This week has seen some quite bitter disagreement over the role of the critic in writing about genre. As pieced together by Abigail Nussbaum and Niall Harrison, the debate started when a new group blog launched claiming not only the name ‘ethics’ but also the primacy of enthusiastically positive genre writing. Before long, a test case presented itself in the shape of Martin Lewis’ review of a fantasy novel.
The exact details of the novel and Martin’s reaction to it are largely academic. What interested me was the nature of the response to Martin’s criticisms of the work. Almost from the get-go, the response seemed to be from the position that Martin’s review had somehow broken the rules of engagement. Perhaps he had included spoilers (he hadn’t) or he had based his criticisms on an early proof rather than the final version (which he had been careful not to do). From there, the accusations levelled at Martin and the website the review was published on became more and more baroque :
- Martin does not read much fantasy
- Martin has a vendetta against the book.
- Martin has a vendetta against the book.
- Martin chose the book knowing he would not like it.
- Martin is jealous of the author.
- Martin read a lot of positive reviews of the book and decided to produce a negative one as a result.
- Strange Horizons has a bias against fantasy.
- Strange Horizons has a bias against non-British works.
- Strange Horizons had a bias against books that do not challenge the boundaries of genre.
- Strange Horizons are allowing books to be reviewed by people utterly unsuited to them.
What is common to all of these theories is that they all seek to explain away Martin’s reaction to the novel rather than engaging with it. When faced with a negative review of a book they like, fans immediately look not to the subjectivity of their own tastes and the fact that this subjectivity allows for variations from person to person, but rather that there is some agency motivating this negative review.
In a happy collision of postings, I think read a new post over on K-punk about some people’s criticisms of the work of philosopher Alain Badiou.
What is fascinating to me is that the same forces guiding the reaction to Martin’s review also seem to be guiding Mark’s reaction to critics of Badiou. However, because Mark is not only eloquent but also extremely clever, his arguments are properly supported, and so we can better grasp the motivations of those who would silence Martin.
Mark’s piece effectively serves to rule out as inadmissable a whole raft of criticisms of Badiou’s work. Not because they are inaccurate, but because they are in breach of the rules of proper engagement :
“Smirking postmodernity images the fan as the sad geekish Trekkie, pathetically, fetishistically invested in what – all good sense knows – is embarrassing trivia. But this lofty, purportedly olympian perspective is nothing but the view of the Last Man. Which isn’t to make the fatuous relativist claim that devotees of Badiou are the same as Trekkies; it is to make the point that Graham has been tirelessly reiterating – that the critique from nowhere is nothing but trolling. Trolls pride themselves on not being fans, on not having the investments shared by those occupying whatever space they are trolling.”
In other words, not only is being a fan an acceptable state to be in, it is also the only meaningful position from which to engage with anything. To properly engage with a text, you must attack it from a particular theoretical and/or aesthetic position. To fail to possess such a position is to be little more than a troll (and I take it that Mark chose this emotive work with some considerable caution).
This neatly maps on to the reaction against Martin. The fans of the book see Martin’s reaction to it and assume that Martin is either pushing a particular aesthetic agenda (namely one that prioritises edgy works of British SF) or he is acting out some kind of strange psychodrama that is little more than trolling.
Mark goes on to explain how trolling, as a form of engagement, is one that is instilled by higher education :
“In many ways, the academic qua academic is the Troll par excellence. Postgraduate study has a propensity to breeds trolls; in the worst cases, the mode of nitpicking critique (and autocritique) required by academic training turns people into permanent trolls, trolls who troll themselves, who transform their inability to commit to any position into a virtue, a sign of their maturity (opposed, in their minds, to the allegedly infantile attachments of The Fan). But there is nothing more adolescent – in the worst way – than this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere. For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from – the worst kind of libidinal configuration, an appalling trap, an existential toxicity which ensures debilitation for all who come into contact with it (if only that in terms of time and energy wasted – the Troll above all wants to waste time, its libido involves a banal sadism, the dull malice of snatching people’s toys away from them).”
This very much echoes my own background as a graduate student in analytical philosophy. I remember our research seminars would involve someone reading out a paper or some of their recent work only for it to be torn to shreds by people who a) were working entirely outside of the field of the person giving the paper and b) usually had no information to go on other than their own expertise and what had just been read out. This type of critiquing gives birth to a belief in certain universal laws of not only logic but also argumentative discourse. Many is the paper I sat through which would be debated in terms of “simplicity”, “intuitiveness” and even “cleanliness”. Mark drives his point further home :
“There is a strong relationship between the Fan and the critic. The best critics do not pretend to offer value-neutral judgements from nowhere – as Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and Lacan have shown in their different ways, no such place exists , although the fantasy position of something like Analytic Philosophy is to pretend that it does. Again, this is not a relativist or anti-realist point – any sophisticated realist position has to deal with the fact that we can’t step over own own shadow”
Debate in analytical philosophy is not directionless. Rather it stems from a belief in certain universal strictures. This is why analytical philosophy students are taught formal logic and why more and more of analytical philosophy has become colonised by scientific ideas.
This left me wondering whether I (and others like me) are making the same mistake as the people in my old research seminars. When we argue about the failings of a book’s prose style or the lack of narrative coherence or the weak characterisation or the poor structure, are we invoking an imaginary set of universal principles? are we effectively attacking works from nowhere and with nothing? are we being simply trolls?
I do not think that this is necessarily so.
The difference between someone who reviews books from within the values of a genre and someone who professes no loyalties to the values of a genre is that the fan can point to his critical position and say “I stand for this”. The external critic cannot, but this is not to say that they do not stand anywhere. When an analytical philosopher attacks an idea, he does so whilst committed to certain theories and postulates. He is, in effect, attacking from the position of a fan even though he himself does not necessarily recognise that he is merely a fan or that his devotion to a particular position is all that he is defending. Instead he is attacking from the point of view that certain values are either actually universal or they should be. This shrinks the space for Mark’s trolls. Under this view, trolling would be buying into whichever critical principle you need in order to take down a particular work but then shedding said principle when you move onto the next book. In other words it is lambasting one book for weak plotting whilst downplaying the importance of plot in the next work you review.
I suspect that this is where Theory has its place within reviewing and criticism. If you invest in a theoretical frame-work then you need never worry about falling into mercenary trolling. If you are a feminist, you can reliably attack and praise different works for their obeissance to the values of feminism. The same goes for fans of Marx, Freud, Lacan or Badiou.
Where Mark and the fantasy fans make their mistake is in thinking that only these store-bought conceptual frameworks are valid things to believe in. Either one is committed to a recognisable ideology (which opponents can read about and attack) or one is producing noise by setting fire to works without upholding any principles.
My suggestion, therefore, is that people pay a bit more attention to the pre-theoretical values their criticism embodies. If they do, they might well find that being pro-cutting edge British SF is not really that harmful an accusation to face down at all.