How to review stuff

Tim Carmody at Snarkmarket wrote a thoughtful essay on reviewing books, movies, and other works in the new-media environment. In a nutshell, he points out how swarms of reviews posted at Amazon (for example) can have competing objectives, centering on what he labels immanence versus transcendence.1

immanence n.
The “thingy-ness” of an artwork, its physical form as we experience it. Examples: As digital media proliferate, a book might be experienced as a weighty hardcover, a Kindle file, a set of Google Books snippets, or a misquoted excerpt encountered in someone’s blog.

transcendence n.
The “ideal, imagined, almost Platonic form” of a work of art that transcends all our particular experiences of it in various forms. Example: The Godfather is recognizable as The Godfather, whether we encounter as a signed first edition of Mario Puzo’s novel, a much-abused paperback in a movie tie-in edition, or the first disc in the Blu-Ray release of The Godfather Trilogy. Unless we’re focused on the history of the immanent forms themselves (the novel, the paperback, the movie on DVD), we usually treat them all as versions of the same work.

The difference between these helps explain a gap between traditional newspaper reviews, which emphasize the value of the transcendent work, and consumer reviews at Amazon and countless other sites, which are more likely to focus on the particular experience with one (immanent) form of the work.

This book might have been great, but my expensive signed hardcover arrived with 64 pages missing, including three whole chapters. Also the dust jacket was torn, and not by me. I will never buy another book from this publisher again! ☆★★★★

While heartfelt and well supported by evidence, this review has little to say to buyers of the paperback, the audiobook, the DVD of the movie, or the tie-in video game. And for those who care about star ratings, the dissatisfaction of this hardcover buyer skews the rating for the entire work, in all its forms. According to Carmody, Kindle users have exploited this fact by teaming up to fire one-star reviews at desirable new books that have not been released for Kindle in what they consider a timely fashion. Their aim is to depress sales of the book in hardcover, by lowering its rating, until the Kindle release is ready.

The main point is that it’s appropriate for reviewers — whether paid to publish in print media or volunteering to comment on the Web — to be conscious of the need for both kinds of information about a reviewed work, knowing that many readers will experience the work in a different format from the one you know best. Carmody links with approval to Jason Kottke’s rules for reviewers.

About transcendence

I don’t find the concept of transcendence to be as philosophically intriguing as Carmody does. To me, thinking of a book, its movie, and the movie’s sequel as a single work is just a form of mental shorthand. We do it in order to stash similar objects in a single category. As with any category created with words, the bounds of the category are subject to shift over time, according to our convenience.

The less we care about specific members of the category, the more objects we are likely to stuff into it. If I don’t care for gangster movies, I may absent-mindedly class Scarface, Bonnie and Clyde, and King of the Gypsies in the category “Godfather movies.” A Corleone family fanatic, on the other hand, will regard each book and each movie as a separate, unique, and precious object, although each is linked to the others in endlessly fascinating ways.

The Alice movie

The Esposa Querida and I have different views on the Lewis Carroll corpus: I have not been able to persuade her to share my affection for the Oxford don’s eccentric nonsense. But she does enjoy Tim Burton’s eccentricities, so it was she who suggested we go see his Alice in Wonderland. I had grave doubts.

In EQ’s eyes, the whole corpus of Lewis Carroll work is a single category called “Alice in Wonderland,” with Tim Burton’s movie now standing out from an otherwise uninteresting mass. If she knows or cares about Carroll’s shorter pieces, I assume they get lumped into the “Alice in Wonderland” category as well.2 For me, though, not only are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass two distinct works, but some of the poems they contain (notably the White Knight’s many-titled song) are objects of particular interest. I can recite “Jabberwocky” by heart, though I avoid doing so in mixed company. On long drives I pass the time by recalling “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”

[Spoiler alert] For me, the movie is a sort of homage to the Alice books — a tribute, but not an object in the same category. I enjoyed the story, excepting only the Imperialism Lite frame that made a fairy tale of the British Empire in Asia (and inanely pretended that no European had thought to trade with the Chinese until the idea popped into Alice’s pretty head).

The beamish boy slays the Jabberwock. Illustration by John Tenniel.
The single most interesting detail about the movie was the way it reused John Tenniel’s illustration of the sword-wielding hero in the poem “Jabberwocky.” Tenniel chose to draw the vorpal swordsman from the back, with long, blond hair falling nearly to his waist. More than a century later, this drawing appears several times in Tim Burton’s movie, as part of a prophetic chronicle, but its subject is changed from a “beamish boy” to a teen-aged Alice in a suit of armor. The drawing itself is essentially unchanged. This device went a long way toward reconciling me to Burton’s reimaginings of Carroll’s characters. It also gave me a sense of how this story unfolded, in Burton’s imagination, from the original materials.

Cooper monsters

The movie did indulge in two of those tiresome chased-by-a-monster sequences, in which some implausibly toothy creature turns out to have a fantastically inefficient hunting technique. You see it all the time, from Harry Potter to Avatar: As the protagonist flees for his or her puny life, the horrible monster spends inordinate time gathering itself to spring, only to land on some rocks or vegetation instead of its intended prey. The monster is then obligated to tear shrubbery or break stones with its fearsome jaws, to show what it could have done to the hero’s flesh. The logic of Achilles and the tortoise always applies to these chases, as the pursuing monster runs or flies twice as fast as the pursued, yet never manages to close the final distance between them. Instead, it runs around and blocks the hero’s path — and then pauses to bellow for all it’s worth, considerately allowing time for the hero to turn and flee in another direction.

It reminds me of Mark Twain’s satire of James Fenimore Cooper’s fictional Indians, who had a marked ability to just miss capturing their intended helpless victims. So from now on my name for these ineffectual make-believe predators shall be “Cooper monsters.”



1 Carmody gets his terms from The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence, by philosopher Gerard Genette.
2 F’rinstance, “The Hunting of the Snark,” which is the subject of Mahendra Singh’s enjoyable illustrated blog

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