More words of advice for the writer of a negative review

Nigel Beale quotes Helen Gardner:

“Critics are wise to leave alone those works which they feel a crusading itch to attack and writers whose reputations they feel a call to deflate. Only too often it is not the writer who suffers ultimately but the critic…”

Beale asks: “Which is great and poetic and all, however, is silence enough?”

To me, the chief function of the critic ought to be explore a work as honestly as possible and to illuminate to the best of her abilities. This means openness and it means being willing to say that a work is weak (and why), as well as showing how it is weak. In other words, you should be able to answer the who, what, where, when, why, and how on it, with an emphasis on the last two.

One should squelch “a crusading itch to attack and writers whose reputations they feel a call to deflate,” if you’re attacking merely to attack, or merely because someone’s balloon is overinflated. For example, Tom Wolfe seems a frequent and, to my mind, unfair object of ridicule among critics. But if you’re rendering a knowledge opinion that happens to be negative, you’re doing what you should be, and what I strive to. Often this means writing about why a book fails—perhaps too frequently.

Good reviews and Updike

Every attempt at review and criticism ought to be good—but that doesn’t mean positive. A review should be “good” in the sense of well-done and engaging might be a negative one. In an ideal world, the book should decide that as much as the critic.

John Updike’s rules for reviewing are worth following to the extent possible. I would emphasize three of them:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

In the end, I think such rules are designed to keep the reviewer as honest as the reviewer can be. I keep coming back to the word “honesty” because it so well encapsulates the issues raised by Beale, Updike, Orwell, and others.

I especially like the “direct quotation” comment because there are no artificial word limits on web servers, meaning that you should give the reader a chance to disagree with your assessment through direct experience. Quoting of a sufficient amount of material will give others a chance to make their own judgments. Merit can be argued but not proven: thus, a critic can avoid silence and unfair attack.

As the above shows, I like Beale’s answer—”no”—which seems so obvious as to barely need stating. I’d rephrase Gardner’s assertion to this: “beware of relentlessly and thoughtlessly attacking.”

The Aeron, The Rite of Spring, and Critics

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he quotes Bill Dowell, who was the lead researcher for Herman Miller during the development and release of the now-famous Aeron in the early 1990s; I’m sitting in one as I type this. The Aeron eventually sold fantastically well and became a symbol of boom-era excess, aesthetic taste, ergonomic control, excessive time at computers, and probably other things as well. But Dowell says that the initial users hated the chair and expressed their displeasure in focus groups and testing sites. According to him, “Maybe the word ‘ugly’ was just a proxy for ‘different.’ ”

That’s a long wind-up for an analogy that explains how Helen Gardner might be telling us that when we instinctively dislike, we might be reacting against novelty rather than its real merit, as critics and listeners notoriously did during Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. She’s wise to warn us about that danger, because it’s how people who pride themselves on taste and knowledge become conservative, stuffy critics. If we’re saying something is “bad” merely because it’s “different,” then we’ve already effectively died aesthetically because we’re no longer able to expand what “good” means. One thing I like about Terry Teachout’s criticism and his blog, About Last Night, is that he has strong opinions but still very much seems to have aesthetic suppleness.

But the Aerons and Ulysses of the world are exceedingly rare. Dune and Harry Potter aren’t among them. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland at least might be, which I concede obliquely in my post about it.

Most works of art are, by definition, average.

The question is: to what extent is that a bad thing? Maybe none at all: an average novel doesn’t cause the death or disfigurement of children, or propagate social inequality, or do any number of other pernicious things. Its chief ill is that it wastes time for the person who reads it and perceives it as average (as opposed to the person who reads it and judges it extraordinary, which many Harry Potter readers have evidently done).

Milan Kundera thinks otherwise—in The Curtain, he writes, “… a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.” He gives himself a key out here: the word “consciously.” I doubt many writers consciously set out to produce commonplace books, or do so with that intent, and so may be rescued from the burden of Kundera’s scorn. Like the criminal justice system, Kundera separates those who knowingly commit a crime from those who do so accidentally.

You need to have read widely, however, to be capable of knowing the average from the incredible, and those whose effusive praise for Harry Potter and Dan Brown splatters the web show they haven’t. Hence, perhaps, the hesitance many Amazon reviewers show toward low scores, which one of Beale’s commenters observes.

The Aerons of Art

I now look at the Aeron as beautiful, and to me the over-stuffed office chairs that used to symbolize lawyerly and corporate status look as quaint as black and white photos of Harvard graduation classes without women or minorities. If we’re open to seeing the new, I think we’ll be safe enough in condemning the indifferent and pointing towards the genuinely astonishing works that are very much out there.

Edit: The Virginia Quarterly Review weighs in.

Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics — George Johnson

Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is both more fun to read and more informative than George Johnson’s Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics, which promises an in-depth explanation of conspiracy theories and theorists but doesn’t really deliver.

Johnson’s central claim is that conspiracy theorists see sinister links between a variety of unrelated or barely related occurrences while simultaneously lacking the ability to deal with ambiguity and change. They lack the critical rigor necessarily to separate cause and effect, correlation and causation, coincidence and connection. It’s an intriguing idea that he should have explored more, at the expense of vapid histories of mostly right-wing conspiracy theorists. The John Birch Society and Lyndon LaRouche both get prominent billing, but both now seem dated; the pinnacle of their ideas’ power came with the Oklahoma City Bombing, after which conspiracy theorists of that style receded very low-level background cultural noise—especially after 9/11 revealed real problems, as opposed to the invented ones Johnson chronicles.

Still, Architects of Fear is amusing for its depiction of bogus reasoning used by conspiracy theorists. For example, Adam Weishaupt was a Bavarian university professor who “wanted to bring the spirit of rationalism and the philosophical Age of Enlightenment to his benighted land.” To do so, he founded a group he called the Illuminati, who have provided fodder for lousy Dan Brown-style novels ever since (along with the aforementioned Foucault’s Pendulum, which is excellent, showing that cultural flowers do sometimes spring forth from the most unusual places). In turn, conspiracy theorists have cited the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, and others as possessing secret, hermeneutical knowledge, which is proven in a variety of absurd ways. For example, one section from Architects of Fear says:

As conspiracy theorists are fond of pointing out, Weishaupt structured [the Illuminati] like a pyramid […] Eventually, thirteen ranks were established. Thirteen levels, as on the dollar-bill pyramid. As initiates learned new powers and secrets, they ascended the step of the pyramid, coming increasingly closer to the light.

But virtually all organizations are structured as pyramids, with a relatively small number of leaders at the top and a larger number of functionaries below them. The United States itself functions like this, with a President as the leader, and most corporations have a CEO who is blamed, fairly or not, for what goes well or poorly in an organization, despite the amount of control she might or might not have.

Alas: Johnson didn’t point this out, and it’s one of the many examples of where his analysis is flat or inadequate. He does sometimes hit useful points, as when he says, “Many of the founding fathers were Freemasons and sympathized with Masonic aims of universal brotherhood, but sharing symbols and ideas is different from participating in a plot.” It is, and I would’ve liked to hear more on the subject.

Thin research might prevent Johnson from saying more; most of the research he does have comes from newspaper articles, and most of the chapters consist of rehashes of those articles rather than original observations built on substantial knowledge. Architects of Fear could have been a better book, but it shows the weakness of journalists-turned-book-writers, as opposed to something like Dave Cullen’s Columbine, which shows the strengths. Along those lines, in another section Johnson says that:

Modern historians […] believe the Antichrist predicted in Revelation refers to Roman emperor Nero. The book apparently was written after Christ’s death to comfort Christians persecuted by Nero’s “one-world government,” the Roman empire.

But he cited no sources for this claim in the bibliography. I have no idea whether it’s actually true because I know little about historical scholarship surrounding the Bible. He also gave no citation for his “one-world government” quote, meaning that it might have come from somewhere or merely be offset to show how conspiracy adherents might observe the Roman Empire. As far as I can tell, however, no one has come along to do it better; books like Jane Parish and Martin Parker’s The Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory and the Human Sciences sound too narrow, while Daniel Pipes’ Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From is more promising but still reminiscent of an amorphous genre. Nonetheless, they seem better alternatives than Architects of Fear.

Worth keeping? No.
Worth buying? No.
Worth reading? No.

Dune and its laughable honor code relative to Beowulf and Fast & Furious

Note: this is an addendum to an earlier post on Dune.

In Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents ,* Elaine Showalter quotes a letter that Kingsley Amis wrote as a student regarding the Old English requirement at Oxford: “The warriors and broken-down retainers who strut bawling across its pages repel by their childish fits of self-glorification and self-pity. The cheapest contemporary novel has more to teach us than those painful reminders of what we have long outgrown.” Although I think Old English has more merit than Amis gives it here, the sentiment regarding the sentiment of that time is one I can get behind, and one of my major criticisms of Frank Herbert’s Dune is essentially that it is guilty of the same sins: childish warriors, ceaseless strutting, and the acceptance/embrace of retrograde cultural ideals regarding the roles of women and the need for killing.

You can see the worship of honor in Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, when the eponymous warrior’s death is occasion for twelve warriors to ride around the king and for them to “extoll… his heroic nature and exploits / and [give] thanks for his greatness; which was the proper / thing.” This scene wouldn’t be out of place in Dune, which is a problem for a novel written in 1965 rather than, say, the tenth century.

That’s not to say that these problems are limited to Dune, or to novels. Take the recent movie Fast & Furious, which is is astonishingly good when measured by decibel. In it, Paul Walker is compared unfavorably to Vin Diesel when a character implies, with a completely straight face, that Walker has no “code.” It was one of many unintentionally funny moments because the creators of the movie apparently missed, say, the last two hundred years of cultural development away from the idea of rigid masculinity codes and towards a great sense of irony and fluidity. If your code of honor forces you to kill someone because they’ve disrespected your MacGuffin, or whatever, your most likely destination is jail, which is appropriate, and your code is likely to prevent or hamper you from adapting to new social or environmental situations. But Dune and Fast & Furious both present having codes and what not as positive. In that respect they resemble Beowulf

I would like to imagine that at some point the culture as a whole will move beyond its silly obsession with tit-for-tat internecine identity fighting that causes people, usually of the male persuasion, to behave like moose who ceaselessly charge against one another because it’s mating season. Still, given the deep cultural, and maybe even biological, roots of this disorder, I’m not counting on this happening anytime soon, but maybe recognizing malady, as Amis did, is a step towards dialectically surpassing it.

* Which I’m reading in preparation for a conference. More perhaps on that later.

The view from the Tucson afternoon

Outside my window:


After weeks of hundred-plus days, rain signifies that one can go outside without roasting or feeling caught between sun and pavement. In Seattle, rain was the default and sun a rare treat. Tucson is the opposite; now I marvel gratefully at the rain, thinking that we often want a change from whatever we have, if only for variety’s sake.

Real work calls, and I have a proposal to write.


Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior — Geoffrey Miller

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior is worth reading, but only with a skeptical eye that will keep you from passively imbibe ideas like, “In a complex, media-rich society, perhaps only people with very good mental health can tolerate a high degree of openness without losing their equilibrium” (emphasis added). I suspect many if not most people would ignore “perhaps” and take away the larger message without questioning whether it has real backing. Like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Spent should be read but read with a doubter’s wariness of the false or ridiculous. Both Outliers and Spent tend to overstate their cases and exaggerate the power of the ideas they impart, and knowing that makes the books a better (and less misleading) read.

If I were in marketing or public relations, I would make sure to read Spent, if for no other reason than its unusual erudition relative to other pop science books and its delivery of a widely ignored framework for understanding products, branding and the like—including how individuals are turned off by branding and advertising as a reaction to it. I would like to imagine myself in the latter category but probably am not to the extent I would prefer. Spent might make me more so by acting as an inoculation against marketing.

One other structure note: Spent is probably three books: one about marketing, one about evolutionary mating theory, and one about consumerism. They’re not always integrated, but three good discrete books jumbled together definitely beat one indifferent standalone book.

I’ll begin with some of Spent’s problems:

1) Ignore the hokey dialog in Spent’s opening pages.

If I had read the first few pages of Spent in a book store, that might have turned me off it. The gimmick is annoying, yes, but don’t discard the book for that reason.

2) Miller puts too much stock into IQ testing and ignores or belittles the vast (and justifiably so) controversy around it.

In All Brains Are the Same Color, Richard E. Nisbett discusses some knowledge regarding the mutability of IQ tests in a racial context, but that context can be generalized to a broader domain. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about similar issues in None of the above: What I.Q. doesn’t tell you about race in The New Yorker, where he discusses the many problems of tests used to ascertain intelligence. He also wrote Outliers, which popularizes the “10,000 hours to mastery” idea. If the path to mastery is practice, people who conscientiously work toward improving IQ-like skills through schooling will in turn improve their scores. That most people don’t might more indicative of motivation or of institutional problems than of genetic intelligence, especially since we still can’t get much beyond correlation in measurements of it. If you want more support for Miller’s perspective, William Saletan’s Created Equal offers some in Slate. Miller says:

Human intelligence has two aspects that make it a bit confusing at first. There is a universal aspect: intelligence as a set of psychological adaptations common to all normal humans… Then there is an individual-differences aspect: intelligence as a set of correlated differences in the speed and efficiency of those natural human capacities…

But he again leaves out intelligence as a function of skill and training.

In any event, this post isn’t meant to be a rehashing or literature review of knowledge on intelligence testing; to perceive the arguments in full is practically a Ph.D. in itself given the history, breadth, and depth of such arguments. The evidence for absolute IQ heritability and genetic intelligence is far weaker than Miller presents it, and it’s frustrating that he doesn’t recognize this.

3) Some statements are vacuous (if interesting).

Miller writes:

Like most reasonable people, I feel deep ambivalence about marketing and consumerism. Their power is awe-inspiring. Like gods, they inspire both worshipful submission and mortal terror

That’s more than a little contrived, and whatever power marketing and consumerism have is power that we give them. Most people probably never or seldom consider either, at least not in the academic terms Miller uses. Still, he uses the section to comic effect, as when he notes the things “exciting and appalling” about consumerism and marketing, including “frappuccinos, business schools, In Style magazine, Glock handguns, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, Dubai airport duty-free shops… the contemporary art market, and Bangkok.”

4) Elitism runs through the book, even when it’s disguised.

This is in part a continuation of the second point. Take, for example, this:

If we do choose to ignore the marketing revolution, we do so because we are terrified of a world in which our elite ideals lose their power to control the fruits of technology. (If you have the leisure time, education, and inclination to read this book, you are obviously a member of the elite.)

The marketing revolution is only as important as we let it be. Much of marketing comes to us through TV and the Internet, but not owning a TV (preferably without being this guy) and Firefox’s Adblock Plus plugin go a long way toward neutering marketing.

I am reminded of a comment from Asher Lev’s uncle in My Name is Asher Lev: “I read. A watchmaker does not necessarily have to be an ignoramus.” So too with people in general.

Sometimes I’m susceptible to nodding through the elitist comments when they flatter my preconceived ideas, as with this statement:

People indoctrinated in hedonistic individualism, religious fundamentalism, or patriarchal nationalism—that is, 99 percent of humanity—are not accustomed to thinking imaginatively about how to change society through changing its behavioral norms and institutional habits.

That might be true, but might there also be a less snide way of stating it?

5) Maybe, maybe not.

I’m not convinced that “Marketing is central to culture,” which is the title of Spent’s third chapter, or at least not unless we’re to stretch marketing beyond a useful definition. I do like the way Miller calls marketing “… ideally, a systematic attempt to fulfill human desires by producing goods and services that people will buy.” Not that the actual marketing often lives up to that, but it’s impressive that Miller is willing to concede that given his ambivalence about the subject and his knowledge of how prone marketing and consumerism are to abuse.

Nations aren’t exactly marketing or signaling in all the examples Miller gives in his chapter “Flaunting Fitness,” like when he says that they “compete to show off their socioeconomic strength through wasteful public ‘investments’ in Olympic facilities, aircraft carriers, manned space flight, or skyscrapers.” Some of that is their for humorous effect, but aircraft carriers and manned space flight both improve their associated technologies enormously, giving us modern day marvels like GPS and massive cruise ships, while skyscrapers allow denser human interactions of the sort that my perhaps favorite economist, Edward Glaeser, describes in his many papers on the subject.


The book is filled with ideas, which ought to be evident even from the weaknesses. Brilliant summations occur in places, as when Miller writes, “… plausible deniability and adaptive self-deception allow human social life to zip along like a maglev monorail above the ravines and crevasses of tactical selfishness, by allowing the most important things to go unsaid—but not unimagined.” The metaphor is overwrought, yes, but the sentiment reinforces the “Games People Play” chapter of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought. One can see ideas from his book reaching into others and vice-versa, which I consider a strength.


In talking about “Narcissism and Capitalism,” Miller says that the “core symptoms” of narcissism “lead narcissists to view themselves as stars in their own life stories, protagonists in their own epics, with everyone else a minor character. (They’re like bloggers in that way.)” The dig about bloggers too frequently rings true, even when given in jest.

Some of the funny parts of Spent might not be intended as such, as when Miller deadpans, “The typical Vogue magazine ad shows just two things: a brand name, and an attractive person.” Someone must think this is effective, and I wonder if those ads are part of the fifty percent of one’s advertising budget that’s wasted.

Another Brick

Nonfiction books like this one, most of Gladwell’s (questionable) work, Pinker’s, Ariely’s, and Zimbardo’s, along with the other recent pop professor books, are bricks in the road to greater understanding. They remind us of and help us correct our foibles, and even those of us who consider ourselves virtuous would do well to remember that “the renouncers [of materialism] remain awesomely self-deceived in believing that they have left behind the whole castle of self-display just by escaping the dungeon of runaway consumerism.” Instead, they take to other displays of taste, of artistic creation, of intellectual prowess, and the like, perhaps by writing book/literary blogs. Nonetheless, those activities are probably more socially productive than, say, McMansions, yachts, and SUVs. Spent helps us engage and grapple with those phenomena and our society as a whole, and even some of the weaknesses I enumerate above aren’t as weak as I imply, or else I wouldn’t spend as much time as I do.

(See also my earlier post about Spent and vacuous movies.)

(The New York Times also has a vacuous article about the book in the Times’ Science section. If I were one of those irritating triumphalist bloggers, I might point to this as an example of the superiority of Internet reporting.)

Dune — Frank Herbert

Unlike, say, Ray Bradbury and or Dan Simmons’ novels, the Dune series is probably best appreciated before one’s literary taste has better developed. It still offers some treats like a plot that moves worlds, which begins with a deadly test that, even if we know Paul Muad’dib will pass, still offers immediate tension reminiscent of the later His Dark Materials trilogy.

Granted, some of the motives regarding moves and action don’t stand up to great scrutiny—why go to Arrakis in the first place, again?—but writing that isn’t actively abhorrent. Dune does some things really, really well—most notably its descriptions of cognitive states, which have the subtlety and nuance absent from the many, many moments when the book drops into characters’ mind to telegraph what they’re feeling instead of letting us infer it. Thufir Hawat, one of the many guards and weapons masters, thinks:

He might be at that, Hawat thought. That witch-mother of his is giving him the deep training, certainly. I wonder what her precious school thinks of that? Maybe that’s why they sent the old Proctor here—to whip our dear Lady Jessica into line.

Somehow we need to be immersed in the world and given information about it, but this seems a clumsy and transparent way of doing it—and it persists through the novel, and most of the time it conveys that we’re not smart enough to understand the characters without their little soliloquies. We’re constantly hearing about how “This must not get out of hand” even when the need is already obvious. The Harry Potter series is guilty of the same problem, as revealing too much about characters while simultaneously making them flat, stealing the mystery that might otherwise make us interesting. Hamlet’s soliloquies make him less scrutable and more real; Hawat and Paul’s have the opposite effect.

Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the dialog clangs, whether it’s within or spoken. Early on, we’re treated to standard fantasy/sci-fi pablum about independence and caring:

“The old woman’s voice softened. “Jessica, girl, I wish I could stand in your place and take your sufferings. But each of us must make her own path.”
“I know.”
“You’re as dear to me as any of my own daughters, but I cannot let that interfere with duty.”

We could be in a Marine barracks, or a royal court, or a foreign planet, or a softball game, or any number of other places. This extends to the characters. The villains are irredeemably evil and cruel, taking obvious delight in those traits like a child with an over-sized ice cream. They’re more laughable than anything else, but they never laugh at themselves—how could they and maintain their dignity?—but no one else laughs at them either.

The entire absence of laughter makes Dune harder to take than it might have been in the past. The poignancy of its lack is most notable when references appear, like this one: “Paul held himself apart from the humor, his attention focused on the projection and the question that filled his mind.” But Paul never becomes part of the humor, and neither does the reader. We’re too busy being bombarded with relentless seriousness and nobility, like a 15th Century morality play. Destiny is so important that one can ignore life. Honor and codes are everything.

We’ve taken that 15th Century attitude and brought it forward thousands of years; Paul kills a woman’s husband and is asked by one of the many Noble Savages on Arrakis, “Do you accept Harah as woman or servant?” Maybe one should ask her. Maybe she should read The Feminine Mystique and ask herself if she should submit to cultural imperatives making her property to whichever buck has the biggest horns. But it’s not her place to grow—not in this narrative, or at least not in a meaningful way, and we’re not supposed to feel for her: we’re with Paul Muad’dib and his seductive powers, which give Dune its chief pleasures as he overcomes obstacle after obstacle, both physical mental, the two forming a dialectical cycle that, once begun, will of course break all the rules, as we would like to.

The issues I raise aren’t new ones, and their basic contours were known long before Dune was published. Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye writes:

It is… quite possible to take the alazon [which Frye says “means imposter, someone who pretends or tries to be something more than he is”] at his own valuation: this is done for instance by the creators of the inscrutable gloomy heroes in Gothic thrillers, with their wild or piercing eyes and their dark hints of interesting sins. The result as a rule is not tragedy so much as the kind of melodrama which may be defined as comedy without humor.

Alas, that’s Dune to the experienced reader: comedy without humor because the characters are too busy posturing to perceive their ridiculousness; they can’t see their own situation and so are affected by grandiose myopia. That seems common in descriptions of modern dictators as well; Mark Bowden’s Tales of the Tyrant describes Saddam Hussein as suffering from the same ailment. In Dune the heaviness of “dark hints of interesting sins,” or at least knowledge, is pervasive, though I didn’t have language in which to put the problem properly until I read Frye, giving better form to the ideas that had plagued me without resolution.

Although it’s unfair to say so, it seems that a great deal of fantasy has the humor problem, and for all its flaws one advantage of Harry Potter is that momentous prophecy is leavened with a sense of schoolyard folly. Lord of the Rings has Sam Gamgee and other hobbits to alleviate the gloom. Dune becomes ponderous by comparison, with characters’ religious roles of honor, death, need, and codes, as if the whole of 20th Century criticism and aesthetics hadn’t happened. This is, I suspect, the quality that science fiction and fantasy detractors point to when denigrating those two forms of literature, but just because the forms the genres tend to take are weak doesn’t mean the genres themselves have to be: their best practitioners avoid the Dune problems, or outgrow them. Some phrases, like the famous mantra that fear is the mind killer, have staying power.

Dune still has flair, but not the sense of inexhaustible possibility that a novel needs to endure over a lifetime or through generations. On re-reading it, the book feels exhausted, superseded, an artifact from an earlier age rather than a living story. I wish it were otherwise.

EDIT: See also this post on Dune and its laughable honor code.

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