Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Critics and Narrative Surprises

Paying much more attention to how criticism is written than what that criticism is actually saying about its subject in the past few months has alerted me to a trend that has caused my irritation to grow exponentially. It seems that quite frequently the surprise twists in a narrative, be it film or book, are revealed in the reviews presented by major publications. What is the point of me seeing a movie or reading a novel if I already know what is going to happen?

In the May 5, 2008 issue of The New Yorker, John Updike quickly lets the reader know about a major plot twist in Andrew Sean Greer’s new novel, The Story of a Marriage. In the interest of this discussion, I am going to print here those revelations, so readers wanting to be unspoiled should quit reading now. The first person narrative is revealed on page two to be narrated by a woman, which in itself would be difficult to not discuss and to which I do not feel any alarm. However, Updike is quick to say that she ‘does not let the reader know until page 48 that she is African-American.’

Greer’s narrative trickery here could be a poor decision, and Updike’s review is not kind to it or the novel as a w
hole. But perhaps this was put into play in order to challenge the reader’s assumptions. Since so much of literature is written from the perspective of a white man by a white man, not to mention that Greer himself is white, a reader would likely use a white male as their default narrator until textual evidence would persuade them otherwise. This ethnocentrism should be behind us as a culture, yet it persists, and Greer could be calling attention to this part of our collective psyche. By revealing his protagonist to be African American a quarter of the way through his narrative, he forces us to ponder just why we were so quick to assume that she was something else.

This trend has a bastard cousin as well, an attempt to preserve the surprise as some sort of ethical choice, yet in their reviews the presence of a surprise is alluded to if not stated outright. Telling your reader that a narrative possesses a shocking finale without revealing what that shock is means these reviewers don’t understand the point at all. The knowledge that something unexpected will happen at the narrative’s climax causes us to view a film or read a book differently than we otherwise would.

Imagine if a reviewer had spoiled the ending to a movie like The Sixth Sense. No one I know who saw the movie unspoiled had any idea of what was going to happen, and due to being unaware, the shock was all the more effective. Recently I had an experience with a review that caused me to read Charles Baxter’s The Soul Thief in a different fashion than I probably would have initially, causing a different sort of surprise when I reached the big reveal.

Perhaps I am being too broad with this criticism; it may be likely that the only good way to review a novel like Greer’s is to spoil some of the surprises he has woven into his text. I do feel that the ideal way to approach a narrative would be with as little information as possible, yet with such a glut of material vying for our attention, reading reviews is an effective way to cut through the treacle. Maybe it is a necessary evil in some cases, but I still don’t like it.

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