With all the recent discussion of reviews, I spent an uneasy few minutes early this morning to check if any of the authors whose novels I have panned are likely to be at WorldCon. To my relief, only Stephen Baxter is on the list so far, and I suspect his ego is sufficiently robust (and the other reviews of the book in question sufficiently affirming) that he is unlikely to seek me out for revenge.

I’m usually happy to take the line that “This just didn’t work for me” rather than that the book in question is bad in some objective sense. Though I will be unforgiving of prose that is genuinely bad – such as the character whose wounds “looked like huge purple welts”, probably because they were large purple welts. And I like my villains to have a clear means and motivation for their actions.

My interest in this topic has been further piqued by a couple of recent posts on my f-list, and I’ve actually taken the time to read Carol Emshwiller’s story “Boys“, Trent Walters’ critique of it, and then the subequent argument between him and .

Basically – and while this is of course just my view, I think it’s what most readers of the story and the critique would conclude (eg here) – has the right of it. Walters, as far as one can tell, has completely and disastrously failed to understand the concept that the views expressed by a character may not be those held by the author. “Unreliable” is perhaps an unfortunate word to apply to a narrator, as it has implications of dishonesty, but as far as I’m concerned the narrator’s “unreliability” is revealed in the very first paragraph:

Boys are so foolhardy, impetuous, reckless, rash. They’ll lead the way into smoke and fire and battle.

We readers know that this is not universally true of all boys all the time, and I’m stunned that anyone could read it as an expression of the author’s personal view. The quote illustrates very well where the narrator is coming from, what he tells himself about the truth of the world; but we readers also know he’s wrong, because of our own life experience, and indeed the colonel’s own account confirms this, as he shows us his own more caring, less “manly” side at numerous points in the story.

My own “close reading” of the story suggests that the author is trying to say this: a society which rigidly divides the sexes and tries to enforce gender roles will fail, because it isn’t in human nature; and the narrator illustrates this through his own thoughts, words and actions. He feels loyal to the rigid divisions of his society, but he is in fact capable of acting in a less “manly” way, even though he may feel uncomfortable about admitting this to himself. The opening statements about boys are a statement of the character’s ideology, not the author’s, and should be seen as a profession of faith which the narrator (as it turns out) is himself not fully convinced of.

I’m not totally wild about the story – the basic theme seems to me a bit of a straw man, in that the society portrayed is unlikely to come about, and the whole theme was explored in much greater depth in a novel which I have an unfashionable affection for, Sherri S Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. But it’s amazing that Walters missed the point so completely, despite the efforts of the author herself and numerous others to point him in the right direction. ‘s characterisation of Walters’ critique as both “massive and misguided” is accurate. The subsequent discussion is, unfortunately, somewhat pissy, though my sympathies are with . (Though I think his riposte re Electric Velocipede should have been left as an apologia for writing a shorter rather than a longer review, and it was unnecessary, as far as I can see, to personalise it.)

I also agree that because reviews are personal accounts, reviewers who write in the third person sound very pretentious, and this is a real disincentive to investing the time necessary to discover what the reviewer actually thinks.

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1 Response to Reviews

  1. ramurphy says:

    I enjoy watching Olbermann work up to a frothing rage while maintaining emotional integrity. And I agree that only in America could a sportscaster become a political pundit overnight.

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