Why I Write Reviews

If it weren’t for the existence of many fine writer-critics, I would sometimes be tempted to start believing that fiction writers just don’t get reviewing. A case in point: a post by Jason Sanford titled, “Why we write literary reviews“. It feels a little unfair to object to a post that concludes that reviewing is a valuable and worthwhile activity, but I can’t let that “we” stand, because while I’m sure what Jason Sanford says is true for Jason Sanford, it’s at best partially true for me; because I suspect the same is true for many other reviewers; and because the post as a whole traffics in assumptions about the nature of purpose and reviewing that I think undermine the whole enterprise.

To the point, in fact, where I could disagree with just about every sentence in the post that isn’t purely factual. For instance, on negative reviews, Sanford writes: “I basically refuse to waste my time reviewing bad stories”. The error here — beyond ignoring the fact that the decision, or assignment, to review is usually made before you know whether a story is good or bad — is to consider it a waste of time to review a bad story, when such a policy makes it impossible for a reader to form a full picture of Sanford’s taste (which precludes them from accurately weighting his judgments), and helps to bias the public picture of the sf field away from reality (which does more than theoretical damage). Moreover, negative reviews are apparently easy to write because “When you read a bad story, the flaws almost beg for sarcastic comments and ridicule”; the mistake here is to assume that sarcastic comments and ridicule make for a good negative review, when the opposite is much more likely to be the case.

But the central frustration of Sanford’s post is the assumed nature of the relationship between fiction and criticism, which colours everything else. I think it’s clearest in the fifth of his six reasons for reviewing:

A need to draw attention to the reviewer. This is another irritating reason to write a literary review. Reviewers who want attention should instead write their own stories, although that’s also a lousy reason to write fiction. While there is nothing wrong with critiquing from your own point of view—indeed, that’s hard to avoid because criticism and opinions are such personal affairs—reviewers should never forget that true criticism isn’t about them alone. Yes, it is their reaction to the story. But the story also exists apart from them. Only a fool forgets that.

This characterisation of reviewing — as, ideally, a pure and ego-less activity performed by willing supplicants at the altar of fiction — seems, at best, naive. Obviously, showboating should be avoided, as in the case of negative reviews filled with cheap snark noted above. But, equally obviously, of course reviewers want attention; reviewing is an act of communication, it takes a certain amount of ego just to stand up and say your piece in public, and we want to know that our communication is valued. I want to know that my communication is useful — less in the sense of persuading people to pick up a book, since although that’s always a pleasure it’s a limited if not illusory power, and more in the sense of prompting further thought, of contributing to or generating a conversation.

More importantly, critiquing a story from your own point of view isn’t just “hard to avoid”, it’s central to the entire project. Contra Sanford, I assert that “the story” does not exist apart from the reader, it exists in the interaction between the reader’s mind and the words on the page — if short story club achieves nothing else, it demonstrates that! — and that communicating a personal aesthetic experience is a vital element of a successful review, perhaps the most vital element.

The most irritating sentence in the paragraph, however, is the third. “Reviewers who want attention should instead write their own stories.” What’s objectionable here is not just the too-common canard that reviewers are frustrated fiction writers; it’s the suggestion that reviewers should want to write fiction, that fiction is in some undefined way inherently the superior activity, the true end-point of the urge to write, the only form of writing worthy of attention, that reviewing is but a stepping stone to that goal.

As I say, I’m happy to accept this is true for Sanford. It’s not true for me. Because I assert that reading is an inherently creative act, I also assert that reviewing is a creative act — which is to say I assert that it is inherently a literary act, worthy of attention and consideration as such. The notion that a review has no value as an independent work is easily dismissed with reference to the work of someone like John Clute, but the more nuanced argument that a review is lesser because it cannot exist without a prompting work is also something of a red herring; fiction hardly emerges from a vacuum, after all. To the extent that all reviews, in transcribing the experience of the reviewer, necessarily re-tell and mis-tell their subject, they are productively creative. And the other side of this, of course, is that to the extent that all fiction is a response to things in the world, it is usefully critical. (Consider Farah Mendlesohn’s definition of science fiction as “an argument with the universe” as a description of all fiction.) To cast reviewing as inherently a lesser activity than fiction because it is more obviously a secondary activity is, I suggest, to misunderstand the nature of both.

There’s much more to disagree with in Sanford’s post — the paragraph on “A need to pontificate” as a reason for reviewing could easily generate another post of this length — but almost all of it comes back to this view of the relative worth of the two activities. Even when Sanford is discussing “A need to expand the understanding of a story”, his reasons for the desirability of doing so have to do almost entirely with its potential utility for fiction writers: “if I, as a reviewer, understand what made one novel special then perhaps my own fiction writings will take a giant step forward. Or perhaps new writers who read my review will apply this understanding to their own fiction.” Perhaps indeed; but as a reason to write reviews, such a priority seems rather skewed. For my part, I can’t improve on Gary K Wolfe: “One writes reviews because reviews are what one writes: they are essays about literature, and literature is worth writing essays about.”

A couple of weeks ago, Jo Walton pointed out that there was once, and I think for one year only, a “Best Book Reviewer” Hugo category, and suggested reviving it. Most of the time I think this would be a bad idea: we have too many Hugo categories as it is. But posts like Sanford’s make me wish it did exist, in the hope that it might make people think a bit more deeply about the art of criticism, and its value.

“Here We Are, Falling Through Shadows” by Jason Sanford

IZ225 cover“After all, why rippers kidnapped people was the only question worth asking in today’s world.” This is how Jason Sanford’s tales work, it seems: strip the world down so that the sfnal intervention demands an answer. Like “When Thorns are the Tips of Trees”, “Here We Are …” is set in a near-future crippled by disaster. The rippers are aliens that live in darkness (“light can’t remove every shdaow”) and prey on humans, either killing them, or taking them to a terrible fate Elsewhere. Its characters are, as ever, well-sketched but cast in familiar roles, even as they are defined by Sanford’s world: the firefighter (narrator) who must go out at night, the wife who has been killed or taken by the rippers, the teenage daughter alienated (ha) as a result. In “Thorns” these elements balanced each other quite nicely; here, I think, the trick is less successful. Understanding can cast its own shadow.

“Sublimation Angels” by Jason Sanford

IZ224 coverA nugget of New all swaddled in Old, that’s what this story is [pdf link]. Much of the pleasure in “Sublimation Angels” — as in Sanford’s two previous Interzone tales [more pdfs] — comes from the gentle unwinding of a satisfyingly odd setting, in thise case constructed in explicit homage to Leiber’s “A Pail of Air” (1951). Like that story, the narration is straightforward, more transparent even than Leiber (it lacks his folksiness); and, as in that story, the characters live, with very basic technology, on a wandering planet whose atmosphere has frozen. Unlike in that story, a repressive hierarchical society has arisen, based around access to oxygen.

Omare and I were born in the highest level of the cave in as much heat and good air as our expedition could give. While low kids raised their children in the lower cave’s cold, Omare and I never knew this deprivation when we were young. We only knew that our mother and father loved us, and if we climbed down the cave’s spiral tunnels we wore clumsy pails of frozen oxymix around our neck. The insulated pails contained a tiny tick-tock heater, and you cranked them every few minutes to smoke out the extra air needed to live.

What follows is about learning the world, rebelling against it, and becoming master of your own destiny. Heartwarmingly conventional stuff, if perhaps a bit stretched beyond its ideal length. But wait! There’s an ironic twist (arguably revealed very early on). It’s not just Sanford who has (like Karl Schroeder with his Virga) engineered his setting to allow its retro feel, protecting his colonists from the raw tech-dream that is the twenty-first century space opera future: one of the agents in his story has done the same thing.

So much for freedom.