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Author vs. Critic – A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, there was a scathing review of a book I liked. That book is called The Golden Age and was written written by John C. Wright. But the review was not really a review at all! It was an attack on the author and his presumed politics and morals. This caused the author to get very, very mad, prompting him to reply. The reviewer kindly posted the author’s reply for all to see. But the critic was not done. The critic reviewed the author’s sequel, The Phoenix Exultant (another book I liked). But this, too, was not just a review. It was also a reply back to the author…

(to be continued?)

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

10 Comments on Author vs. Critic – A Fairy Tale

  1. After reading all this, I think the person pushing an agenda is the original reviewer. I certainly didn’t infer all she did out of The Golden Age and I would be hard pressed to decide what the author’s beliefs are after reading the book. And from her own rebuttal, she states that she did assume political leanings about the author from his writing. Seems to me, an experienced reviewer would be aware of this and try not to do it.

    In fact, I think Wright is right when he states “I suspect I have earned Miss Morgan’s enmity for political reasons, not artistic ones”. I got the same feeling from this line in Morgan’s re-rebuttal: “In his article Wright says (in his own voice), “Socialism is a theory that is both illogical and inhuman.” Now, I can think of a lot of rude things to say about Socialism, but those two words are not ones I would use. And I think on the basis of that comment that I was correct in thinking that Wright was not going to produce a terribly fair and balanced view of competing political theories”.

    First of all, this a frickin’ science fiction story. At what point is an author compelled to treat anything, let alone competing political theories, in a fair and balanced way? Its a story! The author gets to write what he wants, not what you, Miss Morgan, want him to write. And I think the fact that Morgan doesn’t see Socialism as illogical or inhuman says a lot about her own political leanings, which, I suspect, is the reason she writes as she does. A reviwer ought to review what is in a book, and not the perceived views of the author. Period.

  2. I agree, JP. That’s the cardinal rule of reviewing – stick to the story and leave the author alone. There is no sound basis for judging a person’s beliefs based on a fictional story they create. At least she’s not producing this tripe at Kalusner-speed.

  3. Just between you and me, Miss Morgan will have the last word in the debate, since I intend no further response to her musings. Those who dislike my book will not suddenly learn to enjoy it by hearing me debate my personal opinions; and those who enjoy the book, my honored patrons, should not have my private opinions inflicted upon them. The fool is meant to sing and dance and please the king, not to debate policy with him.

    However, in a moment of weakness, I will let one comment slip out, just to you. Is it unfair or unbalanced to say socialism is illogical and inhuman?

    If you are familiar with the socialist labor theory of value, the theory of the iron law of wages, or with the lack of any theory of rational economic price-calculation under a socialist commonwealth (where prices are set by fiat), you might agree with me that socialism is illogical, as it contains self-contradictions.

    Respected economists who accept the Marxist theory are as rare as respected scientists who accept the theory of phlogiston.

    The 110,000,000 murdered subjects of socialist regimes slain in this century by their own leaders, during purges, in gulags, during forced marches, and by planned famines, will give sufficient testimony, albeit mute, as to the inhumanity of the socialist creed.

    Miss Morgan assumes that no person can be rational and objective and come to the conclusion that socialism is unsound in theory and hateful in practice: I may have come to my conclusion flippantly and arbitrarily, as she alleges, or after many years of careful thought and reading, and after earning a degree or two in an institution of higher learning. How would she know, merely from the conclusion itself, whether I came by it thoughtfully or thoughtlessly?

    John C. Wright

  4. I think Miss Morgan has an ax to grind and chose your book to grind it. It appears to me she goes out of her way to find things to criticize, the whole Asia/Africa rant, for no other reason than to slam you for daring to present a future capatalistic society when we all know that socialism is what a future society will be based on. Note her comparing you to Ken MacLeod. She calls it useful to compare The Golden Age to MacLeod’s books because McLeod’s societies are either communistic or libertarian. Probably because she believe, as I see it, in the superiority of socialism/communism over capitalism. In fact, for me, I’ve read two MacLeod novels and everytime I read a description of the communist style of governance I keep wanting to shout: “Communism is dead! It doesn’t work! Why would you institute a bad political system and expect it to work in a group of more than 4 people!?”. Whew. Sorry, I’ll get off the politics now. Back to your regularly schedule science fiction…

  5. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I believe Morgan is tilting at windmills when it comes to The Golden Age.

    The sad part is, as I believe Wright implies in his addendum to his rebuttal, is that his rebuttal can come across as a response to hurt feelings rather than a serious discourse on the subject. Her writing on The Golden Age stood for itself, just as the book stands for itself, and a debate isn’t going to help. Oh sure, if somebody looked at the product of my work and said ‘From this software I can tell you’re a fascist’ I might also be tempted to reply. The problem is, as Wright again seems to imply, you give credability to the accuser when you respond.

    I find it helpful in these times of blogs and zines and other web constructs to remind myself of the classic New Yorker cartoon that pictures a pair of dogs in front of a computer. The larger dog is looking down at the smaller one saying ‘On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.’ Morgan might be 13 years old boy, a woman in her late 40’s, or a Turing machine – dignifying her writing with a response just encourages her.

  6. I don’t think an author lends credibility to an unsolicited personal attack on his character and beliefs by responding to it. At most, I just think he?s just being human.

    How can you not respond when someone publicly tries to rip you a new one? Even more so, how can you sit idle amidst such unprovoked stupidity when there is no basis for the conclusions? Or, to paraphrase you yourself, Scott, how can you walk up to me, punch me in the face and not expect me to retaliate?

    No, I think Wright had cause to respond in some fashion, even if only for therapeutic reasons. (Did it feel better, Mr. Wright?)

    And better still, he did so with the most intelligently written burn I?ve ever seen.

  7. Alas, my good sir, but it did not feel better, not in the long term. I am happy for the compliment you pay me, but I must point out that an insult, even an intelligently-written one, is not an argument, and does not persuade a rational man. I could have been more charitable toward her, more stoical toward insult, and less wrathful toward discourtesy.

    Arguing with a scholar who abides by the rules of logic and courtesy can be rewarding; arguing with a she-clown during a pie-throwing contest merely erodes one?s dignity. The clown?s purpose is not to come to a rational conclusion; it is to smack the chump in the gob with a lemon meringue and get a cheap laugh.

    Also, arguing with the Grand Inquisitor is not likely to persuade. When one is accused by a witch-finder of being a heretic, nothing can be said in one?s defense. Any attempt to deny a thoughtcrime is itself a thoughtcrime. In this case, the heresy is political, but the zeal of the denunciation is religious in its fervor.

    Finally, public arguments also do not sell books.

    I doubt Miss Morgan?s dispraise of me will drive away any patrons whose business I crave. Any honest reader of my book will laugh until milk squirts from his nose to read her hallucinatory description of what she imagined to be in my book. Dishonest readers are those whose delight it is to misinterpret written works; may they take their patronage elsewhere, and godspeed.

    I confess I have prejudices like Miss Morgan’s. For example, I have only read one work by Ken McLeod, and that was THE CASSINI DIVISION. He is a fine writer, and I will say nothing to dispraise him, but my political opinions prevented me from enjoying the story.

    The tale casually mentions how two passengers on plane volunteer, without prompting and without pay, to act as stewardesses during the trip. One of them (if my memory serves) is also the supreme military chief of staff of an unpaid all-volunteer space-navy, which (as far as I could tell) answered to no civilian authority. No mention is made of where or how the space-navy is supplied with goods and materials, ships and ammunition. No mention is made of how the planes function when no one volunteers to crew them, or how patrons who are displeased with the service can find better if the unpaid volunteer stewardesses do not perform their chores.

    I thought it was a satire. It was not until I was well into the book that it dawned on me that the author expected the reader to take this description of how a communist society seriously.

    Is this a prejudice of mine? It is. When I read FIRST LENSMAN by ?Doc? E.E. Smith, the author there casually mentions that the manual labor of erecting the major buildings on the planet Rigel IV is conducted by unpaid volunteers, businessmen and public-spirited citizens of a communal utopia, I do not stop to scoff. I do not even stop to wonder why, three paragraphs earlier, the Rigellian cab-driver was ignoring a commercial advertisement for Temgee?s Food. Commerce in communtopia?

    Likewise, the anarchists-without-families of Anares in Ursule LeGuin?s THE DISPOSSESSED, or the anarchists-without-insanity of Null-A Venus in A.E. van Vogt?s WORLD OF NULL-A do not make me fret over the plausibility of their political system. I merely read the story and enjoy.

    If I could do the same for Ken McLeod?s books, I would enjoy stories told by a master story-teller. If Miss Morgan could do the same for my stories, she might enjoy them also.

    I said above that economists who accept the Marxist theory are as rare as scientists who accept the theory of phlogiston. Does this mean a science fiction story cannot be set in a fantasy universe where the theory of phlogiston is true? I recall that Richard Garfinkle’s CELESTIAL MATTERS postulated utterly unrealistic (namely, Aristotlian) physics, to entertaining effect. So why should authors not postulate utterly unrealistic economics? The stories will be fantasy, not science fiction, but might still be entertaining for all that.

    John C. Wright

    PS: I am pleased that you think I am only being human. Naturally, no one on this thread has yet discovered that I am a dog with a keyboard.

  8. I did a search on “John C. Wright” in Google’s image section, and this — — is one of the photos that came up. I now believe John C. Wright is, as he claims, a dog.

  9. Mr. Wright,

    I am sorry that you feel your thoughtful responses will fall upon deaf ears, though I suspect you are right. I’m glad you chose to do so, however, because I thoroughly enjoyed reading your words. Your text makes me want to meet you, which is not something I say very often.

    I read your trilogy as it was released, and have only just read these reviews and your responses today. (3/9/05) I will say first that I thoroughly enjoyed your book(s) and recommend them to all and sundry. I will also say that I believe myself to have learned far more about the reviewer’s politics than your own, and that it is quite interesting to me that someone so clearly lacking the tools with which to discuss a novel as a work of creation would nevertheless get so much publicity for their “review”. (polemic).

    I was intrigued to read your comments about Ken McLeod’s work, because I enjoy him a lot too, and found that same scene to be remarkable and memorable. However, it did not destroy continuity or plausibility for me. I suppose I was willing to take it for granted that in this culture, such things were possible, which was a pleasing thought.

    What are your feelings on pronoia in general? What about the implications of the cooperative strategies outlined in Axelrod’s “Theories of Cooperation”?

    Have you read Charles Stross’s “Lobsters” and the stories that follow?



  10. My dear Mr. Holland, your words of praise take me by surprise, coming in so unlikely a place as the archive of a topic from January of 2004. Mr. DeNardo was kind enough to email me at john-c-wright,at, to bring your kind words to my attention. [SFSignal Note: email adress munged to prevent JCW from getting spam.]

    Meeting me in real life is likely to prove a disappointment. Most readers expect to meet someone vaguely anthropoid, whereas I bark and slobber. Also, in person I make eccentric jokes amusing only to myself, whereas on the internet I am the soul of tact and sobriety.

    My comments about CASINNI DIVISION were in the nature of a confession, not a boast. I am now too old to find the Book of Gold: I cannot enjoy the simple pleasures of reading as once I did in youth. The selfsame unrealism that surrounds the utopias in FIRST LENSMEN and PLAYERS OF NULL-A and THE DISPOSSESSED would be unpalatable to my jaded tastes. My inability to enjoy Mr. McLeod’s work is a reflection on my lack as a reader, not his lack as a writer.

    To answer your questions:

    (1) I have never heard of pronoia erenow, but the concept that the universe is secretly benevolent is one that has been sensed by mystics and promised by men of faith since the dawn of time. Scientific thinking cannot address the question, as it involves a value-judgment. On the one hand, raw nature bloody in tooth and nail promises no benevolence to man; the ruins and Babylon and Rome, the sight of the gravestone of a child, likewise announce the indifference of Fate and Stepmother Nature: on the other hand, my own life has been so blissfully free of pain, that it would be unwise and unexpected not to have a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving in my breast.

    (2) I have heard of game theory experiments of evolutionary cooperative strategy, but am not familiar with the details. You can see some of this thinking in my novel GOLDEN AGE, where the Sophotects, for purely rational reasons, no matter what their original programming, all tend to adopt strategies of peaceful cooperation, using violence only in retaliation, and ready to forgive when the enemy turns cooperative. In order to create an artificial intelligence able to reject the conclusions of cooperative strategy, the Lords of the Silent Oecumene were driven to create a sophotect that rejected the fundamental laws of reason.

    (3) I have never read anything by Charles Stross, though I look forward to reading his FAMILY TRADE, which I have purchased based on a review appearing on these web pages.

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