Monday, April 9, 2012

Critiquing the Critique, The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I first heard of "The Magicians" by Lev Grossman on a video trailer for the new Sword and Laser show and bookclub hosted by Veronica Belmont. I've never done the bookclub thing and thought this might be amusing. 

My first step is to check Amazon and see if it is worthwhile to buy it for the Kindle.  I'm currently umemployed, so I am hoping there is a sale.  No luck.  Half Priced Books it shall be, but while on Amazon's site I decide to look over some reviews.  While the ratings are high I find the reviews troubling, and get the impression I won't actually care for the book.  Still, I love to hate sometimes, so I commit myself to finishing the book even though the positive reviews are turning me off.  

Let's examine one of these reviews.  

The reviewer in question, the fantastically named Theoden Humphries starts out with a premise that I find limiting.  “Stop thinking this is a fantasy book,” he commands, and proceeds to tell us why this book is literature not fantasy.  Literature is a definite, defineable, and concrete thing it seems and is not interdependent of genre.  Personally, I think most written works do not rise to any great level that must be lauded for particular literary worth, and this applies to general fiction, fantasy, horror, science fiction, mysteries, romances, and non fiction.  The rarity of a work really stretching beyond the diverting or educational is rare.  Mr. Humphries seems to believe that being fantasy makes this potential even less likely. 

I won't say that this is a great book, on par with "Of Mice and Men" and "Catcher in the Rye" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," but I will say that it is closer to those than it is to "The Hobbit" or the Xanth books. If you are a fan of literature, of thinking about your reading, then you must get this book, especially if you enjoy fantasy. If you are just looking for an escape, look elsewhere -- because this is not a fantasy. Or at least, it isn't only a fantasy. It's a wonder.

Mr. Humphries conclusion left me biased against the book, through no fault of Lev Grossman's.  I love each of the books that the author calls great, but he contrasts their qualities to the Xanth series and "The Hobbit"; one of which was a self parodying pun filled diversion, and the other which was written for children and was the basis of modern fantasy. "Of Mice and Men" dealt with the cruelty of the human condition in stark powerful terms, set against the desolation and misery of the great depression.  "Catcher in the Rye" examined the wild, crazy journey of adolescence, rebellion, sex and angst in a new and fresh way.  It told the story of growing up honestly with eyes wide open.  “To Kill A Mockingbird” is a story of social injustice, racism, honor and hope.  These three books are very different, told in completely different styles, with their authors employing varying techniques, language and plot devices.  They are not similar works, but Mr. Humphries basically implies that they are inherently superior works.  I do not disagree, but by contrasting them with the Xanth novels and the Hobbit he has categorically stated that these two works are inherently inferior.   With respect to Piers Anthony, I agree in the case of Xanth but they were amusing and beloved by many, and so succeeded in their goals.  "The Hobbit", however, is not by most opinions, inherently inferior.  Indeed, it is one of the most influential and important works of the 20th century.  Influence alone is not enough to warrant any great respect, one may look at all the supernatural themed young adult fantasy Twilight clones as proof of that.  No, "The Hobbit" is a coming of age story, or rather the telling of a man becoming a man finally.  It deals with honor and friendship, the comforts of home and the dangers of adventure.  It is about self actualization, told for children.  It was written for children but helped adults find their way, as well.  It was written for a more innocent time, but it has spoken to every generation since.  Mr. Humphries compares oranges, rye whiskey, sweet tea, bad jokes and hearty biscuits and claims that the first three are all brilliant, and the last two are terrible.  These things are not alike, not quantifiably better or worse and I just don't buy into his assertions.  Literature is a goal to achieve and a concept to explore, and if it must be used as a label I cannot agree that fantasy is intrinsically less worthy of the appellation.   As a result, I came to this novel with a bit of a bias.

So far, it has exceeded my expectations.  I hope the trend continues, but this comic gives me cause for concern.  Still, keeping an open mind.  There are some really good elements in these first chapters.  

Lev Grossman's Page

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