Friday, March 12, 2010

Zone of Controversy?

Some book reviewers only write about work they enjoy; others seem to prefer to discuss tomes that pain or provoke them in some way. I enjoy reviewing books I like, especially when they're produced by writers I consider undervalued, and I don't mind damning books I consider bad and authors I consider malicious.

My feelings become more complicated, and more conflicted, when one of my favourite writers produces a work I struggle to enjoy. Over at the Scoop Review of Books I've considered Zone of the Marvellous, the latest offering from Martin Edmond, the son of Ohakune who has, over the last decade and a half, scribbled a series of masterpieces from exile in Sydney and floated them across the Tasman to grateful Kiwi readers.

Zone of the Marvellous treats the fascinating subject of the role of the South Pacific in the imagination of Europeans, and it is full of the instructive anecdotes and poetic details that make Edmond's earlier work such a pleasure to read; I couldn't, however, enjoy the book. That may be a reflection on Edmond, but it could equally be a reflection on my own neuroses and oversights.

At least one reader of the Scoop Review of Books seems to think my treatment of Zone of the Marvellous is unjust. In the comments box under the review, 'Gaius' has posted a poem which mocks a critic whose 'ivory tower Marxism' turns the 'heart into a graveyard'. The poem's miserable critic is likened to Varus, a Roman general remembered for losing three legions to German barbarians in a battle fought in the forests on the northern border of the empire.

Gaius is the first name of Catullus, the ancient Roman whose poems about his unfaithful girlfriend Lesbia and the bitchy literary scene of the empire have been adapted to contemporary New Zealand settings by the famously (and occasionally wonderfully) bitchy CK Stead. I haven't got Stead's Collected Poems to hand, so I can't say for sure whether the piece which has been posted at the Scoop Review of Books is one of his many imitations of Catullus, but it certainly reads like one. At any rate, I've just been back to the Scoop Review of Books and placed a rough-and-ready poem replying to 'Gaius' underneath his post. Your turn, mate!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those 'poems' don't even rhyme!


9:07 am  
Anonymous C.K. Stead said...

Someone sent this on to me, so I have not read the review of Zone of the Marvellous, but if that is the book by Ann Thwaite I would like to. How do I do that? So it follows (and even if it doesn't follow) I assure you I am not the author of a Catullus style riposte. If I were, I would not want it to be anonymous. Best wishes - C.K.Stead

10:58 am  
Blogger maps said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:22 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Big Chris has splashed into the pool:

He is a big fan of the Romans, talks about them on TV sometimes.

11:25 am  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks for the clarification Karl. Perhaps we're dealing with an imitation of your imitations of Catullus? The piece doesn't discredit you, anyway.


a technical question. Do assonance and consonance count as half-rhyme in your book? If not, why not? I humbly submit that there are several internal assonantal and consonantal half-rhymes in both the poems on Scoop, and that there are even some half-rhymes to be found at the ends of lines. Consider the last two lines in this passage:

I open my kitchen draw
and pull out the knife
which I have sharpened
on a loaf
or a stone.

Loaf. Stone. Get it? It seems to be that the chaps who bluster on in Colonel Blimpish tones about the disappearance of rhyme and 'form' in poetry don't actually understand what they're talking about.

11:46 am  
Blogger maps said...

PS I've just had a hot tip via e mail about the identity of 'Gaius', but I'll wait for the person in question to own up to his very creditable poem...

11:48 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



12:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surely you mean 'kitchen drawer'?

12:54 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Do you think I've exposed my utter lack of familiarity with the process of food preparation? Skyler could tell you a bit about that...

12:58 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

I think he does mean "drawer"but maybe he's being poetic!... not sure if he knows the word cutlery either...

1:09 pm  
Blogger The Paradoxical Cat said...

Well this has solved a mystery. I saw that poem elsewhere but didn't know what it was about. Funnily anough, I thought of Stead instantly too - but I thought that he might have been the target of "The Critic" rather than the author!

In my opinion your review is a critical one but it's made from the perspective of someone who admires and praises Martin Edmond's other work highly but you don't care for this particular book so much, and it seemed to me you gave your reasons clearly and without malice. The reaction to your review comes across as a little extreme considering you've hedged so defensively and couched it all in a context of praise for his best work. Perhaps you're just too much of an expert on this topic, to enjoy a non-'rigorous' treatment of material you know like the back of your hand. As far as I'm concerned, Martin Edmond is one of our literary gods, and Luca Antara is just one of several masterpieces he has delivered up. But I also found it hard to read Zone, because it covers territory I too know well. Not as well as you do, or as well as he does, but I was obsessed with the Pacific for many years and collected everything I could ever find to read, and later I did some formal study in the narrow field of linguistic prehistory. So there's no surprise for me in a lot of his material, and I just wished there could have been. I envied the people who have enjoyed that book because I wasn't able to. Except of course the later parts where the threads are being tied together, and he does what he does so well and gives us something new and unique from his own imagination.

Lordy, I hope the lynch mob doesn't come after me too, for having admitted that I didn't like that one book so much! NZ is just too small a country...

9:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

New Zealand writers need loyal supporters, not fair weather friends.

12:29 am  
Anonymous David Howard said...

New Zealand writers need a critical environment where there are four seasons, not just summer.

10:15 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said! Uncritical praise for every single thing someone publishes just because they're your friend isn't ultimately a supportive thing to do. If I read a book based on a fawning rave about it and discover it has flaws that weren't mentioned then I will distrust that reviewer and maybe will think twice about trying the author again too. Which is a shame. In contrast, if the review contains constructive criticism then readers have some information and can work out for themselves if they'd like to try the book. Sometimes a 'bad' review results in better sales actually especially if it generates some controversy ;-)
The review of Zone pointed towards the best of Martin Edmond's other titles and so it hardly qualifies as a beat-up job.

2:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's utopian nonsense to say we should be 100% candid when addressing the public of a small and notoriously philistine country like nz

6:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The point of a review is to reveal a work or to analyse it or give insight by the reviewer for a assumed intelligent public and it is no good sugar coating - if Edmond's last book is or was crap Maps would be less that honest and in fact unjust to the author to say it was not.

He has given his opinion, it seems valid to me although I haven't read that book.

How does it feel to be criticised? Not pleasant, but we all encounter it...I had poetry rejected but while I was upset at first, I recall taking notice of the comments (which were valid on many points.)

The review of my own poetry book in Landfall ('Conversation with a Stone') I personally thought was possibly even too kind even though it was quite critical on much of it. One has to think: "Perhaps I am not cut out for writing and maybe I (or one) should just let it all go?"

Or I (or the criticee or the writer in question) might consider the critique and resolve to do better next time!

Perhaps Edmond will never amount to much - who knows? If so, who will care in the long run? Certainly those who massively flatter him will do him no good at all.

One gains nothing from stupid or inane praise and vacuous flattery.
King Richard the II had cause to bemoan flattery in Shakespear's play of that name...

A writer may as well ask his kind old aunt for her opinion - now the kind old aunt will (hopefully!) love the young writer but will be useless as a critic*, as relatives are usually reluctant to critique - although some do - thank God!

So Maps is quite justified. Someone else might have savaged it.
Maps has given it a rap over the knuckles...

It will do Edmond and his book a power of good.

*This is not the same as reinforcement to the activities and efforts of quite young children. We are talking about adults.

12:39 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I want to emphasise that like Scott I have a high opinion of Edmond's work (I once read his book about Clairmont, I have read his essays, (and his great revview of 'Moonshine' by Alan Brunton in Brief, and part of 'Chronicles of the Unsung', and indeed his Lucca Antara (BLogs(s) etc always has(ve) fascinating writing on it (or them)):

I would in fact read his book - and buy it - but I would take into account what has been said by Maps.

And what he has said is not malevolent. Read closely, the Scoop review, might stimulate or deter (not necessarily one or the other) a potential reader, but perhaps also put them on alert.

Edmond has replied somewhat on "Scoop Review of Books".

And as to supporting NZ or Australian writers I made a point of buying 'Chronicles..' new. Whereas I got the book on Clairmont from the library.

The question here though, is, what do we expect in or by a reviewer? (And another reviewer might have found the same faults or reservations Scott found.) And David is right in what he says also.

6:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But if I was commenting on my own comments I would say:

"Who in G's name is this stupid long winded and tedious old bastard who suffers from chronic verbal diarrhoiea?"

6:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet more loopiness from Hilliam:

12:07 am  
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11:31 pm  

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