July 15, 2010
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Good Reviews and Bad Tidings

Rose Fox at Publisher’s Weekly writes a useful notes about Being the Bearer of Sad Tidings.

I would always rather praise than deride; I never forget that authors and publishers read our reviews, and I don’t enjoy telling people that something they’ve worked on for months or years is awful. This may sound odd coming from someone who’s very firmly on the record about the ethical importance of negative reviews.

A careful critic can compress lots of information, insight, and judgment into a very short review. At Readercon, Fox praised Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter . Let’s look at the Publisher’s Weekly capsule.

In this tour de force from bestseller Straub (In the Night Room), four high school friends in 1966 Madison, Wis.--Hootie Bly, Dilly Olson, Jason Boatman, and Lee Truax--fall under the spell of charismatic “wandering guru” Spencer Mallon. During an occult ceremony in which Mallon attempts to break through to a higher reality, something goes horribly awry leaving one participant dead. Decades later, Lee’s writer husband interviews the quartet to find out what happened. In Roshomon-like fashion, each relates a slightly different account of the trauma they experienced. Straub masterfully shows how the disappointments, downturns, and failed promise of the four friends’ lives may have stemmed from this youthful experience, and suggests, by extension, that the malignant evil they helped unleash into the world has tainted all hope ever since. Brilliant in its orchestration and provocative in its speculations, this novel ranks as one of the finest tales of modern horror.

This weighs in at 153 words. It has to be short; there are lots of books to review, and there are never sufficient trees (or ad pages) to say everything we might like. In this small space, the anonymous critic

OK, an editor at PW can’t spell Rashomon, and didn’t check. These things happen, but nobody will be confused. The point is that the reviewer has got our attention and has told us, quickly, what we need to know. And it’s not only, or primarily, buying advice; what we most need to know is why this work was made and why it matters.

Here’s the ELO’s Patricia Tomaszek on The Unknown:

‘The Unknown’ is a collaborative hypertext novel written on the World Wide Web during the turn of the millennium. It is a text about a book tour that takes on the excesses of a rock tour. The work is notorious for breaking the ‘comedy barrier’ in electronic literature, replacing the pretentious modernism and self-consciousness of previous hypertext works with a pretentious postmodernism and self-absorption that is more satirical in nature. The Unknown includes several sections or ‘lines’ of content including a sickeningly decadent hypertext novel, metafiction, documentary material, correspondence, art projects, documentation of live readings, a press kit, and more.

The $47,870 Directory’s entry is even tighter than PW, at 102 words. We start with a plot summary, tell a joke (at the work’s expense), and then have more plot summary.

Is The Unknown notorious for breaking the comedy barrier? I’ve read rather a lot of hypertext criticism, and I just wrote a review article about it. I had not heard of “the comedy barrier” before I read this review. If you Google

hypertext “comedy barrier”

you get one hit — the directory review. Substitute "electronic literature" for “hypertext”, same result. Can you be notorious for breaking something that nobody has heard of?

I’m not sure whether “comedy” is used here as a genre or a euphemism for funny. How confident are we that there wasn’t any funny hypertext before 1998? For that matter, is The Unknown funny? I’ve got Gerald’s Party on my desk today; it’s a nifty book, and I think it might have influenced The Unknown, but I’m not sure funniness is its central characteristic. See Kerouac, rinse, and repeat with Hunter S. Thompson while drinking a shot of Ken Kesey.

It’s not quite clear, either, whether the reviewer actually intends to say that The Unknown is “sickeningly decadent”, “pretentious”, and self-absorbed, or whether she is ironically echoing the work’s own self-mockery. And what we don’t see here is any very clear indication of what the writers were trying to do, or just how they went about it. There’s a ton of writing about The Unknown — journalism, criticism, a couple of MA theses, book chapters — but you wouldn’t know that from the Directory. In fact, the Directory entry doesn’t really tell us why or how we might want to read The Unknown.