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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  1. 1. Adam Heine

    To say the Narnia books have nothing for adults is to completely miss the point of C.S. Lewis’ writing and, actually, his life.

    I agree with you. This is just poor reviewing, to attack an entire genre based on a single book and assumptions.

  2. 2. PeterWilliam

    It sounds like Michael Agger (New York Times) doesn’t like Lev Grossman (Time Magazine). Perhaps there is some older, underlying sour grapes going about here. Just a hunch.

  3. 3. Katharine

    Very well said. I am so sick of people looking down on those who write and read fantasy.

    ‘Aren’t we a little old for this?’ had me gashing my teeth.

  4. 4. Kate Elliott

    I see this kind of thing enough that I kind of just blow it off. It seems to me that the reviewer is not writing about the book at all, but about his own need to appear “above all that.” So, yeah, the review is thereby worthless to me and pretty much to anyone.

  5. 5. glenda larke

    I don’t know that I can blow it off so easily, Kate. Yes, we all know it’s worthless, as does anyone who reads sff, but people like this reviewer have access to a great many folk who don’t read genre.

    Many of them never will because they take the lead from reviewers like Aggers. And that enrages me. I don’t mind if someone says: “I’ve tried lots of fantasy novels and it’s not my thing”. There are certain types of stories that I don’t like; I know I don’t like them because I’ve tried them.

    But I strongly object to someone who poses as knowledgeable and reviews a genre book, then disses the whole genre as though he knows what he’s talking about! He does us – the writers of sff – a disservice, and he mocks our readers.

  6. 6. Satima Flavell

    Lousy reviewing and sheer snobbery. Prick that kind of critic – or criticise that kind of prick – and you burst a balloon with ego problems.

  7. 7. Adele

    Great post, I love this subject! I feel pity for people who won’t allow any magic into their adult lives. It’s about more than escapism, it’s about keeping a spring in your step whatever age you are, because life is so much more exciting and the world so much more wonderful when trolls lurk under bridges and young street rats grow up to save their people from evil tyrants.
    Let them keep their musty ideals and their literary pretensions and if they want to sniff at us who cares, we will be out looking for dragons.
    The only sad thing about this sort of review is when it makes people who were considering sampling the joys of the genre feel embarrassed and put off.

  8. 8. glenda larke

    Adele, I so agree, especially with your last sentence.

  9. 9. RD Williams

    I find his review somewhat insulting. He obviously is not someone who reads SF&F as a rule, and apparently does not understand the genre at all. Why in the name of Heaven he took/was assigned this book to review is a complete mystery to me. It’s like asking someone who rates fine wine to give a crit on just the food. Or like asking an automechanic to check the structural integrity of your house. LOL

  10. 10. Lydia Sharp

    Wow. Does he not realize that there are just as many adults that rave about the Harry Potter books as there are youth? This reviewer clearly didn’t do his research.

    And you’re right, this is just as disrespectful to the readers (if not more so) as it is to the writers, assuming that people who DO enjoy this type of story are simple-minded fools who don’t know squat about good literature.

    Honestly, I think trying to figure out how to handle an ability you’ve recently discovered within yourself, or perhaps, even knowing you’ve had it all along but had to hide it, would have much more impact as an adult. There are so many more things to consider in adult life that you just can’t broach from the viewpoint of a teenager or younger. How is that not an engaging concept?

  11. 11. Karen Wester Newton

    I agree that it’s condescending, and very dismissive of the genre. I write a complaining email to the NY Times saying so. If anyone else wants to express their feelings tot eh Times, here is the link with directions:

  12. 12. Elias McClellan

    What I find frustrating is the condescending attitudes in supposedly genre-friendly reviews and/or venues. The SciFi (or Syfy as they now prefer) website reviews science ficition and supposedly fantasy novels as well. Sadly, the reviews are more a show case for verbose flights of fancy, captained by John Clute and Michael Cassutt.

    The reviews are often stilted and seldom provide any insight or value in assessing a book for purchase or perusal. Oh but they do let me know the clear influences and homages or thefts to gold and silver age writers. And they NEVER fail to tell me how they remember reading those seminal, better writers way-back-when. What they don’t do is give me credit for my own reading experience or intellect.

    Don’t get me wrong, I can wind-bag with the best of them, but that’s not what I read a book review for. Further, I don’t find a lot of objectivity. If its not ‘hard-science’ then it’s not worth anything other than a cursory mention. Fantasy is treated little better. Oh how they raved and gushed on Michael Chabon’s ‘The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,’ only to completely ignore Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel-series.

    I wonder if Chabon’s reception by the ‘lit’ community had some part in their esteem? But then this is the same site that considers Quinton Tarentino review/news worthy. Granted he is genre but talk about time to grow up! Seriously.

  13. 13. Kate Elliott

    Glenda, I see what you mean. The question being then, how to counter this attitude or protest it in a useful manner, or how to get the word out to readers who might be otherwise swayed if given the chance to approach genre work from a different starting point. I don’t have an answer for that. A lot of people in my life simply do not read sff, and I’ve come to accept that these people, who might like to read something I’ve written, never will for that reason. But that’s not the same as a condescending attitude toward it.

  14. 14. Victoria Dixon

    I’m sure there are multiple attempts by reviewers who do not know the genre they have decided to review and trash. It’s the second such review I’ve seen in the last two months. By comparison, this one’s tame, but does not require an apology. I guess Mr. Grossman is lucky? This pisses me off. If you don’t read the genre, feel free to make your review, but make your comments on the quality of the writing. (Did this reviewer enjoy Mr. Grossman’s style, his use of metaphors, etc.) He should not suggest a lack in a story’s genre when he clearly has little to no understanding of that genre.
    A reviewer is not out there to make snarky comments because they can. They are there to try and spell out what made the story work or where they thought it failed. This reviewer clearly thought it was his job to encourage the rest of us to grow up. Holy “Holier Than Thou Attitude!” If this book reviewer wishes to be taken seriously, then I suggest he take his job seriously and reduce his level of condescencion or stay clear of genres he is incapable of reviewing.

  15. 15. Hendo

    Hey Glenda,

    This kind of literary snobbery irritates me, but I’ve learned to take it with a pinch of salt. Books with pretensions of “Literature” don’t sell in anywhere near the same numbers as popular genre fiction, so it needs to promote be seen as higher or more meaningful to justify itself; cultural, rather than economic, capital.

  16. 16. S.C. Butler

    As I say in my own post – We Are the Orcs!

    And I wear my orcishness proudly.

  17. 17. Gio Clairval

    Great post, Glenda. I think you’re right not to let this pass.
    As I say in my own post, a ‘real’ adult draws inspiration from the child inside. I’m sorry for the reviewer and his lost childhood dreams.

  18. 18. Mary

    Everyone remember C. S. Lewis’s tuo quoque?

    There is nothing more childish than the desire to appear very grown up.

  19. 19. glenda larke

    Oh, yes, Mary – I even remember the child me trying very hard indeed to pretend I was older and more mature than I was, and fooling nobody!

    I don’t know the answer either, Kate. But I think there must be one, because SFF, including that which is sheer entertainment, has had tremendous success on the screen, large and small, without being dissed as a genre. I guess we can just keep on writing for a start … :-)

    Re reviewing generally:
    Some people say that the true job of a reviewer is not so much to pull a book to pieces, or praise it to the skies, or even to say if he likes it or otherwise, but to write his review with a view to telling the readers enough to know whether THEY will like it.

  20. 20. green_knight

    I haven’t read the book in question, but just to play Devil’s Advocate: I’ve read books that would fit that review. Books that were shallow, that were playing on clichees, with cardboard characters and lousy worldbuilding, books that read like <bestseller> warmed up-twice-removed.

    If the Publisher’s Weekly review says Harry Potter discovers Narnia is real in this derivative fantasy thriller then I’m not surprised a critiquer finds the same. And It appears to be a book that has goals that are slightly at odds with the best of genre – _telling a captivating story_ and _exploring what would happen IF_.

    What I am asking, however, is why this book is reviewed instead of the dozens of genuine high quality genre offerings; and I can only point to the celebrity status of the author :-(

  21. 21. glenda larke

    I certainly wouldn’t critique a reviewer for not liking a book and laying out his/her reasons. I was careful not to say anything about the bulk of his review where he does indeed talk about some of the reasons he didn’t connect with this particular story…

    And yes, I am afraid that getting reviewed often does depend on who you are, and maybe that has not a thing to do with the quality of the work. Sad but true. In this case, I think Mr Grossman’s high profile did him a disservice – it meant that he was reviewed by someone who doesn’t normally read genre, and who ended up being patronising.

    If it’s any consolation, I read something today that indicated that reviews in newspapers were becoming less important (link in post of 19th Sept on my blog.)

  22. 22. S.C. Butler

    Glenda – I read the book. The review is still grotesquely condescending toward the genre, but otherwise pretty dead-on. Unfortunately.


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