12.29.2003

on critical thought

Personally, I have very strong beliefs regarding criticism. I'm just not sure what they are yet.

One thing that bothers me, though, is this supposed distinction between the "critic" and the "reviewer", which took place in the blog discussion/message forum discussion that Bob alludes too, and which is actually a cornerstone of my particular philosophy of criticism.

In simplest terms, there are apparently two sorts of criticism. One sort is the 'review', which is usually used to entice people to read a particular book (or not read, as it may be), and which is meant to be read before reading the book. On the other hand is the 'critical review', which is usually a deeper examination of the book, and which is meant to be read after reading the book, in order to enhance one's enjoyment of the text.

Personally, I think the first sort of 'review' is just a cop-out excuse, written by people that have no developed critical skills but who want to share their personal thoughts on something... no matter what that something is.

Now's a good time to point out that I have written 'reviews', and am not exempt from this cop-out.

However, within genre fiction there is a definite imbalance between 'reviewers' and 'critics', with supremely un-critical reviewers far outweighing the true critics. There is an enormous amount of fannish criticism taking place within the field, but there is only a handful of actual critical thoughts within the field. In a lot of ways, this limits genre fiction to a ghetto, because there is very little true scholarly criticism that is accessible to either academics or average readers, and it takes scholarly criticism to break apart those ghetto walls.

I know that seems kind of silly, and probably comes across as a bit of pretentious bullshit. And I'm not sure I can explain it fully - yet - myself (which, oddly enough, is one of the functions I envision for this collaborative blog!). But here's my theory.

We speak a lot about movements within speculative fiction, from the Futurians to the New Weird. And we bury our talk beneath inaccessible fan-based hyperbole, until what we're saying comes out as gobbledy-gook to anyone that hasn't bothered to research the history of genre fiction... which cuts out roughly 99.99947352 percent of the population of Earth. For sixty years we've been so caught up in the sound of our own voices that we don't allow people to join the conversation unless they're willing to work a whole lot beforehand. We're exclusionary in the very worst way, because we pretend that we want more people to join us... if only they'll wade through 9,455,266 pounds of research material to 'get up to speed'. A bit intimidating.

Fan-based reviewing in lieu of real criticism contributes to this exclusionary tactic. Lazy reviews written by lazy speculative fiction readers do nothing to aid people in discovering speculative fiction, or even enticing them to try it. Want to know what reading a fannish review is like? Take any middle-aged SFF writer or reader and plunk them down in the middle of an Underworld concert and see how they make out. Anyone got some GHB and a glowstick? No?

Fact is, without real accessible and scholarly criticism, we're limiting ourselves to this little exclusive club that no one gets. And some people like that idea, but I'm not one of them. Personally, I think that anyone who's willing to pick up an Ian McEwan novel should have the chance to experience a writer like Lucius Shepard or Elizabeth Hand. Does it happen? Not likely.

The crux of it, I think, lies within the idea of movements, and I've begun to see speculative fiction in a new way over the past year or so. I'm beginning to read speculative fiction as a movement within literature as a whole, and trying to parse different texts within the context of all literature, rather than within the context of speculative fiction.

Know what I've learned from this?

A lot of speculative fiction really and truly sucks the big one.

I know; how rude of me to say! But as anyone that knows me can attest, I'd be considered as 'pretty well-read', which you'll notice was one of Bob's important criteria for the reliable critic. Without a bit of braggadocio, I can say I can confidently hold a conversation with any person that reads, whether they like to talk about Tim O'Brien or Paul Auster, Jean Auel or Annie Dillard, Karl Popper or Noam Chomsky. I'm not a genre exclusionary, and have gained not insight but perspective in my reading.

That perspective is what's missing in fannish genre reviews.

So I find myself backing away from Gary K. Wolfe's assertion of the genial reviewer, of the celebratory adventurer in search of deep truths. Instead, I find myself leaning toward John Clute's not-so-gentle derision of "some of these reviewers, and some of those who prefer to read reviews which pretend to tell the 'unpretentious' 'naïve' truth about books".

Clute goes on to describe (a bit) his theory of genres as 'mobile stitia', which I can almost wrap my head around. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that we're (Clute and I) aiming at the same target with different weapons.

When I say that I am viewing speculative fiction as a movement within the greater canvas of literature, I don't mean it quite like an artist's movement like Surrealism or Art Deco or Impressionism, though there are parallels. Rather, I can't bring myself to admit that speculative fiction is some walled-off form of fiction that exists all by itself in a particular corner of literature. Instead, it is more like a subcurrent that is coursing through literature, making ripples here and there, perhaps washing against mainstream fiction via magic realism, certainly swirling a bit with the muddy Hollywood waters. Yet for some reason, we who read and review speculative fiction treat it as if it were seperate, self-contained, boasting its own rules and regulations.

This simply isn't true.

If I have any sort of agenda, that is it. I want to break down these stupid genre walls, so people can join the party. It's no secret that much of the most interesting fiction is being written within genre publications. It's no secret that this is the coolest shit around. We don't need GHB and glowsticks to prove that we - as a community - can also be popular. What we need instead are high standards, and critics that are willing to make the leap from ho-hum fannish reviewer to REAL critic, with REAL criteria and REAL opinions and REAL appreciation for good stories. That's all.

Of course, your particular milage may vary.


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