Critical Thinking

By Jamy Ian Swiss - Wednesday, June 10, 2020

(Reprinted from Preserving Mystery [2018, Vanishing Inc. Magic])

I certainly never intended to be a book reviewer.

I love books in general, and magic books in particular. I have been a passionate reader and writer before I ever saw a magic book. But I never anticipated becoming a critic, and certainly never followed any path that could be expected to lead to that outcome. I never joined magic organizations. I didn’t compete in contests. I wasn’t active in the political circles of the magic world. When a young reader referred to me in a letter in the 1990s as part of the magic “establishment,” I laughed.

Jamy Ian Swiss

But in June of 1994, my first book review was published in Genii magazine. I devoted the entire column, some three thousand words, to one book: Paul Gertner's Steel & Silver by Richard Kaufman.

The reaction was instant and varied. Some magicians had apparently never read a three-thousand-word book review, whether of a book about magic or about any other subject. But I wanted to make it clear from the outset that, while not every review would be three pages long, the possibility existed. My intention was to provide in-depth criticism in the literary sense, as opposed to the kind of thumbs-up/thumbs-down consumer advocacy that had long passed as reviewing in magic magazines. And I had decided I would not be a part of the tradition, still much in effect at the time, of pink-ink pabulum required by organization journals, in which blandness and politics win out over competence and clarity.

Some readers were fascinated, others puzzled, a few were outraged. As time went on, some grew accustomed to the idea, some came to like it, others couldn't understand why anyone would spend several thousand words examining a book they didn't like---a puzzlement I find, well, puzzling.

When I began writing the column (as the then sole book critic), I had a few deliberate intentions in mind, which I maintained throughout the run of the column, concluding with the January 2013 issue.

One was based on the advice of the late Vic Sussman, my friend and editorial guide for the first several years of the column. Vic was a lifelong amateur magician and a successful journalist whose credits included serving as a columnist for The Washington Post Magazine, a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report, and a co-editor at NPR Marketplace. He said to me, "Write for your friend on the next bar stool." That was a powerful piece of advice. It wasn't so much about speaking casually, as it was about speaking genuinely. Hence I wrote my column for myself and a couple of friends---friends I might imagine speaking with on the phone or sitting with over a cup of tea. I wrote about the ideas I thought would be important to those close friends and colleagues. In my writing, I never "dumb down" the work for some imagined less educated audience. I find that idea deeply offensive---if you want to be pandered to, watch sitcom television or a political news channel. I have much more respect for my audience than that.

My other mission was to attempt to interest those in different branches of magic, and to explain to them the interests of those in other branches. Magicians typically think they understand the other guy's job or specialty, when they seldom do. But everyone interested in magic can benefit from cross-fertilization. It was, above all, my intention to popularize good magic books. My secondary goal was to recognize bad magic books as such, and to explain why they were bad. I also desired to educate and to create interest across specialties. One of the best notes I ever received was from a mentalist who wrote that, after reading a review of mine concerning a small book of illusions, he had gained new insight into illusions and had in fact gone out to purchase the book.

I tried to provide tools to enable readers to make better use of their books---not only the ones being reviewed, but of others related to the discussion. The esteemed historian and author Eddie Dawes kindly referred to my work as "essays about books," and I gladly plead guilty to that characterization. I am an essayist; I wrote essays about the conjuring arts, anchored on books. I was taken aback once when we received a hostile letter from a reader who insisted that the many references I included in my reviews served only the purpose of "showing off" my expertise. It apparently never occurred to him that some might consider that information a feature, not an artifice.

There is nothing wrong with reviewing as consumer advocacy, giving the reader advice about how to spend his money; but while I tried to include some estimation of value in my work, it was never my primary goal. Others could provide this service, and do so better than I, especially when that was their intended focus. One thing I did hope to provide was a service to those who might never get to read a certain book, by creating a thorough and reliable sense of what they might have missed. Besides helping to make better books, I wished to contribute to the making of better readers, by explaining carefully and completely how a book should be read and considered. My friend Bob Farmer once phoned to say, "I knew I didn't like the book, but I wasn't sure exactly why until I read your review." That is a compliment I gladly accept.

Whenever I was in doubt over the inclusion of a particular line or idea, or found myself in conflict with an editor, I always fought for good writing first, because that's the only way to provide good reading. An author once complained to me about my sardonic humor. He felt I could have simply said that I hadn't cared for that particular aspect of his book. Had I done that, instead of using a colorful metaphor, it would have come out boring and flat, something no one would care to read, much less remember---quite simply, lackluster writing.

This introduces the topic of controversy. I came to discover that readers seemed to envision a mythical beast: He Who Desires Controversy. The beast awakens to face the day, turns to his word processor, and says to himself: "Today I shall be controversial. I desire it, and so it shall be." My life, and the life of my mind, is nothing like this. I do not, nor have I ever, sought controversy, and I gain no sense of satisfaction from this aspect of my work. Thirty years ago I asked Penn Jillette what he thought about all the controversy that Penn & Teller had created among magicians at the time. I will never forget the first words he said over the phone that late night: "First of all, nobody likes to be called an asshole."

But then he went on to explain that he and Teller made the best art they knew how to make, the way they knew how to make it, and although they didn't crave being called names, they wouldn't let that risk alter their work.

Exactly. I enjoy writing literary criticism because I love reading magic books. I consider what I read and formulate opinions about it, and I enjoy expressing and refining my point of view through the act of writing. That is a very personal act; and as with any essay, others are welcome to read the work, and I hope they will respond to it in some manner---any manner---that is meaningful for them. But by then it no longer seems to have much to do with me. I have had my conversation with myself---with that imagined friend or two across the table. Others are welcome to listen in or, if you prefer, read over my shoulder---and then we all go our separate ways. I make great demands of myself in the course of writing, and I have elucidated most of them here, but I make few if any demands on my readers. They may do as they wish.

Some of them choose to be offended. Some of them have written about it. A few cancelled subscriptions; one even had the great temerity of leaving a threat or violence on my answering machine. Others wrote that, while they were once the opposition, they had changed their opinions. But I learned many years ago that one needs to be even warier of compliments than of complaints. If you're going to lend credence to the one, you have lend equal weight to the other, don't you?

The letters that mattered most are those that engaged with the ideas of the column, whether pro or con. After my review of The Complete Cups & Balls by Michael Ammar (February 1999), discussion of it dominated the letters column for most of the ensuing year. The letters seemed to divide neatly into two categories. There were the complaints which, without exception, insisted that the review amounted to a personal attack, reflected a personal animosity, defended the author as being a nice guy, and in every case failed to engage substantively with a single idea of the actual review, in which there were six pages of ideas available for rebuttal.

Genii published every letter received regarding that review, and in the end the balance of pro and con was almost a perfect 50/50 split. The supportive writers tended to address actual ideas from the review, and while clearly not always in agreement with my every point, they nevertheless expressed support for the legitimate intentions of my critique. Most gratifying---not only amid that controversy but in all the time I would be reviewing for the magazine---were the letters from more than one author who expressed the idea that, while my reviews of their books had been the most critical they had received, mine had nonetheless been their favorite reviews, since I had succeeded in engaging with the ideas of their books. I was all the more appreciative of those comments, since readers are much quicker to write critical letters rather than supportive ones.

Dilemmas did arise occasionally when reviewing the work of friends and colleagues. Of course, in the realm of magic this can be a real challenge; it is a small world where everyone seems to know everybody, and there is barely a degree or two of separation among most members of the community. I know that some writers have had grave difficulties with this issue. I am not in their number. I am fortunate that my small circle of close associates tends to produce good work. On occasion, when there was any risk of conflict, my friends have consistently shown great character and generosity, because they generally accepted my criticisms in magnanimous, even appreciative, fashion. For this I was and shall remain grateful---and occasionally still humbled.

In rare instances, when I felt the need to make a difficult choice, I invariably chose what I felt to be the truth, and let the chips fall where they might. I lost very few friends as a result of the review column, and if indeed it ever happened, one must ask if they were friendships of much value.

How did I read so many books? I don't know exactly. Fortunately I am a fast reader, but I paid the terrible price of reading far fewer non-magic books than I would have wished. I am invariably awash in incompletely read non-magic books. I read in great solid stretches rather than piecemeal, and with lots and lots of Post-it Notes stuck on pages. A look through the Post-its would serve to draw my attention to certain passages of interest, which I might or might not reread prior to writing.

How did I write? Generally at one sitting, about a thousand words an hour, without outlines or prepared notes beyond the Post-its. I know what I think of the books but don't know what I'm going to write until I sit down at the keyboard. I rarely know the punchline until I reach the end.

I've become more or less accustomed to readers saying something along the lines of, "I enjoy your writing. I don't always agree with it, but I enjoy it." This always amuses me. Such compliments are greatly appreciated. They are lovely and gracious, and it is invaluable to know that someone has noticed your effort before it ends up on the bottom of the dove cage. But the caveat used to puzzle me, and my response---to that "I don't always agree"---is to say, "Well, complete agreement would be unlikely---you'd have to be me, wouldn't you?"

And I invariably add, "Thanks for reading."

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