Ethics and Enthusiasm
I’m guessing there’s few readers in the strange fiction field who won’t know what kerfuffle a post with “ethics” in the title is going to be addressing. For those who don’t a good overview of the furore can be gleaned from reading Abigail Nussbaum’s entry and the various posts linked to in it. And if it’s yucks you're after, Jeff VanderMeer and Evil Monkey provide a fucking hilarious take on the more absurd aspects of it all (with no small amount of kudos due to Felix Gilman’s comments.)
So, first came a new group blog, lumbering itself with the name Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics. I saw a link to it sometime over the last week or so, a mention of it that piqued my curiosity. I’m always on about ethics (and morals, and the distinction between them) over here at the Geek Show, so I was intrigued to see what their angle was. Ethics as subject matter in strange fiction? Ethics as evaluative standard applied to the writing or reading of strange fiction? The word in this context makes me think of medical ethics committees, or think-tanks in other domains, individuals gathered to discuss the ethical impact of developments in their field. It sounded a little dry for my liking — I was kind of imagining the sort of intellectualist discourse that made the Mundane SF movement sound awfully stuffy, with their pshawing at pulp “follies”. Something terribly serious. Still, I can do serious.
So the blog itself just kind of confused me, with an agenda that seemed little to do with ethics at all. I can’t recall the specifics of the original mission statement, but Abigail Nussbaim’s quote — “celebrating all that is positive in the field of genre fiction” — does ring a bell, sounds like the vague sense I got of an agenda better described as to do with enthusiasm rather than ethics. To me it seemed the aim was to focus on all that’s worth lauding about the field of strange fiction and the culture that surrounds it. What we want to look at, it seemed to be saying, is what’s good about these strange fictions. The lack of specification did, as I recall, beg the question of what precisely the group members had in mind here. The aesthetic capacities of these genre-forms in and of themselves? The progressive potentials of the wider community in social terms? The possibility that this commercial “genre fiction”, in its pulp roots and decades-long maturation, may well be primed to seek an optimal balance between the imperatives of populism and elitism, cash and kudos, to create fiction that is both widely and deeply read? The possibility that such popular literature might reach across class boundaries, rather than appeal largely to the petit bourgeoisie? The way it promotes the taping of bacon to cats? There is scope in such a project, and there is actually an overlap with ethics, I’d say, but as it was I came away with two thoughts:
One: for “ethics” to be a valid name here, even if you’re looking at something as vague as “the good the field can do for humanity and kittens”, your project has to focus on the complementary negative capacities, on conflicts of imperatives, strategies for negotiating between them, navigating the ethical minefield; ethics is not about simply extolling X, Y or Z as good (such blank assertions are the province of essentialist morality — “Our field tapes bacon to cats. Yay, our field!”) but about addressing the why and how of those value-judgements, interrogating the superficially laudable for dubious consequences (“But won’t the doggies feel left out?”).
Two: the blog didn’t strike me as concerned with particularly deep or wide-ranging analysis; rather I got the distinct impression that the positive aspects it was most concerned with were simply the qualities that make a work of fiction a “good read”; in other words, I sensed the agenda as being to celebrate what’s cool, what’s fun, what’s exciting, what’s novel or quirky or maybe just fascinatingly bizarre. Which is, as others have pointed out, not a radically new initiative in blogging.
I do remember noting some line about leaving negativity and cynicism at the door, how it brought out the rainbow-flag-burning curmudgeon in me. But it seemed, all in all, fairly innocuous
A Loaded Gun
So, a group blog of writers setting out to focus on the aspects of the field that inspire enthusiasm rather than those that inspire ethical interrogation. As it turns out the aim is actually much narrower, the mission statement on the blog now reformulated — “to promote positive reviews”. I can’t say I have a problem with that editorial agenda in and of itself. If you don’t want to waste your time on reviewing something you think is shit, don’t. If you don’t feel a responsibility to evaluate the pros and cons of a work that weighs up in the end as mediocre, it’s because you don’t have that responsibility. If you simply want to enthuse about something that fucking rocks, by all means do so, with like-minded souls. This doesn’t preclude editorial agendas formed of various permutations of inversions. It doesn’t preclude a group blog of savage combatants, setting out to slaughter the unworthy, drag their carcass ten times round the walls of Troy. It doesn’t preclude a policy of reviewing a broad cross-section of everything, irrespective of quality, calling it as you see it. It doesn’t impinge on my own basic tendencies, which is to focus largely on the works that really get under my skin, positively or negatively (e.g. Morgan’s The Steel Remains and Battlestar Galactica respectively). To each their own.
Except in so far as that misapplied term, “ethics” sits as a loaded gun tossed onto the table of discourse. “Our agenda is born of ethics,” it seems to say. Which many, of course, will hear as, “Yours is not.”
Unfortunately, then came the SF Signal Mind Meld that misunderstood this agenda of enthusiasm, conflated it with the “optimistic SF” drive of Jetse de Vries’s Shine anthology, which is all to do with positivity in sf rather than positivity about sf. The distinction was clarified fairly quickly, but in Andy Remic’s contribution that loaded gun is… sort of picked up and cocked. Remic sets out the agenda of the SFFE as, from his perspective at least, a reaction to the “constant whining and moaning and tearing down”, “the constant poison and vitriol which, I think, has been invading and escalating for a long time”, said naysaying being born of the fact that “it's much easier to destroy than create”. Hence the drive to “promote a positive attitude in the industry”, to make an “ethical stand against the motherfuckers who, to my mind, are systematically ruining the SFFH genres.” What Remic sees as “intrinsically, morally, ethically and intuitively right” is explicitly antagonistic to… a savage negativity that is nebulously defined but resolutely condemned.
With the word “motherfuckers” that gun is fired.
Little wonder then that this little corner of the blogosphere was all abuzz the other day with the question: Who were you aiming that at?
Everyone’s A Motherfucker
Remic’s attempts at clarifications and the reformulation of the SFFE blog’s mission statement place the focus on negative reviewers — which, together with the generally British composition of the SFFE group, strongly implies to me that this has nothing to do with the recent racism shitstorms, as some of the commentators on Nussbaum’s blog said they took it at first — but Remic seemed loathe to open up publicly on who specifically he had in his sights, what culprits inspired his stand. Calls for a straightforward answer to the question “who are these motherfuckers?” generally seemed to be met with a request to contact him privately, by email. But SFFE member M.E. Staton’s comment about “[p]eople who thrive on arrogant displays of intellect”, people whose “personal web-sites reflect their holier than thou attitudes to reviewing and criticism” seems pertinent here. And some of these people, Staton says, “are influentual in the genre community particularly when it comes to commentary and critique.”
That sort of narrows the field while leaving it all deliciously vague, doesn’t it? It gets juicier elsewhere -- on Martin Lewis's LiveJournal, I think -- when Remic makes vague statements about some forums and one organisation in particular.
Oooh. A mysterious Organisation. Now I need to know. Tellmetellmetellmetellme!
But do the names have to be named? If Remic named names, would it suddenly all become about what writers in the SFFE might have got negative reviews from the reviewers on that list? Do we then get into a lot of grumping about sour grapes and sucking it up? Even supposing that “motherfuckers” is because the SFFE is, to some extent, inspired by writers being fed-up with reviewers they see as unduly negative -- maybe because they've been negatively reviewed by these people, maybe just because they've seen a lot of negativity in general -- isn’t the demand to name names just a call for Remic to spit out the sour grapes he’s tactfully keeping in his mouth so as not to be the petulant author who couldn’t suck it up? Sour grapes on the table equals big mess that isn't pleasant for anyone. But he doesn't have to suck it up and smile.
There’s a well-established protocol — a received wisdom — that writers should not bitch about about bad reviews. It seems fairly sensible for an author to refrain from whining dejectedly about the haters — especially when you look at spectacular examples of melt-downs like the Anne Rice Amazon rant — but the parameters of this injunction are arguable. It also seems fairly defensible for an author to correct a flagrant error that misrepresents the actual substance. Having mentioned The Steel Remains above, I think this is a good example of a book that had some reviewers drastically overstating the quantity of homosexual sex; I think Morgan would have been entitled to point out the actuality — that the scenes are highly graphic but barely number… what?… five or six pages worth in total. At the same time however this is also a good example of the limits one might (or might not) draw. If the reviewer simply felt the intensity of those scenes was a problem, that they overshadowed the rest of the work, left a lingering impression of semen-splattered spectacle that coloured the whole reading experience, if they offered a supposition that Morgan had, as a political point, bent over backwards to be more explicit with the gay sex than he would be with straight sex, to what extent would a correction to that supposition (which given that it’s a projection of authorial intent seems entirely fair to me) risk shading into a dismissal of a legitimate (if, to my mind, wrong in an OMG-gay-sex-burns-my-eyes heteronormative way) readerly response? To what extent can that sort of authorial response become an assertion of authority?
There’s plenty of scope for argument over where and when an author is (or is not) entitled / wise to comment on a review they might yearn to rip apart point by point. There are, I’m sure, some who’re happy to see the rhetorical bloodbaths that ensue when some writer lets loose with what they really think, scorning the “culture of silence” Ben Peek was talking about just the other day, scorning the expedient strategy of “making nice” as fundamentally insincere. I’d echo Peek’s ambivalence on the matter myself. Part of me says, “Fuck that shit,” but another part of me… well, if I want to explain myself, that’s what interviews are for, right? Nice, general reviews that won’t end up in a grudge match. Flensing the fat of blather, we’re left with the meat of the matter: Does a writer really want to be calling out a reviewer by name? You could say it’s cowardice not to, but you could equally well say it’s courtesy.
Thing is, I can understand the insistent demand of those who want to know, “Are you talking about me? Are you calling me a motherfucker?” but the reality is that if you’re a reviewer at all, the answer to that question, for some writer somewhere, is “Yes.” If you’re a reviewer at all, some writer somewhere is calling you a motherfucker, possibly right now. In private, behind closed doors, amongst friends. They may not feel the urge to start a public fight with you, but just as an author putting their book out there renders it open to public excoriation, when you put that review out there you’re… assuming the position. Bite the pillow and think of England, baby. Somebody out there hated what you wrote, hated you for writing it, sees it as a worthless pile of crap spewed out by a motherfucker. The fact that they don’t make a point of dissing your motherfucking reviews in public might have got you all fuzzy and complacent, but you shouldn’t be getting all antsy at the mere possibility that someone might be down on you.
Suck it up.
You’ve got a job to do — a vocation even — and you may well be doing it for the love rather than the cash or kudos. Even the bile and vitriol is often, I’m sure, born more of disappointment at squandered potential than anything else. But at the end of the day, that means there’s going to be someone who thinks your opinion is worse than worthless, someone willing to project onto you and your work the dubious intent and questionable standards that reviewers are equally wont to project onto writers and their works. Have you ever used the word “pretentious”? Then, trust me, if Remic isn’t talking about you when he says, “motherfuckers” then someone is. It doesn’t really matter if you’re on his shitlist. We’re all on somebody’s. Demanding that this one writer make his shitlist public is just sort of… shoving him into the centre of a ring of schoolchildren shouting, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” He might have sparked it off with that gunshot — fired straight into his own foot — but “it's much easier to destroy than create” is a veritable cliché when it comes to writer’s attitudes to critics. Capote’s comment that “The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on,” is a sound sentiment but wishful thinking in some respects. Sometimes the caravan trundles on over rocky roads that judder and shudder you into a pretty pissed-off state, and the barking of the dogs carries on, and on, and on, ugly slobberous snarls and high-pitched yapping that makes you mutter darkly under your breath about how you’d love to throttle the curs. They have their uses, the dogs, but nobody really likes a mean mutt.
So forget “who”. Assume he means you or assume he doesn’t. Don’t matter because someone does. The real question is, “What are these motherfuckers?”
The Gnarly Nub of It
Specifically, is it just about endemic negativity in and of itself (“constant whining and moaning and tearing down”)? Does “poison and vitriol” include the perhaps-justifiable scorn of any critical savaging or is it implying unwarranted spite? Can we splice in Staton’s comments here and ask if this is about a (perceived) assumption among some reviewers that their own standards of judgement are authoritative, that there are correct and incorrect ways to measure the value of a book (“holier than thou attitude to reviewing and criticism”)? Is it questioning the sincerity of some reviewers’ motivations, (“[p]eople who thrive on arrogant displays of intellect”), projecting vanity and posturing? Where Remic talks of this approach as “escalating” and Staton talks of influence “in the genre community”, does that then mean it’s about reviewers building up cultural capital, consolidating their status in the form of kudos and propagating their views and/or approaches? Is it about the world where the author is dead and so can't say, "You're wrong," but the critic gets to claim authority?
It seems to me that there are perhaps two approaches to criticism being challenged here — where it becomes performative and where it becomes prescriptive. Or perhaps the challenge is to that criticism where the two are combined, implicitly with the performance being insincere and the prescriptivism being illegitimate. Either way, Nussbaum quotes pertinently from John Leonard, by way of David Hartwell, articulating the principles of a contrary approach (in order to reject them, it should be said):
“First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet or a license to kill.”
Personally, I split right down the middle on these points. The first and third points, I disagree with completely Critique, for me, is analysis where the aim is to understood how a book works, what standards it sets for itself, how those are implemented; it may or may not analyse how well. A review, which does interrogate how far the outcome matches the aims, perhaps even the validity of those aims, may well find little evidence of… call it aesthetic integrity. If so, there’s no duty of due care for an author’s fragile ego or of deference to the author’s magnanimity in bestowing their work upon the world. If a work is broken in achievement or base in aspirations, publication is inviting judgement on that basis. The second point I half agree with, half disagree with. The Achilles Heel may be exactly where a work falls apart, exactly the weak spot that should be pointed out, but analysis is not an attempt to prove inadequacy so each flaw found is not a success for the critic, or at least no more so than is each forte. The fourth and fifth points, I agree with utterly. Given the diversity of literary approaches the capacity to actually grasp the standards that a work is setting for itself is dependent on an open mind. And any theory of How Literature Works is far more valuable as an existentialist strategy for better engaging with a work on its own terms, than it is as an essentialist system interfering with that engagement, imposing its propositions. This actually feeds back into the points where I disagree with Leonard: it’s always worthwhile remembering that where a review challenges the validity of a work’s aims it is fundamentally advocating different standards. These may be idiosyncratic or conventional, the personal taste of a reviewer, the established aesthetic of a magazine or even a genre. Either way, they may be entirely inappropriate.
The result? I tend to be OK with the performative approach to criticism (no surprise, surely, for anyone who reads this blog) as long as it’s sincere. All writing is performative, and ruthlessness is no bad quality to cultivate when it comes to fiction. Only where savage passion is usurped by petty spite do I disregard critique that disregards its function, becomes the self-serving and boorish posturing of snipewanks. In practice that judgement is, of course, highly subjective. You can be sure that there’s many Battlestar Galactica fans who think my post on the Mutiny arc was petty spite. Anyway, with prescriptivism, on the other hand, I have no sympathy whatsoever. I see it all as illegitimate, fuelling a surfeit of reviews that fail as anything other than template comparisons… matching a square peg to a round hole and saying, “It doesn’t fit.” Such comparison is not in itself invalid, mind; an unspoken assumption of subjectivity is often in effect, an idea that the reviewer is applying their own personal aesthetics for the benefit of those who share them, entirely cognizant of the fact that others may be applied; “it doesn’t fit” may be parsed to “it doesn’t fit what I’m looking for, what I assume you’re looking for, as my audience.” But it fails as critique in direct proportion to the extent that the standards it applies are inappropriate. It may be analytic but it is a compatibility assessment, not critique.
Critique and Reviews
Which raises the question of where exactly I’m drawing the line(s). What do I see as critique? What do I see as review? For what it’s worth, my own taxonomy is basically along the following lines:
1. Pure critique — interrogates the aims and implementation on an abstract basis, with little interest in arbitrating upon quality, often as part of a wider theory — c.f. Todorov’s The Fantastic or Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy. I’d like to think some of my notes on strange fiction belong in here, though I do tend to get enthusiastic about examples I’m using, which would drop the critique down two levels.
2. Ethical critique — interrogates the aims, the aesthetic in its own right, in light of other sets of standards. This could mean a Marxist, feminist or queer reading, but it might equally be a critic’s personal ethics that’s being applied in a savage sourging of the subtext — c.f. Moorcock’s “Epic Pooh”, though it could be argued that this drops down into the next level or below as Moorcock tackles Tolkien’s execution. I’ve a tendency to take this approach to things like The Bible.
3. Evaluative critique — interrogates how well the standards the text sets for itself are met, how far the work succeeds on its own terms. It is only here that a work begins to be evaluated as aesthetically good or bad, though Todorov’s essay on Heart of Darkness is a good example of how whether it works is often less important than how it works. My own pillorying of Battlestar Galactica is largely based on its failure to follow through, though it almost certainly drops down to the next level (or beyond) because of other features.
4. Critical review — applies conventional or personal standards of quality where relevant, but with the approximate objectivity of acknowledged subjectivity. The distinction from the next level down is the admission that such standards are protocols the reader may be applying in the wrong context. For my money, Matt Cheney’s good at striking the tone that articulates that… contingency of judgement in his reviews. Similarly Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen. My blog post on The Steel Remains is at least aimed at this level. All critique that applies terms like “worldbuilding” or “plot” is, at best, on this level. A judgement of Poe’s prose that it is “purple to the contemporary eye” is on this level, but one that simply deems it “purple” is on the next level down at best.
5. Conventional review / conscious compatibility assessment — as above but with the subjectivity unacknowledged, an unspoken assumption. Conventional or idiosyncratic standards are taken as read, and judgements of how well a text meets them applied, but on the tacit understanding that the text is being held up to a template. This is the strategy of many magazine reviews and blogging fans, reviewers (and review editors) basically offering such assessments for the benefit of a theoretical audience who desire those standards to be met in their fiction. Starburst, SFX and Interzone, and the reviewers contained within, will each be offering such reviews, and applying potentially quite different standards. I imagine my blog post on Fringe might fit in here if I ever get round to finishing it, as I’d largely be working on the assumption that we all share certain standards like “cliché is bad”. While it could be seen as a “lesser” form of critique in one respect, the shift from abstraction to pragmatism at this level is a repurposing that makes this valid in an entirely different way. Even the humble capsule review serves an honest function.
6. Conclusive review / unconscious compatibility assessment — as above, but with the subjectivity of assumed objectivity. Conventional or idiosyncratic standards are assumed as absolute and universal measuring-sticks, and judgements of how well a text meets them manifest as conclusive statements. As endemic amongst the philosophers as amongst the philistines, this most degraded form of critique is deniable by an insistence that the review was intended as a compatibility assessment, but the insincerity of such claims is often transparent, the prescriptivism palpable in the text. The furore over Chance Morrison’s Strange Horizons review of The Lies of Locke Lamora may have been due in part, I think, to the slight on the integrity of those who’d positively reviewed books she disliked, but also, in part, to the open exhibition of conceit, the sense that her opinion was so conclusive it invalidated all others; dissent was unimaginable. Morrison’s indiscretion is exceptional only in its flagrance though. Whatever the strategy, many reviews never surpass this level simply because reviewers are working from a conviction that their own approach is correct. Confidence is all well and good, and the cockiness of a reviewer who can leaven their absolutism with wit can be entertaining, but the saturation of a review with obdurate conviction often renders it simply obnoxious and obtuse. I’m sure I’ve probably done this in the past, but I rather think absolutism is better accompanied by a pint and a wagging finger. If I ever wrote about The Untouchables it would sadly fall into this camp; I don’t think I could prevent myself from casting aspersions on the sanity of anyone who didn’t find it unmitigated tosh.
There is no overlap between these levels. While aspects of high-level critique may be present in all forms, the higher levels are defined by the absence of the characteristic features of the level(s) below. So, as a chain-gang can only shuffle at the speed of its slowest member, a critique is of the form of its lowest level of contention. In the hierarchic arrangement of levels it should be noted however, I’m making no allowances for depth of critique. Pure critique may be glib and superficial. A conclusive review may go into substantial detail and therefore achieve a “higher” level in a different sense entirely. These “levels” could in fact be refigurated as concentric zones, one as the outermost zone, six as the innermost. Just to make that clear.
Anyway, personally, I’m more interested in the three "critique" levels than in the three "review" levels, which is probably why I’m less inclined to factor in depth-of-critique, looking at it instead in terms of abstract form. That focus is also largely why I don’t tend to blog on works I feel only lukewarm about. A lukewarm response means that work doesn’t quite fit what I’m looking for and that I haven’t been able to engage with it on its own terms sufficiently for it to show me what I was missing by not looking for it. I could blather some vague judgements on how well a work holds up against conventional standards of background, character, plot, prose and theme, but so what? We can assume the work is at least serviceable on those basic standards (or I’d feel less than lukewarm) but these are just superficial glosses anyway, on the deeper dynamics of a figuration that hasn’t drawn me in to the point where I’m keen to unravel its intricacies. I’d be looking for payment in lieu of passion, a professional reviewing gig, if I was going to put elbow grease into analysing something I wasn’t grabbed by. I’ve got better things to do with my time.
Conversely, and bearing in mind that I’m just as likely to rant about something I hate because it sets its standards then fails to meet them, (and I’m looking at you, Ronald D. Moore,) or because said aesthetics is ethically repugnant (in which case all bets are off,) I would largely expect my good critique to be positive. If your aim is an analysis that’s more than a compatibility assessment, you need to judge the work’s substance sympathetically, on its own aesthetics, rather than on your own. Anything else is just pontificating blather on How Art Should Be. I’m acutely aware that for the first fifty pages of Titus Groan, until I got where Peake was coming from, I hated it, that my ability to really engage with the book was entirely dependent on a mental gear-shift. Sketchy worldbuilding is not an issue for me, but if I’d never experienced that gear-shift would I have come out of it with a disdain for its caricatured characters, glacial pace and overwrought prose? Would my critique of it on that basis have been worth a damn? Dick’s prose is bland, Lovecraft’s is tortured, but in both cases this is, I think, an essential feature of their idiosyncratic aesthetics. It may make them “bad” writers by certain conventional standards but its part of what makes them more than worthy of scrutiny. Enthusiastic scrutiny.
Which brings us back to positive reviews and negative reviews and where they may be good or bad in terms of quality. If it sounds as if, in tracing a link between enthusiasm and quality critique, I’m talking myself round to agreeing with the SFFE agenda, that’s not the case. The positive reviews they’re seeking to promote are conventional reviews at best, conscious compatibility assessments. As I say… not really my bag. Show me the enthusiasm of Guy Davenport writing on… well, anything, and then I’ll be interested.
A Poison of Ponces
But there’s another issue too. With that vague sense I articulate above of what might constitute a “motherfucker” to Remic, I find myself thinking, well, this mixture of performative and prescriptive, that “poison and vitriol”, Staton’s “arrogant displays of intellect” and “holier than thou attitude” — the underlying accusation here is that the invective is, at heart, the shallow disdain of the pompous show-off, the arrant cockchortling of the pretentious, right? “Motherfuckers” equals “bastards” equals “arseholes” equals “ponces” equals “pretentious”.
I can smell that word in the air from a mile off. Pretentious. It’s probably my least favourite word in the whole discourse of critique. In a review that aspires to be no more than a compatibility assessment for populists it basically translates to “smarty-pants”, stands as a marker of a philistine grudge against the audacity of ambition. “You think yer so big with all yer dictionary learning and la-de-da long sentences!” In a review that aspires to greater things it basically translates to “you’re trying to look clever, but failing”, and stands as a marker of that which it accuses. Which is to say, the moment you project that spectre of hollow intent onto a writer, on the basis of your inability to glean meaning despite a work’s blatant complexity, (the charge of pretentiousness implying a sense of show-offery,) the moment you assume that this is an absence in the text rather than inability to perceive what’s there on your part, you are claiming an intellectual eminence that unpacks to empty flummery. You can try to excuse it as shorthand for various types of tangible problem — mannered prose or gauche symbolism, for example — but with this lazy stopgap term you are not really addressing the flaws you perceive in the text, but rather mumbling and waving at the signpost of a word which can be applied to a text only in an act of transference, which conventionally signifies a projected flaw in the writer. You are still painting a fantasy into the negative space of your reading rather than delineating the positive space of the features that mark it out. The fact that you didn’t mean to just makes you look even more of a simpleton. Sorry.
Again: Have you ever used the word “pretentious” in a review? Come on, hands in the air. You know you have. Thing is, we all use it informally, as lazy shorthand, as presumptive dismissal, in one sense or other. I’m sure I’ve used it in talking about other writers’ works and probably will again out of laziness and ill-considered frustration, though given the veiled quality of the insult I’d rather be plain-spoken and just say, “poncy”, “arsey” or “wanky” if ultimately I’m playing j’accuse. It’s probably the veiled quality to the insult that irks the most when it’s levelled at you, the sense that personal slight is being passed off as criticism of the text, that the person using it may themselves be blind to their own presumption, so cocksure of their own nous that it simply never occurs to them they may just have missed the fucking point completely. And so they wave a hand in the air and say “pretentious”, a hand with a gun in it. Pretentious. Poncy. Arsey. Wanky.
There's plenty of that sort of projection in reviews. Sometimes it's meant as hyperbole. Sometimes it's a figurative turn-of-phrase. But as much as writers have to learn not to take it personally, sometimes there is a blatant personal insult, an impugning of motives. Any reviewer who crafts a fanciful narratives characterising the writer as some sort of hack or charlatan is waving that gun in the air. No surprise that someone, sooner or later, grabs that gun out of their hand, pistol-whips them this side of the face — poison — and that side — vitriol — then fires it wildly with a snarl that captures the attention of everyone in the room:
But the thing is, as much as I get a keen pleasure from the poetic justic in seeing reviewers slapped in the face with this lazy projection of writerly egoism, it is still a projection. When you’re dealing with “displays of intellect”, it’s no more valid to presume unfounded arrogance, delusions of grandeur… pretension, in a reviewer than it is to presume that in a novelist. That scathing review may be performative but it may be spot-on. That “holier than thou” attitude — which I can’t help mapping to the inveterate compulsion of some reviewers, those who aspire to in-depth critical reviews, to complain about the low quality of conventional reviews — it may well be misguided in its prescriptive assumptions as to What Reviews Are For, but it may also be right in attacking the superficialities in critique that lacks such aspiration. With the callow certainty of student activists, these reviewers do seem prone to all manner of fantasy and folly. Morrison’s comment was only part of a wider discourse of paranoia, mumbled suspicions of publisher influence, PR and hype, nepotism among writers, other such silliness — a discourse that surfaces as the backlash to much buzz. As the field has matured, sought legitimacy, a neurosis seems to have set in around the commerciality of pulp, a genre twitch. An aesthetic parochialism of over-compensation. But as much as the idealistic cynicism seems naive and even blinkered at times, the passion that drives it is sincere. If that mentality extends, as I think it can do, to a deeply-flawed approach to reviewing, I don’t think we’re dealing here with a poison of ponces. I don’t think there’s an endemic and ruinous syndrome peculiar to specific “motherfuckers”, allied in their nefarious aims and happy to see the field in ruins if they can achieve them.
But I do think there’s a potential weakness across the field, one that’s worthwhile examining.
A Tangle of Taxonomies
Here’s the thing. An evaluative critique can and often should take account of genre. In order to interrogate how well the work meets the standards it sets for itself, it must first establish what those standards are. In many cases they’re going to turn out to be almost entirely conventional, generic. A Hollywood SFX blockbuster like the Tom Cruise version of War of the Worlds is not setting out to chart the wild yonder; it is setting out to achieve an object of a quite rigorously defined class CBlockbuster, (a subclass of heroic Romance.) The class is defined in such basic structural terms, in fact, that the object can be parsed, like a sentence for its grammar, and judged with a fair degree of objectivity as to whether it has that structure. If it does not, since it has itself taken that structure as a standard, it is a failure — as, I would say, is War of the Worlds.
The Will Smith version of I Am Legend sets out to achieve the same basic aim and, I would argue, succeeds. The “Hand of God” ending in which the hero realises It’s All Fated upon the synchronicitous reappearance of a butterfly motif may lead you to immediately cry, “But wait! The ending sucked!” However this sort of hokum is not proscribed within the class CBlockbuster, is in fact a widely accepted strategy for achieving resolution. You may hate it, but Hollywood doesn’t. This does not mean the movie succeeds though, as I Am Legend sets standards for itself beyond the generic CBlockbuster class structure. It strives to complexify the heroic Romanticism with a darkness of tone that, at times, renders the worldscape almost existentialist in its aesthetics. As the protagonist’s sanity erodes, so too does the individualism of Romance. Ultimately, in allowing the dog to die, the movie breaks with the usual sentimentalism of Hollywood movies and sets out a more ambitious agenda. It is in this respect that the ending becomes inadequate, a failure to meet those ambitions, a resort to deus ex machina. Note however that this is no longer so objectively measurable a failure. In setting non-generic standards for itself, the structure has become arguable. It can no longer be considered as "incorrect" like a grammatically “incorrect” sentence, because the grammar here is no longer prescriptive but rather descriptive. If it has broken the rules it set for itself it is quite entitled to do so. It may be doing so for effect, as a writer would craft a paragraph of grammatically correct sentences but make a point of finishing on a sentence fragment. For effect. Like this.
(As it is, I might have forgiven the ending had the faith theme been introduced more subtly than it was in the Alice Braga character’s “God sent me” speech, woven more through the substance of the film, and not driven home so bluntly with the butterfly motif appearing in two places simultaneously, as a pattern of fractured glass and a tattoo on Braga’s neck — just so you get that “it’s the Hand of God!”. A subtler execution with the butterfly only a pattern of fracturing on the glass might have allowed the symbol to be read as synchronicity rather than Fate, a signifier projected by the hero as a crystallisation of his epiphany. What I’ve read of the alternative ending also sounds superior.)
Both of these movies could be considered failures on two other counts. Both of these movies are based on classic science fiction novels and as such there is an obvious temptation to assume that this informs their aims, that both can be evaluated objectively for how they fit the class CScienceFictionFilm and for how they fit their respective classes, CWarOfTheWorldsFaithfulAdaptation and CIAmLegendFaithfulAdaptation. This is, however, incompatible with evaluative critique. These are not standards that the films set for themselves, so to project them upon the films is to fail to take them on their own terms.
Let’s take the adaptation issue first. Neither film demonstrates any interest whatsoever in being a faithful adaptation of the novel it’s based on. Both use the original novel only as a loose springboard. Both deviate from the text in fundamental ways. To interrogate these films as to how well they meet standards they are not attempting to meet, immediately drops the level of critique down to compatibility assessment. This type of conventional review may be appropriate in a magazine geared to an sf readership who want to know how well the films function as faithful adaptations of classic novels, but it is a skewed perspective on the quality of the movies in and of themselves.
And in the more general sense, if we seek to view these works as science fiction? It is not so much that neither film is seeking to be science fiction, as that the class CScienceFictionFilm is so abstract, so loosely defined, so lacking in attributes, that it simply doesn’t provide us with a set of standards to hold the works against. As a contrasting example, we can take the film Gattaca which, in its speculative use of science, its credible extrapolation, its generation of both the dystopian worldscaping and the narrative itself from nova, its whole approach in fact, is clearly aiming to work as a certain type of science fiction, one we recognise as more seriousand often characterise as more authentic. Gattaca strives to be an object of a class that many would happily label CProperScienceFictionFilm — a class inheriting its attributes, along with a sister-class CProperScienceFictionNovel, from CProperScienceFictionWork. The same people might, I suspect, view War of the Worlds and I Am Legend as objects of a class CSciFiBlockbuster — a class inheriting its attributes from CBlockbuster, and with the additional attributes that distinguish it bearing little relation to those which distinguish CProperScienceFictionWork. For others the three films sit in a different relation. From CFilm is inherited CSciFiFilm — which all three are objects of. From CSciFiFilm is inherited CSciFiBlockbuster and a sister class CSeriousSciFiFilm which only partially overlaps with the other crowd's CProperScienceFictionFilm. And these are only two of the incompatible systematisations of types.
(If Gattaca is “proper science fiction”, are War of the Worlds and I Am Legend not. It’s a common type of judgement, but for me… well, another example: I don’t so much disagree with Abigail Nussbaum’s criticism that Battlestar Galactica proved, in the end, to not actually be science fiction at all, because I don’t think there’s much value in scrutinising it with relation to a CScienceFictionWork class. No more than there is in looking at Kings in terms of a CAlternateHistoryWork class. But largely that’s because I’m not sure the label “science fiction” should really be applied with that sort of essentialism, that any work can really be said to “be” or “not be” science fiction anymore. “My science fiction”, yes. “Your science fiction”, maybe. “Our science fiction”, if you want. Battlestar Galactica is almost certainly someone’s science fiction. I’m happy to place it in a CSFTVSeries class, where the SF, for me, stands simply for strange fiction, and critique it on that level.)
In this tangle of taxonomies there is no consensus over the attributes of a class CScienceFictionFilm. There are positions, strenuously argued for and against, but where one maps the class to CProperScienceFictionFilm, another maps it to CSciFiFilm, another to something else entirely. The moment we approach any movie as science fiction, seek to interrogate how well it fits a class CScienceFictionFilm, we are implicitly asserting our position, our definition of what science fiction is. We are, and can only be, defining a class CMyTypeOfScienceFictionFilm and measuring the movie against that. Where our class happens to correspond to the film-maker’s, this is appropriate. Where it does not, we may be doing the work an injustice. It is not absurd to hold Gattaca to the standards of CSciFiBlockbuster, but its aim is not to be an object of that class. Neither is it absurd to hold War of the Worlds or I Am Legend to the standards of CProperScienceFictionFilm, though neither have this as the standard they’ve set for themselves. It is simply that in doing so the critique becomes mere compatibility assessment. It may be functional, serving to tell the reader whether the film is of the class they’re looking for, but if we don’t assume all such reviews will appear in either Sci-Fi Explosion Monthly or The Journal of Proper Science Fiction, or if we don’t assume that these readerships are exclusive, that the audience for one can’t appreciate the other, then a review which dismisses War of the Worlds or I Am Legend on the basis that they’re not in the CProperScienceFictionFilm class is as worthless as one which dismisses Gattaca because it’s not in the CSciFiBlockbuster class.
This is the actual problem with critique within the strange fiction genres, I think. There is no nefarious poison of ponces plotting the downfall of the field. There is however a surfeit of reviewers whose personal CMyTypeOfStrangeFictionWork class carries qualities of exclusivity at odds with the diversity of the broadly-inclusive field. The fact that reviewers are drawn largely from the well-spring of fandom (like the rest of us) may be the issue here, as the exclusion clauses in evidence often seem to map to rivalries between aesthetic territories. Reviewers whose CMyTypeOfStrangeFictionWork is Hard SF dismissing anything that smacks of “fantasy”. Reviewers whose CMyTypeOfStrangeFictionWork is Epic Fantasy dismissing… well, anything that isn’t. And so on, with “populism” and “elitism” playing their part, needless to say.
Too many exclusion clauses can eventually define a new class structure in the negative space they delineate, I think, a class CNOTMyKindOfStrangeFictionWork. Part of a broad church, but devoted to a particular sect of it, it’s not hard to see the fan-in-the-reviewer learning to apply this as a filtering mechanism, to sift out that which is anathema to them. (Worldbumphing — to riff off Adam Roberts’s “worldbling” — has, in at least one instance, made me unable to get through the prologue of a book, never mind past it.) But if the reviewer-in-the-fan is basing their compatibility assessment on this tick-list of what ticks them off, that’s not simply a hostile critical strategy but one that’s fatally flawed in its approach to everything outwith the reviewer’s CMyTypeOfStrangeFictionWork class. No matter how detailed the argument, the result is going to be at the conventional review level at best. At worst, we get conclusive reviews with that tick-list treated as a law book of mortal transgressions. This, I suspect, is what lurks behind the sorry spectacle of reviewers on take-down missions against works that don’t deserve the full-on assault — either because they’re mediocre and not worth the whole bandolier of bullets, or because they’re actually stand-out works if you only judge them by the standards they set for themselves. (Tolkien, the grand master of worldbumphing, I could only ever approach as a critical assassination attempt, and while on an ethical level I think that’s justifiable, I know I’d just be distracted by the drudging anality of detail, which is — he said through gritted teeth — deeply purposed and deeply appreciated by those in sympathy with it.)
No such review is, I'd say, really worthy of the label "critical review".
An example of the complete opposite of this critical strategy, of how it should be done, to my mind, is Elizabeth Hand’s review of the last in the Twilight series. Hand takes the book on its own terms, as a paranormal teen-romance that doesn’t strive to be War and Peace. She addresses the standards the work sets for itself or inherits from the previous works: “Meyer's prose seldom rises above the serviceable, and the plotting is leaden, but Twilight is really all about unrequited female erotic yearning. It's like reading a young teenage girl's blog, boosted with enough of Meyer's made-up vampire lore to give it some mild narrative and sexual tension.” [My italics.] She addresses how these basic generic aims are met or not met, how the third book “was a disappointment, never delivering an epic werewolf-bloodsucker smackdown,” working her way down to the additional non-generic standards, how the series purportedly “promotes a wholesome version of teen love for its dreamy, predominantly female readership,” and then addresses pointedly (and devastatingly) just how it fails to deliver anything remotely resembling “wholesome”. Where she applies conventional aesthetic standards (of prose and plot, as quoted above,) it is less to judge the book by these, as in a compatibility assessment, than it is to shrug them off as irrelevant and move on. You can’t get much more negative than, “Reader, I hurled,” but the book is trounced on its own turf.
Me, I don’t want more positive reviews. I want more like this, more genuinely critical reviews.
A Panopticon of Pescriptivism
There’s a profound risk, when one is aiming for critical review or evaluative critique, that a failure of ethical critique will confuse the analysis, that an interrogation of how well the standards a book sets for itself are met will be coloured by an antipathy to the aims in and of themselves. It’s all very well if you find a work’s basic aims ethically objectionable — if you find its subtext fascistic, say — but ethics need to remain distinct from aesthetics, or you’re slipping down a level. If you start critiquing the ethics of a Noir novel on the basis that it lacks the clear good guys and bad guys of Epic Fantasy, you’re treading close to simply judging a work of one form by the aesthetics of another. Similarly if it was vice-versa (though you might well be on firmer ground if you were arguing that the moral absolutism is itself ethically unsound).
In the field of strange fictions allegiances to aesthetic forms are often deeply enmeshed with ethics pertaining to their function — ideas that certain genre-forms are better for us or worse for us in some respect. We come out of the discourse of pulp and literature, of entertainment and insight, escapism and edification. The Rationalism in much Science Fiction is touted as enlightening. The Romanticism in much Epic Fantasy is touted as entertaining. And such valuations are couched in the rhetoric of ethics. Insight is improving. Escapism is solace. Consolatory fiction is corrosive. Difficult fiction is elitist. In approaching the text ethically, in terms of its aims, the reader allied to one or other aesthetic may well project an assumed imperative purpose on the text, asking questions such as “How does this enlighten me?” or “How does this entertain me?” where the values of “enlighten” and “entertain” are in fact enmeshed in systems of entirely conventional aesthetic standards. Where Marxist or feminist or queer readings may be asking pertinent questions of the text, and on a very theoretical level, a Rationalist or Romanticist critique is actually compatibility assessment masquerading as ethical critique. The reader’s sense of what the book’s aims are clouded by a confused ethical/aesthetic notion of what they should be -- because, why the very purpose, the responsibility of fiction is to be enlightening/entertaining! -- there is little possibility of a valid evaluative critique, nor even a worthwhile critical review. The reader’s commitment to Rationalist or Romanticist aesthetics will most likely collapse the review to the lowest level as the ethical imperatives are translated into aesthetic prescriptivism.
This is where theory can become, in Leonard’s term, a panopticon.
The notion of template-matching is natural to the critique of genre-form works. If we shouldn’t be measuring Gattaca against the CSciFiBlockbuster class, it’s certainly worthwhile bringing to bear the appropriate set(s) of aesthetic standards on this — and all those other works we deem science fiction. These are works whose first generation forebears were defined by a template (or set of such) in the pulp boom of the early 20th century. These are works whose second generation forebears were defined by multiple, radical revisions of the template(s) in the era of Campbell. They’re works whose first and second generation forebears consolidated a community around them of readers, writers, editors, publishers, a community that simultaneously strove to perfect the template(s) and to create new ones as tastes matured, as ambitions developed, or as works in the old genre-form simply became stale from over-use. They’re works whose second and third generations, through the Golden and Silver Ages, towards the New Wave, began to refuse the old template(s) entirely, rip them apart and rebuild them. These are works, now, whose individual aims are often, in many respects, to comment upon the whole tradition of aims. The standards they set for themselves address other sets of standards. Because of this it’s almost inevitable that some of the first questions asked in a critical approach to a genre-form work are questions such as, “How does this fit into the tradition? What other works is it like? How is it different?” This is an eminently sensible strategy for interrogating “where” a genre-form work is “coming from”, a use of theory as “a periscope or a trampoline”.
However just as the impulse towards innovation has led to this self-reconstructing tendency in the field of fictions, the drive to perfect the template(s), to standardise the genre-form, has continued. Readers seek more of the same. Writers, editors and publishers strive to satisfy them. And the impetus is not just towards symbolic formulation, towards derivative product, but towards definition, towards the coherence it offers. The field strives to coalesce into a system of aesthetic standards simply in order to remain comprehensible as a genre, strives to unify the multiplicity of approaches, relate them via over-arching delineations of science fiction, fantasy and horror, to organise its fractured complexity into sub-genres, movements. Writers themselves assert their aesthetic alliances in adopting or accepting labels like New Weird. This consolidating drive plays out, I think, as a residual tendency to approach genre-form works as if they were meant to fit a template, even amongst readers implacably opposed to formulation. Theory, definition takes the place of formula. The questions become, “How well does this fit the definition? What other genre-forms is it like? How is it better or worse?” Critique is shaded with a sense of an underlying imperative, that the work should not just be good, but that it should be good X. Good science fiction, say. Which means, of course, a member of the class CMyKindOfScienceFictionWork.
At best this limits critiques of individual genre-form works to the level of conventional review, conscious compatibility assessments that hold the work up to one of the myriad templates held to be “what science fiction is”, hopefully an appropriate one. At worst, it drops those critiques to conclusive nonsenses as the territorialism and advocacy manifests in a factionalist devotion to the cause of “good science fiction”.
But wait, you say. But — but — but — what’s wrong with that?! What can possibly be wrong about devotion to that cause. That’s what we’re all about, isn’t it? That’s what we’re here for, no? For the science fiction, because we love it. We devote our spare time, our careers, our kittens even, to supporting it. We defend it when some priggish ignoramus snorts derision at “this Sci-Fi stuff”. It is worthy of defense, a thing to be nurtured, fostered. We want it to be strong and healthy with a glossy coat and a wet nose. It needs plenty of exercise and a good diet. It needs thorough check-ups at regular intervals. Sometimes it needs to swallow the nasty medicine that’ll make it better. That problem of “bad science fiction” needs to be treated. If you don’t do something about it, it’ll only get worse. It could become debilitating, a spreading poison, a cancer of motherfuckers systematically ruining the genre.
Everybody is somebody’s motherfucker.
Everybody is somebody’s motherfucker, and the problem with that factionalist devotion is not the devotion, but that it’s factionalist. Don’t worry, I’m not advocating we all join hands and sing “Kumbaya”. I rather like a little poison and vitriol in my genre, Disch dishing out the naked lunch, Malzberg malkying the niceties. But I do like me some good high-level critique, and you simply can’t get that from inside a panopticon of prescriptivism, when your notion of “good science fiction”, that CMyKindOfScienceFictionWork, becomes this little warden’s office you’re ensconced in, and everywhere you look all you’re seeing is “bad science fiction”, strange fiction imprisoned, viewed through the template blinds of CNOTMyKindOfStrangeFictionWork. That warden’s office — it’s kind of a cell in its own way.
Bollocks to that, I say. Fuck “good science fiction”. Let’s blow it the fuck up. With a big fucking crater where the warden’s office used to be, we can turn the panopticon into a colloseum. We'll have gladiators and chariot races and plays and gigs and clowns and Christians thrown to the kittens.
We can still have the bloodsport, but at least we’ll be able to see what’s going on in all those other cells.