When Right Is Wrong: Dissecting A Bad Review Of I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, By Justin Isis

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/28/11


  Let me be up front about something, and that is the fact that the person whose book is at the center of this review, of a review written about that book, has been a participant in the e-list of my own website, Cosmoetica, for several years. I have also spoken with him via Skype, once, and exchanged emails with him. My wife has an even longer history of corresponding with the writer in question, Justin Isis. With that out of the way, my opinions expressed have nothing to do with my personal knowledge of the writer. Rather, they have everything to do with the poorly written review of his first published book; one which is symptomatic of the problems with criticism, online and off, on literature and the other arts, in today’s culture.

  The fact is that both my wife and I got a chance to read Isis’s book before publication, and my wife wrote her review of the book here. It was a generally favorable review whose major negative cited was a ridiculously bad Introduction by the press’s publisher, Quentin S. Crisp. Subsequently, my wife’s review was excerpted for a cover blurb for the book. I then read the book and totally disagreed with her assessment of it- a point I echoed to Isis in a Skype conversation. Of the ten stories, I found only one to be good or better, in its entirety, with only two others, a tale on a quest for knowledge of Chinese people, and the book ending novella, to have enough good qualities to even discuss them qualitatively. The rest of the tales were dull, ill-characterized, anomic, and utterly forgettable. My initial reaction was they were like trying to discern the images of a painting made on a pure white background, painted with egg shell white paint. I stand by that assessment, and in dialectic with my wife and others, have found most people either immediately in agreement with me, or, at minimum, acknowledging all the flaws I found. That stated, Isis has written FAR better tales he did not include in his debut volume; a fact we discussed and which is perplexing. In fact, Isis admitted these tales were weak, but he wanted his ‘development’ as a writer chronicled by the book, even as he has claimed, in public and private that he cares nothing of his own writing, and is frequently bored by the higher arts.

  Having now read the review, published here, in short, I can state the overall summation of the reviewer, one Samantha Holloway, is pretty much in sync with what I told Isis, but, even though correct in the abstract, it's nonetheless a bad review, for its alarming particulars; and being a bad review is different from its being a negative review.
  Here’s the review’s start:

As far as collections of short stories go, I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like is a highly mixed bag.

On the one hand, there were some beautiful sentences, some truly inspired imagery. On the other hand—and this is a much larger and more visible hand—most of the stories felt . . . pointless. Hollow. Lacking substance.

The characters were uniformly unlikable, self-involved, and obsessive about strange things that never seemed to matter as much as they said they did-

  Aside from a few clichés in phrasing, the sentiment is correct, but then the review tanks:

a classic case of telling more than showing. Each story set up an interesting new point of view, and then proceeded to show us how they all shared the same peculiar sort of bizarre madness. Reading through the first few stories, this was interesting; after about half the book, it was tiresome.

  A couple of deadly clichés, and, telling was simply not the problem with Isis’s prose. It was what was told, and how it was told that was the problem. The reviewer makes it seem as if the act of a character speaking the action is, of itself, always wrong or a bad artistic choice, and does not distinguish between the specifics of most of the tales and the fact that they are told.
  Then there is the odd choice to not excerpt a single word from the book. How is a reader supposed to gauge it for themselves? The reviewer seems to want the reader to wholly trust her, rather than even give a taste of the work in question. Apparently, this is a website policy, as The New York Journal Of Books, seems to have exempted excerption from its reviews, as, of the couple dozen reviews posted by them, that I clicked on, bore not a one. Let me digress, for a moment, and assail the website itself. First, I’ve seen quite a few reviews from this website, before the one in question, and have been singularly unimpressed with the brief, rote, and, well, hackneyed, reviews they post. Second, there’s the ethical issue of the deliberate parasitic nature of the website’s name- a direct steal from the long established and, despite many flaws, still superior The New York Review Of Books (which, it shall be noted, offers generous excerpts- be they good or bad); a dubious and cheap tactic to confuse search engines and siphon off gullible, non-cyber savvy, new readers. Finally, aside from the bad, formulaic writing, and dubious name choice, it’s simply put- a very ugly looking website. I get some readers who harp on me for Cosmoetica’s not being a ‘bells and whistles’ site, but it’s unique, the essays are very readable (several organizations for vision impaired people have praised it) style and font-wise, and it’s aesthetically far easier on the eyes than the Journal’s flat and dull color scheme.

  Now, back to the review:

The story the book takes its name from was perhaps a misstep. In the story, the POV character comes across as a mouthpiece for a young, pretentious author more than as a character, and states flat out that the title doesn’t mean anything, that it was just intended to confuse people. The story itself is distasteful and gratuitous, and ends without anything even approaching a conclusion—while serving as a microcosm of the book as a whole.

  In reality, the story is silly and dull, which are far easier points to make (with an excerpt) than mere moralizing, as well as a not so veiled shot at Isis personally; the first of many poor reviewing tactics; this one being ad hominem.
  Then the reviewer goes into PC mode, after nipping at Isis’s balls:

It’s a frustrating read, something along the lines of reading submissions for a litmag: there’s promise here, a lot of potential talent, an intriguingly fresh imagination, a real gift for putting words together in unexpected ways to make for some wonderfully evocative imagery—but a full collection feels premature; the glowing praise of the intro sounds like the author protesteth too much.

Author Justin Isis’s natural talent is drowned in the artifice of a new talent in love with the sound of his own voice. Maybe in five years or ten years this book would have been justified, but right now, there’s too much of the new author sure he’s changing the world when really he’s really just being obnoxious and artificial.

  Here are some backhanded compliments which are really off the rack comments that, sans excerpts, totally mummify the reader's opinion, and leave the reader wanting to actually read what the reviewer claims is so bad (or good). Then she conflates publisher Crisp’s ridiculously over the top Introduction (rightly and uniformly panned in a number of reviews) with Isis somehow fellating himself. At first read, I guessed this website lacked real editors; then on seeing its ‘staff,’ the only person with any real writing ‘experience’ is a children’s book author. The others seem to have experience in business and marketing, which right away tells you why the ‘reviews’ are clipped, formulaic, and read like excerpts from a book catalog, making the website an online version of the dread magalog.

  And what is it with the ‘justifying’ claim? It’s either a good book or not. Crisp’s Intro can be said to perhaps merit justification in years ahead, but that’s not Isis, so the reviewer is again mish-mashing writer with publisher. And, as mentioned above, Isis claims to not care about his writing, and while I disagree with that, one actually can justify some of that claim in the anomy of the writing, which could have been tightened, and which could have been shown by the reviewer….with an excerpt! And, again, there’s a moralistic attitude about Isis, rather than dealing with the writing.
  Here’s the review’s end, with the almost obligatory claim that the reviewer found things of merit, so this has to be a fair review (Don’t question my motives, Buster!):

But this isn’t a unilaterally unflattering review. There are enough glimmers of something truly wonderful here that it will be interesting to see how Isis matures as a writer, to see if the next collection is purer, less subsumed by what reads as arrogance.

If the next book is better, perhaps Mr. Isis will actually earn the praise piled on in the introduction to I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like.

  More moralizing. Isis’s tales’ flaws (in at least 7 of the 10 tales) have nothing to do with ‘arrogance,’ but with the narrative anomy and indifferent characterization; things manifestly justifiable and provable….with excerption! The last sentence of the review is true, but while I did not think Isis’s book was a good book, and he certainly deserved a negative review, he deserved a far more impartial, fair, less condescendingly moralistic, off the rack, and better written one than this.

  If a critic’s aim is to point out positives and negatives so readers and writers understand what constitutes quality and not, this review fails to demonstrate and convince, readers of its rather nebulous claims (much less those of a personal or ad hominem bent) and, I’m sure, does not convince Isis. Whether the review’s flaws lie with the reviewer, the website, or both, does not really matter, as all three entities are merely symptoms of the deliteracy that grips modern American society. To close, this review is as bad, or worse, in its domain, as Isis’s book is in its. That’s not anything to revel in.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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