August 12th, 2005


Things Critics Should Not Do

One of my many, many memories from Worldcon is a brief conversation with grahamsleight and mattia about bad habits in reviews. The initial reason for the conversation was my review of Accelerando in the latest Interzone, which I feel indulges in a bad habit.

It was the first piece I wrote for them, and the first time I tried to compress a coherent judgement into 400 words. I mostly stand by the content, but I don't think I got the construction of it quite right. I don't think it's a bad review, as such, but for instance (as nuttyxander pointed out) given the readership of Interzone and the limited space available, I probably spent more time than I needed to explaining what the book is and what it's about. And then there's the last sentence, in which I descended to blurbing.
Welcome to millennium three, decade one: science fiction isn't the same any more.
I cringe every time I look at it, not so much because I don't believe it--sure, it's an overstatement, but whatever you want to say about the merits of Accelerando I think you have to recognise its importance--but because I know I wrote that sentence to look like something that might appear on the back of a book. And that's the first thing I was saying to Graham and Mattia that Critics Should Not Do. The review doesn't need it (and publishers should be made to work for their blurbs, dammit!)

The second thing we discussed was a construction that I know I've been guilty of in the past, but which I'm finding more and more annoying: saying that something is 'genuinely moving' or similar. The problem with it is that it's language inflation, and redundant. The reader should be able to trust the venue the review is appearing in, or possibly the author of the review; that 'genuinely' is an attempt to gain trust by trickery.

On the other hand, there's this, via Gwenda Bond and Chance:
There are many words and phrases that should be forever kept out of the hands of book reviewers. It's sad, but true. And one of these is "self-indulgent." Whoever reviewed Neil's new novel, Anansi Boys, for Kirkus calls it "self-indulgent" (though the review is, generally, positive). And this is one of those things that strikes me very odd, like reviewers accusing an author of writing in a way that seems "artificial" or "self-conscious." It is, of course, a necessary prerequisite of fiction that one employ the artifice of language and that one exist in an intensely self-conscious state. Same with "self-indulgent." What could possibly be more self-indulgent than the act of writing fantastic fiction? The author is indulging her- or himself in the expression of the fantasy, and, likewise, the readers are indulging themselves in the luxury of someone else's fantasy. I've never written a story that wasn't self-indulgent. Neither has any other fantasy or sf author. We indulge our interests, our obsessions, and assume that someone out there will feel as passionately about X as we do.
This is true and completely wrongheaded. The part about assuming (I've have gone with 'hoping', but whatever) that readers will be interested in what an author is interested in is true. The suggestion that a book cannot be criticised for being self-indulgent (or that any perceived self-indulgence is merely the result of a disconnect between author and reader) is wrongheaded.

It is certainly something that should only be said carefully, because it starts to edge towards judging authorial intent, which is a minefield (I feel confident saying that a book proposes x or y; I generally feel much less comfortable saying that an author proposes x or y, unless I have external knowledge to support me). And a self-indulgent novel can be a hugely enjoyable novel. For example, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (and, from what I hear, The Baroque Cycle) would seem to be exactly the type of writing that greygirlbeast describes. It is frequently and entertainingly digressive, and it is unashamedly targeted at a particular audience. If you are not in that audience, you may well experience the sort of disconnect that robyn_ma describes.

However, compare it to Accelerando, which I would expect to have a significant audience overlap. Both cram in more cool things than you can count, both have main characters who are geeks, both have plots in which aspects of information technology are important. Of the two, however, Accelerando is the more focused, the more disciplined; you don't have to put up with digressions to get the cool stuff, you get the cool stuff as an integral part of the novel. It makes its cool stuff interesting to you, it doesn't assume that you will already like it. I would call Cryptonomicon self-indulgent, but I would not say the same of Accelerando.

I seem to be circling around the idea that an author has a contract with a reader to tell a story. That seems a bit strong--clearly wonderful books can be written that pay only lip-service to any such contract. Perhaps what I'm really saying is that I'm just healthily skeptical of the idea that authors are writing only for themselves.

EDIT: Matt Cheney writes:
I should probably note here that I'm not suggesting the reviewers are all maligning masterpieces. A judgment of whether a work is worthwhile or not is less interesting to me than how such a conclusion is reached (call me self-indulgent). It's not the inaccuracy of the term that bothers me so much as the argument it hides: an accusation of self-indulgence, like an accusation of "elitism", lets a reviewer disguise the fact that they're trying to speak for some imaginary mass audience, to say "I did not understand/appreciate/enjoy X, and therefore you should not, either." (Which is essentially what one of the commentors to Kiernan's post suggested: "So, the reviewer is basically saying, 'It doesn't interest me, so it shouldn't interest anyone else,' but taking a roundabout way of saying it so as, perhaps, to stave of consciousness of this indiscretion.") I suppose all of us who make our opinions public are doing this to some extent, trying to shape a consensus to make ourselves feel less alone, but there are many more subtle, nuanced, and useful ways of doing it than throwing around terms like "self-indulgent".
I don't find the hidden argument as strong as he does. I don't see the shouldn't. When I see a reviewer describe something as self-indulgent, I assume they're trying to say something like 'I lost interest because it has [these qualities for which I am using self-indulgent as a shorthand that I don't care for], therefore you may also lose interest'. There is some judgement, in that the reviewer can be suggesting those qualities are wrong rather than just not to their taste, but I think the real problems come in when the reviewer doesn't make it clear which qualities of the text they're criticising. Which, I guess, means I agree that 'self indulgent' is not subtle or nuanced; I'm just not sure that stops it sometimes being useful.