Gussied Up Criticism

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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December 3, 2013

In my review of Hild yesterday, I disagreed with Michael Robbins’s review which appeared on the Chicago Tribune‘s website as well as in its Printers Row publication.

Mine were, I felt, relatively mild criticisms–I felt his assessment of the book as “gussied up fantasy” was off-base and I did not agree that the level of detail in the book was overdone.

Perhaps I should break down these two initial criticisms a bit. “Gussied up” means, generally, something that’s been made more attractive but in a showy or obvious way and, as such, is a pretty negative thing to say. As for the level of detail, I felt it was necessary to truly understand how Hild’s world was so incredibly alien to our own–because while it is a work of speculative fiction, it’s also based on real, lived history.

I was also concerned that Robbins’s admiration for medieval fantasy tropes and associated flagons of mead was contradictory to the very nature of Griffith’s novel. Since Hild is a book entirely about a female experience of history, I wasn’t sure what the fictional universes and associated tropiness of the other works cited in the body of the review as equivalent works (George R.R. Martin and T.H. White) had to do with it. The gore and chivalric romance cited in the concluding paragraphs maps fairly neatly onto Martin and White respectively while there’s precious little of either in Griffith (I mean, there is some gore–there are children born and battles, but chivalric romance in the historical sense of the term? Not so much.).

To be blunt: I found the last two paragraphs confusing and contradictory and I simply wasn’t sure how these things related to the rest of the piece apart from a few parallel phrasings, all involving mead and barmaids. Here are the closing paragraphs, so that you may judge for yourself. This quotation and the paragraph which immediately follows contain information which may be a bit spoilerish.

And though gore and chivalric romance abound, Griffith is particularly concerned to represent the complexity of the worlds of medieval women — dyers and weavers and cooks but also doctors and queens. Here is none of your saucy barmaids of yore (Hild is sexually attracted to women as well as men).

A good fantasy novel needs no special pleading, especially given the “Game of Thrones”-inspired dreck that speckles genre ghettos at present. Flagons of mead all around.

I am having an extremely difficult time reconciling the final sentence about flagons of mead with the statement that there are no saucy barmaids of yore–along with the completely out of context reference to a complicated relationship with another woman that is not particularly romantic or, really, sexual outside of the mechanics. Robbins is also unclear that the dyer and weaver and cook and doctor and queen could, in fact, all be the same woman. There’s a fluidity to the roles the women of Hild occupy that Robbins completely fails to acknowledge. The part that feels flippant–and which is what I was referring to in my review–is the final sentence: “Flagons of mead all around.”

Robbins also seems to take issue with the promotional material that accompany the book, the content of which Griffith likely had very little to no control over. And yet: a large part of his review is devoted to critique of this material and his final paragraphs rests upon that and not the book itself.

This is what we, as critics, do. We talk about books and culture and sometimes we agree and sometimes we don’t. I have absolutely no problem with people disagreeing with my opinions and saying so. Stories are liminal and we all come to them with a different set of experiences and expectations–naturally we’re not all going to come away from a story with the same thoughts and ideas.

So imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered this in my mentions on Twitter late last night:

michael robbins 1

I think we can all agree that that’s not the most pleasant thing to find in one’s mentions.  My response, as I was tweeting from bed, was not the most elegant–it involved a re-tweeting and a comment about the use of slurs in response to criticism.  Let there be no mistake: moron is an ableist word and is most assuredly a slur.

Also, if that disjointed mess of a review is what passes for lauding in Robbins’s world, I’d hate to see what he does to a book he dislikes.

At any rate, within fifteen minutes, Robbins deleted his tweet. When challenged, this happened:

michael robbins 2

It was at this point I started to wonder if Michael Robbins behaves this way towards everyone who disagrees with him and I asked him as much. No answer was forthcoming except yet another deletion.

I daren’t speak to Robbins’s motives around his erasure of his half of the conversation (if it could even be called a conversation) but I do hope this isn’t business as usual on his part.

I don’t particularly care that Robbins disagrees with my assessment of his review–this is what critics do, we criticize and we disagree. I do care that he clearly feels that he can respond to criticism with personal attacks using slurs and a subsequent attempt at erasure. Robbins was, I assume, paid to write that review. His behavior has not been professional.

If Robbins wished to engage in a discussion of my criticism of his review, that’s fine. I have open comments here for a reason (and, I assure you, I let all non-spam comments through). I also have a very easily found email address. And there’s Twitter, although Twitter’s a difficult platform for nuanced discussion, especially when one party is not interested in a good faith discussion.

From where I’m sitting, though, it seems that Robbins is more concerned with putting those who disagree with him in their place and he’s not above using personal attacks to do so. He also believes that he can do so freely and without consequence.

One can choose to not engage in a discussion. Robbins has no obligation to engage with anyone and I respect that. However, he came into my mentions on Twitter and personally attacked me–and then tried to erase the evidence. This is my way of holding him accountable for those actions.

Next time you write a book review, Michael Robbins, write about the book and not the press release and/or cover copy.  Writing about the book you actually read instead of the one you wished it was is also good. Another free bit of advice: avoid using slurs.

In conclusion:

atkinson you mad bro

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27 Comments

  1. Ella Drake

    His responses were highly unprofessional. While I don’t think everyone has to be completely professional 24/7 on twitter (people can chose to be rude all day long if they want & followers want to see it), I do think that common courtesy should always be extended by a reviewer while being representative of a major paper. Still. Very badly done and rude, from a human point of view.

  2. Natalie Luhrs

    @Ella Drake: Lord knows I’m not always professional on Twitter–and I wouldn’t want to be!–but if I still wrote for RT and someone took issue with a review I’d written for whatever reason? You bet your ass I wouldn’t call them a name in public, no matter how wrong I thought they were. Because that’s not professional. I would have been happy to discuss with Robbins how he feels I’ve misread his review. Now, not so much. Which is a shame, because it could have been an interesting discussion.

  3. Whitley

    For some reason, I’m consistently surprised to find that people are still THAT childish on social media. It happens all the time — I should be used to it — but it still makes me raise my eyebrows and ask “seriously?” I mean, we’re talking teenager levels of social interaction skills here. An adult should be better than that.

  4. Anya

    Wow, I, like Whitley, can’t stop being surprised at people’s social media fails. How could anyone think that those comments would end well?? I guess if I twist my brain a bit I can see how he might have been trying to praise Hild, but he really should learn how to write to get his point across without his reader needing to do mental gymnastics…. In any case, ugh, can we all just grow up for once please?

  5. Merrian

    Hope I can get Hild on Kobo (geo restrictions probably mean not) it is my sort of book. Thanks for sharing the love. I adored my Rosemary Sutcliff books such as the Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind set in the time of transition from Romano-Britain to Saxon Britain I love early history unknowable times stories also back in the day when I was churched I had a long discussion with my then Minister about Hilda and the synod as a major point of transition.

    Also that reviewer guy – ughh

  6. Merrian

    Score!! Hild was $18.39aus but used a promocode and got 85% off. I wouldn’t have bought it at full price.

  7. Laura Vivanco

    I’m curious: isn’t “mad”, as used in that final picture, an ableist word too?

  8. Natalie Luhrs

    @Laura Vivanco: That is a really good question. I know my intent was to use it in the sense of angry (specifically in this way), but there is absolutely a history of that word being used to describe people with mental illnesses. ISTR that you’re in the UK? I know that words often shift in meaning/connotation when they cross the pond–in the US, “mad” is almost always used to denote anger, not mental illness. However, I’m feeling a bit defensive, which is usually a sign that I’ve got some work to do. Thanks so much for raising this as a possible issue! I’ll definitely sit with it and figure out how I’ll use this word in the future.

    @Merrian: Hurray! I hope you like it!

  9. Laura Vivanco

    @Natalie Luhrs: Yes, I’m in the UK. I knew about the US usage but, as with the US use of “lame”, the fact that I’m a speaker of British English almost certainly means that the original meanings are much closer to the surface for me.

  10. Natalie Luhrs

    @Laura Vivanco: “Lame” is actually a word I’ve removed from my vocabulary as much as possible. This stuff is pervasive and hard to root out, for sure.

  11. MR

    Oh, for God’s sake. I was rude because it is obvious—& I mean utterly, blindingly obvious—that my point was that Griffith laudably avoids THE CLICHES OF THE GENRE, such as saucy barmaids! What critic wants authors to fall back on cliches? Any critic ever? And you know very well that Griffith intends Hild to be bisexual, as she has said in interviews, and, again, to include a bisexual woman in a medieval novel is an interesting way of avoiding the sexist cliches of male fantasy. I got so angry because you seemed to deliberately & quite carelessly misread my review. No, I do not think the novel is very good. Yes, I think it is good that Griffith upends the stale conventions of the genre. Do you have difficulty reconciling those two positions? I don’t. And, by the way, to indulge in cant like “ableist” is the worst sort of pandering.

  12. Liz Bourke

    @MR:

    You’re not very good at communicating, are you? It’s not actually all that obvious what you’re on about in your review, and when criticised, respond with dismissive insults. Let’s celebrate the death of print journalism, if it cuts paycheques to the likes of you.

  13. MR

    Gee, someone else no one has ever heard of. Imagine that.

  14. Ridley

    Who is this twat?

  15. MR

    Liz, my work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The London Review of Books, Poetry, and several other journals, print and otherwise. My first book of poetry, on Penguin, was one of the bestselling poetry collections in the country last year. It was named a best book of the year by Dwight Garner in the New York Times and received similar accolades from several other publications. My second book is forthcoming from Penguin. I recently signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster for a book of criticism. I can afford to be dismissive of churlish complaints from people who misread my work and respond to it with platitudes because I’m good at my job, which is writing. I understand why that arouses ressentiment in you and Natalie and others, but them’s the breaks.

  16. MR

    Ridley: I won The Believer’s Readers’ Survey last year for Best Book of Poetry. I won Poetry magazine’s Editor’s Prize for Reviewing this year. My book appeared on dozens of best-of-the-year lists last year. You can google me to find out who this twat is. But you’re sort of undermining Natalie’s point about name-calling.

  17. Liz Bourke

    Ah, so writing for a wide number of publications and having one’s name in the literary world’s equivalent of lights excuses a)writing a fairly incoherent review and b)utter rudeness? I’ll add that to the “Etiquette For Beginners” handbook I’ve been compiling for the last twenty-seven years. I’m sure your family is very proud of you.

  18. Ridley

    @MR: I’ll note your concern for Natalie’s point, but I’m sort of proving it, not undermining it.

    You see, I’m not interested in engaging the issue, so I’m attacking you, personally. I don’t have anything constructive to add, so I’m here to point and laugh at the smarmy git. It’s not conducive to rational discussion, but it feels good to belittle someone I think is ridiculous, because I’m a jerk sometimes.

    Twat.

  19. WHM

    Okay, this took some parsing (because I also found the review to be difficult to interpret, especially in regards to tone), but as best I can tell, MR
    a) was put off by the promotional quotes and thinks the books is a good read (for what it is)
    b) didn’t like the moments where it felt to him (even if he ascribes this generally to all readers) like the author was winking at the reader
    c) thinks some of the prose is overwrought — but also thinks overall the prose is better than most fantasy novels
    d) appreciates that the focus is on women since most early medieval fantasy doesn’t focus on female characters

    If that is correct then it seems to me that it could have been stated much more clearly in the review. The faux-breezy tone and word choice [“gussied-up fantasy” and “fearsome” prose, in particular] also gave off a whiff of condescension to me. Which may not be intended, but I’m having a hard time reading it otherwise.

    In other words: credentials are great. Good prose is better, especially when reviewing a book like Hild.

  20. WHM

    Also: Liz Bourke writes excellent book reviews. MR should seek them out so he can improve his craft.

  21. MR

    Natalie should have enough material for her next post by now.

  22. Natalie Luhrs

    @MR: You think I give a shit about your publications?

  23. --E

    Well, I’m sure we should all be completely honored that such an INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT fellow has seen fit to grace this li’l ol’ blog with his presence.

    Mr. Robbins, surely such an educated man as you knows that when gorillas feel threatened, they puff up their fur to look bigger than the other gorillas. Some monkeys and apes screech and fling poo.

    Remarkably, simians that don’t feel threatened don’t do either of those things. Why would such a well published, important fellow such as you feel so threatened by someone disagreeing with him on the internet?

  24. Ann Somerville

    @MR: “someone else no one has ever heard of”

    Shorter MR:
    “My name is OzymandiasMICHAEL ROBBINS, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

    Shelley did it better, mate. And I’d never heard of you either.

  25. MR

    I’ve had a shitty few weeks. Apologies for my ego-gasms, all. And for my attitude. My best wishes to you all, sincerely.

  26. meoskop

    I hadn’t even cued up my Holiday Inn Express joke.

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