Science Fiction Repair Shop: Badmouthing and Goodmouthing Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-08-17 13:00:00 No comments

A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical -

The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.

Most of the blogging I've seen about books reminds me all too much of the shallow "Sixty Second Preview" blurb-shilling that's been happening in the movie-criticism industry for a long time now, except that a depressing number of the bloggers in question seem to honestly think they're contributing something of value to a conversation about a given work. "I liked it" is not a form of criticism. "I liked it and here's why" is a little closer to the truth, but few people seem honest enough about their tastes (or perceptive) to speak with authority or insight about why something worked for them or didn't.

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The number of blog critics who remind me of the Dwight MacDonalds or Edmund Wilsons (or Lester Bangses) of yore are vanishingly few, and I wonder how much of that has to do with most of them just not being aware of the body of criticism that is in print and worth learning from. Bangs is one of the people I feed often to most other would-be critics, not only because he's funny and accessible but because he provides a good template for how someone evolved over his career from a mere enthusiast and theorist to a perceptive thinker about popular culture. His essay about racism in rock, "The White Noise Supremacists", is easily the best thing written about the subject, and still resonates today with an unnerving jolt.

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Some of the folks writing today about, say, Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Gray, are developing insights and critical methodologies that do make the grade. They are not just saying the former is good and the latter bad, but backing it up, and in the case of something being bad, providing some worthy alternatives that might actually appeal to the same readerships. It's a valuable service, something I try to emulate when I can. If I lambast modern fantasy (which is often, sadly), I always suggest Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast as an alternative, and I am dismayed by how many people, even self-described enthusiastic readers of fantasy, have never heard of the man or his work.

The biggest problem I have with the blogosphere as a substitute for, or even an adjunct to, a more conventional sphere of criticism — especially of SF&F — is how all the same backscratching and hat-tipping that plagued Bad Old School criticism can reconstitute itself in blogging. In fact, if anything, it reconstitutes itself in an even more difficult-to-uproot form. Blogging has an immediacy and a folksiness to it which many people associate with honesty and forthrightness (an illusion few bloggers are willing to dispel, since it serves them nicely), and so a patina of sincerity and truth can lacquer itself easily over total hogwash. It becomes particularly bad when it's another writer that's speaking in this vein, because most people who are not themselves writers are that much more inclined to trust another writer's opinion about what's a good read, even when time and again I find it is not true.

Not long ago I was offered, and tried to read, the first book in a projected fantasy trilogy that was so awful I barely made it through that first book. I skimmed the second book (book #3 is not out yet) and saw nothing that made me want to read more closely, and quite a bit that compelled me to go pick up where I'd left off with Robert Musil and Bulgakov. (I'm omitting the name of the series and the author out of courtesy. At some point I might well just write a review of it anyway.) What I found rather shocking was the number of other writers of note who were all lining up to praise the book — a circling-of-the-wagons effect, I suppose. If you step out of line with your brother or sister authors and say the book is no good, then you run the risk of not having them step up to the plate and say nice blurbable things about your book when it comes out, and everyone fails to get their names out in that many more places. I have a hard time speaking total ill of such forms of mutual support, because it's hard enough to get recognition at all short of throwing tons of money around. We could all use the help. Still, the debasing long-term effects of mutual blurbsmanship are like the herpes you picked up a decade and change ago: it's debilitating, but as long we don't talk about it too much we should be all right. And there is also the possibility those authors genuinely liked the thing, which speaks depressing volumes about the way most writers are themselves not critics and often have ghastly tastes in reading.) The few dissenting reviews I found of the book were by independent bloggers who had no particular skin in the game, and who lost nothing by offering ample evidence for how poorly clothed this particular emperor was.

This sort of thing is nothing new in publishing generally. B.R. Meyers took a few paragraphs in a recent review to talk about how the business of backscratching blurbsmanship between authors is par for the course. Few authors these days have the nerve to step up and say, in public, that a recent highly-lauded work by a respected colleague of theirs simply doesn't cut it. And for good reason, because to do so usually means ostracism and being labeled anything from traitor to snark-monger.

But if anyone should be speaking up about authors who slip into degeneracy and hackwork-by-any-other-name, it's other authors. We know best how we fail, and why; we also know best how we succeed, and to what end. And we need to be able to do it without simply being lambasted for being jealous, or some equally spurious motivation. This isn't so much about reclaiming territory from the critics as allowing our duties to re-expand into criticism. From all I've seen, if we don't do it, precious few others will.

Tags: Dwight Macdonald Edmund Wilson Lester Bangs Mervyn Peake Science Fiction Repair Shop criticism fantasy science fiction writing