The injunction that artists and writers should "know the rules before breaking them" is perfectly sound if it means that they should make the effort to acquaint themselves with the history of the artistic form they are using. But if it it means that, in addition to understanding the context within which that form has developed and is now intelligible at all, the artist should have to produce works following the rules before venturing beyond them, this admonition makes less sense.
No doubt student composers or painters sometimes do a kind of apprentice work mastering certain "basics" or emulating works of the past as a way of initially situating their own later work in traditional practices, however much they may eventually depart from those practices. Probably many young writers being by doing something similar, but now creative writing programs so reflexively reinforce rules and conventions already that it's hardly the case student writers need to more intensively imitate established methods. The author of this blog post seems to suggest it's not so much that apprentice writers need to learn how it's always been done as that already published writers need to hold up and show more respect for the tried and the true. This of course amounts not to permission to disobey rules when you know how to break them, but insistence that you just obey rules.
In my view, almost all discussions of "craft" or shopworn advice about how to implement this or that customary strategy implicitly reinscribe the rules successful writers ought to obey. The result is much fiction that competently, if dispensably, applies conventional wisdom, and little that challenges this wisdom or attempts to revise the rules. Writers should absolutely be as well-read and as well aware of how the possibilities of the form (fiction or poetry) have been perceived by writers in the past as they can, but that they should be discouraged from seeing other possibilities, from believing that some of those earlier ones have played themselves out, does not follow.
Ultimately no writer can completely break the rules because the result would be literally incomprehensible. Something so thoroughly new that it can't at all be recognized as participating in the tradition that initiated and shaped the form is indeed a new form and must be judged by criteria appropriate to it. Sometimes,it seems to me, readers and critics are so anxious that the pleasures they associate with a literary form be preserved that more adventurous, rule-disregarding work becomes a threat. Such an attitude is itself what threatens the endurance of a literary form and its pleasures, since only the adventurous writing renews it, prevents it from becoming so convention-ridden the pleasures merely become rote.
Reading Dan is like having a bot worm medically expelled from your body. You suspected there was something wrong, something in you that wasn’t right, and by mysterious ways of medical linguistics Ruocco has not only identified the parasite, but found it in the deep recesses of your soul and pulled it out through your tear ducts for you to see and examine. Or perhaps reading Dan is more like the act of having your ears cleaned. With each page a tube is stuck deeper within your drum and Dan mounts, pushing warm alien water into your skull, pulling out chunks of orange gunk so big you end up questioning your true size. I conceived my ear canal to be X size. But, my god, my ear canal is triple X. And dear lord can I hear better. After reading Dan you’ll hear things in the way you speak, in the way others speak, that you simply did not hear before.
It is admirable that the reviewer wishes to convey a sense of what reading this novel is like. That is, in my opinion, the most important task a conscientious reviewer undertakes. Too often reviewers take this task to require plot summary--indeed, many reviews are presented as nothing but plot summary, with perhaps a spicing of judgment to give the review some suitable critical flavor. Description, however, goes deeper than plot summary, attending instead to the author's way of telling the story, to the effects of point of view, the particularities of style, to not just the narrative but the way the narrative has been shaped through a larger conception of form.
Unfortunately, this description of Dan, carried out through two rather bizarre extended similes, actually takes attention away from the novel itself and places it on the reviewer: Hey, look at the colorful comparisons I can make, one after the other and stretched out to outrageous length! Perhaps if these similes actually worked, actually captured some important feature of the novel under review, the device would be justified, but these similes are so labored, so opaque, it's difficult to know exactly what they're supposed to illuminate. Why a bot worm, exactly? (I'll confess I had to Google the thing to even know what a bot worm is.) Surely the medical linguistics can't be so "mysterious"--linguistics is a science, isn't it?--that whatever the reviewer means by this term can't be identified more specifically, and how can this process be first of all expelling the worm from the reader's body, then turning to "the deep recesses of your soul" only to wind up more corporeally pulling the worm through the tear ducts? The second simile, about pages sprouting tubes and sticking them in the reader's ear, is so thoroughly confused I don't at all know what it's trying to get at.
This sort of out-of-control figurative description is not the norm, of course. It is distressingly indicative, however, of an apparent belief that subjective impressions expressed in sufficiently "vivid" language can substitute for actual analysis in book reviews. Probably this assumption arises from the further belief that book reviews of fiction function precisely as the register of subjective impression, balanced by the "objectivity" of plot summary. But where does criticism enter into the agenda of book reviewing? If we believe the review has a critical function, if it is not simply an auxiliary of publishing and publicity, it can't just be a "personal response" more often than not meant to celebrate the book under review. At some point there must be some closer reading that attempts to account for the work's success or failure, not to record the reviewer's feelings in ostentatious and overheated prose.
The notion that the primary purpose of a book review is to be "lively," that it should itself be a "fine piece of writing," might seem unobjectionable, especially if you regard reviewing as journalism more than criticism. Perhaps this admonition does discourage reviewers from becoming too pedantic, but at its core, I believe, is an implicit assumption that all criticism is pedantry, so that liveliness and attitude (the former manifesting the latter) takes the place of any real critical scrutiny. At its worst, such an assumption is reflected most acutely in reviews like the one I have quoted, in which the groping after verbal cleverness overwhelms even coherent communication. But even when kept under better control, the attempt to produce "a fine piece of writing" in the guise of a book review still draws more attention to the reviewer endeavoring to produce it than the book the review presumably should explicate. This is not criticism by any definition, just self-indulgence.