It is often argued, and always by critics, that we cannot have great literature without great criticism. If this is true, then it follows that we cannot have great criticism unless we have great criticism of that criticism. Thus, this review of a review.
One might hope that a book review would provide the reader with insight into the book under review. One would frequently be disappointed. In place of insight, we too often get nothing more than debris from the collision between the book and the reviewer’s prejudices, or worse, the reviewer’s sense of how he would have written the book if only he weren’t a lazy little dipshit of few redeeming qualities whose greatest contribution to our literature thus far has been a glowing, if semi-literate, review of a book by Terry Fallis. And so it is with Hubert O’Hearn’s review of Marina Endicott’s new novel, an effort that does little to advance the form, nor, indeed, to advance anything at all.
O’Hearn’s review suffers first from stupidity. Reviewers everywhere, allow me to offer you a tip: do not double up your lead by slamming the book with two paragraphs of insult, and then follow up by complaining that you were unable to keep track of which character was younger through some three hundred pages of reading. Your inability to keep track of even the most trivial detail will mark you as a buffoon whose ability to read the more subtle variations of character is surely in question. If you are unable to grasp that the character whose name commences with “B” is younger than the character whose name commences with “C,” the reader may well question whether the problem lies with the book, or with the reviewer.
Above all, O’Hearn wishes that Endicott had not written her book, but had written his instead. It’s a common mistake among those who haven’t quite gotten down to the real work of writing their own: how nice it would be to have someone else drop your book in your lap! And when they fail to do so, the disappointment!
And so O’Hearn complains that Endicott has not used her three sisters in the manner he would use three siblings, if only he were to get off his lazy ass and write something of consequence. And that Endicott did not give Swain’s Rats and Cats the importance O’Hearn would have accorded them, if only he were to get off his ass and write something of consequence. And that Endicott has not concerned herself with the audience, which O’Hearn surely would, if only, etc. The failure of her book, apparently, is that it is her book, and not O’Hearn’s, a point underscored by his continual complaint that she wastes her material.
O’Hearn also complains about the quality of Endicott’s writing, in a paragraph that leaves one muttering, “Physician, go fuck thyself”:
But really— scudding? Slow-flurrying? In trying to write, shall we say, ‘in period’ Endicott throws in clunky phrasing that brings to mind nothing other than The New Yorker and Wolcott Gibbs’ famous description of Time magazine’s style: ‘Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.’ One other point— Groucho actually was from that period, and he sure never talked like that, nor did Bob Hope, George Burns, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice or, hell, anyone who ever drew a living breath.
Notice the wordiness (‘shall we say,’ ‘nothing other than’), his missing comma, his comma splice, his brutal misuse of the em-dash, and the tin ear that leads us from Time magazine style to Groucho Marx through that clumsy “one other point.” This man cannot write.
I am reminded of Jim Harrison’s complaint that he can’t give a damn about a critic who hasn’t written a good book: if your own stuff is no good, who the fuck cares what you have to say? Harrison is wrong here, in that one can be a superb critic without being a competent novelist, but he still has a point: who cares what you have to say about how other people write, if you can’t yourself write an acceptable English sentence? In O’Hearn’s one paragraph I find three errors of punctuation, not to mention a solid dose of the “clunky phrasing” he so derides.
But worse than any of this is the evident glee O’Hearn finds in kicking around someone who has put two more novels out to face the critics than he himself has managed. Reading O’Hearn’s disclaimer (“I’m not enjoying writing this”), complete with emphatic italics, I find myself muttering that the lady doth protest too much. There is the double lead, his sarcastic complaint that the non-sequential names “must have seemed writerly and symbolic,” and his attempt at a final witticism. A reviewer who does not enjoy savaging a book discards sarcasm. To be savage and to pretend one would rather not is dishonest, or, in more precise terms, chickenshit.
Books deserve to be reviewed well, and The Winnipeg Review usually rises to a better level.
I can’t comment on whether The Little Shadows is a good book. Perhaps it is. Perhaps, on the other hand, it’s the kind of book club fiction I so despise. But I can’t help but feel that, having read a review, I should have some sense of which it is. I don’t. O’Hearn, as a reviewer, is a failure. He has provided me with some sense of his pettiness, but no sense of its object.
It occurs to me only recently that I may be guilty of holding back my views on the Giller Prize’s unaccountably short-sighted and tone deaf decision to allow the public to vote one title onto their longlist via the moronic “Reader’s Choice” poll organized by their “broadcast partner,” CBC Books, an organization that appears to be dedicated to enlarging its audience through the destruction of Canadian culture.
So let me now be clear: I was not entirely certain this was a good idea.
Yesterday’s longlist, complete with Readers’ Choice pick Extensions, by Myrna Dey, vindicates that view. I find two serious problems with this book’s place on the longlist: the pungent odor of fish attending its selection, and the poor quality of the writing. In short, as certain outspoken critics warned us might happen, a bad book now appears on the Giller longlist by dint of an effort to stuff the ballot box.
I was prepared to argue that Myrna Dey’s sudden, eleventh hour surge to the top of the poll suggested a concerted campaign, rather than genuine reader interest. I was prepared to use LibraryThing (two copies) and GoodReads (4 copies) as indices of the book’s actual sales (apparently, very small), and then argue the improbability of an essentially unknown book inspiring such an outpouring of affection from the few people who read it as to propel it to the top of the pile. Yes, I was prepared to gather all my evidence and lay out the argument … but then Myrna Dey told the Toronto Star that she credits “a vast network of friends and a Facebook campaign by her daughter in Edmonton with pushing her over the top.”
Elana Rabinovitch started backing away from the Readers’ Choice almost as soon as it was announced, by hinting that it may not happen next year. It hardly credits the Giller Prize when an author, quoted in one of the country’s largest newspapers, openly admits that a spot on the longlist belongs to whoever can organize the most effective Facebook campaign. It is no longer necessary to argue that the Readers’ Choice cheapens the longlist; it has happened. And it is telling that not one of the top ten Readers’ Choice titles made the jury’s longlist.
The Globe & Mail and the National Post, to their credit, have mostly ignored the Readers’ Choice selection. There’s no point in jumping to cover what is ultimately the product of a Facebook campaign. But others have given it more space. Quill & Quire fawningly pretends that Facebook really had little to do with it. The CBC, predictably, wants us to know about the contest they administered. And the Star made the Readers’ Choice their headline and wrapped all their coverage around it.
This leads us to the second problem. Is it any good? Quill & Quire, unaccountably, reviewed this one with kid gloves — and I have to say that I normally see no point picking on a small-press debut that is unlikely to go anywhere. But when a book gets on the Giller longlist, and particularly when it gets there via the controversial Readers’ Choice, we have to be critical. And, based on the first thirty pages published online by NeWest Press, Extensions got a free ride from Q&Q.
Nothing in the first thirty pages suggests that the book is worthy of any award. The dialogue is weak, devoid of any subtext. We frequently get two beats of dialogue, followed by a paragraph of exposition. The characters are almost completely lacking in personality. There is no fire in this writing, no energy, no particular beauty. The writing never commands notice — unless it’s for an unfortunate sentence like “Macy had fallen asleep on Gail’s knee, and she rose carefully to slip into the house with her.”
The first thirty pages teem with the kind of bad writing habits around which creative writing classes are built. Dialogue is repeatedly used for exposition (“I winced that Gail had to work in the ‘Constable,’” the narrator tells us; rest assured, your reader winced, too). Lines are tagged with such words as “Monty grinned.” The dialogue lacks tension or any sense of dramatic purpose. Scenes lack conflict or drive. Arabella’s friends are all perfect. And the exposition … the exposition….
If it hardly credits the Giller that a book can be pushed onto the longlist via a Facebook campaign, it credits the prize less that the book thus nominated is so demonstrably weak. And it should disturb us all that this book, by dint of being the Readers’ Choice, receives so much attention. One hopes that the people who organized this farce will be similarly disturbed.