Fiction and Necessity (Among Other Subjects)

I wasn't sure if I should comment on Mark Rich's review of Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen. After all, Jeff's a friend, and City of Saints is a book I enjoy and admire so much that it sends me into spasms of hyperbole whenever I write about it. I also recognize it's not the sort of book that will appeal to every reader.

That said, the review has stuck in my mind for a few days, which means I really need to write something so I can stop thinking about it. I have no desire to be the VanderMeer Watchdog, but Rich's essay raises large issues of how innovative books are reviewed, and those issues should be addressed.

I am not against negative reviews, nor am I against negative reviews of books I like, or of books by people I like, or both. Indeed, I think a critic's first obligation is to be honest, though it's nice if that honesty can be tempered with knowledge of context and with fine reading skills. Even the best critics make mistakes, contradict themselves, miss points that are obvious even to casual readers, etc. For the record, I do think Mark Rich offers some thoughtful close readings of a few sections of the book, and he's not a bad writer.

However, I think he gets City of Saints wrong again and again, and his review suffers from narrow thinking. I don't want to quibble with assertions of his own taste -- de gustibus and all that jazz -- but Rich makes a few statements that at least deserve some questioning.

First, he doesn't seem to know a lot about how the book came about, nor about the various editions of it that exist. This would not be a mistake in most reviews, since a book should be read for itself and not its history, but Rich makes an issue of it having been originally printed by a publisher that uses print-on-demand (POD) technology:
Print-on-demand technology is a kind of instant-fix technology, a way of making something relatively quick and simple that was once laborious and complex. Observers of the book scene have expressed the same worries about print on demand that they have expressed about electronic publishing: that the rushing to print would tend to bleed over into other parts of the book-preparation process, so that other laborious stages, such as the editing, might be done via an instant-fix approach of the spell-checker variety.

For writers with a penchant for shaping phrases with unlikely combinations of elements, in which meaning is stretched and sometimes broken, the reduction of editorial influence could actually prove beneficial. Is this the case here?
(Rich then argues with a few sentences from one page of the book.) Note the assumption that is passed to the reader here: this book was not carefully edited, and it was, essentially, self-published in haste.

I can identify with the desire to question how a book is edited -- I have done so, for instance, in the case of China Mieville. When I discovered my assumptions were wrong, however, I made a point of giving Colleen Lindsay's comments a prominent place on this site so that I could stand corrected. Now that I know how those books were edited, I read them somewhat differently, and do what I probably should have done in the first place: I assume everything is intentional, and judge it that way.

The writing process and publishing history of City of Saints and Madmen is far more public than that of many other books, and so Rich's ignorance is, perhaps, even less excusable than mine was. The fact is, every page of the book was carefully proofread and edited, and some of the stories, including "Dradin, In Love", which Rich singles out for criticism, have been edited and published multiple times.

As I said, it wouldn't be an issue if Rich hadn't made it one:
The first quotation does suggest that the risk of the print-on-demand book-making may be a real one: it may make it too easy to ignore the sort of slow, laborious editorial process that would catch the false parallel structure in a phrase such as, "north of it stood the religious district and his old teacher, Cadimon Signal," or perhaps clarify the symbolic "standing" of Signal above the merely physical religious district.
Here, the assumption is that the writer doesn't quite know what he's doing and needs an editor to teach him how to write. Shouldn't the critic's first job be to assume the writer intended to write what he did, and, unless it leads to no viable conclusion, evaluate it on that basis?

Again, I can hold myself up as a warning to others. When I wrote about Ian MacLeod's The Light Ages, I criticized some of his stylistic and usage choices, because they had annoyed me as I read the book. A number of people suggested MacLeod might have intended the "errors", because he wanted to suggest something about the narrator's education and social status. That is good reasoning. What I should have said originally is that, though the usage errors could perfectly well have been intentional, they were not effective because the vast majority of the sentences were quite well constructed and standardized, replicating writing rather than speech, and so even if they were intentional, the choice seemed, to me, to be an unfortunate one. I didn't say this, and so I made myself seem to be more of a prig than I usually am.

Mark Rich doesn't come off as a prig, but his assumptions are condescending, and he gets lost in an irrelevant issue when he could have explored quite an interesting topic: If Jeff VanderMeer intended to write the way he did, what does that suggest about the form and meaning of the book? (That sounds a bit like an essay question on a test I'd write for my students, but you get the idea.)

Even amidst this balderdash, we get some glimpses of the excellent essay Rich might have written had he not distracted himself. Note this paragraph:
The second and third quotations suggest that the writing is sometimes being guided by sonority, rather than always by the flow of meaning. This can be a positive thing, if a music of verbal sound arises that never would otherwise, in a more rational approach to the actual writing.
It's a good, basic insight that could have led somewhere. Unfortunately, Rich doesn't follow through:
It can also be negative--especially from the point of view of the reviewer. If sense sometimes surrenders to sound, it means the details within the writing cannot always be trusted: an element's appearance at one point in the story may be a freak, or improvisation, that has nothing to do with the appearance of the same or similar elements elsewhere.
This is either a call for writing to be plain and simple or it's nonsense. In either case, it is wrong. In any sophisticated fiction, from the earliest novels onward, the details within the writing cannot always be trusted. And sound has sometimes trumped sense at least since Shakespeare, who quite often wrote marvelous passages that make little sense at all.

What Rich wanted to say was, "I don't like writing that isn't straightforward." We discover this later in the review:
The problem of such cleverness, presented seemingly for its own entertainment value rather than as an element stitched into something larger, is a real one for a reader such as I am: once I lose the thread of human applicability, the thread that ties the fictional experience to my ongoing, inner experience of the world as a reader, then I lose track of why I am reading. I began losing this thread in "The Hoegbottom Guide to the Early History of Ambergris," in the first half of the book; and then thoroughly lost it in the "AppendiX" (sic), which comprises about an even half of this book, as it is printed. I do not doubt the value of intelligence at play, or clever world-building, or even clever world-taking-apart. I certainly do not doubt the value of experimental fiction, nor of fiction in which the narrator, parading as the author, feels the fictional need to intervene and intrude. At the same time, I must acknowledge that I occasionally raise a readerly white flag and surrender, letting text go undigested on the page, since to my eyes it seems to want to remain there rather than take the jump into the reading mind. ...

What I might venture is being lost, in the course of the volume, is the sense of the necessary, a sense present in "Martin Lake" to the greatest degree: the things that appear on the pages are there because they need to be there. Sparks and flames of fictional necessity flare only now and then, through the pages remaining.
These assertions are, again, condescending and narrow-minded, or at least self-contradictory. There are plenty of people for whom the sorts of things City of Saints is exploring and playing with are neither interesting nor compelling. That's fine. But a review that extrapolates from one book to all of fiction has to be able to answer for its general statements. If Rich truly doesn't mind experiment in fiction, if he thinks there is value in metafictional moments, then what he's really saying is, City of Saints is not a successful experiment, and the various techniques employed by the author don't work. That's an appropriate topic, but it raises one crucial question: Don't work to do what?

Here we need to import Rich's implied definition of "fiction that works": "the things that appear on the pages are there because they need to be there". This is a common enough argument for a certain kind of minimalist fiction, but it sounds more definitive and important than it is. Nothing needs to be there. No story needs to be written, no book needs to be published. Stories are written because writers want to write them, books are published because somebody chooses to publish them, and they are read because readers decide to read them. Necessity has nothing to do with it. Writing and reading are all beholden to choice and leisure.

The argument about necessity is really an argument about how the writer communicates with the reader. If we feel that a sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter of a book is "necessary", it means we feel the author has made good use of the material and has communicated to us the reason for using it. If we feel that something is not "necessary", we don't know why we are being asked to read it, how it relates to the other words or paragraphs or pages, or why the writer chose to include it. Writers either steal, adapt, or build templates for readers. Stolen templates produce the most familiar sorts of writing, the easiest kind of writing to read. Adapted templates produce more difficult writing, but they allow us to use our previous reading experiences to interpret the text. Original templates are the most demanding -- think of Finnegan's Wake, or much of Beckett.

City of Saints and Madmen doesn't fit perfectly into my hasty taxonomy -- it utilizes familiar templates, adding them together into an adapted template, but the overall book is an original template, and that's what causes Rich so many problems. It may be that the book does not fulfill its promise, it may be that it violates its own terms, but to evaluate whether it does so, that promise and those terms must be identified. Rich doesn't know how to approach it, because his own definitions of what is "good fiction" are too narrow to include a book like VanderMeer's no matter how well it is written, no matter how well it achieves whatever it can achieve, no matter how well it creates its own template. There is no possible way Rich could judge City of Saints to be successful any more than anyone knew how to judge the plays of Georg Buchner when they were first written. It's like trying to judge a Porsche by the standards of a John Deere. Both have their purposes and advocates, but the Porsche doesn't do well in mud and the John Deere is pretty dull on the highway.

(By the way, Strange Horizons, where Mark Rich's article appears, is holding a fund drive this month, and even though I sometimes take exception to their articles, they are a venue deeply deserving of your support. Few other places even publish articles that get me thinking enough to want to comment on them, and the fiction and poetry published on the site are of consistently high quality. The staff is made up of idealistic and intelligent volunteers who are quite wonderful people, and they deserve accolades and rewards.)

Update 9/11: Matt Peckham offers his thoughts. Cheryl Morgan is worried about Strange Horizons' articles department. I have more faith in SH than Cheryl does for the moment, but I do think they might want to consider running nonfiction less frequently, because the need to print something every week inevitably makes them have to publish work that isn't as well-considered as it should be.

Popular posts from this blog

Ghosts: In Memory of Elizabeth Webb Cheney

God's Own Country

A Conversation with Nathan Alling Long

On Academic Book Prices, and Other Subjects...

Speculative Memoir