A Rambling Riff on the Age of the Amateur, Book Review Ethics, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

Art, Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

1.There’s been a lot of hubbub (at least in my particular echo chamber) the past few weeks about book reviews and the ethics of book reviews:

Too nice?

Too mean?

Just fine?

What about straight-up buying a book review?

And what about when authors get involved, via social media, in calling out reviewers?

2. A sloppy synthesis of what I’ve linked to above might be:

The traditional position of the serious book critic is perhaps being undermined via social media in the hands of well-meaning amateurs.

3. I’m not sure that I exactly agree with the statement above.

4. Still, we live in the Age of the Amateur.

(Saturday Night Live parodied this phenomena in a sketch called “You Can Do Anything!” that hits nail on head).

5. (SNL also unintentionally documented what happens when an amateur is given a forum beyond her untested abilities).

6. I suppose I could spend a few paragraphs parsing the delicate distinctions between literary criticism and book reviews and awarding fucking stars on Amazon or Goodreads, but I think you, gentle reader, probably get all that already.

7. (I consider myself an amateur book reviewer with an interest in but no pretension to literary criticism. I don’t intend to write about myself, but I do feel like I should clarify this).

8. (I know I just said that I don’t intend to write about myself, but again, perhaps germane:

I don’t read a lot of book reviews, especially contemporary book reviews. I mean, I hardly ever read contemporary book reviews. If I’m planning to review the work, a contemporary review may poison any pretense of objectivity I have.

With the occasional new major release, it’s almost impossible not to get a fix on some critical consensus—and I always scan of course.

I usually read a handful of reviews of a book I’m reading after I’ve drafted a review.

And I read lots of old reviews. Lots.

Again, maybe germane to all of this).

9.  But I’m riffing out all over the place. Let me get to the point. Let’s return to the second part of Point 2:

The traditional position of the serious book critic is perhaps being undermined via social media in the hands of well-meaning amateurs.

Is this true? I don’t know, exactly. A few points to consider:

Literary criticism has existed via two more-or-less stable forms for about a century now: Academic scholarship and popular media.

Academic scholarship tends to be highly-specialized and literally inaccessible for most people. I think academic scholarship and research about literature is important and I don’t want to knock it all—but most of it simply isn’t exposed to, let alone absorbed by, a reading public.

Popular media—magazines and newspapers—is clearly in a transitional phase. A lot of this boils down to the dissemination of new technologies, the advent of the so-called “citizen journalist,” and the oligarchization of mass media. Journalism, as taught in journalism school, prescribed a set of methods and ethics that seem frankly quaint when set against the internet and 24hr cable networks. How book reviews fit—if they fit at all—into the emerging paradigm of popular media is hard to say.

10. Obviously, one model for how book reviews/lit crit fits into the emerging paradigm of popular media  is Goodreads, which I really don’t know much about to be honest. Another is Amazon, which has so many problems I don’t even begin to know how to start. Both of these sites use star ratings though, which has always struck me as probably the worst critical model available.

11. (I got an email recently about Riffle, a new service “powered by the Facebook social graph and loaded with expert curated recommendations.” I mean, how’s that for a shudder down the metaphorical spine?)

12. (Re: Point 11—What is it with this term “curator”? Is it synonymous with: “I produce no original content”?)

13. So, to return to the pretense that I have a point:

I’ve written about 300 reviews on this site. Most for books, some movie reviews, and a few other things as well (uh, malt liquor). I didn’t really know what I was doing in the beginning—I mean, I wasn’t even intending to review books. I was just writing about books I’d pilfered, pinched. Stolen. (The name of the site was its mission statement).  At some point I started making critical judgments, trying to, you know, recommend books that I loved to people who I hoped would love them also.

And at some point I came across John Updike’s rules for reviewing books.

I’m not an Updike fan—wasn’t then, amn’t now—but his rules resonated with me, and I made a point of reading his criticism, which is generally excellent.

In short, I’ve tried to follow his rules.

14. (To clarify: A simple thesis for this whole riff: I think book reviewers need to follow some kind of aesthetic, ethical rubric, one that accounts for subjectivity in an objective way—and I think Updike’s list is great).

15. Updike’s first rule is his best:

Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

This one seems fairly straightforward, but is abused all the time, whether it’s Kakutani at the NYT pretending YA is not YA, or a reviewer at Book Kvetch lamenting that a metaphor-laced experimental novel isn’t a science textbook.

(I might have abused Updike’s first rule myself, but I’m not going to ransack the archives for self-incrimination).

16. Updike’s first rule is so graceful because it allows for a sliding scale of sorts, a range of possibilities beyond the critic’s own highly-subjective taste.

Put another way, it’s very easy to say, “I loved it” or “I hated it,” but Updike’s first rule places the onus of critical imagination on the reviewer. The responsible reviewer has to understand his or her audience (or at least has to try to understand his or her audience).

17. The subjective can’t be removed from reviews of course—nor should it be. I think the balancing act here might be described as taste.

18. I’ve occasionally broken some of Updike’s rules, especially when I super hated a book (usually #s 2 &3–didn’t bother to cite text—actually, I’ve done this repeatedly),

19. Sometimes a book confuses my approach to criticism.

20. Hence, Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, which I reviewed in hardback a few months ago, and which is now available in trade paperback, and which I will use now as some sort of loose illustration for whatever point there is in this ramble:

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21. (Okay. So, normally I photograph reader copies (and other books I obtain) and run a little blurb—usually the publisher’s copy or another review—and I was gonna do this with The Orphan Master’s trade paperback (citing my own review in this case), but the post lingered, thoughts accrued around it as I glommed onto all the ideas reverberating around my little echo chamber re: this whole riff. I bring this up in the recognition that a post purporting to address in some way the ethics of book reviewing should point out that the publisher in question (e.g. this blog, e.g. me) regularly posts what amounts to a kind of advertisement for forthcoming books).

22. So why The Orphan Master’s Son?

I use it as example (barring info re: Point 21 for a moment) of a book that didn’t do what I wanted the book to do.

Here’s the end of my review:

 Toward the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, I began imagining how the novel might read as a work divorced from historical or political reality, as its own dystopian blend—what would The Orphan Master’s Son be stripped of all its North Korean baggage? (This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it is the question I asked myself). I think it would be a much better book, one that would allow Johnson more breathing room to play with the big issues that he’s ultimately addressing here—what it means to tell a story, what it means to create, what it means to love a person who can not just change, but also disappear. These are the issues that Johnson tackles with aplomb; what’s missing though, I think, is a genuine take on what it means to be a North Korean in search of identity.

I think my review of The Orphan Master’s Son was/is fair, but it didn’t—couldn’t—exactly capture how I felt about the book: a mix of disappointment and admiration.

23. To be clear, I took pains to clarify that I thought highly of Johnson’s prose and that I thought most readers would really dig his book.

I gave it, I suppose, a mixed review, which is almost like giving it a negative review.

24. But I didn’t give it a mixed review to be nice—I tempered my criticisms with the knowledge that any attack I made on The Orphan Master’s Son was really a way of defining my own aesthetic tastes. Let me cite Updike’s fifth rule:

 If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

Ultimately, my problem with The Orphan Master’s Son boils down to me wanting Johnson to have written a different book. I feel like I have plenty of reasonable reasony reasons for wanting a different book—first and foremost Johnson’s prowess as proser and storyteller—but that’s no way to review a book. From my review:

I should probably clarify that I think many people will enjoy this novel and find it very moving and that the faults I found in its second half likely have more to do with my taste as a reader than they do Johnson’s skill as a writer, which skill,  again I’ve tried to demonstrate is accomplished.

25. Let me end here in repetition (and, perhaps, here in the safety of these parentheses point to how riffing in a rambling wine-soaked list somehow frees me from actually coherently writing about any of the things I promised to—or maybe it doesn’t—which is of course its own ethical ball of worms) by restating a basic answer to some of the basic problems of amateurism:

Book reviewers need to follow some kind of aesthetic, ethical rubric, one that accounts for subjectivity in an objective way.

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David Foster Wallace on David Lynch’s Dune

Art, Books, Film, Writers

1984’s Dune is unquestionably the worst movie of Lynch’s career, and it’s pretty darn bad. In some ways it seems that Lynch was miscast as its director: Eraserhead had been one of those sell-your-own-plasma-to-buy-the-film-stock masterpieces, with a tiny and largely unpaid cast and crew. Dune, on the other hand, had one of the biggest budgets in Hollywood history, and its production staff was the size of a small Caribbean nation, and the movie involved lavish and cutting-edge special effects (half the fourteen-month shooting schedule was given over to miniatures and stop-action). Plus Herbert’s novel itself is incredibly long and complex, and so besides all the headaches of a major commercial production financed by men in Ray-Bans Lynch also had trouble making cinematic sense of the plot, which even in the novel is convoluted to the point of pain. In short, Dune’s direction called for a combination technician and administrator, and Lynch, though as good a technician as anyone in film, is more like the type of bright child you sometimes see who’s ingenious at structuring fantasies and gets totally immersed in them but will let other kids take part in them only if he retains complete imaginative control over the game and its rules and appurtenances—in short very definitely not an administrator.

Watching Dune again on video you can see that some of its defects are clearly Lynch’s responsibility, e.g. casting the nerdy and potato-faced Kyle MacLachlan as an epic hero and the Police’s resoundingly unthespian Sting as a psycho villain, or—worse—trying to provide plot exposition by having characters’ thoughts audibilized (w/ that slight thinking-out-loud reverb) on the soundtrack while the camera zooms in on the character making a thinking-face, a cheesy old device that Saturday Night Live had already been parodying for years when Dune came out. The overall result is a movie that’s funny while it’s trying to be deadly serious, which is as good a definition of a flop as there is, and Dune was indeed a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop. But a good part of the incoherence is the responsibility of De Laurentiis’s producers, who cut thousands of feet of film out of Lynch’s final print right before the movie’s release, apparently already smelling disaster and wanting to get the movie down to more like a normal theatrical running-time. Even on video, it’s not hard to see where a lot of these cuts were made; the movie looks gutted, unintentionally surreal.

In a strange way, though, Dune actually ended up being Lynch’s “big break” as a filmmaker. The version of Dune that finally appeared in the theaters was by all reliable reports heartbreaking for him, the kind of debacle that in myths about Innocent, Idealistic Artists In The Maw Of The Hollywood Process signals the violent end of the artist’s Innocence—seduced, overwhelmed, fucked over, left to take the public heat and the mogul’s wrath. The experience could easily have turned Lynch into an embittered hack (though probably a rich hack), doing f/x-intensive gorefests for commercial studios. Or it could have sent him scurrying to the safety of academe, making obscure plotless l6mm.’s for the pipe-and-beret crowd. The experience did neither. Lynch both hung in and, on some level, gave up. Dune convinced him of something that all the really interesting independent filmmakers—Campion, the Coens, Jarmusch, Jaglom—seem to steer by. “The experience taught me a valuable lesson,” he told an interviewer years later. “I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don’t have final cut.”

—From “David Lynch Keeps His Head” by David Foster Wallace; collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

“Winter Wonderland” — SNL Original Cast

Christmas, Christmas Music, Television

The original SNL cast’s take on “Winter Wonderland” is one of my favorite Christmas recordings ever. It’s from the first season of Saturday Night Live; Candice Bergen is hosting, and you can see her singing along with Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, and Laraine Newman. The underrated Garrett Morris delivers the powerful lead vocal, and there’s something magical about the moment when the boys — Chevy, Aykroyd, Belushi — come in for support.

When I was a kid, I was always puzzled by the clip. I saw it several times on Comedy Central reruns; this is back when Comedy Central was a fledgling network that ran SNL about 8hrs a day, along with lots of bad ’80s stand up shows, MST3K, and a show I loved called Short Attention Span Theater hosted by some guy named John Stewart. Anyway, I guess what puzzled me so much was that it seemed so damn sincere, and so good. I suppose Morris’s vocal provides much of the earnest authenticity that so baffled me when set against the goofy, ironic sloppiness of those (very) early SNL skits. I guess I was looking for a joke and couldn’t find one. They didn’t seem to be mocking the song. In retrospect, I can see that there’s something of a loving parody at work in their version of “Winter Wonderland,” a gentle poke at old, hokey Christmas musicals, but the emphasis is on loving – it’s almost bizarre in its tenderness and earnest emotion.

 

Jon Lovitz’s Writing Tips

Writers

Jon Lovitz does AV Club’s Random Rules today. Here, he gives some pretty good writing advice. Context: he’s describing coming back as the host of the show in 1997, and going to the writer’s meeting on Monday. The “They” is the SNL writers–

They’d say, “We have an idea for a sketch. You’re a teacher, and the student brings you an apple.” I go, “Right.” “And then another comes in and another brings you an apple, and then another brings you an apple.” I go, “Then what happens?” They go, “No, that’s the sketch. They’re just all bringing you apples.” I said, “That’s not a sketch. That’s just a premise.” They didn’t know what I was talking about. I said, “A sketch is supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s like a movie. It’s supposed to have a story. You have a who, what, where—the beginning, and the conflict, and it builds and builds. That’s how you do improv. You’re filling in all those spots to make the scene work. It builds to a climax. Then there’s a resolution, which is the ending. It takes hours to write the ending. It’s hard to come up with them.” They just looked at me blankly.

I think the writers thought I was a jerk, because I was like, “Then what happens?” to all of it. They’d go, “That’s it.” Maybe they didn’t like that. They wrote a first draft, and, “Who are you to touch our brilliant first draft?” Writing is rewriting.

 

Post-postmodern Satire and More Juggalo Wonder

Post-postmodernism

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the Insane Clown Posse and Juggalo culture where I argued that ICP’s project, so heavily distorted in the tropes and defenses of postmodernity, is essentially resistant to ironic satire and even parody. My piece was prompted largely by ICP’s newest video, Miracles,” a mawkish, sweetly dumb anthem brought to life as a mutant Spencer’s Gifts blacklight poster. A day or two after I posted, a friend sent me Daniel O’Brien’s article in Cracked, Learn Your Motherf#@kin’ Science: A Textbook for Juggalos.O’Brien’s piece seeks to correct ICP’s notion that “rainbows,” “giraffes,” and “magnets” are somehow unexplainable “miracles”; he uses Juggalo vernacular to address the myriad questions (and misapprehensions) expressed in “Miracles.” O’Brien juxtaposes Juggalo-speak against the schema of school texts to point out that “Miracles” is insanely, almost heroically stupid. He does this to be funny, of course, but I think that there’s a sense of exasperation to his parody. It buckles under the strain of mocking something already so radically open to an ironic viewpoint as to render said viewpoint null and void.

About a week after O’Brien and I ran our pieces on “Miracles,” Saturday Night Live attempted another parody of ICP (see my first post for more on their first attempt). Here’s their spoof of “Miracles”:

Again, it’s not very funny. There’s no insight or satirical value, no allegorical leap–it’s just an ironic viewpoint. But what else could it be? What’s left to a satirist when his subject is literally a clown in oversized shorts rapping about the magical mysteries of magnets? In her review of the episode at AV Club, Claire Zullkey wondered, “if SNL should get much credit for a near line-by-line parody of an Insane Clown Posse video that is already ridiculous and ironic,” and Annie Wu at TV Squad noted that “it quickly became obvious that the real Insane Clown Posse video was funnier. Sorry, ‘SNL,’ but no matter how hard you try, you cannot top unintentional ICP hilarity.”

But are ICP unintentional? As I argued in my previous post, they clearly tap into authenticity or “realness” in their project, both in their music and in their connection to their fans, the Juggalos. At the same time, this authenticity is bolstered by commonplace idioms and tropes of postmodernism–code names, fictional personas, costumes, make-up, self-invented mythos, argot, and a keen emphasis on self-referentiality. These postmodern defenses render the question of intentionality radically ambiguous. This is why the old techniques of satire and parody do not hold up very well against ICP: the realness of the thing in itself transcends the ironic viewpoint. Cracked did a much better job with this video:

It’s hardly hilarious, but its mash-up technique actually surpasses ironic-viewpoint-as-parody: there’s some real commentary here. The mash-up artist juxtaposes two “real” sources–a Glade Plug-in ad and clips from the original “Miracles” video and the result is genuine satire. What’s being mocked though isn’t the inanity of the Insane Clown Posse, but the larger inanity of mass commercial culture itself, in which people are encouraged to lose critical perspective, to be reduced to a child-like state of wonder by a fucking air freshener, a consumer product. The satire works by pointing out that the ICP video isn’t really any dumber than most other commercials–it’s just so brazenly over-the-top that we notice its inanity. Indeed “Miracles” calls attention to its inanity. It’s self-aware (perhaps). In any case, this juxtaposition of “the real” shows us that successful post-postmodern satire will not invoke an ironic viewpoint, but rather call attention to the limits of an ironic viewpoint. The “loudness” of ICP’s stupidity is so extreme that we take an ironic view, but what of the far-more subtle stupidities of Glade Plug-in commercials and their ilk? If “Miracles” is to be instructive, let us learn from its distortions, for what it distorts is really just part and parcel of 21st century American culture. It is a priori irony. It is meta-criticism. But it need not be instructive. It can simply be enjoyed for (whatever) it is.