“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.
“Critics seem to find it necessary, at least once in a career, to write a statement defending criticism per se.” – Joanna Russ.
“By its function, [criticism] seems to be condemned to dispersion, dependency and pure heteronomy. . . . It only exists in relation to something other than itself.”- Michel Foucault
I wanted to preface my column with these two quotations because they frame the topic that I want to discuss quite well and because they also draw on the two basic traditions I am going to intermingle here. In the past few weeks there has been copious debate about writing reviews, about voicing negative opinions on books, and about examining literature critically (or not). The concern that all of these commentaries relate to is that of the role and deployment of criticism, whether literary or social (but still related to literature).
Criticism in everyday discourse usually has negative connotations, and the dictionary definition of the word reflects this. In common usage criticism is about fault-finding, about a perceptive meanness used against someone else. When applied to a more specific object or discourse, criticism becomes a judgment, often a privileged one, redefined as “critique,” that emerges from someone’s vantage point as “critic.” Both of these notions relate to the root of the word “critic,” which is from the Greek word krinein “to separate, decide.” To engage in criticism, at its core, is to practice a process of analysis (separating a subject into constituent components to understand how they fit together) in order to render a decision about the workings of those components. That is an idealized definition of the term, but also a more essential basis for examining it.
“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?