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gabe
Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - 10:07 am:   

OK, this is a bit of a faux pas, but what can I say? I want to get the discussion a-rollin'.

So here is a post that I made at my own dead cities forum that has stirred up quite the conversation. Please feel free to comment here or there. Works for me.

*******************************

There are *no* worthwhile critics working in SFF. Not me (whose attempts at examining the role of SFF in the greater world have pretty much erupted into seriously dangerous explosions of turdage), not John Clute (whose recent attempt to redefine the place of SFF within the context of Literature through a bizarre reinterpretation of Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS [in the much-vaunted Conjunctions 39] was an assload of suckage), not Gary K. Wolfe (whose work seems on the surface to mean a lot, but upon closer reading tends to be just a regurgitation of lit-crit class), not Rich Horton (who tends to occasionally hit brilliant marks, but usually just wallows in the shitheaps with the rest of us), and no one else has any sense either.

Samuel Delany was the only one that ever offered real insight, and he hasn't done criticism in years.

What do we do about the morass of bullshit, eh?


--gabe chouinard
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Anonymously
Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - 10:25 am:   

If you want replies, you might ask for them anonymously. What writer is going to openly slam some of these lame-ass reviewers?
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gabe
Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - 11:01 am:   

Eh. People can post anonymously if they want, but I for one am man enough to stand up for my own opinions.

--gabe
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Bob
Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - 11:06 am:   

I think Jeff -- in his post at Dead Cities -- had a good point. He mentioned his methodology for reviewing, which was basically Goethe's method, ie: What was the artist attempting? How well did they succeed? Was it worth the effort?
Wasn't it Damon Knight that became the biggest proponent of truly critical criticism in speculative fiction? I think he should be sainted, though right now I think 'Lost Causes' is already taken....
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gabe
Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - 11:47 am:   

Knight *was* one of the greatest proponents. Blish was another.

--gabe
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Brendan
Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - 12:10 pm:   

It seems to me that most reviews I read are a bit of a mix. The main problem I see with the people who review SFF, is that they generally look at everything from a 'genre' perspective and seem to brush aside the larger questions completely. It seems to be more important whether a work is ‘really SF’ or ‘horror’ than whether or not it is good literature. This only makes me wonder if some of these reviewers have read much outside of the ‘genre’ circuit . . . After all, SFF is simply another way of closing off ones mind from the larger universe. For me the most important points when I read a work are not so much what the writer intended as: 1) was the work interesting, 2) was the writing brilliant, 3) did I learn anything from the piece. Though not necessarily in this order. For me, a good work has to fill at least one of these criteria, and preferably all three.

Brendan
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Jonathan Strahan
Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - 02:23 pm:   

Hey gabe

I gotta say that I love reading Clute (he has an interesting piece on the new Gibson over at scifi.com), and about half the time I know what he's saying. Sometimes I even know what he thinks of the books. But I always enjoy reading him. As to Gary Wolfe - I actually think he is very good at what he does, so we'll have to agree to disagree there. Otherwise, both Mike Swanwick and John Kessel are pretty astute short fiction critics, and I like the work that Liz Hand does for F&SF and the Washington Post, and Dirda's comments are always worth reading. So, I don't really agree with your assertion. I wonder if the feeling comes, at least in part, from the fact that the field has become so disparate/diverse that it's almost impossible for any single critic/reviewer/commentator to slice through the matters with the scalpel of their criticism and make things clearer?

Best
J
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Jack Haringa
Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - 07:00 pm:   

"To write about a poet for others who have not yet read him is not criticism but reviewing, and reviewing is not really a respectable occupation. When a critic examines the work of a well-known poet, he may, if he is lucky, succeed in revealing something about it which readers had failed to see for themselves; if, on the other hand, what he says is commonplace or false or half-true, readers have only themselves to blame if they allow themselves to be led astray, since they know the text he is talking about."
--W. H. Auden
"Two Ways of Poetry"

My understanding of Gabe's initial post is that there is a dearth of serious literary criticism of speculative fiction (lumping together horror, SF, and fantasy into the one term), rather than a shortage of perceptive reviewers capable of differentiating between well-written and poorly-written books. Criticism and reviewing are very different animals.

While I don't agree with the initial premise that "there are no worthwhile critics working in SFF", I would say that Sturgeon's Law is applicable to criticism in general. The vast majority of criticism I see in journals seems to be written for the sole purpose of getting its authors published in journals (PMLA being the most egregious offender). It rides some trendy identity-politics hobbyhorse or self-deconstructs until its point disappears up its own arsehole. Most criticism is, I agree, "a morass of bullshit." It seems to me that SFF criticism is no different in this respect, but that, being a specialized field, there are relatively fewer critics working on serious criticism of speculative fiction than realistic fiction. The only journal I can think of for the material is the JFA. Given that most critics must publish to gain/maintain tenure and given that there are few outlets for serious SFF criticism, there's good reason for the shortage.

From a university standpoint, a professor or graduate student must face down his or her peers merely to broach the subject in many English departments, another reason for the shortage in SFF criticism. I had to defend the very idea of writing a thesis on "popular fiction" (SF and mystery) before ever getting close to the defense of the thesis itself. Prejudice against speculative fiction limits the number of serious critics willing to approach the subject for fear of not being taken seriously. A few established folk have written decent work on SFF, such as Roger Schlobin, Eric Rabkin, Nina Auerbach, Noel Carroll, and Carl Malmgren. There seems to be some slight increase in articles on SFF in recent years, though the best respected of it is focused on Surrealists and Magic Realists not writing in English, as if domestic authors treating the fantastic are mere second-stringers.

I'm a very un-trendy neo-formalist at heart, and have no place in university journals, at least until the pendulum swings back my way.

~Jack~
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gabe
Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - 10:14 pm:   

What I'd like to see is *broader* criticism. What we have now is so insular, it's pretty much pointless.

Jonathan, don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that I hate these people *OR* their criticism. I like reading Clute tremendously, I like Gary Wolfe's work, I like Horton et. al. What I don't like is that we sit and bitch about how no one understands how great SFF is, how we're a ghetto, etc.... but it's the job of the *critic* to bring these works to the greater public.

See dead cities for a more indepth explanation of what I mean.

--gabe
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George Fontaine
Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2003 - 06:23 am:   

The problem with a reviewer like Rich Horton is that he does not stick to the areas he's familiar with. That guy should not be reviewing horror or dark fantasy--if he stuck to SciFi he'd be really good. But he has no appreciation for horror or dark fantasy and winds up looking foolish.
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Rhys
Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2003 - 06:34 am:   

I always enjoyed the SF cricitism of Brian Aldiss. I thought he was every bit as good as Samuel Delany. And M. John Harrison can be very good too.
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gabe
Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2003 - 08:02 am:   

Rhys,

James Sallis is good as well.

*HOWEVER*

The majority of SFF criticism is written FOR SFF readers, which is just foolish. I want to see reviews that tie the field into the wider world of literature. How does, say, ALTERED CARBON by Richard Morgan appeal to readers of Michael Crichton? How does Graham Joyce reflect with Graham Greene? Tell me these things!!!

Critics are in a unique position. They are the mouthpieces of the field, directed toward the greater public. Critics have a wonderful role they can play in bringing exemplary work out to wider audiences.

--gabe
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JeffV
Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2003 - 09:17 am:   

We need to separate out the idea of a review written for a magazine under certain specifications and an essay about a work that can allow for greater detail and illumination.

Jeff V.
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Brendan
Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2003 - 01:18 pm:   

What about Trent Walters? He seems to be a good reviewer. (He quotes Gabe too.)

Brendan
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benpeek
Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2003 - 04:41 pm:   

gabe wrote:
>What I'd like to see is *broader* criticism. What we have now is so insular, it's pretty much pointless.<

if it's serving its audience, though, is it pointless? i would have thought that to have a broader set of criticism (as you define) would require criticism appearing in a publication or place that reached a broader audience?

(which is itself problematic, because an audience can read different things and be far reaching by reading a collection of insular mags and books.)

and also, while you mention people like horton and clute and so forth, you also don't mention academics who gave given critical works. darko suvin, damien broderick, and so on. (i'm afraid i'm not the best person for the academic side, since it's been a few years since i read their stuff, and it was only a small portion of my thesis.) but anyhow, where do writers like them come into it as critics in your theory?
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jonathan briggs
Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2003 - 06:44 pm:   

How much of the loss of critical credibility comes thru the genre buddy system? Admittedly, this is the "outside" perspective of a fan, but it seems to me some sf/f/h critics get a bit palsy with their subjects. And when you get authors swapping blurbs and revues, it can get even more incestuously icky. Now I'm sure there are many critics and writer/reviewers who try to maintain objectivity, damn the consequences and that possible slot in the next big anthology. But when I see some of the godawful stuff that not only gets published, but praised, or even awarded, I gotta wonder.
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gabe
Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2003 - 11:02 pm:   

"But when I see some of the godawful stuff that not only gets published, but praised, or even awarded, I gotta wonder."

A lot of that comes with laziness.

For example, say I've received a copy of Terry Brooks' latest novel. I have to review it. I don't like it... and yet, HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of people will be buying this book. So what do I do? Slam it and pan it?

Well, of course I would. But that's just me, and I'm just outspoken. However, many other critics feel that they're beholden to find *something* good to say about a book, whether it's utter pap or not. So they do the lazy thing; give a summary, say that it'll appeal to Brooks' longtime readers, and leave it at that.

Which is depressing.

As I've mentioned, I'm a fairly pathetic critic as well. Slowly but surely, though, I'm coming to my own conclusions on what constitutes worthwhile criticism. Better yet, I'm learning how to *forumulate* that criticism in a constructive way, I think. I still try to review stuff that I actually *like*, because I see my job as being part of a promotional team for the 'good stuff'... but arse-licking is out. And I'm not afraid to say when things *don't* work perfectly.

Ummmm... which is neither here nor there, actually. I'm rambling. Must be the hour....

--gabe chouinard
hyper machine interfaces
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gabe
Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2003 - 11:04 pm:   

Brendan,

Trent's quoting of me just makes him a *worse* critic.

If I was an emoticonning person, I'd make a smiley winky face.

Actually, Trent is pretty good, with the potential to be great. His recent review of Electric Velocipide on SFSite was real critical work. I liked it.

--gabe
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ben wooller
Posted on Friday, February 28, 2003 - 08:50 am:   

Jonathan, do you have a link to Clute's piece on Gibson? I'm having no luck at all at finding in on scifi.com.
Thanks,

- Ben Wooller
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ben wooller
Posted on Friday, February 28, 2003 - 09:09 am:   

Oops. Nevermind. I've found it!

- Ben Wooller
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Ellen
Posted on Friday, February 28, 2003 - 09:09 am:   

It's in SF Weekly linked from the front page:


http://www.scifi.com/sfw/current/excess.html
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jonathan briggs
Posted on Friday, February 28, 2003 - 12:00 pm:   

"I see my job as being part of a promotional team for the good 'stuff'"

Well, to me, that constitutes worthwhile criticism. When I find a critic I like, I'll read him faithfully and let him lead me to books I might have otherwise passed over. To use an example from yer own Dislocated Fictions: I would have NEVER picked up a copy of Stover's "Heroes Die." That cover just screams "junior-high-my-Conan-reading-phase." But after a few weeks of reading yer column, I realized, "Hey, this guy's critical perspective extends beyond the skiffy shelves and the King/Koontz/Rice racks, and he seems to have a clue as to what goes into good writing. I'm gonna check this out." I absolutely agree with you that too much crit is insular and aimed straight to the "ghettos," but I wouldn't say there are NO worthwhile critics.

Of course, I still haven't had a chance to start "Heroes Die," so if it sux, that kinda blows my point outta the water (and I'll owe you a 550-page book binder bounce). But if a critic can be relied on to flag down overlooked gems, I think he's effective.

Off on a tangent, when do we see yer critical piece on "Conjunctions"? I started it Wednesday nite, and the Crowley story just floored me (not very critical, I know....)
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gabe
Posted on Friday, February 28, 2003 - 01:23 pm:   

Hi Jonathan B.

Well, glad you picked up HD on my recommendation. I hope you like it.

You'll see the CONJUNCTIONS piece some time after s1ngularity launches. I'm a bit tied at the moment....

--gabe
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Ben Wooller
Posted on Friday, February 28, 2003 - 08:27 pm:   

"You'll see the CONJUNCTIONS piece some time after s1ngularity launches."

I'm looking forward to it. Still need to get a copy of the damn book though...

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