feel like I'm rolling the dice, and I turn the page with my fingers crossed praying I don't get snake eyes. Thankfully, in Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology even the worst of the stories are merely an entertaining sort of mediocre, and the best are truly astonishing. I found myself actually getting excited at the prospect of the next tale, which is, I think, the mark of a really good collection.

Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Saffran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer is the most commercially and critically successful writer of his generation. Everything Is Illuminated, his first work of fiction, was a hilarious and often touching novel that managed to make even its worst traits somehow endearing. The book was simply great fun to read—though the judgment of Dale Peck, who claimed Illuminated was one of "the best novels I’ve ever been fortunate enough to hold in my hands," was little short of preposterous. Peck's hyperbolic psychosis aside, Everything Is Illuminated was one of the most mature and fully realized books ever published by someone comparably young, which places Foer among the ranks of Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Martin Amis, and John Updike.

A review by Tom Bissell

The Future of the Fantastic: Dangerous Visions

Dangerous Visions
Edited By Harlan Ellison, iBooks, inc, 544pp, $14.95

Note added 2012:

In retrospect, there are two things I'd like to change about this essay. One is the line accusing Ellison of putting Pohl and Knight in there because of sf-family nepotism. This completely ignores the fact that they were much lauded and well established authors at the time, and so might have been included on the strength of their reputations. Which exposes my ignorance: at the time I wrote this, I'd never heard of Pohl or Knight.

Second, I completely ignore Samuel Delany's story "Aye, and Gomorrah". In retrospect, this story is quite good, and it's whole meditation on sexual perversion was really novel and interesting for the time.

One of the things that comes across clearly in the various introductions to the stories in Dangerous Visions, the anthology that defined the "New Wave" of speculative fiction in the 1960's, is that these aren't just writers to Harlan Ellison, but to a large degree they are friends. Even those writers Ellison isn't close to seem part of an extended family, and Ellison admits at one point that he only accepted two stories for the anthology from people he'd never heard of (submissions that were sent to him by agents). On the one hand, this speaks volumes about the sort of collegiality that existed in sf at the time (and in all probability still exists). On the other hand, it makes for an anthology that reads exactly like someone getting stuff from all his friends together whether or not that stuff is actually particularly good.

Review: Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick

In recent years it has become increasingly politically incorrect in literary circles to simply dismiss Philip K. Dick as a pulp Science Fiction writer; at this point, there seems to be a general consensus that there is more to Dick than there is to other "classic" scifi writers like Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, or Isaac Asimov. A dismissal of Dick in this way is no more acceptable than it would be to dismiss Kafka a horror writer, or Ernest Hemingway an Adventure writer. At the same time, there is the lingering problem with Dick in that he is somehow not of the same caliber as a Kafka or a Hemingway, and the critical appraisal of his work becomes problematic as a result.

Review: King Solomon's Mines

What's interesting about the book, and what in the end makes it worth reading, is how Haggard can so easily be read as the voice of colonialism. Certainly his smug and cloying tone is like the false superiority that marked colonialism in general. He protrays the African natives as vicious and blood-thirsty caricatures, alternately praising them in the most patronizing way only to turn around and insult them in sweeping generalizations. After the white explorers cross the comically named mountains, "Sheba's Breasts" (complete with snow-capped nipples), they march into the "undiscovered" Kukuannaland, home of the eponymous mines. Once there they proceed to instigate a revolution, in which numberless natives die, and install their own puppet ruler, from whom they procure a promise that they may keep any diamonds and gold they may find in the mine.

Review: The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman

Hodgman's fake almanac, The Areas of My Expertise, is a prime example of a relatively new and increasingly popular genre. That genre is not the fictional resource book, which belongs to a long and noble tradition that goes at least as far back as Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, released in installments from 1881-1906 and collected in 1911. Rather, what areas is an example of is the comedy of literary-geekdom, a blend of reflexive humor, satire, silliness and surrealism that, if not invented by the McSweeneys' website, is at least exemplified by it.

Review: Black Hole by Charles Burns

Charles Burns' Black Hole is the kind of graphic novel that should bring more readers to a medium whose audience is already growing. It is a story of high school alienation and the lurking fear of 'others' that crosses the humor and realism of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused with the dread and gore of the early EC Horror Comics. Burns has an ear for the dialog of his characters and era, and his vivid black and white illustrations seamlessly blend the surreal with the mundane.