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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thoughts on Criticism and some reading

I've not been word-herding as much as I wish lately but I've been reading more.

I'd like digress for a bit and point out that while I am highly opinionated (according to some students and friends) I do try to be fair and my opinions are often changed by a persuasive argument. And I don't dish it out without expecting people to come at me with a similar honed and critical eye.

Whenever I write something that is less than rave, yeah I feel immense degrees of guilt because I know how hard it is to create. Period.

Now I think back to Elysium and say, well, was it really as bad as I made it sound? I believe the parts that I picked on were, yes. But there were some better parts too, the story about the bread was one of the best in the book I think, and while I still don't fully agree with the writing itself in that one, it does begin to hold together and the idea is more considered than others. Would it be good news if I said the stories are average in terms of what I've read out there from Canada, perhaps so -- once the typos are all fixed. Go back and read my Atlantic Monthly reviews and you'll see I rant up and down about their generic quality.

I believe it's an editor's JOB is to protect writers by pointing out and giving writers feedback early so that errors like unclear writing or typos don't make it into the final published work. What I wrote should not have been written by me, rather it should have been the comments by an editor who gave the author time to tune it up.

I also struggle against competing interests when writing reviews. On one hand I detest the lack of an ability to handle criticism and strong opinions by Canadians (at least that's what friends have told me Canadians suffer from). So I think I come on a bit strong because of that. On the other hand, I'm much more careful when providing feedback to students because I recognize their fragility and talent, and I have entered into a longterm contract/peer relationship with them. This personalization and the ongoing self evaluation required when I teach definitely causes me to try and forsee possible outcomes of any criticism before it is voiced. It's different when reviewing a writer I've never met.

Criticism stings in any form, with our without sugar. Yet while I may come on strong, I really do care about what I read and the writers behind the books. This is why I attempt to be so completely honest.

I know I wouldn't have grown as an artist without brutal honesty on the parts of those who had way more experience than I had at the time. This too is why when I do critique, I work at providing feedback that is as clear as possible with exact evidence to back up what I believe. This way it's not some vague generalizing that isn't helpful.

The absolute worst books don't get my time for even a review stating some negative points. One of these is Markio Tamaki's bok titled Fake Id. It's simply juvenile rambling and really quite dull. I read about half and let it drop from my hands. It wasn't worth the effort to throw it.

Now for two little gems. I polished off Foe by Coetzee. (the link is to another blog with a synopsis.) The story starts out with a woman shipwrecked on an island, already inhabited by a bearded man and his mute helper Friday. They get rescued and then Foe dies. The story changes voice here in a way that is absolutely beautiful. The shift of tone and pace threw me for a loop but unlike David Mitchell, it was entirely a related poetic shift that took my breath away. My sense of this gorgeous tale is that it starts out flat-footedly, a simple tale. Then it spins into a second reading, making us reconsider the first part, and then this spins a third time to make us revise all that happened before. Don't be fooled by the simplicity of the beginning, it's a ruse to get us hooked into some deep issues surrounding gender, power, freedom, slavery, and colonialism -- welcome to the world of Coetzee. Kicking in at around 40K or 60K words, if I remember correctly, the book can be polished off in one or two evenings. It's really a wonderful and haunting read.

The second novella I've just finished is another little stunner, this one at about 30 K words by John Metcalf. Did the guy ever stop? Private Parts is a tale of a boy who is obsessed with sex, in a way, who over three sections matures and has his own family. You'd think it was autobiographical according to the tone. Again it's simple, proving what a scholar of Metcalf (whose name I forget, either John Rollins or Barry Cameron probably) said -- the novella as a form sits between prose and poetry, an idea which I completely agree with. As a whole it's straightforward but it's seductive. I kept wanting to say, 'are you kidding me, are you really getting away with this voice' and then suddenly I'd realize that I'd read two more pages, completely sucked into the dreamworld. What sparked me to pull a few books out by him was his short story in The New Quarterly Salon des Refuses issue in which he went nuts on Alberta saying it's the sort of place where hotels have bottle openers on the bedboards. I'll never shake that one.