12.31.2003

On Reprints and Websites and Plot

I understand Jonathan's sentiment regarding reprints. I have mixed feelings. If the publication's obscure and the editor thinks it's an important story for a wider audience, I'm all for it. If you're trying to give us a feel for an author with interview and certain selections, that's cool, too. But if it stands alone and comes from a major magazine, many of us have large collections and may already have it. Also, for an editor, it's a feather in your cap if you found the needle in the haystack.

Infinity Plus, however, is set up cleverly, giving you the chance to sample writers and get a good feel for who they are.

I liked Jonathan's choices of websites, but I wonder what makes them good choices. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Someone was complaining of a lack of plot on online websites in the Sci Fiction discussion board. I agreed until I realized it was directed at Sci Fiction. I don't recall ever reading something Datlow bought that lacked plot. If a fiction doesn't have plot [i.e. a structure of the work's development], it isn't a story but a character sketch, or a mood piece, or vignette, or prose poem, or whatever. I wonder if this is what separates pretty good from higher quality websites. Thoughts?

Gabe, do you still have that link to Neal Asher's comments concerning lack of plot?

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12.30.2003

The Critical Reviewer

The idea that a reviewer is a separate entity from a critic isn't a new one. Northrop Frye called reviewers "public critics" as opposed, I assume, to academic rather than private critics. I hate to harp on this when it might be viewed as a matter of opinion, but I think the difference is absolutely...critical. Sorry.

Building on what the others have said, I'd like to refine my last post a bit. I think where I disagree with Jonathan and gabe is in the idea that critics and reviewers are one and the same. I can't see it. The reviewer is the critical faculty of the reading public, the critic is the scientist studies the literature. As Trent wrote, of both species I imagine, neither are mere book peddlers. In point of fact, I believe the reviewer's most valuable function is quite the opposite: They are the filter. Their job is to eliminate the buying, by their reading public, of bad books. If they operate upon a consistent standard, they can be trusted to render an honest opinion consistently. And that, I think, is the exact crux of the difference between critic and reviewer. To a critic there should be no such thing as a bad book. Unsuccessful books to be sure, but never bad.

Reviewing is an art form and a damn fine and demanding one. Each practitioner can safely approach it in a different manner and each can proudly display their results, no matter how different from their peers'. Criticism is a science, or endeavors to be. As far back as Plato's Rhetoric, Actual and Ideal the critic has attempted to analogize their work with that of the hard sciences. To, in fact, build it into one. Every careful reading should render results that can be repeated or it's nothing more than a failed experiment. That's where we get literary theories. Flawed and ultimately agenda skewed as they are, they're the scientific method a critic uses to open up the hood of a particular piece and see how it works. Sometimes it seems more like a horse doctor trying to fix a flat tire by putting new shoes on it, but at least they're trying....

That's not to say that reviewer and critic can't be two hats on one person. In fact most of the best of critics were and are reviewers. But the product they produced was conspicuously of a different species, because the audience and the intentions were completely separate. Where I do think we can learn from professionals like Leslie Fiedler and Harold Bloom, et al, is in the manner in which they approached the two. On the one hand, Fiedler gives us works of literary criticism like Love and Death in the American Novel that dissects the works of Gothic writers like Poe on a microscopic level, and on the other we see that he treats the review process just as seriously and completely differently with his article on Alberto Moravio's Two [The New York Times, April 30th, 1972]. In his criticism he examines the text as a part of the whole of Literature and fits it in with the entire model. In his reviews he tackles the work and the author on their own terms and judges them only against their own aspirations.

But I think what we're trying to do here, at least as I understand it, is to promote a third cousin. The hybrid bastard love child of the public and academic critic, the critical reviewer. I think, if we're successful, what we'll see is a better merge of the two disciplines. Something along the lines of a combination the enthusiasm and exuberance of the "fannish" reviews and the esoteric critical dissection we find in the scholarly journals and reference books. We're trying to Frankenstein ourselves the twisted offspring of John Clute and Amazon.com's all-time number one reviewer Harriet Klausner. And God I hope Clute doesn't read this....


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On Reviewing

I was pleased to see so many reviewers come out to support their view of reviewing at Emerald City.

Sean McMullen wrote some of my favorite words on the topic:

"Reviewers are actually in a very vulnerable and delicately balanced position. Should they win attention for themselves at the author’s expense by ripping fiction to shreds, or should they only review what they really like and thus get a reputation as a lapdog critic?

"The problem was that those critics, in their zeal to find something to attack, overlooked what was actually great about the works...."

"I need reviewing and criticism that attempts to say what is good about works as well as pointing out perceived flaws. I want to see future classics identified as such, rather than being ripped to shreds merely because they are published works. I read reviews to learn about what is worthwhile, so that I can go on to read those worthwhile works while bypassing the dross."

***

I tend to enjoy Clute's reviews but struggled with two pivotal sentences of this essay. He makes a good judgment call on denigrating authorities while acting as one. (I'll save his case for Joseph Conrad as "interstitial" until he writes his essay although it appears Clute may be retroactively terming "interstitial" as any work that the genre has borrowed heavily from.)

Despite his normally astute reading abilities, he seems to misread Spider Robinson's statement that "[m]ost authorities are calling this book Robert A Heinlein's first novel.... but I think it is something far more important than that, myself, and infinitely more interesting."

Clute writes, "I’ll probably comment on what Spider means (or thinks he means) when he says that Heinlein’s text is 'infinitely more interesting' than a novel."

Spider Robinson's pronoun "that" clearly refers to "Robert A. Heinlein's first novel" and not to Clute's subsitution: "a novel." First works hold a strange fascination over people as curiosities. Here, Robinson seems to be saying that it will be more important than a curiosity.

Another key sentence, however, is also problematic: "some of those who prefer to read reviews which pretend to tell the 'unpretentious' 'naïve' truth about books."

First off, I wish we would say what we mean when we use the ambiguous term "pretentious." Is it good "ambition" or bad "ambition?" I believe it's usually negative: as in "Moby Dick and Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury are pretentious because they tried to do more than a novel was supposed to" or "War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice are pretentious because they tried to encompass such broad abstractions in human terms."

Second, what is "naïve" truth? If he means finding truth in fiction is "naïve," isn't that a little duplicitous of a man who writes reviews that delve into these very truths? Regarding Bones of the Earth, he writes: "It is a tale which (like most time travel novels) exposes the savagery of sex between humans, the cod-godling manipulativeness of the bureacracies which operate the time machines, the cavitated bad-fruit texture of reality when its guts open."

He may not mean that the search for truth itself is "naïve," for he concludes with this potent last paragraph:

"We know that we, as reviewers, are in some sense agents of entrapment. And I’m also conscious that some of the more highly motored metaphors I like to use in trying to get at texts might be understood in terms of the 'need not to be found,' while at the same time, through the multivalency of metaphor, language of this sort can also give the text a little breathing room. In the end, though, it is harder and more useful to try to understand enactments of the real in words, than to luxuriate in the intuition that words are a mug’s game. Words are a mug’s game. But words, it must be added, are the only game in town."

***

Like Chouinard, I puzzled over Gary K. Wolfe's repetition of celebration, but I suspect Wolfe's choice of words intends to point out the need for reviewers to look at the positive aspects of a work (in which case the choice marginally overstates the case). I did like this, which seems to negate interpreting Wolfe as condoning unadulterated praise of all books in celebration:

"The reviewer of [the serious fantastic story] needs to know what that public knows, and to know something of the larger world as well. He needs to recognize both stories that do not come off intellectually as problems and stories that do not come off artistically as fiction, stories that are dishonest without knowing it and stories that are dishonest because they don’t know what to be honest about. He is not distracted by the power of canonical names, either within or without the genre, or by the opinions of other reviewers or readers."

Wolfe goes on to list other problems in genre fiction. I'm not sure how to take "the boys with their feet on the desks know that the easiest novel to take down is the one somebody tried to get very fancy with." Is this an indictment of lazy reviewers or another indictment of ambition in fiction? If the latter, I've already listed several ambitious novels above. I could go on. How about Steinbeck's mixing the play and the novel in Of Mice and Men? Ambition in fiction is the name of the game when it comes to serious fiction. In fact, ambitious failures can be more interesting than good fiction by the numbers.

But, again, Wolfe may not be opposed to ambition. Just in case someone else thinks all fiction should look and act the same, allow me to quote Michael Cunningham: "Of course, you had a greater book in mind than you could write. You have to. You have to. You have to be reaching beyond what you can do. If you have a sort of command of mental health in some form, you'll be able to cut your losses and think, 'Well, this book didn't turn out quite right, but the next one will....'"

I liked Wolfe's closing paragraph:

"Criticism is this reader’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a reader prepared for adventure. His range of awareness may startle you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough readers like him, I think the books we see in the shops and on the bestseller lists might be more varied and ambitious and individual, and yet not too dull to be worth reading."

***

It's good to hear so many good critics stepping forward with comments on the form. Hopefully, this will go some way toward dispelling the myth that the book critic is a peddler of books.

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official::s1ngularity.net

Just so's y'all know, the home of s1ngularity is now s1ngularity.net. Fix your linkies and bookmarkies as necessary.

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it's raining frauds...

Received this in email a bit ago:

Dear Author or Publisher,

BookAnnouncements.com has just launched a new site that will help
Authors and Publishers connect with Booksellers and Librarians. We offer a
variety of promotional opportunities both in print and online.

You can now afford to market your book in several of the major Book
Publications, including ForeWord Magazine and BookPage.

Please check out our new site at www.BookAnnouncements.com or BookAnnouncements.com

We wish you much success in the book industry and look forward to
helping you reach your sales and marketing goals.

Sincerely,

Staff
BookAnnouncements.com


Please. If you are a writer or publisher, do not fall for scams like this. While I cannot condemn anyone in particular (for all I know, BookAnnouncements.com think they're doing a wonderful thing), I must warn you that any kind of marketing scheme of this sort will only cost you money, and you will not see any return on your investment. They're bunk, bullshit, worthless, idiotic.

Read a few books on marketing basics and go from there. Don't let these predators suck you in. You want to market yourself, get a blog or something. But don't try this.



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ho boy!

Jonathan has this exactly right:

I resent the idea that we might be telling a reader who can follow Joyce through the streets of Dublin that the pages of Dhalgren are too hard, or that they are unlikely to appreciate the subtleties of Perdido Street Station.


I've said before, and will likely say a thousand times more, that the so-called 'protocols' for reading speculative fiction are from an ancient time, and need to be discarded. The general populace has caught up with even the oldest, most jaded hard SF reader in the world. (No, I'm NOT talking about Dave Truesdale!) To think otherwise, while watching the Sci-Fi channel in-between playing on the PS2 or surfing the net, is absolute flat-out incontrovertible snobbery, and it's snobbery that grows like mold on THIS side of the fence. To the fanboys out there: get over yourselves, you geekish pricks.

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on gabe's critical thought

I'm going to start by agreeing with Gabe's frustration at the distinction between reviewing and criticism. The common distinction is that reviewing is a marketing tool and criticism is an academic pursuit for the informed minority. I think that's a poor distinction. All criticism, of which reviewing is a subset, is an informed discussion about literature. For me, reviewing is informed critical discussion about newly published literature with one caveat - the critic needs to be aware that he is talking to an audience that has not read the text, and still hopes to. That is a limitation, but it's not an excuse for the kind of supremely uncritical reviewers that Gabe rightly bemoans.

As to what sort of critic you might want to be - a Wolfean 'celebratory adventurer' or a practitioner of Clute's 'excessive candour - I think that's a personal matter. I don't think either is wrong, or even mutually exclusive. Why? Because I think that Clute's desire to talk frankly is preceded by a spirit of celebratory adventure, just as Wolfe's adventure is necessarily followed by a degree of gimlet-eyed candour. The driving force here - after a simple love of fine fiction - is a desire to understand and explain. That's what drives me to push through the piles of paper that come my way. I want to understand what's happening in the world around me and in the texts I encounter, and to try to both explain those texts to readers and to celebrate them when they seem excellent to me.

Gabe's other major point, or what I take his point to be about stupid genre walls, is potentially an even more important one. There is a lot of nonsense, both in and outside the genre, about ghettoes and boundaries and such (as per McSweeney's et al), and I couldn't care less. What does concern me, though, is the increasingly large toolkit a reader unfamiliar with genre fiction needs to appreciate it, or is told he needs to appreciate it. I resent the idea that we might be telling a reader who can follow Joyce through the streets of Dublin that the pages of Dhalgren are too hard, or that they are unlikely to appreciate the subtleties of Perdido Street Station. Instead, we should be encouraging them to try, just as we would encourage those still embedded in the monolith of the gernsback continuum to look beyond the crater wall and see what the rest of the world is like. Read clearly, read widely. Think. Those are the keys.

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Best Online Magazines

I live in the most isolated capital city on Earth. You can't see there from here. Ever. And for that reason, if no other, I spend a lot of time reading online magazines and have fairly firm views on them. They need to be accurate, up to date and reliable. Those are things that count. They also, because I'm the reader, need to be to my taste. So, when it comes to best online magazines, I have definite views.

To be honest, Fantastic Metropolis (for all of its merits) was never to my taste and wouldn't feature in my Top 10 online 'zines. It's been both unreliable to access and unreliable to update. Add to that the fact that I don't care for it's content, which contains too many reprints and isn't to my taste, and you can see why I wouldn't rate it.

Which begs the question: what you I think ARE the best online magazines? Well, since you asked:

Best Online Fiction Magazine

For my money, hands-down, no-competition, the best fiction site on the net is Ellen Datlow's Sci Fiction. It is reliable, regular and the quality of the fiction is beyond question. This year alone Sci Fiction has published excellent work by Lucius Shepard, Jeffrey Ford, Maureen F. McHugh and others. Runners-up include Eileen Gunn's fine The Infinite Matrix and Strange Horizons.

Best Online News Magazine

I'm going to first admit to conflict of interest here. I work for Locus, so I'm likely to say this, but...I think that Mark Kelly's independently edited Locus Online is the best news site/link portal on the web. Others do a fine job, but this is the best.

Best Mixed Content Online Magazine

By this I mean, a site or magazine that regularly publishes a mix of fiction, non-fiction etc. This is a little harder. I like the non-fiction published by Ariel at The Alien Online and by the Infinity Plus crowd. I also like some of the non-fiction at The Infinite Matrix and Strange Horizons, but The Alien Online would probably be my pick. I should probably mention both SF Site and SciFi.com before finishing. I like bits of both sites - Paul Di Filippo's reviews at SciFi.com and the news section at SF Site, but they seem very uneven.

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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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Pretension

Like Gabe, I was looking forward to McSweeny’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Like Gabe, I was disappointed. With such a strong lineup—Elmore Leonard, Michael Chabon, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, even Stephen King, among others—I expected a solid entry from the good people at McSweeny’s, only to find Chabon’s pompous essay and pretentious, even precious stories from the likes of Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Nick Hornby, Jim Shepard, and even (inexplicably) Elmore Leonard and Michael Crichton. Furthermore, I was not surprised to discover that the genre writers were actually faithful to the pulp tradition, while the non-genre writers acted as if they were slumming, something that never crossed the minds of real pulp writers.

My disappointment wasn’t quite as strong as Gabe’s, however. I had heard friends who are booksellers tell me that, while Stephen King fans were looking for “this McSweeny’s thing with a new Dark Tower story,” regular McSweeny’s readers were puzzling over the inclusion of Stephen King in their anthology. And, knowing something of the disregard of most non-genre writers have for any story that doesn’t involve sexual frustration in the twenty-first century, I expected some degree of literary snobbery. Though it featured good stories by Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman and Carol Emshwiller, the anthology on the whole was nonetheless unremarkable.

The problem, for me, was that the anthology was pretentious.

Chabon’s problem was that he treated the very concept of genre as a bastard offspring, not understanding that the walls between genres have always been artificial. He failed, I think, to listen to thriller writer David Morrell, who wrote in his book Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, “There are no inferior types of fiction, only inferior practitioners of them.” Rick Klaw, author of Geek Confidential, shared a similar sentiment when he pointed out during the Texas Book Festival that even literary fiction is a genre because it has to follow specific rules.

Ruminating on this, I thought of three novels published by the genre’s Big Names this year. They were released with much fanfare, with interesting but mixed results. Neal Stephenson’s backward-looking science fiction novel Quicksilver was jammed full of history and characters, much of which would have been absorbing alone, and featured ever-cleaner writing from Stephenson himself, yet was hindered by a sluggishly paced story lacking conflict. Likewise, William Gibson looked over his shoulder to check the pulse of contemporary society with Pattern Recognition, providing us with a well-written science-fictional look at the immediate post-9/11 world, but in his fascination with the minutiae of our daily lives forgot to tell a compelling story. Dan Simmons, too, looked backward for inspiration, then shot us into a posthuman future to retell Homer’s first great poem with his novel Ilium. All three books have their merits, yet Simmons’ novel is the most successful in terms of story and pace, providing this reader with the most genuine pleasure.

Yet none of these novels is pretentious.

None of the writers acts like they are paying a visit to the ghettoes, and each treats the subject matter with respect and admiration. Indeed, in interviews they seem to relish what they are doing. Neal Stephenson addressed his relationship to science fiction by saying, “The fact that some of my recent work is set in the past should be taken, not as an attempt to ‘escape’ from SF, but as an attempt to see what I can do with SF.” Gibson felt that Pattern Recognition was not technically science fiction because he cannot “accept as science fiction a story that involves inherently fantastic elements for which there is no attempt at rationale,” stating that the novel may have “the flavor of science fiction, but so does the world today.” Dan Simmons, who has never shied away from genre, likened successful science fiction to poetry in an interview with Steven Silver at SF Site. “As with poetry,” he stated, “quality speculative fiction demands great skill with language and invites linguistic invention. As with poetry, good SF delves deep into metaphor while sliding lightly on the surface of its own joy of telling. As with poetry, quality SF demands a much greater collaboration on the part of the reader -- a greater sensitivity to detail, word-meaning, texture, and nuance, as well as a greater involvement in ferreting out meaning.”

These books, and their writers, may have aimed high, but they did not set their sights low. I wish I could have said the same for McSweeny’s Treasury of Thrilling Tales.

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Fantastic Metropolis: Potentially one of the best online magazines?

I'll chime in on reviewing soon, regarding the excellent commentary here and in Emerald City.

But I would like to note that Night Shade Books and Prime have the some of the best book matter--inside and out. I'm presently reviewing the Fantastic Metropolis book for SF Site and wondering what people think makes a good online magazine.

Personally, I have not found a better resource for online non-fiction (essays, editorials, interviews) concerning genre matters than Fantastic Metropolis. This alone, for me, nominates it as one of the best. It keeps track of its favorite authors' novels-in-progress and reprints obscurely published but important works of genre fiction.

What disappoints, in addition to its presently offline status, is a lack of new material--complete works of fiction or essays. I wonder if it's falling off of people's radars.

I'd love to hear what others think constitutes an important magazine (on- or offline).

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Authority

I'd add my thanks to gabe for putting this together.

If we could, I’d like to address something that whizzed by in another epoch of discussion boards or blogs or wherever it was that we were blitzing this out. There’re all sorts of different qualities I think we can agree a critical reviewer needs, and I doubt there‘s any reason to go over them here. But the quality I think most separates a bad reviewer from a good one is authority.

Because we’re talking about books, and we all know everyone has different taste, we can’t really rely on a reviewer’s objectivity. As much as they try, even the best is going to have their soft spot. There’s no getting around that. And we can’t really count on the different branches of literary theory to bail us out because they’re all based upon various social paradigms and they each have their weaknesses. So, since we’re talking about what makes one reviewer trustworthy and another less so, I think it‘s the authority with which they can back up their convictions.

When I say authority, I’m really talking about three different elements: Discipline, Knowledge, and Method. By discipline I mean the reviewer’s ability to set themselves to applying one particular method and their entire body of knowledge to each and every text they take on, despite their subjectivity. Whether our hero is blurbing the next Tad Williams Big Fat Fantasy or combing for material in the dregs of some sloppy little e-zine, if I can trust that they’ll use the same techniques and energy to both, then they’ve got a third of my trust.

As for knowledge, I think that’s self-evident. Our reviewer is smart, well read inside and outside the genre. They can tell you the history of scientifiction, the genesis of Middle-Earth. They know their stuff because this is what they do. If they can’t stump you, then they’re probably missing something important that you would‘ve liked to know. Whether it’s only that the book they’ve reviewed is a smart satire of Mike Moorcock’s Eternal Champion or whether they’ve completely missed the fact that this latest short story is a total rip-off of Bob Sheckley’s Dimensions of Miracles, I need to believe that they‘ll spot these things. They need to know this stuff. It’s their job.

And then we come to method, the least and most important leg of our tripod. By method I don’t mean which branch of lit theory they use. If you can spot what kind of reading you’re being shoveled, you can generally spit out the bad parts and keep the meat fairly crap-free. What I mean is what amount of care do they take with the text? Can they place this story or that novel in the context of the entire genre? Are they spotting all the little Easter eggs the author left behind? Can they guide me to them without giving them away? Do they have a specific process by which they take a text under review and fold, spindle and mutilate it enough that they can give me a complete and relevant take on it? Whether they read each text twice or they have a notepad and highlighter handy for excisions, method is the scientific part to the art of reviewing and I need to know that my reviewer not only has one, but also understands how to implement it.

If they’ve got all three of these elements, discipline, knowledge and method, then what I know is there’s a consistent process by which, even if my literary tastes are diametrically opposed to theirs, I know I can trust every review they write to tell me whether or not I want to spend money on that particular book. Even if that means I pass of their recommendations and buy whatever they pan, at least I have a guide of sorts. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
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Simply reviewing

Hi Gabe (and the rest of the gang)

First up, thanks for the invitation to be a part of this grand experiment. I think it should be fun and, I hope, interesting for any peripatetic reader passing through on his or her way to another site.

In a timely piece of happenstance, my joining up with s1ngularity coincides with Emerald City's 100th issue. In it my Locus colleague Gary K. Wolfe talks about the simple art of reviewing. Given what you've written in this blog so far, Gary's comment that in everything that can be called criticism there is "a quality of celebration" seemed appropriate. His description of that celebration as "celebration of the collective aspirations of a particular form or genre — even when the author under review may have failed to further those aspirations — or celebration of a highly individual but honest voice who violates or ignores the terms of that genre. It may be simple celebration that good stories can still be written in an industry that wants to present them as this year’s new model coffee makers" also seemed to fit. And his comment that "down these mean streets the reviewer must go without himself becoming mean. He is no hero, yet he should be a complete reader and a common reader and yet an unusual reader" also seemed relevant. The line that resonated most for me, though, was Gary's description of criticism as "this reader’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a reader prepared for adventure". To some extent what I hope to do here and elsewhere is to celebrate what seems to me to deserve celebration while trying to avoid the pitfalls of these mean streets and enjoying the adventure.

Looking back at earlier posts, I hope to talk about small presses and independent publishers at some point (though I always am concerned about overlooking some worthy). But now is not that time. Instead, I thought I'd respond a little to your irritation at, and disappointment with, the tenth issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern (republished as McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales by Vintage), which to some extent I share. I have to admit, setting aside some excitement about the proposed tables of contents, I was more than a little concerned about both McSweeney's and it's spiritual cousin Conjunctions 39. Both offered some opportunity to "rediscover" genre fiction, in the case of the former to allow the high brow to have some low brow fun, and in the case of the latter to allow the low brow to consort with their betters. Both volumes seemed to me then, as they do now, based on inherently flawed assumptions. Genre fiction is not a lesser cousin of its literary betters and does not need 'rediscovery' or some nostalgic trip back to the good old days. Nor, in most cases, do our best genre writers need some polite venue in which to publish material that would be beyond their usual places of publication.

But, in fairness, those are either the pretensions of the editors or the packaging of the publishers. If you ignored the hype associated with both books, they actually did contain some good fiction (though neither was a major anthology). I'm going to restrict my comments here to McSweeney's for reasons of brevity. You mention you thought the stories in McSweeney's by Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Glen David Gold and Carol Emshwiller were quite good. I'd go a little further. I thought Kelly Link's "Catskin" was one of the best stories of the year, and Rick Moody's "The Albertine Notes" was one of the top four or five novellas I saw in 2003. I also liked the Gaiman and Gold stories, and one or two others. The rest, for the most part, didn't appeal to me. They were either minor iterations of genre fluffery or literary bibs and bobs of little interest. However, I couldn't find it in me to get angry with this medium sized treasury of mildly pleasurable tales. Why? Maybe I'm jaded and have low expectations, or maybe I'm just pragmatic, but - setting aside those editorial/packaging claims - it was all I'd ever expected. I don't believe you compile outstanding or revolutionary anthologies by setting out to. You do it by putting together the best book possible, and if you're canny and lucky, maybe you do something important. But you can't plan it. If you could, the genre would be re-invented every year by the latest book claiming to be the Dangerous Visions of something or other.

Best, Jonathan

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12.27.2003

(re)Appreciating Pulp

I'm almost literally hip-deep in writing my "Read and Appreciated in 2003" piece for Fantastic Metropolis and having an enormous amout of fun doing it. Yet it's a sad truth that there was a lot that I read and didn't appreciate this year as well.

The one I feel obligated to talk about, however, is McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, aka 'McSweeney's #10', which I had long anticipated....

I mean, I had such high hopes for this issue/anthology, which I had devoted hours to speculating about from the moment the names were listed on McSweeney's.net. The names filled me with thrills, in fact: Chabon, Moorcock, Ellison, Gaiman, Hornby, Leonard, Eggers, Link and more. It was a listing that absolutely screamed quality.

Michael Chabon is an author that I greatly enjoy. But as an editor? Not so much. And unfortunately, it was Chabon's introduction that first set my teeth on edge.

Chabon laments the death of rip-roaring good stories, which have apparently fallen away beneath an avalanche of do-nothing, go-nowhere PoMo slice-of-non-life non-stories; which, you know, is really only half right. Certainly those kinds of stories tend to fill the pages of self-possessed "Literary" magazines and collections, where everyone wears a black turtleneck and thick-rimmed glasses. But down here in the trenches of readerdom? Nah.... we gots us plenny o' good stories, eh?

And never mind the fact that McSweeney's #10 isn't even close to being a "mammoth" treasury; in fact, at 480 pages, it's barely hit anthology adolescence when compared to the average genre anthology.

None of that really got my goat, though. What upset me, what left me groaning into my pillow in disappointment, had nothing to do with the physical dimensions or overblown hyperbole. It had everything to do with the fact that far too many of the stories included in this "mammoth treasury of thrilling tales" were actually quite.... pedestrian. Boring. Run of the mill.

It wasn't that the stories were actually bad, per se. In fact, some of them were quite good; I particularly enjoyed the contributions from Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Glen David Gold and Carol Emshwiller. Rather, after all of the anticipation, all of the waiting, the anthology simply failed to live up to my expectations. McSweeney's #10 was a flop.

It all came down to attitude.

Chabon and the writers he choose for McSweeney's #10 tried hard to capture the zeitgeist of the pulp era, but failed miserably. Rather than capturing the spirit of the pulps, this Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales was instead an Average-Sized Collection of Reheated Pseudo-Pulp Tales.

Then again, perhaps it's just me. Perhaps I've steeped myself too deeply in pulp fiction to enjoy anything that aspires to be modern 'pulp fiction'.

More on this when I don't have to be at work by 7AM. But here's a hint of what's to come next time....

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12.25.2003

HAPPY HOLIDAYS, ONE AND ALL!!!

Sometimes, the title just says it all....

gabe c will resume posting on Friday. With a harsh criticism of McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, in fact.

See you then.

12.24.2003

Small Presses

I guess this is a good time as any to mention that next year I (the other Gabe) will begin contributing to SF Site a regular column focusing specifically on small press titles, hopefully reviewing a few at a time. And I hope to include not just titles from the presses listed by Chouinard below (all of which I join in most enthusiastically recommending) but from other small presses that may be less known to genre readers, possibly because they choose to locate themselves outside the boundaries of genre even if they have product that might appeal to readers of the fantastic (particularly those not afraid of a little dip into experimentation).

I’m thinking, for example, of @las (or Atlas) Press from the UK, which for twenty years has been championing what they appropriately refer to as the “anti-canon” of dissenting literature, translating and publishing works by writers associated with Surrealism, Dadaism, the Oulipo and other avant-garde European art movements. My favorite of their books is the classic novel of Gothic weird fiction MALPERTUIS by the Belgian author Jean Ray, which in its account of pagan gods who still live among mortals prefigures the theme of Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS by several decades. (As an indicator of just how porous genre boundaries can be I’ll note that the only other Jean Ray book I know of that is in print in English is the short story collection MY OWN PRIVATE SPECTRES from Midnight House, the small press belonging to esteemed horror editor John Pelan, whose anthology of Sherlock Holmes / Lovecraft crossover stories was published by Del Rey this past fall).

@las Press proudly note that they only sell online, with the exception of books they place with the retail store bookartbookshop in London. I stopped by there last Friday (Pittfield St., Old St Tube station), on my London bookbuying binge day, and bought a nice selection of their titles, including a short French novel called THE DEVIL’S POPESS whose authorship is disputed but appears to have been possibly written by the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos. It’s a particularly odd mix of erotica, fantasy, science fiction and “yellow peril” pulp.

In the United States the occasional @tlas Press book can be found at an independent bookstore (or even at Borders, where amazingly I managed to pick up their biography of Raymond Roussel once) or they can be ordered through the American small press publisher Exact Change. Exact Change is another small press that should be better known. Their mission is similar to that of Atlas, but their production values are higher and they publish elegantly designed, affordable paperbacks distinguishable by their square shape. They are to be particularly commended for keeping in print Lautreamont’s bizarre protosurrealist horror novel MALDOROR.

And then of course there’s Dedalus Books, who appear to go unnoticed by genre readers despite putting out consistently strong anthologies of European fantastic fiction, including THE DEDALUS BOOK OF AUSTRIAN FANTASY, THE DEDALUS BOOK OF SPANISH FANTASY and the DEDALUS BOOK OF FRENCH HORROR. They also keep in print not only most of the novels of the awesome fantasist Gustav Meyrink (THE GOLEM, THE ANGEL OF THE WEST WINDOW) but also Alfred Kubin’s THE OTHER SIDE and Stefan Grabinski’s THE DARK DOMAIN (selected by China Mieville for his list of top ten weird fiction titles).


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12.23.2003

exposing the independents

Ladies and gentlemen -- this is not your fathers' speculative fiction.

There's a lot happening in what some people dismiss as "sci-fi" or even "that Harry Potter stuff". Problem is, a lot of people can't see what's happening, because it's taking place under the radar of the average reader.

Beyond the big releases, there's an enormous quantity of interesting, good work being produced. Part of our goal here is to focus on that less-visible work, in an effort to bring it to the fore.

In broadest terms, there are several independent presses that are producing necessary, vital speculative fiction. These publishers deserve more than our kudos: they deserve your money.

Nightshade Books, for example, is the offspring of the passionate partnering of Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen. There is no way to peg a particular "Nightshade" style, other than describing it as "the good shit". Williams and Lassen are clearly readers first, and they publish as a reader would. Their books are all physically attractive, high quality editions, boasting names from Lord Dunsany to Tim Lebbon; from M John Harrison to Kage Baker. Quality is a hallmark of Nightshade Books, especially if you like good stories.

Nightshade Books has also recently begun publishing the Ministry of Whimsy. Led by Jeff VanderMeer and Forrest Aguirre, the Ministry is another benchmark for quality. From their production of Stepan Chapman's The Troika to the World Fantasy Award-winning Leviathan series of anthologies, the Ministry of Whimsy publishes only necessary books. No padding the line, no compromises in quality - only exemplary Ministry of Whimsy creations.

Peter Crowther has been around forever, and that dedication and wisdom shows in every release from PS Publishing.

Primarily producing limited edition novellas, with the occasional collection (or even novel) sprinkled in, PS Publishing boasts one of the highest-quality lines in the history of speculative fiction. PS Publishing reminds me of the Ace Science Fiction Specials, save for the fact that PS has a roster that includes mostly "Big Name" authors like Michael Moorcock, Ramsey Campbell and Stephen Baxter, as well as phenomenally talented up-and-comers.

prime books is an interesting publisher. Of all the publishers around, prime is wouthout doubt the most stylish. I absolutely love their design sensibility, and their catalog is excellent. From Simon Logan's creepy mechanized short story collection i-o to KJ Bishop's fantastic The Etched City, prime continues to produce excellent, thought-provoking books.

Quirkiest is the ultra-hip Four Walls Eight Windows. They continue to produce a wide swath of work that knows no boundaries. From obscure cult texts to bleeding edge spec fic from people like Richard Calder and Cory Doctorow, Four Walls Eight Windows proves that an idiosyncratic line can still be not only successful, but ultimately quite accessible.

There are a host of other independent publishers out there, producing everything from zines to chapbooks to full specialty lines. Over the course of this blog, it will be my pleasure to introduce you to all of them.

And if YOU'RE one of the people producing work that's outside of the mainstream, I urge you to send me an email to gabe_chouinard@yahoo.com. We can't share the love if we can't find you.

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Critical Theory & its Organs

Gabe's right. We do need "critical criticism." Good stories have much going on inside, like a living organism with a translucent skin and the organs sloshing around inside taking care of the business of life. You feel a depth in good stories that is missing in many publications. Because stories are such complex lifeforms, a theory is necessary to describe how it works. Of course, theories will always be incomplete as the lifeform morphs, but if we understand the basic organism, we can understand the various morphologies.

The basic organs essential to producing life are plot, character, theme, as well as setting and style. Due to a limitation in size, organs have to be limited in their development, lest they crowd out an essential organ. You will find certain organs more developed than another, which becomes part of an organism's style (assuming the organism's creator is aware of said organs). This is an example of efficiency where one organ takes over the duties of another.

Another example is character development: This develops not only the character organ but also the plot organ for literary fiction.

Setting can be the defining element for shaping a character: conforming or contrasting. In speculative fiction, setting is often a requisite organ for the genre forms, where a gun on the mantle puts the men in a locked room ill at ease or where space itself is the murder weapon.

Once you know the organs, they are meant to be tinkered with. Carol Emshwiller dispenses with much setting as functional designs, and she gets away with it, expertly. Others like Beckett strip away parts and thereby define the very limits for the existence of life. Jorge Luis Borges, on the other hand, ignores character and plot in favor of idea development.

They all get away with it because life does often live without perfectly functioning parts, just as we all live brains deficient in coordination or abstraction or speed or whatever. The organism draws attention to its other parts.

With Borges, another organ is introduced that has evolved over the past century or so: the idea organ, which is important for speculative fiction. When the outstanding Agni editor, Sven Birkerts, established inferiority of these lifeforms based on idea, he defined the limits of his present reading ability, for the world would be poorer without Borges.

Birkerts' attitude is not unusual. David Lehman in the March/April 2003 issue of American Poetry Review describes the reluctance of the Pulitzer committee (in the form of another outstanding poet, Louis Simpson) to honor the prose poems in Mark Strand's The Monument. New forms will always be reluctantly accepted because not all of the better readers have yet learned how to read the newer forms.

There is at least one other organ: history. Literature is in dialogue with the works of the past. Shakespeare is discussing Julius and pals with the Classical writers. This may be another reason Birkerts feels left out since he hasn't been apart of the historical discussion (although he is no doubt quite aware of the history of the standard poem, the standard novel and the standard short story). Readers won't know what James Gunn means by putting SF into historical context until they read the continuity of the change for themselves. The science fiction of the past that is not in dialogue, consciously or subconsciously, has fallen off the radar. Scholars have tried to catalog the enomorous body of SF prior to the first SF magazine. The curious can page through these catalogs and see all the deservedly forgotten works of the past.

So a good reader is aware of all the organs and looks for them in each new organism. Not that one cannot read for sheer pleasure without theory. One can and should. But the best organisms have a lot more going on than pleasure. If you want to witness what the great writers are up to, you will have to learn the critical organs.

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12.22.2003

against the ghetto walls :: a statement

Once upon a time there was magic.... -- George Santayana

Welcome.

The s1ngularity::criticism blog has been a long time coming.

I first began discussing the idea of an editorial blog to accompany the s1ngularity webzine with my compatriots Adam Roberts and Gabe Mesa nearly a year ago. Then s1ngularity fell into a deep slumber, from which it has yet to awaken, and the idea was pushed away into a corner of my mind.

About a month ago I was discussing criticism with a friend that just couldn't understand why I would put so much time and effort into thinking about a 'pointless' obsession like critical theory. I tried to explain it to him, but was coming up empty. Why was I so obsessed?

It hit me like a two-by-four upside the head.

I realized that I was sick of what I had become. I spent so much time ranting and complaining about genre fiction that I was no longer enjoying the works themselves. My pleasure was being devoured by a sense of futility, and by a sense that nothing I did or said would make any kind of difference in the field. Genre fiction, which I had always loved with a passion most people reserve for bondage sex or Chia Pets, was instead pissing me off.

It was that sense of futility that led to s1ngularity::criticism.

A main source of frustration for me is the sense of overwhelming complacency that sits like a pall over the whole of the speculative fiction field. Unfortunately, I think that complacency is a deep-seated part of our history....

Too long now, speculative fiction has existed with a wide range of misconceptions, stereotypes and stigmas obscuring it -- which is quite understandable given its history. Yes, there was a time when speculative fiction was ignored or dismissed by academics, critics and historians. Yes, there was a time that speculative ficition was ghettoized as populist, low fiction. But that time is gone.

Yet it is the people within the field that continue to perpetuate those misconceptions, stereotypes and stigmas. The ghetto still exists, but by now it's because we've claimed it and walled it ourselves.

One weapon against such complacency is criticism. Good, honest, critical criticism has the ability to refine the field, and to not only set the standards of the industry, but to also progressively raise those standards in the process.

Right now there is too little serious criticism within speculative fiction. There is a 'fan-writing-for-fan' mentality tainting genre criticism, to the point where I may as well just read comments at Amazon rather than the majority of criticism. Which sounds harsh, I know. But sometimes, it's good to just say what you think, right?

That's what I want to accomplish with this blog -- a combination of serious critical work and a battle against the complacency that allows us to ghettoize speculative fiction on our own safe little terms. We may not always be right in our criticism, and we may not always present views that you agree with, which is why we have links on every post that lead to our messageboard. We want to hear what YOU think. Dialogue is a vital component of this blog, and I urge you to contribute on your own.

Finally, this is an experiment. We don't have an overriding agenda here, we don't have any clear cut plans. All we have to guide us is interest and a love for speculative fiction in all its permutations, and your continued readership.

But you know, that's enough for us.


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