I am writing to you in response to Jonathan Ball’s letter to Geist, which proffers a review of Michael Hayward’s review of Michael Winter’s novel The Architects Are Here. I have not read
The original review of a review contains 30 sentences. I will comment briefly on some of these sentences in some kind of order.
- The opening sentence says that Jonathan Ball is writing a response to Michael Hayward’s review of Michael Winter’s novel The Architects Are Here. So far, so good, but I think Mr. Ball would have done well to avoid the repetition of the word Michael. Too many characters with the same name can be confusing.
or just about any Russian novel. See Wuthering Heights
- The second sentence informs us that Mr. Ball doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. This bodes ill for what follows.
- The third sentence merely announces the obvious. There is here another gratuitous and avoidable repetition of the word “review.” This is bad form, as any workshop leader will tell you.
- The fourth sentence tells us that the original review contains 10 sentences. This factotum tells us nothing of substance about the review itself, nothing at least that can’t be gleaned by a quick count of the periods [n.b.: this is an example of how one can avoid excessive repetition of a word] in
’s review. Since there is a link to Hayward ’s review, anyone who wishes to can do so with ease. (I haven’t bothered to confirm the accuracy of Mr. Ball’s count, since I have no interest in Mr. Hayward’s review, nor the novel about which it is written, since the location in space of architects is not a topic, frankly, that jingles my bells.) Hayward
- The fifth sentence is little better than throat-clearing. If Mr. Ball is going to comment on each of the sentences, he should really just get down to it, right?
- The sixth sentence is not commentary, but summary. Moreover it is summary padded by extraneous quotation that could have been compressed by the use of paraphrase. Furthermore, it contains an incredible improbability, viz. “notes the other books in which English has appeared.” Since English has in fact appeared in every book ever written in English, every book ever translated into English and any book in another language that quotes something spoken or written in English, I find it extremely implausible that, as Mr. Ball says, Hayward “notes the other books in which English has appeared.” Only one fifth of the way in, Mr. Ball has already stretched credulity beyond the breaking point.
- The seventh sentence shunts attention away from the review of the review and towards the author of the review of the review, notably towards his belief that shunting attention away from a novel and towards its author is “an intellectually bankrupt move, yet one still common in the 21st century.” Leaving aside the gratuitous use of the dubious temporal label “21st century” (presumably, Mr. Ball is referring to the Common Era) and its reference to the putative life and times of a supposed messiah/divinity, it must be noted that this is an intellectually bankrupt move and already was so late in what is, in the Western World and other benighted nations burdened with the belief that an almighty incorporeal divinity one day planted his seed in the uterus of a virgin, commonly referred to as the 20th Century CE.
- The eighth sentence informs us of an obvious fact (obvious, at least, if you’ve read
’s review, which, to repeat, I have not): that Hayward says that recurring characters exist in fiction. Hayward
- The ninth sentence belabours the point made in the eighth sentence and, again, proves nothing about nothing.
- The tenth sentence (ten of thirty, remember) reminds us that we’re already forty percent thru Mr. Hayward’s review, which anyone who passed grade six mathematics could tell you.
- In the eleventh and twelfth sentences get us to the midway point of Hayward’s review, and yet nothing of interest (to me, anyway, but as I said, this is a topic I find rather dull) concerning that review has been written yet.
- I will not mention the thirteenth sentence, as I believe this to be bad luck.
- [Intentionally Left Blank]
- In the fourteenth sentence, Mr. Ball complains that Mr. Hayward gives no examples of Mr. Winter’s “fine writing.” Since Mr. Ball has already stated, repeatedly, that Mr. Hayward’s review only contains ten—count ‘em, ten!—sentences, just where does he expect Mr. Hayward to find space for the extensive quotation that demonstrations of fine writing require. This is a novel Mr. Hayward is talking about (I assume, not having read it or Mr. Hayward’s review), not a freakin’ haiku.
- In the fifteenth sentence, Mr. Ball poses a rhetorical question, the answer to which he takes to be given. This is an example of the rhetorical fallacy of logic known as “begging the question.” (Not to be confused with the linguistic fallacy of using the phrase “begging the question” when one means to say that the question begs to be asked.) The actual answer to Mr. Ball’s question is not “no,” as he assumes, but “sometimes.”
- But to say “sometimes” would certainly beggar the rhetorical force of his next sentence, which draws its strength from an unexamined assumption, amongst people who assume that their BA makes them smart, that “readability and narrative speed or suspense” are not literary values.
- The seventeenth sentence—already seven longer than
’s and yet not notably more substantial (I’m guessing)—ignores the fact that Michael Winter himself often makes public statements to the effect that “[Gabriel] English is based on Winter himself.” Of course, he doesn’t say it quite like that, since he is Michael Winter and referring to oneself by one’s own last name is very odd practice, even for a Newfoundlander—albeit a “mainlander” from the “mainland” of England (hence, perhaps, the choice of surname for Winter’s fictional alter ego). This is another testament to Mr. Ball not knowing what he is talking about. For instance, Mr. Ball seems to think that a continent (viz. Hayward North America) can have a “fascination for “true stories.”” One hardly need be a geographer to know that a continent, being an inert land mass, can have a fascination for nothing. This is an example of what is commonly known in critical terminology as an anthropomorphic fallacy. Another example is when Mr. Ball says that fiction has a “secret heart.” This is not so much an anthropomorphic fallacy as an anatomical absurdity, since no animal possesses any such organ as a secret heart.
- The nineteenth sentence claims, in essence, that the point contested in the eighteenth sentence—look it up—“is beside the point and has nothing to do with the novel as it stands.” This is redundant. Also, the word “again” is used incorrectly by Mr. Ball, since he did not in fact make this argument beforehand.
- In the 20th sentence, Mr. Ball makes another argument based on nothing better than his poorly digested education in postmodern theory.
- In the 21st sentence, Mr. Ball assumes that Mr. Hayward is “reproducing [an] assumption.” It is by no means clear that this is the case; we have only Mr. Ball’s word for it. Also, Mr. Ball’s authoritative-sounding statement that the “values of literary realism” are “defunct” is without basis in fact. While one could argue that the subjective free-agent values of literary realism ceded ground to the more empirical, deterministic values of literary naturalism in the late 19th Century (Common Era; see above), it would appear from the number of realist novels being published every year, in this country (viz. Canada) and elsewhere, that the values of literary realism are far from defunct. That Mr. Ball wishes they were so does not change this fact.
- In the 22nd sentence, Mr. Ball again complains about Mr. Hayward’s failure to provide quotations, this time in defense of Mr. Hayward’s complaint of an “overabundance of “clutter”” in Mr. Winter’s novel. Presumably, Mr. Winter’s book, being a novel, is long. Just how Mr. Ball expects Mr. Hayward, in a short review—ten sentences, recall!—to provide quoted examples of longueurs is beyond me. Also, it should be considered that the intentional introduction of “clutter” into a text is stylistically infelicitous.
- In the 23rd sentence—thirteen more than the original review!—Mr. Ball finally gets to the final sentence of Mr. Hayward’s review. This proves Mr. Ball’s superiorty. Since Mr. Hayward could only dedicate ten measly sentences to an entire novel, whereas Mr. Ball has dedicated twenty-three to measly ten-sentence review, Mr. Ball is clearly the superior critic. But wait, there’s more to come!
- In the 24th sentence, Mr. Ball makes a sweeping statement, without citing a single concrete example by way of corroboration. He is also guilty of the fallacious assumption that there are such things as “actual literary qualities,” when no such critter has ever been observed on this planet (or on any other, to the best of my knowledge). It would be very helpful to know what Mr. Ball thinks these qualities are. Furthermore, Mr. Ball makes reference to “what fiction is.” As far as I know, this is not a settled question; again, if Mr. Ball is going to say that Mr. Hayward doesn’t know what it is, it would be very helpful to know what Mr. Ball thinks it is. Other than the obvious, that is: not fact. One thing is certain: fiction, as such, can’t “do” anything. Fiction is something made by a human. Humans do things. Like write novels. Which are fiction. Which pretty much just sit there until someone picks them up and reads them. Or decides not to read them. As I have. (It occurs to me now that Mr. Ball’s “review of a review” might in fact be a cleverly disguised work of fiction. If this is so, I offer Mr. Ball my hearty congratulations, for he has constructed a truly ingenious artifice.)
- What sentence are we on again? Oh yes, the 25th. In which Mr. Ball repeats that he has not read Mr. Winter’s book, thereby reminding Geist why he is ill-qualified to review Mr. Hayward’s review.
- In the 26th sentence, Mr. Ball gives Mr. Hayward—who presumably did read Mr. Winter’s book, and bully for him—“the benefit of the doubt and assume that [Mr. Hayward] is correct in his value judgements” [sic]. Isn’t this just a little bit rich?
- In the 27th sentence, Mr. Ball says “only three out of ten sentences has [sic] anything of interest to say about the novel.” Assuming that Mr. Ball is correct in this assessment (and I can hardly do otherwise, having read neither Mr. Hayward’s review, nor the book on which it is based), if Mr. Hayward were a baseball player and his sentences were at bats, Mr. Hayward would be batting .300. In Major League Baseball, this is good enough to earn you millions of dollars a year. Not too shab. The 27th sentence is sadly marred grammatically (as are several others in Mr. Ball’s review-of-a-review; I’d cite them all, but that would mean rereading it, and frankly I don’t have the inclination), in that “these claims” has no apparent referent. If Mr. Ball meant that “the claims made in these sentences are unsupported as written,” he should have said so.
- In the 28th sentence, Mr. Ball makes an absurd statement that flatly contradicts the content of the preceding 27 sentences.
- In the 29th sentence, Mr. Ball makes another such statement.
- In the ultimate sentence of Mr. Ball’s review-of-a-review, he makes another sweeping generalization, based on no stated evidence. Even if Mr. Ball is right about the deficiencies of Mr. Hayward’s review, in the absence of concrete evidence in support of his claims, Mr. Ball is guilty of the logical fallacy of generalizing from a particular (tho it could be argued in this instance that the fallacy in question is actually an over-inclusive premise—i.e. that reviewing in Canada sucks—but this is to split hairs). Mr. Ball is also guilty of being a pot calling a kettle black. Further, Mr. Ball makes the cardinal mistake of introducing new material in his conclusion when he refers to “ideological claims” made by Mr. Hayward. Now, I haven’t read Mr. Hayward’s review, as I might have mentioned, so it could well be that there are “ideological claims” festering within it. But I kind of doubt it, since Mr. Ball’s point-by-point plot summary of Mr. Hayward’s review seems to say nothing about such “ideological claims.” Also, this last sentence of Mr. Ball’s contains a split infinitive; only language mavens will insist that this is an error in English grammar—in fact, it is a hangover from Latin, in which the solecism actually does impede sense—but it nonetheless mars what should be a strong concluding statement. That statement is further marred by Mr. Ball’s reference to “dying literary values.” Presumably, these are the values of literary realism referred to earlier in Mr. Ball’s review-of-a-review. Unfortunately, in that previous sentence, Mr. Ball said those values were defunct. Defunct is synonymous with dead (see EE Cummings’ poem “Buffalo Bill”). Something cannot be both dead and dying. So which will it be, huh?
I mean to pick on Mr. Ball in this instance. And I am certainly suggesting that his review-of-a-review is poorly written and otherwise incompetent. Unfortunately, this seems to be typical of what reviewing of reviews in