Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Mea Culpa

with 5 comments

Hal Duncan has written several posts about criticism, authority and prescriptivism. They are very, very long. I am only interested in this one because it mentions me. A couple of years ago I reviewed Vellum for Vector. I concluded the review by saying:

This is not the one great, insurmountable problem with this book though. That problem is simple: it is not a novel. As is increasingly common these days it is instead half a novel, a single work that has been arbitrarily cleaved in two. There is no need for this and, as I have suggested above, it is not as if Duncan doesn’t provide ample opportunity for cuts to be made. Indeed so long and knotted is the book that what is initially a delight to read starts to drag in its final quarter. Once we have struggled through the bewildering, disorienting text with its multiple cul-de-sacs we are rewarded with… nothing. Merely the promise of more to come.

Duncan responds:

This is simply inaccurate. Had the same “shows every sign of being” phrase been included here there would be no issue, but as it stands the review presents a speculation that Lewis does not and cannot know to be true — because it is actually false — as a spurious assertion of “fact”. (In actuality the structural decision to write a diptych of two novels was made after much deliberation, (rather than arbitrarily,) on aesthetic grounds that I considered to outweigh the potential for misreading to occur, (again, rather than arbitrarily,) and with the vast majority of the actual writing still to be done, (which is to say, before there was a coherent novel to be halved, a single work to be cleaved.) Factual error corrected, I’ll make no defensive claims here that Lewis’s impression of a sundered novel is rendered illegitimate by this actuallity. The author is dead. I won’t stink up the room.)

This then is the peril of making assumptions. As it happens, sometime after I wrote that review, I attended an interview Duncan gave where he made clear the level of structural formalism he had brought to the diptych. This was something I missed and although I still find the presentation of the diptych problematic I was clearly wrong here.

Written by Martin

19 June 2009 at 16:48

Posted in criticism, sf

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5 Responses

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  1. It’s posts like this bring motherfuckery into disrepute.

    Adam Roberts

    19 June 2009 at 17:08

  2. It’s still not a novel.


    19 June 2009 at 19:25

  3. I’m not sure how Duncan’s comments invalidate your reaction though.

    You say that the book meanders along various cul-de-sacs and then gets to the end and suddenly stops. He responds by going “yeah, I meant to do that…”.

    It still strikes me as fair comment to say that it made for a frustrating read.

    Jonathan M

    19 June 2009 at 22:16

  4. You can’t win, can you, Martin? You write a review, and people jump on you for being ‘wrong’; you issue a mea culpa and people saying “What are you doing that for? You were right anyway!”


    19 June 2009 at 23:51

  5. As I say (and Duncan acknowledges) I don’t think this changes my overall judgement. However, in the specifics of my beliefs about authorial and publisher intent I was obviously wrong. Since reviewers – and myself, in particular – are often told off for including these sort of guesses about intent it was good to be reminded of the dangers.


    20 June 2009 at 09:55

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