After reading a two-hundred-and-sixty-or-so-word review, that is, Josh Davis’s review of Robert Lopez’s Asunder, a review which amounts to little more than a trifle, little more than a throwaway, a throw-up (in graffitists’ parlance), an, at best, anemic piece of slapdash flash nonfiction; you might say, forgivingly, “Oh, given the constraints, what else can you expect?” Well, one answer is the work of Augusto Monterroso, who was a master of the short form, and who could, in a single sentence, suggest a whole world. Take for instance, “El Dinosaurio” (“The Dinosaur”), published in Monterroso’s Obras completas (Y otros cuentos, trans. Complete Works and Other Stories). The story, in its entirety, reads:
Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.
(“When [s]he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”)
Within this single sentence, Monterroso creates, in my mind, a scene of incredible tension, where the person discovers that the creature he or she had thought was a dream or nightmare was actually not a dream or nightmare. Here’s another way of looking at it: Dinosaurs might be part of this person’s everyday reality and is simply recognizing that the dangerous, friendly, or wounded dinosaur is still in the vicinity. Yes, there are many possible interpretations of this sentence, a sentence that gives lie to the idea that brevity is the antithesis of complexity, that it cannot, in a nod to Whitman, also be large and contain multitudes.
But perhaps this is unfair. I am, after all, comparing fiction with nonfiction. And surely fiction is a far more malleable form than nonfiction. I might as well bring up short poems and say, “See what you can do within these constraints?” (I’ll spare you a digression on how malleable, how expansive, every genre can be.) Well then, how about looking at the amazing blurbs Michael Martone has written for his and other people’s books? They’re all short and they’re all masterful. But these aren’t reviews proper, so perhaps I should, instead, compare Davis’s sloppy review to excellent reviews that are also under three hundred words. Here are reviews from The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Disclosure: I write reviews for this journal; and one of my reviews appears in the particular issue from which all links to the reviews below have been culled, an issue where reviews by A D Jameson (a contributor at Big Other) also appear):
Une chambre en Hollande, by Pierre Bergounioux
Reviewed by Warren Motte
Invisible, by Paul Auster
Reviewed by Robert L. McLaughlin
Pornografia, by Witold Gombrowicz
Reviewed by Michael Pinker
The Whole Difference, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Reviewed by Lily Hoang
Head in Flames, by Lance Olsen
Reviewed by Peter Grandbois
Duke, the Dog Priest, by Domício Coutinho
Reviewed by Joseph Dewey
Language Death Night Outside, by Peter Waterhouse
Reviewed by Tim Feeney
Primeval and Other Times, by Olga Tokarczuk
Reviewed by Jeff Bursey
Birth and Death of the Housewife by Paola Masino
Reviewed by Jamie Richards
Ray of the Star, by Laird Hunt
Reviewed by Joseph Dewey
Hecate and Her Dogs, by Paul Morand
Reviewed by Jeff Waxman
O Fallen Angel, by Kate Zambreno
Reviewed by Patricia Laurence
A Dark Stranger, by Julien Gracq
Reviewed by Stephen Sparks
Where I Stay, by Andrew Zornoza
Reviewed by Michelle Tupko
Anti-Twitter, by Harold Jaffe
Reviewed by Gary Lain
Life of a Star, by Jane Unrue
Reviewed by Pedro Ponce
Ten Walks / Two Talks, by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch
Reviewed by Amanda DeMarco
Kamby Bolongo Mean River, by Robert Lopez
Reviewed by Mike Meginnis
Fugue State, by Brian Evenson
Reviewed by Richard Kalich
Left, by Robert Buckeye
Reviewed by Andy Stewart
Why Translation Matters, by Edith Grossman
Reviewed by Rhett McNeil
Treatise on Elegant Living, by Honoré de Balzac
Reviewed by Mark Axelrod
I’ve read each of these reviews. Despite being under three hundred words long, each one is excellent. But you might say, “Oh, he writes for that journal. Of course, he’s going to say great things about it.” And while I would applaud your skepticism, if that is, in fact, what you’re thinking, I would defy anyone to find a single review in the journal that isn’t well-written, informed, fair, and balanced: all hallmarks of great criticism.
Well, I could also list some fine reviews by Kimberly King Parsons, which have been featured in the same magazine that Davis’s review appears. They are all positively instructive on what can be done within the narrow frame of a very short review. Here are three of her most recent reviews at Time Out New York:
But what exactly is wrong with Davis’s review of Asunder? Good question. But before I get to that, please note that it is not Davis’s negative criticism of the book that I find appalling. It is the style in which he demonstrates it.
Besides the typos (“jugdment” and “‘land mines;’”) and redundancies (“—that is, objects they might stumble over—”; (I would drop “that is,” and have the appositive phrase do its work.)); ambiguities (“As Lopez’s characters dispassionately gun down their lovers or cower in art galleries…” (Are we to understand that each of Lopez’s characters do both of these things?)); and the grammatical errors, like the lack of a comma after “Instead” in the first sentence of the second paragraph (Commas should be used after transitional elements: however, therefore, nonetheless, also, otherwise, finally, instead, thus, of course, above all, for example, in other words, as a result, on the other hand, in conclusion, and in addition.); this review is brimming with poor craft and poor form.
From the outset, Davis demonstrates his apparent lack of critical acumen by conflating one of Lopez’s characters with Lopez himself:
“‘None of this should be taken literally,’ writes Robert Lopez in the title story of his latest collection. Whether this statement is meant to be advice or a summation of the author’s ethos is unclear, but then again, clarity is not part of Lopez’s style.”
From what I know of Lopez’s work (and here I should say that I’ve reviewed Lopez’s Kamby Bolongo Mean River, an excellent novel; and I have some familiarity with a number of the stories in this book, having read them in various publications and also having enjoyed hearing Lopez read some of his other stories; and I’ve published a short piece by him in jmww), Lopez is not in any way blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction, so that first sentence in Davis’s review should read: “None of this should be taken literally,” says one of the characters in the title story of Robert Lopez’s latest collection.” But, of course, if it were written in this way, it would not serve as the perfect setup for the sentence that follows. Moving along, though, how, exactly, is it unclear whether this is “a summation of the author’s ethos” or something that one of the characters says and, perhaps, advises? Davis doesn’t demonstrate how Lopez is blurring the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, does not demonstrate whether this story has metafictive elements either, for that matter. In other words, Davis has set himself up not to be trusted. And the rest of the review does little to restore any kind of trust in his insights.
Saying that Lopez “gets off on staccato rhythms and vagaries, dismantling the English language and putting it back together as a series of bizarre inner monologues” is annoying for two reasons, first, because it suggests that there is a masturbatory quality to Lopez’s style, which Davis hasn’t demonstrated and doesn’t demonstrate later in the review; second, because it strikes me as a juvenile takedown, and, third, because I don’t see how anyone can receive erotic pleasure from the “staccato rhythms and vagaries” created by “dismantling the English language and putting it back together as a series of bizarre inner monologues.” But perhaps there is a new kind of freak out there who does get off on such, and to this I say, “To each his own.” While all of these aspects of Davis’s review make for a thoroughly annoying read, it’s the following phrase that bothers me the most: “The story’s central characters are allowed to have souls, but beyond that, all of Lopez’s women are angry clichés from pulp mystery novels, and his men are brutish but ineffectual thugs.” I’m not sure whether “The story’s” is a typo or not, and that Davis is just referring to “The Trees Underground,” so I’m not sure how to approach this sentence. Is he castigating Lopez for the collection’s clichés, for its stereotypes, for its lack of diversity? Or is this criticism being hurled at the story “The Trees Underground”? While this lack of clarity is certainly bothersome, what also bothers me is Davis’s idea that it’s somehow possible for an author to give a character a soul, as if characters weren’t simply a collection of words on the page, that is, raw material to make a thing, rather than to make a person. Plus, I’m skeptical about the existence of a soul, anyway. But my skepticism about these things is inconsequential. Davis, though, has done nothing to show how giving a character a soul is possible, and this lack of authority and the many lapses in Davis’s review make for terribly crafted criticism. The last sentence in Davis’s review also struck me as strange. It’s clumsiness aside, I couldn’t understand why Davis feels that he can speak for every reader, that every reader, after reading this collection, was “ultimately left feeling slightly hollow.” And what does it mean to feel “slightly hollow,” anyway? Is it akin to the despair some readers, like me, and I would think many others, feel after reading a sloppy bit of prose; a despair at the seeming lack of critical acumen, at the seeming lack of rigor in regards to copyediting, at the seeming lack of consideration by some reviewers to treat work (good or bad) with thoroughness, fairness, and attentiveness to detail?
Also, shouldn’t it say, “Reviewed by Josh Davis” under Asunder (at the top of the review), rather than what it says now, suggesting that Josh Davis authored Asunder?
Lastly, while I wouldn’t say, “What Lopez has joined together let no reviewer put asunder,” I do expect reviewers to take their own work seriously. Is that too much to ask?
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.