To Review or Not To Review

…that is the question. Were Shakespeare alive today he might despair at this flippant appropriation of Hamlet’s words – regarding the nature of suffering and existence – to the mere frippery of book reviews. Then again, we could well imagine some literary wag retorting, ‘A matter of life and death? No. It’s far more important than that!’

As it happens, and to mislead you no longer, I’m not questioning the value of book reviews per se, rather, I have a more specific query: is it worth reviewing any and all books, regardless of when they were published, or should we instead restrict ourselves to only recent releases?

To date, I’ve written two book reviews for this blog, of The Infatuations by Javier Marías, and of The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani, in each case less than a year after the book was released, and for The Infatuations, less than a month. As an amateur reviewer with a full-time job, and crucially without access to pre-prints, it’s hard to turn them around much faster than that.

But what of books published a few years ago, or longer ago even than that? Some Henry James or Charles Dickens? Or perhaps Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque? A week or two ago, I almost began to write a review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace for this blog. It’s an immense book, which already has several websites, such as The Wallace Wiki & The Howling Fantods, dedicated to decoding and analysing this epic work. Not to denigrate my abilities, but would a few-hundred word review written by me really add anything, other than to note that yet another aspiring author was both inspired and intimidated by this book? This question posed, I renamed the file from “A Review of Infinite Jest” and began to fill it out with this essay instead.

I know that many other bloggers, and websites such as Goodreads, regularly post reviews of old books, but I’m unconvinced of the need. Before continuing, I should qualify my arguments by stating that I in no way wish to discourage people from engaging with literature and in fact am heartened by it. It shows the literary form has not shrivelled into irrelevance. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t question the value of these reviews, and further, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine the nature of these reviews. Are they in fact the same beast as the review of a freshly-printed book? In general, I would contend that they are not.

It’s not that I believe these reviews are unable to say anything original, or that the personal perspective they might provide is worthless, it’s just that the longer the book has been exposed to the oxygen of the wider cultural environment, the greater the etchings and erosions that the collective opinion and critical thought will make on it, and so the harder it is to write a truly original view of things. The original book has become obscured by this cloudy accretion of oxides. The risk is that in over-earnest attempts to be impartial, by consciously attempting to divest oneself of all that critical baggage, it is easy to drift into a reactionary position and find oneself unfairly rubbishing the critically-acclaimed masterwork. Maybe the best critics are able to avoid these traps.

Another aspect of reviews is of course the plot summary – useful at first when it isn’t common knowledge, but after a while certain words of Calvino become apposite, when he describes the class of books that “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too“. An exception might therefore be made for the unjustly unpopular or little-known work. In that case there can be genuine value in a review – it carries no baggage, and by drawing our attention to the book the review performs a useful service. The longer a book has been published though, the less the need for yet another straightforward review – after all there were presumably a surfeit of those when it first went on sale.

So, if we’re not to review these old books, how we do direct our excess literary energies? How can we best engage with these older works? Is there anything original that we can add to the collective critical opinion?

My feeling is that, rather than a general review, it might be better to provide a more specific discussion as to how the novel meshes with the contemporary environment, to assess the impact it has had, perhaps embark on a deeper exploration of one of its themes. Furthermore, rather than pretend that the subconscious infiltration of other opinions hasn’t occurred, we should face them out in the open, and discuss the book within that context. Finally, rather than critique only a single book, perhaps a comparative approach examining two or more works might prove to be more illuminating.

These are merely my opinions, though ones which will naturally guide the direction of my blog, but what do you other readers & reviewers out there think? Please do leave your considered comments below.

World Dystopian Literature Day

The name of Orwell has been much mentioned recently, a product of society’s collective word-association – to each mention of Edward Snowden and his leaking of the pernicious spying activities by the NSA (and US government), come the words George Orwell or Big Brother. Whilst not exactly inaccurate, these reflexive responses are perhaps an exaggeration or rather an over-simplification, and by repeating them mantra-like, we block ourselves from truly engaging with the issues at hand. I believe they deserve proper examination, and not mere caricature.

My solution is to propose a World Dystopian Literature Day, with an inaugural date of the 2nd September 2013, on which citizens and readers from around the globe can come together, virtually or otherwise, and (re)read a classic novel from the canon of dystopian literature. By doing so we will refresh our memories of the potential horrors, rekindle in ourselves the fires of protest and will initiate a continued and informed debate about the nature of our free society. Perhaps that way we can avoid ever drifting too close to the darkness of an illiberal police state, to a state of dis-Enlightenment.

Front covers of five great works of dystopian fiction.

Front covers of five great works of dystopian fiction – The Trial, Seeing, 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.

After all, a free and democratic society needs to continually rebuild and refresh its liberties to every new technological and worldly challenge, otherwise it will inexorably deteriorate into totalitarianism. Centralised power begets power.

It’s a cliche that we who learn nothing of our past are condemned to repeat it. No surprise then that the fictional warnings from literature about potential futures receive similar short shrift. It shouldn’t be thus, not when the novel reveals to us the very real human pain and suffering that such manipulative and oppressive states can cause, not when the novel as a storytelling medium can make us empathise with these people and do so perhaps more keenly than any non-fiction account of historical atrocities ever could.

The specific aims of World Dystopian Literature Day are therefore:

  1. To guard against complacency in society regarding our individual rights and freedoms.
  2. To encourage debate around the themes explored in these novels.
  3. To promote a critical appreciation of this genre of literature.
  4. To raise awareness of the continued abuse of human rights by governments around the world.
  5. To provide a check against the growing power and influence of transnational corporations.

So, which book to read to accomplish these goals? Orwell is one such precautionary voice, but there are many others of equal importance, and I mention only a few here.

There is perhaps an obvious sort of dystopian literature, especially common in science fiction, in which the author describes a self-contained and fully-realised world that is clearly different to our own, and there are often myriad futuristic details to reinforce this sense of otherness. 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, excellent and famous books all, and ones that belong to this sort of dystopian literature.

But there is another kind out there, one more subtly defined, in which the fictional world is our world, or rather, is recognisably and substantively the world extant at the time of writing, with perhaps one key change. To my mind these stories are just as relevant, in some ways more so, and can project a sensation of utter terror. Examples of this second category in my opinion include, The Trial by Franz Kafka and Seeing by José Saramago.

Though The Trial speaks to a deep and painful sense of social isolation and misunderstanding, and permits many other readings besides, it can also be taken straightforwardly as an exposition of the horrifying and inhumane nature of a secretive, and potentially unknowable, justice system. Perhaps this is made more terrifying when one considers the rulings on certain aspects of the US’s treatment of security laws, namely the Patriot Act, whose interpretation by the executive office is allowed to be secret. And this in a democracy!

Seeing by Saramago is not at first sight literature of the dystopian class, but in its chilling tale of the cynical and antidemocratic response by a government to a democratic challenge to its authority, whereby the citizens return masses of blank votes, it reveals the lengths to which power will go in order to preserve its own power. Morals, truth, citizens – all will be sacrificed in the name of the preservation of the state. A powerful allegory given the revelations of the previous weeks, in which grave, potential abuses have been deemed necessary for the security of our society. And yet, we had no say in this, democracy was subverted and ignored. Our permission was not sought, for the simple reason that they knew it would have been denied.

So it’s clear that dystopian literature, though providing extreme visions of possible worlds, is still highly relevant today. If, like me, you believe the idea of a World Dystopian Literature Day is a worthwhile one, then please share this article via whichever means you prefer and let’s see if we can make it a reality. Please do add your thoughts and suggestions below, and if it does receive enough interest I’ll setup a separate website to promote it.

But whatever happens, come the 2nd September I’ll be rereading Seeing to remind myself just what’s at stake here. I do hope you will join me.

Andrew Cookson

Note: a list of dystopian fiction can be found on these wikipedia pages.

Cultural Architects: Saramago, Byrne & Le Corbusier Partners

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have synaesthesia for a day, just so that I could experiment with different pieces of music and observe the shifting patterns of colour, the dynamic lines and shapes that come and go in response to changing pitch, timbre and volume. Hallucinogenic drugs aside, perhaps the closest I’ll come to this mental light show is when listening to the brilliant song Don’t Worry about the Government by The Talking Heads:

Though hardly a piece of 60’s psychedelia, almost every time I hear David Byrne sing the following lyrics,

That’s the highway that goes to the building
I pick the building that I want to live in

It’s over there, it’s over there
My building has every convenience

I automatically see bright images flash in my mind – I see a tall building viewed from a distance, bathed in a cleansing, brilliant sunlight. Following it comes,

It’s gonna make life easy for me
It’s gonna be easy to get things done

and I’m seeing his sunny picture of optimism, which brings to mind the Modernist movement in architecture, and its ideological belief in the power of architecture to improve lives. This stack of evoked images and sensations isn’t the only thing I think about. A whole other set of associative connections fire in my brain. When I hear that lyric, it’s as if I’m hearing Le Corbusier himself say:

The house is a machine for living in.

This hopefulness shines through in the song, even if there is a hint of a darker under-current of meaning. That’s not the end of it though, more reflexive associations pile on and automatically assemble themselves into a dialectic argument.

In The Cave by José Saramago, we encounter the tale of Cipriano Algor and his daughter Marta, potters both, who must contend with the capricious nature of The Center, the chief purchasers of their pottery. The Center is an ever-growing cloistered city within a city; one that leaves the original host crumbling under an extreme gentrification pressure. When David Bryne sings the praise that his building has every convenience, he is summarising perfectly the nature of The Center, containing as it does, accommodation, entertainment, employment and food. Who wouldn’t want all that within easy reach? While he may be happy, the Algors are increasingly suspicious of The Center, an unease which doesn’t dissipate when they are left with no option but to move in. Who could blame them for their misgivings, when faced with such unsettling slogans as:

We Have What You Need, But We Prefer You Need What We Have.

Still it’s only fiction, so there’s nothing to worry about, or is there?

Earlier this year I visited Cardiff, Wales where, in the city centre, there is a building in this model. Luxury shopping forms the base, interspersed with food outlets, and all topped off with expensive apartments. It’s an attempt at concentrating all the functionality of a city into the same land area as a hamlet. So is this the start of the progression, is this a new Center, a building that will expand ever-outwards and upwards, subsuming everything in its path?

If this building, and this trend, is to be stopped, I doubt that it’ll be protests or organised rebellion that does it, but rather the unruly Internet. Why move to live where the shops are, when the whole world of shops can be brought to you? It hardly needs stating that one can work through the internet, socialise through it, even send a virtual instance of ourselves into Second Life and nest ourselves in it at one level removed.

So perhaps Saramago will be wrong in the detail, but the consequences might turn out the same. It could go either way; the Internet could provide our means of escape, or equally could seduce us into our own imprisonment.

For the purposes of Saramago’s message it probably doesn’t matter. The alienating and impersonal nature of this emblem of pure, efficient capitalism, is preserved whatever. Moreover it is this influence on one family, a father, daughter, son-in-law, and dog, and their attempts to adapt to a new reality, that is the important and universal concept. Indeed, one of the highlights of the novel is Saramago’s delicate and insightful rendering of the tender, playful relationship between father and daughter, workers of clay, yet both of them, with Saramago’s guidance, shape beautiful words of wisdom in their conversation.

And this Saramago suggests is the key to our salvation, to embrace our humanity and, as simple as it sounds, stick together. On this Byrne and Saramago agree:

I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important

And family too we might be inclined to add. If The Talking Heads are saying we don’t need to worry about the government, then in The Cave, Saramago agrees. It’s capitalism and blind materialism that are the prime threats. Saramago provides few solutions to these and we can’t blame him for that, but whatever they might prove to be, the first step, the foundation, is to stick together and value your friends, family and the stray dog that tags along.

I don’t doubt that a man can live perfectly well on his own, but I’m convinced that he begins to die as soon as he closes the door of his house behind him.

The path disappears around a corner, and veers who knows where, but Saramago at least shows us how we should start the journey.