Log in

No account? Create an account
Recent Entries Friends Archive Profile Tags Jeamland
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.
I love it when you do things I was going to do and now I don't have to :)
Personally, I would say I'm "healthily skeptical" of the assumed narratives behind bookchat phrases like "self-indulgent."

The problem with calling a book "self-indulgent" is that once you do it, you've stopped describing the effect of the book on you, and gone over to guesswork about how the book was composed. Which is something you can get away with, if you can get away with it. Most reviewers should steer clear of anything so ambitious.
Yeah, as I said it's not something I'd use too often, exactly for that reason. And I would do my best to justify it when I used it, and there are often better ways of saying the same thing (describing Cryptonomicon you could easily stop at 'overly digressive'). But I think it can be useful in some cases.
When we were talking, I was trying to paraphrase a wonderful passage from Clive James's 1991 memorial address for Terence Kilmartin, former arts editor of The Observer. For the record (and because it's great) here's the thing itself:

Everyone who ever had his copy edited by you has a story like mine and probably better, but here and now, for them, is my chance to tell you what it was actually like to have written a book review for you and to have described what was really quite a good novel as 'hugely impressive'. Holding the offending page of foolscap, you looked sideways across the top of your half-glasses and said 'Do you really want to say that?' I'm leaving out your ums and ahs, which I'm certain were a way of putting your interlocutor on the spot: they were your version of a pub-fighter's pre-emptive head-butt to leave his opponent stunned. 'Do you really,' you went on, 'do you really want to say hugely impressive? What's wrong with just impressive?' I said I thought the book was better than just impressive. You said 'How about very impressive, then?' I said that didn't sound impressive enough - it sounded like a cliche. You said, 'But surely if you qualify the word "impressive" you make it sound like a cliche, don't you? I mean, good God, either the word "impressive" on its own means you're impressed, or you need another word instead. But I should have thought the last thing you need is another word as well.' I said OK, take out the hugely. You said 'I think we're doing the right thing, don't you?' I said, 'Take it out, take it out!' Finally persuaded, you lifted your pencil and softly struck.
This is the vicious circle of reviewing, though, isn't it? The word 'impressive' has already been devalued by any number of lazy reviewers. As much as I admire precise editing like the above, it to some extent denies the changed face of the language. It's all very well to say 'impressive' alone should be enough, but everything we know about how reviews are written and how they are read tells us that, in fact, it isn't. Of course, the minute we pander to the devalued status of the word, we devalue it further. But what's a hack to do?
Untitled by Anonymous :: Expand
I wonder if some reviewers, when using 'self-indulgent', mean 'wish-fulfillment.' Some earnest browed types who feel that literature isn't working unless it hurts or hectors deride books as self-indulgent that are just plain fun to read.
That hadn't occurred to me, but you're quite probably right.
Another word I hate is 'pretentious', especially when used by people who don't seem to understand what it actually means, and think it means "I didn't understand it."
nifty icon
Perhaps what I'm really saying is that I'm just healthily skeptical of the idea that authors are writing only for themselves.

This doesn't seem to make sense as a criticism of the passage you quote, though. The way to write well for others is to indulge oneself - or, a </a> way to write well for others, if you prefer. 'All writing is self-indulgent" doesn't mean "all writing is only for the writer." I don't even see a connection, let alone an equivalence.

Self-indulgence leads to bad books when the self being indulged is boring or repetitive or unpleasant in particular ways, and in such cases maybe more discipline would have helped, but then again maybe not. It's the self, not the indulgence, that creates the problem.
I think by the end of the post I'd wandered from the original point somewhat. But on the matter of the self vs. the indulgence, I think both can be problems. I refer you to fjm's comment elsethread about authors falling in love with their own writing.

as a reviewer of some years i have often been conscious of the pitfalls of the act. i've always been independant, and my reviews are always open to the casual reader, so i do always have to make an allowance for people who have no idea what i'm talking about.

but i think you hit a big danger of reviewing, its the desire to have the movie poster "stupendous - five stars" - because you get to a point where everything is the best thing ever, and you stop believing. i try to avoid getting into hyperbole, i try to avoid saying something is "incredible" unless i really mean it. though on the other hand the reverse can come into play, you can become so careful to present a balanced review that you make something you actually quite enjoyed sound average.

i'm still working my way through accelerando, though i would say at this point that it is a work that stross will definitely be remembered for - though i think he still has a lot of scope to learn as a writer. however as you say, it is much more focussed than stephenson's work. and again, i agree, you have to be able to say that something is self-indulgent - the baroque trilogy is incredibly self-indulgent, and much more so than most novels you will come across.

for me the baroque trilogy is also incredibly patchy and longwinded. i found quicksilver a considerable chore, and had to keep taking tangents, the confusion was an easier read, but was also incredibly repetitive, and it wasn't until we got into system of the world that i finally felt as though i was getting somewhere and it was all worthwhile. which is all a perfect example of the idea of a contract a writer has with the reader, if the writer wants to be read they have to deliver something that is worth reading.

those are my quick thoughts on the subject as you describe it anyway.
....Years from now. A lot of readers of Gormenghast when it first came out thought it was pretentious and self-indulgent. The idea of what *story* is and how much exposition is acceptable changes from decade to decade. How experimental you can get. Everything. In fifty years we'll know if Accelerando was anything to sneeze at. Same with everything else coming out now.

I find these kinds of value statements about "self-indulgent" pretty damn self-important.

In fifty years we'll know if Accelerando was anything to sneeze at. Same with everything else coming out now.

Absolutely. On the other hand, I don't think that 'self-indulgent' is synonymous with 'bad' even now. It's just a quality that writing may or may not possess. I think Cryptonomicon is brilliant, after all.
I personally don't have a problem with the use of the term "self-indulgent" as a criticism in reviews. I've used it myself. As long as the term has context - as long as the reviewer elaborates on what elements he feels are suffering due to the over-attention placed on other elements - I think the reader understands what the reviewer is suggesting. A review is, ultimately, an essay about one person's experience of a work, and consequently useful foremost by way of how it educates the reader about the reviewer's perspective. Context is key.