Monday, April 23, 2007

Reviews and Critics

I haven't posted the second part of my Children of Húrin review for a couple reasons. First, this was the first weekend of spring weather we've had in New England, so I was outdoors from sunup to sundown for the past couple of days, cutting up trees for firewood, planting and teaching my kids to hit a wiffle ball (my son bats lefty!!). Second, the Red Sox swept the Yankees in three amazing games, so my evenings were pretty full of baseball. Finally, the Providence Journal asked me to do a review for their Sunday book section, and I had to write that (I'll post it here once the ProJo publishes it).

But in snorkeling around the web I've come across a variety of reviews and criticism, and I wanted try to grab a minute before classes to address one of them.

I came across [correction, I had Time, but as N. E. Brigand notes, it was actually in ] Entertainment Weekly review, in which the critic calls Tolkien's prose "swampy." This is a perfect example of what I've called "hand-waving" in a bunch of other places (in fact, I need to stop using that phrase). I am a professor of English and one of my interests of study is prose style and I have no idea how I would formally characterize "swampy" prose (sentences long and tangled? Too many adjectives? Sentences, like those used by politicians, that can't hold up to logical scrutiny -- i.e., they sink beneath your feet?). I was wondering if this is some kind of specialized vocabulary like that for wine-tasting, but at least for wine-tasting, people basically agree on what the smells and tastes are. I don't know of any such agreement about "swampy" prose, so really all that phrase says is that the critic doesn't like it.

Now in one sense there’s nothing wrong with this approach. You don’t like something, so you come up with a term to express your displeasure, ( “swampy,” whatever it means in this context, is at least obviously not a compliment). And if the purpose of the review is simply “I liked/disliked this book/movie/play and you will, too” then imprecise language is perfectly acceptable. Such reviews are valuable in guiding a reader towards things he or she might like or dislike, and they may be useful in giving a quick snapshot of the lowest-common-denominator of what a certain class of people think (and I guess you can extrapolate and argue that they indicate what the “culture” thinks of something), but that’s about it.

It is a mistake to take them too seriously, just as it is a mistake to take too seriously anything by Edmund “Bunny” Wilson (I use his ridiculous nickname to indicate my derision for his kind of old-boy, in-the-club, puffed-up book review masquerading as scholarship). Wilson’s infamous “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” doesn’t actually say anything beyond “I didn’t like it,” but it dresses up that dislike as if it were some kind of analysis. Tolkien scholars, present company included, should probably stop jousting with the shade of Bunny Wilson. Book reviews (mine included) are what Schopenhauer said of newspapers in general: the second hand of the clock of history “it is not only made of baser metal than those which point to the minute and the hour, but it seldom goes right.”

Nevertheless, we sometimes want to look to see just what second it seems to be.


John Cowan said...

I would guess that "swampy" was a rather apt description of the reviewer's mental landscape as he read the Narn, probably without so much as a clue about what he was getting into (I haven't read either the new edition or the review, so I'm frankly speculating here): difficult to walk, difficult to navigate because of the apparent lack of landmarks, and eventually leading to the inability to make forward progress at all.

N.E. Brigand said...

The "swampy" review is actually by Jeff Giles in Entertainment Weekly.

Luke Sineath said...

That EW review was actually...offensive. Giles seems intent on not just panning the book, but insulting Tolkien fans.

Perhaps Tolkien just isn't relevant to contemporary pop culture anymore. I don't think I've read one kind review of this book.

Steve Muhlberger said...

I haven't read a lot of wine reviews but I doubt that people do agree on what the tastes are. I've read a whisky column where two informed reviewers evaluate the same Scotch and seldom is there a lot of resemblance.

It's handwaving there, too.

luke, most reviews are about establishing the authority and cachet of the reviewer. There's no advantage in repeating at this stage that Tolkien is great. That ground was covered pretty thoroughly at the beginning of the decade, when all sorts of good and bad explanations could be given for an undeniable phenom. Now the advantage will be in leading the great awakening -- Tolkien, despite some foolish noise made by people 6 years ago (even, giggle, our foolish selves), is really no good.

It will be a generation before one can make a rep reappreciating the unfairly dismissed JRRT.

unfeelingalloy said...

I'm certain that the amounts of comments you receive are astronomical, and that the majority of them are filled with overflowing praise and idol-worship from Tolkien fans. So, even though the boyish part of my brain (which, I must confess, is, as always, the larger part) would have me post something of that ilk, I would just like to take the opportunity to say that I came across your blog from some site which linked this as the place where a reply review to Appleyard's poorly-based opinions could be found. That said, I've been very, very occupied in my life of late, and am sorry to report that I was misinformed about the nature of 'The Children' - thinking rather that it was another compilation of unfinished writings, as opposed to an edited-together, finished primary source. And now of course I've been champing at the bit to get to Barnes and Noble, which I will be doing as early as my lunch break.

At any rate, the sentiments I would like to say are that I both love and completely agree with just about every viewpoint you've put forward on this blog (after having spent most of the evening reading your posts), and that my bookmarks menu has just found a new family member. 'All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,' and you seem to be using well the days.