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Achieving Critical Mass: Some Thoughts on the Art and Use of Fantastic Criticism

“As a critic I am not in the business of providing purchasing advice, but neither am I in the business of attempting to read the author’s mind by establishing the facts about a text. As a critic, I am engaged in the construction of conceptual edifices. I bring to bear theories and asserted truths ripped from the world and my own imagination and crash them into the text of a book or a film like a runaway train into an orphanage.” – Jonathan McCalmont

Like discussions of genre and relevance, there is a perennial resurgence in the discussion of criticism in the field of fantastic literature. In fact, it seems to arise whenever a particularly sharp review or post makes the rounds. The recent flurry of writing about the “exhaustion” of SF comes right to mind, but the question about how we should examine and debate literature is asked constantly. Fans, authors, and others in the field frequently inquire as to the proper nature of criticism, its bounds, and its utility to the field.

I think all of these questions fail to see what criticism often is, and what it can do.

Jonathan McCalmont’s notion of criticism, as encapsulated above, is also for me the core of criticism. While criticism can be enlightening, startling, or intricately analytical, those are the results of critical discourse, of the pursuit of examining a text or texts and creating a reflection of it, that conceptual edifice. It is the act of a critic, but not just one who “judges” a work, but one who takes it apart and sees that values and ornamentations lie within. The work of literary criticism has been one of judgement, but particularly in relation to SF it has been more a pursuit of the word’s core meaning, “‘to separate, decide.'” Critics decode, analyze, and present their vision of the material to readers. That vision, as McCalmont also notes, is an art itself.

This gets lost in the broader idea of the critic as one who renders judgement and determines what is good or bad. Certainly value judgements arise in criticism because of its intense subjective qualities, but this should be expected rather than be cause for alarm. Criticism emphasizes some meanings of a text, explores some connections, and look for ways to envision the text with a different, particular set of eyes. Critics often uses theories and approaches designed to unpack the possible meanings woven into a text and look for implicit notions and associations within and between the representations created by reading the text. The point is that critics are readers who engage a text to understand its multitude of messages and use those to weave a response to the text that may highlight its positive and negative qualities but that also accentuates the concerns and insights of the critic his/herself.

We come back time and time again to the question of what a critic is “supposed” to do. This question arose in Mark Lawrence’s recent diatribe against what he calls the “hammer” approach to critique; he takes to task “intellectual criticism” of fantasy works that are too preoccupied with “societal deconstruction.” As he puts it:

“There is a mentality that expects (nay demands) that each SFF book is a tightly wrapped social commentary, a distorting mirror of our society crafted with the sole point of making socio-political points, usually to educate the unwashed masses through parable in the business of how society should be.”

His concern is that this approach misses other opportunities in the text. “it seems to me that the critiques that try to reach beyond the plot in genre critting are looking for social messages rather than for the ‘open questions asked about the human animal’ that literary fiction poses.” He contrasts philosophical critiques (“existential stuff”) with examining “the transitory business of social structure” with the former being less of a blunt tool of analysis than the latter.

Lawrence’s call to diversify critical approaches is one I can get behind; the critical history of fantastic literature has often been one of polemical or proselytizing criticism that tried to focus more on those themes of philosophy and the spirit of man (and often only man) and the values of SFF as a way to examine the human condition from a different angle. More recently (in roughly the last 40 years or so) that trend has been interrupted by an array of often academically-trained critics engaging the literature with the theories and tools of literary criticism. Some of those tools are, indeed, deconstructive, and some do examine the social worth of a text, but to condense all articulations of gender, race, and other representations to something called “societal deconstruction” does not adequately look at “what we really are.”

Lawrence separates philosophy from identity and makes it eternal and catholic while gender, etc., are situational and fleeting and hold “far less meaning for me.” That is certainly clear from reading Prince of Thorns, and is why some readers love the book and others find it problematic. But this is not just a proposal for diversity, because for Lawrence “societal deconstruction” misses “[t]he deeper themes in much good fantasy” and is actually a petty sort of criticism. As he asserts at the end of his piece, “I do realise of course that the very first and most predictable response would be to turn all those devices upon my own work and parade it as lacking in all other regards too,” which implies that such criticism is about tearing down stories and their deeper meanings. “Societal deconstruction” is used to denigrate authors rather than uncovering the greater philosophical implications of their works. The solution is for the critics to use other, gentler tools that uncover what’s really going on in a work rather than focusing on ephemera like identity.

This argument rests heavily on the idea that criticism is a service, not an art, and that it is supposed to support literature rather than examine the range of meanings that emerge from texts and that relate to the world around us. Criticism is supposed to distill essential issues of philosophical merit and elevate the text. But that is not what criticism is about, why it is performed. Criticism is precisely the articulations of one’s concerns discovered in a text or texts and the distillation and presentation of issues of concern to the critic. Critics are positioned readers who fashion their interpretations of and observations about the workings of a text into their own formulation. Critics serve themselves, and present their findings to others to engender responses and to exchange perspectives. Critics create their conceptual edifices to show them off to other readers hoping to stimulate discussion and to get other readers to look at texts from another viewpoint.

Critics examine literature by creating frames around their subject and superimposing their own picture on what the text is doing. Sometimes they clarify aspects of the text, sometimes they twist them to see if they will hold a new shape. They plumb texts for unobvious meanings, link representations to the world outside of the text, re-envision what the text seems to be doing, and uncover quandaries, inconsistencies, and revelations that course through the read words. That crashing into the text tries to set off a reaction that reaches out to the reader and dares them to look at the text anew, to find new appreciations or complications, to see the text through another’s eyes and expand, or question, their experience of it.

7 Comments on Achieving Critical Mass: Some Thoughts on the Art and Use of Fantastic Criticism

  1. Teresa Frohock has put in thoughts here, based on the comments to Mark’s post:

    • Thanks for the link, Paul. I think she has some valid points but the conflation of reviews with criticism and then the washing-out of the potential for criticism to do much more lost me. But it’s less polemical and more informed that Mr. Lawrence’s piece was.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I’m with you on what critical writing has as its task. After reading the original post and Teresa Frohock’s response I was feeling compelled to respond, but you’ve been much more articulate than I would have been.

  3. Way too much grey matter spent on Lawrence’s and Frohock’s unclear-on-basic-concepts rants.

    • Although “runaway train into an orphanage” doesn’t even qualify as mixed metaphor.

      • John Stevens // November 10, 2012 at 5:26 pm //

        It’s an excessive metaphor, certainly, and only one way to describe what a critic does. I was more interested in considering the idea that criticism is an art and that a critic creates a framed reflection of the text or texts they engage. Critics are not a subset of reviewer nor are they arbiters of truth. Some critics reveal a text’s messages while others question them. Lawrence’s contrivances were not just maladroitly assembled but misrepresented what most critics do. I thought it needed some sort of response.

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