What is the job of contemporary sf criticism?

The sf sub-blogosphere is cheerfully chattering about the purpose of the genre again. I love to see this happening, it’s one of the things that makes me proud to be a small part of the scene – science fiction has the ability to be self-critical and discursive about what it does and what it means.

It all got kicked off by a suggestion from Lou Anders to the Meme Therapy crew, that they should do one of their multi-author ‘brain parade’ interviews that asked the question: ‘What is the job of contemporary sf? Does it have a job?’. The answers (including Lou’s) were varied, impassioned and well-reasoned, as I have come to expect from genre writers, critics and other industry figures. I won’t paraphrase here, go have a look (if you’ve not seen it already, of course).

The replies have started materialising already, naturally – Meme Therapy is rapidly becoming an influential agent provocateur in the field, and rightly so. I’ve already had a go at a narrower version of the same question, when I asked if science fiction has a social function, and I’m going to hold off going at this wider query until there has been some more discussion to feed me with new viewpoints.

After all, I’m not a big wheel in the scene by any stretch of the imagination – a few book-reviewing slots do not a critic nor a pundit make – and I am hesitant to make any sweeping statements and declarations for the risk of looking like I think I know it all. If anything, the exact opposite is true; the more I learn, the more I realise there is still to learn.

Actually writing reviews that people can (and do) read has forced me to tighten up my thinking about science fiction quite considerably, from the lazy consumption of it that I was still engaged in a few years ago. I was never a ‘true’ fan as a kid, really. I was largely unaware of fandom – I just knew what I like to read, and that was almost always to be found on the sf/fantasy shelves.

But now I’m in the position of talking to other consumers from a platform of authority on the subject (albeit a very minor authority), I’ve had to engage far more seriously with the whats, whys and wherefores of the genre. The internet (and some patient editors, bless them) have been an immense help, but mostly it’s been a case of me re-learning how to read.

I am not a critic. I aspire to becoming one, but I think it’s a long slow process, and there’s some time to go before I can step up to that level. I am a reviewer. What’s the difference?

I’m not sure anyone could define with certainty what the difference is. In my personal view, a reviewer simply reports as accurately as possible on what the book contains, its plot, storyline, characters, the writing style…basically, an objective examination of the work in question, addressed to a consumer who is assumed to have a similar level of knowledge.

A critic does all this too, but has the benefit of a deeper wider knowledge of other works, and where all these works stand in relation to each other – and so it falls to the critic to treat the work subjectively, to place the work correctly amid the rest of the pantheon of the genre, often comparing and contrasting the stylistic elements (that a reviewer will merely report on) to those of other authors.

More than anything, I think the line is probably one of confidence in one’s knowledge of the scene being discussed, and the ability to back up that confidence. When you can make a controversial yet heartfelt comparison, and then defend yourself successfully against a rabid horde of enraged fen on your blog or in your magazine, then you have become a critic. Whether or not that is a position to be envied is another question. ;)

But what good are reviewers and critics?

Science fiction is a notoriously ‘un-gatekeepered’ scene, as I witnessed at my first con at Easter this year. I worked in the lower echelons of the music industry for a few years and, with a few exceptions in the more obscure (and hence egalitarian) genres, the line between artist and fan is carefully controlled, even exploited. The same goes for ‘literature’ and popular fiction authors – they aren’t known for sitting down with a bunch of people from a fan-site and buying them a round of drinks.

Why sf works differently is a question for someone with a far better knowledge of its history than I, though I’d suggest that the relatively small size of the genre, combined with the proudly geekish mindsets of both authors and fen, must play a large part in keeping the barriers down.

Graham Sleight’s latest column for Vector discusses the openness of conversation in the genre in rather less glowing and positivist terms than I tend to take, and he has some good points to make. He’s certainly not decrying the scene for its openness, but he is questioning the merits of this unmediated flow of discussion:

“The un-gatekeepered world is full of stuff that’s not worth spending time on: novels whose writing only benefits the writer, serialised in 84 parts online, or pointless flamewars fanned by Ellison imitators who don’t have a tenth of Ellison’s talent. And, despite the freedom of a world where anything can be said to anyone, sf seems more and more to be sorting itself into affinity groups or niches. The great bounty of the internet is that these no longer need to be geographically bounded. The downside is that affinity groups tend to face inwards, to talk about what they know to the people they know. (The Footage:Fetish:Forum group in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is a wonderfully well-observed view of how such communities work.)”

He says it’s easier to talk about the stuff you are already familiar with than the stuff you know not at all, and that’s very true – though personally I am enjoying being stretched by receiving books to review that I might never have considered picking up, and it’s encouraging me to grab more randomly from the library shelves when a gap in the reading schedule opens up.

But it is an observable truth that fan communities often tend towards small areas of focus – one author at a time, usually. That’s not to say the members don’t like other authors. But it does ensure a certain wikipedia-like consensus of opinion will prevail within the environs of the group – excepting for a few fringe voices and the odd popular contrarian, conversation will focus on affirming how much alike author X and the object of fandom are, and hence how good author X is, and so on. This is natural – the same dynamics occur in any pub or bar with a regular set of patrons. It’s that tribalism thing I talked about before.

But how to prevent the problem worsening? This is (or should be) the job of the critic, according to Sleight, and I think he has a point:

“The task of a critic these days, or a reader, or an anthologist, or a magazine like Vector, seems to me to be that of the organisation of information. The sf community wants to know what’s good and what isn’t; without being about authorisation, such work can be a kind of advocacy…[w]hat I want from the conversation about sf is actually not a million miles from what I want from sf: to tell me truths that I don’t know yet.”

This puts me in mind of an old recording of H. G. Wells, fittingly enough. If I remember correctly, he was addressing some conclave of scientists (possibly in Canada)*, and after praising the individual achievements of all the different fields and disciplines, he laments the fact that there is no one whose job it is to keep an eye on what all the disparate sciences are working on, to collate and draw connections between them, to suggest fruitful linkages and exchanges of ideas, to coordinate scientific endeavour as a whole, and get everyone pulling in essentially the same direction without too much duplication of effort.

I think science is still in desperate need of this kind of benign oversight – and it is starting to happen democratically, as more and more researchers are opening up their data to the search engines. And I think Sleight is right – science fiction could benefit from this, too. It is easier than ever before to share information about the bigger picture, and hence rather ironic that opposite seems to occur. And as Sleight suggests, perhaps this should be the job of contemporary sf criticism – and maybe reviewing, too.


(* No amount of Googling can scare this up, though not for lack of trying; it was from an old wax cylinder recording. I heard it in the process of digitising it for the gallery guide CD players used in the National Portrait Gallery; I’m not sure it can be heard anywhere else.)

7 thoughts on “What is the job of contemporary sf criticism?”

  1. I like the new masthead. I’m not sure about green text against a black background however, when it isn’t bold or italicized it’s legible but its pushing the envelope of what I can read comfortably.

  2. Fascinating discussion. My feeling about book criticism in general is this: the ultimate purpose of a book review is to recommend or not recommend the book for purchase.

    I get very frustrated with reviews (see NYTBR’s non-fiction reviews) that simply attempt to summarize the contents of the book without providing any insight into whether the book works or not. That’s called a book report, and most of us were through with those back in elementary school.

  3. I don’t pay much heed to book reviews often. I’d much rather go by reccomendations by people whose tastes I’m familiar with. And I don’t need a lot of information, a one or two line description with a thumbs up or thumbs down is good enough.

    The green background works much better, btw.

    Cheers,

  4. Glad you’re liking the colour scheme – it’s much less aggressive, no?

    I take your point on the ‘reviews as recommendation’ idea; from someone you trust, that is indeed all that is required. But I think it’s imporatant for a reviewer to build that trust, by not merely saying whether a book is good or not, but by also giving tangible reasons for liking or disliking it – writing style, characters, plot, tropes, whatever.

    This again is where the line between review and critique becomes blurry – it is necessary for me to go into some technical detail about the actual writing of the book, beyond simply treating it as an experience, because we all look for different things in a piece of sf, although the general trends may be similar. A prime example is the stylistic difference between US and British authors – I often struggle with American writers because of the brisk flat prose, but that is a large part of the appeal for many other readers (who prefer fast action to rich description, say). So it is not sufficent for me to say ‘I don’t recommend this book'; it’s important that I make it plain that I don’t recommend it for a person with my tastes, and for me to give an indication of what those tastes are so that the reader can make an accurate assessment of what they will get from the book in question.

    Furthermore, it is imperative not to simply dismiss a book as being rubbish, or indeed laud it as excellent. That may be all the review reader wants, but the industry would react poorly to someone reviewing in a pro or semi-pro outlet who simply gave it a thumbs up/thumbs down response – they want feedback, and most importantly, evidence that the reviewer has actually read the book! This is highlighted by the recent controversial flap that involved Emerald City – it may not be important to the average consumer, but a reviewer has a burden of integrity to carry, and a duty to the authors themselves to be honest and objective. This is how the trust you mention should be (and is) built up between reviewer and public, and between reviewer and industry.

    Or that’s how I see it, at least! :)

  5. I have to say I’m with Mr Edelman on this one. Book reports are annoyingly lacking. Fact is: there aren’t enough Clutes and Chouinards around, willing to air their opinions without the pressure of feeling the need tnot to offend. They call it as they see it, and some: the critical eye can spot all kinds of pros and cons on a book, but the real key to a successful review has to be… in context with other books of this or that type. Comparisons are useful to other authors’ work, and the wider the reviewers reading and knowledge of speculative fiction, the better the review. In theory.

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