378 pages, Friesen Press, 2019
Attempt at a Self-Criticism (or, an autoreview)
Everyone knows the word ‘autobiography’, from the Greek prefix autos ‘self’ and biography, also a combination of Greek terms: bios ‘life’ and graphia ‘writing’. Less well known is the term ‘autoreview’ or a review of one’s own book. Some would deny it is even a term. But the idea of an autoreview would be most interesting. Should authors review and rate their own works? Could this be the rise of a new genre, or would the autoreview lack critical distance?
On Goodreads, a site for book reviews, there’s an author discussion group devoted to the autoreview idea. It’s called ‘Should You Rate Your Own Book‘. The consensus overwhelmingly discourages the autoreview. For example, here’s what Chris had to say on the thread:
The other day I downloaded an indie author’s book with intent to read and review, because it sounded really interesting. When I visited their page here on goodreads and saw that they’d rated & reviewed it themselves, I deleted it on the spot. It just seemed tacky to me. I could no longer take the author seriously.
And here’s what Christine had to say:
It really speaks to the unprofessional attitude of the author and is usually associated with ego-driven, self-published authors. It may be permitted here on GR, but readers do not appreciate it.
But, on the other hand, there is at least one great autoreview that I know of. Nietzsche published his youthful masterpiece The Birth of Tragedy in 1872 when he was twenty-seven. In the 1886 edition, he added a new preface, called ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’. This new preface was an autoreview of his own work. He gave his book no quarter, writing:
To say it once more: today I find it an impossible book: I consider it badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, in places saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, without the will to logical cleanliness, very convinced and therefore disdainful of proof, mistrustful even of the propriety of proof, a book for initiates, ‘music’ for those dedicated to music, those who are closely related to begin with on the basis of common and rare aesthetic experiences, ‘music’ meant as a sign of recognition for close relatives in artibus–an arrogant and rhapsodic book that sought to exclude the right from the beginning the profanum vulgus of ‘the educated’ even more than ‘the mass’ or ‘folk’. (trans. Kaufmann)
Today, his autoreview or ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’ is considered one of his finest and most perceptive pieces of writing, not only in The Birth of Tragedy, but of his entire corpus. Not bad for an autoreview.
While not technically an autoreview, there is also Stephen King’s On Writing, that I reviewed here. Using many examples from his own works, King gives examples of how to write well. Since he is using examples from his own books to teach others how to write well, his book can be seen as a ‘pat on the back’. King’s book, like Nietzsche’s ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’ is also regarded highly and considered to be quite perceptive. I find that it is one of the best books on writing available. That King uses examples from his own work is a plus, a fascinating insight he gives fans into the mechanics of his art. A look into the master’s workshop, if you will.
So, if writers can resist the urge to give themselves five stars and full accolades and write perceptively of their writing, the genre of autoreview could be viable, even something very interesting and useful for writers and readers (as an aside, King recommends to cut out every ‘very’ from the text). After all, the task of writers is to write. As professionals who write, we should be able to write on our own work. Composers, after all, are able to review their own works (Beethoven considered the Missa Solemnis to be his finest statement). Artists are also able to do the same (see for example, the fascinating book Rodin on Art and Artists, where Rodin compares himself to the old masters). Interesting writers ought to be able to write interesting comments on their own work, and from a perspective unavailable to other commentators. I find the scarcity of the autoreview surprising. Let me do my part to address this by commenting on my own book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.
A primary argument in the book is that life has become too monetized. We express ourselves in terms of ‘net worth’. Life insurance policies quantify life in dollar terms. Power is measured in terms of capital or stock holdings. To rehabilitate the monetization of life, an art had to rise up in revolt to show how the things that mean the most cannot be purchased. That art was tragedy. Tragedy taught us that wagers are involved in obtaining our most dear desires. But not money wagers. Existential wagers such as dignity for the American dream. Or compassion for a crown. These sort of wagers, according to risk theatre, take place in the shadow market, an alternate exchange to the stock markets and bourses of the world. To rehabilitate life, tragedy countermonetizes the mechanics of exchange. The fault of this argument: in revolting against money, it talks too much about money. It is as though money had already poisoned my mind, and the book represented my last ditch attempt to rehabilitate myself.
The countermonetary argument is suspicious in the same way as Marxism is suspicious. Marx, for someone who is against capital, sure spends a long time talking about capital. Too much time, in fact. To him, capital is magic. With enough capital, you can enslave the working classes and rule the earth. I think that Marx is, in some way, a closet capitalist.
The countermonetary argument is suspicious in the same way as 80s heavy metal bands are suspicious. Many of these bands proclaimed that they were liberated from the Christian shackles. Bands like Venom, Black Sabbath, and Bathory. But in their lyrics, they sang of scaling the golden wall of heaven, serving the dark lord, or fighting the angels. In fact, they talked more about religion than someone would, if they were truly liberated from religion. I always thought that, in some way, they were closet Christians: they were way too opposed to Christianity to be liberated from it.
The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is suspicious in the same way as Marx is suspicious and 80s heavy metal bands are suspicious. Just as Marx talks too much about capital and 80s metal bands spent too much energy claiming they had gone beyond Christianity, my questionable book spends too much energy countermonetizing human exchange. The book betrays a key foible within my own schema. We all monetize existence (for example, if we work for $10 and hour, we are exchanging existence for greenback dollars). But, what the book reveals is that this monetization in my own schema was more so than the average individual. It had reached such a pitch that I had to spend thirteen years writing a book to overcome it. The writer, says the book, has monetized his existence through and through. “He tries,” says the book, “to go against himself, but all is lost.”
The book has a dogmatic and argumentative style. Very formulaic. Repetitive. For example, when it introduces new terms describing the structure of risk theatre, it does so with curt and matter-of-fact efficiency. It brings up the term. Then it provides a number of examples. Many examples. But the description of these examples is at a bare minimum. There is hardly any comments on the significance of these examples to the author. The author is distant, far from the text. But for many readers, the most interesting part of the text will be the author’s personality. It is a dry book. It is as though the author distances himself from the text to give the text more authority. But, in doing so, it betrays a certain lack of self-confidence in the author. The book carries the marks of an author who wants to be believed, believes himself, but has a problem believing that others can believe him.
Now, I hope that I can be forgiven if I don’t spend this whole autoreview panning myself. Or, oops, I meant my book. I confuse the two sometimes. Whether the idea of risk theatre catches on, nobody can say. I’ve gone all-in that it will. The initial reviews have been good. Better than good. Great. But many others have gone all-in and have lost all. You see it at the casinos every day. But there is one advantage of the book that sticks, no matter if the book is successful or not. Only by writing a book can you experience the feeling of reading your own book. Reading your own book is that feeling, the feelings amongst. Out of a thousand people, maybe five or six have have experienced its highs and lows.
The lows come when I spot a line that doesn’t flow. Here’s one: “Ferdinand wants to become a great figure of state like his father, the peerless Duke of Alba.” The word “great” should have been omitted. “Figure of state” already conveys that the Duke of Alba is great. And, if anyone missed that the Duke of Alba was great, he is also described in the same sentence as being “peerless.” Too many descriptive words mar the sentence. Reading it pains me. But it is a most exquisite pain, as it arose out of my own weakness as a writer.
The joys of reading your own book are many. The book contains an archaeological trove of memories that are unearthed by the act of reading. Here’s a line from the book “Fools go for a home run when they can get by with a hit.” That was written one night I was listening to Springsteen’s song “My best was never good enough.” His lyric fell straight into the book. Athaliah’s “secret heart” came from Feist’s song “Secret Heart.” Rich’s “obsequious and arrogant” soul came from Motorhead’s song “Orgasmatron.” There are many more, and not only music. Reading the book brings back a flood of memories, bits of life that have happened during the thirteen years of writing, bits of life that would have been forgotten forever. An author reads his book like no other reader. To have experienced reading your own book is a bucket list item.
Truly fascinating is a comparison of what the author believes readers should take away from the work, and what readers actually take away from the work. The most celebrated example is Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. Although written as a diatribe against capitalism, it propelled greed to new heights. Wall Street traders adopted the principal character, Gordon Gekko, as their new saint, and created a new code of conduct around his words, ‘Greed is good’. Before the movie, traders did not wear contrast collars (e.g. white collar on a blue shirt) or suspenders. But, the villain so impressed Wall Street that it gave Wall Street a new dress code: contrast collars and suspenders. The movie became a cultural phenomenon. Everyone wanted to emulate Gordon Gekko, patron saint of capitalism. Somewhere Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas hung their heads in their hands.
While not on a level even approaching Wall Street, there is a slight divergence between my hopes (as an author) and what readers have reported. To me, the most devastating realization the book offers is that the art of tragedy is actually a thermodynamic process governed by the Second Law of thermodynamics. To quote one of my favourite passages:
Tragedy may be viewed of as a fiery engine that consumes ambition, purpose, and desire. Into the maw of its furnace, heroes are cast like lumps of flashing coal. They set afire tragedy’s engine for a moment and then are no more. Tragedy, as if it were a closed thermodynamic system, ends up in a lower state of potential, whether by the death of a Tamburlaine or a Caesar, the exile of Oedipus, or the loss of a Joan of Arc or a master builder. Fuel, once spent, loses its potential; likewise, the energy of human will, purpose, endeavour, and the fire of the human imagination go cold. Time, in tragedy, measures the rising entropy, or disorder, of the dramatic world. By an immutable law, as it were, as the minutes give way to hours, and the hours give way to days, kingdoms collapse, heroes perish, and order gives way to disorder.
Thus far, reviewers have focussed on the main theme: risk. No reviewer has yet commented on the final chapters of the book–the strongest chapters, in my opinion. Why was that? To me, this is a great mystery. If a reviewer would be able to comment on these last chapters, I would be most grateful. Here’s what reviewers have written up to today:
“The author’s passion for his subject comes across in nearly every statement . . . An ambitious, though-provoking critique of tragedy in the 21st century.”—Kirkus Reviews
*****I have just finished reading Edwin Wong’s ‘The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy’ and, although I was initially skeptical of his bold claim of an original theory of tragic drama, I was intrigued at the prospect of reading about this classicist’s main belief. As I turned the pages his theory grew on me and I found myself both convinced and gripped by this new perspective on tragedy. His low- probability, high-consequence outcome theory does indeed resonate with the risk takers of today and I thoroughly recommend this scholarly work to anyone interested in both theatrical and real life tragedy based on risk. As the author himself writes, ‘A working model of tragedy that is both original and rooted in tradition.’
A remarkable book in every way. A must for every serious dramatist to read, ponder over and act upon.
David Duncan – Goodreads
*****IF YOU EVER PLAN TO WRITE, READ OR ACT IN A TRAGEDY THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU! The author writes that “after two and a half millennia, tragedy is still a term in search of a definition.” He interestingly describes how each age creates its own model. The ancients “assigned the unexpected outcome to the will of the gods” while the Elizabethans established “the first great age of tragedy in the era of probability”. Mr. Wong provides a model for our highly technological time where “the possibility of doing great good or evil has increased” where “the unexpected always prevails”. He makes a very convincing case that the study of tragedy enhances our understanding of life and its value. As did I, readers of this highly stimulating book will undoubtedly ask themselves what they would be willing to wager in their lives and for what. As an actor who has performed in tragedies, and a playwright who has attempted to write one, I know that this is a book to which I will often refer.
PS: Be sure to read the footnotes which are chock full of good stuff from Wild Bill Hickok anecdotes to the link between tragedy and goats! Tragedy will rise again!!
Alan Thurston – Barnes & Noble
*****INNOVATIVE, ENGAGING, & VERY THOUGHT PROVOKING! Wong’s insightful and excellently-sourced treatise on “risk theatre” reframes our understanding of tragedy in terms of how hero’s (often flawed) analysis of risks and rewards prompts them to make decisions that set actions in motion leading to their tragic outcomes. He organizes information so effectively, providing relevant examples from classical and modern drama. You are never bogged down in the philosophy- rather, you are encouraged to expand how this new framework will inspire NEW content. Wong is hopeful in his desire to push the bounds of what modern tragedy will look like, and readers of this text and playwrights inspired by it are better for it!
Emily McClain – Amazon
****Anyone who has taken a story writing or screenplay class in America has likely come across The Hero With a Thousand Faces at some point. If not the exact book itself, then another author has often either borrowed quotes or elements of Campbell’s classic hero’s journey. Some teachers consider it inseparable to modern cinema and media; it’s just about everywhere.
But if Campbell’s ideas cause resistance—which is becoming a trend nowadays, in my personal experience at least—Wong’s smooth model may be a wiser introduction. Campbell’s form may get learners lost in the message, the process, and the terminology for understanding a work. Wong’s methodology encourages a focused structure for a character’s thought processes throughout the story. It’s through establishing their personal risks and the consequences of their actions that there can be a real momentum. For me, and I’m sure others, that is the best-if-felt heart. Makes a story beat and dance with life.
Sure, Wong arranges his processes for the tragedy genre in mind, so there are certain constraints that may not apply. Like a fateful mishap tripping the heroes’ supposed victory and leading to a death may not be appropriate for a children’s book. But I believe most of Wong’s proposed techniques can be used for anything that has a story. I’d recommend this for anyone who wants to write or needs a refresher on character building, not just in the theater world too. Useful framing device if you’re feeling stuck.
The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a nimble read. If I were to criticize the writing, it’s close to a dry textbook with cohesive examples. Depending on the type of reader you are, that might mean a fascinating analysis or a snore fest. Several popular Shakespearean examples too, so that might not be up your alley to reread if you’ve already read so much of Shakespeare.
For me though, I enjoyed the overall experience and I learned something. If I lived in LA, I’d be up to seeing it in person too. Maybe someday, eh?
I received the book for free through Goodreads Giveaways.
Cavak – Goodreads
*****VERY INTERESTING READ Interesting review of risk as related to everyday life.
Gordjohn – Amazon
*****AN IMPORTANT WORK ON A FASCINATING TOPIC I loved this book! The author is a fan of my favorite playwright, Eugene O’Neill, and even quotes one of my favorite passages from LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, where James O’Neill laments sacrificing his career for money, and wonders what is was he wanted.
The book itself is an entertaining and insightful reimagining of a model for modern tragedy – Risk Theater – into today’s world of technology and global risk. I think this is an interesting premise, as the modern tragic heroes are not kings but hedge fund managers and tech moguls, playing games of chance that risk the lives of people around the world.
The author has a deep knowledge of the classics which he utilizes to build a guidebook for how playwrights can use the concepts of existential gambles, unexpected events, and “the price you pay.” I particularly liked his theory or counter monetization, a welcome answer to a society that too often worships money at the expense of deeper values, and how that relates to a modern way of looking at tragedy.
The Risk Theater Model of Tragedy offers a fresh perspective not only of the classical theater but more importantly how we can restructure the old paradigms in a way that speaks to modern audiences. It’s an important work, and will hopefully inspire playwrights everywhere to reimagine classical themes in a dynamic and exciting ways.
Mike – Amazon
*****A POWERFUL TOOL FOR WRITERS As an emerging playwright challenged to write high stakes drama that often has tragic consequences, I am grateful to Edwin Wong for his book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. It gives me a powerful tool and template to write modern tragedy. It belongs on every playwright’s desk.
Marc Littman, playwright – Amazon
*****Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Stunning! I had to re-read the “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy” by Edwin Wong. It was too good. It is a delight to recreate the possible scenarios exposed by the author in a very original thematic treatment of theater that invites further discussion and analysis. It is also a compendium of high academic and cogent discourse, a complete high level ‘theory’ on how to model and perform stage plays. He couples it with almost a ‘how-to’ reference guide on how to produce compelling theater by presenting the reader with an exhaustive analysis and classification of different facets of prior stage productions, from the Greek classics to modern times’ productions. The book is chock’full of insights and intriguing revelations. Edwin draws a narrative comparing and contrasting different elements of risk and relates these to modern audiences. The author’s vast breadth of knowledge, drawing upon his years of experience as a theatre critic and forward thinker in the performing arts world has crafted together a robust tome with incredible completeness and complexity – which should be on every aspiring playwright’s desk. I can anticipate a wave of theater academics referencing this book in their class syllabus.
Conchita – Amazon
*****If you haven’t read a scholarly book in a while and you feel that your brains are getting rusty, I recommend THE RISK MODEL of TRAGEDY. It manages to be highbrow but lucid, free of the cant of so much modern critical theory. The theatrical genre of tragedy was deemed to be needed along with comedy in ancient Greece, Elizabethan England, and should be re-invented in the USA today, if we truly want to be great. What are we afraid of?
Daniel Curzon – Barnes & Noble
“A fascinating exploration advocating for the resurgence of the classical art of tragedy in these tumultuous times . . . A nearly bulletproof argument for tragedy’s rebirth under the name of Risk Theatre.”—Editor, Friesen Press
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am doing Melpomene’s work by writing this autoreview.