Welcome to the Internet

Two interesting contributions to the ongoing bloggers-vs-newspaper-critics debate in the Guardian today, by Peter Bradshaw and Dorian Lynskey — interesting not so much because they advance the debate, but because they show evidence of understanding the nature of the debate in a way that most other contributors from the professional side (*cough*) haven’t managed. To all intents and purposes, Bradshaw even comes out in favour of slapfights:

This paper’s Comment Is Free and Arts & Entertainment sites regularly get a massive reaction to their featured blogs. Many believe readers will offer critics and journalists measured, friendly qualifications to their pieces. They will write: “Mmm, yes, but have you considered …” To which we will reply: “Mmm, yes, you could be right about …” And so a wonderfully civilised post-Blairite conversation will ensue. I wonder. There’s nothing very civilised about a lot of the posting happening now; it’s more like a shouting match-cum-punchup. And that’s why it’s often so entertaining. There is something about the Mmm-yes-but theory of the blog that is quite disquieting. Even if it became a reality, it could result only in hesitant journalism, bland criticism and writing that is predisposed to dull consensus.


The web and blogging have hugely increased the scope for such debates. The critic is finding that the newly empowered bloggers do not share his or her opinions about the new film, play or book, and especially his or her high opinion of him- or herself. So critics must sharpen their wits, clarify their opinions – and, just as importantly, get a sense of humour about themselves.

Lynskey has more reservations — and seems to assume that the rough-and-tumble on the Guardian blogs is representative of all blogs, which I don’t think is true; it’s possible to have extensive, lively, and intelligent discussions, such as those that often take place on Making Light or Whatever — but he still thinks (I think) that, on balance, the web is a good thing:

There is an appetite for genuine debate on the web, but it is often drowned out by the howling of people who seem to regard the very existence of professional critics as an outrageous affront. The subtext is this: anyone can be a critic, so anyone who has the temerity to be paid for the privilege deserves to be put in the stocks.

This is just one front in a wide-ranging battle between the blogosphere and so-called old media. In an ideal world, there should be room for both print critics and online ones, with plenty of overlap between them. Good writing is good writing, wherever it appears. But the campaign is in its early days and there are several years’ worth of grievances to thrash out before a peace treaty can be agreed.


With time and luck, the good will out and the bad will lose the chips from their shoulders; or, failing that, find something better to do with those slow periods at work. Until then, at least, every critic knows that it is always better to be read than ignored. No amount of abuse at the foot of a blog is quite as disheartening as the dread phrase: “Comments (0)”.

The Nature of the Discourse

I’ve been thinking about John Scalzi’s list of the top personal blogs in SF/F. For this iteration of the list, he allocated blogs to categories, depending on whether they’re written by a writer, an editor, a critic/commentator, an agent, an artist, or a fan. Now, admittedly, Scalzi’s explicitly saying the list isn’t definitive, and (particularly in sf?) an editor can be a writer can be a critic can be a fan can be an artist can (I guess, though I can’t think of an immediate example) be an agent, and so on. But here’s how the list breaks down as it stands:

Category %
Writer 68.6
Editor 11.8
Fan 7.8
Critic/Commentator 5.9
Artist 3.9
Agent 2.0

I leave you to draw your own conclusions; but I would be interested to see the breakdown for a similar list of top-rated blogs in the wider litblogosphere.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

So it seems that John Sutherland wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend about the encroachment of bloggers and the online world on the literary establishment, which not-at-all predictably caused some upset. (The article itself doesn’t appear to be online, unfortunately.) This morning, the Today Programme featured a brief discussion on the subject between Sutherland and Scott Pack (see also). If you have RealPlayer, you can listen to the discussion here; if you don’t, here’s a handy transcript.

John Humphrys: Who do you trust to tell you that a book you’re thinking of buying or reading is good or bad? Newspaper reviewers, maybe. But increasingly we turn to the internet, apparently, sites like Amazon, and the ordinary punters who’ve read it and tell us what they think. Can we trust them? Does it matter if many of them are rubbish — many of the reviews, I mean? John Sutherland, eminent reviewer himself, Professor of English at University College London says that it does, and he is with me; Scott Pack is the commercial director of the Friday Project, which is an online publisher. John Sutherland: why does it matter, so long as we’re getting other peoples’ opinions?

John Sutherland: Well, it seems to me that we have a terrific book trade in this country, we also have a terrific book reviewing establishment. I mean, today’s Thursday, between Friday and Sunday there’ll be about thirty places where books are reviewed. Now, they’ll be very different opinions, but one thing we can rely on, that most of those reviews, in fact I would say 100% of them, are independent, they’re ethical, and they’re honest. The Times and the TLS will not review HarperCollins books well because in fact they’re both owned by Rupert Murdoch — in fact quite often they give books under that imprint a savage review, if they so think. Now we’ve spent a long time setting up that kind of reviewing establishment, and I would hate it to go the way of — you know, when you go into a DVD shop, a Blockbusters, and you look at the box and it says “greatest movie ever!”

JH: Yes, they’re all the greatest movie ever made, quite so.

JS: … and these are by quote whores …

JH: “Quote whores”!

JS: … you know, from a magazine you’ve never heard of. Now it seems to me that may in fact push that particular product, but you’ve lost something once that happens.

JH: Scott Pack, doesn’t that worry you?

Scott Pack: Not so much. I think that it was a very enjoyable piece that Professor Sutherland wrote, and he made some valid points, the problem I had with it, and the thing that’s annoyed quite a few people in the internet community, was the implication that book reviews should be left to the literati and the academics, and there’s no place for the little people who post on Amazon or these new-fangled bloggers. And I think that’s a shame, I have an issue with that, I think that it’s quite right to point out that you can question the motives of some of the online reviewers, but I don’t think the newspaper reviews are quite as squeaky-clean as he points out. I think it’s reasonable to say that the vast majority of reviews online and the majority of reviews in newspapers are perfectly honest decent reviews from people who love books, and that’s a good thing.

JH: And it is true, John, when you described it you did use the word ‘establishment’.

JS: Absolutely, and it seems to me, you know, that you should be honest about this. Editors choose book reviewers because they write well, and because in fact they have, you know — I mean, James Naughtie on this programme is a book reviewer, not because he’s on the Today Programme but because he’s a good book reviewer, and that’s the criterion editors use. Now it seems to me that not many people read them — this is the point that Scott makes — compared to the number of people who read, or listen to, say Richard and Judy, who are trusted. But in fact they’re not great literary critics. But you wouldn’t want to get rid of Which? magazine because it’s got a very low circulation. You know, that is there to some extent as a signpost, and it seems to me we need these signposts.

JH: And isn’t the danger, Scott Pack, that these … freelance reviewers, if you like, if that’s a sensible way of describing them, will kill off the traditional reviewing industry?

SP: No, I don’t think it will, I think there really is a place for both. Clearly more and more people are turning to the internet for advice —

JH: Exactly!

SP: — but of course there’s a place for book reviews, I think they’re great, I think it’s true that perhaps their influence has diminished over the past 10, 20 years — but there’s still a place for them, they’re still very important, and they’re still write by some incredibly articulate and informative individuals. The point, of course, is that the majority of reviewers online are doing it purely out of the love of books and for free, whereas we do have to point out that the people doing reviews for newspapers are getting paid for it, and they need to fill the space. That doesn’t mean that either of them are biased — it just means that there’s a place for both, and it depends on who you trust.

JH: I take your point — John Sutherland, couldn’t you say that anybody’s opinion — this is reducing it to the absurd, perhaps — but almost anyone’s opinion is as valid as the next person’s? You’re a distinguished professor, you might find a book particularly fascinating and wonderful, I might find it rubbish. You can’t arbitrate, can you?

JS: No. I mean, there was a time when Scott was the most important reviewer in this country, in the sense that he set up what essentially was the stock of Waterstones. And that was a critical judgement on his part, it was done ethically I’m sure, and it was done because he thought these books were the best books, and they were also books that were going to sell. But the thing is, you have to trust the people who make these judgements. People go to Richard and Judy or Oprah not because they’re great literary critics but because they trust them. And that question of trust, it seems to me, is not always evident on the commentary you get on the web. I wrote something which displeased bloggers and I got death threats. Now, that is not reviewing. That just seems to me, as it were, the judgement of the lynch mob. And there’s a lot of that out on the web.

JH: Well, I wish we could pursue that, we’ve run out of time I’m afraid, but John Sutherland and Scott Pack, thank you both very much indeed.


I knew we’d miss something when we put together issue 245 of Vector on movements and manifestos. And miss something we did: Afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism started out as a mailing list (owned by Alondra Nelson) with the following remit:

The AfroFuturism listserv will explore futurist themes in black cultural production and the ways in which technological innovation is changing the face of black art and culture.

Discussions on the mailing list developed into a series of manifestos and people – in particular the author Mark A. Rockeymoore in his article on the subject – started to ask the question ‘What is Afrofuturism?’:

Afrofuturism is not science-fiction. It is not a mechanical, technology driven vision of the future because an afro ain’t never been about anything constricting or orderly, in the hierarchical sense. Rather, an afro is free-flowing, loving the wind. Changing, shifting and drifting on the breeze, bending this way, puffing out or just plain swaying gently from side to side, following the whimsical inclinations of the melanated person upon who’s head it is perched. An afro can be taken from, it can be added to, yet it still retains its own natural structure, its own spiral and bouncy nature. It is flexible, yet patterned. It is about synthesis and holism. It is about accepting the kitchens and working the waves on the crown. It is about dreading, locking and following the patterns of nature where they lead, yet following a laterally delineated order. It is about the interplay between dominant and recessive genes. It is about diversity. It is about knowing purposes and determining the placement of diverse variables within their proper context.

Then author Nalo Hopkinson questioned the wisdom and accuracy of referring to Afrofuturism as a movement:

[T]here’s definitely useful perspective to be gained from looking at the complex of society, culture, science, technology and the future through an Afrofuturist lens; I was sure thrilled to find other people who were doing so, and to have an online community where we could palaver. I just fear that the “there” is being mislabelled. Calling Afrofuturism a “movement” at this point feels imposed from the outside, and implies a different kind of project than what I witnessed.

My objection does in part hinge on how I understand the word “movement,” and I’m aware that some uses of the phrase “Afrofuturist movement” seem perfectly fine to me. I only start to kick when it’s used to imply a codification of practice that I don’t think exists, or a unified direction and intent that do not jibe with my experience of the discussions of Afrofuturism that I’ve witnessed or in which I have participated.

I think she’s got a point. A lot of the science fiction movements that were mentioned in issue 245, such as the New Wave and Cyberpunk movements, were all about trying to do something new. They were about getting away from established genre conventions and making their own rules. If the movement then becomes the established convention it loses the whole spirit in which it was started. The problem with most movements is that they’re all about change, and as soon as you pin them down and define them they stop being about change, and so stop being what they are. As soon as movements require you to follow rules rather than break them, they’re dead. Movements are only interesting and useful if they open up the possibilities that are open to genre writers. As soon as they become restrictive they lose their value as movements.


Look, we have a blog! And a website! We, by the way, being the editors of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association: myself, Geneva Melzack, and my co-editor Niall Harrison.

We’ve put some articles from issue 245, which was the first issue Niall and I edited after taking over from previous editor Andrew M. Butler, up on the website, as well as some articles from issue 246 which has just come out. We plan to post a couple of articles and a selection of reviews from each issue online, to give a bit of a flavour of what we’re publishing in Vector, and hopefully to spark some interest in the kind of issues we want to use Vector to talk about.

I’d just like to take this opportunity to pimp the stuff from issue 245, which was on science fiction manifestos and movements. In his article ‘No More New World Orders‘ Martin Lewis explores some of the genre’s major movements by looking at the books that are thought to represent them. Meanwhile, in ‘Morning Children,’ the first of his regular columns for Vector, Graham Sleight ponders the implications online communication is having/will have for sf movements. The rest of the issue also included articles by Ian McDonald and Trent Walters on the Mundane manifesto, Norman Spinrad on the New Weird, and Meghan McCarron with a brief and terrible history of Infernokrusher.

Niall and I will be using this blog to point out more of the great articles we’ll be putting on our website, so expect to hear more soon about the articles we’ve already put up from issue 246, which was the Review of 2005 issue. And we’ll also be blogging about the interesting writings we find around and about on the ‘net, and posting our own thoughts on various matters to do with sf, books and reading.

Note: Links redirected to Internet Archive in February 2021.