Have I ever mentioned the maxim “If you can’t say anything nice, then shut the fuck up?” I think it requires reiteration today, in light of The Gazette’s particularly bitchy review of Jon Paul Fiorentino’s novel, Stripmalling, published earlier this week.
Now, to be fair: I haven’t read this book yet, though I do have plans to review it myself. As far as full disclosure goes, I know Jon Paul, though only slightly. We once read at the same Words and Music event, back when it was still happening at Casa del Popolo, and I found his poetry entertaining. He teaches at Concordia University, where I was once a student, but I’ve never taken any classes with him. I wrote a review or two for Matrix Magazine, where he’s the editor-in-chief, but our interactions have been limited. In short, I really have no reason to stand up for the guy, except for this: reviews should not be needlessly bitchy.
This is a guideline given to anyone who writes reviews for Quill & Quire, Canada’s magazine of book news and reviews, and I think that it applies equally well to reviewers more generally. Or, as Dave Eggers’ literary magazine The Believer puts it, “Thou shalt not slag anyone off.”
“But Laura!” you may be saying, “Aren’t some books just BAD? Shouldn’t we write snarky things about them and put their authors in their places?” Okay, yes: some books are just bad! Maybe Jon Paul’s book is truly terrible. But even if it is, why would you make it personal? Why write mean things, in public, about the author himself? As the Gazette reviewer writes in his first sentence, “Jon Paul Fiorentino’s ‘novel’ Stripmalling should be the final nail in the coffin of literature’s most pernicious aphorism, ‘write what you know’ (a phrase that actually occurs in the book).” Not so snarky? Allow me to emphasize the scare quotes. Yes, the ones around the word NOVEL, implying that Jon Paul’s book doesn’t actually qualify as such. This is the first sentence of the review, and frankly, it raises some eyebrows.
Just who is this Claude Lalumière, and why does he seem to have an ax he’d like to grind into Jon Paul’s back? For starters, his bio at the end of the review notes that he “is the author of the forthcoming collection of short stories Objects of Worship.” This, in and of itself, makes me wonder. I mean, isn’t it a little bit impolitic of a writer to be so venomous towards one of their own, especially when said writer has a book coming out that will obviously need to be reviewed? It just doesn’t make good business sense to write nasty things about someone in a review when you’ve got a book that will be undergoing a similar process in the near future. After all, what if Jon Paul Fiorentino ends up writing Lalumière’s review?
Granted, Jon Paul is a bit higher up the food chain than Claude Lalumière (as judged by the all-knowing, always-impartial Wikipedia, who doesn’t recognize Lalumière’s name at all but at least offers a stub on Fiorentino), and probably doesn’t waste time writing pithy book reviews, but I think the point remains. You don’t stab people in the back if you want them to think well of you, or—by extension—your books.
Here are the phrases in this review that I found particularly spiteful:
- “It should never be enough to simply regurgitate one’s lack of a significant life.” Sorry, but how does Lalumière know whether or not JPF has lived a “significant” life? He’s reading a work of fiction and conflating Fiorentino’s characters with his real life. Furthermore, what makes him the judge of what a significant life is?
- “That his narrative alter ego is explicitly aware of these weaknesses is not funny, as Fiorentino seems to think it is, but insulting and disrespectful, giving the impression that the author cares so little about either his writing or his audience that he can’t be bothered to at least try to create a work of some ambition.” Whoa, nelly! JPF has created a work of no ambition? Okay, Claude, just out of curiosity, what have YOU written? According to your blog, you’ve got some online fiction, zines, and a few stories that have been included in anthologies. Wow, that’s really ambitious! You haven’t even written a novel, much less a full volume of poetry, and your only publisher so far has been… you. Oh, and someplace called ChiZine Publications, who will be publishing your very first work. Which is an anthology of 12 stories that will be premiering at a science-fiction convention, as opposed to JPF’s novel, which will be premiering at the internationally famous Blue Metropolis literary festival. No offense to lovers of science-fiction or self-publishing authors, both of whom certainly have interesting things to say, but I don’t think Claude should be tossing around the word “ambition” here like he has that market cornered. Or, for that matter, as if every book ever written has to be ambitious, as opposed to fun, funny, entertaining, cute, ridiculous, whatever.
- “Stripmalling also suffers from the significant problem of not really telling a story; of amounting to a more or less random jumble of vignettes that ends up petering out awkwardly.” I’m sorry, but I was under the impression that fiction was whatever the author made of it. Since when do we all have to tell stories the same way? What exactly does Lalumière mean by “not really” telling a story? Obviously, if Fiorentino has published a novel-length work, he has told a story of some kind. Perhaps it’s not the kind of story Lalumière would like to read, but that is hardly a sin. There are plenty of things I don’t like to read, but it doesn’t mean that the writers writing them are at fault. Furthermore, vignettes are still elements of a story; they are scenes that focus on a particular moment or person. If they are “jumbled” or “awkward,” that is certainly a criticism, but then again, Fiorentino is pretty famous for writing about awkward characters. Perhaps Lalumière is confusing Jon Paul Fiorentino, the man (whom he has already personally attacked, and conflated with his character), with “Jonny,” his character? Again?
All in all, I found this review to be distasteful. While I don’t believe that one should praise books that are undeserving of praise, I also don’t think negative reviews ought to attack the writers themselves. The point of a review, after all, is to discuss a literary work. Good or bad, the work itself is the issue. Whether or not the writer is (or could be) a good writer is not the debate; it is whether or not the book in question effected you, and how, and why. This review seems to me to be the work of an envious wannabe, although I will admit that this comment is purely speculation on my part. If nothing else, it was done in poor faith. Shame on you, Claude Lalumière.