Reviewing Published Works

18 October 1998

Before getting to the meat, some definitions and exclusions:

  • A work is intended to stand alone between covers. Occasionally, this includes novellas. It always includes novels, anthologies, and collections, regardless of how many volumes it takes. Short fiction has significantly different standards, and will be reviewed here only when it appears in book form.
  • A review should guide a reader who is not familiar with the work in deciding whether to spend time reading it. Nobody can read the entire ouevre anymore; reviews should help prioritize reading efforts. Aside: Some readers may have tastes and approaches diametrically opposed to mine; looking at what I despise may help in some fashion.
  • These reviews concern books as they are published, and will not appear until I am confident the books are available through the major chains. As an editor, I'm all too aware of how much change there can be between the galley or proof and the published version. My review must serve you, the reader, by reviewing what you can obtain.

Unlike the marketing copy on the book—which you can read for yourself—I do not ordinarily give much of a plot summary. In modern and postmodern fiction, plot seldom has the primacy accorded to it by marketing beings (who seldom read the book prior to writing that copy). Many editors—and virtually everyone in the "advice for writers" industry—concentrate on character, under the misguided theory that there are only six (or eight, or thirty-six) plots or "dramatic situations." This dismissal of plot probably results from failure to understand the difference between the archetypal (mythic) structure of events in a work and the plot. It's rather like claiming that all vertebrates are the same because they've graduated from a simple notochord to a flexible, multipart bony sheath around the spinal cord. A tiger is not a fish is not a primate is not… Whether this arises from the nineteenth-century disease of classifying knowledge for the sake of classification or from simple failure to understand myth is immaterial. If a plot summary is critical to understanding the value of the work, I'll discuss it; otherwise, since plot is by far the easiest aspect of a work to outline (remember all those sixth- and seventh-grade plot outlines you had to do instead of actually reading?), I won't waste our time.

And what about character? Character is important. Without character, all we're doing is struggling with bad epic free verse, not reading fiction or telling stories. Once again, though, character is not everything. Character is probably the most personal aspect of any long work; while many people can agree upon the technical skill used in depicting a character, the reactions to that technical skill will vary significantly in any large group of people. And this is before considering nontraditional characters, such as Arthur C. Clarke's HAL, George Orwell's Winston Smith, Aldous Huxley's Bernard Marx, or any other resident of a "novel of ideas." A psychologically realistic character is a product of his or her (or its) environment, and will act accordingly. Sometimes that action is rebellion; sometimes it's acquiescence; sometimes it's something else. But the characters must engage the environment and, through the environment, the reader.

Speaking of the environment—which includes both milieu and idea, in Card's terms—I demand both plausibility and fitness. Plausibility can be created by the "what if" foundation of speculative fiction, such as Tolkien's Middle Earth or Le Guin's Winter. But it takes a lot of work to make the idea and the milieu mesh. Too few writers do that work. Even fewer really explore the implications of what they've created—and those implications are where the real story lives.

Then there's the issue of style. I don't have strong preferences in style, although my own writing tends toward the academic and plainspoken. I'm happy with anything from purple prose-poems to minimalism, if the chosen style is the most effective means of telling the story and reaching the goal. I'm very unhappy with obvious grammatical and linguistic errors that are not themselves part of the story.

Plot, character, environment, and style work together to create the work. The author's apparent (since we can't ever truly know the actual) purpose in writing the work has a significant influence upon the success—or all too often failure—of that work. The writer who is out to make a fast buck does not deserve my time or yours. The writer who only wants to give us "light entertainment" can occasionally produce something quite good. Those who do so, however, are often using a Ferrari to go grocery shopping—they're shamelessly underusing writing and thinking tools they've taken years to develop. The writer with more ambition will often fail; that's part of writing and literature, and the noble failure is usually superior to the timid success.

Speculative fiction can be as good as the very best in the "mainstream." Trope—for speculative fiction is not coherent enough to be a genre—is not a sufficient basis for judgment of quality. At least as much mainstream fiction "fails to exceed the limitations of its kind," to quote a rejection of a classic speculative fiction story by a major mainstream publication, as does speculative fiction. While Sturgeon was an optimist (more than 90% of everything is sh*t), it's not just in speculative fiction. Part of my purpose with these reviews is pushing the envelope a little and hopefully chipping away at the ghetto walls around speculative fiction. Those walls didn't appear overnight, and they were built from both sides. I have selected works for review with that purpose in mind; I don't review even close to the number of works I read.

In the end, all fiction is about the human condition, regardless of comments by certain prominent editors. It matters not whether it takes place on Mars or in a delusion of being on Mars. It matters not whether the magic is "real" or everyday realism viewed through different eyes. It matters not whether the aliens, or demons, or Gibbelins, or human adversaries are really different or just symbols. Fiction is by its nature the manipulation of nonreferential symbols to explain and engage the human condition, and ignoring that nature is not acceptable. Works that fail to so explain and engage fail as fiction. Once a work is put out for public consumption, it is intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise and say sweet nothings about the work. I will seldom, if ever, engage in ad hominem attacks; I am reading books, not psychoanalyzing authors.

Key Points:

  • I do not assume that merely because a work has been published, or is by a name author, that it is worthwhile. Conversely, I do not assume that merely because a work is by a first-time author or minor publisher that it is not.
  • Readers and publishing are better served by honest disgust than by silence. As the old saying in Washington goes, "If you don't have anything nice to say, let's hear it!" This does not mean ad hominem attacks, but attacking the book is fair.
  • A work that aspires only to "light entertainment"—entertainment not requiring the engagement of any brain cells—is never better than acceptable. The very best works, such as Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote, William Gaddis's The Recognitions, Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, or Thomas Williams's The Hair of Harold Roux, blend their entertainment with challenge to the reader. Insulting the reader's intelligence in the name of maintaining some nebulous spirit of light entertainment is going to get insults in return.


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