Strange Mammals was reviewed in yesterday’s edition of The Straits Times (right next to Amanda Lee Koe’s collection Ministry of Moral Panic, which made me smile), and although I appreciate that this may have made more folks aware of the book than before, I’m croggled at how many misperceptions and false assumptions and flat-out lazy pronouncements are littered throughout.
It’s generally considered bad form to respond to reviews, especially bad ones, and when it comes to opinion and preference, I do hold my tongue. However, there are so many inaccuracies here that I feel the need to set at least some of it straight.
The first of these is that reviewer is trying to ascribe the perceived differences in quality (although even these are extremely vague) between the book and my earlier collection Red Dot Irreal to some kind of chronological shift; she seems to assume that RDI was written by an “immature writer,” “a young, frustrated man who was adjusting to his new life in Singapore”. RDI came out in 2011 and Strange Mammals came out this year, so I must have written them in order, right? Um, no.
RDI, The Alchemy of Happiness, and Strange Mammals form a triptych of sorts, in that they collect almost all of my short fiction to date. The stories that were previously published in each book range across ten years of production (and the copyright dates of these pieces are easy to find ); there is a lot of overlap between them, in terms of when the stories were written, so I see them as concurrent books. Many of the pieces in Strange Mammals (if not most) predate those in RDI. So to try and justify any kind of progression or maturation of style or subject matter from one book to the other (especially within the span of two years) is fairly ludicrous.
The reviewer also mentions an authorial tic, in that I use the word “apotheosis” “in almost every story within Strange Mammals“. I went back to the manuscript and did a quick search, and ”apotheosis” shows up only five times. I am willing to concede that this is one of my favorite words, and it is a noticeable one, but the fact that it only shows up five times within 60,000 words (which would make its occurrence 0.0083% of the total word count) hardly makes it even close to a most-used word. Even giving the reviewer the benefit of the doubt and going by the number of stories in which the word shows up, we’re still only talking five out of twenty-five stories; 20% is certainly higher than 0.0083%, but it’s still a far cry from “almost every story”.
It’s mentioned that the collection does not have a cohesive theme, like RDI and TAoH did, and I am well aware of this fact, but here it’s presented as a detriment, something that makes the book “a bit disjointed and not quite as satisfying to read as his earlier books.” I will admit that linked short story collections (whether through theme or character) can provide a more fulfilling reading experience, but un-linked collections have existed for a looooong time; much as I would like to take credit, I did not in any way invent this organizational type of book (an example of one other book like this, published just this past year, is George Saunders’ Tenth of December; I can name at least a dozen others off the top of my head). This detail is presented as if I have not fulfilled a promise, either given through the cover copy or some other publicity material for the book, when, from the time it was announced, I have always referred to it as a “kitchen-sink” collection (which of course takes it name from the idiom “everything but the kitchen sink”), meaning that the contents would be highly varied, their main commonality being that they were written by me. If the reviewer doesn’t like un-linked collections as much as linked collections, it’s a fair cop, but what is not is damning the book because it’s not the book she wanted it to be. (And if she honestly felt that the book was “disjointed,” my next question is naturally going to be, “In what way?”)
Certain details given (my birthplace, my religious views, my college alma mater, the dictionary definition of “apotheosis”) are simply irrelevant to discussion of the book. As is, frankly, any comparison to Red Dot Irreal. For a review of only 250 words or so, so much real estate is given over to such mundane detritus that discussion of the book on its own merits never actually comes into play. And it is this that is most frustrating; the reviewer spends so much time on stuff that really doesn’t matter and has no place in a book review, or complaining that her unfair expectations were not met, that the whole review becomes ultimately useless. This is something I might expect to see on a blog, but not in the Books section of Singapore’s national newspaper.
Bad reviews I can deal with; I’m a big boy and can handle thoughtful criticism. I’m also fine with gut-level reactions; not everyone is going to like my writing, and that’s okay. But lazy reviewing such as this does a disservice to any potential readers of the book, and to literary discourse in general.
If you’d like to buy Strange Mammals and judge it for yourself, you can find it in the following places (just in time for Christmas!):