“Science fiction criticism, of course, is still very much in the Formalist stage. It is often obsessed with “good” and “bad” – it is a mode of review rather than of criticism. Its effectiveness, in the majority of cases, is questionable.” – Lavie Tidhar
“[S]ince it is in the nature of SF’s oxymoronic fusion of the rational and the marvelous to challenge received notions of reality – sometimes seriously, sometimes playfully – critical provocation is part of SF’s generic identity.” – Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
I had hoped to write more about the subject of reading fantastika this week, but I would rather take my time to absorb the new material I’m reading on the topic. Next week I will return to this subject, with an eye to examining how cultural assumptions about metaphor color how we read different modes of literary discourse. This week I want to discuss a topic that, like the death of science fiction, frequently arises like a hungry zombie looking for brains to feast upon: the problem of “SF criticism.” This problem is a virtual feature of the field of fantastic literary production, one that seems at once simple and knotty. The “problem” is that some sense of omission or parochialism is discerned in the critical discussion of the literature by an observer who then critiques the criticism itself. The quotation above from Lavie Tidhar, in a post on the critical facets of Adam Roberts’ fiction, codifies a common viewpoint on the state of SF criticism, that it is unsophisticated and often doing a poor job of critique. But what is the job of SF criticism, and how does that job relate to how readers perceive the genre and engage it? There is plenty of criticism in the field that is not reducible to a mere review, but the object of “SF criticism” is still often critiqued as not being either reverent or constructive enough. And so the tension continues. The question is, however, what the de-parochializing SF (and, and, to an extent, the broader field of fantastika) criticism (which, to be fair, has been increasingly academicized and elaborated) might accomplish? Is such a shift necessary?
For me, the answer lies in the second quotation, which comes from Csicsery-Ronay’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Fantastic literature, with its emphasis on what he refers to as “the marvelous,” invites, sometimes tries to force, the reader to read reflexively and critically. I think that this resonates to some extent with Tidhar’s observation that “[t]he act of science fiction is itself defamiliarisation – and therefore, paradoxically, it must use all its power to make the rest of the text feel known to us.” Reading SF, then, is a constant shifting between familiarization and defamiliarization. Of course, some works play with this shifting, while others try to erase it. It is difficult to reduce what fantastic literature does to one process or discursive maneuver. The easy contrast between Realism and SF, is, as Tidhar notes, a convenience, but also relates to the problem of criticism. This essentialization extends to characterizations of criticism, the idea that non-SF criticism performs the function that SF criticism does not.
As with all such distinctions, there is some truth to this, but if SF criticism has too often been reducible to formalistic reviews, non-SF criticism often has to perform wild acts of defamiliarization to create an interpretive space for critique for texts seen as more “realistic” or artistically deep. This is partly due to the more developed academic tradition and to social and economic trends within that tradition, but also emerges from a similar dichotomy as the one that Tidhar creates in his discussion. Serious literature, realist literature, mainstream literature. . . all have historically required criticism of greater defamiliarization to render then into objects for significant, sometimes arcane analysis, while SF texts have required criticism that familiarizes it and demonstrates its value.
Of course, this is not a strict truism. SF criticism has a long, if often narrow, history and has also received detailed attention from scholars outside of the field who have applied a wide variety of theoretical perspectives to works in the field. In fact, while there is still debate over the need to apply more rigorous and powerful theories and critiques to SF, such a process has been going on for a long time. This has been intertwined, if not fused, with the critical perspectives generated by practitioners from the field itself. While a mostly separate cadre of theorists and critics grew to examine “literature” within the academy, the literary field of SF and its particular social milieu produced critics who were highly invested in the field as fiction writers and fans. SF criticism began precisely as a process of valuation of literary works as part of a conversation within the social system that grew around the literature. As the literature developed, and became both more popular and more accessed by artists outside of the social system of fandom, the prevalent forms of criticism became less useful and, perhaps, less evocative. Yet some of those forms are durable and comfortable, not easily dismissed or evaded. The problem, perhaps, is that those forms cannot just be excised so that SF criticism can be brought into line with more mainstream and academic traditions. Given what SF criticism is often used for, and what fantastic literature does with its blendings and paradoxes, I don’t think this is a bad thing.
What is the purpose of criticism, whether within the socio-literary circles of SF or beyond those communities? It is to dissect a work’s merits and failings, excesses and absences. As Tidhar notes, it is to elucidate the messages that a given observer obtains from a text. While Tidhar separates the notion of “review” from criticism, all criticism has some level of judgment implicated in its analysis. Criticism is always about valuation. We criticize a text because we think it is worth criticizing,whether it is “good” or “bad.” There is something about that text that we want to make manifest in discourse and share with others, perhaps to get them to see what we see, or to get them to look at the text from a different standpoint and see a different or heightened value in reading and understanding that text. Adoration and mockery both imply that a text contains a message that cannot be ignored.
Criticism as a social and intellectual practice is a valuable component of any literary field. No other field has the sociality nor the imaginative versatility that SF possesses, and both of these elements give SF the vitality that allows it to thrive and to function on multiple levels (from visceral entertainment to nigh-hallucinatory philosophical/metaphorical exercise). The fantastic field endures and transforms because it is embedded in both popular consciousness and an elaborate subculture, both of which utilize different modes of criticism to engage it. Criticism is not a distanced, objective assessment; it is an intimate part of the cultural and creative web of discourse and social relations. To quote Farah Mendlesohn, the field is “an ongoing discussion. Its texts are mutually referential, may be written by those active in criticism . . . and have often been generated from the same fan base which supports the market.” Criticism, in its entire range of forms, is an inherent part of the SF/Fantastika’s connectivity to those who create and enjoy it.
If we do successfully de-parochialize SF/Fantastika, what will we be turning it into? Bringing criticism more in-line with prevalent trends and perspectives seems like an exercise in making the literary field and its products more mainstream. Mainstreaming often washes out complexity and reinforces stereotypes and cliches, creating identifiable markers for more general audiences to recognize but shifting attention away from the multifarious potentials of the literature. What goal is achieved by treating SF/Fantastika like more realist or mainstream or mimetic or literary texts? Is there a degree to which at least some of the literature benefits from retaining its anchorage within the more circumscribed field? I’m not sure that is the best way to phrase the question, but I keep wondering why it seems so important to some observers and readers to unmoor fantastic literature from its historical, cultural, and even social linkages.
When I wrote about “genre parochialism” several months ago, I noted that:
“It is because fantastika is about hypotheticals of various sorts that it requires those who participate in the field to frequently re-articulate its possibilities and accomplishments. As Jo Walton put it: ‘[b]ecause SF can’t take the world for granted, it’s had to develop techniques’ that allow readers to anchor the unlikely and the conjectured in some sort of transferable understanding (including multiple histories of its development). That development, that personal reimagining of a narrative’s base, is a factor in this parochialism. It is an attempt to make the genre personal, to project its singular power.”
SF criticism arose from this dynamic, starting out as very personal reflections on the literature and its effects. We need to continue developing stronger critical angles on the literature, but rather than borrow from or attempt to duplicate some of the methods used for other literatures, we have to remain sensitive to what fantastic literature does, and can do, and fashion ways of seeing and interpreting that do not steamroller the field’s particular complications and paradoxes.