Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Vincent Lam's 'The Headmaster's Wager'

   Brutal, condemnatory book reviews, I've noticed, typically focus on an author's egregious errors of conception and execution. Details like sentence mechanics, meanwhile, receive scant attention.

   I tracked down a few reviews of notorious harshness to see if this idea held up.
   First up, excerpts from Michiko Kakutani's dismissal of Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil in the New York Times Book Review: "misconceived and offensive"; "a botched and at times cringe-making fable"; "borrowings from — or, at best, homage to — Beckett go well beyond a simple premise, and they serve no persuasive end. Rather they are another awkward element in this disappointing and often perverse novel."
   In short: for Kakutani, the novel is a dismal pile of stillborn ideas.
   Across the pond, in the pages of the London Review of Books, James Wood reviewed Zadie Smith's second novel, The Autograph Man: a "dreary blank"; "an empty centre entirely filled by [the protagonist's] pop-culture devotions"; "a text incapable of ever stiffening into sobriety, a flailing, noisy hash of jokes, cool cultural references, pull-quotes, lists and roaring italics"; botched "management of irony and sincerity"; an "anarchy of styles"; "amid the cartoonishness and excess, the misplaced ironies and grinning complicities."
   Um, he detects sound and fury signifying nothing, apparently.
   And of course I'd be remiss in neglecting Dale Peck in The New Republic. His review of Rick Moody's memoir, The Black Veil, could be in a literary Hall of Fame: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation"; the work is framed "as a series of imitations or echoes of Moody's more talented, or at any rate more authentically individual, peers" and symptomatic of "the wrong turn in our culture that led to Moody's status as one of the anointed ones of his—okay, our—generation"; for Peck, the "beginning of a Rick Moody book is a bit like having a stranger walk up and smack me in the face, and then stand there waiting to see if I am man enough to separate him from his balls"; and, furthermore, Moody is technically weak: "This isn't a matter of poetic license. We are talking about Freshman Comp. Moody's passage is just wrong, grammatically, stylistically, and, most importantly, semantically"; pages upon pages are filled with "banal yet apparently heartfelt hyperbole"; and one passage "isn't simply a bad idea badly rendered. It is so awful that it is easy to see the book as in league with the very crimes that it seeks to redress."
    Summary: fatuous, emblematic of all that's wrong with American literary culture.

    Kakutani and Wood's reviews support my observation quite well.
   While dwelling on what they identify as wrong decisions about approach, tone, and mood, they spend little effort identifying compositional mistakes at the level of sentence and paragraph.
   Peck's review is lengthy, and perhaps by having few word-count restrictions (700 words is characteristic for my review assignments) he's able to devote criticism to massive problems (ie, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation") and seemingly minor technical ones (re: "This isn't a matter of poetic license. We are talking about Freshman Comp. Moody's passage is just wrong, grammatically, stylistically, and, most importantly, semantically"). The review's detail is an exception to the norm.

   Since I was concerned about running over-length and already feeling that I'd already said my peace about Vincent Lam's debut novel, my meh-tinged review didn't talk at all about parts I'd circled while reading the Advanced Readers Copy (which I always imaginatively link to the Remedial Readers Copy, but which is really just an almost complete version publishers send out early so that, I suppose, reviews can be published to coincide with the retail release date of books).
   A few of these circled parts were related to Lam's apparent discomfort with writing sex scenes. Some latitude is required here since sex is notoriously difficult to transcribe. Besides, I decided, perhaps I'm drawn to sex writing that's direct and pornographic, while Lam prefers lyrical and soft focus. A "po-tay-to" / "po-tah-to" situation.
   Other passages I scribbled comments about while reading stood out as bad writing. Weeks after having submitted the review, I'm not satisfied that "bad writing" is an exact fit. The description feels inaccurate. I haven't come up with a better one yet.
   Felt marker poised, I read hundreds of essays during any given school year, and by now I'm adept at catching examples of truly bad writing: grammatically incorrect, misspelled, etc. In contrast, writing in a published work is rarely awful (Dale Peck's view excepted). Yes, the lyricism might be overblown and the writer might rely too much on stylistic tricks, and so forth, but those 'mistakes' might be more or less a matter of taste.
   Still, there are bits scattered throughout Lam's novel that caught my attention. 
   Here's one: "Thunder swelled, and the rain pounded the roof of the car. The traffic was slow, and the car stopped often. The wipers flashed back and forth, and the rain blurred..." 
   And another: "When crew-cut Americans in civilian clothes became more common, the Percival Chen English Academy began to make decent profits. Once U.S. Army uniforms became a common sight, the school was making more money than..." (I've added italics to emphasize the bits that drew my eyes).
   I'm not sure how to label these examples. In both cases, I wonder why the author chose repeated words and sentence structure. I can see disadvantages, but no compelling reason for believing they are necessary, or indeed helpful, contributions to the story. If oversights, they're surprising to find at all.

   [The review-for-pay of The Headmaster's Wager appeared in the Vancouver Sun.]


  1. I guess this is the book you talked about in your blog post on April 16th, if my hunch is correct. Thank goodness, as your ex-student, it didn't take me a long time to realize that you despised "repeated words" after you circled the word "this" on my first draft because I began two or three consecutive sentences using that word. And here is when thesaurus and "word frequency analysis/counter" tools come in handy--two key items that the author of the book you're reviewing probably forgot to utilize. I've been more attuned to recognizing "repeated words," although I have to admit that it still took me three times to read those italicized words until I figured out that they were "repeated words." So you've done a good job in noticing these small details. I'm looking forward to reading your review on 'The Headmaster's Wager' on Vancouver Sun [italicize Vancouver Sun]. Hopefully, you can find something enlightening from this book. For there is no work that can be deemed to be totally perfect; therefore, there must not be any work that can be considered 100% "crappy." But, of course, as they say: there is always room for exceptions.

    [This random late night comment has been run through a free "word frequency analyzer" found online.]

  2. Hi Stefanus,
    Thanks for writing!
    Your late night hunch was not correct. The book I alluded to in an earlier blog posting is currently sitting on my desk (oak, Arts and Crafts-style from the 1930s, found at an auction decades ago, and given to me as a birthday present—it makes me happy each and every day). This week I've been looking at that book's cover and avoiding answering the question, "What am I going to say about you?"
    "Despise" is a harsh word and, to me, it's almost never applicable to student writing. I think of that word as either requiring an emotional investment (ie, I despise X for breaking my heart) or a sense of high expectations not being met (ie, Back in the day, I despised 'The Phantom Menace' because I thought George Lucas could do no wrong).
    I don't despise student writing because I think of myself as a technician interested in identifying good, so-so, and poor constructions for the benefit of the student and their future writings. A 800-word essay in which every second sentence begins with "However" requires improvement, but I don't despise it whatsoever.
    A book, though, is written over years by a professional writer and edited repeatedly by publishing professionals, and comes with larger promises than that made by a five-page essay a student may have written during the course of a single afternoon.
    I think that's why the reviewers I talk about above (Kakutani, Wood, and Peck) express such disappointment. If the novelist and her publisher make big promises about their product and the product fails entirely to perform as promised, strong reactions are inevitable.
    [An early morning comment, written before coffee had been consumed.]