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.”

Le Guin on Atwood

I would like to believe that the gambit Ursula Le Guin deploys in her review of The Year of the Flood works:

In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science fiction, which is “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today”. This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.

Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.

Since she ends up calling the book “extraordinary”, however, it seems that it doesn’t count for that much in the end. On the other hand, she calls the book “extraordinary”, which bodes well for me as a reader.

On Reviewing, Round 63

It may appear to verge on the perverse for me not to have mentioned this conversation until now; in fact it’s down to a combination of lack of time and, for once, not having much to add. But for those who haven’t seen it yet, here are as many of the iterations of the latest discussion about reviewing as I’ve been able to track down:

  • A new group blog has launched, Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics, which, as this Mind Meld at SF Signal explores, initially had a slightly confused remit. Quoth Andy Remic: “I chose the name “Ethics” not because I wanted to explore the ethical contexts of novels or films, but because I wanted to make an ethical stand against the motherfuckers who, to my mind, are systematically ruining the SFFH genres”.
  • Martin Lewis asks who are the motherfuckers?
  • Jeff VanderMeer and Evil Monkey comment
  • So do David Moles and Cheryl Morgan; other participants in the SFFE blog show up in the comments to the latter post.
  • Meanwhile! Kathryn Cramer responds to the discussion of “mostly positive” reviews policies that took place here a couple of weeks ago by explaining why she feels that what people like about books is more interesting than what they don’t; and posts one of David Hartwell’s NYRSF editorials from a few years ago on the same sort of topic.
  • Elsewhere (well, at Strange Horizons), Martin Lewis reviews Mark Charan Newton’s new book, Nights of Villjamur, and an impassioned discussion about the merits (or otherwise) of his negative review ensues
  • Abigail Nussbaum’s summary of and commentary on the discussion to this point
  • James Nicoll makes several livejournal posts springing off some of the above links
  • Karen Burnham reviews Jay Lake’s Green at SF Signal and adds a disclaimer about her connections with the author and his work; further discussion follows
  • Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen dissects Martin’s review, and adds commentary on the whole discussion
  • Hal Duncan offers two typically thorough posts: Ethics and Enthusiasm — featuring a taxonomy of criticism! — and More on Critique, in which he responds to comments on the first post by Abigail and by Matt Cheney. To the extent that I’ve digested them (we’re talking well over 10,000 words, here), I agree with the first more than with the second, but both are worth investing time in.

And that — I think — brings us current, except perhaps to note that I have my own negative review at Strange Horizons today, of Nancy Kress’s Steal Across the Sky; and that it has become apparent to me that by selecting Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold as the next book I’ll review for SH, I’ve made something of a rod for my own back. On the one hand, Strange Horizons‘ well-known bias against epic fantasy means I’m bound to hate it; on the other hand, Strange Horizons‘ equally well-known pro-UK bias means that I’m obliged to love it. Bet you can’t wait to see how I thread that needle.

UPDATE: The ethicists are now the enthusiasts.


This is something of a sidebar from the ongoing discussion about The Thirteenth Child (and, at this point, the discussion about the discussion about The Thirteenth Child), but it’s one that I am bothered by, for what I am sure will be obvious reasons:

I read this book awhile back, because I was given an ARC of it by someone I’ll simply refer to as Prominent SF Magazine Editor; I was considering a gig as a reviewer for him. (I ended up deciding against this for brand management reasons — hard to honestly critique the novels of established authors when you’ve got a book coming out in the same genre yourself; there’s a conflict of interest/competition issue there, I think. Maybe when I’m established myself, I can do it? I don’t know.) But I had to call him and warn him: the review would not be positive. I read the novel with interest, but increasing frustration as the book’s problems became clear (I had no warning that this was an AU that erased Native Americans [and Latinos, though that’s fallout of the NA erasure]). The book has other problems besides this. By the end of the book I was angry, and since the Prominent SF Magazine had a policy of “mostly positive reviews”, that wasn’t going to happen.

We’ve been here before with regard to the insidiousness of “mostly positive” reviews, but this seemed worth pulling out as an example where the harm caused by the policy is more obvious than usual. It does a disservice both to readers who might have seen the review and now will not, and to the field of sf reviewing and criticism as a whole, for which full and honest discussion must be a priority; I hope, though I accept it is likely in vain, that Prominent SF Magazine Editor feels a mite embarrassed by their reviews policy today. That the writer in question has subsequently decided not to review at all, at this stage in their career, also makes me sad — it impoverishes the dialogue, in more ways than one — but it is understandable.

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.

On Being A Fan

Dan Hartland writes about reviewing within the sf community, following the comments on his review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:

For those of you unaccustomed to science fiction reviewing, here’s a rule of thumb: reaction to a review will always hone in on the point most applicable to the community that reads science fiction, rather than anything which might relate to science fiction itself. In a way, this is inevitable in a field of criticism largely conducted by enthusiasts, and in a genre so thoroughly sealed off from respectability (national newspapers frequently review crime fiction, but rarely give science fiction more than a passing nod).
Some years ago, Niall Harrison, aforementioned editor of Strange Horizons Reviews who doubles as editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s journal of record, Vector, interviewed me for a fanzine article he was writing. He asked me whether I self-identified as a ‘fan’. My instinctive response was in the negative: being a fan, I argued, meant putting aside some or all of one’s critical faculties.

A Manchester United fan may gripe about team selection, but he will probably never abandon his team. If you’re going to talk seriously about books, you need to be able to abandon the ones that are bad. Being a fan is like carrying the card of a political party: it asks you to bury your misgivings and stick up for your crowd against the other bullies in the playground.

I rise to this shamless bait because it’s been a while since I talked about reviewing, rather than posting reviews. So: I am a fan.

Martin Lewis has already come close to articulating the first point I’d make in response to Dan, which is that while there are sf books (and authors) I love, I’m not a fan of the books, I’m a fan of the form. Or, more specifically, I’m a fan of the potential of the form. I read a lot of science fiction because I know what science fiction can be, because I know that it can engage me in ways other fiction does not. That doesn’t stop me thinking plenty of sf novels are bad, though it might (okay: does) lead me to disagree with non-fans about the merits of specific books.

Martin also suggests that Dan’s initial rule of thumb is predominantly an artifact of the review format: a given review-reader is unlikely to have read the book under discussion, but may still have an opinion on generalizations expressed in the review. This is undoubtedly true, so far as it goes, and I doubt that talking about the community around fiction instead of the fiction itself is unique to the sf community, but here I think Dan still has a point. I don’t think community standards and traditions are inherently bad things, but if we’re going to fret about the potential for sf to become recursive and overly self-referential (as witness the past few years’ recurring angst about the need for “entry-level sf”), we have to at least be wary of the possibility that sf criticism can go the same way. Which, incidentally, is one reason I ask Dan to write reviews for me.

But I don’t think it follows that community affiliation is itself a bad thing. Without wanting to dive fully into the question of whether or not there are absolute standards of goodness and badness in literature, I find myself sympathetic to the notion that if someone enjoys something, and can explain why, then that something has value. So for me the trick, and the challenge, is to explain why, as a fan of science fiction, I like (and dislike) the science fiction I do. To explore what it means to read from the perspective I read from, and to try to communicate that understanding to other people. (It seems to me this is where Michael Chabon is coming from, for example, however much I might quibble with his results in practice.) Or, to directly respond to the last point of Dan’s I quoted above: what’s so bad about sticking up for your crowd against playground bullies?


The Sturgeon Award nominees for best short fiction of 2007 are out. Looks like a solid list, as usual; I’d be happy to see almost any of them win, in fact.

The Campbell Award nominees for best novel of 2007 are also out. Anyone but Robert Sawyer. Please!

How far can a reviewer build a reputation on the strength of a blog? “my reputation is all about the other places where I review. Chasing Ray is just gravy on top of that – just extra. Those 700 books are not going to come to someone with a readership of a few hundred (or less) a day”

SF Signal’s latest Mind Meld asks “Which new or little-known genre writers will be tomorrow’s big stars?” There’s a contribution from me, but what I want to pull out is (a) that I agree with Jonathan Strahan’s sentiment that there’s a generation of writers coming through now who could have the same impact as Terry Carr’s Ace Specials, and (b) this aggregate list of the writers to watch:

The Top 18 Genre Authors To Keep an Eye On

1. Paolo Bacigalupi (4 mentions)
2. Daryl Gregory (4)
3. Benjamin Rosenbaum (3 mentions)
4. Cory Doctorow (3)
5. Jay Lake (3)
6. David Moles (3)
7. Chris Roberson (3)
8. Vandana Singh (3)
9. Elizabeth Bear (2 mentions)
10. Alan DeNiro (2)
11. Alex Irvine (2)
12. Ted Kosmatka (2)
13. Paul Melko (2)
14. Naomi Novik (2)
15. Tim Pratt (2)
16. Jason Stoddard (2)
17. Karen Traviss (2)
18. Scott Westerfeld (2)

So now you know. (Alternatively: who’s missing?)

This week’s blogger incentive for mentioning the Strange Horizons fund drive is a bundle consisting of Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters, Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Ant King and Other Stories, and The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. You know you want them, so get linking, why don’t you?