Cascadia Subduction Zone

Huzzah! Not too long after the launch of one critical zine comes news of another. It’s like, I don’t know, some holiday when people are encouraged to hand out gifts, or something. The Cascadia Subduction Zone is produced by Aqueduct Press and says of itself:

The Cascadia Subduction Zone aims to bring reviews, criticism, interviews, intelligent essays, and flashes of creative artwork (visual and written) to a readership hungry for discussion of work by not only men but also women. Work by women continually receives short shrift in most review publications. And yet the majority of readers are women. Ron Hogan writes in an August 2010 post on, “[Jennifer] Weiner and [Jodi] Picoult, among others, are giving us a valuable critique of a serious problem with the way the [New York] Times [Book Review]—and, frankly, most of the so-called literary establishment—treats contemporary fiction. Which is to say: They ignore most of it, and when it comes to the narrow bandwidth of literature they do cover, their performance is underwhelming, ‘not only meager but shockingly mediocre,’ as former LA Times Book Review director Steve Wasserman said three years ago. And it hasn’t gotten any better since then, leaving us with what Jennifer Weiner describes as “a disease that’s rotting the relationship between readers and reviewers.”

The relationship between readers and reviewers interests us. We want to bring attention to work critics largely ignore and offer a wider, less narrowly conceived view of the literary sphere. In short, we will review work that interests us, regardless of its genre or the gender of its author. We will blur the boundaries between critical analysis, review, poetry, fiction, and visual arts. And we will do our best to offer our readers a forum for discussion that takes the work of women as vital and central rather than marginal. What we see, what we talk about, and how we talk about it matters. Seeing, recognizing, and understanding is what makes the world we live in. And the world we live in is, itself, a sort of subduction zone writ large. Pretending that the literary world has not changed and is not changing is like telling oneself that Earth is a solid, eternally stable ball of rock.

All of which I can easily get behind. There are good people involved, too — Managing Editor is Lew Gilchrist, Reviews Editor is Nisi Shawl, Features Editor is L Timmel Duchamp, and Arts Editor is Kath Wilhelm; and the first issue, which I’ve just downloaded and had a quick browse through, includes reviews by Duchamp, Rachel Swirsky, Nancy Jane Moore and others. (You can see the full table of contents on the site front page, here.) In fact, at this stage my only quibble is that they indulge that annoying habit of American magazines, that of starting an article on one page and then continuing it on another non-contiguous page. In a print edition, this is irritating; as a PDF, it’s a bit more than that. Still, I wish the CSZ every success. For those who may be interested, the submission guidelines are here.

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.

How to Finish a Review

By popular demand! Or at least by one request. It turns out that I don’t think there are neat little identifiable gambits to end a review with, at least not in the same way that I think there can be gambits to open with, so this post is less glib. Endings, at least for any review of more than a few hundred words, are about synthesis, which means they’re probably going to have several of the features identified below. The mix will depend on the focus of the review; I don’t think you can pick most of these and bolt them on to a generic review. It’s more a case of recognising the sort of review you’re going to write, or occasionally the sort of review you’ve written, and what it needs to wrap up satisfactorily.

1. Evaluation.

Not, actually, as important as you might think; it’s going to be hard to get to your conclusion without having made it pretty clear what you think of the book. But a straightforward endorsement or dismissal can be a nicely emphatic full stop.

2. Summation.

Again, more common than it is necessary. After a long — I’m talking several thousand words — review of a book that identifies a goodly number of positives and negatives, you might want to recap. But even then you might just be repeating yourself (perhaps the most boring way to start a conclusion is: “Overall…”) or not examining your own views hard enough: how many books are you really that split-down-the-middle on?

3. Culmination (narrative)

All synopsis, being selective and partial, is criticism. Not all criticism is synoptic, but if yours is, you’ll probably need to talk about the ending of the work being discussed; and structuring your review so that you talk about the book’s ending in your conclusion — even if only in affective terms, rather than in specifics — can be pretty effective.

4. Culmination (thematic)

There’s a good chance that, by the time you reach your conclusion, you’ve already written this: the perfect encapsulation of the book’s central thesis (either what works about it or what doesn’t), the verdict that all your examples point towards. So go back and steal it, and save it for the conclusion, where it will look like everything you’ve been saying about the book coming neatly together.

5. Culmination (yours)

That is, of the argument you’re making — about the book, the author, the genre, whatever — rather than the argument the book is making. Particularly useful for structuring reviews of short story collections, and again, you’d be amazed how often you write it half-way through without realising.

6. Slingshot.

Works particularly well with the Jeopardy opening: you answer your question, and identify the next question, leaving it for the reader to answer

7. Speculation.

In which you suggest answers to the next question. Characteristic of reviews of series fiction: where is it all going?

8. Reframing.

In which your last paragraph attacks the issues you’ve been discussing from a new angle, and hopefully the parallax generates some light. One way of doing this is to save your “A third of the way into the book…” and use it at the end of the review, rather than the start. Another is to talk about The Larger Point: open the review up to consider the author’s body of work, or the genre as a whole, if you haven’t been doing so to that point. In fact, now that I think of it, you could probably use any of the opening gambits in this way, as long as you haven’t deployed them already…

How to start a review

1. Jeopardy.

Think of your conclusion: the one thing you want anyone reading your review to know about the thing you’re discussing. Now think of the question to which your conclusion is the answer. (This works best if you have something more interesting to say than simply, “it’s good” or “it’s bad”.)

2. About a third of the way through the book …

What scene or event encapsulates the book’s strengths (or weaknesses)? Describe it. Make the person reading your review share your enthusiasm (or frustration).

3. Kick it LRB-style (version one).

Potted history of, or meditation on, the author’s career to that point.

4. Kick it LRB-style (version two).

Potted history of, or meditation on, a category of which the book is an example. (Useful when LRB-style version one is inappropriate, e.g. first novels.)

5. Bear with me for a minute …

Anecdote or trivia that illustrates something about the book under review, and thus makes it relatable for the reader. Works best if the nature of the link between the two things remains opaque until the moment you illuminate it. Use with caution in reviews of less than a thousand words.

6. Narcissism

A bit like option 5, but requires a stronger relationship with the audience, since the anecdote or trivia is about you, or your experience with the book (or another book by the writer), which is less likely to be of interest to a passing reader.

7. Here is some brilliant writing.

A bit like option 2, but you’re showing off the specifics of your subject’s prose. If you do this, you have to make at least one substantive point about the writing per sentence quoted. OK, you don’t have to, but you should.

8. Ronseal.

Offer up the most pithy summation of the book you can manage. The danger here is that if it’s too pithy, nobody will read on to get the detail.

9. Previously, on this book …

Ah, the synopsis. Almost always necessary at some point; but if it’s your opening gambit, it’d better be interesting.

10. Everyone else is wrong!

Quote one (or more) other reviewers about the book, then argue with them. The more high-profile the reviewer the better — as long as you can back up your claims. (Everyone else being right is also possible, but for obvious reasons trickier to pull off.)

Let’s Talk About Love

The other day, when Victoria Hoyle was dismantling the introduction to Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternate History, I mentioned Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste as a possible palate-cleanser. I came across Wilson’s book myself via Matt Cheney, whose discussion of the book now makes life easy for me:

The concept of the book is seductive: Wilson, a Canadian music critic and avowed Céline-hater, spends a year trying to figure out why she is so popular and what his hatred of her says about himself. I kept away from the book for a little while because I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to its premise, and that in all likelihood it was more stunt than analysis. […]

By focusing on Céline Dion, Wilson is able to discuss a wide range of topics: the details of Dion’s career, of course, but also the history of popular music, the globalization of certain styles and tastes, the power of local cultures, the role of class and aspiration in forming and policing personal taste, the demonization of sentimentality and excess, the promotion of irony and transgression, etc. Wilson also provides a good, basic overview of histories and traditions of aesthetic philosophy, showing that even the most eminent thinkers and critics tend to do little more than construct elaborate sleight-of-hand routines. Because his goal is not to debunk so much as it is to explore, Wilson is able to use the best of what he encounters — most fruitfully in his clear-eyed application of ideas from Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Taste is not, for Wilson, merely an expression of social influences and aspirations, but it is partly so, and those parts are often what is most invisible to us when we discuss our aesthetic judgments.

There’s a lot packed into a short book (164pp), in other words, and it’s well worth the time of anyone who’s even tangentially interested in any of the points listed above. In particular, as Matt says, the final chapter is almost infinitely quotable. He pulls out a couple of chunks relating to Wilson’s vision of a more pluralistic construction of taste; what caught my eye, more self-centredly, were the paragraphs linking that vision to the day-to-day work of the critic:

What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great? If it werne’t about making cases for or against things? It wouldn’t need to adopt the kind of “objective” (or self-consciously hip) tone that conceals the identity and social location of the author, the better to win you over. It might be more frank about the two-sidedness of aesthetic encounter, and offer something more like a tour of aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir. More and more critics, in fact, are incorporating personal narrative into their work. Perhaps this is the benefit of the explosion of cultural judgment on the Internet, where millions of thumbs turn up and down daily: by rendering their traditional job of arbitration obsolete, it frees critics to find other ways of contemplating music. (156)


You can’t go on suspending judgement forever — that would be to forgo genuinely enjoying music, since you can’t enjoy what you can’t like. But a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors — to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare. This kind of exchange takes place sometimes between citics on the Internet, and it would be fascinating to have more dialogic criticism: here is my story, what is yours? (157)

I like advocacy; I like people being for and against works of art, and I’m in favour of discourse that encourages freedom of opinions. (Rather than saying: if you don’t like Heinlein, you’re not a real science fiction fan.) But that is, in part, because I think advocacy can and should be decoupled from the sort of “objective” voice Wilson criticises, and that couching something as a personal “tour of aesthetic experience” can be a powerful form of advocacy. I think this can work whether you’re for or against something, but it seems to me that it might help with the oft-noted reviewerly problem that it’s easy to say why a book is bad and hard to say why a book is good, if instead you’re trying to say why a book was good for you; it gives you a way to think specifically about a general question. After all, the sources of delight in fiction are surely as individual as readers.


Bearings coverA traditional divide drawn through the history of science fiction criticism is that between the amateur and the professional; so you have the tradition of fanzine-originated criticism, as exemplified by Damon Knight and James Blish, and the academic tradition, with Darko Suvin as an equally central figure. But if we have to break things down, I wonder whether it might be as helpful, or at least not any more unhelpful, to draw a line between those who review and those who do not. Let’s be clear, this is an act of naked advocacy for the review on my part, because at its best – for a definition of which I take John Clute’s suggestion of a first response to a book that’s worth re-reading ten years later – it is the form of critical writing I enjoy most, and because such a division allows me not just to keep Knight and Blish, but to arrogate to my camp such entertaining writers as Joanna Russ and Adam Roberts. But at the same time it’s undeniable that reviews have made a significant contribution to sf criticism over the years, and to generalise wildly I tend to find that the essays and studies I enjoy most are written by those whose critical skills have at some stage been deployed to the front line. Such writers seem to be more likely to talk about the field of fantastic literature as it is, rather than as they would like it to be. As good an example of this as you’ll find anywhere is Gary K Wolfe, whose essay collection Evaporating Genres will be out later this year from Wesleyan, and whose review collection Bearings, published by the much smaller press Beccon, I have just finished.

Bearings collects review-columns published in Locus between 1997 and 2001; like the earlier Soundings (2005), it is a rewarding and not a little awe-inspiring book. It’s no mean feat to turn out up to half a dozen reviews month in, month out, and say in almost all of them something worth re-reading ten years later, particularly when many of the pieces are only a few hundred words long. Wolfe claims in his introduction that he has no real rules for reviewing except to let the book under consideration guide the terms of engagement, but he certainly has some strategies, and if over the course of several hundred thousand words these become slightly more obvious than they are on a month to month basis, they don’t become less effective. The most characteristic Wolfe reviews open with a lump of discursive contextualisation that’s always worth thinking about – indeed in some cases you feel Wolfe is on the verge of breaking out into a full-blown essay – even if there’s the occasional sense that he’s teasing the reader by making the case for a proposition that only occurred to him fifteen minutes ago. This is followed by a concise and often witty summary of the plot and/or other salient facts about the book on the table; once that’s out of the way, Wolfe tends to deftly dissect his subject into its constituent parts and consider the strengths and weaknesses of each, before offering a conclusion that weighs up how those parts work together or don’t. It’s an approach that emphasises description over evaluation, which is perhaps one reason why Wolfe probably should take his share of responsibility for the myth that Locus never publishes negative reviews. Given the volume of work he considers, limiting himself mostly to cases where there’s at least something to praise is probably a sanity-preservation measure as much as anything else, but it still carries the obvious danger that it could end up providing a rather partial view of the field. One way Wolfe gets around this is by being very good at finding something to praise. He’s mastered the art of picking out the specific aspect of a novel most worthy of admiration or simply the one that’s new, even in cases where the whole is a failure. Sometimes this is used to place a book in the context of its author’s oeuvre — Bearings includes considerations of Stephen Baxter’s “most unalloyed thriller” (Moonseed), Connie Willi’s “most courageous” book (Passage), and Distraction, which is “easily more fun than any Bruce Sterling novel to date” — but it can soften the sting of criticism. Wolfe is, as Peter Straub notes in his introduction, a deliberately open-minded reviewer, one who always starts out on the author’s side, and usually ends up there as well. “Purely as sf”, for example, Walter Mosley’s Futureland “has to be regarded as something of a blunt instrument”, but “as a book about discovering the uses of SF, it may be more clever than it first appears”.

If this can just occasionally create the impression of a cat toying with its food, in the vast majority of cases Wolfe’s critical distance from the texts he discusses is a thing to be admired. That distance carries through the book on a broader level, as well. In addition to his preference for separating out the various elements of a book (as opposed to, say, Clute’s tendency to find a single organising principle around which virtues and flaws are constellated), Wolfe shows a marked reluctance to impose narratives on the field as a whole, despite the fact that he’s probably in a better position than just about anyone else to do so, and the fact that arguably one of the pleasures of collections of reviews is gaining exactly that sense of shape. (It was certainly something I hoped for from this particular collection, which covers precisely the period during which I became a more serious sf reader.) There’s some commentary within the compass of individual reviews, but this is always tentative and often has tongue at least partly in cheek. Moreover in this book – in contrast to Soundings – Wolfe has deliberately omitted the year-end summaries he writes for Locus and almost all of reviews of the various Year’s Best anthologies. His rationale is that all these too often “strained to identify ephemeral trends of relatively little interest from the broader perspective of several years later” (10), which seems a bit of a spoilsport way to go about things, and a significant loss in the case of those anthologies, since it cuts out a lot of useful commentary on how different editors approach the task of corralling a year’s best short fiction (not to mention a lot of worthwhile commentary on the stories themselves), and leaves some columns looking distinctly anemic. This is, however, the only major cavil I have about what is an extremely useful and lucid book; above all, this showcase of the generous Wolfean method stands as an ample demonstration of the utility and scope of the short (ish) review, and could stand to be more imitated.

Quote for the Day

Saladin Ahmed:

I wish writers — white, Black, Arab, etc. — would just say “I have X personal experience with this place/culture, have done Y amount of research, and have tried my best. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is SOME SHIT I MADE UP.” There are lots of things in our writing we can take a deep stake in — but ‘authenticity’ is probably the least productive one.

More to the point, I wish reviewers/critics would stop using this as a criterion. 90% of critical/readerly praise for authenticity amounts to either “this guy imagines this culture in a manner which agrees with my imagining of this culture,” or “I didn’t know anything about Malaysian street culture, but now I do!”


Awards Awards Awards

1. BSFA Awards

For anyone who didn’t see the note buried in the comments of the shortlist post, Hal Duncan has withdrawn his essay “Ethics and Enthusiasm” from consideration for the Non-Fiction Award.

With that in mind, now, admittedly I don’t think it has a hope in hell of winning, but then I didn’t think it had a hope in hell of making the shortlist, so on the off-chance that it does… I think it would be criminal for my exploration of modes of critique to be accorded more status and attention than the exploration of issues of representation and diversity carried out by Deepa D, especially when those issues are precisely born of a disparity of status and attention. It would, I feel, be validating the very situation that requires redress if the BSFA Awards were to valorise abstractions that bear only a passing relevance to the field over a commentary that bears directly on its practical, political realities, not least because of the disparities of privilege at play here. It’s awesome to have people take note of what I say from my platform, but in this case I’m going to use that platform to say, there are other voices you should be listening to first.
So, with the utmost gratitude to those who put it there, and more than a little reticence because of course I’d fucking love a BSFA Award for non-fiction, I’d like to respectfully withdraw “Ethics and Enthusiasm” from the running, and leave the contest to those works which bear directly on the field.

The Guardian has noted the shortlists here — “After Booker snub, Adam Roberts in running for SF honour” — with a soundbite from me, in which I say I think it’s hard to pick a front-runner in the Best Novel category. All four books have been well received: Yellow Blue Tibia seems to have a critical mass of momentum behind it, Ark is a consecutive nomination for a previous winner of the Award, Lavinia is considered by many to be a masterwork by a multi Hugo- and Nebula-winner, and The City & The City has tremendous word-of-mouth. If you put a gun to my head I’d probably pick Mieville as the winner (I think it may be his year for a Hugo, too), but I wouldn’t want to put a lot of money on it. Nader Elhefnawy also has some thoughts on the shortlists here, and there’s an io9 post here.

2. Hugo Awards

Speaking of Hugo Awards, nominations are now open, until 13th March. Cheryl Morgan has a guest post at the Feminist SF Blog about “Hugo voting on the cheap” — which sadly means how to become an informed voter without having to buy a lot of books, rather than actual cheap voting memberships — with lots of recommendations for potential nominees. Joe Sherry has posted a draft of his Hugo ballot. I think this is a good idea, and will probably follow suit later this week.

3. The David Gemmell Legend Award

Nic Clarke reviews last year’s inaugural Legend Award shortlist for Strange Horizons. Part one of the review can be found here:

What do they mean by “in the spirit of David Gemmell”? According to the same web page, what they are looking for is something that grabs the reader immediately, with pace (“you know, books that you’re STILL reading at three in the morning!”), characters to root for, and convincing world-building. Stories, in other words, that take hold and won’t let go until the final page—the reason we all started reading fantasy in the first place.

Quality of prose goes unmentioned, but I’m afraid it won’t in this review; writing that makes me want to stab my own eyes out tends to interfere with my desire to still be reading at three in the morning. I’m fussy like that.

Part two is here, and there’s a related post by Mark Charan Newton here:

This, it seems, is one of the only actual comparisons of the fantasy titles that were shortlisted. I made noises at the time that no one was talking about the content of the books, and so here we go at last.

I must admit to finding it bizarre that any award can have a shortlist where titles are barely compared to each other. How can you call a book the “best” without such an analysis? Getting as many people to vote online seems a spurious way to go about this, when clearly no one could have read so many titles.

I’m not being grouchy here – please don’t misunderstand.

This is where my arguments lie: we bitch and moan about why we – the fantasy genre – are not taken seriously. But when we’re not going to compare and contrast, and dig into the content of some of the big fantasy titles of the year, how can the fantasy genre expect to better itself year on year? How can it expect to gain more respect? (If you don’t care for respect, then I guess that’s the end to my argument.) But we all know that we posses rather self-conscious moments, we fantasy readers, if we’re honest.

4. The William L. Crawford Award

Press release at Locus Online:

Jedediah Berry has been named the winner of the 2010 William L. Crawford Award for first novel The Manual of Detection. The Award, presented annually at The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, is for a new fantasy writer whose first book appeared the previous year. This year’s conference will be March 17-21, 2010 in Orlando FL.

The award committee shortlisted Deborah Biancotti’s collection A Book of Endings, Kari Sperring’s novel Living with Ghosts, and Ali Shaw’s novel The Girl With Glass Feet, and wanted to commend two other authors whose works were ineligible this year but were highly regarded: Robert V.S. Redick, whose The Red Wolf Conspiracy appeared in 2008 and whose The Ruling Sea appears in 2010, and Michal Ajvaz, whose The Other City originally appeared in Czech in 1993 but was first translated into English by Gerald Turner in 2009.

A good winner, and a strong shortlist, I reckon.

Preach it!

What Larry said:

… worth considering is the comment that Martin Lewis made in an earlier post of mine. In response to a comment Aidan Moher made about how “the problem doesn’t lie with the bloggers making the list, but rather with the genre as a whole and the manner in which publishers,” Martin said, “It is pretty pathetic to abdicate all responsibility like this.” There is much truth to this. If someone is going to construct a list and presume that said list will have value to others, then that list constructor better damn well be more proactive and thus basing his/her selections on what s/he receives passively from others. While there are certainly some valid arguments that could be made to the notion that reader/reviewers have the right to choose their “favorites,” once any list is presented as reflecting any sort of “authority” (and publicly posting decade’s best list, especially those derived from several who have a privileged relationship with the publishers compared to the average reader), then those reader/reviewers have certain obligations to meet in regards to considering more than their own personal tastes if they want their lists to hold any authority and if they don’t want to be called out for putting blinders on and failing to see just how diverse and wide-ranging speculative fiction (or other genres of literature and material culture, for that matter) really is.

A Little Less Conversation?

The Huffington Post books section isn’t going to do reviews, according to Amy Hertz:

#1. This is NOT a book review section. Let me say that again, because I know about 72,000 publicists just plotzed because they have no idea what to do other than ask for a review. Huffington Post Books is not a review — there’s a reason those sections in newspapers are dropping like flies.[…]

And now you’re thinking, If I can’t send you books to review, how does anyone get attention for them on your site?

I thought you’d never ask.

#2. Blog, blog, blog, blog, blog. You, your authors, your authors’ friends. And especially editors. Yes, you can come and blog about the books you love, the ones you are publishing, just make it clear to the reader who you are and what your relationship to the book is.

I can feel Jonathan’s righteous outrage building even as I type. But as Adrienne Martini points out, in many ways this is the most interesting quote:

Book reviews tend to be conversation enders, and when you’re living in the age of engagement, a time when people are looking for conversation starters, that stance gets you nowhere.

In the comments to Martini’s post, Russell Letson argues:

Of course it’s a conversation, and the fact that in its traditional mode it is nearly always one-sided doesn’t mean that it stops communication. I’ve been addresssing imagined audiences via Locus and other periodicals for going on thirty years, and when a (perhaps non-representative) sample of readers gets to talk back, say, during a convention panel, it seems to me that I haven’t even slowed down the conversation. But then, I’ve never had to write the thumbs-up/thumbs-down buying-guide kind of review and never needed to do a killer review. Those might indeed be conversation-stoppers. Instead, I get to read what I think I’ll enjoy, describe what’s in front of me, and account for it–think out loud about why it’s enjoyable or interesting or new or comfy-familiar and where it came from and what other books it reminds me of, and anything else that pops into my tiny mind while my fingers are on the keyboard.

Obviously, I find the concept of the Huffington Post Books section as soul-shrivelling as the next good LRB/Locus/etc reader, and Letson is right that reviewing is a kind of conversation. But it’s not the kind of conversation Hertz wants. I wonder whether it isn’t precisely the argued judgement that Hertz sees as blocking the kind of conversation she does want, more than, as Letson speculates, buying-guide reviews. A well-written review of that kind, after all, covers off a lot of potential rebuttals, because the reviewer has already thought of them when composing their argument, so there’s a bar that anyone reading the review has to cross before they can enter into discussion with it. It’s not universally true, but reviews that get the most comments, particularly on blogs, tend to be those that are open-ended in some way.

However, it’s clearly not the kind of conversation that Hertz thinks is most effective at selling books. She thinks promos along the lines of Scalzi’s “Big Idea” slot are more effective. io9’s book group would probably meet with some approval, too. (Speaking of which, Paul McAuley answers questions about The Quiet War here.) Maybe she’s even right, on average. But personally, I’m glad the internet has many other places for me to get my books coverage.