How Not To Write A Review

Reviewing, once as delicate and artistic a form as the short story, has come upon degenerate times. I was sadly disillusioned the last time I was in New York, when I searched for reviews of a play whose wit I’d enjoyed, and found several reviewers who didn’t simply disagree with me – that would have been interesting – but who truly didn’t seem to grasp what was going on in the most elementary way. Partly, of course, this is due to the great drawing-in of newspapers and financing. Critics are no longer classically educated men of letters who are played by George Sanders, but busy people with day jobs who get tossed an assignment from their friend with a website.

I’m not sure what excuse the New York Times has, however. For a review whose breathtaking irrelevancy will send blood pressures soaring, let’s chew on the following:

Where to begin? Let’s pass over the reviewer’s confusion about climates different from our own. She makes her allegiances clear: contemporary gangsters are worthy of writing about. Real-life history, worthy. Fantasy? Genre? Goodness, that made-up stuff? “Cheap.” And those who create it are “cheaters.”

Well, no one has to like every genre of literature. The problem comes when somebody who hates a genre decides to tell you what’s wrong with a single work. C.S. Lewis said this pretty well, and it’s worth quoting:

“It is very dangerous to write about a kind [of literature] you hate. Hatred obscures all distinctions. I don’t like detective stories and therefore all detective stories look much alike to me: if I wrote about them I should therefore infallibly write drivel. Criticism of kinds, as distinct from criticism of works, cannot of course be avoided…but it should not masquerade as criticism of individual works. Many reviews are useless because, while purporting to condemn the book, they only reveal the reviewer’s dislike of the kind of which it belongs.

Let bad tragedies be censured by those who love tragedy, and bad detective stories by those who love the detective story. Then we shall learn their real faults. Otherwise we shall find epics blamed for not being novels, farces for not being high comedies, novels by James for lacking the swift action of Smollett. Who wants to hear a particular claret abused by a fanatical teetotaler, or a particular woman by a confirmed misogynist?”

None of this has stopped Ginia Bellafante from sharing her resentment that HBO has chosen to waste her time by airing this terrible fantasy work, terrible apparently because it is a fantasy. The most bizarre paragraph in the entire review, however, begins here:

“The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.”

What? What? She’s suggesting that the only reason the characters have sex is to get female viewers? So… men hate sex? There was no sex in the books? What? She goes on to try and cover her bases:

“While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s…”

Yes, somewhere on the Earth, in some neglected and lonely corner, there may be two or three women who read such books. Unlikely though it seems.

“…I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first.”

Someone else will have to untangle this. It’s nice that we’re getting it straight what women read, though, right? In those chick book clubs?

“Game of Thrones is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”

I’m thinking now of all the female authors who’ve been waiting to get out of the “women’s literature” ghetto and into the simple designation of “literature.” Who are tired of being fenced off and told their work is for certain readers only. Fortunately we’ve got the New York Times here to draw those lines more sharply.

I suspect there’s a lot of indignation out there over this review; the average “reader rating” is 1.5. (Averaged from 48 ratings. I suspect there’d be a lot more, but if you go to the site and click on “Rate It,” a helpful message will tell you “Could not submit your rating. Please try again later.” It’s said this for the past 24 hours at least, and none of the reader comments have been posted at all.)

Game of Thrones airs tomorrow night. Since the Times has not seen fit to post what are no doubt quite a few comments, but are happy to leave this pointless review up for people who may be thinking about watching, I decided to post where I can, in my small way. I suspect Bellafante will assume the negativity to her review comes from those silly fanboys in their parents’ basements – because, let’s stick with the stereotypes – so I want to make it clear that I have no stake in this. I don’t know Mr. Martin and I haven’t read his books, though I’ve heard they’re well-characterized and interesting. What I am is a NY Times paid subscriber who turned to a review hoping to get some idea of whether the series lives up to the hype. I sure didn’t get that information here.

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