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.

Short Story Club: “Elegy for a Young Elk”

An earlier than usual kick-off for Hannu Rajaniemi’s story, because fairly shortly I will be leaving for the airport and a two-week holiday. (Fear not! I have scheduled the other short story club posts ahead of time. Plus I’ll probably be online at points.) Anyway, Jason Sanford has tried to claim this story as Sci-Fi Strange; but is it actually any good? Over to Gardner Dozois, in the August Locus:

Also first-rate in the Summer issue is Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Elegy for a Young Elk”. Rajaniemi is a writer who cranks the bit-rate up about as high as it can go and still remain comprehensible (although there will almost certainly be some who think that this doesn’t remain comprehensible). Said by some to out-Charles Stross Charles Stross, this slender story, set in a post-Apocalyptic future society where posthumans with godlike powers are at war, manages to jam enough high-concept into a few pages to fuel a 400-page novel.

Lois Tilton is more lukewarm:

A lot of neat images here in a world transformed into something fantastic and not very explicable. There is a fragmentary story about Kosonon and his son, and parental guilt, but mostly this is a world incomprehensibly transformed and a man trying to find his place it in.

Pam Philips liked it, but can’t pin it down:

When I re-read it to make sure of the details, the story clicked. I was sucked right in and couldn’t stop reading from beginning to end of Kosonen’s quest to regain his lost poetry. I love the way he proves he has it back, with an act that skates the melting edge between scif-fi nanotech and magic. It had me wondering if the magic in the story had cast some spell of confusion on me the first time. Or maybe I was just awake on the second try. I’m still annoyed by who the lord of the city is, but if it were someone else, the ease of Kosonen’s choice at the end wouldn’t make sense.

Alex at Not If You Were The Last Short Story On Earth feels similarly:

Hannu Rajaniemi, Elegy for a Young Elk is… one of those stories where words fail me. I just flail my hands in the air, saying “it’s just… good… and… a bit weird but good weird. Y’know?” The idea of post-humanity and AIs taken in a really awesome direction, with the humanity still achingly there. Also, a talking bear.

Chad Orzel:

I liked this better than the previous entries in the Short Story Club, though I suspect this is more to do with it not pushing buttons of mine than any absolute quality of the story. As with “A Serpent in the Gears,” this is an excellent example of providing backstory without infodumping, though many serious gaps remain (the exact nature of the apocalypse remains a little unclear, and there are some dangling references that never quite get explained). The language is very evocative, and while it mostly uses the time-honored dodge of describing but not quoting the important poetry of the story, the bit that is quoted is perfectly fine (allowing for the fact that I am not generally a poetry person).

This does suffer a bit from a kind of incompleteness that I suspect is an unavoidable consequence of the form. It’s got a reasonable plot– Kosonen is given a quest, which turns out to have more personal significance than he expected, and its completion is different than what was presumably intended. Kosonen remains something of a cipher, though– there are hints of character there, but for the most part, he seems to do what he does because it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise. The narrative sort of floats above the core of the character, never really providing all that much depth.

Matt Hilliard’s take:

The star of the story, for me, was the magic lamp genie nanomachine device commanded by poetry. Generally I have a tin ear for poetry, but I actually was pretty impressed by the narrator’s train poem. But the poetry business was also the biggest disappointment since it was only used once. Well, once, and then sort of at the end, which almost ruined the story for me. In a great story, Esa would have been trapped and died, but his father would have used an epic poem to recreate something like him out the magic bean nanoseed. In this story, Esa uses magic quantum something or other to hide from the city’s magic guardian firewall. This was an enormous cop out of an ending. If this firewall was so easily duped, why couldn’t he escape before? I suppose the story implies his mother is helping out from her end, but come on.

And Evan also tries to puzzle out the ending:

This story was good. It was coherent, it managed not to over-explain, it was about real-feeling people and realistic relationships. Rajaniemi has the storyteller’s spark. It was a bit baggy, like it was told at the granularity of a novel, rather than a short story. It’s satisfyingly low on exposition. There are many moments where the writing is quite nice.

There are two takes on the ending, I think. Either the sky-people planned the entire affair to go off the way it did, or they didn’t. I like the former theory better. A bit of theater, allowing Kosonen to move on and his son and the quantum girl to finally go free in a way that makes them less dangerous to the people around them (presumably they’re reduced somewhat by translation into poetical form). The setting here then is a neat bit of work, but doesn’t really get behind the story and push. It’s stronger if you’ve read “Deus Ex Homine”, I think.

If the latter is the case, then the story is unfinished, the ending makes very little sense, the setup is stupid, and Rajaniemi is betrayed by the allure of his setting, much like I was.

He also says:

There’s a longer discussion to be had, now that the singularity thing is just about wound down, but I am not sure that this story is the right tee for kicking it off.

OR IS IT? Over to you.

“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.