This Business of Reviewing

Scarcely a day seems to go by without some new attack or challenge to the notion of the review in the blogworld, and for the most part, I don’t find them helpful. But I’ll make an exception for two interesting posts, one from Book Riot and one from The Millions, more interesting than others of their ilk because of the serious attempts made to think about what good review might do. Both are suggesting a move away from the stranglehold of summary-plus-personal-opinion that dominates the orthodox review structure, and I’m all for experimenting with new approaches.

My own feeling, which I’ve mentioned many times here, is that personal-opinion based reviews tend to say a great deal about the person reading, but less about the book. When you read them, you have to measure yourself against the taste of the author of the post, rather than the nominal subject of it. And you come away with an idea of whether you should read the book or not, rather than anything more durable and useful concerning literature, reading, and their place in the world. Sometimes that’s all a person wants, and that’s fine. But books are so rich, so full, so fascinating – don’t they occasionally deserve a little more of our mental energy?

The Millions post provides a good account of the latest round in the review wars and makes some suggestions about what is reliably useful to read in a review. My only objection to this post, and it is a strenuous one, is the idea that negative reviews are ‘better’. To be fair, the justification put forward for this is that readers tend to be fuzzily warm over books they’ve enjoyed, but dislike or dissatisfaction requires a sharper more focused approach, and I can see the logic in that.

However, I simply cannot abide this idea that picking out what is ‘wrong’ (highly subjective in itself) is the highest emblem of quality. Whilst I am no more in favour of always writing positive reviews (prescriptions of all kind distress me), I think negativity has to be handled delicately and in great self-awareness. It can so easily be about the critic claiming intellectual superiority over the stuff that feeds him, or throwing a hissy fit because a book has proved to be a disappointment. We read books from such a deep, private, sensitive place that they can affect us disproportionately, and we don’t acknowledge this enough.

I think it also risks conflating the experience of reading a book with a judgment of it. The experience of a book is unique, powerful and set in stone. We cannot be persuaded that our experience was other than it was. But an experience is based on so many factors that have nothing to do with what we are reading – which is why we can return to a book twenty years later and have an entirely different experience of it. So pure experience is not to be trusted to communicate the very essence of a book. It provides a springboard into the story, a starting point, not an end in itself.

Over at Book Riot, the blogger formerly known as the Reading Ape (is there a symbol for that?) discusses his frustration with reading and writing reviews and posts an excellent list of ideas about what a good review should do. His point here is that we rarely say; this is a great review and you should read it. So what would a great review look like? My initial response is that whilst this is an impressive list of ideal review qualities they pose a substantial and often abstract demand. How to set about achieving any of them? Among the comments there are a number of responses that argue that incorporating such qualities into a review would turn it into literary criticism instead. To which I am obliged to say: what would be wrong with that? A little literary criticism is like a little spice in cooking. The right amount enhances the flavour, even if too much is indigestible. Now whilst I cannot tell anyone what a good review ought to look like, I can offer the basic principles of literary criticism, which are simplicity itself.

The basic building block of interpretation is critical commentary, or taking a chunk of text and seeing what’s going on in it. You can take as much or as little as you like, a paragraph or the whole book. Then – and this is what I used to teach my first years – you consider it from a series of perspectives. I’ve created a list of possible questions that readers can ask themselves but it is by no means definitive, simply an initial suggestion that can be altered and built on as wished:

Narrative voice.

Who is speaking here and what impact does this have on the story?

Are we dealing with a first or third person account? The first person tends to be intimate, partial and particular, the third to be distant, even invisible, but authoritative. Or is the text polyvocal, with lots of different voices undermining the idea of a coherent argument or approach informing the story?

How to describe the register (colloquial or formal, poetic or lyric) and tone (so many possibilities – confiding, ironic, subversive, playful, cold, etc)?

What does the narrator want us to know about themselves and what is being hidden?

Form and Structure

What are we dealing with here – a conventional story with a beginning, a middle and an end, or something more fragmented? A text studded with letters or newspaper reports, or a stream of consciousness?

Does genre play a part, and if so, does the book follow the conventions of the genre?

Then we need to dig down into the words – even to think about whether we’re dealing with long or short sentences, and their rhythm, their musicality or lack of it.

What sort of lexicon or discourse are we presented with? For instance, are there lots of analytical words (creates an argument) or abstract words (philosophical or spiritual leanings) or fantastic ones (appeals to the world of private imagination), etc.?

Are there particular devices at work – metaphor and simile?

In all these instances, we need to ask ourselves what the effect is. Each word has been chosen for a reason, busting its little guts to affect the reader, so what are they actually doing?

Themes and Characters

It’s interesting to look at questions of energy and balance when considering themes and characters.

Do the different personalities in the narrative balance each other out, or do they tip the scales one way or another?

Where’s the energy going in the book – towards what purpose, or what end?

How do the characters play out the themes of the novel?

Is there a clear moral universe being constructed (who wins, who loses) and what does this say about the culture the book is set in?

What systems of values dominate the story – are the values clear cut, or is the book confused and contradictory? Sometimes the best books are confused and contradictory; it can actually make for a very powerful effect on the reader when the answers do not come at the end, and of course it’s very comforting when they do.

Change and Transition

So what is actually different by the end of the book, or even the end of a scene? All sorts of issues come into the aspect of change concerning the version of time and space the story functions in.

Are we looking at characters who develop in linear fashion, or are we all about the circularity?

Repetition is a very powerful device in literature, and when you come across it, it’s worth a moment’s thought, as it can suggest quite contradictory possibilities: depressing and even cynical entrapment, nostalgic, conservative desires for stability and a cosmic view of a natural order that inevitably reasserts itself.

Change, by contrast, tends to indicate lessons learned, characters developed and the scary unpredictability of consequences, both good and bad.

There is a fundamental message here about whether we can change and alter the world – both our personal one and the external world we live in – which is the basis for all political readings of novels.

The Role of the Reader

It’s interesting to take a step back from reading to see how and why we are responding to a novel.

Are we being manipulated and if so, how, and to what purpose?

Are we kept in line with the narrative development, up to date with everything the characters themselves learn, or are we kept in the dark, mystified, held in suspense? What knowledge do we need to bring to the text to understand it?

What knowledge are we readily given, and what is withheld?

How hard do we have to work to extract the meaning of the story?

What are we asked to bring our sympathy to, or are we instructed instead to mistrust, to disapprove, to disagree?

And lastly but fundamentally, what were our expectations? Have they been met or not, and if not, is this because in actual fact, the novel is challenging conventions and asking us to be more broad-minded?

Ok, so having gone through all these sorts of questions, we have a lot of information at our disposal. Of course not all the questions will have yielded fruit, and that’s fine. The way forward now is just to pick out the information that seems most interesting to us as basis for a discussion. The whole reading thing is about being playful and open-minded, asking lots of questions, and avoiding those deadening assumptions that prevent us from getting the most out of what we read.

On Rereading

I hardly ever reread a book these days, but I have just finished Anne Tyler’s brilliant novel, Ladder of Years and frankly I could turn around and start it all over again. I first read the novel in 1995, on holiday in Brittany with Mr Litlove and our six-month old baby. Mr Litlove’s favourite game then was to put one of his dinky socks on top of his head and see how long it took him to a) realise and b) remove it (answer: not long, but with just enough hesitation for comedy). Oh how times have changed. I started the book in some trepidation, afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but it was even better. Now I wonder whether the lure of rereading isn’t actually quite dangerous – why wouldn’t I spend all my time choosing guaranteed pleasure over the potential disappointments and pitfalls of all those unread novels? Well, in part at least because I do possess a lot of unread novels and they represent the triumph of hope. But still, I see I’m reaching a stage where rereading holds a seductive promise.

I thought I’d dig out my old research notes on rereading to see if they could help me gain a bit more insight into its pleasures. Matei Calinescu in his book Rereading, says ‘there are texts that haunt us, that cannot or will not be forgotten, and there are texts that haunt other texts, in the sense that they appear in them as expected or unexpected visitors, and even, some might say, as phantoms or spectres.’ Whilst I was interested in the front end of that sentence, Calinescu is more concerned with the back end. He is mostly talking about what happens when we read experimental or innovative novels, particularly those based on crime fiction. When we read crime fiction, whether we’re aware of it or not, we are experiencing the pleasure of having our expectations met. It’s one of the more ‘rule-driven’ genres, with, for example, the detective as the master reader of clues and suspect’s stories, and the formulaic surprise denouement. Several postmodern authors had a lot of fun with parodies and pastiches of such formulas, and Calinescu is thinking about the sort of ‘rereading’ that goes on as the reader progresses through such a ‘rewrite’, using familiar expectations to both note the places where the narrative goes awry but also recognising what is at stake in such playful distortions.

You could probably apply this concept of rereading to all innovative fiction, which asks the reader to bear an orthodox narrative in mind in order to make sense of the unconventional one by understanding how far, and in what ways, it departs from the original. He’s suggesting that a different kind of attention is required from the reader. Rather than be strapped into the boxcar of your standard story which whisks you off as a pure passenger on a ride, the more experimental fiction requires a kind of textual orienteering, as you study maps of other novels in your head while figuring out where the one in your hands is taking you. It explains, if nothing else, why those innovative novels are a much slower, more careful reading experience: you need to read the ghost of the underlying original as well as the actual story in the present.

Such an activity is not so far removed from the rereading that critics and researchers do, when you study a story over and over. Just reading a novel asks you to succumb to it, to stop thinking about its artificial construction and simply lose yourself in a fictional fantasy. When you read for a second time in a more reflective, analytical way, you’re lifting the lid off the text to see how it works underneath. You want to have a good look at the structure and see why it does one thing and not another, how it makes one argument at the expense of a range of others. I think this is perhaps why for some readers, critical reading is anathema, as much the same thing happens when a story fails to enchant and you are just left staring at cardboard sets and 2-d characters. Disliking a book and analysing a book may fall just too close together for comfort for some people.

But what about those books that haunt us and refuse to be forgotten? The closest I could come to anything that struck home was in the distinction made by another critic, Josephine Hilgard between involvement and absorbtion. Now, you may not agree with these particular terms and definitions, but the idea is that ‘emotional involvement’ means pleasure and enjoyment and a vividly engrossing experience, but the reader is aware that they are reading a made-up story. ‘Absorbtion’ takes the immersion that one step further so that the reader ‘partakes in a reading that is equivalent in grace and creative effortlessness to artistic inspiration.’ Hilgard says this means we can speak of ‘inspired readers’ just as we might talk about inspired writers. I wonder whether this kind of rereading, when you love a story so much you can read it again and again until it is a part of your own world, is such an inspired act. The reader can almost live the story, as if dreaming a particularly splendid dream; they take possession of it in some ways.

Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years is a book I could read repeatedly because it is sort of perfect for me in every sentence. The story of a middle-aged wife and mother who just walks away from her family while they are on the beach and keeps going, eventually locating in a different town and starting her life afresh, has no places where I wish things were different, no dull parts or implausible bits. It feels perfectly whole and necessary and I can sense my own desire to be up close to that. The sheer rightness of it all is part of the thrill. Even though it is in many ways an ordinary story, not one with many layers of implicit meaning that I wouldn’t pick up on the first time through. No, the enchantment is for me about a vicarious sharing of the artistic inspiration that went into it, the sense of watching the story unfold without a mishap, so confident in it that I can lose myself to it. The door is open for me to experience this because the novel corresponds so well to my purely personal and subjective feelings about what’s right and real in fiction; it absorbs me completely. Which of course means that my classic reread would not necessarily be anyone else’s. I’m thinking now about which books I really could read over and over again – surely a short list?

Derrida for Dummies

Derrida; the closest a literary critic ever came to being a movie star

It’s a firm belief of mine that no matter how complex an idea, you can explain it if you pick your examples carefully. Jacques Derrida taxes this belief to the limit, but I thought it would be entertaining to try, particularly after reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Marriage Plot, which draws in its early sections on the literary theory that was a big feature of university courses in the eighties. Being reminded of theory and also of the way that it’s fallen into disrepute these days as a sort of laughable super-refinement of thinking, I felt I ought to point out at the very least how close to lived reality theory was. Derrida’s philosophy founded the practice of deconstruction, a way of reading that did tend, I quite accept, to be presented with a lot of textual voodoo. But deconstruction is something that people do frequently, energetically and willingly, even if they don’t know that they’re doing it.

Think back to the last argument you had in a relationship. When a couple fights, they are practising deconstruction like the best of them. There’s a French phrase for the inevitable imbalance in relationships – il y a toujours un qui baise et un qui tend la joue – which means there’s always one person doing the kissing and the other offering their cheek. Well, similarly in rows, there is one person deconstructing while the other presents the text, usually in a defensive, stonewalling kind of way. The upset person, the reader in this instance, tackles the text they’ve been given with a manic pernickety attention, picking away at the words or phrases used, pouncing on sly little omissions, tying the other’s words up in knots with the full intention of proving that their discourse is flawed through and through, that they mean the opposite of what they say, or that at the very least, there is no coherent and credible position beneath the surface offering. Just about anything is open for attack – the way the other person is standing, the shifty look they’re giving, the nervous jangling of loose change in pocket. It’s all ripe for deconstruction. There’s only one way this can end: with one person’s argument in tatters, as far as the other person is concerned. And that, my friends, is theory in practice.

The reason we can do this at all is down to the odd way that language is both rigid and flexible at the same time. Derrida talked about ‘difference’ a lot, and the way that language is founded on it. What this means is that, if you had half a sentence, you couldn’t necessarily finish it. You might well speculate on what would come next, but unless you had the back end of it, you couldn’t know what it means. This is because every word we add to a sentence will subtly alter the meaning of those that precede it. You can scale this up to a book, and think of the way that if you were missing the final two pages of a book, you still might not be sure how it ends. Anything could happen in those last two pages to change the meaning of what came before. So, from thinking about this, Derrida concluded that language was an endless signifying chain – unless there is a definitive end point, you can never be sure what a text means. Words are relative; meaning is a feature of that relativity. No matter how hard we try to say something plainly and simply, someone can always come along and mistake our meaning, or at least, believe sincerely that we said something different to what we thought we did. That’s because words have this inner fullness and flexibility – they are always ready to be bent in all sorts of different directions, to carry all sorts of meanings, so there is always a sort of bubbling undercurrent of excess in the language we use, and we can’t get rid of it.

One of Derrida’s ways of talking about this is the idea of the ‘trace’. Let’s go back to our arguing couple and suppose that, horror of horror, the ‘other woman’ has been invoked in the row. Two simple little words, ‘other’ and ‘woman’, no big deal. But to speak of the ‘other woman’ is to conjure a ghost up in the room. She is not there, and the very fact of referencing her makes it plain she’s absent (and of course she might not exist at all). But the words contain the trace of her, the imagined projection of a living, breathing person reduced here to a ghostly shadow. What makes the concept so vibrant and tingly, in fact, is this odd status of absent-presence, and Derrida suggests that all words have this capacity of evocation. But at the same time, for the angry partner who speaks them, they have taken on a life of their own and become The Other Woman, a concept bristling with all sorts of fears and fantasies, other mixed up traces drawn from literature and personal history and the ceaseless work of the imagination. So you see how the same principle keeps asserting itself: language is so full, so busy, so mixed up, and it tends to negate the reality behind it in favour of its own sprawling associations. It’s no wonder that we can always find enough in language for it to betray itself.

‘Betray’ is an apposite term here. Deconstruction and psychoanalysis are very similar in spirit. Both believe that there is an inevitable underside to what gets said where other, hidden meanings lurk.  But those meanings are not necessarily random. Have you ever experienced how hard it is to write a letter when you feel guilty about something, and to prevent that guilt from seeping into the wording? In our arguing couple, the partner who offers the text for deconstruction will probably be trying very hard to give nothing away, to put together a simple story and stick to it. But the chances are that he or she will be betrayed, somewhere along the line, by an awkward turn of phrase or a slip of the tongue. Or it may be a gesture or a look that does the damage – il n’y a pas de hors texte, Derrida also famously said: there is nothing outside or beyond the text. Gestures and looks are part of a language too, also based on relativity. We read them in just the same way we read words. And in this kind of circumstance, when we feel sure that someone is not saying what they mean, and we believe they mean more than they say, we can read ‘against the grain’, or take their language apart, deconstruct it, to find enough evidence of an alternative story underneath.

So you see? Derrida and deconstruction are easy. We all do it naturally anyway. All you do is transplant the processes of argument from two people in a kitchen to an author and a reader over the pages of a book. Where of course it’s much more fun as the author can’t answer you back or stomp off in a huff, and very little is at stake  (although the real deconstructionists would drum me out of town for such sacrilege). Never fear theory; it can be your friend.

The Consolations of Stories

Hands up who likes reading books about reading? Yup, I readily confess I am a complete sucker for them too. This past week, I’ve been slowly savoring the delights of Michael Chabon’s remarkable collection of essays, Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, and finding much to entertain and inspire. Chabon is a wonderful reader and a glorious writer, which has made his interpretations of books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes a real treat. But I’ve particularly enjoyed the more personal pieces, in which he talks about what has moved and inspired him in a lifetime’s devotion to the written word. His account of a childhood love with Norse mythology I found especially intriguing, not least because his tastes as a child were so very different from mine.

By the time Chabon discovered Norse mythology, he was already well versed in the kind of literature that’s red in tooth and claw thanks to the bible and the Greek myths. ‘There were rape and murder in those other books,’ he writes, ‘revenge, cannibalism, folly, madness, incest and deceit. And I thought all that was great stuff.’ The exploration of the dark side appealed not only to something deep within Chabon’s spirit but to the truth as he perceived it of the world around him, subject to its usual catastrophes and terrors. Unadulterated, unmediated menace was something he could relate to; the problem was that all too often, that darkness became co-opted by the prissy, pedantic need to draw moral lessons from it. Chabon comments ruefully that, ‘What remained was a darkness that, while you recognized it in your own heart, obliged you all the same to recognize its disadvantage, its impoliteness, its unacceptability, its being wrong, particularly for eight-year-old boys.’ The Norsemen, and in particular the trickiest, naughtiest, baddest god of them all, Loki, provided unrepentant relief. Loki was troublesome without shame, evil at times and violent too, but funny, self-mocking, ludicrous, a true god of misrule and thus tailor-made for the real incorrigibility of a young boy’s heart.

Not all children react the same, however. I think I must have been ten or eleven before starting on the Greek myths and in retrospect I see that my most serious mistake was attempting to read them in Robert Graves’ version. Even as an adult his accounts confuse and repel me, with their complex footnotes and endless academic lists of variations. But worst of all is the brutal, take-it-or-leave style in which he narrates them; no attempt is made to create a story with its seductions and allusions and charms. Barely have we got past a few creation myths before Cronus is castrating Uranus, grasping his genitals with his left hand (forever more the hand of ill-omen, we are told) and then throwing them along with the sickle into the sea. By this point I closed the book with a shudder of horrified revulsion and never went near Greek mythology again until I was in my thirties, a lecturer and surprised, when listening to a tape I’d bought for my son, how much more entertaining they were than I remembered.

I’m not surprised I was horrified by Graves’ account of the myths, when my staple literary diet up until that point had been Enid Blyton, one of the greatest offenders when it came to the kind of pointedly moralizing aunts of storytelling that Chabon so disliked. I loved Enid Blyton. In her fictional world I felt completely safe, protected from the same internal darkness that the young Michael Chabon felt, and in which I had no desire to glory. Instead, what mattered to me was that good should triumph over evil, that quiet virtue should be recognized over showy performance, that bullies and snarks and the generally unkind should get their comeuppance in a satisfactory manner. I knew there was negativity out there in the world, all right, and what I needed books to do was boundary it, tame it, and then lock the door and throw away the key. Except of course that books did much better than that; they encouraged me to look at what made me so frightened and to insist that whilst it might come back again and again, there were always resources and creativity on hand to thwart it, that no disguise or manipulative trick was any match for the steady march towards a conclusion that was steadfastly a happy ending.

This is narrative in its rescuing function, its most formulaic and artificial side, admittedly, but no less powerful for that. Plot is the great mastermind of narrative’s rescuing pleasures, although beautiful writing can be its able henchman. Have I ever told you Freud’s story of the Fort-Da game and its relation to plot? Well, that’s relevant here. Freud watched his young grandson sitting up in his pram and playing with a cotton reel or some such object. As the child threw it away he called out ‘Fort!’ (away) and then he would haul it back to himself and exclaim ‘Da!’ (here). Freud deduced that by means of this simple game, the child was accustoming itself in fantasy to his mother’s absences. She might go away (‘Fort!’) but she would always return (‘Da!’) and the cotton reel gave the child the pleasing illusion that he might control this process. In other words, the child had discovered the power of conceptualization, that we may use our minds to overcome our physical realities, and that understanding suffering, particularly in the belief that it will not last forever, is an effective way to reduce the pain.

The literary critic, Peter Brooks, picked up Freud’s interpretation of the Fort-Da game and applied it to literary plots. In stories, something is initially posited as lost or missing – it might be something intangible, like justice or love, as much as an object or a person – and the narrative works to restore wholeness and harmony, to pull the missing piece back into place. Or as another commenter, Hanna Segal described it, stories break things in order to put them back together again in even better ways. We turn the pages to see lovers reunited, criminals jailed, buried treasure discovered, secrets revealed. But we also read for the meaning of all this to come clear. Meaning is the extra thing that makes the putting-back-together of narrative pieces so rewarding. The Norse god, Loki, is unusual in this respect; he would rather end with a punchline than a significant quote, he resists the lure of closure and the cozy messages of reassurance it brings, instead he perpetuates trouble and unease and mischief. And there is a truth in that, a truth that is as important and necessary to the world as the comfort of narrative rescue. ‘I took comfort as a kid, in knowing that things had always been as awful and as wonderful as they were now,’ Chabon writes, ‘that the world was always on the edge of total destruction.’ A sensible and sensitive assessment, it seems to me, but about as non-Enid Blyton as you can get. I wish I had seen that perspective myself as a child, but we are always locked into our unique perspectives and stories are busy doing all they can to liberate us from them; we can scarcely ask for more. Chabon and I were fortunate, as children, that stories had a wide enough embrace to comfort both of us in our different ways.