Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Critique From HereNow

The Fan and the Last Man

By way of Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen, by way of Jonathan McCalmont of Ruthless Culture, quoting from Mark of K-Punk, here’s a quote I want to get my pointy little teeth into:

“In many ways, the academic qua academic is the Troll par excellence. Postgraduate study has a propensity to breeds trolls; in the worst cases, the mode of nitpicking critique (and autocritique) required by academic training turns people into permanent trolls, trolls who troll themselves, who transform their inability to commit to any position into a virtue, a sign of their maturity (opposed, in their minds, to the allegedly infantile attachments of The Fan). But there is nothing more adolescent – in the worst way – than this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere. For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from – the worst kind of libidinal configuration, an appalling trap, an existential toxicity which ensures debilitation for all who come into contact with it (if only that in terms of time and energy wasted – the Troll above all wants to waste time, its libido involves a banal sadism, the dull malice of snatching people’s toys away from them).”

The most interesting features of this quote to me are actually the capitalisations of “Troll” and “The Fan”. All words are significant; but some are Significant. Like the Namings of the Enemy. These are the soft underbelly of polemic, the place where a well-aimed bite will bring you to the innards. We find something similar here, in another quote from the same K-Punk post — in the capitalisation of “Last Man”:

“Smirking postmodernity images the fan as the sad geekish Trekkie, pathetically, fetishistically invested in what – all good sense knows – is embarrassing trivia. But this lofty, purportedly olympian perspective is nothing but the view of the Last Man. Which isn’t to make the fatuous relativist claim that devotees of Badiou are the same as Trekkies; it is to make the point that Graham has been tirelessly reiterating – that the critique from nowhere is nothing but trolling. Trolls pride themselves on not being fans, on not having the investments shared by those occupying whatever space they are trolling.”

McCalmont challenges the expedient strategy of dismissing criticisms with the meta-argument that “they are in breach of the rules of proper engagement”:

In other words, not only is being a fan an acceptable state to be in, it is also the only meaningful position from which to engage with anything. To properly engage with a text, you must attack it from a particular theoretical and/or aesthetic position. To fail to possess such a position is to be little more than a troll.

I’m not sure I buy this rearticulation though. It’s a little ragdoll that I get the feeling will come apart at the seams with just a little shaking. There’s a simple case here after all: 1) Smirking postmodernity is a distinctively anti-fan position, characterised by an abjection of said fan as pitiable trivia-fetishist; 2) While pretending to a “lofty, purportedly olympian perspective”, this attitude is actually shallow and self-serving posturing; 3) The combination of argumentative critique and proud disdain for the emotionally-invested fan is the essence of the troll; 4) Critique born of this trolling, “critique from nowhere”, is worthless.

Fuck, you can just bite the head off this right away. It’s extending the argument to read this as saying that the only meaningful position is therefore to be a fan. This is to gloss over one simple alternative: not giving a flying fuck; being neither Fan nor Last Man. An argument that the anti-fan stance is wrong does not translate into an argument that the fan stance is right, not if we allow for a non-fan stance. This rearticulation turns the Last Man argument into a Straw Man: an argument that invalidates all critique but that of the Fan. Easy to torch.

The Ivory Watchtower

To be fair, of course, this Last Man argument has some problems in its own right. There’s a sweeping assumption at the last point there for a start. So the great white snark never picks a target that deserves the Darwin Award, eh? Doesn’t taste the blood, notice the ineffectual thrashing of the feeble swimmer way out of their depth? That hunter-killer critique can never be right? I could shore up that case a little, bolster it with an argument that the Last Man’s opinion is likely to be distorted by the prejudice associated with the abjection of the Fan, transfering that irrationalism to anything loaded with signifiers of fan appeal: but that would be me now extending the argument. Bollocks to that.

The case is flawed in another respect anyway. If I were to modify it would be to tear off the loose limb — the whole “troll” assertion. The analogy doesn’t sit comfortably, as McCalmont points out, with the academic’s consistent application of theory: “When an analytical philosopher attacks an idea, he does so whilst committed to certain theories and postulates.” Actually this is sort of implicit in Mark’s assertion on K-Punk, that “[t]he best critics do not pretend to offer value-neutral judgements from nowhere – as Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and Lacan have shown in their different ways, no such place exists, although the fantasy position of something like Analytic Philosophy is to pretend that it does.” The true troll has no such fantasy position, no high-rise hidey-hole of mock objectivity to snipe from; the troll is a grunt on the ground, running this way and that, chucking whatever wank grenade happens to be handy, through whatever doorway happens to be ajar. The troll’s critique is critique from everywhere and anywhere.

But if we chew off the fat of points three and four, maybe we are still left with a Last Man of sorts, defined by the first two points — the anti-fan, scorning the emotional investment of the devout, allowing that scorn to cloud their judgement. Critiquing from a “nowhere” that pretends to be a somewhere, a precarious construct of “theories and postulates”, a house of flashcards inked with empty signifiers. This is the latent myth of the Last Man, why it is capitalised like “The Fan”, because it is a symbol every bit as much as is the Fan. A bogeyman whose critique comes from the nowhere of nonsense, from the Ivory Watchtower of Academia, the Spire of Dreaming; it is a metaphor that pervades the discourse. There’s “investment” and there’s “investment”. That disavowal of the fannish emotional investment, that “posture of alleged detachment”, is not incompatible with an intellectual investment in that “fantasy position” of ironic oversight. It’s just that this mode of philosophical investment refuses the sincerity of sentiment, apes objectivity. Sounds like the old Reason versus Passion dichotomy to me. Head versus Heart. Rationalism versus Romanticism. Intellectualism versus sensationalism. Elitists versus populists. Last Man versus Fan. Maybe this’ll be more obvious with a bit of symbol flipping:

Sullen countermodernity images the academic as the snide sophistic Last Man, pathetically, defensively retreated into what – all good sense knows – is pseudo-intellectual flummery. But this ballsy, purportedly grounded perspective is nothing but the view of the Fan.

It’s juicy rhetoric from both angles, the Fan against the Last Man, the Last Man against the Fan. But let’s strip it to the bones.

Squabbling Siblings

So, the core of that K-Punk piece is a criticism of the “Last Man” attitude as a stance in and of itself. Not as the lack of a “correct” stance but as a stance handicapped by its prejudicial hostility. That stance is characterised by its disdain of investment, but the issue here is actually the “Last Man” treating this as “a virtue, a sign of their maturity.” In the context of the emotional nature of the fan’s investment, the Last Man’s affectation of distance can be seen as an intellectualist abjection of the sensational. This, the argument goes, is a form of investment in its own right, and a neurotic one, an abjection of the fan inside. How so? It is an “adolescent” affectation, “this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere”. Why? “For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from.” Map that “smirking” to the callow irony of a muso who derides a kick-ass rock band because they’re on the cover of NME, of a sophomore who thinks he’s “above all that” precisely because he’s bought into a solipsistic self-belief. Each is abjecting their own past naivety in an attempt to prove they’ve overcome it.

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t find that principle instantly recognisable, who doesn’t remember at some stage of their infancy or adolescence scorning the “childish” things they once cherished, abjecting them in a ritualistic disavowal of the embarassing naivety of that joy?

Does the Last Man exist within this subculture? It hardly seems likely that they wouldn’t, to be honest; why on earth would this subculture be any different? And rejecting that “posture” does not mean that the only valid response is the other extreme — the infantile investment of the fanatic, scorning all critique that denies his passion, even when it’s entirely reasonable. Not that I’m denying that extreme is one response. Does the Fan exist within this subculture? That’s another no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. But that doesn’t mean it’s either/or.

Of course, maybe I’m being too charitable in my reading of this Last Man argument. Maybe that is the contention — that it’s Last Man or Fan, and the Last Man is just a goddamn phony, so you have only one option if you want to be a good critic. If so, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the binary logic that sets up the extremes of Fan and Last Man, disacknowledging anything between. Or more accurately, anything after. I do think these extremes are evident in the discourse, sometimes as Straw Men, raised up as symbols for the factions on each side, projected on to any disagreeable critique, but sometimes as actual positions. The dynamic seems a little like that of two siblings at times, the younger throwing infantile sulks because the elder derides their taste as childish, the elder aping adulthood but demonstrating their own adolescence in each callow disavowal. If I’ve been focusing on the latter in all the recent blather, by the way, it’s because I think the “you’re just a jealous poopy-head” balderdash is largely obvious and acknowledged, while the “meh, that’s so jejune” piffle is not.

Critique Going Nowhere

McCalmont’s post acknowledges the problem, in his references to academic training in critique that “gives birth to a belief in certain universal laws of not only logic but also argumentative discourse.” He has a highly pertinent comment, to my mind, when he notes that “[d]ebate in analytical philosophy is not directionless. Rather it stems from a belief in certain universal strictures.” As I commented in response — and as I touched on in the Ethics and Enthusiasm post — the key danger I see is of those strictures turning into a tick-list. Prescriptivism is a sophomoric mode of thought, the recourse to absolutism as the bolsters and barricades of an immature philosophy; it is a bedsit built of books, a safe haven in an uncertain world. And the tick-list is a crib sheet that makes the Last Man’s need for such stability apparent.

Ironically, the more methodical the review the more superficial it may look, even when it has substantive points well-argued, because it ultimately reads as critique-by-numbers, a ritualistic analysis in accordance with received wisdom learned by rote. Prose, setting, plot, character, theme, conclusion. Or drop “prose” and throw in “influences”. Drop “character” and throw in “eyeball-kicks”. Drop “theme” and throw in “kittens”. Says Johnathan: “Many is the paper I sat through which would be debated in terms of ‘simplicity’, ‘intuitiveness’ and even ‘cleanliness’.” Translate those to Populist terms like “accessibility”, “immersiveness” and “transparent prose” and it’s not hard to see how tick-list critique happens on one side of the fence, I think. Translate them to “verisimilitude”, “reflectiveness” and “rich prose” and you have a different value-set that’s all well and good but not necessarily the most relevant in reviewing a pulp fiction work for a pulp fiction audience.

But the point is not that it’s wrong to apply those values, not if you’re reviewing a work for an audience that shares them; rather that a tick-list critique on that basis, for all its literary standards, transforms those “universal strictures” into a formulation of a “good novel” every bit as blinkered as the philistine’s template of a “good story”. Even when the values are an individual’s own, their home-made aesthetic built from a ferocious interrogation of one’s own tastes, there is an air of convention to them. Another Hendrix poster on another bedsit wall. Another trafic cone in the corner. Another copy of Nietzsche, Marx, Freud or Lacan. You can smell the damp and dust of a rented aesthetics decked out in ornaments of individualism but still not really a home. Makes me want to cock my leg and piss in a corner.

But does this actually invalidate the critique? No, not at all. It can still be substantive, still be of value to the audience that shares those tastes. This is not critique from nowhere. The Last Man is not a troll. The targets picked from the Ivory Watchtower may be valid. The Last Man’s ruthless sniping may serve as a culling of the herd. And ultimately his aim may be true. But this does raise the questions articulated by McCalmont:

When we argue about the failings of a book’s prose style or the lack of narrative coherence or the weak characterisation or the poor structure, are we invoking an imaginary set of universal principles?

Yes, even if they are general conventions.

are we effectively attacking works from nowhere and with nothing?

No, because they are general conventions that mostly make sense. It’s just that in pulp fiction, with the exception of narrative coherence perhaps, these are often secondary to the dynamic qualities peculiar to that pulp idiom. The turgid prose of Epic Fantasy may be required for a thick weft of worldbolstering and worldbumphing. In the Romantic aesthetic of old school Space Opera, “strong” characterisation may be bold rather than subtle. And if you fail to consider factors like these it’s like treating a musical as a play, judging it with a tick-list of “acting”, “script”, “narrative coherence”. Which is fine until you’re addressing yourself to an audience that includes a whole lot of Steven Sondheim fans. “As for the experimentalist strategy of disrupting the narrative with song? The playwright is clearly striving for Dennis Potter style moments of rapture; sadly he achieves only a bizarre and unintentional effect of Pinteresque non sequitur.”

That may be critique from somewhere, but it’s critique going nowhere.

Of Pulp and Preachers

But here’s the key point:

are we being simply trolls?

No, but you’re going to piss people the fuck off if you can’t rein in a) the tick-list critique that takes academic method as formula b) the assumption that you know better. Because where that analytic mentality reads as utterly procedural thought, it serves as marker not just of sophomoric methods but of the stereotype of science fiction fanthink — that rigidity of thought locked into system — invalidating any air of superior nous. And then you get a critic who is, “in effect, attacking from the position of a fan even though he himself does not necessarily recognise that he is merely a fan or that his devotion to a particular position is all that he is defending.” You have someone who’s “attacking from the point of view that certain values are either actually universal or they should be.” You get the devoted, defensive advocate of dogma.

More to the point, you get a reader who knows fine well that what they’re dealing with is a fan turned aesthetic ideologue — turned demogogue actually, given that they have a platform, a pulpit — the balcony of that Ivory Watchtower from which one preaches to the masses. It’s not trolling, but it is a political act, where the reviewer is genuinely seeking to exert sway, where you are stepping into that Last Man role — or even where you just appear to be because your style of reviewing hasn’t matured yet, you haven’t quite found your voice, so the academic tone still echoes in your words. Maybe you’re not the Last Man. But that’s how the Fan is going to see you the second you curl your top lip into even a hint of a sneer at their taste. And this is what you’re going to be doing. As McCalmont acknowledges in a thread on OF Blog of the Fallen:

Book reviews are not just purchasing recommendations, they're also part of the fashioning of genre's identity and that feeds back into the books that the genre will produce in future.

And in relation to authors of works that don’t fit with the progressive agenda, authors of “core genre” works:

In fact, I don't actually think that critics should be in the business of patting those kinds of author on the head either. One of the roles of the critic is to stir the pot by situating works in a wider context and part of that stirring of the pot is saying "this is good... it moves stuff forward" even if it is down blind alleys.

Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I’m all for a peer-group discourse of mouthy opinionated bastards pushing their own idiosyncratic agenda. (Mea culpa.) I might ask, with a slight arching of the eyebrow and a wry smile, whether you think critics should be in the business of patting other kinds of authors on the head? I mean, the right kinds of authors? The ones that are good little doggies, walking to heel and feeling all toasty inside when the master rewards them with that pat? I might ask if you seriously don’t expect to get bitten by the feral mutts among us who are not interested in playing sheepdog in your fantasy of “shepherd of the genre flock”? By the readers themselves who are far from sheepish, when you try to steer them this way or that with a tap of your little stick? Even a breeze of the stick flicking past them, a glimpse of it in the corner of an eye, and they’re going to try and take it off you, snap it in two and ram it where the son don’t shine.

If you’re going to be an agitant, don’t for the love of Dog be surprised at the “baroque” accusations that result when you agitate people.

The people who disagree with your agenda are going to respond. Somebody telling you your tastes aren’t legitimate? That you should be enjoying something written on entirely different principles? When they’re apparently blind to their own fanthink? To most readers of pulp fiction that’s going to automatically read as just another example of the — how I hate this word — “elitism” of those devoted to the contemporary realist genre, to the exclusion of all else. And given the social qualities of that sort of interaction, it’s going to read as a mechanism of abjection. Sadly, the general autoresponse seems to be to come out, guns blazing, with the exact same strategies of dismissal and delegitimisation, but — also sadly — that’s entirely predictable and not really that unwarranted when you step into the role of Last Man.

Writing that reaction off as defensive groupthink is defensive groupthink. It’s a nice, safe, consolatory but ultimately self-defeating fallacy to dismiss that reaction as the irk of Fans invested in their precious precious, lashing out blindly in their sense of belonging to a community that’s under attack. No, it’s about the community belonging to them. Which is to say, it’s about the community not belonging to you, not as far as they’re concerned. So you apply for the post of genre gatekeeper, guardian of the ghetto, and they ask you, in no uncertain terms, who the fuck do you think you are? No shit, Sherlock. Suck it up. If you really, honestly want to effect change then you’re going to have to get over that cosy little fantasy of the “dumb” “ovine” “mob”. You’re going to have to recognise that some of them are foxes in their cunning, bulls in their belligerence, lone wolves in their individualism. You want to push the envelope? Get into their heads and figure out how to talk to them, how to treat them as people rater than sheep, so they won’t end up turning your Last Man stance into one big motherfucker of a Straw Man, swarming round it en masse, and putting it to the torch while you scream, “Oh, Jesus Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ!”

Otherwise you’re just bleating.

So saith the rabid dog Behemouth.


Anonymous Jonathan M said...

Hal -- A quickish response to this excellent post.

Firstly, I agree with the idea that if one is going to try to stir the pot then one must accept that people are going to be annoyed by you dipping your spoon into their food. I think there was a time when I felt rather like King Gama from G&S's Princess Ida : I go around telling people to their face what's wrong with them but rather than recognising that I'm a philanthropist people think that I'm a disagreeable man :-) Nowadays I'm a lot happier with that role and I accept that my review might well generate negative feedback.

However, while I'm quite content being a marginal, I'm not sure that that was the spirit in which martin's review was written and I don't think that he sees himself in the same terms as I see myself. He didn't think that the book worked on its own terms... to me that's not consistent with someone who rejects the very existence of that kind of work.

Secondly, the idea of a tick-list critique is an interesting one. What type of things do you think are on this list?

Personally, I get annoyed about pre-rendered aesthetic yadsticks. The "where are the strong characters I can empathise with?" types of complaints.

There's a balance to be found between a belief in universal aesthetic principles and demanding obeissance be paid to formulae and trends.

For example, I'm reading The Atrocity Exhibition at the moment and ever page I am struck with the ways in which Ballard has set out to fuck with the rules. Yes there's an attempt to embrace modernist styles of expression but I can think of nothing worse than a genre reviewer looking at that bok and whining about the lack of strong characters or complaining about how inconsistent the characterisation is.

In other words, any set of aesthetic principles a critic holds must be flexible or abstract enough to acknowledge when certain principles are being deliberately confronted.

11:43 am  
Blogger Larry said...

One little bit that I'll add to this discussion: I have discovered (to my consternation) that when it comes to conflicts between groups and individuals, that often it is not because the individual has a divergent, confrontational checklist or prescriptive solutions for things that the group either doesn't believe is a problem or refuses to accept as a viable solution, but rather because the individual has refused to be pigeon-holed.

That is something that I'm curious to see where you'd place in your post above, Hal. I like where you're coming from here, but what happens when you run into those skeptics whose skepticism runs so deep that their very doubt serves much the same purposes as the Last Man in that K-Punk piece?

7:28 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Johnathan: Having read the ARC, I can see where Martin’s review is responding to the book’s own aims. Newton’s injecting New Weird and Dying Earth strangeness into the arteries of a more traditional Fantasy form, he’s aiming for a richer prose style, for Villjamur to be a City rather than just a city, and for a multi-threaded narrative of intrigue and adventure; and that opens the book up to interrogation on how well it succeeds on all those fronts. There are points I agree with 100% (Jeryd ignoring the blue paint doesn’t work for me at all) and there are points I disagree with 100% (that “1930s swashbuckler” is actually a “charming rogue” character, as core Fantasy as it gets), but when you’re arguing that the city doesn’t come alive into a City, for example, you’re certainly not trying to judge a Fantasy work as a Harlequin Romance. (Like “Just as you think Randur and Eir’s relationship is about to blossom, here comes another tedious scene of Jeryd’s investigation to burst your bubble.”)

But there’s a “but”…

9:45 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I do think the review muddles this intent of taking the book on its own terms, at the start and the end, with the features I mentioned over on your own blog.

In situating the book in the context of Macmillan’s higher-profile avant-garde fantasists, the review immediately begs the question(s) of why these two qualities are relevant. Tor UK has a fair range of writers of varying profiles and approaches; their last big debut fantasy was — unless I’m missing a 2008 debut — David Bilsborough’s The Wanderer’s Tale in 2007, which is dyed-in-the-wool Epic Fantasy (from what I’ve read of it) and which wasn’t that well-received (again from what I’ve read of it). Newton is ultimately just the latest Macmillan debut, with his own approach, which may or may not achieve the sort of universal acclaim that Miéville has or the sort of love/hate notoriety I’ve got. As might any other writer with any other publisher.

Now, that contextualisation does make some sense: Newton’s approach invites comparison to Miéville and Campbell; and while the contrast of Newton’s prose style to my own is sort of… picking an apple to compare with an orange because it happens to be in the same cart, it does have a logic to it as an argument of opposite extremes. But the whole joining-the-ranks parlance (“fine company”, etc.) imparts a sense of… binary status-measuring, a suggestion that the review is really about whether Newton is worthy of being allowed in to that “vanguard”. It gives it the air of an admissions test, brought into play presumably in response to Macmillan’s promotion of the book and/or to the positive reviews. Why “presumably”? Because there’s no reason to raise these sort of questions of whether a book is worthy of admission to such “fine company” unless you’re pushing it forward or blocking its path because somebody else is. If a work is mediocre and nobody is claiming vanguard status for it, then it’s hardly an issue worth wasting ink on. You could argue that Newton’s approach is ambitiously unorthodox enough that the book is… knocking at the door, so to speak. Hell, even if you do ask these sort of questions of any book that comes along, the binary quality of selection rather than evaluation carries a certain… muso priggishness.

And any muso vibe the reader picks up from that opening is going to be reinforced by Martin’s phrasing of his conclusion — “middle of the road fantasy that doesn't really attempt to be anything more”. The ambiguity of “middle of the road” — the fact that it can be read as “conventional” or “mediocre” — binds with the criticism of lack of ambition, and with the “vanguard of British fantasy” contextualisation at the start; it creates a sense that the book is being damned because the reviewer wanted it to be one particular type of fantasy (ambitious, avant-garde) and found it to be another (unambitious, conventional). To me, this is actually at odds with the substance of Martin’s critique: that Newton tries and fails. For what it’s worth, to me, Newton’s clearly trying to reinvigorate genre Fantasy with features from the avant-garde (New Weird) and from an out-of-fashion genre (Dying Earth); and the substance of Martin’s review is applicable to those aims whether you agree with it or not. It’s just that this framing makes it really easy to read this as a “muso” style review — i.e. from someone who rejects those aims out-of-hand because any such conventionalty renders one ineligible for membership of the avant-garde.

9:47 pm  
Blogger emphryio said...

I like your thoughts on the subject Mr. Duncan, ...more so than others, excuse me for saying. (And OK, excuse my really truly ranty blog.)

Would be interested to hear what you think of the criticism 'preachy' at some later time, which as best I can tell primarily just means the reader recognized ideas they personally disagreed with. Yet, writers seem so afraid of getting that criticism...

11:51 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Emphyrio: Thanks. To be honest, “preachy” seems like a valid critique to me. I’d take it seriously if it was levelled at a work of fiction, mine or anyone else’s, in a way that I might not with a word like “pretentious”. I’d take it as translating to “didactic” and “instructional” with maybe a hint of “dogmatic” — i.e. so focused on a particular take on a particular theme that the narrative is warped to read like pure advocacy. Single-minded. Belaboured. To me it’s important that, however much I might hold to this or that idea, tackling a theme means exploring it from as many angles as possible, and that means giving the Devil his due, so to speak. If you can’t understand why the “villain” thinks he’s a good man, he’s not a well-written character. If you sort of think he might have a point, that’s better writing, to my mind. Ultimately, I’m not averse to making a point and making it forcefully, even having characters articulate it explicitly, but largely I’d be inclined to set things up so that they’re not just my mouthpiece. The character of Seamus Finnan in Vellum has some fairly preachy dialogue of a socialist-pacifist bent, and I am, it has to be said, fairly bolshie myself. But the character’s most preachy moment, where he gives a speech to Red Clydesiders during “Bloody Friday” (January 31st, 1919, George Square in Glasgow) is largely a set-up for exploring the collision of those two ideals when faced with the Spanish Civil War. Exploring a real dilemma is simply more interesting than finagling one so it can be “solved” by your philosophy — i.e. setting it up so you can have the characters finding the Obvious Solution and explaining to each other why the Solution is Obvious, thereby turning the story into polemic.

1:44 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Johnathan: Some minor additional points I’ll throw in for consideration.

I suspect uncompromising negativity generally adds to any air of muso truculence ascribed by the reader. I don’t think negative reviews should be sugar-coated for the sake of balance, but with any negative review you can get… lacunae of positivity, where a criticism implies some related positive sentiment, but that positivity remains notably unarticulated. Martin wishing that the narrative focused on Jeryd’s and Lathraea’s threads, for example, might imply that these had some merit, even if only in relation to that of Randur. What you can end up with is a feeling that the reviewer has reacted so strongly against a text that their determination to shred it over-rides any consideration of merit. This may be a valid response, but as dogged shades into dogmatic it also shades into rabid. Which is to say, mean and vicious, not just denying the positives of the text but twisting any features that it can, if it scores a negative point by doing so.

That’s why some picked up on the “garuda” comment, I suspect, reading it as snipewank. You could easily view this as homage — “Those last a clear nod to Miéville’s New Crobuzon”. Instead, in context, “imported” reads as insinuation that Newton has derivatively lifted from Miéville what all of them, including Borges, have ultimately lifted from Hindu mythology. The same with the ARC; it’s not that Martin bases his criticism on the un-copyedited text, but that the sloppiness of the ARC isn’t relevant. As I say, I read the ARC and it is appalling, but the criticism of this reads as crowbarred in to add spurious negativity and/or validate the speculation that the book is a rush job (i.e. victim of commercial imperatives) — again, snipewank.

In fact, the mechanism by which Martin introduces the De Lillo comparison — the Guardian review quote — is a real misjudgement in this respect, I’d say, planting the idea firmly in the reader’s head of strange style being “hard to disentangle from the copy-editing errors”. So when Martin blasts the error riddled ARC and then segues seamlessly, via the text that “just does not hang together very well”, to critiquing the author’s style, it’s inviting the reader to ask: but haven’t you just said that this is “hard to disentangle from the copy-editing errors”? and that the text is horrendously error-ridden? so isn’t it “hard” to make a judgement here? aren’t you selecting an uncharitable reading where it’s bad style, rather than a charitable reading where it’s lack of copy-editing? haven’t you actively decided to dislike this book?

Thing is, that quote carries an implication that this is a problem with reviewing De Lillo, that it’s difficult making a valid critique when you can’t tell whether a jarring word or phrase is intentional or an error. And that this is applied as a limitation-of-judgement with respect to De Lillo’s final texts only highlights the fact that Martin seems to have no qualms in indicting anon-final text. (Why “seems to”? He does make it clear the quotes are from the finished text but unfortunately leaves it vague as to whether he read that text or simply double-checked it for the quotes. Again unfortunately, I think the focus on the ARC makes it read as the latter.) The result? There’s a sort of caveat implied by the review itself but trodden underfoot by Martin. My own response to reading it was to wonder why he didn’t open with that quote (paralleling Newton opening with a De Lillo quote), make the caveat in it explicit — that given how royally fucked-up the text of the ARC is, the reviewer has a hard job — and then use the “offering” quote as evidence that it isn’t just lack of copy-editing, and as a springboard into the general evaluation of style, etc..

All of these are minor points. For all of them, there are other readings available, but given the “framing” I talk about above I can easily see how these would contribute to a churlish vibe.

2:34 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Oops. That last paragraph should really read:

All of these are minor points. For all of them, there are other readings available, but given the “framing” I talk about above I can easily see how these readings would arise and contribute to a churlish vibe.

(Oh, and I'll try and go into some thoughts on what might feature on a tick-list critique, but that might end up a separate blog post.)

2:45 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Larry: That is a peachy question. I guess if I was to “place” that type of individual in my post, I’d want to fit it into that extended metaphor of the Last Man as a sniper in his Ivory Tower and the Troll as a grenade-chucking grunt. Which is to say, putting a spin on your “pigeon-holed”, we’re looking at the individual who refuses to be fox-holed, right? The perennial Devil’s Advocate, the skeptic whose stance is antidoxy (yes, I made it up; it’s the opposite of heterodoxy, or at least the one that’s not homodoxy (which, yes, I also made up); it’s a fancy word for “thrawn”), the cynic who’s too cynical about cynicism to retreat into it, but who refuses to dig themselves a nice, safe trench of essentialist dogma, sandbagged with “certainties” but liable to come down on your head when the big artillery is brought to bear.

It might be kind of difficult for me to evaluate that objectively, because fundamentally that’s probably my adopted position. I guess a good name for it might be the Heretic. It’s a dangerous role because if it’s just being argumentative for the sake of it, argument as a game which, of course, rewards the “winner” with a certain buzz, a role which one romanticises for its outsider status, then it becomes just intelligent trolling. I think the Heretic is distinct from the Troll only in so far as he or she is discriminating and commited even if only to an existentialist ethic of exercising one’s judgement. The Heretic is inconsistent perhaps, like the troll in being always on the move, yes, but there’ll be a coherence even in the absence of consistency, and they’re as likely to help defend a position under attack as to chuck a grenade in. As likely to try and mediate a ceasefire, in fact. Though possibly after blowing up, if feasible, the ammo dumps of all sides involved. In rejecting any fox-hole of philosophy the Heretic is a creature of the middle-ground, but that doesn’t mean huddling in a little crater in the mud of No Man’s Land, because that’s not engaging. Well, to be fair, it can be, if one is actively trying to negotiate an armistice. But that’s not the Heretic’s manner of engaging.

I mean, if skepticism is truly sincere, to my mind, then it’s not intrinsically negative; it has to be as skeptical of negative assertions as it is about positives. (See N for Nihilism in my “A-Z of This Blog”, linked to the left.) Even in adopting a Devil’s Advocate role in relation all sides, the Heretic has to play Devil’s Advocate with themself by seeking the value in those positions. By doing so, if it works, the Heretic might be in a position to show how opposed factions are projecting Straw Men onto each other, how they’re not actually the Evil Enemy each sees the other as, but in fact simply coming from different but equally legitimate perspectives. The Heretic is not a troll but a troubleshooter, their argument designed not to sow dissent but to try and take out the preconceptual roots of dissent. Ultimately, it seems to me, it’s about attacking the intransigent rhetoric in order to establish grounds for rapprochement.

As a wry aside: The Heretic, if you place any credence in astrology, is most likely a Libra. As a skeptic, of course, I think astrology is complete bollocks. I do, however, recognise my own utterly antidoxic nature as so unquestionably Libran that I have to be skeptical about that rationalist dogma, and try and explain this evidence rather than blithely ignore it. Of course, as a skeptic, I find “the influence of the planets” a ludicrous idea and tend to a hypothesis that one simply projects such characteristics onto oneself, with self-perception possibly reinforcing the behaviour patterns over time.

Of course, this being a hypothesis, I have to be skeptical about it.

4:46 am  
Anonymous Martin said...

Firstly, as Jonathan says, I don't see myself as an agitant. I'm happy to let him take that role ;)

Secondly, I wouldn't describe anyone at Tor UK as being an avant-garde fantasist apart from you. (The City And The City might make me change my mind about this though.)

I do think the DeLillo quote is the one thing I wouldn't include in the review if I was writing it again (although I think you are the first person who has mentioned it). When I read the review it was a moment of cosmic resonance. However, really it should have remained a personal moment of cosmic resonance, perhaps mentioned on my blog at most.

For the other issues, I am (obviously) inclined to another reading. (There are a few more thoughts on the issues posed by the ARC here.)

4:23 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hi Martin,

I should be clear: I didn't pick up an agitant vibe from that review myself. I did get the "muso" vibe on a first reading, I have to say. It’s just that I’d read the book and could see where you were coming from, and as soon as I see a bandwagon I know I don’t want to be on it. Still, I had to read the review through a couple more times to decide it was those "framing" issues that were casting it in a certain tone. Like the way a square of colour will be perceived as a very different shade if you place it in a border of this other colour or that. If you’re not classing Miéville and Campbell as “avant-garde”, maybe that explains part of the problem of clashing readings: I think "vanguard" just carries that "avant-garde" implication for many -- front-line, progressive, not necessarily *radically* unconventional in the way that I am, but definitely striving to break with convention and orthodoxy. I mean, "vanguard" does actually derive from "avant-garde".

The linked comments on the ARC are interesting. I don’t think the “warning to the reader” aspect comes through at all, I have to say. I do think the suspicion of commerciality is clear (“a commercial decision by the publisher taken in order to maximise publicity,” “suggesting the state of the proof is indicative of something wider,” and, in the review itself, “I suspect (hope) a lot of it is due to pace of production; the book shows every sign of being written in a rush.”) But that wording in the review reads as free-floating and nebulous, an undercurrent of irk that attaches to the author and the book rather than articulating itself directly at its real target: the mechanisms of commercial publishing. It’s about “being writen” rather than “being produced”, you know? So I think it’s likely to backfire for a lot of readers, coming across as muso truculence, damning the author with a speculation of churning out the book just to get the cheque in the bank.

I'm curious as to why you'd drop the DeLillo quote now? It did seem pertinent to me, pointing to a very plausible source for those jarring word-choices. And, if you’d opened with the De Lillo quote you could have made the caveat explicit upfront (which is where any such caveat belongs, to my mind,) warned the reader that there’s no guarantee all of these errors would be sorted, made the point that it gives the impression of a rush job, and that the book has clearly been punted out too early for the sake of publicity. That’s a cogent point begging to be made: that punting out an ARC in this state is a marketing maneouvre that’s either cynical (“those fantasy reviewers won’t care about the prose”), naive (“I’m sure they’ll all make allowance for a few errors”) or desperate (“oh my god, oh my god, we have to get it out now, now, NOW!”) Seems to me you get that where you talk of “a commercial decision by the publisher taken in order to maximise publicity,” no? Hmmm. Rather than criticising you for “reviewing the ARC”, I guess I’m saying you didn’t quite go far enough. For my liking, that is, of course.

6:45 pm  

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