September 13th 2009
The Condescending Review
Every now and then you get a reviewer who doesn’t read fantasy or science fiction reviewing a sff book. The result is often just awful. And here is a superb example: the Sept 8th review by Michael Agger of Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
For a start, such reviewers frequently assume the book that they are reviewing is typical, as if one book can represent the whole. So anything they don’t like in the book is extrapolated to be “the genre”.
Secondly, such reviewers often seem to think that the magic of fantasy is something best left behind in childhood and that readers who indulge in it are somehow childish or immature or uncritical – that they are somehow lacking as readers. (Unless of course, they are reading a book by a respectable award-winning author who writes “magical realism”. That’s ok. In fact it indicates high literary taste.)
Thirdly, they assume an adult fantasy involving magic can have nothing to offer a real grown-up person. The themes of such books must be childish and irrelevant to adult readers and to our everyday world. Fantasy is, in fact, escapist commercial twaddle of no relevance – on an even lower level in their estimation than “real world” commercial fiction. Fantasy for adult readers is regarded as something akin to Harry Potter with sex and drugs. (Actually, I am not sure why escapist commercial fiction is considered beneath contempt anyway. Don’t we all need to escape sometimes? Commercial film is not subjected to the same contempt…but that’s another subject.)
Here is some of what Michael Aggers had to say about “The Magicians” (which I have not read):
Fantasy novels involve magic and are a little bit like magic themselves. To work, they require of readers a willingness to be fooled, to be gulled into a world of walking trees and talking lions. They affect us most powerfully as teenagers, but then most of us move on to sterner, staider stuff.
Lev Grossman’s third novel is a homage to that early wonderment.
The Narnia books and the Harry Potter series captivate the young by putting young people in a world where adults are a distant, unsteady presence. “The Magicians” is a jarring attempt to go where those novels do not: into drugs, disappointment, anomie, the place and time when magic leaks out of your life. Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can’t help being a strange mess of effects. It’s similar to inviting everyone to a rave for your 40th-birthday party. Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?
What I would like to say to Mr Aggers is this: if he doesn’t know – at least vaguely – what is out there in genre fiction, then he shouldn’t talk about it.
What do you think?
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