Still aten’t dead


In case you blinked and missed it, I did actually write a review of The Brides of Rollrock Island. And then the author found it, which wasn’t particularly pleasant.

Since then, I’ve written a number of posts about the thought processes issuing from this, but I haven’t posted them, because when I start talking about feelings I tend to go on and on and get maudlin and sound drug and be very self-obsessed and slightly passive-aggressive and endlessly self-analytical and, most importantly, repetitive. And it would be a strange response to the problem of my over-tenderness to outside scrutiny to further expose myself in public.

Suffice to say instead that I’m not comfortable with the idea of writing reviews that might be read by the person who’s work I’m reviewing. It’s a social situation that I don’t have a solution for – the demands of how I’ve been raised vis-a-vis polite conversation with strangers, and of how I’ve been raised vis-a-vis critical analysis of things, are too directly contrary to one another to enable me to say much at all in such circumstances without feeling bad about it.

[On a tangent, I recently came across a similar problem helping someone with psychological research. This person had conducted detailed interviews with people with some problems, and I was helping give some ideas of the links between the interviews, and hence of which underlying processes might be at play. In some cases, the people were very complicated, with complicated problems, and I had no big solution to them; in other cases, however, while it might not have been clear what the ‘solution’ was, it seemed very clear what the problem was – you could chart through these peoples’ lives the same responses to the same problems, resulting in the same bad consequences and even more problems later on. That’s fine, but the tricky bit, which my friend was really struggling with, was what came after the analysis: sharing their views with the participants themselves. In a couple of cases, the participants were just as aware of the problems as we were, but others seemed oblivious. And how exactly do you explain to somebody what you think is wrong with them? How can you have that conversation in a way that is actually helpful? And even if it is helpful – I don’t know how I would cope with being in that situation, because it’s a topic, and the assumption of a position, that are so wholly alien to all the standards of decent behaviour with which I’ve been inculcated. I can in theory talk about people to their face and tell them they’re wrong about themselves – but to do so requires a vast degree of certainty, and that’s hardly ever obtainable. If ever. (Whereas saying the same thing behind their back, without them actually being able to object, requires a lower standard of confidence – the balance of probabilities, rather than ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. It’s one thing to say that people can be wrong about themselves, it’s another altogether to actually stand in front of them when they say ‘that isn’t it at all’).

I think this is one reason why, in therapy rather than in research, psychologists so often fall back on ‘helping’ the patient to discover their problems for themselves. Not only is this probably a lot more rhetorically effective, but it avoids putting the therapist in what would be for me and no doubt is for many others an extremely awkward social situation.

Anyway, that’s a tangent, but it’s also exactly what I’m talking about, because reviewing books when the author is watching is sort of like that. Or like grading the achievement and behaviour of children. It’s easy enough in the staff room, I imagine, warning the new teacher who to be wary of – but no doubt quite different at a parents’ evening, looking into the concern parent’s eyes, as they, puzzled, insist ‘they’re not like that at all! Johnny’s a great kid, and very talented!’.

There are a lot of interesting things about this issue. You could talk a lot about it from the perspective of epistemology, the nature of truth, the philosophy of mind, psychology and sociology, the theory of art, and so on and so forth. I feel words like ‘incorrigibility’ and ‘epistemic privilege’ and ‘defeasible’ and ‘contextual criteria’ and ‘intersubjective truth negotiation’, ‘discursive logic’ and ‘interpretative harmony’ all bubbling up in my head to make themselves expressed.

But in the end I wouldn’t cast much more light on the subject, and to be honest it would be hard to talk much about it without introducing and exposing my own feelings (which this whole affair has made me even more loath to do that normally). So perhaps I’ll come back to it some other day, but not this one.]

So, I’ve deleted my reviews of Margo Lanagan books, although you should all still read them (the books, not the reviews, obviously). [Sidenote: apparently some of her fans find the idea of me encouraging people to read her books to be offensive and patronising, since they’re already read by lots of people – presumably the only people who count. I find this, too, interesting for many reasons, but, again, I shan’t digress]. If anybody does particularly want to read the reviews, I’ll e-mail them to you or something. I may also delete reviews of other books by living authors.

However, I think it’s fair (and sustainable) to give numerical grades and a few brief comments. This will be something I’ll get around to adding back, eventually, as part of the housekeeping around here. You know, that theoretical ‘housekeeping’ that will eventually get done. [Hey, I changed the Theme. ‘Ldbeen meaning to do that for years. Give me some credit!]

Regarding this particular book, since people are unlikely to have seen the original review, I’ll summarise by saying that she’s an amazingly talented author, but that I had some serious issues with both the content and the form of the novel, so it isn’t Brilliant. Nonetheless, I think it’s Very Good.


EDIT: I should stress that Ms. Lanagan was perfectly civil and pleasant about the whole business, or at least as pleasant and civil as you’d expect an ordinary person to be dealing with someone who had criticised them – which is to say, not entirely, but she certainly seemed to be trying. Some of her fans weren’t quite so civil, which did give me some thoughts – do I want to have a blog at all when it’s just an excuse for mockery and nourishment for other people’s sense of superiority? it’s not like it serves much practical purpose in my case – but there were only a couple of them, and such people are unavoidable on the internet (and indeed in real life). My more serious issues come from my personal consideration of the topic, which Ms Lanagan’s intervention engendered but did not dictate.

5 thoughts on “Still aten’t dead

  1. papushisun says:

    I can’t find it now but Charlie Stross had a blog post on why authors shouldn’t comment on reviews or criticisms of their work. I have no idea what Lanagan said to you, but she certainly comes off looking like a fool. What next? Is she going to start reply to the negative reviews posted on Amazon?

  2. To be fair, I think she made the same ‘mistake’, if it is one, that I did. I talked about her book behind her back – she then read my review and talked about it (or, at least, mentioned it) behind my back. I then found out that she’d found out about me, and we had a short discussion. I felt she was somewhat patronising and defensive, sure, but I also think that’s probably inevitable in her position (and I was patronising to her in my review, but that was also probably inevitable in MY position).

    As I say, I think she was trying to act honourably throughout – she wasn’t intentionally rude, or hostile, and didn’t directly encourage others to be. I might think it would have been more polite to contact me first before expressing any opinion about what I’d said, or even calling it to the attention of people (who would obviously have a negative opinion of it, given that they were her fans) – but that’s quite a big demand to make, and it’s not as though I tried to talk to her about my concerns before writing the review. And sure, you can say it’s different because she put the book out into the wild to be read – but then I put the review out into the wild to be read too. So I really don’t think that she did anything particularly WRONG, as such. Perhaps it’s unwise for authors to interact with reviewers at all, since the possible downsides are so much worse than the upsides – but I’m not sure the world would be any better for authors all being recluses. And again, originally she didn’t even interact with me, and I don’t imagine she thought I would find out that she’d found out my review – and it would be VERY harsh to demand that authors not express any opinions about anyone to anyone.

    Which is all a long-winded way of saying that, while I wasn’t particularly happy with the way the encounter went, I really wouldn’t want anybody to come away with negative opinions of the author on my account, because I don’t think she’s really to blame.

    As I say, for me it’s more about the situation being problematic, and trying to avoid those situations, rather than anybody necessarily being personally to blame for anything.

    [Also ought probably to be mentioned: she actually encouraged me not to take the review down or change it, and seemed to feel bad that I felt bad. So, again, I don’t want to blame her for anything.]

  3. nac says:

    no living authors… at all, and not just nutty feminist types? your choice, of course, but i selfishly want you to keep writing fresh and interesting reviews. i could be your militant passive-aggressive fan, if you want. just set us off against each other and concentrate on your own work.

  4. nac says:

    (yes yes, no more authorial confrontations, if you insist)

  5. nac says:

    (sigh, it’s just that i check your blog more often than the zbb)

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