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Reviewed without venom

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For over three months now, I've been meaning to post a note about Liz Henry's excellent SH review of Touched by Venom, the controversial novel by Janine Cross.

I've been pretty consistently impressed with what I've seen of Liz's writing, mostly in her blogs. I generally find her stuff smart and articulate and thoughtful and sometimes passionate, and it often leaves me nodding in agreement and/or wanting to sit down and talk with her about it at length. I don't always agree with everything she says, but I almost always find her comments interesting and thought-provoking and well-written.

This review was no exception. What I saw as her central point in this review was that reading this book as a feminist dystopia makes it much more interesting than reading it as a bad generic fantasy novel. I can't discuss the book itself--Liz's review adds to my impression that it's not a book I would personally enjoy, so I don't plan to read it--but in general, I think that trying to understand a work on its own terms is a good approach.

It's a general idea that's come up over and over in my life. For example, when I was a kid, I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark in its theatrical release, and I hated it; I thought it was a dumb movie, full of ridiculous implausibilities. And it is, if you try to watch it as a serious drama. But if you watch it as a pulp adventure movie, it's a lot of fun.

Now, clearly there are other readers who disagree with Liz about the book's merits as feminist dystopia. Some may feel that that's not an accurate genre label to pin on the book; others that it's an accurate genre label but that the book is a bad example of that genre rather than an interesting one.

But I still think the general approach I'm talking about here is a worthwhile tool for critical consideration of art. If I'm discussing a work, I can certainly focus on my own personal reactions to it; but I find that my reactions may change quite a bit (in various directions) if I reconsider what I think the artist was trying to do. Sometimes my expectations are set poorly by anything from reviews to cover art to blurbs to the beginning of the book itself (I forgot to mention, the other week, that I found the prologue to Tigana so tedious that I had to read it about five times before I could force myself to get through it); sometimes resetting those expectations can lead to my being better able to critically evaluate the work. (Sometimes I like a work a lot less after I figure out what the author was trying to do, of course, and I'm certainly not saying that authorial intent trumps everything else. But when I think the author's trying to do one thing and they're actually trying to do something else, I often don't evaluate the work fairly.)

(Btw, I'm not saying anyone who hated Touched by Venom wasn't evaluating it fairly; I'm making a general comment about reviews and discussion of art, sparked partly by some of Liz's specific comments about this particular book. I realize I'm ignoring most of Liz's review in favor of talking about one of my pet topics; suffice it to say that I also liked most of the rest of her review.)

I also thought Liz's notes in the comments section of that review were interesting, especially the stuff about linguistic registers and use of foreign words and translation. Reminded me roundaboutly of an entry of mine from a couple years ago about what I called fictional translation in sf.

The aspect of Liz's review that I didn't like was the idea that (as I thought I understood what Liz was saying) readers who didn't like the book are uncomfortable because they're privileged. That sounded to me a little like a personal attack on people who didn't like the book, and more generally I'm kinda uncomfortable with saying (as I thought Liz was saying here) that people who disagree with me about the quality or other merits of a work are necessarily doing so because of something about their own lives.

But I discussed that bit in email with Liz at the time, and she had some really interesting response comments (and clarifications) that I hope she'll post as a comment (and/or trackback) on this entry.

...One of the things I find interesting about Touched by Venom and the controversy around it is that various smart and articulate people have had such wildly different reactions to it. In addition to the general disgust heaped on the book by the blogosphere (as linked to from Liz's review), there was JJA's Kirkus review, which complains that since dragons are animals, "any sexual tension Cross creates is akin to bestiality, resulting in a truly ridiculous and at times revolting fantasy." Later, Kameron Hurley gave the book a rather more detailed trashing in the same feminist-dystopian arena in which Liz had found it interesting. (And other people whose opinions I generally respect--and who are probably reading this; hi, y'all!--also said some strongly negative things about the quality of Liz's review and about Liz personally, things that I obviously disagree with.) But then there's a review in a blog that praises the book as "a brilliant depiction of a despotic theocracy" without mentioning any significant flaws. And, of course, Liz's generally positive review. And Donna McMahon's SF Site review, which says both good and bad things about the book, concluding that it's a "flawed first novel" with some impressive and unusual aspects.

(On a side note, that "bestiality" comment seemed like a somewhat unfair complaint to me; for reviewing books with sexuality that squicks the reviewer, I prefer the approach I took in my not-worksafe review of Delany's The Mad Man in Clean Sheets back in 1999. I can't compare the quality of Touched by Venom as literature with that of The Mad Man, of course, having not read the former; I'm just saying that containing squicky sex is not necessarily a good reason, imo, to condemn a book. But this is certainly a tricky and difficult area; is it okay to condemn the Gor books for containing squicky sex? What about condemning Mein Kampf for abhorrent politics? (There, I've made the Hitler comparison, y'all can go home now.) I guess I'm mostly just saying that I prefer it when a reviewer makes it clearer that their reactions to certain aspects of a work are their personal reactions rather than absolute statements; but the usual counterargument is that reviews are entirely the reviewer's opinion and there's no need to explicitly say so, and I think that argument's pretty valid. I even sometimes make that argument myself. It's possible that all I'm really saying is that I personally had a negative reaction to the bestiality comment. :) )

Anyway, all the controversy leaves me kind of intrigued; I tend to think there must be something interesting about a work that provokes such widely divergent reactions. But again, pretty much all of the reviews indicate in various ways that it's not a book I would enjoy, so I'm not going to read it for myself.

3 Comments

I haven't read the book, but the "dragon-sex = bestiality" seems to be a very odd argument. Presumably the dragons are sapient, which puts them in a category with all sorts of nonhuman yet sexually-active-with-humans beings, from elves to Klingons to centaurs to 50s-era Martians. There's certainly a long tradition in F&SF for humans to have sex with things that don't look human, going back to Leda and Pasiphae.

To answer your rhetorical question ( :) ), I surely wouldn't condemn the Gor books for having BDSM in them; I think the people who condemn them do so for promoting the systematic subjugation of women. I wouldn't actually condemn Mein Kampf, either...and, now that I get into it, I don't know what "condemning" a book would mean. Telling people not to read it? Trying to get it suppressed? Giving it a bad review? None of these seem like they apply to Mein Kampf, which is a significant historical work.


While I would not claim (and I don't think that Liz did either) that anyone who did not like Touched by Venom was necessarily someone who was privileged and did not want to confront the issues it raised, it is certainly true that there are people who don't like to read "difficult" books.


The question is, does "difficulty" necessarily equal "automatic merit."