Tag Archives: genre

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. 🙂

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. 🙂

Yours truly interviewed at Bibliophile Stalker

Yes indeed; the tables are turned on me as Charles Tan of Bibliophile Stalker puts me to the question, primarily about stuff I do in the genre fiction world but veering off into other stuff as well. Reading it may make you understand why I tend towards reticence around new acquaintances; I’ve seen the looks on faces when I just open up and waffle at full bore. As such, replying to Charles’ questions was a lot of fun.

It also took me around three hours. What can I say? I type slowly.

Briefly donning the meta-hat of intellectual narcissism, it’s interesting to see that snap-shot of my mind, taken as it was right at the end of last year, before I’d made the decision to go freelance full time. So many things have changed in just four fast months. Time flies when you’re living the dream, AMIRITE?

Scene, but not herd

Jay Lake on the future of written science fiction:

Given that our field has always defined itself, and even prided itself, on outsider status, the mainstreaming of our concerns has pushed us toward specialization as a way of defending our specialness.

Is this a good thing? Probably not, but I’m not convinced it’s bad either. Literature is like rock and roll…new movements come along, but the old ones never die.

I’m sure someone else said something like that once. 😉

Network overload

tiny cat screamingOK, for the record: although I thought some of his reasons and criticisms were wrong, I largely agreed when Jonathan said that Tor.com was late to the party and unnecessary[1] to the online genre scene.

And now there’s another one: Stephen Hunt’s SF Crowsnest is the latest to board the bandwagon with Hivemind.

Considering how long the Tor site has been in the pipeline – and the original-content-producing clout they have behind them – how could launching this now possibly be a sane option by comparison to just reskinning PHPbb and chucking it in a subdomain so your regular readers can beef without cluttering the comment threads?

Coming as it does from a site that hasn’t had a properly functional RSS feed since I started reading that way in late 2005[2], I hope you’ll all forgive me for not rushing over there to add you as a friend.

I follow a fair few PR and social media commentators via blogs and Twitter, and it’s interesting how social network saturation is finally starting to set warning flags a-waving among those who were first to praise their potential. Too much of a good thing, perhaps… but as has been pointed out, there’s no need to do anything. The web’s always been pretty Darwinian; many are born, few survive to thrive. [image by wafdaros]


[ 1 – Unnecessary does not equate to useless or unenjoyable, in case that isn’t obvious. ]

[ 2 – Unless something has changed since last time I tried it around December last year, of course. ]

Friday Photo Blogging: Enochian Theory

I went to interview and review Enochian Theory on Tuesday night, and I was packin’ a camera …

Enochian Theory

Ben (frontman, pictured) has been a friend for quite some time. The band are attempting to go the fully-independent route (no label, no management, treating it as a proper business), and the show was to demo their new album’s-worth of material. Despite a few minor technical hitches, it was bloody good stuff. If you like dark progressive metal, that is. 🙂


Writing about music

It’s all been a bit close to the wire this week, as the Masterclass took a big bite out of my headway. But everything that needed nailing for release date of next Monday is done, so yay me.

Still a notable lack of response from volunteer reviewers … with one exception, and she’ll be getting her first job when I see her down the pub this evening. More prodding required, perhaps.

Album of the week

Life … The Best Game In Town by Harvey Milk. Thinking man’s southern sludge, featuring Joe Preston on bass.

Honorable mention – Nephu Huzzband‘s single “Nurse Nurse!” is very promising. Fugazi-era post-hardcore meets the more abstract and interesting end of the current indie sound. Ones to watch.

Writing about books

Much like my fellow travellers, I still have a head full of swirling ideas and concepts after the excellent second SFF Masterclass, and I’ve been too busy with other stuff this week to do anything coherent. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what to say in my re-examination of Snow Crash; I have many potential angles of attack, so to speak.

Freelance

Chuntering on with PS Publishing duties, which have settled neatly into a daily routine. A trifle behind schedule on a website project, but I have a catch-up binge scheduled for tomorrow.

Also on the horizon is another potential source of work and income, but I’m still in the process of sounding it all out. It’s quite strange – for my first year of putative freelancing I could hardly find any work whatsoever, but if this year carries on delivering new avenues of work at this rate I could be considering quitting the day-job come 2009.

Still, that’s a best-case scenario, and I’m not going to be too hasty. But things are definitely getting lively. 🙂

Futurismic

It affected all my sites (as some of you may have noticed), but a major FUBAR at my hosting company hit Futurismic the hardest and cost me the best part of Tuesday morning to unproductive panic and teeth-grinding*.

Anyway, the new team have pretty much bedded down now, though posting is a little less regular than I’d have liked. Plus we now have ads in the RSS feed – which part of me hates doing, and the other part of me figures is a necessity.

Oh, and new fiction early next week – keep ’em peeled!

Books and magazines seen

The Masterclass had Convention-like properties, in that I came back with far more books than I went with. Best of all, none of them cost me a penny, as all-round good egg Graham Sleight was having a clear-out that included a number of titles I was only too happy to relieve him of. I shan’t list them all, but they include books of poetry, textbooks on alchemy and occultism, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

I’ve also been added to the Gollancz mailing list (that dastardly Spanton doesn’t miss an opportunity for merciless and underhanded hype, after all), which sees me supplied with ARCs of:

Justina Robson - Going Under Greg Bear - City At the End Of Time

It’s all go in this household, y’know. 🙂

Masterclass

In lieu of a more complete summary (which will need to wait for the comparative calm of next week), allow me to say that the SFF Masterclass was even better this year than before. I say this not as a disservice to the organisers, attendees and lecturers who took part in the first iteration, but to emphasise the fact that the slightly larger group size seemed to work really well, with a great sense of camaraderie and community arising (as has been noted by others, so I didn’t just imagine it) and lots of quality discussion.

From my personal perspective it was much nicer having it happen in London as opposed to Liverpool, which made the entire business vastly more affordable, but I think I’ll continue to apply to attend any year when I can spare the time and money, wherever it takes place. Recommended to any hardcore genre book geek – be they writer, critic or both.

My Bloody Valentine

Saturday night, Camden Roundhouse. So loud you could feel it in your guts and bones. A new contender in my Best Gigs Ever list, so brilliant that I’ve decided not to write a proper review because I don’t want to spoil the memory with over-analysis. I nearly cried a couple of times thanks to a bizarre combination of bliss and bludgeon.

And Bilinda Butcher is still one of the most lovely women on the planet**. So there.

Coda

Crikey, wrapping-up time already. And the rollercoaster doesn’t stop here – tomorrow night it’s The Brian Jonestown Massacre at The Wedgewood Rooms, and then Sunday sees me tripping along the coast a bit for a family get-together in honour of my mother’s birthday before returning to Velcro City for poetry at Tongues & Grooves in the evening …

… business as usual, then! So I hope you’ll excuse me for keeping the coda brief***, and simply bidding you a good weekend before rolling out in search of The Friday Curry. Hasta luego, amigos!


[ * Two valuable lessons were learned: the first being a website-specific version of the eggs-in-one-basket aphorism, the second being a reiteration of the self-knowledge that I don’t deal well with obstacles over which I have no control. I need to work out a better strategy for dealing with downtime, methinks – perhaps a list of tasks that don’t require my sites to be live would be worth putting together. Not to mention less reliance on caffeine. ]

[ ** Her collection of classic guitars is merely a supplementary bonus to her natural awesomeness and beauty. Yes. ]

[ *** Because I was worried some of you might complain. Yeah, really. Napoleon who? ]