Why I Think Science Fiction and Fantasy Need Critics

Judith Berman wrote an essay on the disappearance of the future from SF. As I Googled the net looking for responses, I ran across a writer whose work was critiqued by Ms. Berman. (Apologies, I've lost the URL.) He was initially upset, but later came to realize that he was writing material in which the future was suppressed and slighted and decided, based on this feedback, to change what he wrote.

It is difficult for a light bulb to see the shadows that it casts. I've had several writers--even "successful" ones who make occasional sales to the big three--talk with me about feeling out of touch with their readers. I've seen postings in newsgroups to the effect "You sold a story to Gardner (or fill in your favorite editor). What more validation do you need?"

I'm glad they're concerned. While there is some truth to the notion that editors represent a skilled reader, I have trouble with the idea that Ellen, Gardner and Gordon--as talented as they are--are the end audience and there is no need to look further when asking the question "am I providing a rewarding experience to my readers?"

Feedback is important. My experience in systems analysis suggests that almost all systems will require a feedback mechanism of some kind in order to adapt to changing conditions. In my opinion, the feedback between reader and writer has broken down for SF and fantasy, for both novel and shorter forms. I think the declining number of readers shows that marketing/distribution has headed off in a different direction than the readers. They're not even speaking to each other anymore. The vast majority of producers are operating on "common wisdom--" "SF readers like this... Fantasy readers like that"--encoded a decade ago.

That feedback from reader back to writer about what they like, what they dislike, where they want the field to , must come from the readers in some form. Until we can motivate readers to participate on their own behalf, probably the only way to get this wallowing sow back on a course that's healthy for the SF/F/H fields, is through a body of critics--especially independent critics--to represent the reaction of readers directly to the writers, a sine quo non check and balance in the teeter totter between the writers and the readers.

If you can think of another, drop me a line on the discussion board.

Best regards,
Alan Lattimore

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