Critiquing the Critics / Judging the Judges / Rating the Raters
Book Review Review:
Marilynne’s review of The Union Quilters will smack you in the face, chain you to a tree and make you its bitch.
Strewn alongside the winding, wearying Road of Literary Criticism, one finds the sun-charred remains of countless would-be reviewers who failed in their endeavors to navigate this harsh and unforgiving craft – ankles shackled to unyielding orbs of pompous verbosity; rib cages cracked beneath overly grandiose attempts at hyperbole; bony fingers caught struggling to scratch one last bit of self-important puffery into the wan and windswept dirt.
And there, rising high above it all, her extended middle fingers swirling furiously through the hot, dusty air, stands Marilynne “The Writer Lady.” Firmly established on Blogspot since 2007, and supremely confident in her unparalleled literary skills, she is wise enough to avoid the frivolous flaws of her critical competitors, and brash enough to laugh at their decidedly miserable end.
Nowhere is all of this made more clear than in Marilynne’s recent review of Jennifer Chiaverini’s novel The Union Quilters.
To a less self-assured reviewer, a book about women making quilts during the Civil War might seem like an appropriate time to indulge in an intricate author-as-quilter-of-stories metaphor, or to analyze how the writer’s battle to capture emotional life truths by typing words onto a page can be as breathtaking, heartbreaking and inspiring as war itself.
But the Writer Lady hasn’t the time nor the inclination to play such word-wasting games.
She knows that to adequately convey a message in sentence form, Marilynne needs nothing more than a subject, a verb and a predicate. And adverbs be damned, that’s exactly what she intends to give us.
Consider these inarguably functional gems from paragraphs two and four:
The Union Quilters is a story of the women left behind as their men go to war.
The Union Quilters form to make quilts to warm their men.
These women do not sit at home and cry.
They grow as women and change with their changing times.
In just four crystal clear sentences, Marilynne manages to communicate everything a reader might need to know about this novel. First, we find out who the main characters are: women. Second, we learn about the warming properties of quilts (just to be sure we’re all on the same page). Third, we discover that these are no ordinary women, because they do not just sit at home and cry all the time. And finally, we see that during the course of the novel, these women both grow and change, which means that it is not unreasonable to believe Oprah may be secretly stashing copies of this book under her audience members’ seats at this very moment.
Yet as delightfully sparse as those previous examples are, the Writer Lady’s review is not without a few overly-elaborate imperfections. Her attempts at writing compound sentences veer toward the vague, as in:
…these stories are so real, so personal in feeling, you’d think to find their names on plaques scattered around the battlefields.
They “do something” which in their case means everything within their abilities.
As confused as the reader may feel after reading those ambiguities, the writer herself seems equally confounded about what to call the very conflict that provides the book its setting. She writes:
In the time of the Civil War (or The War Between the States if you prefer)…
If we prefer? Why exactly is Marilynne bowing to our personal preferences here? Readers don’t come to this powerful, opinionated woman’s blog for a touchy-feely, “let’s talk about our emotions” heart-to-heart. They come here to be dominated, to be manhandled, and to have the Writer Lady’s every whim and will forced upon them. For a reviewer whose website banner boasts I reserve the right to do it my way or not at all, such a moment of weakness dampens – if not outright kills – the otherwise bookishly titillating mood.
Fortunately, the Writer Lady ends her review with a more characteristic show of strength, definitively proclaiming,
Jennifer Chiaverini has done a fine job of telling this story.
I recommend it.
With that final, impossible-to-misconstrue statement, Marilynne triumphantly reestablishes her position of textual analysis supremacy. She surveys the barren landscape like the conquering hero that she is, shakes a few final drops of urine onto the thoroughly defiled bones of the rivals at her feet, and leads her proudly obedient Norwegian Elkhound off into the sunset.
It is her sunset, not ours.
And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Andy Ankowski, May 23, 2011
cool story bro