Critics and Reviewers
Guest of Honor speech
This is the fourth time in my relatively short career that I’ve been the Guest of Honor at a regional SF convention. It is the second time I’ve been called down to Texas to do my Guest of Honoring — that is, assuming that you count El Paso as part of Texas, which most of my Texas friends don’t. I will make a confession. I like being a Guest of Honor. I like doing readings and panels and seeing articles about myself in program books and spotting my name in con listings. I like the chance to talk to the readers, see my old friends and make new ones. I like making Howard Waldrop honor me; he’s never had the proper respect in all the years I’ve known him, but as long as I get more of these gigs than he does, I’m safe. I like the travel, even if it is to Texas 50% of the time.
And I like making the speeches that are obligatory at such occasions as these. They present such golden opportunities. A podium. A captive audience. A license to say whatever is on my mind. I can bore you to tears by reading my mail, indoctrinate you with my political views, regale you with bloodthirsty and embarrassing anecdotes about my friends. Other writers do all of these things. Not me, though.
A Guest of Honor speech can be used for a much more noble and uplifting purpose.
To get revenge.
My first two speeches, in El Paso and St. Louis, I used to take issue with the public statements of two other writers about the state of the art in the genre. They were both wrong, of course, and I ripped them to shreds. It was wonderful. A few months agog in Biloxi, I turned my attention to editors. They had it coming too. That left me in somewhat a quandary about what to speak on here, of course. What could be more heinous than an editor?
Well, I had no problem figuring that out.
So today I’m going to talk about critics and reviewers.
It seems to me that reviewers have been having a rough time of it of late. Fred Pohl takes them on the latest STARSHIP, and ends by comparing them to morticians. Spider Robinson seems to be regularly besieged in the ANALOG letter column these days, defending the things he’s said an issue or two previous. Gerald Jonas has come under fire for his NEW YORK TIMES reviews. Andrew J. Offutt likens crit-ticks to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever ticks in SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW. The new THRUST features a savage and wonderful Michael Bishop lampoon, with Joanna Russ, Algis Budrys, and Spider Robinson its principal targets. The same issue includes an interview with David Gerrold, who says that most critics are incompetents who can’t write themselves, which may come as news to Joanna Russ, Algis Budrys, Spider Robinson, and even Michael Bishop, who is no mean hand at criticism himself. In general, this really does seem to be Jump on the Critics Month.
The minute I noticed, I fetched out my hobnailed boots.
Some writers tell me that they don’t read their reviews. I lack their willpower and strength of character. Others claim they read them just for amusement, and pay it all no mind. I lack their capacity for glib self-deception. I admit it: I am addicted to reviews and criticism. I read them, yes. I keep review files on all my books, regularly bug my publishers to send me the latest clippings, grin fatuously when I get a good review and brood when I get a bad one. Worse, I am a completist. Nothing bothers me more than the sneaking suspicion that somewhere out there in the wide world lurk reviews of my books that no one has ever bothered to send me. The fact that I am regularly discovering such notices inflames my obsession. Whenever we visit a fan friend, I immediately check out what fanzines they receive, if any, and leaf through the unfamiliar ones in search of stray reviews. Quite often I find them, too.
The passion extends beyond criticism of my own work. I also like to read criticism of other people’s work. When I pick up a new issue of ANALOG or F&SF, the first thing I turn to is the book reviews. I’ve subscribed to every reviewzine I’ve ever heard of, even ones that were semi-literate. My addiction is very deep rooted. Sometimes I even mainline it by going to writer’s conferences, so I can ripped to pieces directly instead of at long distance. I’ve even written some criticism, shameful as that may be to admit.
In other words I know whereof I speak. I love to talk about books. I gulp good criticism and snort up reviews.
And these days, in SF, I’m starving.
Never in the history of the genre have so many people been paying so much attention to these books and stories of ours. Fans and pros and academics, award committees, end-of-the-year summarizers, reviewers, and critics and analysts of a hundred different kinds. We are surrounded on all sides by semi-prozines and semi-semizines and academic journals and reviewzines and critical summaries and yearbooks and textbooks and guides and studies. The critics are swarming, breeding, and filling the earth. The quantity of criticism has never been so high in SF.
The quality is as low as it has ever been.
This is not to say that no decent critics are working the genre currently. Far from it. In Algis Budrys we have a columnist of the stature of Knight and Blish, and there are a number of other talented people also doing first-rate criticism and reviewing, although not as regularly as Budrys — whose columns, by the ways cry out for reprinting in book forms so they can take their place on the shelf next to IN SEARCH OF WONDER and THE ISSUE AT HAND. Unfortunately, in this critical explosion there has been a great growth in the amount of bad criticism as well, so the decent work being done represents an increasingly smaller portion of the whole. I want to talk about some of that bad criticism, what I think it is that makes it bad, and the ways I think it needs to change.
Before I lace up those hobnailed boots, though, I ought to make a couple of disclaimers, and disassociate myself from some of the others who have been bloodying critics and reviewers recently.
I certainly don’t agree that most reviewers are failed writers, even if you discount the successful writers who do reviews — or criticism — on the side. The best baseball players do not make the best managers. Creative and analytic talents do not always go hand in hands but that is no reason to deny that purely analytic or critical talents exist.
I’m not interested in joining the fight between Spider and his critics as to whether reviews should be “objective” or “subjective.” I suspect they both have part of the truth. Tastes personal opinion, political and social philosophies, and the like all play legitimate roles in evaluating books, and it can’t be denied that some of these criteria may be, at times, subjective. On the other hands it’s futile to argue that there are no objective standards. To name one obvious one, internal consistency is to my mind a good objective yardstick by which to judge a piece of fiction.
I don’t even want to grind my axe against any particular style of reviewing, any critical theory or literary philosophy. A healthy genre has room for them all. Diversity is a blessing, whether we’re talking about fiction or criticism. Oh, I won’t say that the reviews I read don’t piss me off. They do. Frequently. Spider has gotten my hackles up more than once. Joanna Russ and John Clute and Barry Malzberg annoy me regularly. Lester del Rey and Richard Delap used to provoke me to rage. But that’s as it should be. From argument and from dialogues something approximating truth sometimes emerges. I said that I enjoyed talking about books? Yes, and arguing about them too, and hearing others argue about them, if it’s done with wit and style. Some day I’d love to see a slick, classy critical magazine that turned its attention to only two or three books per issue, but let a dozen talented and wildly diverse critics loose on each of them, and stacked up their opinions side by side. Enlist Robinson and Russ and Clute and Malzberg and del Rey and Delap and Budrys, and Knight if he’d come out of retirement, and Bishop and the Panshins and Maddog Howard Waldropq and some of the better fan critics and reviewers like Jeff Smith and Don Keller and Cy Chauvin and Mike Glyer, maybe even a few academics — you’d have a hell of a magazine. Think of the fights they’d have. It would be marvelous.
If it were my magazine, however, they’d have to follow a few rules. Simple ones, really, but ones ignored by the vast majority of people writing SF criticism and reviews today. Which is why the critical field is in such dismal shape.
To begin with the most obvious, I think any critic or reviewer has a moral and ethical obligation to get the facts right.
That doesn’t seem too much to asks but it certainly seems to be too much for some people to do. I have 26 reviews currently filed away in my folder on DYING OF THE LIGHT. Of that number, fully a third contain errors of fact that could have been avoided by simple care. Now, the back cover blurb on the paperback also contains two errors, so I can’t come down too heavily on the more minor distortions. Perhaps it wasn’t even their fault. Perhaps all they read was the back cover blurb. In other cases, however — am I seriously supposed to listen to the opinions of a reviewer who can’t even be bothered to get the names of my characters right?
Like most writers, I may be hypersensitive to misstatements where my own work is concerned. Unfortunately, the mistakes I notice are by no means limited to my rather meagre output. There are days where I am simply appalled by the sloppiness of much of what passes for book reviews in our genre, particularly in the fan press, although the prozines are by no means innocent. One prozine in particular has a whole staff of reviewers who seemingly delight in handing out Hugos and Nebulas to writers who have never won either, and taking them away from those that have. Perhaps this is a conscious attempt to share the wealth. I think not. I think it’s sheer stupid carelessness, and it annoys me considerably. Once upon a time I was a journalist, and I still teach journalism, and one of the points I stress to my students is that errors are inexcusable. They perpetuate themselves.
I think we have room for critics and reviewers of all shades of opinion. What we don’t have room for is people who can’t be bothered with simple factual accuracy. To be blunt, if a book reviewer shows, a consistent pattern of error, distortion, and half-truth in review after review he or she ought not to be published. Not even if they are entertaining. Not even by fanzines hard up for material. Not even if the errors are “trivial.”
Nor is this the only sin of the current crop of critics and reviewers, although it is perhaps the most blatant. A second crime against nature and authors, which I would also stamp out ruthlessly if only someone (ah, dreams!) would give me the power, is plot summary.
The amount of plot summary that creeps into reviews and even critical articles in our field is astonishing# and disgusting. In some cases, the plot summary is all there is of the review, which is actually a 200- or 400- or 1000-word condensation of the story trying to pass itself off as a critical statement. In most cases the writers have the sense to insert a limp one-line evaluation at the end, or weave some adjectives into the summary so we at least know how they felt about all this foofarah they are summarizing for us. I suppose that minimal effort indicates that these people have their hearts in the right place. It does not mitigate the fact that their heads are still firmly down the toilet.
Let me make some distinctions here, briefly. Repeatedly I have used the terms reviews and criticism, reviewers or critics, and I’ve done so deliberately, although it would have been easier and more effective to use simply one term. It would not have been accurate, however; reviews and criticism are very different things. Precisely where those differences lie, especially in a genre like SF where even those who are critics in their heart of hearts must work in the reviewer’s format, is a fit subject for a speech all by itself. For my purposes, I see the basic distinction as one of audience. A reviewer is or should be talking to people who have not read the book in question; more than anything else, book reviews function as buying guides. Critics are writing for people who have read the work under consideration, sharing insights, provoking thoughts, suggesting secondary meanings or possible interpretations with an audience whose basic familiarity with the book is assumed.
Neither critics nor reviewers have any business engaging in extended plot summary, and trying to shuck it off on us. I abhor plot summary, both as a writer who has been too often summarized, and as a review junkie who has read too many of the damn things.
Let me quote to you, briefly, from a thoroughly splendid book — one which I recommend to all of you, without reservation — called THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. It’s by John Irving, and it isn’t SF, although it is more inventive and imaginative than the vast majority of novels in the genre that I’ve read recently. It is also a writer’s book, a fiction about fiction, among other thing, and I can’t imagine a writer not finding it a delight. Garp, the protagonist, writes. At one point he writes a rather nasty novel. His editor, unsure of how the book will be received, gives it to the cleaning lady, who falls asleep when trying to read most books but always seems to know when one will be a runaway success. The editor waits nervously for her opinion. She hates the book, and this exchange follows:
When I read that passage, I whooped and laughed and grinned ear to ear, because John Irving and Jillsy Sloper had indeed put their fingers on it — the reason why we read, the real fundamental reason that no one talks much about, the basic essence of story, which is the heart and soul of fiction, of literature. Other things may bring us back to books, may add to our enjoyment of them, and we may claim we read for the savor of the words or to learn about human nature, or to broaden our personal horizons. All that, however, is like saying we eat because we enjoy the taste of food, because we are in the habit of eating regularly, because food gives us solace or distraction. That is, true, but not the real truth of the matter. We eat to fuel our bodies, We read fiction to find out what happens.
With this simple truth in mind, it’s easy to see why the sin of plot summary is so godawful, especially when the sinner is a reviewer, talking to an audience that has not read the book. Under the pretext of giving us a buying guide, these cretins as often as not actually deprive us of the simplest and most fundamental pleasure awaiting us in those books under discussion. They tell us what happens! They summarize the plot!
Oh, to be sure, reviewers have their code. With a few unspeakable exceptions, they take care not to tell us the endings. Spider Robinson goes so far as to break into ALL-CAP SPOILER WARNINGS whenever he is about to give away an endings so that those who have not read the book will read no further into the review. Myself, whenever I see that capital letter barricade, I am immediately seized by an irresistible compulsion to plunge on and find out what lies beyond it, whether I’ve read the book or not, but that is probably just my human weakness, and not Spider’s fault. Nor is it really germane to my point. This whole business of not giving away the endings strikes me as much ado about nothing, like a fellow who promises not to punch you in the nose and then smashes in all your teeth with a two-by-four. It conjures up a very strange, distorted picture of what a book is all about; the novel-as-surprise-party philosophy, wherein we can say anything we want as long as we don’t reveal that everyone is going to jump out from behind the furniture and shout, “Boo!” The sacrosanct protected ending becomes the end-all and be-all of the novel, its reason for beings and the rest of the novel is demoted to being so much gift wrapping.
Honestly, this is more than a little absurd. The ending of a piece of fiction should grow out of what has gone before; it needs to be logical and consistent and integral to the rest of the story. It may or may not be a surprise, but that’s not crucial. It certainly should not be the only surprise, a bombshell tacked onto the end of a dreary and predictable narrative.
No, I don’t want reviewers to give away my endings. I also don’t want them to give away my middles. I would prefer it if they didn’t blab quite so much about my beginnings. Let them summarize my prologues if they must summarize. People who want to know what happens should read the books, and sample first hand the pleasures of finding out.
Look, when I sit down and write a story, I’m trying to give my reader a vicarious experience. I organize things — events and information and the like — as carefully as I can, and one of my aims is to make the experience continually interesting, if I can. A reader should experience a book for the first time as an editor does, when a chunk of manuscript comes sliding out of its manila envelope. Ideally a reader is absorbed into a narratives and lives events as the viewpoint character lives them, learns things as he learns them, and so on. Unfortunately, once our books get past that editor, the system conspires to deny readers that kind of pure reading experience. Instead we have helpful blurbs and reviewers’ damned plot summaries coloring our responses and expectations before we’ve read past word one. So the reviewers make a fetish out of concealing the sun going nova on the last page. They still tell us that the ship crashes in the second chapter, that the guy who seemed so sincere early on turns out to be the villain in chapter four, that the protagonist is killed in chapter nine and cloned in chapter ten. Left to our own devices, we might have been astonished and delighted by some of these turns, and that is taken from us, for no real reason, and most of the time we don’t even realize we’ve been robbed.
Do I exaggerate? Hardly. Some of the reviews of my novels DYING OF THE LIGHT, brought the truth home to me painfully. My protagonist wanders into a situation that he does not understand for several chapters. The reader who has read the reviews understands all before hand. About a third of the way through the book, Dirk faces a difficult decision. The majority of reviewers revealed which way he went. Later on, in the last third, two major characters turn out to be not what they had seemed at first. The plot summarizers summarize that, too.
These are a writer’s laments, but plot summaries also cheat the readers, as I’ve tried to outline. They even cheat the poor doomed souls who are addicted to reading reviews, like me. We are forced to read what is essentially the same review over and over again. Smith may have loved the books and Jones may have hated it, but if they both devote most of their wordage to summarizing the plots why bother reading them both?
Can you do book reviews sans plot summaries? My reply to that is unequivocal. Yes. It takes work, and skills and insights but it can be done, and such reviews are both more useful to the readers, and more fun to read for their own sake.
Critics, of courses sin less severely when they summarize, but still they sin. Mostly they waste time and space. Their readers have already read the book being criticized; they don’t need a cold rehash, thank you. To be sure, it’s legitimate to recap portions of the story so the readers won’t have to be flipping back to the source every other sentence. It is also permissible to go through a plot with scalpel in hand to show that said plot makes no discernible sense, as Damon Knight so often did. But these are not full-fledged plot summaries of the sort I’ve been railing against.
If I were in charge of the universe, plot summaries would join factual errors on my list of high crimes against literature.
Lastly, before turning these reviewers and critics loose to rend and tear once more, I would impose on them a sense of decency and perspective, something that more and more seems to be lacking in our genre. I don’t think it is because reviewers or critics are at heart indecent or vicious. I think we just get carried away, all of us sometimes. We need to step back and remember that what we are all doing here is talking about some books we’ve read, and that however much we might disagree, there is still no place for personal attacks, for efforts to demean and destroy the writer instead of the work.
I admit to strong feelings on that. These are wild, chaotic times in science fiction, the best of times and the worst of times, and in such madness it is easy to let things get out of hand. I’ve seen personal animosity and professional envy disguise themselves as reviewing. I was even the victim of such once, and I can testify that it hurt. I’ve seen too many reviewers lose their way, and start to review a writer’s advances or awards instead of the work. The issues — the legitimate issues — are whether the book is good or bad, and how good or how bad, and why, and how does it relate to the writer’s other work and to the genre as a whole, and what kinds of issues does it raise or fail to raise, and is it a true book, an honest book. The issue is not whether it deserved a $50,OOO advance, or only $5,000; not unless the contract is included as a prologue. But too many reviewers don’t realize that. I’ve also seen too many critical debates turn vicious, and degenerate to name calling. Terms like “idiot” and “halfwit” and “untalented buffoon” are not standard critical jargon, believe it or not, and they ought not be allowed to worm their way into the lexicon. Demolish the books, demolish the arguments; not the writers and the critics, please.
My rules aren’t really very stringent, I think. Get the facts right. Don’t summarize the plots. Play fair. Too much to ask? Of course not. Will this speech make any difference? Of course not. The good reviewers didn’t do this stuff anyway. The bad ones won’t listen, or care, or recognize themselves. They’ll go right on making errors and summarizing plots and ladelling on the invective. And I, hopeless fool that I am, will go on reading the reviews and giving my fiction over to their tender mercies and suffering in silent anguish, at least until I am asked to be a Guest of Honor somewhere else.
In the meantime, I can only appeal to you, the ultimate judges, the fans and readers. If you read a review or a critical piece wherein these sins are committed, sit yourself down and write a letter to the culprit, tell him the things I’ve said here, point out the errors of his ways.
If that fails, do me another favor.
Kill the sucker before he writes again.