Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Towards my own Reviewing Philosophy

I've been thinking seriously about what reviews should do. Blame the SFF Masterclass. After absorbing the books, the articles, the instruction, and the conversations, I realize that I need to do more with my writing. Reviewing at its best does more than simply alert people to new books by their favorite authors[1]. That's valuable, but it's simple and there are lots of venues for that. Reviewing should publicize the best of what's out there, particularly if it's under the radar. Niall Harrison mentioned the advocacy reviewing of 'William Atheling, Jr.' (James Blish's critical pseudonym) and Joanna Russ as models to emulate[2]. They reviewed things with an eye to what they wanted the field to be. It's a bit more challenging now; the field has come a long way since the 60s. The literary quality is better, and sf/f has come to recognize a broader universe of concerns. Still, there's always room for improvement. Reviewing should hold the field to the highest standards. Not everything is "the best," but by measuring the gap between what is and what could be, we can suggest a way forward. What else should reviews do? They should give people updates on the changing face of the field. Every new work changes the big picture of what speculative fiction is, in ways small or large. By knowing the history of the genre, a reviewer should be able to put a new book in context so that even if people don't get around to reading the book, they'll still be aware of its impact.

Pretentious? Yeah. Who am I to say what direction the field should go in? I'm a physicist with delusions of literacy. I started writing about what I read so that I could remember the plot of a book five minutes after putting it down. However, as I've written and read more and more and listened to people in the community, I've begun to see what the art of criticism can be. My reviewing can have a sharper focus than it has had in the past. I know I've been guilty of the "people who enjoy this sort of thing will enjoy this" review, and I want to put that behind me. Those reviews are boring to read, and let me tell you that after only two months of doing it, they're boring to write. So while I will continue to read Analog, because I enjoy SF puzzle stories as much as the next fan[3], I probably won't mention them here unless they do something really new. The same goes for the other magazines (although of course if some story does something astonishingly annoying, I'll probably mention that as well).

This evolution makes sense: reviewers come to read fiction differently than a lot of readers and fans. For one, we read lots and lots of stuff. After the nth iteration of a given theme, we're desperate for something new, something we haven't seen before. We read, as Gary Wolfe has put it, more cynically than the average reader. This is also a function of the fact that we have to write about this stuff. It's much easier to find something new to say about original material than to find a new way to say "yeah, it's OK." Sometimes this is a shame - it leaves us less time and inclination to read things we enjoyed in the past (now I'll probably never pick up that one Asimov robot anthology that I haven't gotten to yet) but it may be inevitable.

Here's the big challenge, and what I've given a lot of thought to. If I want to point people toward what's "best," how do I define that? It needs to be more rigorous than simply "stuff like the stuff I like." I don't have a coherent philosophy all worked out yet, that's part of what the new "Laboratory" appellation is for. I do have a few tentative ideas, open for argument and debate:

  • What do want out of my speculative fiction more than anything else? I want fiction that makes me think about the world differently than I had before. If I wanted to read about middle-class WASPs in suburbia, i.e. myself, there are shelves and shelves of that sort of thing available. Instead, I want to be exposed to new ways of thinking. Thus I particularly value:
  1. Fiction by non-Westerners and non-English speakers. We need more of this sort of thing. There are people living around us who live in profoundly different mental universes than our own. To find out what they think the future could be like, or what they imagine in their flights of fancy, is incredibly rewarding and important.
  2. Really imaginative aliens and monsters, to stretch our minds and try to encompass the Other.
  3. Reactions to new technology and the cutting edge of scientific research. If there's one thing the 20th century taught us, it's that the universe is much weirder than Newton could have dreamed. This will have a profound effect on how we live and how we perceive the universe and each other.
  • This means that the characters need to engage with their fantastic settings. There's no point in simply setting an episode of The O. C. on a space station. That's not fundamentally different from mimetic fiction. The characters need to really change in response to their genre environments. Historical people were different than we are now; people in the future will be different again; people living with dragons would be different in some ways as well (with apologies to Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire books I heartily enjoy).
  • Literary quality: if it's not well written, it's not good literature. At a minimum this means prose that gets out of the way. At its best this means style that lifts the reader up, reinforces the themes of the piece, and makes for a truly memorable reading experience.
  • I don't feel the need to police genre boundaries. It's fun to argue about, but each piece can speak to multiple traditions and must stand on its own as well. Hooray for slipstream! It's not all great, but a lot of it is original.
One thing that's important to remember is that when you're looking for something new, it's dependent on what you've already experienced. There are folks out there for whom Asimov's robot stories are new. Some people pick up Terry Brooks without reading Tolkein first and may be blown away. Some people may take affront when one says that Shanara is derivative; it's new to them. I think this is the reason why reviewers get reputations for being cranky. Likewise, I know I'll end up raving about things that a more experienced reviewer would know have already been done. The only thing I can say is that it will happen less frequently as time goes on.

Keep in mind that all of literature is a great big tent, and I'm never going to say that people shouldn't read what they like. Reading is meant to be enjoyable after all. Huge numbers of people enjoy Robert Jordan and Analog magazine, and they should feel absolutely free to keep doing so. However, they already know where to find the next story: Analog publishes 10 times a year, and Brian Sanderson will be writing the last volume of The Wheel of Time. In between publishing dates, Analog readers can read Hard SF anthologies, and Jordan fans can read Martin, Feist, Eddings, or any number of other big fat fantasy novels. My reviews should cover things that may not be so easy to find.

I'll still be writing about the older classics, many of which can't stand up to this more stringent scrutiny. However, I need to write about them in order to think about them more clearly. I've developed a bad case of: "How will I know what I think until I read what I wrote?" Also, I feel the need to understand the overall picture of sf over the last century. Even the little bit I've read already has deepened my understanding and enjoyment of what I'm reading now.

Is everything I review going to be the best thing ever? Will all of it fulfill my wildest hopes and dreams? Of course not. I enjoy non-ground breaking stuff, as does everyone. Will all my reviews suddenly become as good as Joanna Russ'? I wish! But if I can do my part to nudge the field to expand into new & nifty dimensions, then I should. We'll see how this particular experiment goes.

[1] Really good critics know this instinctively, but I'm a bit slow. I'm hoping that hard work will eventually compensate for lack of innate genius. It worked with math!

[2] Footnotes are fun! Sorry... couldn't resist. Anyway, the actual point of this footnote is to let you know that today I ordered copies of The Issue at Hand (Blish's first collection of Atheling Jr. essays) and The Country You Have Never Seen, Joanna Russ' latest collection of criticism. I'm putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak.

[3] There was one last year, where a guy got stuck oscillating in a frictionless parabolic mirror with nothing but the physics textbook he'd loaded into his space suit computer, and he had to figure out how to add enough energy to the system to escape. It was awesome! Nothing but a dramatized physics problem, but totally cool!


Jonathan M said...

YAY! A reviewerfesto... it's been a while :-)

Karen Burnham said...

ACK! Noooooooo! No no no!

Ya know, as soon as I posted this thing I thought "I should have mentioned that this IS NOT a manifesto." Damn!

C'mon, I even implied that Amazon reviews have their place and made nice to Jordan fans. How much less manifesto-y can you get? =)

Jonathan M said...

Well manifestos are only ever attempts by people to define themselves and clearly that's what you tried to do with that post.

Not all manifestos are all cyberpunky and about denouncing the weak and decadent ;-)

Karen Burnham said...

Really? Based on my experience on teh Intartubes that's exactly what I thought manifestos were! =)

I turn to my trusty flash-drive dictionary and see that you're exactly right: "A public declaration of intentions."

I've committed a manifesto. Oh Noes!

Cheryl said...

Good stuff, go for it!

And you know, most people won't care unless they get it into their heads that you can actually influence things with your reviews. If that happens, find a bunker in Montana.

Manifesto is an album by Roxy Music.

Karen Burnham said...

Hasn't everyone realized that reviewers don't influence anyone, at any time, ever? Except perhaps each other?

I for one glory in my insignificance and low Technorati rating. If I thought anyone actually read this stuff I'd probably curl up into a nano-black hole and start orbiting the center of the Earth. (That's the secret history behind David Brin's novel, BTW. Containment failures. Yeah, right.)

Anonymous said...

Your line about knowing the history is so relevant but also really hard. There was a two line summary of a Heinlein novel in the Cambridge Companion to SF which made me realise that my review of Horizons had surely missed one of the points the author was trying to make, as it so closely evoked the same plot.

Even so, it's difficult to read enough of the old stuff when you don't have time to read the new stuff! Maybe I should be getting hold of Atheling and Russ as a help to knowing where the field has been. (As one of my purposes in review-reading is to get some knowledge of the books I don't have time to read.)

Karen Burnham said...

Duncan - you're not kidding about it being hard. It's difficult to know what to prioritize: The current Hugo nominee, the Jack London SF story, the thing due at the end of month for Strange Horizon? (But deadlines always win, of course.)

The other hard part is that I been advised over and over to drop a book that isn't good and move on to one that is. Can't do that with the classics; some of them are awful. Luckily most of them are short, which helps.

Still, when I look at some of the reviewers I most admire, particularly Gary Wolfe and Graham, I get a lot out of their ability to provide historical context. I hope to be able to do that myself someday. Give it a decade or two.

Anonymous said...


Fascinating post, lots of synthesis and thought went into it. I really look forward to future writings.

As you ascend to your lofty calling, I'm certain you won't leave behind your everywoman roots. =)

Karen Burnham said...

Michele - Thanks for reading it! I'm still a little leery of posting < 1000 word entries on a blog, but I'm really happy this got a good response.

I just keep reminding myself, I like Scalzi, I like Analog, I like Glen Cook and there's nothing wrong with that. But that stuff won't show up in my reviewing so much. Clearer mental divisions and all that.

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Gabe said...

Great stuff, Karen. It's interesting that you've mirrored a lot of what I wrote in a post on Monday. Cool.

Karen Burnham said...

Thanks for dropping by, Gabe. Glad you liked it. It's interesting to see the commonalities and differences in folk's reasons for reviewing.

Robert V.S. Redick said...

Very thoughtful and welcome. I worked for years as a stage critic, and remember going through a similar self-examination of my criteria and approach. No matter the medium, we always have a choice: we can write words that we're proud to stand by or something else. We can be self-critical, or we can rant and posture. We can be honest or not.

Best Wishes--RVSR

Karen Burnham said...

Thanks Robert! And thanks for giving me an opportunity to re-read my own words, 9 months later on. I see I haven't totally abided by my own high-falutin' standards. But honestly, I think I haven't done too badly. And I think I'll still get better. Continual improvement is another important thing to work for.