Two reviews of reviews (sort of)

Ursula LeGuin wrote a very useful review of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood that I just finished reading, in which she touches on one of my favorite conundrums: what does it mean to call oneself “genre” versus “literary”? Atwood apparently likes rejecting the sci-fi designation, based on an arbitrary definition that I frankly find bewildering. (The dynamics of of genre/literary “tribes” are discussed in greater and amusing detail on Jeff Vandermeer’s blog here. This, of course, is all following the enormous brouhaha made by Lev Grossman’s bizarre less than carefully argued* editorial ¬†in the Wall Street Journal about the so-called Victory of Plot in contemporary fiction. Sorry to link-fling if you haven’t been following this from the beginning, but I find it all pretty engrossing.)

Anyway, LeGuin provides a great review of the book, as well as very delicately, very incisively nailing Atwood for her fallacy in evading the designation of sci-fi. Being considered as a work of science fiction, LeGuin tells us, is not a limitation, but something that enriches the experience of reading a novel, gives us another dimension from which to analyze and celebrate a book’s creativity, fullness, and success.

Damn straight.

Separately, The Mumpsimus has become my favorite blog for reviews and discussion of speculative fiction. That its author, Matthew Cheney, is an English professor (as well as a writer of assorted fiction and nonfiction, and editor of Best American Fantasy) is not surprising: his reviews are lucid, accessible, and literary, filled with useful allusions and fun, thoughtful analyses. Every time I read a review of his of a book or story that I’ve already read, I want to go back and read the work again.

The excitement in his reviews is tangible – reading them is like sitting with a good friend and discussing the story at hand, tossing ideas back and forth and unraveling knotty plot points together. I also think that he tends to appreciate a lot of underappreciated and misread works. Case in point: his ecstatic, playful review of Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” (which I loved and briefly reviewed¬†here). Judging from the comments following, said story was not so well-received by many readers; I think it’s a shame that none of them seemed to get anything further from Cheney’s review. Note that his review is somewhat spoiler-y.

Unfortunately, his blog is also rather unwieldy to navigate, but the material is all so good that I don’t mind trawling.

*correction made following the reading of Grossman’s comments in response to all the heated criticism.

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  1. Maureen E’s avatar

    Actually, the thing that bugged me the most about Grossman’s article was the way he seemed to set up certain YA authors against literary fiction. To say that “The Hunger Games” (which, admittedly, I haven’t read yet) has something going for it because it isn’t boring is kind of damning with faint praise. I do kind of get what he’s saying because the story telling is a factor in why I read so much YA lit (or that which is classified as such–I’m less comfortable with that classification than with the sci-fi/fantasy one). And yet I can’t wholly agree with his argument.

    (If none of this makes any sense, blame it on the fact that I have yet to consume any significant amount of protein.)

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  2. Emera’s avatar

    I think I know what you mean about being less comfortable with the YA classification, because there’s something even more inherently condescending in it than sf/f – “young adults” versus “REAL adults.” (I say this being fully aware that I treat the YA term unfairly myself, which is something I’m trying to work on. My mind just tends towards categorization.) The section that you pointed out is certainly double-edged, to an extent that I hadn’t noticed before. I think he allows this underlying condescension because he’s trying to fend off accusations of him claiming, say, Twilight as good fiction – rather, he’s trying to account for the apparently renewed interest of “real adults” in books like it. Basically he’s hedging his bets and not making explicit claims one way or the other about the literary validity of YA, at the same time that he can keep his street cred by writing from a position of unspoken superiority.

    Overall, I think he had something valid to say, which is clarified to a certain extent in his follow-up comments. He just packaged his argument with way too many broad, sensationalistic statements in the initial article.

    (And ditto what you said about your comment making sense.)

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