Thursday, December 20, 2018

See Me Now?

I am so tired of year-end roundups of books that I could start screaming and never stop, like that guy who cracks in Real Genius.

Seriously. I had no idea how many of them there were until this year, when paying attention to them is kind of part of my job, but now I feel like I'm drowning in them. And what good do they do? So often they're just composed of all the same books I heard about ad nauseam this year. I wish all the best to the authors of these books, really I do, but if I read one more article that gushes over The Incendiaries, The Third Hotel, and The Great Believers, I'm going to, well,

I could write a very long list of things I learned this year as a writer. I think I picked up about 100 bylines, based on inexact estimates, and that's a lot to learn from. I got into too many arguments, and I made some wonderful connections, and I alienated a nonzero number of people, unfortunately. I went to book parties and I joined Twitter and I wrote for outlets I've been wanting to write for since I was in my mid-twenties. I felt lucky and cursed, miserable and exhilarated. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But there's just one thing I want to write about today: using the first person in book reviews.

I've never believed that subjectivity in the majority of writing types is a bad thing. The only places to preserve objectivity are textbooks or journalism: areas where the meretricious struts of objectivity are necessary or the infrastructure crumbles. For nearly everything else, I find it pretty important to remember the existence, the bias, the shades and emotions of the genuine human being who's composing the words you're reading. Hi, here I am.

In my reviews, I turn to the first person when I want to offer my subjective experience of reading the book. Again, I see nothing wrong with this. When I read poetry and have a hard time with it, I want you to know that. I hope my first-person truth-telling will make other readers who have a hard time with poetry feel less alone, and help them choose to forge on with reading poetry anyway (because if a reviewer has a hard time with it, what do you have to be discouraged about?). A few of my editors, though, have flagged my dips into the first person and asked me to remove them. It took time and guidance for me to understand why instead of getting defensive.

A great example of why came from a review that was just published yesterday, of Adam Nemett's We Can Save Us All. In the second paragraph, the finished review reads:
David, the main narrator, is a bit of a misstep; in his ordinariness and insecurity, he is inadequate to the task of anchoring this wild, funny book. 
While my original draft read:
David, the main narrator, is a bit of a misstep; in his ordinariness and insecurity, I found him inadequate to the task of anchoring this wild, funny book. 
In my draft, I wrote this judgment in the first person because I'm not sure that every reader will find David inadequate. It felt harsh to indicate that. I'm a critic, but I'm one reader, and I'm willing to bet that readers who resemble David more than I do will find him more adequate than I did. And his ordinariness and insecurity are part of the point; I think it's still way too big a book for such a schlub to be the center of, but I do see why Nemett did it that way. The point is, I felt like I was opening myself to more hostility by using definite language (here's how it is) than by using subjective language (here's how I found it). I think I'm right but I'm willing to be wrong, and I don't want to stamp out other readers' points of view. The first person demonstrates that efficiently.

My editor pointed out that subjectivity weakens the certainty of the passage, and thus of the review in general. It's like using seems instead of is: weaseling out of saying what you really mean. This is true. It just is. Without definite statements instead of "I think/I feel" statements, criticism has no air of authority. Thus, first person should be used sparingly, or not at all, if the critic is going to maintain her authority as a critic.

But I am dubious about saying that any single critic's opinion is the only way to receive a given book. As one of my teachers said, if everyone in the room has the same thing to say about a book, it's a dead piece of literature. So to say that how I received the book is how I received the book, rather than how the book definitively is, feels more correct, kinder, fairer.

And I know I don't know everything about reading, writing, or reviewing. Without some subjectivity, I start to sound like a know-it-all, or a snob, or worse.

Still. My editors are right. Criticism is messy and unconvincing with too much subjectivity. I keep seeking the right balance of I and you, of critic and reader, with some author thrown in there, too. Without that balance, criticism feels either too limp or too steely. I am a good enough reader to suss out what an author is doing most of the time, but I don't want to lose track of the flawed and biased person who's reading, or start proclaiming myself the Great and Powerful Oz of book critics. That's not in anyone's best interests, not readers nor writers. Nor me.

For more subjective opinions, see below.

Out in the world:

I reviewed Anne Boyer's bring-you-to-your-knees essay collection A Handbook of Disappointed Fate for the Los Angeles Review. It's too, too good. And this review is very subjective, but hopefully in an authoritative way.

For Locus, I reviewed the third book in B. Catling's well-received Vorrh trilogy. I read all 1,400 pages of this trilogy in a week, and I know the overload involved there is not the only reason I fucking hated the books. I was on pins and needles the last couple of months waiting for this review to go on the website, because I am so proud of pointing out the sick colonialism and the dark, hideous horrors of these books. If you haven't read one of my reviews in a while, read this one.

I reviewed a short novel that seemed to come and go quickly despite being a lyrical wonder, Alyson Hagy's Scribe, for the Carolina Quarterly. The editor there is super nice and we're going to be working together at least a couple more times in the coming months.

I did a breathless three-minute review of a second PANK chapbook, Stacy Austin Egan's You Could Stop It Here, which was very good, for Pleiades. I hugely enjoy this format.

I feel bad about giving a net negative review to Hollywood vs. the Author, a collection of essays about writers in Hollywood, because it's the first book I've reviewed for Rare Bird and I really like the people at that press and the work they're doing. But the book had obvious flaws. What are you gonna do?

Also for Book and Film Globe, I wrote a snarktastic piece about the video for Ariana Grande's "Thank U, Next," which pissed me off. My take pissed off some other people. Oh, well. My editor at that site is assigning me almost everything I pitch, so there will be much more to come there.

Finally, I wrote an essay about writing without pay that I posted (...behind a paywall) at Medium. If you find it interesting, I'd appreciate a share.

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