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On being a taxonomical reviewer

January 20, 2011

I was reading a review this morning of a poetry anthology, and the reviewer, one Dr. Martin Duwell I believe, said that the book “encourages the taxonomist in me”. Ah, I thought, a person after my own heart … because I too have a taxonomical bent in my approach to literature. (I am, it has to be said, a librarian/archivist by training/profession, but I suspect the choice of profession followed the bent, rather than vice versa!). Anyhow, back to the topic in hand.

It is natural I think to apply some level of taxonomical* thinking to reviews of anthologies. How have the poems/stories been organised? It’s rarely random. Sometimes it’s simply chronological or alphabetical (as in The best Australian poems 2009 that I mentioned in a recent Monday musings); sometimes there’s a clear thematic grouping, with headings perhaps (as in Dorothy Porter‘s The bee hut); sometimes it’s more subtle, more organic, with the component parts flowing from one to the other, in which cases the reader may or may discern the connection; and sometimes, perhaps, it really is random. The challenge for we taxonomical reviewers of course is to work out whether the last truly is the case – or, have we missed something? It can exercise the brain exceedingly!

Cahill Expressway loop

Cahill Expressway loop - not the painting but this image can be used! (Courtesy: Angus Fraser, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-2.0)

Having considered the organisation issue, the next thing the taxonomical reviewer thinks about is: are there over-riding themes or styles or [pick your issue]? Sometimes, there is and it’s very clear, such as in those short story collections specifically gathered around a theme. I have a few in my collection, including Sisters compiled by Brigid McConville (in which the writers explore – well – it’s obvious from the title, isn’t it?) and Expressway compiled by Helen Daniel (in which the writers were invited to respond to Jeffrey Smart‘s painting “Cahill expressway”). But sometimes it’s not so obvious, as in, say Nam Le‘s highly-varied-in-voice-and-subject matter collection, The boat. Besides the possibly cop-out but nonetheless valid-enough idea (given the author’s personal history) that it’s about the diversity of human experience, I did glean a theme of survival running through the collection. I may be right, or I may be wrong, but it satisfies my need to comprehend the work as a whole, as well as its component parts.

But, the truly taxonomical reviewer (reader), will also approach a single work like a novel, taxonomically. And I – we, I presume – do this largely by looking at the structure. How has the work been put together, and why. Is it told chronologically in one voice? Is it a multiple point-of-view novel? Is the voice first-person, third person or even, occasionally, second-person? Where, in particular, writers have diverged from the more traditional chronological-one voice structure, why have they done so?  And, more importantly, has it worked? Why did Martin Amis write Time’s arrow in rewind? Why did Jim Crace use his four-part backwards-forwards structure in Being dead? Why did Jane Austen set up her “sense” and “sensibility” (or “pride” and “prejudice”) dichotomy? Why, and I will be discussing this in a coming review, did Mario Vargas Llosa use the rather complex multiple-point-of-view structure in The feast of the goat? The answers to these questions often help me locate the essential meaning of the work. That is, the meaning of the work for me.

I realise that this may all sound rather mechanistic and, if applied rigidly, it could be – but I think that for we taxonomical reviewers this approach is just one of the pens in our pencil-case. Sometimes there is nothing really to categorise/dissect or the categorisation/dissection is straightforward, but sometimes it can help. Sometimes, in a large, complex, unwieldy and/or diverse work, it can help us get to the core. The trick, though, is to be flexible. Elinor and Marianne in Sense and sensibility may, respectively, stand generally for those two character traits, but if we try to bind our analysis too closely to those dichotomies, not only will we tie ourselves in knots, but we’ll miss the fundamental humanity of Austen’s worldview. In other worse, to paraphrase Hamlet, it doesn’t do to think too “precisely on th’ event”. Rather, keep it loose, and meaning just might appear …

* I define “taxonomical” loosely to mean, categorising, ordering, structuring.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2011 12:46 pm

    I have been slowly reading Stephen Fry’s collection of Oscar Wilde’s short stories. It is a lovely book with illustrations, and Stephen Fry has picked his favourite of Wilde’s stories and published them in the order that he has chosen and before each story he has a little introduction to it, explaining things about it and why he likes it. This review has given me some food for thought on how to review it – becuase I think reviewing the book won’t be entirely about the stories itself, but how Fry put it together and how successful it was.

    • January 20, 2011 12:50 pm

      Glad to be service Becky! Oh, and it sounds like a great book too! I love it when you get the compiler’s reasoning – and one for each entry would be fascinating.

  2. January 20, 2011 8:21 pm

    I am definitely a taxonomic reader, but then my research area is narrative organisation, so what else would you expect? You would have really enjoyed listening to a speaker at a conference I attended just before Christmas, who is setting up a data base of all the material published in Anthologies and Miscellanies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taxonomy was very much on her agenda.

    • January 20, 2011 10:17 pm

      Oh yes, I clearly would have. It’s probably good that we aren’t all like this but the world needs a few of us I reckon!

  3. January 21, 2011 9:25 am

    Hi Sue, I could scan the cover of my copy of Expressway if you want to show your readers the picture without breaching the copyright of the artist…
    My favourite example of a taxonomic short story was The Eleven Deady Sins, where writers were invited to explore them in short story form. There was a follow-up with the virtues, but that was not so much fun LOL.

    • January 21, 2011 9:57 am

      Thanks Lisa – that’s a lovely offer … the things is that I do have the book, but I’m not sure that scanning the cover avoids the copyright issue. I’m waiting for Penguin to respond to my requests (two so far) re covers and copyrights.

      Eleven deadly sins! What were the other four? Ah. I looked it up … things like Melancholy and Ignorance. Looks like an interesting book too. What is it about us that virtues are so boring? Is that why the nightly news is full of misery? Perhaps the 12th deadly sin should be schadenfreude! Hmmm … getting off topic now.

  4. January 22, 2011 7:24 am

    I appreciate taxonomic thinkers but I can’t say that I am much of a taxonimc reader. or maybe I am but just don’t see myself from that frame of reference. Anyway, I enjoyed you post immensely 🙂

    • January 22, 2011 10:02 am

      Thanks Stephanie … I had fun thinking about and writing this one. I probably should have thought more but it was one of those things where something you read suddenly puts a frame around things you’d been thinking, and so I just fired it off.

  5. January 22, 2011 8:12 pm

    Huge apologies for my absence since Christmas – the non-computer life had more pressing demands on my time and energy, not least visits to far-flung relatives and additional grand-child minding

    This is a very interesting article which makes me aware of a new layer of book analysis which I hadn’t considered before. It makes me want to go back over my more recent reads and try to spot the taxonomical aspects of them.

    • January 26, 2011 11:10 pm

      No apologies necessary but it is VERY nice to see you back again. Glad you found the post interesting – you are one of the people I was thinking of as I wrote it because of an exchange we had a little while ago about structure.

  6. January 25, 2011 8:44 pm

    I’m sure I commented on this a few days ago but I must have pressed the wrong button or something!

    Anyway, an interesting post – which suggests to me a whole new way of looking at books.

    • January 26, 2011 11:09 pm

      You did … and I just discovered it along with this and some others in my SPAM folder (which I hadn’t checked for a couple of weeks). Sorry.

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