Good criticism and brave critics.
That’s what the science fiction field lacks.
For decades now, most book reviews with in the field rarely give honest assessments of a given works strengths and weaknesses. Read any given issue of LOCUS (which is the “Newsletter of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Industry”). The book reviews are generally positive, rarely critical, but mostly they are laudatory to the point of excess. (“We eagerly await the next installment in this daring series!” or the equally elusive “What we’ve come to expect from this author!”)
Unless the author is quite obscure or the novel under review at the time is a first novel by someone who hasn’t established his or her bona fides through the usual magazines (Asimov’s, F&SF, and Analog), most novels and short story collections that are reviewed in LOCUS are treated as if each work was a sacred milestone in the hagiography of science fiction. Even if the reviewer finds some little niggling aspect of the book they don’t like, there will nonetheless be a line or two that is immanently blurbable, a line that will still curry favor with the author whose book is being reviewed so that the heavens don’t fall are a fatwa isn’t pronounced on said critic.
All it is, is fear.
Which leads to cowardice.
That’s why there is little honesty in science fiction and fantasy book reviewing today: Most reviewers are wannabe writers themselves and don’t want to make enemies and they certainly don’t want to make enemies of the fans of the authors they scrutinize. I noticed this in the late 1970s when LOCUS appeared. LOCUS started out as a fanzine and has pretty much remained one despite its size or clout. But year after year, as I read the journal and purchased books they recommended, I found that the books in question were not all that good (and in sometimes obvious ways–after all, was Ender absolutely necessary to Speaker for the Dead?) and that I came to distrust both the reviewers who wrote for LOCUS and the magazine itself.
This is human politics at work, in case you hadn’t noticed it before, and it has little to do with the quality of novels and short stories in the field or whether the field advances and evolves creatively. No one speaks truth to power; no one dares to because . . .
. . . it’s all about money.
It’s as simple as that.
When I was starting out as a writer in the late 1970s I met another writer who told me his strategy for success. It wasn’t to write memorably stories in the tradition, say, of Theodore Sturgeon or Ray Bradbury or J.G. Ballard. No, it was something more mendacious: Become personal best friends with the main critics in the field. He said, call them every week, send them everything you publish whether they’ve requested it or not. Even send them Christmas cards. (No kidding. He actually said that.)
He told me that the first nine numbers on his speed-dial phone were the numbers of the major critics in the field. Gerald Jonas, the (then) science fiction critic for The New York Times Book Review, was at #1. P. Schulyer Miller, who was the (then) main critic for Analog was at #2. This author ticked them off up to nine. I knew all of the names (some were major editors as well) and noticed that this author had never received a bad review from any of the magazines those critics worked for, even though then, as now, that man’s books weren’t as magnificent as those critics said they were at the time.
By the way, I’m not talking about Harlan Ellison here. That man needs to resort to no tricks. His stories speak for themselves.
The only venues for honest reviewing these days are outside the science fiction and fantasy fields entirely where critics really don’t care about the careers of the authors they review. Many of them in fact are published anonymously: Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, The Library Journal and just a handful more. (There is no longer a science fiction critic for The New York Times, though our aforementioned author does get reviewed by the NYT in the Literature section. That’s how far he’s come. So maybe the strategy works.)
In the popular music culture, they used to have the “payola” phenomenon, where PR people would visit radio stations and shell out money or cocaine (or both) to play records that they otherwise wouldn’t touch. Lots of people went to jail for this (in the early Seventies), but it’s a human activity that’s as old as time: hustling, bribing, cajoling, greasing palms. Just look at Congress. Nowadays it’s called lobbying and it’s out in the open.
But if you go to the WorldCon and the other big conventions, you’ll see dozens of authors hustling everyone for votes. Buying them drinks, shining their shoes, doing their taxes, whatever it takes so the fans will remember their names whet it comes time for voting for the Hugo. (I’m kidding, as far as the shoes are concerned, but only barely.) Some authors at the WorldCon will show up weeks in advance to wine-and-dine the fans, and more than once this tactic has worked. After all, think of the Hugo and Nebula award winners that you’ve read that have baffled you. It started for me in the early 80s and has never let up. There’s a reason why some stories win awards. Lobbying is just one of them.
If you want to find true criticism in science fiction and fantasy, look no further than the reader’s comments at amazon.com. Most of the comments are openly honest and many of them are quite emotional. These are people who care about science fiction and fantasy and they are not reticent when it comes to expressing their feelings, particularly if they feel they’ve been ripped off.
Many of these reader’s responses are well thought-through and very sharply reasoned (with quotes and page numbers, something even my own students don’t provide in their papers). At the very least the comments are visceral. Readers who comment on amazon.com generally aren’t going to be going to the WorldCon and vote for Hugo awards. They aren’t writers themselves, shilling for their friends or wanting to suck up to their favorite authors. These are people that don’t have a pony in the show. They simply react. And they don’t hold anything back.
Good criticism is needed so that we can get better stories and novels from these “award-winning” writers . . . and we need them. Have you actually read anything truly new in the field? If you have, please let me know. I just see more of the same–and all of it’s praised to high heaven.
I’ve blogged earlier about novels-in-series that don’t work, or series that just go on and on and on with seemingly no point to them. Why do we need series in the first place? What’s wrong with a well-told story in one novel? (The reason is money, of course. There’s more money to be made by revisiting a world or character than by telling a new story or inventing a new character.) But over time, readers will get good at listening to their intuitions and start seeing through the clutter that tells us we must buy this book or that this author is a “must read” author.
I’m not telling you something you don’t already know about this sleazy phenomenon. People who tend to read, tend to read seriously, and they know what they like and why they like it. But we do live in a reactionary consumer culture and reviews anymore are simply designed to get us to go out and buy books. My interest is in the process behind book reviewing, the motives, the PR, the quest for literary immortality. This is why reviews of bad books are almost glowingly good. The reviewers have been gotten to.
What I do know is that behind most reviews of this kind is an impulse toward cowardice and a drooling sycophancy that serves no one. And I’m trying to be honest here. I expect nothing less from myself and from you as well. We are not stupid people.
And we are not sheep.