Personally, I'm not convinced that writing is an intrinsically self-indulgent act. Part of it is... there can be a real buzz from it when you're in the Zone, as I'd put it. But it's also, for me, a deeply paranoid affair that involves crises of faith, absolute blank spots and blind fury at your own inability to make the story do what it's supposed to. When you're in that hard graft period, slicing and dicing, cutting and splicing, it's not even remotely self-indulgent. You're not in love with your writing; you're at fucking war with it. I know other writers who talk in similar terms, who talk about having to fall out of love with a story in order to rewrite it to what it should be, or who simply shake their heads and give despairing moans when you ask them how the novel's doing. It's not all peaches and cream. When you're not in the Zone, you're in the Crucible.
Sometimes you have to give the story its head. Sometimes you have to rein it in. To me that's just a banal platitude, a given. And I think there is a use of the term "self-indulgence" which basically boils down to "this story needed to be reined in and it wasn't". To me, saying something was "self-indulgent" translates as "it needed more ruthless rewriting, better editing to expunge redundancies of plot, character, setting and / or style, to tighten it up". It's saying that the writer spent too much time in the Zone, too much time giving the story its head, and riding it wildly, letting it take them wherever it would and just enjoying the ride; and not enough time and energy on turning on that story, hacking and slashing at it, pruning it into shape, giving it a good tight plot, coherent character dynamics, optimum description of setting, thematic integrity and ergonomic prose. If you can appreciate a novel for being tight, you can criticise it for not being tight. I think that's fair comment.
However, there are different standards at play in SF/F just now, and what is tight in literary terms may not be seen as tight in genre terms -- and hell, it may not even be about literary versus genre. These days in SF/F a plot that's sprawling and inchoate when compared to a more roaring and driven pulp narrative may be held together by the sort of character-based substructure or realistic relationships more common to literary novels. Alternatively, it might be held together by Gothic/Romantic hyperdescription, pulpy worldbuilding to the max. I know, with VELLUM, I deliberately fuck with plot, character and setting in ways that makes for something hellishly inchoate in many respects. What holds it together, I think, I hope, is theme and style. It's a cubist novel. It's not meant to hold together in the same way.
Anywaym the point is, this is different strokes for different folks. I don't believe there's a Golden Ratio of plot, character, setting, theme and style. I don't believe that you can objectively criticise a writer for preferencing one element over another on the basis that they a) should have found the Golden Ratio, b) know they should have found the Golden Ratio, and c) wantonly and indiscriminately failed to find the Golden Ratio because they were to busy looking elsewhere. To me, this is one of the suspect implications of the term "self-indulgence", that underlying the failure of the book for the critic is an excess of one aspect of the book (emphasised in the process of giving the story its head) linked to a deficiency in another aspect of the book (neglected in the process of reining it in, rewriting, editing).
One problem with the critique is that it's unspecific. It doesn't distinguish whether the writer has let one character run away with the story, or let flowery prose mask shallow characterisation, or spent so much wordage on describing the world that the pace of the book slows down to utter turgidity. I want to know as a writer, if this book doesn't work, exactly why it doesn't work. As a writer those specifics act as feedback into further writing, or they give me something solid to disagree with. As an old hand of the Glasgow Writer's Circle, I'm used to taking criticism, but it's worthless if it's unspecific. I'd never think of telling someone submitting a story simply that it was "self-indulgent"; I might tell them that it read like unreconstructed wish-fullfilment, or that it was a really inventive background they obviously had a lot of fun playing with but they needed to go back and give it a plot, or that his character is great but since it's really just this character doing sod all, well, the story doesn't work for me. Or so on. Self-indulgent tells a writer nothing, though. What... so I should, uh, flagellate myself in penitence? Take every third word out of the story to make it more "restrained"?
A second problem related to the first is that this criticism is, I think, taste-dependant. I enjoyed Meiville's The Scar because I think the descriptive power holds together an otherwise sprawling and inchoate novel; it reminded me of Peake (and I had a very similar experience, hating the first 50 pages and then suddenly clicking into the pace and loving it). Others I know have absolutely hated it. So specifics are important for a reader. They need to know why and how the critic thinks this book is excessive in one respect to the detriment of another because, hey, that might be just what they're looking for. At the very least, it gives the reader a clear indication of why they might or might not like this book so they can make an informed judgement on whether it would be to their taste. Weirdly, contrarily, I think there's a value for my own book in getting reviews which warn readers up front about its... um... unconventional approach to plot and character, about how it may not fulfill certain expectations. Some of the readers who would be disappointed will not buy it, so less money for me; but that means they won't buy it, hate it, and proceed to tell the world how much they hate it. Other readers will see that same review and, knowing that their preferences don't match those of the critic, decide that, actually, they might well like a book that aforesaid critic utterly reviles and hence go out and buy it. Which would be nice.
But the biggest problem for me -- and again this relates to the above -- is that an accusation of "self-indulgence" is an application of, to coin a term, authorial unintention. To me, it implies that the aspect of the book perceived as overdone is a product of the Zone rather than the Crucible, that the author couldn't possibly have intended that aspect to have been overwhelming, ramped-up to the max, as a thematic necessity of the story they're trying to tell, as a conscious decision. They couldn't possibly have spent the majority of time ploughing through the book, building up that aspect and wishing they'd never started the bloody thing in the first plac. Instead, it's assumed, the author must have been so carried away in the pleasure of writing that particular aspect, so entranced by the sheer joy of being a clever clogs, so caught up in their love for what they were doing that they became a slovenly wastrel, squandering their potential tale in redundancies of [plot/character/setting/theme/style].
At best this is condescending. At worst it's an outright insult. To me, without specifics, a cry of "self-indulgence" could easily just indicate a shallow reading, where the critic has neglected to consider the possibility that there might well be a valid reason that aspect X, Y or Z is so predominant in the novel. Without specifics, I can't know that the critic has considered this possibility, searched for a purpose, a meaning, and failed to find it. Without specifics, I can't know that the critic isn't simply arrogantly assuming that with their Huge Gigantic Brains, well, obviously, if they can't see the point in the excess of [plot/character/setting/theme/style] on a cursory reading then it simply isn't there, and further assuming that it isn't there because the author is a shallow wank-merchant, diddling themselves and going ooh yeah when a firmer hand (*ahem*) would have kept them on the straight and narrow.
And it's that last reason that makes "self-indulgence" a problematic term for me, even if it can be explicated out into a valid critique -- that X aspect needed to be reined in because it overshadows Y, making the book read as if the author has been too busy having fun here to pay attention here. The real problem is that such shorthand usage is indistinguishable from the sort of commonplace philistine critique of "show-offery" applied to anything which dares to be difficult, to risk incomprehension and resentment on the part of the reader for the sake of ambition. The critic may well be right. The book may be deeply flawed, it's aesthetic balance way off, because the writer's just plain failed to pull off what they were trying to do. But the word "self-indulgent" doesn't communicate that any more than calling the writer a poncy git does. And as an accusation of a lack of self-awareness on the author's part, of selfishness and unfounded pride even, it's about as personal as that sort of name-calling.
Noting Cheryl Morgan's and NineBelow's comments on this post, I should probably add the clarification that I don't neccessarily take "self-indulgence" as an insult (and incidentally, hereby promise I shall never throw a hissy fit even if such an accusation is leveled at me; nossir, I reserve hissy fits for right-wing homophobes that'll be truly freaked out by them) . No, it's more that I think it can be read not as a judgement of skill (which is how I'd classify talk about a writer's characterisation as "amateurish") but as a judgement of integrity. And without a qualitative pointer to what is textually being indulged (like, maybe we should say plot-indulgent, prose-indulgent, character-indulgent?) the statement can be read one way or the other.
Naturally, I'm being utterly selfish here and looking for what I can get out of a review, but I also think the reader has a choice to read "failure of this book" or "failure of this author" into the word. If that makes sense.
Of course, if the writer's response is "YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE GENIUS THAT IS ME YOU FOOLS I DID NOT WORK FOR TEN YEARS IN THIS BUSINESS WRITING DODGY VAMPIRE SLASH FICTION FOR SOME EDITOR TO COME ALONG AND TELL ME THAT I NEED TO TRIM A SENTENCE HERE AND THERE OH NO FOR I AM THE ALMIGHTY GODDESS OF VAMPIRE SLASH FICTION HOW DARE YOU QUESTION ME YOU PUNY MORTALS?", and then Jeff's Evil Monkey starts to eat their head, well, then the reviewer was probably right.