Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Why Does This Book Inspire These Kinds Of Reviews?

Thanks to bookshelves of doom I learned about this really fascinating review of China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, which ran in The New York Times Book Review. Others have already commented on the lovely tone of reviewer Dave Itzkoff's first paragraph: "I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers...where's the artistic satisfaction? Where’s the dignity?"

One could ask the same question of book reviewers.

What I found particularly interesting about this review is that last March Salon carried a review of the same book in which the reviewer also saw her opportunity to turn her nose up at children's books, for which she called Un Lun Dun an "antidote." "Sick of seemingly insignificant characters who discover they have a secret identity and a momentous destiny? Tired of stories that hinge on cryptic prophecies and the retrieval of magical talismans?"

I still haven't read Un Lun Dun, but the impression I'm getting from these both snarky and gushing reviews is that people who don't normally like children's books or may not even read them as a general rule find themselves embarrassed to have to admit that they really, really like this one. Thus they have to find some kind of excuse. If I don't like children's books, but I like this children's book, then it must transcend its genre. Yeah, that's the ticket.

By the way, the column in which The New York Times review of Mieville's book appears also includes a review of Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves, which just happens to be waiting for me upstairs.


Tricia said...

I appreciated Neil Gaiman's response to this review. (See his February 5th entry.) It begins:

"One of the award nominations is for my collaboration with Michael Reaves, Interworld, which was reviewed, along with China's Un Lun Dun in the New York Times this week. It's an odd review -- I think that rule number one for book reviewers should probably be Don't Spend The First Paragraph Slagging Off The Genre."

J. L. Bell said...

I started reading Un Lun Dun last year and had to stop because of a combination of deadlines and due dates (from the library).

Very imaginative in its detail, but I hadn't gotten to the part where Miéville started to subvert fantasy clichés. Instead, he still seemed to be swimming in them.

One of these days, I'll get back. right after I finish Kelly Link's stories, which I've been carrying in my backup backpack for a month. (Spooky.)

Gail Gauthier said...

Gaiman also made a good point in the next paragraph, too: "If you as a reviewer, begin by explaining why you don't like a genre, then you put up the backs of everyone who does, and is interested, and probably would be reading your review in the first place."

Yes, the point of writing is to make a connection with readers, not to put them off. Though I think the NYT has a history of publishing articles about children's literature that seem designed to offend and antagonize, presumably for the purpose of making a little news.

Kelly Link's stories...spooky. Yes, yes, indeed.

MotherReader said...

"If I don't like children's books, but I like this children's book, then it must transcend its genre."

I love your thought on that. It definitely has a superior feel to it, and the NYT loves to keep baiting us with it.

Gail Gauthier said...


Yes, that's the word I was looking for. And the NYT does keep baiting its kidlit readership with articles reflecting its superior attitude toward children's literature. For heaven's sake, why bait kidlit people?

fusenumber8 said...

So very odd that it would be "Un Lun Dun" getting the attention. I read most of it last year and it bored the socks off of me. "Un Lun Dun" is Done would have been my own snarky review. I suspect that most of these reviewers picked it up because it was an adult author and hadn't read a real children's book in years. Kvetch kvetch kvetch.

Gail Gauthier said...

I do think adult authors who write a children's book attract a reader who isn't familiar with what's available in children's literature. They read this book, it's new to them, and they think the author has created gold out of straw no matter what the quality.

A year or so ago I read an article about some adult authors who were going to create a graphic novel series for kids. They were very sincere about wanting to write about things that weren't written about in children's books. Except everything they were talking about was covered in children's literature. They just weren't familiar with the field and thought they were doing something ground breaking.