Monday, January 26, 2009

Bad Reviews

Something I've been doing more recently is seeking out negative reviews of stuff I love. Positive reviews all sound alike ("such a wonderful piece of work, it moved me deeply in ways I am only beginning to explain"), but negative reviews can help you suss out what's really going in the experience of viewing a movie or reading a book.

I loved The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The last few minutes left me bawling, sobbing uncontrollably. So I was really interested to hear from a friend that a friends of hers had hated it, had felt she was being manipulated, and that finding out it was the same director as Forrest Gump suddenly made it all make sense.

The point I take away is that any work of fiction has that manipulative quality to it: the author sets you up, the author puts the puck neatly between your legs. The question is, can you see the system of pulleys by which the puck actually travels into the net? And in the end, it's the willingness to be taken in we bring to the experience. What visible strings are we willing to ignore, and which ones just leave us stranded outside the movie, looking at how it was constructed.

Ingrid and I are working our way through Mary Rose O'Reilley's books. We've both finished The Barn at the End of the World, and loved it, and now she's mostly through The Love of Impermanent Things, and likes it too. I'm waiting my turn.

I doubt I would have read it without knowing Mary Rose from Meeting, without our friend Kit saying she was one of her favorite writers. And I fell for the book, fell into it, fell over it. So I went hunting for the negative reviews.

They were remarkably like the negative reviews for War is the Force That Gives Us Meaning: not enough structure, non-rigorous use of quoted literary material, and a general lack of direction. Which is absolutely right in both cases. Hedges and Mary Rose do not build rigorous arguments. In Hedges' case, his argument just builds in momentum until it's kind of overwhelming. For Mary Rose, there isn't an argument really, except perhaps an argument for sprituality as experiential, and the argument proceed not by any unifying rhetorical device but by the accumulation of 99 little chapters. Many of them feel like spoken ministry in Friends Meeting.

Something I value in what I read is a writer's approaching things from an experiential rather than a formal point of view, which is so totally opposite of what I do in my cartographic life. I enjoy the experience of formalizing and structuring the information (or more properly, coming to understand the underlying formal structure of the data), and of making that structure clearly visible and understood. But what I love to consume as a user of information is this purely experiential plunge-over-your-head-and-paddle-around stuff.


1 comment:

James Riemermann said...

I haven't seen "Benjamin Button" yet but plan to, partly because in fact the director is not the skilled but rather bland and inoffensive Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future), but the ferocious David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven, Zodiac). They're both very effective manipulators (what good director isn't?), but Zemeckis manipulates in the service of convention and sentimentality.

There are critics who didn't like "Barn at the End of the World?" Let me at 'em. I was prepared to dislike it, as I dislike almost every "spiritual" book I've ever read, but was completely taken away by her earthiness, her bold and cranky humor, and her wicked smart critical eye toward all manner of pretension and silliness, including her own.