Monday, February 26, 2007

Gothic Reviewer review'd

In one of the six “Supplemental” volumes to his infamous ten-volume translation of the Arabian Nights (1885-88), Richard Burton included a section called “The Reviewers Review’d,” in which he heaped scorn and contumely on various imprudent critics who’d thought to question his command of Arabic. It’s very amusing to read, though occasionally a little unedifying (in another part of the same volume he put in a long essay abusing Oxford’s Bodleian Library, who’d dared to deny him their copy of the famous Wortley-Montague ms. of the Nights – he’d had to employ someone to make primitive photocopies, or “sun pictures,” of it instead. If they had agreed to lend it to him, he crowed, he would have felt honour-bound to suppress some of the more explicit passages, but since he’d had to pay for the pages out of his own pocket, he’d felt at liberty to spell out every last unsavoury detail for the delectation of his readers!)

It’s an interesting idea, reviewing reviewers. The usual assumption is that one has to be pretty desperate to care that much about what other people say, but then critics (and sub-editors) do get away with an awful lot of tosh and misinformation because of their control of the means of production. If you write into the Listener, say, complaining about any misrepresentation of your work, your letter is bound to be followed by some bland, authoritative-sounding dismissal by the author of the original piece.

This week’s Listener contains a review of Gothic NZ: The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture (Otago University Press, 2006), a collection edited by my Massey colleagues Jennifer Lawn and Mary Paul together with Misha Kavka of Auckland University, to which I contributed a few poems under the title “Tiger Country.”

The review is by one Andrew Paul Wood. Sadly, the Listener no longer seems to include notes on its reviewers, but a brief consultation of the web reveals that he “lives and writes in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was born in Timaru in 1975. He is a BA(Hons) graduate of Otago University and PGDipMuStud (Massey). He is a writer, poet and art and culture critic.” [Southern Ocean Review 19 (2001] (& MA (merit) Canterbury 2003, as further research discloses).

That detail about “living and writing in Christchurch” one might have deduced from his complaint that Ian Lochhead is “curiously the only South Island voice” in the collection. What about Justin Paton? Or Jenny Lawn, herself an Otago graduate, for that matter? So what, anyway? Do we really have to descend to that kind of parish-pump niggling every time an anthology comes out? (I fear the answer to that last question is ‘yes,’ but I’d much rather it weren’t).

I guess, for the most part, I enjoyed Andrew Wood’s review. There are some awfully nice adjectives scattered about in it – the book (for the most part) he calls “enormous fun,” Martin Edmond’s essay on abandoned houses is “pure gold,” Stephen Turner and Scott Wilson on road-safety ads are “brilliant,” and Elizabeth Hale’s essay on Maurice Gee and Vincent Ward is a “revelatory tour-de-force.”

The poetry contributed to the volume by Olivia “Macassely” (sic. – for Macassey: that’s what I mean about sub-editors; the spelling error is quite likely not by Wood at all …) and myself is, however, described as “overwrought.”

Nice word that – it has a very satisfying air of the hysterical about it which I would certainly not disavow, though I can’t speak for Olivia. He goes on to say that it might have been nice to include Richard Reeve, which I would definitely concur with. Richard did edit the book for Otago University Press, though, so he might have perceived some conflict of interest if he’d been invited to contribute as well.

I guess where I part company with Wood is with his rather “sophomoric” generalizations about the history and antecedents of “the gothic sensibility.” It’s hardly news that Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, and William Beckford were influential Gothic novelists. So were Maturin and Monk Lewis. What difference does it make to his argument that “the melodramatics of gothic were being mercilessly lampooned as early as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey”?

Why does it “make sense to attribute gothic sensibilities to 19th-century New Zealand colonial society” but not to “the present day”? Wood follows this remark by a series of (alleged) “omissions” from the book:

Art is explored, but only contemporary, and unconvincingly (Saskia Leek and Yvonne Todd, no Ava Seymour), ignoring the great provincial traditions (Don Driver in Taranaki, Laurence Aberhart in Russell, everyone on Banks Peninsula). There’s little discussion of the “Man Alone” idea, no mention of the 1984 film Heart of the Stag, or that whole up-welling of gothic-themed culture in the 1980s brought about by Rogernomics and Ruthenasia. Jennifer Lawn tries to fill some of the many gaps through vigorous box-ticking in her breathless introduction.

“Everyone on Banks Peninsula,” eh? A bit of “vigorous box-ticking” going on there, I’d say. And fair enough, too. Of course the book isn’t complete. It never had any aspirations to be (as I understand it, at any rate). Wood is more on the money when he remarks: “The book reads like what it is: a collection of conference papers – personal enthusiasms in fancy dress to entertain peers, with dubious connections to a theme and a few reprints from elsewhere.”

Yep. And? Your problem is …? True, it certainly is “a mixed bag.” But then it did originate in a conference (organized by Mary and Jenny in 2002). Wood himself concedes that “Gothic NZ is worth it for the good bits,” though he goes on to complain that “all too often [it] is more camp than Gothic.” But hold on, didn’t you yourself mention Jane Austen’s “merciless lampooning” of “Gothic melodrama” in the early nineteenth-century? How can the genre-formerly-known-as-Gothic not include an element of camp almost two centuries later?

And, in any case, if there are so many omissions, how does it make sense to restrict “gothic sensibilities” to “19th-century New Zealand colonial society”? Wood himself seems to detect it everywhere but the kitchen sink in “the present day” (especially on Banks Peninsula). Heart of the Stag may escape extended discussion (though I notice it’s listed in the filmography at the back of the book), but Alison MacLean’s classic 1989 short film Kitchen Sink certainly doesn’t.

As far as the “overwrought” accusation goes, what about the idea of describing Ian Wedde’s piece as a “whirlwind potlatch of eclectic waifs and strays” during which he “congees and salamalecs to the circle with an afterword more gratuitously stuffed with cultural possessions on display than Te Papa”?

“Congees and salamecs” – great stuff! I like it. Very excessive … very Gothic, actually.

All in all, I think Wood does a pretty good job. He’s dismissive and patronizing in parts, and lays on the erudition a bit unconvincingly in his opening (don’t forget that some of us actually know something about Gothic art and writing, and have even – in some cases – read Horace Walpole and the rest of them), but if the basic purpose of a review is to write entertainingly about the book on display, then I’d give him a solid B+ / A-.

The mark would be higher if it weren’t for the internal contradictions in his piece (trying to restrict “the gothic sensibility” to the late eighteenth / early nineteenth century, and then going on to complain about all the contemporary examples which have been left out of the book – you really can’t have it both ways). I also find criticizing a book which began as a series of conference papers for sounding too much like a set of conference papers a little paradoxical.

I take his point, of course. The book is bitty but fun, is what he’s saying. He expresses it more eloquently, but it comes down to that.


Katherine Dolan said...

Elegant review-of-review. I have identified its TKO rhetorical figure as ennoia. Or is it paromologia?

Dr Jack Ross said...

I think I would be flattering myself if I claimed it to be the latter -- the former is as high as I can soar, I fear ... "damning with faint praise" is, I suppose, the intention. I'd still buy the guy a drink if he happened by, though ... no hard feelings. I like being overwrought ...

Enjoyed the anecdote on your blog about the conversation with the expat Kiwi, by the way: I could hear that deadpan South Island voice refusing to give an inch ... Aucklanders are much more relaxed.

Katherine Dolan said...

Ha ha! The South Islander was ME (sorry, should have introduced myself -- Katherine Dolan here, chronically uptight and opinionated spouse of JD).

Rem acu tetigisti; Aucklanders are a much more attractive people. We are a terse, suspicious, unyielding lot. 'Tis our charm. I am planning to use South Islanders as models for a story about ancient Spartans. I doubt if Athenians were relaxed enough to be compared with Aucklanders though. Maybe you're a bunch of Lesbians (just kidding, Aucklanderz rule).

Dr Jack Ross said...

Oops. Mea maxima culpa. Well, thanks for taking it like that, anyway. I think most people would be taking out a fatwah right now for my strictures on your mythic homeland ...

Yeah, the Australians are very into those Greek comparisons. Les Murray had a whole thing going on expats (such as Peter Porter) being Athenians, and dyed-in-the-wool slobs (such as himself) being Boeotians.

If they're Greeks, though, I think that must make us Macedonians ... or maybe Ionians. That'd suit me best, I think ... Auckland could be Samos and the mainland Lydia.

Hope the poetry is going well, and that John hasn't stranded you on a lee-shore as yet ...

Katherine Dolan said...

OK, I will go along with that: Australia can be Greece and since my original name was Liddy I will be the Tyrant of Liddya and threaten the Hellenes with my army of effeminate yet deadly barbarians.

Luckily our boat's engine is not yet working properly. Otherwise no doubt John and I would both be making panicked navigational decisions in the middle of the Bering Sea. As it is, she is floating harmlessly in a scenic bay where otters and seals frolick around her frighteningly large hull.

You wouldn't happen to know anything about boats, would you?

Dr Jack Ross said...

I know enough about boats (a bit of recreational yachting around the Hauraki Gulf) to have considerable respect for their dangers: storms, rocks, waves, etc.

Coming back to the review, though, I've just been having some email correspondence with its author which I think has left us a little clearer on our respective positions ... we both agree that we were a little patronising in tone, but we also agree on the necessity to make a big noise from time to time to remind people that one still exists.

So please don't take any risks out there at sea -- I'd so much rather you were both out and about in the world of phenomena than in some icy translucent tomb at the bottom of the Northwest passage ...

Katherine Dolan said...

A rare triumph of diplomacy. This example offers hope for reviewer-and-review-reviewer relations everywhere!

(I should say, though, that despite the apparent insanity of the boat venture, we are actually taking multiple precautions and proceeding very slowly and cautiously. So will probably not sink.)

Anyway, sorry for hi-jacking your blog like this. Just pleased to find it in a random session of clicking the 'next-blog' button.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jack.

I was puzzled by where he was taking the review - like you, I found the internal contradictions detracted from some of the points he was trying to make - but yeah, I quite liked the bit about being overwrought too...

..irresistable image of the poem standing there in the moonlight on a dangerous clifftop, one hand to its heaving bosom, overly ornate bodice ripped by blackberry -

tee hee

Martin Edmond said...

hey, jack - only seem to visit the imaginary museum on sundays (just like the real ones) but this is funny - both yr review of the review & the review; & especially the comments stream. will you publish the emails to & fro with Mr Wood (please?)? my only other point is to mention the file name I had my contrib under for the five years between then & then: go-thick, I called it.

Dr Jack Ross said...

-- Katherine, delighted to have my blog hijacked (pun intended) -- makes a change from hearing only the booming of my own hollow voice around the corridors of this particular annex of cyberspace (what do you know, I really am overwrought ...)

-- Martin, great that you have managed to dropin for a visit. I wish I could share the emails, but I fear that might disrupt the perilous equilibrium of my truce with Mr Wood ...