22 October 2008

Filter House Review

My review of Nisi Shawl's collection of stories, Filter House, has been posted at Strange Horizons.

It's the sort of review I mostly refrain from writing -- a negative review of a well-intentioned book from a small press. It took me ages to write, partly because usually I don't continue reading books that fail to hold my interest after a while, but mostly because my brain rebelled against the idea of writing such a review. I have an easier time writing negative things about nonfiction, because ideas are put out there to be challenged and analyzed, but a short story collection from a small press is more an offering than an argument.

So why? Selfish reasons, mostly. I had wanted to begin to clarify some ideas of what differentiates (for me, at least) competent/mediocre fiction from fiction that is either obviously bad or that has elements of greatness (or maybe not greatness, but something more than competence). Filter House was the book at hand, and I was struggling with it in the same way I have struggled with countless stories I've read for Best American Fantasy, countless novels I've looked at for reviewing, countless writings that have made me wonder, since they lack obvious flaws, exactly what it is that causes them to fall flat. I don't know if I succeeded at getting at much of that in the review, or if it justifies the review, but it was the motivation. And the final paragraph is sincere: Nisi Shawl has all the skills to become a powerful writer, and I would not at all be surprised if her future work achieved far more than Filter House does.

I should also offer thanks, as I always do when I review for SH, to Niall Harrison, who once again offered sharp, thoughtful editing and encouraged me to exorcise my dithers.


  1. Matt, it'd be interesting to see you and Chip have a dialogue about this book, which he thinks is brilliant.

  2. That's interesting to know -- Chip and I hadn't talked about it. My taste in fiction and Chip's are pretty different, which in and of itself is something we should explore at some point, because when he writes criticism, he's one of the only critics with whom I can frequently disagree about the value of the particular writer he's evaluating while at the same time finding his critical approach brilliant and very useful. (He and I actually have the most overlap, I think, when it comes to poetry.)

    Reading Filter House was, though, for me such a slog, and writing the review so difficult, that I really have no desire to return to it anytime soon. Perhaps, though, people who see the book differently will be spurred on out of strong disagreement with me to explain specifically how and why they appreciate it -- that would, I think, be valuable (as I said in the review, I honestly can't envision how someone would find it brilliant, so an explanation of that would be quite interesting). I just don't have the energy to be part of a dialogue about it at this point, alas.

  3. I'm prepared to agree with your assessment of Shawl's collection but I think your review would have been better served by a more rigorous interaction with the text-- what exactly is lifeless about the stories? We're given no idea, no way to see what you mean-- you're asking us to take your word for it without offering evidence. But kudos to you for trying to establish where that line of mediocrity exists.

  4. Well, I thought the second half of the review offered the evidence, with the first half setting up the argument, but certainly the amount of evidence readers desire varies.