Wednesday, September 22, 2004

De Gustibus, and how to reply to bad reviews

Let's see... lots of you wrote to tell me that "Venerable" is one of the stages of beatification that ends with sainthood, which is true, but perfectly irrelevant in the Bede's case. An example:

Hi Neil.I'm probably not the only one that is going to write to you about the term "venerable" as in "the Venerable Bede". In Roman Catholicism, and also other similar faiths, "venerable" is the title that a holy person gets before being promoted to "saint". First you are "blessed", then you are "venerable", then finally you are promoted to "saint". Since the time that Brewer wrote his "Dictionary of Miracles", Bede has actually received this promotion, so nowadays he should be referred to as "Saint Bede". All Roman Catholic Saints have to work their way up this ladder, so the title "venerable" does not have anything to do with being very elderly or "barking mad". Saint Joan (of Arc), for example, was "the Venerable Joan" before she was promoted to "saint", although she only lived to be 19.Karl Paananen

I mean, while that's all true, more or less, it has nothing at all to do with the Venerable Bede's Venerableness at all. He was actually sainted in 735 AD, about 1200 years before Brewer wrote his Dictionary. His formal title as a Saint is "St Bede the Venerable". According to one source, someone writing (or possibly carving) Bede's epitaph, immediately after he died, couldn't think of an appropriate adjective, and left a blank in the phrase "the ...... Bede" and went to bed. And then angels, or elves, or someone's room-mate (or a stone-mason) came in the night and miraculously wrote (or carved) "venerable" in the space provided. And so he was.

But there's another explanation given here by Curtana:

Dear Neil,

More on the Venerable Bede and his chatty pile of rocks: the Golden Legend says "Also it is said that when he was blind he went about for to preach, and his servant that led him brought him whereas were many hopples of stones, to whom he made a noble sermon, and when he had all finished his sermon the stones answered and said, Amen." (Also note that the word 'hopples' is excellent).

Another source tells us that this was actually the source of his epithet "Venerable": "...Bede, in his old age, when his eyes were dim, was induced by certain "mockers" to preach, under the mistaken belief that the people were assembled to hear him. As he ended his sermon with a solemn invocation of the Trinity, the angels (in one version it is the stones of a rocky valley) responded "Amen, very venerable Bede." So perhaps some angels impersonating stones, or the other way around?

St. Fursey's bio is at

No mention of his clock, though...

St. Cuan is also called St. Mochua, and he's known, among other things, for supposedly living to be 100 (so, much more Venerable than Bede) and for teleporting meat:

"And when Easter day had come, and Mochua had said Mass a desire for meat seized the young cleric, and he said to St. Mochua that he would go to Durlus to visit Guaire in order to get enough of meat. 'Do not go,' said Mochua, 'stay with me, and let me pray to God for meat for thee.' And on this he knelt on the ground and prayed with fervour to God, asking for meat for the young cleric. At the same time while food was being served to the tables of Guaire's house, it came to pass through Mochua's prayer that the dishes and the meat they contained were snatched from the hands of those who were serving them and were carried out over the walls of the dwelling, and by direct route reached the desert in which Mochua was; and Guaire went with all his household on horseback in quest of the dishes; and when the dishes came into the presence of Mochua he set to praise and magnify the name of God, and told the young cleric to eat his fill of meat." Poor Guaire, rendered miraculously meatless...

- Curtana

Hopples is indeed a wonderful word. I shall look it up in the big OED with the magnifying glass downstairs, because I can't find a useful definition for it online.

And then there were ones like this:

I just read your latest Livejournal post and I thought you might be interested in this web site if you don't already know about it. It's has massive content on all sorts of religious/strange/UFO related material. It goes through each thing and logically debunks. Perhaps you would rather read strictly about the dream, ie his talking rocks, but since I prefer anything I can get on any number of topics I'll give you the url: - Ashkah.

Which is helpful, but I do kind of feel misses the point as well. I mean, anyone who's actually going to expend time and energy debunking some 7th century talking rocks (or even a teleporting 1400-year-old meat dinner) is clearly just getting into shape for the much more difficult and important task of demonstrating to the world that, whether or not a cat is playing a fiddle at the time, it's still aerodynamically and physically impossible for a cow to jump over the moon; before continuing on to demonstrate that, a venerable authority to the contrary, blackbirds do not actually peck off maids' noses.


Several people wanted to know my opinion on Anne Rice's recent outburst on (Here's a summary from the New York Times.) [Edit, link fixed] (Here's a link to the book for the adventurous. You'll have to go and find Anne Rice's review in among the reviews.)

I think that unless a reviewer gets their facts completely wrong, the author should shut up (and even then, the author should probably let it go -- although I'm a big fan of a letter that James Branch Cabell wrote to the New York Times pointing out that their review of FIGURES OF EARTH was bollocks*). As Kingsley Amis said, a bad review may spoil your breakfast, but you shouldn't let it spoil your lunch.

I suspect that most authors don't really want criticism, not even constructive criticism. They want straight-out, unabashed, unashamed, fulsome, informed, naked praise, arriving by the shipload every fifteen minutes or so. Unfortunately an reviews page for one of the author's books is the wrong place to go looking for this. Probably best just not to look.

(On the other hand, the statement "You read it wrong" is not an entirely meaningless one. When I first read Gene Wolfe's PEACE, aged 17, I thought it was a bucolic and sort of pointless set of reminiscences by a sweet old man. When I read it again, aged 26, having spent some years as a writer and critic, I found myself, rather to my surprise, reading a deeply chilling and murderous novel narrated by one of the darkest characters in literature, who was a ghost to boot. But Gene Wolfe isn't going to make people who didn't like or get PEACE suddenly like it by going on Amazon and telling them it was too good or too clever for them, even if it was.)

When you publish a book -- when you make art -- people are free to say what they want about it. You can't tell people they liked a book they didn't like, and there is, in the end, no arguing with personal taste. Different people like different things. Best to move on and make good art as best you can, instead of arguing.

I think Anne Rice going on Amazon and lambasting her critics was undoubtedly a very brave and satisfying thing for her to do, was every bit as sensible as kicking a tar baby, and, if ever I do something like that, please shoot me.

A much better reason to go to is they've put up a new short story by M. John Harrison, set in the world he created in LIGHT. It's called Tourism, and you can read it at
I think it's a good bet that some of you won't like it at all. (I loved it.)


* The letter from Cabell to the Times, after pointing out a dozen places in Maurice Hewlett's review of Figures of Earth where he had complained of Cabell making up ineptly things which Cabell had actually accurately reproduced from classical sources, ends,

Still, it is not fair that I should profit by Mr. Hewlett's lack of such elementary erudition. Plain honesty compels me thus publically and modestly to admit that when Mr. Hewlett accredits me that invention of (and blame for) all these, and other, matters he honors me beyond my due. And while these deficiencies in Mr. Hewlett's knowledge are interesting, why, after all, should his naive confession of them be printed as a review of a book by someone who does happen to know about these things?
Yours faithfully, James Branch Cabell

For most authors, not being James Branch Cabell, it's probably wisest after reading a particularly stupid or vicious or bad review to mentally compose your letter to the editor, fill it with your sharpest and most cutting and brilliant bon mots, and then, having made it up, to successfully resist the urge to put it to paper, and to return cheerfully to work.