Friday, 29 June 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: A Special-Needs Ethics for Book Review Writing?

   On any given week I read scores of reviews. Music at Pitchfork; films, TV programs, and still more music via Metacritic; gadgets on Engadget, CNET, and Appleinsider; even fashion collections at (where Tim Blanks recently discerned in Prada's S/S '13 collection an unholy disaster of stripped-down androgyny).
   Collectively, these sites represent a volcanic eruption of heterogeneous opinion, bias, judgement, seemingly careful evaluation, and seemingly vindictive diatribe—a brutal review of X by one reviewer will receive a Meh by another and an interesting-but-flawed C+ by yet another. The sheer diversity of subjectivity is remarkable.
   One commonality between them, though, is the complete lack of agonized, should-we-or-shouldn't-we? introspection about the ethics writing of a review, an issue brought up today by Michael Lista, who was both championing his own stance about the necessity and value of writing hostile reviews and criticizing Jan Zwicky's 2003 defense of her policy of positive-only literary reviews, originally published in The Malahat Review.
   Simply put, Zwicky believes—or did nine years ago—that a collective silence about a bad literary work is sufficient criticism from the community, that ever-shrinking review space should be reserved for books about which the reviewer has friendly enthusiasm, and that "the artist’s position, I believe, must still be construed as one of trust, one that requires of reviewers respect for the thin skin that is essential to creativity."
   Lista, meanwhile, mocks Zwicky's logic and perceived sentimentality while asserting the following tough-love sermon:
   "The purpose of a review, good or bad, is to begin a conversation, not to end it. And when we write a negative review, we’re writing it about an adult, a professional, who of her own volition chose to publish poems, to share them with other human beings who have that pesky, intractable habit of thinking for themselves. No one is forcing these people, we who are too many, to publish; if you’re squeamish, put your poems in a goddamn drawer. And if you can’t stomach the occasional reader disclosing that she doesn’t like your poems, well: There’s always law school."

    Because I've read so many articles and blog posting about the ethics of book reviewing, and since no one mentions Michael Bay's thin skin or hurt feelings when yet one more dismissal is published upon the release of another of his Transformers blockbusters, and because nobody apparently publishes a thoughtful essay proclaiming that magazines should publish nothing but favourable reviews of stereos or automobiles or architecture (and that the pall of silence about poorly designed products will be sufficient information for consumers and adequate criticism for manufacturers), I'm left wondering about the categorical specialness of writers.
   Are they—hmm, I am writing, after all—are we so different from musicians, or filmmakers, or clothing designers that, like an endangered species or someone with a handicap, we require kid gloves management and special dispensations? And are our sensibilities so refined and our talents so orchid delicate that they need both constant protection and unending care?
   That latter question raises a different but not altogether unrelated phenomenon: bubble wrap kids and helicopter parenting. My understanding is that overprotective parenting is widely regarded as stunting, insofar is its protective ethos limits exposure to a real world in which any child (regardless of her diet of praise) must eventually become a participant.
   I'm not sure the analogy is an exact fit, but it seems that as a solution to a problem, habitual and legislated niceness complemented with a complete avoidance of slings and arrows is tantamount to a delusion.


Monday, 18 June 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Alix Ohlin's 'Signs and Wonders'

   The cover of Signs and Wonders reminds me of Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey and Sandy have returned from the seedy side of Lumberton and stand in the Technicolor safety of a kitchen and stare raptly outside at a bird. That the bird looks motley and mechanical and not at all pretty only adds to the surreal WTF of Lynch's vision.
   Lynchian, though, cannot be applied very well to the stories within Signs and Wonders. While surreal violence/violent surrealism and fragmentary narration remain foreign territory in Alix Ohlin's stories, the perverse resilience of love (and its adjuncts: marriage, divorce, parenthood) is a geography she visits again and again.
   Finishing the fifteen stories, I was tempted to conclude that Ohlin has witnessed a lot of relationships that ended badly—or, at least, has been carrying a notebook for years and recording her observations about flailing lovers, embittered divorcees, and parents struggling to hold together families that cosmic laws or the Fates seem to delight in tearing apart.
   All of the stories are impressive. The stand-outs for me are the title story, about English professors who've been unhappily married for ever. When they finally decide to proceed with a divorce, circumstance intervenes and holds them together. A terrific variation on that theme, "Three Little Maids," describes an already happily divorced couple—the narrator lists a few of the hundreds of  reasons for their incompatibility—whose grown children keep them in close contact, even though they cannot stand each other. In both stories an exceptional—and, for readers, funny—bitterness is part of the bond that holds people together, and Ohlin's expertise comes not in exploring their love but in their love-hate.
   Intact marriages, anatomized with precision in "Robbing the Cradle" and "You Are What You Like" recall that '80s song by Romeo Void, "love is an illness, to be endured"; the idea of love or marriage as a field of battle (no, I will not include two '80s references in one sentence) is nothing new, but between clever wordplay and her imagining of the unconscious, conflicted, and contradictory motivations of the characters, Ohlin manages a feat: revealing new facets about middle class love, marriage, and family—a topic we may have believed TV and myriad authors already exhausted.


Monday, 4 June 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Alix Ohlin's 'Inside'

   Two of these images are of me on vacation a few weeks ago.
   The sand? Imagine shortbread cookies baked to perfection and then crumbled into fine powder. The ocean was stunning blues, bathwater warm, and the onslaught of crashing waves disguised a fearsome undertow. The resort's bars also stocked enough alcohol to keep Russian soldiers drunk for months; I drank my first banana daiquiri, but skipped getting corn rows in my hair.
   Like any place exclusively created to attract tourism dollars, Cancun has an artificiality that can be off-putting. (As was the poolside fact that every second person was reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I'm not exaggerating.)
   This blog is not geared toward analyses of tourism or the politics of
all-inclusive resorts; it's for literature. Accordingly, the snapshots show me reading; and I read pools, reclining on beach chairs, in bed, and scrunched up on an uncomfortable balcony chair.
   I was reading Inside, by Alix Ohlin, an author whose first novel (The Missing Person, which I'm reading now) I'd managed to miss. (I then read her excellent Signs and Wonders, being published at the same time as Inside.)
   I began reading Inside soon after take-off above Vancouver. The story begins with weird accidental meeting in snowy Montreal; a therapist, skiing in a park to relieve stress, nearly runs over a dark lump in the snow. The lump turns out to be a man whose suicide attempt failed. A fraught love affair ensues. "From bad to worse" covers the trajectory.
   Between the novel's first pages and the last, I laughed often. Ohlin has a terrific sense of humour and when she's being satiric you imagine that hanging out with her and people-watching would be memorable. Later scenes in NYC and LA cover the familiar territory of a beautiful actress sleeping her way into roles, but Ohlin's account is hilarious, fresh, and biting.
   Whether she's offering cutting insights about romantic relationships or sleazeball men, she crafts scenes that sadden you only because they end so quickly.
   The photos don't capture my blubbering, or Alex (whose company paid for our vacation) asking me, "Now what happened?" But I sprouted tears during numerous scenes. Ohlin writes little miracles of comedy in her novel, but she's arguably better with moments of searingly intense sadness: the suicide of one boy and the awful hospital death of another; love turning sour and bitter; attempts—futile—being made over and again to fix a problem that seems fated to cause misery.
   It's a terrific novel.
   On p. 258 (the final page) and awash in emotions, I experienced my first and only complaint with Ohlin's story: I wanted it to stretch out for another hundred pages.

[The official review of Inside and Signs and Wonders appeared in The National Post.]