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Wednesday, April 8th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

Blood of Ambrose has been out for a while now and it’s starting to be reviewed, rather generously on the whole (a not-uncommon reception for first novels, so I’m trying not to be an egomaniac about it). The reviews somehow make the publication more real to Enge-the-reader (as opposed to Enge-the-writer; these guys aren’t usually on speaking terms). I was looking at the review in Romantic Times Book Review and found myself wondering whether I should trust the reviewer’s judgement and buy the book, when I realized that there were already a few copies of the thing scattered around the house. Presumably these surreal “oh, yeah, that’s me” events will taper off after a while.

I’ve been bracing myself for the inevitable Memo to Morlock: YOU SUCK!!!! sort of review. It’s axiomatic that snarling at critics just makes the writer look worse, so I’m trying to figure out in advance ways that I can cope. (We’ve all seen how these things go. The writer begins by politely justifying his use of colons on p. 58, and before long the whole business resembles an informal colonoscopy of a wholly different sort.) Coincidentally, I ran across a link to this essay on “How to Handle Criticism” (mentioned, with comments, by Jeremiah Tolbert here).

Both of these guys have good advice, but they don’t touch on a potential coping mechanism: pay close attention to how better writers have been slagged in the past; it lends a certain perspective. And, as it happens, I was recently reading an old issue of The New Yorker (1926 vintage) where I came across a dismissive review of a book that some people (including me) still sort of like and which, unlike many a book published in 1926 (or for that matter 2006) is still in print: Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow.


Touchstone, the pseudonymous reviewer (and can we really trust anyone who hides behind a pseudonym?), starts out his (?) weekly column by giving guarded approval to a novel by a recovering Freudian. He then continues to the lesser business of the week.

Any fellow student of Freud whom Miss Hurst’s defection disappoints can console himself applying his learning to Dunsany’s “The Charwoman’s Shadow,” the easiest possible subject for analytic interpretation, as most of Dunsany’s works are. It is a wonder that no critic has Krutched him, with his punishments of upstart mortals for offenses against the gods, his drowning of a multiplicity of princes in a crypt, by Father Nile–and, on the other hand, his arming of the enslaved Argimenes to overthrow an idol and a king.

“The Charwoman’s Shadow,” a book-length fable, has the latter character. Tbe magician has cut off the shadows of his apprentice and his aged charwoman; the apprentice steals them back, when the charwoman turns into a beauteous girl, and trips off in love with him, free of the magician. If you think this is a dismal way to read a pretty fancy, we can only say that, read in the ordinary way, it didn’t make much appeal to us.

By “this” Touchstone seems to mean “inferring an Oedipal struggle between the magician and the apprentice.” I wonder if we’re seeing hasty writing here, where Touchstone doesn’t explain himself because he thinks his point sufficiently obvious, or whether some unpleasant material–maybe about castration anxiety–has been edited out of the text leaving an odd semantic gap.

Anyway: “this” might actually be an interesting reading of the novel, given that the hero, Ramon Alonzo, was sent to the magician by his well-meaning but ineffectual father, in a desperate attempt to create a dowry for his sister through magic. So Ramon Alonzo’s real father sent him to a shadowy pseudo-father in the woods; the shadow-father becomes a threat to the hero’s identity (in fact, through his shadow); the hero has to break free of his shadow-father and recover his own shadow if he is to return the fields he knows and reclaim his identity as his real father’s heir; etc. The magician, in this view, looks like a “wicked stepfather” figure, created as a guilt-free substitute to receive the hostility generated by the story’s implicit Oedipal conflict. I don’t say that this is the only way to read the book, but it is one interesting way. But to make that case you’d have to pay more attention to the book than Touchstone apparently did.

The novel is not Dunsany at his best–his early stories, the better Jorkens stories, even The King of Elfland’s Daughter all rank a little higher, in my estimation. Still, the book has virtues that a rapid or Touchstonian reading may overlook: e.g. the straight-faced affectionate teasing of the characters by the narrator (only the fiery Mirandola is exempt); the inarticulate yet poetic love that Gonsalvo has for his “three fair fields” which seem destined to leave his property as his daughter’s dowry; the somber impressiveness of the shadow imagery and the treatment of magic generally; the way that the book’s last lines join with unexpected sharpness to the apparently off-handed scene-setting on the novel’s first page. There is a lot to like here, for people who like this sort of thing.

And Touchstone just doesn’t like this sort of thing. I get a sense of impatience from his brief review. (Why are you pestering me with this stuff? Dunsany is so 1919!) A similar attitude pervades lots of negative reviews in the fantasy genres: in essence, it’s an unwillingness to play the imaginative game the book offers. I’d say a good (i.e. potentially useful) bad review is one that enters into the spirit of the game–one that criticizes a hockey-player for playing bad hockey, not one that criticizes him for doing badly something he’s not doing at all, like playing football. (It is, of course, okay to prefer football to hockey, but that doesn’t usually result in a good review of a hockey game.)

7 Comments »

  1. What is so galling as a glibly dismissive review? Touchstone’s shallow remarks serve only to occupy the space the author was required to fill. They do not serve anyone who might read them hoping to come away with anything of substance. Like a grounded opinion on the work reviewed, for example.

    Having published a Conan pastiche I’m fairly certain nothing else I might ever produce will ever generate the flames, scorn and angrily quoted song lyrics that book did. I hardly noticed the glib dismissals in all that, but they were there.

    I’m about halfway through Blood of Ambrose. How’s the second one coming? Got the third plotted yet?
    Keep swinging, James.

    John

    Comment by John Hocking - April 8, 2009 7:28 pm

  2. Conan pastiche must truly be a thankless task. People will hate you for what you do right as much as what you do wrong. (Pastiche in general is tough, but Conan evokes a passion in his fans like no other. Actually, several mutually exclusive passions.) Yours was “Emerald Lotus” wasn’t it? I’ve always meant to track it down and give it a read.

    “Crooked Way” is done and turned in–Black Gate readers will recognize some (but not all) of the chapters. The third one keeps sneaking away from me, but will certainly involve werewolves and possibly zeppelins.

    Comment by James Enge - April 8, 2009 7:54 pm

  3. I picked up my copy today. Probably won’t be able to read it until after the end of the semester, but I’ll put it on the top of the teetering pile, and look forward to the experience.

    Howard

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - April 9, 2009 1:30 pm

  4. Okay, here’s something happy you can come back to when you finally do get that dreaded Memo to Morlock:

    I hadn’t been following the Black Gate blog, so I had no idea you had a book coming out until it was right in front of me at Barnes & Noble. A novel of Morlock the Maker! What could be better than that? I was able to restrain myself from dancing a jig, but not from emitting a small victory whoop. My husband and I have had to negotiate a treaty over who gets the book when in the day, because neither of us can bear to wait for the other to finish. Passing our copy back and forth is slowing us down, but we’re both enjoying it immensely. Our toddler has weighed in on the friendly dispute by learning to form possessives so that he can say, “Mommy’s book.”

    Comment by Sarah Avery - April 17, 2009 2:00 am

  5. Hey Howard! Thanks. I hope the rest of the semester goes well. (We’re almost done at my university; I’ve found myself counting days on the calendar…)

    Hey Sarah: I’m glad you’re both liking it! It’s still pretty exciting to me to hear about sightings of the book in actual bookstores. The savage swamp where I live doesn’t really have a lot of bookstores, and I’m thinking of making a pilgrimage just so I can see the volume on the shelves somewhere.

    Comment by James Enge - April 17, 2009 2:31 pm

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