Gussied Up Criticism

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. Fuck around and find out.
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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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