Sunday, January 18, 2009

In Which Zachariah Wells Takes on Jonathan Ball Taking on Michael Hayward Taking on Michael Winter

Dear Internet,

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 Mr. Hayward’s review, and do not know Mr. Hayward or his work, nor have I read Mr. Winter's novel. However, I feel nonetheless perfectly equipped to say that I feel that this review of a review is typical of the poor quality of complaints about book reviewing in Canadian words. What I proffer, then, is a review of a review of a review.

The original review of a review contains 30 sentences. I will comment briefly on some of these sentences in some kind of order.

  1. 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. See Wuthering Heights or just about any Russian novel.

  1. The second sentence informs us that Mr. Ball doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. This bodes ill for what follows.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 Hayward’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.)

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. The eighth sentence informs us of an obvious fact (obvious, at least, if you’ve read Hayward’s review, which, to repeat, I have not): that Hayward says that recurring characters exist in fiction.

  1. The ninth sentence belabours the point made in the eighth sentence and, again, proves nothing about nothing.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. I will not mention the thirteenth sentence, as I believe this to be bad luck.

  1. [Intentionally Left Blank]

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

  1. The seventeenth sentence—already seven longer than Hayward’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. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. In the 20th sentence, Mr. Ball makes another argument based on nothing better than his poorly digested education in postmodern theory.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

  1. 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.)

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

  1. In the 28th sentence, Mr. Ball makes an absurd statement that flatly contradicts the content of the preceding 27 sentences.

  1. In the 29th sentence, Mr. Ball makes another such statement.

  1. 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 Canada has become.


Zachariah Wells


Dr. Ursus said...



I actually read Winter's novel, and I'm in the minority! You should read it too, for reasons of fallacy. What I regret is that the point of the review gets lost - the book itself. What sentence am I on? Is "Ahahahaha" a sentence? Or is it a value judgement? Perhaps the realism of the laugh? Great fun,

John W. MacDonald said...

I found this blog post very interesting. I did not read all of it, of course, since it's soooo long. (I'd rather look at photos on the internet.) People still read?! Wow. All I know is that Michale Winter is very tall. Is Jonathan Ball tall, too? I think that matters since Ball rhymes with tall, you know - since you're a poet kind of guy. When purchasing a book, I only look at the cover. It seems another failing of the reviewer these days is a comment about the book's jacket. Tsk,Tsk...typical.


Megan said...

People who care about their industries should never be chided for speaking up when they see deficiencies.

Keep it up, Zach.

richard said...

I haven't read Winter's novel, but I did read Hayward's review, Ball's meta-review, and Wells' etc. Ball comes across as stuffy and uninfrmed, sure, but he was right that Hayward's review was basically empty. It was the kind of review that has absolutely no effect on whether I'm going to pick up the book in question.

Zach, I'm sure you enjoyed writing this post, but Jonathan Ball barely rose to the level of being fish in a barrel. I don't always agree with your comments, but you're capable of a much more useful response than this.

Zachariah Wells said...

You seem to have mistaken the genre of my post, Richard. I wasn't trying to be useful, I was trying to be funny. I have no idea who Jonathan Ball is, his letter just happened to give me an idea for a way to kill a couple of hours after a bottle of shiraz, tra-la. And yes, I did have fun writing it.

richard said...

No, I recognized the intended genre, Zach, but I got a little tired partway through it....

But more to the point, I agreed with Ball that Winter's novel - though I haven't read it - deserved a more thoughtful review than Hayward gave it. Admittedly, Hayward did a nice job of sounding clever, and sometimes that's enough in a review.

I appear to be playing The Crank tonight, I think. Please to ignore.

Zachariah Wells said...

To be perfectly honest, Richard, I still haven't read Hayward's review and I'm pretty sure I don't have to. I'm 90% sure it was mediocre, because I see reviews like it all the time. Most of anything is mediocre. Perhaps there's even more dreck in book reviewing than other fields, for many reasons: 1)lack of remuneration, leading to 2)lack of dedicated reviewers who treat the task professionally; 3)lack of available space: the very best 10 sentence review will only scratch the surface of a book; 4)reviewing, for many, if not most publications, is seen as an adjunct of publisher publicity-mongering, which has a bleed-thru effect on a lot of reviews written.

The earnestness of Ball's review made me laugh for so many reasons.

A) He wanted a ten sentence review to be a 50 sentence review, which is impossible. I'm pretty sure Hayward wrote the review according to the specs given him. I write a lot of 350 word reviews. The guidelines given me by the magazine tell me explicitly to avoid quoting too much. It's a fact of that particular genre of review. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I haven't written a whole lot of 350 word reviews where I wished I could have written more. It's journalism, not Literary Criticism--and certainly not scholarship. And most journalism is, at best, adequate. Hayward's review is probably adequate: it tells readers of Geist that Michael Winter's novel exists.

To be clear, just because I'm mocking the attack doesn't mean I'm defending the target. If a review matching Ball's description of Hayward's piece landed on my desk, I'd wish the author luck publishing it elsewhere, as it's not suitable for CNQ. But CNQ's a very different magazine from Geist, with a very different mandate. For Geist to publish the sort of review Ball wants to see, they'd have to rob Peter to pay Paul; i.e., they'd have to allot space to a long review that would otherwise be occupied by something else. One of the best literary features of Geist is their samples from published books. This does far more work than a brief review. If anything, they should can reviews like Hayward's in favour of more book excerpts. The only thing worse than a short B- review is a long B- review... And I re-iterate: there are very few good reviewers out there. A lot of the people who could do a good job, don't want to have anything to do with it. It's a lot of work and it's unrewarding in so many ways.

B) The fact that this review sucks has nothing to do with "the state of reviewing" here or elsewhere. It hath always been thus and good work has always co-existed with drecky work. If Ball thinks there's no good book reviewing happening on this continent, he's probably reading the wrong periodicals.

C) He was slamming Hayward for supposedly unexamined assumptions, while flinging out his own willy-nilly.

D) Because Ball has not read Winter and appears to know little about him, he criticises Hayward for writing about a perfectly valid dimension of Winter's oeuvre: the Winter/English duality. I've heard Michael read a few times and read interviews with him. I've also read one of his Gabriel English story collections and his Gabriel English novel _This All Happened_. Not only is English an alter ego for his author, but this is something centrally important to Winter. He talks about it all the time. And TAH is actually presented as a series of 365 journal entries. So dissing Hayward for what amounts to Ball's own pet peeves actually attacks what Ball says a reviewer should be doing: reading a text on its own terms. Ball blithe ignorance of this is incredibly comical.

E) The writing, on a sentence by sentence level, on the levels of basic grammar and logic, was so weak that it Ball's call for better writing painfully ironic. Of course Geist published the letter! Bad letters like that are a rare gift of free content. Ball apparently doesn't even know that Geist made him the butt of a joke just by printing his letter.

Anyway, I don't dispute for a second that my post was a waste of time. I waste all kinds of time. Almost everything I do, especially when I'm unemployed from my dayjob as I am now, is unproductive waste in terms of the prevailing values of our society. I quite like wasting time. See above.

Zachariah Wells said...

Okay, so I succumbed to temptation and read the Hayward review. Interesting to note that Hayward cites Winter's public fascination with his autobiographical blunders. Anyway, the review's not stellar, but I've seen way worse. Even in the same issue of Geist. I have to wonder why Jonathan Ball homed in on Hayward, when this stinker was hanging out in the same neighbourhood. Pee-yew.

richard said...

Yes, Leah Rae's reviews are ... not always useful. My eyes are still rolling from her review of Sean Horlor's Made Beautiful By Use. And on going back to Hayward's review, it's not as empty as it seemed the first time through - but I've still spent more time on it than it deserved!

Jonathan Ball said...

How can I respond without further muddying the waters, except to say that this is quite brilliant, particularly the following passage:

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.”

Bravo! Much more entertaining and thorough than my own review.

Zachariah Wells said...

Thanks for dropping in, Mr. Ball. Glad to see you're more of a sport about this than some others have been.