Tools of the Trade

From Farah Mendlesohn’s review of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction:

Yet, as we shall see, Csicsery-Ronay succeeds in incorporating movies successfully only in his chapters on the science-fiction sublime and the grotesque, and, within that, in his discussion on the visual forms. While I accept his arguments (and those of other critics) that sf cinema and games, among other forms, are becoming the dominant cultural conception of what sf is, their values are so different, or so skewed in a specific direction that it seems to me ‘accommodation’ is neither enough nor appropriate, that the tools applied to literary forms of science fiction can only leave the impression that the non-literary forms are inadequate, and that it is past time that the academic community withdrew from a theory of everything in this field, and acknowledge instead that there are separate and immensely valuable critical approaches which place cinema and gaming and graphic novels at the centre, and leave the literary beyond the Pale when viewed through their filters

I actually said something related to Richard last week, that part of the reason I don’t write much about films or TV is that I feel I lack the vocabulary to talk about them seriously: that is, to address their specifically filmic or televisual aspects. So I’m sympathetic to the argument here (and to the criticism of Seven Beauties; although it hinges on what you mean by incorporating “successfully”, and I would allow some of the instances excluded in the review as successful), even as I’m also sympathetic to those critics arguing that visual modes of sf are culturally dominant, and feel that I should write more about film and TV. On the other hand, I can’t be so absolutist as to state that a primarily literary understanding of sf will inevitably cast non-literary forms as inadequate, or indeed vice versa. See, for example, Gattaca, Primer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, films with goals not very different from the types of literary sf I tend to enjoy; and is a generic sf action flick any less “inadequate” as serious sf, or inadequate for radically different reasons, than your average Neal Asher novel? It’s not as though “academics” are out on a limb in placing sf films within essentially the same framework as sf books, either. Not for nothing is the fannish crack about the former being at least a decade behind the latter so familiar. Nor, I think, is it possible to deny that the relationship is a two-way street, and that we have seen an increasing amount of cinema-influenced sf. So I end up thinking that accomodation actually is the correct approach (and that I want to read more film criticism) — that there are enough points of overlap between the two modes to make co-consideration useful, as long as the non-overlapping points are not ignored. Agree? Disagree?

Two Quotes About Criticism

L. Timmel Duchamp posts extracts from Brian Attebery’s Pilgrim Award acceptance speech:

My third discovery about writing is that it only works when I force myself to ask the hard questions. That’s especially true when writing about something I care deeply about– passion has to be tempered and tested by critical thought. Otherwise it does become a mere exercise in political or aesthetic orthodoxy (and I think aesthetic correctness is more harmful than the political variety). When I look back at my early papers…the problem is not that they’re badly written or that they misread the material. It is that they don’t probe deeply enough into their own–which is to say, my own–assumptions and reading practices. I didn’t ask hard enough questions.

But what exactly is a hard question?

Well, that one is.

I believe that when we study literature, we are never studying just the literary work itself. Instead, we’re examining our own interaction with the text. That is difficult because it means bringing to consciousness the very structure of consciousness, which is the business of theory. Psychological theory, political theory, feminist theory, semiotic theory: these all have to do with making the invisible patterns of thought and culture more visible, so that they can be challenged.

And (unrelatedly) Andrew Wheeler quotes WH Auden:

“One cannot review a bad book without showing off.”

Whither the super-reader?

I’m still slowly working my way through Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, and have reached postcolonial criticism. In true textbook fashion, each chapter includes a “STOP and THINK” section, and this one actually made me do both:

Postcolonial criticism draws attention to issues of cultural difference in literary texts and is one of several critical approaches we have considered which focus on specific issues, including issues of gender (feminist criticism), of class (Marxist criticism), and of sexual orientation (lesbian/gay criticism).

This raises the possibility of a kind of ‘super-reader’ able to respond equally and adequately to a text in all these ways. In practice, for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest.
[…]
Should we, in general, try to become super-readers, with multiple layers of sympathy and awareness, or will trying to do so merely produce blandness and superficiality?

Obviously, it is impossible for anybody to answer this question for anybody else. My own feeling is that while an even spread of awareness across all these issues is theoretically possible, in practice aiming for this, merely in the interests of political correctness, is almost bound to produce superficiality. A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance. These perspectives cannot be put on and off like a suit — they have to emerge and declare themselves with some urgency. (198-9)

Now, Barry’s bias shows through before he declares it — the very term “super-reader” carries connotations of the unattainable, even childish. And when he does declare his bias, he still loads his dice, with that clause about “merely in the interests of political correctness”: yes, obviously aiming to do something merely in the interests of political correctness is doomed to failure.

But leaving that aside, I’m still struck by a number of things. To start with: “for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest”. I’m sceptical of that most (many, I could get behind; but I’m not sure about most), but more than that, this doesn’t seem to leave much room for the idea that a text might shape the way people who read it respond. Surely it is also the case that for most texts, one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest, in either a positive or a negative way. There is a threshold, I think, beyond which reading a text from any particular perspective becomes an act of creation in itself, rather than a useful response to the text; where any given person draws that threshold will vary, but it seems an inevitable limitation of single-perspective criticism.

So I think that limitation has to be put on the other side of the scales to a super-reader’s presumed blandness and superficiality — except, I’m not sure what Barry actually means by those terms, here. The most sensible reading I can come up with is that it comes from what he discusses in his personal opinion paragraph, namely motivation: it’s impossible for anyone to truly care about all these different perspectives at the same time, says Barry, so attempts to accomodate them will of necessity be artificial. There is an extent to which I agree with this (or at least am anxious about it; see below), but I think I disagree with it much more. If nothing else, it’s a position that presumes these different perspectives are indeed separable, and it seems to me that’s only possible in an — pardon me — academic sense. In the real world, and by extension in sufficiently complex texts, they’re going to be interlinked. Parsing them separately has value, but taking that so far as to declare them islands seems damaging.

And then we come down to the nub of it, which is to say Barry’s argument for his position. “A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance.” What is genuine, here? This gets personal: for each of the four perspectives Barry lists in his first paragraph, I fall at the “privilege” end of the spectrum (as, indeed, I do for just about any axis of privilege you care to define). That establishes the terms of my engagement with any of them and, clearly, those terms are never going to be the same as they are for individuals at the other ends. In a real sense, that’s going to limit the depth of my understanding. By the same token, however, the implication is that whenever I do try to adopt one of these perspectives, I will, precisely, be putting it on like a suit; and that my interest can never be “genuine”. Which rather leads you to wonder, why bother?

And the inevitable answer to that is, because I like to think I care. That no one of these critical perspectives seems to declare itself to me with particular urgency — or, put another way, that it costs me nothing to see them as all urgent — is certainly a luxury. I’d like to think it’s a luxury I can take advantage of, though. “Multiple layers of sympathy and awareness” doesn’t seem like a bad thing for me to aspire to, nor does it seem inherently unattainable (though a perfectly even spread of concern surely is). I’d go so far as to say, acknowledging this is as biased a way of putting it as “super-reader”, that to me, right now, it seems the responsible thing to do.

London Meeting: Nick Lowe

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is Nick Lowe, film reviewer for Interzone. He will be interviewed by Graham Sleight.

As usual, interview will start at 7pm, though there will be people in the bar from 6-ish; the meeting is free, though there will be a raffle (with sf books as prizes), and it is open to any and all.

The venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

Restate My Assumptions

So, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, one of the things I’m reading at the moment is Beginning Theory by Peter Barry. In the first chapter, he lays out “a series of propositions which I think many traditional critics would, on the whole, subscribe to, if they were in the habit of making their assumptions explicit”, under the banner of “liberal humanism”; and then, later, lays out five core assumptions which describe “the basic frame of mind which theory embodies”. I thought it might be interesting to go through both lists and note down my initial — unexamined, as it were — reactions to each statement, both for my future reference, and perhaps to start being a bit more specific about what “theory”, as used all over the place in that other comment thread, means. (i.e. I’m also interested in other peoples’ reactions to these statements. Heck, turn it into a meme and post it on your blog, if you like.) These are slightly truncated versions of the statements, in most cases — Barry gives some elaboration — but I think they get the gist across.

Liberal humanism, then:

1. Good literature is of timeless significance; it somehow transcends the limitations and peculiarities of the age it was written in, and thereby speaks to what is constant in human nature.

Nah. I know from experience that the older the work I’m reading, the more work I have to do filling in historical context to get even a bare minimum of understanding of what’s going on, but more than that, there’s a part of me which believes that one of the most interesting things about literature is precisely the way in which it engages with the limitations and peculiarities of the age it is written in.

2. The literary text contains its own meaning within itself. It doesn’t require any elaborate process of placing it within a context, whether this be socio-political, literary-historical, or autobiographical.

See above; certainly some texts will resist the need for contextualisation more strongly than others, for a longer period of time than others, but ultimately I don’t think anything endures by itself forever; certain texts that appear to have endured have done so, in part, because the contextualisation they require has become part of the cultural air we breathe (i.e. Shakespeare), not because of anything inherent to the text itself.

3. To understand the text well it must be detached from these contexts and studied in isolation. What is needed is the close verbal analysis of the text without prior ideological assumptions, or political pre-conditions, or, indeed, specific expectations of any kind.

Mmf. Sort of. I do place close verbal analysis at the core of understanding a text, not least because it’s something I enjoy getting better at; and I do prefer to let a text suggest meaning to me than to go to a text looking for an answer to a question. But, of course, that is my prior ideological assumption. (I knew that much before I started reading the book.)

4. Human nature is essentially unchanging. The same passions, emotions, and even situations are seen again and again throughout human history. It follows that continuity in literature is more important and significant than innovation.

Nope. “Human nature”, to the extent that it can be defined at all, isn’t even the same from culture to culture in the present moment; I sincerely doubt it remains the same over centuries or longer. And, of course, as a science fiction reader one of the things I enjoy is imagination of the ways in which humanity can change in the future.

5. Individuality is something securely possessed within each of us as our unique “essence”. This transcends our environmental influences, and though individuality can change and develop (as do characters in novels) it can’t be transformed — hence our uneasiness with those scenes (quite common, for instance, in Dickens) which involve a “change of heart” in a character, so that the whole personality is shifted into a new dimension by force of circumstance.

This, on the other hand … “transcends our environmental influences” makes it sound like we’re born being who we are, which is clearly rubbish; but individuality as something that evolves but does not transform sounds right to me. I don’t think I’ve ever transformed in the way the process is described here; I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to transform in that way, either. Life isn’t that easy.

6. The purpose of literature is essentially the enhancement of life and the propagation of humane values; but not in a programmatic way: if literature, and criticism, become overly and directly political they necessarily tend towards propaganda.

On the one hand, speaking again as a science fiction reader, I’m not supposed to mind a bit of didacticism in my fiction, and I’m sure I mind it less than most of the people Barry has in mind here. On the other hand, to the extent that literature can be said to have a purpose, “propagation of humane values”, in the sense of making, through literary creation, a sincere and compassionate attempt to understand people and the world, and to communicate that understanding to another, doesn’t seem so bad.

7. Form and content in literature must be fused in an organic way, so that the one grows inevitably from the other.

Must be? No. (Are there any “must” statements that could justly be applied to literature?) Can often very productively be? Yes.

8. This point about organic form applies above all to “sincerity”. Sincerity (comprising truth-to-experience, honesty towards the self, and the capacity for human empathy and compassion) is a quality which resides within the language of literature. It isn’t a fact or intention behind the work … sincerity is to be discovered within the text in such matters as the avoidance of cliche, or of over-inflated forms of expression; it shows in the use of first-hand, individualistic description … the truly sincere poet can transcend the sense of distance between language and material, and can make the language seem to “enact” what it depicts, thus apparently abolishing the necessary distance between words and things.

This seems more or less to be an expansion of point 6, which makes me wonder whether I’m misunderstanding one or both of them; but still, it seems largely sound to me.

9. What is valued in literature is the “silent” showing and demonstrating of something, rather than the explaining, or saying, of it. Hence, ideas as such are worthless in literature until given the concrete embodiment of “enactment”.

Sf-reader ping again: I suspect that what satisfies me as being an “enacted” idea wouldn’t necessarily satisfy the people Barry has in mind here; there’s that touch of didacticism to consider. But an idea that is worked through a text is a beautiful thing.

10. The job of criticism is to interpret the text, to mediate between it and the reader. A theoretical account of the nature of reading, or of literature in general, isn’t useful in criticism, and will simply, if attempted, encumber critics with “preconceived ideas” which will get between them and the text.

I have no problems with the first sentence. As to the second sentence … well, that’s why I’m reading the book, isn’t it?

All of this seems to suggest that I am not, actually, a full-on liberal humanist; but there are several points on that list that I wouldn’t want to let go of.

Now, on to Theory:

1. Many of the notions which we would usually regard as the basic “givens” of our existence (including our gender identity, our individual selfhood, and the notion of literature itself) are actually fluid and unstable things, rather than fixed and reliable essences.

Yes … to a point. Newtonian mechanics isn’t actually a wholly accurate description of how the universe works, but it’s a pretty good approximation for a lot of purposes. Cognitive neuroscience may reveal that my selfhood does not exist in the way that I perceive it to exist, but on a day to day basis my perceptions are what I have to work with. And to bring it back to literature, it is not possible to draw a sharp line between, say, science fiction and fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful to talk about science fiction and fantasy as distinct types of literature.

2. All thinking and investigation is necessarily affected and largely determined by prior ideological commitment. The notion of disinterested enquiry is therefore untenable: none of us is capable of standing back from the scales and weighing things up dispassionately: rather, all investigators have a thumb on one side or other of the scales.

Yes, again to a point. Necessarily affected yes, largely determined, not necessarily. Acknowledging thumbs-on-scales is good; investigating the consequences of thumbs-on-scales is good; trying to construct systems of thought which compensate for thumbs-on-scales is also good. It may not be possible to carry out a purely disinterested enquiry, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to approximate it; it means we should be aware of the biases that factor into the attempt.

3. Language itself conditions, limits, and predetermines what we see. Thus, all reality is constructed through language, so that nothing is simply “there” in an unproblematical way — everything is a linguistic/textual construct. Language doesn’t record reality, it shapes and creates it, so that the whole of our universe is textual. Further, meaning is jointly constructed by reader and writer.

Define “reality”. Do I believe a physical universe could exist if no language existed to describe it? (Assuming here that the action of observation counts as a form of language.) Yes, I do. A rock doesn’t need to be called a rock to exist. Do I believe that our social reality, how we think and relate and describe, is constrained by the language we have to think in and relate through and describe with? Also yes. I don’t know what “the whole of our universe is textual” means. As for reader-writer interaction constructing meaning: yes, but with the caveat that this appears to be intended as at least a partial counter to “the job of criticism is to mediate between the reader and the text” above, and the two positions don’t seem exclusive to me. Reframe it as the job of criticism being to mediate the construction of a particular meaning, if you like.

4. Any claim to offer a definitive reading would be futile. The meanings within a literary work are never fixed and reliable but always shifting, multi-faceted and ambiguous.

Yes. I do not think, for instance, that Victoria Hoyle’s reading of Lucius Shepard is inferior to the author’s view of his own work. (But some meanings are more equal than others.)

5. “Totalising” notions are to be distrusted. For instance, the notion of “great” books as an absolute and self-sustaining category is to be distrusted, as books always arise out of a particular socio-political structure, and this situation should not be suppressed, as tends to happen when they are promoted to “greatness”. Likewise, the concept of a “human nature”, as a generalised norm which transcends the idea of a particular race, gender or class, is to be distrusted.

Yes — recognising the obvious paradox inherent in the statement — as long as “distrusted” means “recognise the limitations of” rather than “discard out of hand”.

And that’s the lot. Not quite a theorist yet, then. It occurs to me that the second list is somewhat less interesting to me, at first glance, simply because it says less about reading and interpreting; it talks in generalities, about principles that apply far beyond criticism, whereas what I’m interested in (what I’m reading the book for) is ways to talk about literature specifically. But I suppose that’s what the rest of the chapters will do.

Essential SF Criticism

Matt Cheney, in conversation with Eric Rosenfield, says:

Oh, SF criticism is a … minefield. There are a few problems with it, including that the sorts of people who will be attracted to it are generally not of the same sort of mind that is attracted to literary criticism, and there are only a handful of people who have a good grasp of real literary criticism who are also interested in practicing SF criticism. […] Much of what passes for SF “criticism” is actually just historiography. James Gunn is a good example of that. Useful and often interesting to read, but not what most people are talking about when they’re talking about “criticism”. Which many people would say is a good thing, since academic litcrit doesn’t exactly have the best rep outside the academy.

There are only a few writers of SF criticism worth paying much attention to in addition to Delany: Darko Suvin, Alexei Panshin, Damien Broderick, Frederick Jameson, and Adam Roberts (writers such as John Clute and Gary Wolfe are knowledgeable and thoughtful, but are primarily reviewers and taxonomists — Clute, in fact, has inspired an entire taxonomical industry amongst mostly British SF reviewers, who are bizarrely fixated on defining and categorizing things. Clute’s encyclopedias are invaluable and his reviews are often interesting, but the obsession with taxonomy [beyond its usefulness for creating an encyclopedia] is one I find mystifying). Certainly, there are articles here and there that are worth paying attention to, including some good recent work on SF and colonialism (an important topic, I think), but you’ll get pretty much the full breadth (such as it is) of the critical discussion of SF from reading those writers.

At the moment, I think I would find a discussion about whether or not literary taxonomy is a useful practice, never mind whether it is somehow a distinctively British practice, tedious in the extreme, so I’ll skate over that; and because it’s a posted email discussion, I’ll try not to be too judgmental about the “just” in front of “historiography”, though I am mildly offended on behalf of historiographers of my acquaintance. Later in the post there’s a deal of stuff about sf-the-publishing-category, too, which I’ll also avoid, except to say that I don’t think Nick Harkaway is wary of the sf label because he thinks the interesting things are happening outside sf, more that he’s concerned the label will stop people reading his book.

What I do want to talk about is a potential canon of sf criticism, because I’m pretty sure Matt’s list is not it. I’m not devaluing academic sf criticism, here, though I do feel a certain push-pull tension about it; on the one hand, it seems to me only sensible that dedicated training will improve someone’s ability to appreciate and explicate a work, which is one reason I went to the SF Foundation Masterclass last summer [1], and is why I’m currently reading this book [2] . On the other hand, though I don’t consider it a badge of pride to be “outside the academy”, I do somewhat resent the implication that those not trained in the ways of criticism have no useful contributions to make to critical debate, and I would have thought that attracting people with different sorts of mind to literary studies would be all to the good. The SF Masterclass’s principle of drawing its teachers from the ranks of academics, authors and independent critics seems to me a sound one; I have gained useful insights about sf from people in all three groups.

However: the bibliography of sf criticism on the SF Studies website is dauntingly large. For a slightly more focused list, the articles from their history of science fiction criticism issue are all very useful (hey, now Gary Westfahl’s article is online as well! That would have been useful eight months ago), and I know some of the names I’d want to add to Matt’s list — Atheling, Aldiss, Russ, Freedman, Jones, for starters, and something like The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, at least. But I also know there are a number of people reading this better-read than I in sf criticism: what would you put on an essential reading list? (And, perhaps, what non-sf critics would you put on an essential reading list for would-be critics?)

[1] As Liz says, do consider applying for this year’s class; I won’t be there, sadly, because my car’s just had an unexpectedly expensive service and I’m battening down the financial hatches, but I wish I could be.

[2] And I’m sure that once I’ve got past finding the fact that apparently, in English departments, calling someone a “liberal humanist” is an insult, alternately hilarious and really stupid, it will provide me with many useful insights, and possibly even a blog post or two.