I get a two-star customer review on Amazon, and I brood about the nature of fiction

Here I described a review of Senator that started badly but it ended up full of praise.  I love trick endings like that!

But now I’ve got a review of Dover Beach that goes in the opposite direction.  Look:

Great plot…..excellent writing……FINALLY a believable private eye……interesting, unforgettable characters…..surprising twists……All this to say that I believe here is an author we will hear more from in the future.

So why did I give it only 2 stars? Because of his world-view. His main character is living in a destroyed world as a result of nuclear war — yet Bowker thinks humanism is going to rebuild it all????

Have long though[t] that good Science Fiction asks the right questions, but am afraid Bowker comes up with wrong answers. I don’t buy the humanist philosophy and if his next book has “Humanistic Science Fiction” on the cover I for one won’t be spend[ing] a dime on it.

I guess we shouldn’t have put that quote from Locus (“Humanist science fiction of a high order”) on the cover!  But anyway, I was brooding about that four-question-mark question in the review’s second paragraph.  Do I believe what the reviewer says I believe?  I do not.  But further, I have never even considered the question.  Even further, if the novel suggests that I have an opinion about the matter–or about anything, in fact–I’d consider that a flaw.  The purpose of fiction is to give pleasure, not to give answers–to strive for beauty, not for truth.  For me, the pleasure of Dover Beach was in plopping down a conventional literary genre in an unconventional setting, and exploring the tensions that resulted.  This may cause notions of humanism to creep in, because private eyes deal with human-scale issues.  But the private eye in Dover Beach isn’t going to save the world he inhabits–he is lucky if he’ll be able to save himself.

This gives me a chance to copy John Keats’s definition of negative capability, which we should all read every year or so:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

Words for a writer to live by.

Here’s a five-star review to make me feel better:

What a treasure. Amazing how smoothly this author leads the reader into his jagged, apocalyptic world to reveal what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and leaves you to decide if such a world is worth saving or even living in. I was particularly impressed with his skill at giving you his characters bit by bit throughout to let them become gems of many facets, like a skilled diamond cutter. This is one P.I. whom you will never forget.



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