Science fiction and pornography, the myth of critical objectivity and anonymised reviewing

Three things make a post, as the old gag goes. So, try this for size:

Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep?

That’s the title of an intriguing book I reviewed recently for SF Site; the subtitle reads “Critical Perspectives on Sexuality and Pornography in Science and Social Fiction”, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Funnily enough, I don’t think anyone else expressed an interest… I guess I’ve finally found my niche in the genre criticism ecosystem, eh?

It’s an interesting book, albeit something of a mixed bag. Skip to the money-shot:

Like good science fiction, the material collected in Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? leaves us with more questions than we arrived with; if you can stomach the subject matter (which shouldn’t really appall anyone but the most prudish and conservative, to be honest, though my perceptions may be somewhat skewed), this is prime fuel for your imaginatory engines. The focal character of James Tiptree, Jr.’s story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” suggests that, as humans, “we’re built to dream outwards” [pp 239], to project our desire onto “the other”, whoever or whatever it may happen to be. It’s an insight that makes more sense each time you read it, and serves to underline the basic commonality between sex and science fiction, or indeed art in general — they are both ways in which we try to subsume ourselves into (or control and dominate over) that which we are not.

Love makes us do strange things, after all.

It really, really does. πŸ™‚

The (Schis)matrix reloaded; criticism and subjectivity

I can’t remember where I saw the first link to There Is No Genre, but I do remember Casey Samulski’s opening post made me think [he/she]’d have interesting things to say in future, and subbing to the RSS feed. Today, that trust was rewarded with a repost review of Chairman Bruce’s Schismatrix (which I fully intended to review after re-reading it late last year… and so it goes) with a coda born of hindsight:

… this really is the tricky part of good criticism. Ultimately, it is subjective. An author can do their best to ensure that a particular effect resonates with his or her readership but it’s no guarantee of that outcome. No two people read something identically. We each take to a work our own experiences, including previous works read, our own sense of beauty, and our own preconceptions about the novel at hand. This is not to say that you cannot have some objectivity in this process — I have read things that I haven’t enjoyed but that I have appreciated for their craftsmanship. Instead, I would argue that objectivity is something of a distant shore to be paddled towards but never landed upon.

Preference. Mood. Taste. These are all culprits at various times and they are inevitable, responsible for sabotaging even the most sober of inspections. In order to criticize well, you must remember that these reign over your judgment, tirelessly skewing your sense of direction. Most importantly, I think you can never pretend that you understand a work completely — there must always be the admission that you are only witness to what you were able to discern and that, like all art, this does not define what is actually there.

Yes, yes, and thrice yes; I always thought that subjectivity was implicit in any and every review ever written, but the peridic cycles of angst und wagling about negative reviews and uppity critics serves to demonstrate that’s surely not the case. And now for the resonant chime in a passing pair of sentences from Jeff VanderMeer in a Booklife post:

… there’s also the uncomfortable truth that no one is ever going to perceive your book exactly the way that you intended for it to be perceived. In coming into contact with the world the text changes, given an additional dimension by readers.

temple bell, Korea

[image courtesy nurpax]

Reviewing while blindfolded

But what if, to stymie future complaints about reviewer bias and preconceptional baggage, you inverted the normal anonymity curve of the reviewing process, namely naming the reviewer (generally uncredited in a lot of non-genre venues, or so I’m led to believe) but concealing the author’s identity (and, presumably, publishing details) from said reviewer?

… the editors of this magazine asked if I would be interested in being part of an experiment in criticism. They were curious what would happen if we inverted the standard “anonymous review” formula—if instead of the reviewer having the cloak of anonymity, we were to keep the book under review anonymous from its critic, and thereby shield it from any and all prejudice—whether positive or negative, whether directed at the author, the publishing house, the blurbers, the cover art, etc. I swore several oaths to stay true to the project (Eds.: “No googling”), and soon enough a book arrived at my house. Its covers, front matter, and endpages had all been stripped, and the spine blacked out with a Sharpie. I didn’t know what it was called or who wrote it or who was publishing it or when. I didn’t know if it was the author’s first or twenty-first publication. Fiction? Nonfiction? Genre? Self-published? I didn’t know anything (and at this writing, I still don’t) except that it wasn’t poetry. What could I do? I began to read.

Rose Fox of Publisher’s Weekly (thanks to whom I found that post) mentions that it mirrors periodic calls for genre venues to anonymise the slushpile – a suggestion plainly motivated by the “good stories lose out to established names” theory of short fiction publication.

The ones most readily identifiable–written by writers with very distinctive voices, or making use of familiar and copyright-protected characters or settings–would presumably be routed directly to the editors anyway, so generally anonymizing the slushpile seems like a reasonable way of reducing possible bias against authors with certain types of names. It wouldn’t do a thing to reduce unconscious bias against certain types of stories, but it would probably make it more obvious, which is not a bad thing.

Moving back to book reviewing, though, the point is made in the comments that with genre fiction, some sort of filtering is required (so that a romance reviewer doesn’t end up with a Greg Egan collection, f’rinstance)… but as I see it, that truism actually weakens the original thesis, which seems to be predicated on the ongoing fiction that there is some sort of objective measurement of quality that can be applied to all writing in the same way. With reference to the above links and quotes, I suggest that the myth of critical objectivity is long overdue for burial; there seems to be an evolving collective consensus on such matters when viewed en masse and at a distance, but once you zoom in close it’s subjectivity and personal opinion all the way down.

That this is unclear to so many people is a source of perpetual bafflement to me, but then so is Dan Brown’s status as a bestseller. So there you go. πŸ™‚

4 thoughts on “Science fiction and pornography, the myth of critical objectivity and anonymised reviewing”

  1. Nice piece.

    But I think it is understood that criticism is subjective. I think arguing your corner in a review is not about making your work more authoritative, it’s about showing your working. Allowing your audience to work out why you stand where you do.

  2. Thanks for the love!

    For future reference, I am a male. I often forget the gift/curse that is an androgynous first name on these vast internets and the confusion it can cause.

    I really like how you phrased your conclusion. I think objectivity in criticism is a myth, like you say, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t embrace subjectivity as a useful litmus anyways.

    If a particular critic is known for spitting venom and ashes upon everything New Weird he encounters but grudgingly gives Mi

  3. Jona: I think most critics know that, yes. Less authors, though, and even fewer readers, whence arises the angst. πŸ™‚

    Casey: no worries, and sorry about the androgyny – I couldn’t find an ‘about’ page for you! Looking forward to reading more of your stuff. πŸ™‚

  4. When I worked as a script reader in theatre, there was a rumour that an early Harold Pinter stage play was being circulated among literary managers, to flush out the ones who couldn’t tell good from bad…sneaky huh?

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