Posts Tagged ‘grauniad’
When I’ve moaned about Eric Brown’s capsule review column in the past, people have complained I am being unfair. After all, I can only moan about it because it exists in the first place. Shouldn’t I just be grateful the Guardian is covering science fiction at all? There is something to this and the Guardian has generally been the newspaper most sympathetic to SF and provided it with the most space. The issue of space is important though. There is only a finite amount of it and I find it highly questionable that capsule reviews make the best use of it.
It should be stressed that this is an issue that goes far beyond Brown’s column. Capsule reviews are everywhere and the problems are inherent. The Guardian has capsule columns for thrillers, non-fiction, audiobooks and debut novels, not to mention the weekly paperback round up. In publications not focussed specifically on books – music or film magazines, for example – capsule reviews of books are the norm rather than the exception. The idea is to give an overview of a vast field in the limited space available. I often wonder if this couldn’t be achieved equally well by just printing the covers of new releases. After all, it is not as if the tiny wordcount available gives the reviewer room to make any meaningful judgement.
The majority of a capsule review must be spent providing context in the form of synopsis; any actual evaluation is usually left till the final sentence and just dangles there, unsupported. Yet these weightless reviews are accorded the same weight as any other, publishers hoover up words of praise to plaster over the covers of their books. From this perspective capsule reviews make sense when considered as part of the symbiotic relationship between publisher and publication but not sure how the reader benefits. The reader can’t even be sure they are reading an accurate synopsis of the work. Since reviewers have no space to say anything it is unsurprising that they have no motivation for actually reading what they are reviewing. This leads to staggering factual inaccurancies such as this and this (neither from Brown but both from the Guardian).
So I’ve already got a chip on my shoulder but a couple of things in particular struck me about Brown’s latest column. This month he has 555 words to cover The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton, Tales From The Fragrant Harbour by Gary Kilworth, The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi and Guardians of Paradise by JN Fenn. Reviewing The Evolutionary Void, Brown has 118 words for a book that is over 800 pages long. This seems like an exercise in futility.
But then, if you turn over the page, you find a 600 word review of a science fiction novel. This is I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore, reviewed by Patrick Ness, and it appears seperately because it is Teenage Fiction (I’m pleased to see the Guardian does not endorse the fiction that books for old children are actually for young adults). Ness has the space to give the novel a proper assessment and is not hamstrung by trying to cover three more novels in the spurious interests of diversity. It is a shame the same is not true for adult science fiction; I would happily trade Brown’s four pointless reviews for one meaningful one.
Which brings us to the question of which one of the four novels covered by Brown deserves a full review. Returning to the review of The Evolutionary Void, I find it hard to see who this is for. Hamilton is one of the biggest selling SF writers in the UK – the biggest according to Pan MacMillan – so it does make a sort of sense to cover the novel. At the same time though, it is the third volume of a massive trilogy that is essentially a single giant novel. Its only audience is those who are already fans and those fans certainly don’t need a review. At the other end of the publishing spectrum, Tales From The Fragrant Harbour is another short story collection from Kilworth, a jobbing writer scratching out a living in the margins. I’m glad PS Publishing exists to print this sort of work but it is very much small beer for a limited audience. Critic-proof blockbuster or small press irrelevancy, neither has much life outside fandom. The same is true of Guardians of Paradise, another third volume in an ongoing series (hopefully it still has a life within fandom, even though Gollancz seem to have changed Fenn’s name halfway through the series). These books will all be covered by the genre press (as they should be) but it isn’t clear to me that there is much benefit in covering them here. The Quantum Thief, on the other hand, is a major debut from a major publisher written by a young author with a PhD in string theory. The protagonists name is a reference to Fifties French film noir. It seems to me that this is the sort of novel that would both justify the extravagant luxury of a 500 word review and has the potential to interest the average Guardian reader.
But perhaps I’m wrong. Damien G Walter – one of the Guardian’s SF bloggers – has always claimed the readership couldn’t possibly have any interest in the genre and hence the SF reviews need to be safely coralled into a capsule column where they can be safely ignored. He may well be right but in that case the paper should probably axe the column as it is currently only of interest to publishers and Brown himself. I’m not so sure he is right though. I mean, the Guardian did publish three reviews of SF novels with the serial numbers filed off last week. And this week, on the page before Brown’s column, is a double review from Stephen Poole of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr and Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. Splodey spaceships may not float the boat of the Guardian’s readership but they almost certainly do have an interest in science and technology (Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins were on the cover of the Weekend section on the same day as Brown’s column). I also believe that they also have an interest in literature in all its forms, it is just a question of finding books which will re-pay that interest.
Then again, Walter also doesn’t think that the genre produces one book a month which is worthy of a 500 word review. Now, whilst I am happy to accuse the genre of publishing more than its fair share of crap, there is still wheat amongst the chaff. Catch me in my darkest moments of despair about SF, I will still always think there is at least one book a month worth talking about to a general audience. But if there wasn’t, so what? James Lovegrove’s science fiction reviews column for the Financial Times are much less frequent than Brown’s column for the Guardian but his latest column had 1,700 words to spend on four novels (including The Quantum Thief). The constrast is quite stark and I would rather wait for something of substance than be placated with regular filler.
Usually when the Guardian turns over the front half of the Review to authors it means everybody has gone on holiday and they are desperate to fill space. In a turn up for the books, yesterday’s feature was actually quite good. Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules Of Writing (presumably there is a new edition due) they have asked various writers for more of the same. Sometimes – as with Richard Ford – the answers are boring and stupid. Quite often they contain gems though.
Margaret Atwood: Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
Roddy Doyle: Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.
Helen Dunmore: If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.
Jonathan Frazen: Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money. [More prosaically he notes that “it’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”]
David Hare: Jokes are like hands and feet for a painter. They may not be what you want to end up doing but you have to master them in the meanwhile.
Hilary Mantel: First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?
Michael Moorcock: My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.
Will Self: You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.
Colm Tóibín: No going to London.
Sarah Waters: Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.
I could quote the whole of Self’s advice. He also provides the most interesting section of the latest edition of the London Review of Books (so obviously they hide him away at the back like a ten-inch-long dildo on Clapham Common).
We are still in January but A Prophet has already been anointed one of the films of the year. So when David Cox’s take on the film popped up in my feedreader, I thought it was typical journalistic contrarianism from someone whose opinion I don’t value. Having now seen the film, there is something to it though. Cox concludes:
So we’re left with a conventional genre flick decked out with a tasteful amount of imaginative and well-executed violence… Films like this one clearly press a very particular button, at least in rarefied quarters. Maybe they constitute a kind of brutality-porn for refined persons who require their fix cut with purported profundity and slicked out with subtitles.
There is a sense in which this type of film is prioritised by both critics and punters. Laurent Cantet’s The Class did get good reviews but it didn’t get this sort of coverage. Beyond this, there is a core of conventionality to the film which the skill of its execution can’t disguise. In his review, Peter Bradshaw raves that:
It comports itself like a modern classic from the very first frames, instantly hitting its massively confident stride. This is the work of the rarest kind of film-maker, the kind who knows precisely what he is doing and where he is going. The film’s every effect is entirely intentional.
This is true and the first act – in which young prisoner, Malik El Djebena (played by Tahar Rahim), finds himself forced into murder – is magnificent. After this, and despite the fact director Jacques Audiard is remarkable assured, the film does become something more like a conventional gangster film. El Djebena slowly rises to the top, building alliances, playing each side off against the other. Cox compares the film to Brian De Palma’s Scarface and, although Audiard is a much better and more interesting director than De Palma, the major difference is that there is no fall from grace. Instead the film culminates in a ridiculous final scene in which El Djebena finally leaves prison having served out his original sentence. He walks off into the sunset, side by side with his brand new family (a wife and child donated by his dead partner) and flanked by a convoy of SUVs containing his footsoldiers.
I watched A Prophet back to back with The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), Audiard’s previous film. To go with their blanket coverage of the former, the Guardian have published a post by Jonathan Jones comparing the latter with Michael Haneke’s Hidden, released the same year. Of Audiard’s film he says:
The Beat That My Heart Skipped is not a great movie. It’s quite good fun, with some terrific acting. It has the look and the atmosphere of some wonderful French films gone by. But it’s really a bit silly
Silly is a well chosen word. Tom Seyr (Romain Duris) is a thuggish real estate developer and aspiring concert pianist who trots around Paris in the most preposterously cocky manner imaginable (this is aided by the fact Duris has a simian facial resemblence to the young Martin Amis). His sensitive and brutish sides war, he rages and he mopes. Like A Prophet, it is disturbingly weightless and consequence-free. Even the fact his actions lead to the death of his father (played by Niels Arestrup, a similarly malevolent paternal presense in A Prophet) does not really get beneath the skin. This is not the remorseless ambiguity of Haneke but a turning away from the reality of the world Audiard has created.
It is my own fault. I recently watched both parts of the slick, stylish and hollow Mesrine (2008), another highly lauded French film. Afterwards I swore off gangster films but I only made it a week because I made an exception for Audiard. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough of an exception.
I should probably note that I still think Cox is a dick and I don’t find his more specific criticisms of the film particularly accurate. Nor do the commenters to the post; in fact, they tear into him at length. Some of them raise his review of Hunger which I hadn’t previously read. Sample quote:
I appreciate that my responses to this beautifully made film are uncharitable, immoderate and indeed reprehensible.
The negative response to this was so overwhelming that the readers’ editor felt obliged to respond. As with Hidden, Hunger does make an interesting comparision to A Prophet in terms of directorial boldness and producing truely extraordinary cinema.
If the selling point is the view, the one flaw there is that the view is over central Manchester. I love this city, but Florence, Manhattan or Sydney it is not. From my table, the vista of the cathedral dwarfed by the spectacularly hideous Premier Inn suggested Andrew Neil towering over Natalie Portman at a drinks party.
It started with Star Trek fans writing stories about a Kirk/Spock love affair, and it quickly became a craze. Fantasy fiction, or “fanfic” websites now attract contributions from large numbers of obsessive fans, and new genres are emerging at a remarkable rate: “slash” fanfic focuses on gay relationships (the Lord of the Rings characters provide particularly fertile ground), with “femslash” for lesbian characters; and then there’s “real person popslash”, where the unlucky subjects are celebrities in the music business.
It is not always easy to figure out what is going on in the world of novelisations. Consider Terminator Salvation: The Official Movie Novelisation by Alan Dean Foster. Terminator Salvation: The Official Movie Novelisation is not to be confused with Timothy Zahn’s Terminator Salvation: From the Ashes – The Official Movie Prequel. Nor is it to be confused with Terminator Salvation: Sand in the Gears – The Official Movie Prequel Graphic Novel. Here, a bit of supplementary material about all this supplementary material may be helpful. Novelisations are based upon movies that already exist. Official prequels are novels based on the outline of a movie that has already been greenlighted, but may not yet have been shot. Prequels may thus contain scenes that ultimately get cut out of the finished film. For example, even if Hannah Montana ran away to join the Ladies’ Taliban in the prequel to her next movie it wouldn’t necessarily mean that she would do so in the upcoming film. In fact, it’s pretty unlikely. It could simply be the mad, zany fantasy of some out-of-control prequelist.
Damien G Walter has a piece at the Guardian Book Blog asking why editors don’t get awards. Now, obviously editors make an extremely important contribution to literature. However, I’ve never been convinced of the need for a fan award for editors and, in particular, I think the Hugo catergories for best editor are pretty meaningless. In the comments to this I’m somehow tricked into progressively coming out against more and more other Hugo categories until I finally get to the stage where I can now present the shortlist for the 2009 Hugo Award:
- Anathem, Neal Stephenson (Morrow; Atlantic UK)
- “The Tear”, Ian McDonald (Galactic Empires)
- “True Names”, Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (Fast Forward 2)
- “The Gambler”, Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2)
- “Exhalation”, Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)
Pankaj Mishra has a great article in today’s paper that manges to encompass Marxism, globalisation and the “Tandoori-Chickenisation” of the Western literary palate in a couple of hundred words whilst still finding time for a well deserved pop at Thomas Friedman.
Elsewhere Nicholas Lezard opens this week’s Paperback Choice by saying of Derek Robinson: “Those of you with long memories will recall my recommending a novel of his seven or so years ago, set in a bomber squadron in the second world war.” Slightly alarmingly, I do. Was that really seven years ago? And why have I remembered it?