July 30, 2009




Your logic on this issue is impecable. But given the fact that writers only seem to get reviewed by other writers these days, and indeed seem to require that (e.g.: crazy Alice Hoffmann), it's refreshing to see a writer opt out of that logrolling group grope.

I do remember a time when writers were reviewed by critics, not other writers, and were happy with that arrangement. I think it created a healthier climate all around.


Hi --

Yes, I think that Horan's simile is flawed insofar as it suggests that because he finds himself unfit for reviewing novels as a novelist then -- by the general principle of Italian chefdom -- all novelists are also unfit.

That said, I think that underneath the bluster and poor logic, Horan has been brave in admitting something telling, which is that for some writers it is probably very difficult to turn from one's own work to comment on others' work, and that, in this turn, there is surely opportunity for jealously, spitefulness, etc. Certainly, many novelists are able to set these feelings aside when they undertake a review, but perhaps others cannot.

This is hardly a great moral failing; it only becomes one if a writer's jealousy or spite lead him/her to pass unfair judgment on whatever s/he's reviewing. So: I think Horan has done all right for himself by admitting this. And if it took a little face-saving in the form of a generalizing simile, so be it.



Actually, I think the logic of the simile is perfect -- it is just that TEV would come to a different conclusion, i.e., who better to critique a spaghetti sauce than another Italian chef?


Which you will, of course, be expected to refrain from reviewing. ;-)


I appreciate the kindness of spirit of my readers, and the fact that you've found a silver lining in Horan's post. But this is one of those cases where the more I think about it, the more unreasonably irritated I become.

Perhaps the key offending word is one I did not include in my pullquote. The quotation goes on to ask:

"How objective could I be?"

This, I think, is the crux of the silliness, and why the reasoning behind the post offends me so. The notion that (a) anything about the novel can be measured "objectively" and (b) that attempting such a measurement is a desirable way to engage with a novel suggests - to me, anyway - such a fundamental lack of undestanding of the form that he is, indeed, unfit to review them (and probably to write them, too).

Objective? This isn't court, novelists aren't reporters, and the art is about taste and making choices, and choices are always subjective. Shaw famously hated Shakespeare, after all.

But like I said, I could just be sleep deprived and cranky.


I should add, as I'm vigorously taking Horan out to the woodshed, that I don't disagree with his more central assertion that a reviewer ought to finish a book he/she reviews; and that too many novels don't merit finishing.

Just remembering there is a baby amid the bathwater ...


You're missing his point: great chefs can have vaild but different strongly-held views on what makes a good spaghetti sauce. Their expertise in sauce-criticism is, in Horan's view, trumped by their strong beliefs about what makes a good sauce - hence the compromised objectivity. It's not a bad analogy at all: novelists tend to, and should, have strong views about fiction-writing, and that can make them out of sympathy with one anothers' work, but being out of sympathy with something doesn't reliably mean that the thing is bad.

I actually admire his stance and his solution. But then I also love reviews written by novelists; a contradiction I resolve by accepting that some writers don't see a problem here, and some do, and the latter will stick to non-fiction titles when reviewing.


TWS, I don't think I'm missing his point at all, I merely don't agree with it. (General point, that expression is a pet peeve, and I've said before. People usually employ "miss the point" to mean "you don't agree with me." I've made this point before - http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/2009/01/snark-missing-the-point.html)

Again, not to belabor what I've already said, but pursuing his logic - and yours - to the end means that your opinion of a restaurant should matter more to me than Thomas Keller's, whose opinions are surely as strong as anyone's.

The key point I was trying to make that you appear to disagree with is "objectivity" is a flat-out silly criterion for evaluating art, where nothing at all is objective. If you believe in some notion of an objective review of art, then I guess Horan's your exemplar. But I think the notion is breathtakingly simplistic.

Stephen Benzel

In baseball, former players are typically very bad analysts. I think the cliche would be "can't see the forest for the trees." I think writing novels and writing criticism are two different disciplines, and finding someone who can do both is rare but not unheard of. Our favorite blogger is one example.


Hm. I think it's grand Horan is opting out of criticism. I wish more novelists would do the same, and leave more room to book critics, whose job it is to review the novels, not write them. A novelist does have a unique vantage point from which to write about other novels, and probably they could stand to make some extra cash in between advances (or MFA program paychecks). But they simply aren't as qualified, in the sense of training, breadth, and even experience, as an actual critic.

That's not to say that a person-- like Banville, or Woolf, or Sontag, or you and me for that matter-- can't wear several hats. But one of the hats should be that of a real critic, with talent and skill, and not *just* a novels. That said, Woolf hated to read her contemporaries. It totally stressed her out.

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