Friday, September 11, 2009

A guest post about Fred Vargas, good books and crime-fiction awards

Loren Eaton, who maintains the I Saw Lightning Fall blog and who comments on this blog from time to time, is taking a break from both pursuits — some nonsense about caring for a new baby. While he takes the 3 a.m. feedings, I'm helping out with a guest post on his blog about Fred Vargas, Siân Reynolds and the ripple of dissatisfaction in some circles when the pair won their third International Dagger Award in four years for The Chalk Circle Man.

Loren has lined up an interesting group to fill in for him while he fulfills his fatherly duties. Read my contribution here. And congratulate Loren on the new arrival.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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8 Comments:

Blogger Kiwicraig said...

Good post Peter. I guess the main concern with Vargas winning again, was not so much whether the book was any good (I think most agree it is), or whether it was the best of the year (arguable, everyone will have diff opinions), but the question whether this showed a judging bias/preference/favouritism - which is more of a concern not just for this year but moving forward, than any one particular book winning.

September 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect that you're right about the main concern. Someone noted that the only person who has been on the final panel all four years lives and teaches in Paris. As I wrote in the post, I try to avoid controversy. But before I weighed in, I'd want to find out how the short list itself is determined.

As nearly as I can tell, all six short-listed books were worthy candidates. But an argumentative observer could suggest that if a pro-Vargas, pro-French exists in the final judging, a pro-Nordic bias exists at the stage where the short list is determined (five of six books this year, four of six two years ago). So I'd say that unless a committee makes an outrageously bad decision, we readers are best off congratulating all short-listed authors and translators, enjoying their work, and avoiding any controversy.

September 12, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

I am very much in agreement with you in all this, Peter. Though a very avid Vargas fan indeed, I was surprised that CCM won this year -- I had read all of her crime fiction works when I came to it, and I thought it very much like a prototype for those to come, very enjoyable as such, for one could watch the seeds being planted, but not as good as the fine blossoms ahead and arguably not as good as others on the Dagger shortlist, all of which I had read. And so, it wasn't my choice and I was surprised, but that was all. What dismayed me was the reaction in some quarters to which you make reference, and it dismayed me in part because it seemed rather vituperative without cause and in part because of what I suspected lay behind it, a wider problem that had been on my mind for some time. It struck me -- and I write this as someone who is also an aficionado of Scandinavian crime fiction as of Continental crime writers in general -- that the harshest reactions came often from those who had earlier revealed themselves as fans of the Scandinavians but otherwise evinced little interest in other European writers, often those who were particularly enthusiastic about Scandinavians whose hems they had touched at confererences, or the hand of whose translator they had shaken, as it were. And it was such a translator, one I much admire again, who was pretty much leading the anti-Vargas charge, rallying the ranks of bloggers. In short, I think there is a danger of things getting far too partisan for all the wrong reasons. This issue touches only upon some of those reasons -- there are others more serious that also rather nibble away at the independence of blogs in ways subtle or not so subtle. Bloggers of less independent mind and resilience than yourself may forget that those blandishments from authors, translators, publishers, publicists, et al., at the conference or in the email, may not be entirely altruistic. I have moved some little distance from the CCM here, but it is a point worth making, I do believe, for I've been watching these problems develop apace the past year. There are now blogs in this field and in others so clearly compromised by ties to institutions or industry sectors or simply by friendships formed at conferences that I've given up on them and a few more dangerously close. Friendship, or just thinking a writer nice when you meet her at a conference, need not, of course, be a compromising factor, but people have to give thought re how to approach the matter. The crime fiction writer who said that in reviewing a book by a friend he would be likely to allude to a weakness but strive to highlight the positive was either being very honest indeed or didn't understand at all -- especially from the viewpoint of some poor soul given to buying books on the basis on reviews -- never a good idea, but in light of the above and of the abandonment of even a pretence to a critical paradigm in crime fiction evident in many quarters, a very bad one indeed these days.

September 12, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I think 4 a.m. is the hardest; that's when every fiber in my being starts screaming, "Go back to sleep!"

September 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, 4 a.m. is when every fiber of my being suggests it might be a good time to retire for the night.

September 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I have met, interviewed, dined with or otherwise touched the hems of authors or translators of five of the six books on this year's short list. I have this fantasy that I can be part of an intelligent, engaged community, with no necessity of rules against fraternizing with the people I sometimes write about. Of course, I write relatively few reviews, so the question of independence may not come up as much on this blog.

I've never thought about what motivates a reader to buy a given book. My decisions are often based on intelligent discussion. This discussion can sometimes take the form of an intelligent, engaged review.

September 12, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

Just so, Peter. It is no secret that reviews of all sorts may be influenced by considerations wholly or partly secondary to the work in hand: old academics protecting their own paradigms or young ones stroking the influential, writers of literary fiction who view the review as the continuation of personal feuds by other means, writers/reviewers, especially young ones, who always bear in mind that the writer they are reviewing today may be reviewing them next year, and so on. But I think it an elementary point that a writer, or anyone, should think twice before reviewing the work of a friend, just to reflect upon the matter of whether they will feel able to lay out the negative aspects of the book, whether the author is of such a nature as to be understanding of that, whether the friendship can withstand it. And if it is then possible to go ahead with easy mind, splendid, but if not, not. I have been a bit dismayed of late watching some blogs turn into promotional sites for particular authors, and as a concomitant becoming rather narrow and, as in the issue that started this discussion, partisan. But that hasn't dismayed me nearly as much as a rash of discussions of crime fiction reviewing earlier in the year that centred on the question of whether it is proper for a review to lay out the defects of a book. The very question astonished me and so did the apparent consensus in the responses from blogger/reviewers: reviewers should not go into negatives because they might be sued, might not get any more books from publishers, might be thought mean or jealous....I actually felt embarrassed to find myself reading this blether, and one of my first afterthoughts was that this is all fine ammunition for the denigrators of genre fiction. If you do not point out the defects of a work, if there are such, what on earth is the point? Cui bono? Not the author, who will learn none of the things that might benefit future labours. And -- the thing that really had me riled -- not potential readers who might well be lured into wasting time if not money, for I am sure there are people who obtain books on the basis of reviews. It was unfortunate that these discussions appeared -- I forget what triggered them -- just at the time I was getting a bit fed up reading over and over how 'nice' certain crime writers are. I'm glad they are, but I only need to be told once, I'm far more interested in how good their books are, and it was pretty obvious I couldn't depend upon learning that from the personally captivated. And, yes, I do think that some writers, ubiquitous at conferences, play on this very well indeed. And at the same time we have the continuous feud with the literary fiction people who sneer at genre fiction, but it's a bit thick to expect them to take crime fiction as seriously as they should if crime fiction people are not themselves serious enough to foster a critical paradigm and give thought to the attendant problems of doing so. There have been instances also of people arguing that, in effect, they don't want crime fiction taken seriously by the litterateurs. I understand that position, though I certainly don't hold it, but crime fiction people must, I think, take it seriously themselves, seriously enough to maintain standards, and that means serious critical reviewing.

September 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Phillip, I had not read those discussions, but I'd likely have reacted as you did to any suggestion that a reviewer ought not to lay out the defects of a book. Such a proposition is such obvious nonsense that one approaches it like a physician seeking the etiology of a disease. Have people who say such things read too many unsubstantiated, unargued opinions masquerading as reviews? Are they so fearful about the state of the economy and of publishing that they have decreed a kind of literary martial law, under which reviewers must suspend critical judgment?

The question comes up less on my blog than it might on others, because I don't write that many reviews, and because I'm an amateur -- I write about books that I like, and I either try to explain why I like them or discuss some aspect that attracted my attention. (If only newspapers would allow that latter sort of writing about books.)

September 13, 2009  

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