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When Right Is Wrong: Dissecting A Bad Review Of Justin Isis’ I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like

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Let me be up front about something, and that is the fact that the person whose book is at the center of this review, of a review written about that book, has been a participant in the e-list of my own website, Cosmoetica, for several years. I have also spoken with him via Skype, once, and exchanged emails with him. My wife has an even longer history of corresponding with the writer in question, Justin Isis. With that out of the way, my opinions expressed have nothing to do with my personal knowledge of the writer. Rather, they have everything to do with the poorly written review of his first published book; one which is symptomatic of the problems with criticism, online and off, on literature and the other arts, in today’s culture.

The fact is that both my wife and I got a chance to read Isis’s book before publication, and my wife wrote her review of the book here at blogcritics.org. It was a generally favorable review whose major negative cited was a ridiculously bad Introduction by the press’s publisher, Quentin S. Crisp. Subsequently, my wife’s review was excerpted for a cover blurb for the book. I then read the book and totally disagreed with her assessment of it — a point I echoed to Isis in a Skype conversation. Of the 10 stories, I found only one to be good or better, in its entirety, with only two others, a tale on a quest for knowledge of Chinese people, and the book ending novella, to have enough good qualities to even discuss them qualitatively. The rest of the tales were dull, ill-characterized, anomic, and utterly forgettable. My initial reaction was that they were like trying to discern the images of a painting made on a pure white background, painted with egg shell white paint. I stand by that assessment, and in dialectic with my wife and others, have found most people either immediately in agreement with me, or, at minimum, acknowledging all the flaws I found. That stated, Isis has written FAR better tales he did not include in his debut volume — a fact we discussed and which is perplexing. In fact, Isis admitted these tales were weak, but he wanted his ‘development’ as a writer chronicled by the book, even as he has claimed, in public and private, that he cares nothing of his own writing, and is frequently bored by the higher arts.

Having now read the review, published at nyjournalofbooks.com, in short, I can state that the overall summation of the reviewer, one Samantha Holloway, is pretty much in sync with what I told Isis, but, even though correct in the abstract, it’s nonetheless a bad review, for its alarming particulars; and being a bad review is different from its being a negative review. 

Here’s the review’s start:

“As far as collections of short stories go, I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like is a highly mixed bag.

 On the one hand, there were some beautiful sentences, some truly inspired imagery. On the other hand — and this is a much larger and more visible hand — most of the stories felt… pointless. Hollow. Lacking substance.

The characters were uniformly unlikable, self-involved, and obsessive about strange things that never seemed to matter as much as they said they did.”

Aside from a few clichés in phrasing, the sentiment is correct, but then Holloway’s review tanks:

“…a classic case of telling more than showing. Each story set up an interesting new point of view, and then proceeded to show us how they all shared the same peculiar sort of bizarre madness. Reading through the first few stories, this was interesting; after about half the book, it was tiresome.”

A couple of deadly clichés, and, telling was simply not the problem with Isis’s prose. It was what was told, and how it was told that was the problem. Holloway makes it seem as if the act of a character speaking the action is, of itself, always wrong or a bad artistic choice, and does not distinguish between the specifics of most of the tales and the fact that they are told.

Then there is the odd choice to not excerpt a single word from the book. How is a reader supposed to gauge it for themselves? Holloway seems to want the reader to wholly trust her, rather than even give a taste of the work in question. Apparently, this is a website policy, as The New York Journal Of Books seems to have exempted excerption from its reviews, as evidenced by the couple dozen reviews posted by them, that I clicked on, bore not a one.

Let me digress, for a moment, and assail the website itself. First, I’ve seen quite a few reviews from this website, before the one in question, and have been singularly unimpressed with the brief, rote, and, well, hackneyed, reviews they post. Second, there’s the ethical issue of the deliberate parasitic nature of the website’s name — a direct steal from the long established and, despite many flaws, still superior The New York Review Of Books (which, it shall be noted, offers generous excerpts — be they good or bad); a dubious and cheap tactic to confuse search engines and siphon off gullible, non-cyber savvy, new readers. Finally, aside from the bad, formulaic writing, and dubious name choice, it’s — simply put — a very ugly looking website. I get some readers who harp on me for Cosmoetica’s not being a ‘bells and whistles’ site, but it’s unique, the essays are very readable (several organizations for vision-impaired people have praised it) style and font-wise, and it’s aesthetically far easier on the eyes than the Journal’s flat and dull color scheme.

Now, back to the review:

“The story the book takes its name from was perhaps a misstep. In the story, the POV character comes across as a mouthpiece for a young, pretentious author more than as a character, and states flat out that the title doesn’t mean anything, that it was just intended to confuse people. The story itself is distasteful and gratuitous, and ends without anything even approaching a conclusion — while serving as a microcosm of the book as a whole.”

In reality, the story is silly and dull, which are far easier points to make (with an excerpt) than mere moralizing, as well as a not so veiled shot at Isis personally; the first of many poor reviewing tactics; this one being ad hominem.

Then Holloway goes into PC mode, after nipping at Isis’s balls:

“It’s a frustrating read, something along the lines of reading submissions for a litmag: there’s promise here, a lot of potential talent, an intriguingly fresh imagination, a real gift for putting words together in unexpected ways to make for some wonderfully evocative imagery — but a full collection feels premature; the glowing praise of the intro sounds like the author doth protest too much.

Author Justin Isis’s natural talent is drowned in the artifice of a new talent in love with the sound of his own voice. Maybe in five years or 10 years this book would have been justified, but right now, there’s too much of the new author sure he’s changing the world when really he’s really just being obnoxious and artificial.”

Here are some backhanded compliments which are really off the rack comments that, sans excerpts, totally mummify the reader’s opinion, and leave the reader wanting to actually read what the reviewer claims is so bad (or good). Then she conflates publisher Crisp’s ridiculously over the top Introduction (rightly and uniformly panned in a number of reviews) with Isis somehow fellating himself. At first read, I guessed the Journal lacked real editors; then on seeing its ‘staff,’ the only person with any real writing ‘experience’ is a children’s book author. The others seem to have experience in business and marketing, which right away tells you why the ‘reviews’ are clipped, formulaic, and read like excerpts from a book catalog, making the website an online version of the dread magalog.

And what is it with the ‘justifying’ claim? It’s either a good book or not. Crisp’s Intro can be said to perhaps merit justification in years ahead, but that’s not Isis, so Holloway is again mish-mashing writer with publisher. And, as mentioned above, Isis claims to not care about his writing, and while I disagree with that  one actually can justify some of that claim in the anomy of the writing, which could have been tightened, and which could have been shown by Holloway… with an excerpt! And, again, there’s a moralistic attitude about Isis, rather than dealing with the writing.

Here’s the review’s end, with the almost obligatory claim that Holloway found things of merit, so this has to be a fair review (Don’t question my motives, Buster!):

“But this isn’t a unilaterally unflattering review. There are enough glimmers of something truly wonderful here that it will be interesting to see how Isis matures as a writer, to see if the next collection is purer, less subsumed by what reads as arrogance.

If the next book is better, perhaps Mr. Isis will actually earn the praise piled on in the introduction to I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like.”

More moralizing. Isis’s tales’ flaws (in at least 7 of the 10 tales) have nothing to do with ‘arrogance,’ but with the narrative anomy and indifferent characterization; things manifestly justifiable and provable… with excerption! The last sentence of the review is true, but while I did not think Isis’s book was a good book, and he certainly deserved a negative review, he deserved a far more impartial, fair, less condescendingly moralistic, off the rack, and better written one than this.

If a critic’s aim is to point out positives and negatives so readers and writers understand what constitutes quality and not, this review fails to demonstrate, and convince, readers of its rather nebulous claims (much less those of a personal or ad hominem bent) and, I’m sure, does not convince Isis. Whether the Journal’s review’s flaws lie with the Holloway, the website, or both, does not really matter, as all three entities are merely symptoms of the deliteracy that grips modern American society. To close, this review is as bad, or worse, in its domain, as Isis’s book is in its. That’s not anything to revel in.

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About Dan Schneider

  • Janet Gibson

    This is a rather pointed article that one must wonder about. I love the New York Journal of Books. Not every reviewer is outstanding, but I find more professional reviews here than anywhere on the net. The author of this article seems to have an axe to grind – caliing the website ugly. It’s a very pleasant website and far easier to navigate than this article’s author’s own website. Moreover, he makes assertions that aren’t grounded in fact, such as the New York Journal of Books having a policy against excerpting from books. I’ve read many reviews that doincludes quotes from the books — an excerpt is really something longer, so the term isn’t even uysed properly by the author of this article. This is ultimately just a very strange article by someone with an agenda and is wholly irresponsible. Indeed, at least New York Journal of Books seems to professionally edit reviews.

  • http://www.cosmoetica.com Dan Schneider

    Ms. Gibson: below is the definition of excerpt and quote, and clearly I used the terms correctly. You did not.

    You also, in several other instances, make false statements.

    1) every page on Cosmoetica can be reached within 2 clicks, not so with the Journal. My site is very easy to navigate.

    2) I made no assertions not grounded in fact. I said I had clicked on over 2 dozen reviews and not a single one had an excerpt. I stated it ‘seemed’ as if the site had a policy against excerption.

    3) I do have an agenda- I am against the irresponsible nature of most online criticism, of which Holloway’s article was a perfect example. I responsibly took her to task for twice conflating the claims of the book’s publisher with that of the author, as well as her moralism and ad hominem, two things no responsible critic allows.

    It’s worth noting that, since you are demonstrably wrong in your plaint, you made no mention of my indisputable showing of these flaws in Holloway’s reviews, and merely went in to a defense of a site you like, while never even addressing the specifics of the article which it seems you never even read.

    Below the definitions: Is there any difference between an excerpt and a quote?

    Below are the definitions from online dictionaries. It looks like an excerpt is a formal quote, am I right?

    excerpt ( ) n. A passage or segment taken from a longer work, such as a literary or musical composition, a document, or a film.

    quote v. , quoted , quoting , quotes . v.tr. To repeat or copy the words of (another), usually with acknowledgment of the source.

  • John Newman

    The above is the most childish, nasty exchange i’ve ever seen online. On second thought, no, I’ve seen worse, but this is so typical of the sort of defensive rants one sees. For what it’s worth, anyone in the publishing industry will tell you that an excerpt is far longer than a quote. It’s a passage.

    I must thank the author of the above critique. Out of curiosity I googled New York Journal of Books. It’s superb. I’m no longer at the mercy of the New York Times or New York Review of Books. It is the first online review site I’ve ever seen which is worth the time of someone seeking intelligent and in some cases extremely entertaining reviews. From what I saw, there may be a few weak links among the reviewers, but their worst is better than most online site’s best reviewers. How wonderful to now have a great place to check out books – and lots of them. If you consume books as I do, forget all the other online reviews. You can even forget the New York Times. The choice of books to review at this wonderful website is far more eclectic and interesting.

    Best of all, they don’t allow for comments like this one and the ones above. I like book reviews. I don’t like the nonsense that often accompanies them online as comments.

    Get thee to New York Journal of Books.

  • http://www.cosmoetica.com Dan Schneider

    John, you clearly don’t spend much time online.

    Ms. Gibson made 3 demonstrably false statements, which I showed.

    There was no nastiness, nor personal invective by me, although both Gibson and the reviewer Holloway demonstrated both.

    “For what it’s worth, anyone in the publishing industry will tell you that an excerpt is far longer than a quote. It’s a passage.”

    Not so.

    quote: something that is quoted; especially : a passage referred to, repeated, or adduced

    excerpt: a passage (as from a book or musical composition) selected, performed, or copied : extract

    At the risk of your wrath, you are 100% wrong, definitionally. Neither term refers to any length. Never has. They are de facto synonyms. Care to admit your error?

    [Edited by Comments Editor]

  • David Ramson

    Dan you do seem like you have an axe to grind indeed. I would hardly think someone who writes a line like “Isis’s tales’ flaws” should be a writing critic….

  • A.G.

    It is hard to understand the criticisms of this review since I find it quite remarkable. Think of it: a critic is defending a work that he thinks is inferior from another negative criticism because he finds that criticism based upon nothing of substance.

    If anything, this smacks of integrity not an axe to grind.

    Some of the comments also seem petty and ad hominem. What exactly is wrong with “Isis’s tales’ flaws”? It’s perfectly fine. Are you objecting to the s after the apostrophe that ends Isis? This is mere stylistic choice. Both are grammatically acceptable.

    Also, the initial critic is quite right that there is no difference between a quote and an excerpt.

    I also take question with the claim that the review under question, and its source, are good. I first read this review a day or so ago and perused the New York Journal. Indeed, it is as the reviewer states, utterly without quotations in its reviews. While this is fine when reviewing history or science books, which are not dependent upon writerly skill sets but research methods, it is not in fiction.

    There, where good or bad writing can clearly be shown it is almost a requisite to include at least a brief quote to support a claim.

    I went through over 70 pages in the last 48 hours and not a single excerpt was found.

    It’s a shame that such reviews that are well written and ethically defended are attacked by people who themselves are grinding axes. If they left their weapons at bay we online readers would have more to choose from.

    Cheers to BC for publishing such reviews which stand in sharp contrast to the New York Journal.