Sunday, October 19, 2008

My first review: LabLit

I have been waiting eagerly for my first review, especially from a publication which deals with fiction and science, and here it is: Amy Charles on LabLit. And I must say I am thrilled. But not because it is universally glowing and positive (it isn't), but because it is a beautifully-written and thoughtful review that I can clearly see engaged with my stories and pondered them, the characters, the content, the settings, the structure, and put them in the context of other fiction/art, whether "science-inspired" or not. She says:
Take the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Doctor Atomic – it’s got an elaborate and very pretty backdrop, patterned on the boxes of the periodic table, with formulae scrawled in light on a scrim; but when I saw it in the New York Times’ video, I saw no particular meaning in it beyond “atomic science here”, and when I heard the director say “I know nothing about science”, I thought: “Science-decorator.” Tania Hershman does better. She’s not a scientist, nor a science-decorator. Instead she’s an interested, dreaming science observer who pays serious and at times myopic attention to sci-tech news stories and considers what they might mean, how people might live with them if handed them like a lump of clay.
While she enjoyed many of the stories, Amy Charles talks candidly about the ones she didn't connect with:
Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain blooms sickly with the living, dreaming meanings of tuberculosis, and of the tuberculosis patient; Thomas Pynchon's Gravity’s Rainbow turns the Poisson distribution into an object of sex-entangled terror. So is Hershman a new Mann? No; neither is she, I think, the new Atwood or Bradbury her blurbists claim her to be. The stories are uneven, and the workmanlike, deadline-driven reporter is still fighting with the poet. Too often she writes over the surface of the plot (this happens, then that happens, and y looks like z) without getting beneath to a transformative dream or an emotionally arresting moment, getting by on snap and rhythm. The stories take place in familiar but abstracted nowheres – a bedroom, an office, a hill – with the places in a story not necessarily joining at any seams, and this gives the strange, untethered effect of photo montage. Hershman gets by with it, but I get the feeling that the strategy is a workaround for having trouble setting short-short stories more concretely.
Interesting, the last point. I won't debate it, I will consider it for a while. She rounds off the review on a more positive note:
What saves most of Hershman’s stories is the fact that she writes well and with a coherent sense of dream, so that even the stories that most remind me of Mondino’s video of Bjork stabbing a doll (“Violently Happy”) are literate and well-made. ....Throughout the stories runs a novelty, a grown woman’s voice telling frank, taboo stories about motherhood and other facts of womanhood. They aren’t comic poses; they aren’t breathy sentimental vignettes. A woman hides from her son, whom she thinks stupid and dislikes. Narrators talk without any attempt at self-delusion or at ingratiating themselves of the burdens of sex, fertility, men, childrearing. As I read, I thought how well Hershman does it and how unusual it is, and what a pity that it should be so in contemporary fiction.
The whole review actually moved me, this is a reviewer who really took the time to look deeply into my stories, and I feel that she "got" what I was trying (consciously or unconsciously) to touch on, to get at, even if it didn't always move her. What I am discovering as friends tell me about their experiences reading the book is that every single story has at least one fan - everyone connects with something different. If there had been one or two stories that everyone mentioned as their favourites, I would worry. But every person who wants to talk to me mentions a different story. And who could ask for more than that?

What a wonderful first review to start me off. Thank you Amy, thank you LabLit. Read the full review here.


SueG said...

A fabulous, and well-deserved review! Congrats.

Nik's Blog said...

Congrats from me too!


Tim Jones said...

It must be a pleasure to get such a thoughtful, in-depth review as your first review: although it's not unreservedly positive, what's clear is that the reviewer has read carefully and thought deeply about the book, and that's both rare and valuable.

Sarah Hilary said...

That is exactly the review I would wish for you, at this stage in your career. (Hope that doesn't sound patronising from unpublished me.) As you say, it's the thoughtfulness that went into it. I think blanket praise from an expert at this level would have been nice, but unhelpful. She's given you something better. And kudos on the good grace and maturity with which you have received it. You're a great writer, Tania, and you're going to get greater.

Douglas Bruton said...

Ponder, yes that is something you can do... ponder the view expressed in this review, if you must... but I think you have to be careful too, Tania. reading your own reviews can be a messy business... remember, this is one person's POV.

Recent review of a story of mine compared me favourably with Raymond Carver and Annie Proulx.!! Now, I am not naive enough to believe that I should be in the same sentence as these two greats, not even on the same page really... would be easy from what was said to mistake myself and my work for bloody brilliant.... so how come SALT just turned me down?.... cos I have some growing to do yet, is why, and just maybe my reviewer was being kind.

Don't read this review of your book too closely... don't agonise over it... you know what is working for you and what isn't and you also know where you need to grow some.

Plus there are other PsOV

Best wishes always


Vanessa Gebbie said...

That is lovely. Intelligent, thoughtful, great feedback. Vx

Tania Hershman said...

Thanks Sue and Nik.

Tim, I think I appreciated that more than an unreservedly positive review.

Sarah - you are totally right about that. Frankly, I don't think blanket praise is ever helpful, I don't imagine I would ever reach a point when that would be warranted. People (my parents!) have asked if I was upset by this review, but I think if you're a writer you understand that it is subjective, and real engagement with the stories is the main thing.

Douglas, you are totally right too. I found myself last night replaying a few of the less glowing comments in my head, and I have to not do that. I will have to learn to disengage a bit. I am not agnonising at all, but it is there in my mind, niggling a little. Lovely that you were compared with Carver and AP - I once had the most marvellous rejection which compared my story to William Trevor! Sorry about Salt, they are only one publisher, don't take it too much to heart. It's also only their POV, there are only two of them, so still completely subjective. Send your collection elsewhere - Bluechrome? Loads of other good presses - check this out: the Emerging Writers Network's panel of chapbook publishers. Some really innovative-sounding small presses.

V - thank you, intelligent and thoughtful is the best we can hope for, isn't it?

tideliar said...

Hi Tania, I'm the commissioning editor for I just found this post whilst googling lablit (as I'm wont to do periodically). I'm glad you liked the review and I wish you the very best of luck in the future. Seeing your work reviewed can be exhilarating, and terrifying. Douglas said "Recent review of a story of mine compared me favourably with Raymond Carver", I had that once too (compared to RC) and I nearly popped with excitment :) It can help you grow and act as inspiration. Good luck again, ~Tideliar (AKA Ian Brooks)