Empty Criticism

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.


  1. Not sure I understand the “Strange Horizons has a bias against non-British works” since Mark Charan Newton is a British writer, and his book was published in the UK.


  2. The bit I don’t get is the need of those who disagree to attack the reviewer, rather than try and demonstrate where they think the reviewer is mistaken. Instead of “character A is clearly motived by the actions of B as described on pg 102”, they insist “the reviewer is obviously bitter and twisted and jealous because he can’t write a book as good as this one”. I suspect those who leave comments of that sort need to take a careful look in the mirror….


  3. I don’t really understand the anger either.

    The desire to see some kind of agency in the review might well be down to the fact that, as fans, they expect all reviews to be written from a fan’s perspective. An expectation which, I think, might well have some merit to it.

    But you’re completely right, from there to hurling insults at people who dislike particular books is bizarre. I think the answer may lie in Liviu’s opinion that the review was insulting, though I’m really not sure where the insult might come from.


  4. The thing is, although I don’t self-identify as one and find the term problematic, I am (by most standards you could use) a fan. What is odd about some of the criticism is that my aesthetic agenda actually predisposes me to be sympathetic.

    I do have pre-theoretical values but I wouldn’t describe them as pro-cutting edge British SF. Rather they are a broader mix of absolutist and relativist positions.


  5. Ah yes, but what are you a fan of?

    I think a lot of the responses to your piece were trying to work out why you were saying those things. Were you acting out some kind of psychodrama? or were you merely writing from the perspective of a fan of something other than the work in question (which is where the ‘this book isn’t for you’ reaction comes in)?

    You can also see this type of reaction in cases where people accuse critics of not liking anything or of being indistinguishable from the mainstream critics who turn their noses up at all of genre.

    In essence, the responders are trying to define the terms of engagement. Only certain critical positions are deemed acceptable. If you’re a troll (reviler of all, defender of nothing) then obviously you can be dismissed out of hand. But if your type of fandom is too adrift from their type of fandom then it can be dismissed out of hand as well.

    While I have some sympathy for the idea that one shouldn’t slate books without a clear idea of what you want from books in general, I disagree that one can have a set of pre-theoretical loyalties that effectively render one’s criticisms worthless. For me that attitude speaks of creative ossification and ghetto a mentality.


  6. I think all too many genre fans, more specifically sf and fantasy genre fans, incorporate their status as fan within their self-identity, make that status part of their self-esteem.

    The result of that is that a criticism of the object of veneration becomes a criticism of the fan, an attack on their own self-worth.

    Hilarity ensues.

    Why sf and fantasy fans are prone to this is a bit of a big topic, I suspect it has a lot to do with isolation in adolescence but pop psychology ultimately adds little to understanding. I do think it’s the root issue though, if being a fan of say George RR Martin is part of your sense of self, has been incorporated into your concept of who you are, then a suggestion that he’s got bogged down and his fantasy series has lost its way is a direct attack on your own identity.

    People react with hostility to attacks on their own sense of self, particularly people who’ve never analysed that sense or its roots.


  7. Oh, in my view the conspiracy bit too comes from a lack of objectivity, from a blurring of the line between fan and object of fan veneration.

    If you lose that distinction, if the work becomes part of the fan’s self, then I don’t think you’re in a position any more intellectually to recognise that one might criticise a work from a position that seeks to be objective (seeks, because objectivity is ultimately impossible).

    When I write up books, I try to be as objective as I can be, subject to a set of criteria I may post more about shortly – my pre-theoretical values. My goal though is not just to say “did I like it?” but “does it work? Does it do what it sets out to do? Is it successful in its own terms and if separate is it succesful in my terms?”.

    It’s possible for me to respect a book, think it has worked on its terms, and yet not like it. Equally, I can like a book despite it’s being evidently badly flawed.

    For the fan, that’s not only not possible, I think for some it’s not even conceivable. If they like the book, the book is necessarily good. If someone else doesn’t like it, that means factually they’re wrong, as we’ve already established it’s a good book. If they’re not dismissable as an idiot, the question becomes then why they are saying things they must know to be wrong about the book.

    And that takes us to agenda and conspiracy. As soon as you remove the possibility of distinguishing between personal liking for something and its inherent qualities, everyone who disagrees with you becomes an idiot or a liar.

    I loved Fraulein Else, which I read recently. I can see though why some might not like a tale which is nothing but internal dialogue and in which almost nothing happens. A negative review would interest me, but not astonish me (though I’d disagree). There’s room for different views. I liked the second of the Factory novels more than Jonathan, his view does not invalidate mine and vice versa. Multiple perspectives are both possible, and potentially valid.

    But with Nights of Villjamur, for the fans there is only one perspective, theirs. They liked it, there is no distinction between personal taste and inherent qualities, so if Martin doesn’t like it logically that makes him again either an idiot or a liar. He doesn’t come across as an idiot, therefore…


  8. That was my first reaction too, but I think that by giving them some benefit of the doubt there are decent insights to be had :-)

    The accusation that Martin’s review was ‘insulting’ (a claim frustratingly never fleshed out) and the claims that he’d used spoilers (when in fact he hadn’t) do suggest that people were lashing out and looking to silence him rather than wanting to engage with what he said.

    but I wonder if part of the problem isn’t a lack of critical transparency. If it was clearer where reviewers came from then it might make dismissing or engaging with the review easier and it might get rid of the bizarre conspiracy theories.


  9. I don’t think over-identification is a genre fan thing.

    Despite genre now being a lot more mainstream, a glance at Rotten Tomatoes will reveal that a lot of people take umbrage at negative reviews of films they haven’t even seen. So I’m not sure it’s all about isolation.

    If you look at Comment Is Free on the Guardian’s site, you’ll see that people react in ridiculously over-emotional ways to a whole host of different topics. I think, if this is a problem, then it’s a universal one common to our collective sense of identity.


  10. Perhaps, I think you do more credit to the fan response and it’s intellectual content than it merits.

    Critical transparency of course helps, but the issue with Martin’s review wasn’t really where he came from to it but what he said when he got there.

    One sees this all the time in fandom responses, the sense of entitlement, the bitterness with which opposing views are met, the hostility to any suggestion that anything could be improved. None of it is borne in my view from rational analysis, rational analysis doesn’t take you to that kind of anger.

    I don’t think what he said much mattered to some of those commenting, because what they heard was a criticism of them. Frankly, if the view of a stranger on the internet on something you really like drives you to insults and claims of vested interests you’re probably way too invested in it. I love William McIlvanney’s stuff, but if next week you write a review slating him I’ll read it with interest and perhaps argue some points but at the end of the day we’d just differ in our perspectives.

    I recall the online kicking you got for criticising GRR Martin’s work, but it was nothing compared to the kicking he himself receives for not having written the next one yet. Again, overidentification, rational thinking doesn’t lead you to insult an author whose works you love because he’s writing them too slowly, only irrationality can take you to that particular place.


  11. Perhaps the Internet has led to a situation in which fans form relationships with authors, relationships in which they invest a great deal more emotional capital than they would if they had met the writer in person at a signing or convention. And so these fans confuse a bad review as an attack on the author. Hence their rapid – and often unthinking – deployment in defence. It’s partly a presumption on a friendship which may not exist. After all, it’s easier – and often more useful – to be informal when dealing with people through the Web.


  12. Max — I don’t think it is rational to react with anger to someone criticising what you like, but I don’t necessarily think that labeling it as such is necessarily helpful.

    I’d like to see the passion that they display brought to bear constructively onto Strange Horizon’s output. While lots of books get reviewed, very few books actually get discussed and there was the potential there for some proper discussion.


  13. Ian — I think it’s down to the way online communities function. They’re very good at building quite an intense sense of belonging quite quickly.

    Part of the way in which people make themselves feel as though they belong is by agreeing with other forum members. So if someone publishes a review that someone doesn’t like, I think people feel the urge to prove themselves by attacking a shared opponent.

    These things congeal around authors but these are merely icons. And icons can be positive or negative. For example, Terry Brooks serves as a universal whipping boy. People go out of their way to name check him because the community is partly about hating Terry Brooks.

    Anonymous sometimes set out to fuck with these bonds of community by engaging in incredibly elaborate trolling operations justified in terms of making people think twice about what they’re doing with their emotional capital.

    The other side of the story is that there’s also a reviewing community and members of that community will also step-to to defend people they think are being attacked.

    To a certain extent, it’s the way humans work.


  14. Perhaps not.

    All too often, discussion seems to take place on authors’ own fora, which are by their nature not best suited to critical analysis. I would like to see more discussion myself, and better informed discussion, but I’d personally tend to look for it on blogs where there’s a controlling mind shaping it.


  15. That is a wider problem though. Lots of reviews are merely opinions shouted into the void and few books get that much detailed discussion.

    Even the comments thread on that review isn’t really about the book. Accusations are made and, rightly IMHO, batted aside but it would have been great if instead of insults and anger the response to Martin’s review had been detailed.

    But of course, this is wishful thinking :-)


  16. I think you’re attributing more ovine qualities to people than they actually possess. It’s easy enough to start a flame war on fora just by posting strong opinions. I’ve always found it’s the dogmatism more than the “correctness” of the opinion which fuels the fire.

    And isn’t it Terry Goodkind who’s fantasy’s whipping boy?


  17. I haven’t read either of them so you may be right. Either way, the name pops up a lot.

    I’m skirting round the illusion of free will if that’s what you mean by ‘ovine’ :-) I think these types of going on have their roots in human nature and these roots manifest themselves in every aspect of human interaction.

    Was Martin’s view dogmatic?


  18. A review in an online magazine is by definition authoritative, so yes, I think it could be seen as dogmatic. Not so much “this is my opinion” as “this is [i]the[/i] opinion”.

    I read a Goodkind novel once, but I’ve never read Brooks. Those numbers are unlikely to ever change.


  19. Having now written a couple of reviews for online magazines, I struggle to see them as particularly authoritative.

    But perhaps that’s me. I have to admit, I do think mobs tend towards the ovine, mobs are generally much dumber than the individuals within them, merely participating in one makes us more ovine for their duration.

    Great word, ovine, must use it more often.


  20. Yes, I think the nature of online communication encourages over-stating of opinions for a few reasons, not limited to the “internet jerkwad theory” (Andy R’s much-feared anonymous internet motherfuckers).

    I find the rhetorical structure of these mini essays makes it easy to read uncharitably, mis-state one’s opponent’s arguments and send straw men flying down slippery slopes. I have often found myself expounding with fanatical vigour on subjects where my true feelings sit somewhere between “mild” and “uncommitted”. (Now I’m more aware, I consciously work against it.)

    Addittionally, the open-ended nature of the debate can lead one (mea culpa!) to keep trying to get the last word in, to re-state one’s opinion again and again hoping that by increasing the fuck-count the message will get through. At least with a review (and indeed a piece of fiction) one can sit back and say “well, that’s all I’ve got to say…”

    Face-to-face perhaps one can communicate and receive a more nuanced view of each other’s opnion, and debate can follow the genial rythms of rounds of lucozade and hits from the crack pipe.

    As for reviews, again I think the rhetorical approach can effect how what one says is identified. My natural “review voice” is distant and authoritative, but towards the end of my reviewing life (or that phase of it, at least) I was drifting into a more personal, casual style to try and undermine the impression of “authority”. Certainly, I felt that some acknowledgement was necessary that a review is a product of a time, place and person as much as it is a product of rigorous, objective cogitation.



  21. Sure Ian, but isn’t that true of every review that appears in Strange Horizons?

    I pay more attention to what I write when I write for other venues. I make more of an effort. But I never think of anything I say as authoritative.

    My reviews contribute to the grand continuum of genre opinion in that when someone looks for an opinion about a book, they turn up when that person googles. Along with dozens of others.


  22. They’re more authoritative than a random poster in a forum. For one thing, it’s implied that the magazine gave the book to the reviewer because the reviewer was informed enough to write intelligently about the book.

    Having said that… there’s the comments thread for John Clute’s review on scifiwire.com of Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids….


  23. Patrick,

    I’ve also often found myself somehow pulled into discussions where my fairly mild views somehow translate into apparently passionately held beliefs, that is a trap.

    That though is perhaps more an issue with back and forth debate, less so where as here people come in guns blazing. Then again, it’s all too easy when someone does come in guns blazing to blaze back, rather than seeking middle ground which may well exist. Face to face, an intemperate or badly worded remark is obvious for what it is, all too often online it sits there as a flat statement – demanding rebuttal.

    That, and it’s just plain easier to be rude to anonymous strangers. If Patrick and I are discussing in person the merits of AE Van Vogt, then my desire to say “but surely your argument is akin to that of a drunken scabies-ridden baboon, though on reflection your resemblance to such a creature must be noted, which explains much” is tempered by my desire not to get glassed. Online, hiding behind my nom-de-plume, I can say that and more and possibly win the praise of my peers for doing so.


  24. Good point Patrick.

    But I think, as someone who does write and has studied creative writing, that you’re probably a lot more aware of your style than most reviewers.

    I think a lot of reviewers (and I include myself in this) just write the same way they did at uni only about books and films. The academic style is authoritative with very little room for equivocation. I suspect that some reviewers just don’t realise that they have a style.

    There was some talk a while back about critical voice but I don’t think those discussions ever lead anywhere.


  25. Always a favourite Ian :-)


    The comments can be summarised as : “I can’t understand what you’re trying to say. Fuck you!”

    I saw Clute speak at the BSFA meeting and he expressed regret that he was the only critic around who made a stylistic effort (or as he put it, did the kind of thing he did with his writing). There’s some truth in that, though it is funny to see what Clute’s writing must look like to people who haven’t spent years reading him :-)


  26. Sorry, that follows on from Ian S’s comment about online discussion, and looks a little odd coming after Max’s.



  27. Man, now that doesn’t make any sense either. I’m suffering from future shock here.

    >>I think a lot of reviewers (and I include myself in this) just write the same way they did at uni only about books and films. The academic style is authoritative with very little room for equivocation. I suspect that some reviewers just don’t realise that they have a style.

    Yes, quite so. That’s where I started. Some of the discussion on your various blogs and sites got me thinking about that – I knew I wasn’t up for a more academic style, so had to think about what I did want to do with it.



  28. Developing my own style is definitely something I’ve consciously tried to do as a reviewer over the last couple of years. Indeed, it is something I’ve thought about particularly since that Clute interview you mention.

    A lot of sf fans see a review as an entirely functional piece writing, the only purpose of which is to let the prospective reader whether to purchase it. Instead of being a critical judgement, it should aim to match the work to the reader. within this context it is seen as monsterous egoism to show any style or personality in your reviewing or, worst of all, to use the dreaded pronoun “I”.

    The question of authority is interesting. Certainly I don’t think my view is authoritive but it more authoritive than some. The idea that one opinion can have more weight than another is soemthing a lot of fans struggle with. One of the comments you repeatedly see on reviews at SH is “this is just some guy’s opinion”.


  29. Developing my own style is definitely something I’ve consciously tried to do as a reviewer over the last couple of years. Indeed, it is something I’ve thought about particularly since that Clute interview you mention.

    A lot of sf fans see a review as an entirely functional piece writing, the only purpose of which is to let the prospective reader whether to purchase it. Instead of being a critical judgement, it should aim to match the work to the reader. within this context it is seen as monsterous egoism to show any style or personality in your reviewing or, worst of all, to use the dreaded pronoun “I”.

    The question of authority is interesting. Certainly I don’t think my view is authoritive but it more authoritive than some. The idea that one opinion can have more weight than another is soemthing a lot of fans struggle with. One of the comments you repeatedly see on reviews at SH is “this is just some guy’s opinion”.


  30. I’m not sure I see the point of a review that isn’t to some degree authoritative. If some numpty blathers on about a book and clearly has no clue, their review has told me nothing. It’s failed in its purpose. I want to *know* about a book. I’m looking for insight, not just a bland plot précis.


  31. Martin — I think monstrous egotism and a purveyor of mere opinions are accusations that reviewers are always going to face. It’s the price that is paid simply for putting oneself out there.

    As you say, I accept that my views are simply opinions, but I do like to think they’re perhaps better and more completely articulated opinions than those of some :-)

    As for style, I do slip into a non-academic style from time to time. I’ll use shorter sentences more elliptically. I’ve also changed my approach to the extent that I sometimes feel hemmed in by reviews and columns. I want to use photos and be able to develop particular lines of thought.


  32. Ian,

    I’m assuming by authoritative you mean the reviewer takes a stand, yes, goes beyond mere summary? I think earlier it was being used in the sense of holding the reviewer up as having greater authority, I’m not sure that’s a sense that’s particularly sustainable, but taking a view is vital.

    Personally, I expect reviewers to be well informed about the broader genre or subject of the book and I expect the review to go beyond a mere plot precis into some level of analysis of theme and style and/or why elements work or fail to work. I also expect the review ultimately to say whether, in that reviewer’s opinion (which is only as authoritative as they are persuasive in their analysis) they think ultimately the book succeeded or not in its goals, and indeed whether those goals were worthwhile.

    That aside, Martin’s right that for many a good review is one that is merely informative, that summarises the plot in a relatively neutral fashion and ideally ends by indicating who its intended market is so they can know to purchase it. I see that as pretty much valueless, and vastly prefer reviews which tell me something reading the back could not, the problem is when those expecting one style of review encounter the other.

    Many sf and genre fans already know what they like, therefore a reviewer’s view on the matter is worthless to them, they’re not at the party to learn something new. They just want to know whether a given book falls into the class of “things that they like” and a review that goes beyond that is at best puzzling in its irrelevancies and at worst to them actively offensive.


  33. I also think part of the problem is that a lot of people don’t read reviews. They listen to buzz and hype but they don’t regularly read proper reviews and so when they encounter them, they’re something of a culture shock as in effect reviews are like word of mouth recommendations only they’re full of detailed declarative statements backed up with argument and invoked aesthetic principles. How rude! How judgemental!


  34. I don’t think there’s any rule for this and a review, just like the work it is assessing, can only be judged upon its own merits.

    Fans, because they so readily identify personally with the subject matter, often excuse or blind-side themselves to the work’s short-comings, simply because there is something personally at stake in aggrandising or trashing the work that a non-fan isn’t so contaminated by. When George Lucas hit a brick-wall creatively with Phantom Menace certain Sci-Fi fans loved it anyway, because they needed it to mean something, even if it was an obvious drop in quality compared to the first 3 films. Similarly, the ‘Wicker Man’ or ‘Withnail And I ‘are both good films that have been elevated into masterpieces by their intense fanbases, who have found one thing in them that is far greater than the sum of their parts. This is fine, but of course one must be on one’s guard against this, as it doesn’t imply a universal appeal is necessarily being conveyed. Fortunately I am free to make my own mind up about this.

    K-Punk is always a fascinating read, but his capacity to build his own universe and express it so lucidly is as much the appeal as the actual ideas he expresses. As such, whilst seductive, his vision doesn’t validate itself as any more potent than say the views of Christopher Hitchens or Fareed Zakaria or Clive James, who are similarly dazzling and provocative, but from different political vantage points. The mutable, fragmentary nature of existence validates them equally just as it can negate them all.

    When K-Punk argues “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” one cannot help detect a certain self-valedictory conceit at the heart of the sentiment. In other words – “Being a fan is the only position to take (and I just happen to be a fan thus am duly qualified to take a position).”

    Alternatively, when Germaine Greer pans ‘Batman Begins’ on Newsnight Review on the grounds that ‘nobody would dress up as a bat’, the shortcomings of not knowing the superhero genre at all and the parameters in which it functions is blatantly apparent, and quickly reduces her conclusions (on the subject of Batman Begins) extremely problematic. But then I am free to reject those opinions too.

    Without wishing to be too non-commital, isn’t the status of the reviewer as a fan / non-fan just a blindside to the quality of argument itself?


  35. Max,

    We seem to be discussing a similar point to that discussed on Hal Duncan’s blog, albeit with considerably less verbosity….

    By “authority”, I meant the implied expertise of the reviewer, inferred from their selection by the magazine as the person to review the book in question. There is also the fact that since the review has appeared in a magazine there are standards applied, and an editorial process to validate the review. Whether these actually exist or not is immaterial. The perception is that they do; and, conversely, do not on, say, a person’s blog.

    That’s functional authority, but there is also personal authority – and not all reviews in magazines have both. Personal authority is a result of the relationship the reader has with the reviewer – if a person they think is a good reviewer says a book is good, then they will think so too. They will trust their opinion. And if they should read that book and discover they disagree, then that might diminish the reviewer’s personal authority in their eyes.


  36. I think that there are two ways in which to take Kpunk’s piece.

    Firstly, as a form of special pleading. Mark wants to rule out non-theoretical criticisms on the grounds that they are ‘trolling’. But I see no reason why one can only poke holes in Badiou if one is committed to some other theory. The criticism that seems to have prompted Mark’s reaction is that Badiou’s elaborate metaphysics and epistemology is just some modern-day folly. A world-view without basis in the real world, like astrology or homeopathy. That’s a valid question as it strikes to the heart of the purpose and utility of theory by calling theory itself into question.

    Secondly, there’s a weaker interpretation, which is that having a coherent viewpoint is better than not having a coherent critical viewpoint. Under this view, I suspect Mark would allow that the people you list are good critics and say that they are good because they DO write from certain political and aesthetic positions. Even if those viewpoints are not necessarily encompassed by works of critical theory.

    I think the second position is legitimate.

    I think the first position is self-valedictory horse shit that is borderline solipsistic, not to mention reeking of some quite ugly country club elitism.

    What I tried to do with this post was see, in the reactions to Martin’s review, an intuitive appeal for critics to fit into that second category.

    I accept that this is over-charitable and wishful thinking, but I would like to think that being over-charitable can mend bridges more effectively than being dismissive and I would like to see those fans engaging with reviews such as Martin’s.


  37. > having a coherent viewpoint is better than not having a coherent critical viewpoint.

    I agree. Certainly, it sets up the rules for engagment in a clearer manner, though it also risks inflexibility and its good to wath for that. Hitchens’ journey from Trotskyite to Bush apologist has not been pretty, despite his eloquence. Too often he has just come across as plain wrong, and trying to slither around the charges using semantics. And the worst thing someone imparting an assessment can do is contradict themselves, because then they lose the argument – even if they’re ‘right’.

    > I think the first position is self-valedictory horse shit that is borderline solipsistic, not to mention reeking of some quite ugly country club elitism.

    Yes. The seduction of bringing order / meaning to circumstances that by their very nature resist it is completely understandable, but it is never helpful, and can always turn ugly.

    And as this discussion illuminates, common courtesy is the best way to approach popular criticism. After all, who cares if someobody disagrees with you? Isn’t that more interesting?


  38. Well the political theorist will tell you that neoconservatism always had more to do with Trotsky than Kissinger’s realism :-) In part, Hitchens’ position is also a problem of the left. Remember how the Guardian tied itself in knots over the Iraq war? look at how it’s tying itself in knots over the goings on in Iran.

    The problem is that the world is increasingly complex and our understand of parts of it is increasing. But because of that complexity and depth of knowledge, it is more and more difficult to adhere to a unified theoretical approach or belief system.

    I think this is why a lot of criticism struggles and it’s why modern politicians are increasingly looking like unprincipled technocrats.


  39. > The problem is that the world is increasingly complex and our understand of parts of it is increasing.

    I increasingly wonder about this. It seems to me life remains simple but people love to complicate it. Obviously we inhabit a world largely defined by those people, but how many of the belief systems and history that frame us are that essential to our survival and how much is simply born of anxiety and tension? It seems ideas come and go, but primal constants remain intact.

    Adam Curtis’s work in ‘The Trap’ perfectly outlines the post-ideologue world, and how govrenment has become a series of management appointments that revolve around the Free Market as opposed to something more visionary, while John Gray tackles the problems of the political ‘visions’ brilliantly in ‘Black Mass’.

    I noticed Owen Hatherly agonising in an interview today that, given the mess the world economy is in, the failure of the Left to mount a decent alternative and fill the vacumn is shocking to him. Which I suppose it is if you still genuinely see the world in the rigid terms of a Left-Wing ideology. Personally, I don’t, and given the legacy of both Left and Right wing ideologues this past 100 years am not surprised that any big political ideas hold much attention going forward.

    The sense is we are in an era of consilience at best, the usual tensions triggered by base instincts at worst.


  40. The problem is that there has been an explosion not only in people attending higher education but also in the amount of research put out by people in that sector.

    Academic research effectively functions by people saying “ah… but it’s not that simple…” so if you want to look to the best thinking on any particular issue, you get incredibly complex analyses.

    Obviously, you can look at any issue and simplify it at will. To a certain extent, the anti-PC instinct is about this; a refusal to accept that words have wider implications than those intended. Similarly, a lot of right-wing thought is about a desire for simplicity… the belief that you can force people to do what you want without there being any repercussions.

    You can also see it in the maturity levels of teenagers. A lot of the kids I deal with (late teens early 20s) are really immature because the world is a complex place and it takes a lot of learning.

    I think part of the frustration with the left’s failure to put forward a viable alternative to the status quo is down to the fact that a lot of left-wingers are highly educated and they recognise that even economists and professional political theorists have trouble with that kind of thing so how can grass roots political operative hope to conjure a model out of thin air?


  41. > To a certain extent, the anti-PC instinct is about this; a refusal to accept that words have wider implications than those intended. Similarly, a lot of right-wing thought is about a desire for simplicity…

    The same reductionism is at the heart of Roussean thought though, so I\’m not sure simplicity belongs to either the Left or Right. Amongst relatively modern movements, environmentalism also has a reductive core – we must remember our place in nature – yet is certainly progressive in terms of society.

    > You can also see it in the maturity levels of teenagers. A lot of the kids I deal with (late teens early 20s) are really immature because the world is a complex place and it takes a lot of learning.

    This is very interesting. I wonder though, surely their immaturity is also tied to a general infantilisation of the culture. Their parents interests and lifestyles are extremely similiar to their off-springs – Videogames, designer labels, the counter-culture and music festivals and travel. There was a time when a young man aspired to attaining his first suit, because it was a coming-of-age statement. Now, \’coming of age\’ is stigmatised by the idea you\’re becoming old and, by default, \’boring\’.


  42. Rousseau may seem reductive now, but I’m not sure his work was originally perceived in those terms. I imagine his work would have been considered quite sophisticated. It’s simply because modern political theory is so complex that it seems reductive now.

    As for environmentalism, yes… that is a reductive political movement. I think part of its success as a grass roots movement comes from its willingness to paint to world in quite simple moral colors ; Environment good, pollution bad.


  43. Coming late to this discussion, there are any number of points crying out to be made.

    1) re Clute: I pay a great deal of attention to the style of my reviews. Reviews are not just examples of functional writing, it is important that they work in literary terms. Though my natural style is not so baroque as John’s, which can, I think, get in the way of what he is trying to say. And therefore (picking up on your point) if I am still writing reviews now the way I wrote at university, then I am doing something seriously wrong.

    But maybe consciousness of style is something that comes late? Certainly the great majority of reviews I read pay more attention to what they say than to how they say it.

    2) There is no way to read, and certainly no way to review, that is not based upon some theory (though not, note, Theory); it is just that most of the time most people are unaware of this, and would not be interested in articulating it.

    3) As a reviewer I come from a fan background. That can provide some insights, but it brings as many problems. One obvious problem is experience. The more books I read the more they feed in to what I write and how I approach the next review. But that same experience is not shared by the reader of the review. If I say of a book that it is essentially trying to do the same but less successfully as another book that was published and went out of print before you were born, it may be a perfectly valid point of reference for examining the book under review. But it is going to infuriate you the reader of the review, the fan of the author I am ‘attacking’, because I am deploying weapons that mean nothing to you.

    4) Adoration of a book, worship of an author, are not valid positions from which to embark on criticism, because they allow, indeed they enforce, only one way of reading the book. A critic has to be open to multiple readings of a work, has to allow it to present its strengths and weaknesses in its own way, and then has to find a way of putting that curious relationship into words. But because the review must therefore start from a flexible relationship with the text, it will inevitably conflict with the perspective of the worshipper. Even if the reviewer loves the book, she is not starting as a worshipper and is therefore at odds with the worshipper.

    The attacks you quote on Martin are not attacks upon his review. They are the blind lashing out of a wounded creature, the response of someone whose amour propre has been hurt. Such responses have always been with us, it is just that the internet can make it that much easier to express them.


  44. Hi Paul :-)

    I think you might be on to something re style coming late. I’ve always been aware of it to a certain extent but I would think of it in terms of different types of review. In some cases I’d respond by ranting or making jokes, other times I’d take it seriously. I think now I’m settling into a style of my own. I think a lot of reviewers aren’t only blind to their own styles, they’re also blind to literary style as a whole.

    The idea that there’s no correct way to read or review is also correct. This is why Jeff VanderMeer as well as Hal Duncan’s attempts at fixing the terms of engagement in terms of compatibility rub me the wrong way (Hal in particular tries to frame said special pleading in terms of good reviewing/professionalism but this strikes me as utterly wrong-headed).


    The idea of responding to books in terms of love of a book or an author is an interesting one but I also susect that a lot of the people attacking Martin were in love with the fantasy genre and saw Martin’s attempt as an attack on it. Hence the comments about his not having read much fantasy… it’s the equivalent of saying “you’re not from round these parts”.


  45. I would point out, I explicitly reject the idea of criticising a conventional review as invalid simply because the book was incompatible with the reviewer’s tastes. A few people seem to have assumed my position is the same as Jeff’s, which is not the case here at all. I’ve pretty much belaboured the point that any such review is of value to those who share the reviewer’s tastes, and that what I’m challenging is prescriptivism. An anti-prescriptivist stance doesn’t seem to me to conflict with an idea that “there’s no correct way to read or review”.

    When it comes to “special pleading”, as I responded to Abigail, “I don’t doubt that defensiveness is often the motivation when this charge is leveled. It should probably be the first question asked: are you just throwing a strop because I’ve insulted your precious whatever?” I would’ve thought that the dismissive “precious whatever” would make my attitude to such strops clear. And saying that’s the first question to ask kinda implies “prime suspect”, no?

    When it comes to the SH review of Nights of Villjamur, with some of the complaints I thought the answer was “Yes,” and with others I thought the answer was “No, I’m just fed up with this sort of style of review, and this one came along at just the right time”. I thought it was fairly clear that there was a wider discontent surfacing here.


  46. The K-Punk quote and your own response to it are interesting actually. The fan/troll dichotomy seems rather blind to the possibility of being *neither*, but I do think it has a relevance in pointing to exactly the sort of mutual abjection I’ve been wittering on about. He’s dismissing X as trolls. You’re dismissing Y as fans.

    I mean, you ask the right questions, but they’re separate questions:

    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?

    Yes, even if they are general conventions.

    are we effectively attacking works from nowhere and with nothing?

    No, because they *are* general conventions that mostly make sense. It’s just that in pulp fiction these are often secondary to the dynamic qualities peculiar to that pulp idiom. And if you fail to consider those it’s like treating a musical as a play.

    are we being simply trolls?

    No, but you’re going to piss people the fuck off if you can’t rein in a) the tick-list critique that takes academic method as formula b) the assumption that you know better. The former can look superficial even when it has substantive points because it reads as critique-by-numbers. Of course it does; it’s *formulaic*. Worse, where that analytic mentality reads as utterly procedural thought, it serves as marker of stereotypical fanthink, invalidating any air of superior nous.

    So then you get a critic who “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.”

    Somebody telling you your tastes aren’t legitimate, that you should be enjoying something written on entirely different principles? When they’re apparently blind to their own fanthink? To most readers of pulp fiction that’s going to automatically read as just another example of the — how I hate this word — “elitism” of those devoted to the contemporary realist genre, to the exclusion of all else. And given the social qualities of that sort of interaction, it’s going to read as a mechanism of abjection. Sadly, the general autoresponse seems to be to come out, guns blazing, with the exact same strategies of dismissal and delegitimisation.

    So it goes.


  47. Hi Hal,

    Part of what motivated me to write this post was a desire to work out what the objections actually were to Martin’s review and, in trying to address them, maybe get the people who hurl insults and bitch about SH to engage meaningfully with what people write about books.

    First off, I’m still not clear what the problem was with Martin’s review. You say you were fed up with that type of review… which type? the reactions on the review itself seemed rather difficult to pin down. Initially there was the accusation of spoilers (which weren’t present), then there was the accusation that he didn’t like fantasy or read much (which is patently untrue on both counts) but beyond that? not sure beyond the sense that people were upset and trying to latch onto some passing piece of conceptual drift-wood in order to use it to beat Martin.


  48. I think you might well be right about the mechanics of abjection. Or at least, I think you’re right that that is how Martin’s detractors might have thought.

    Speaking personally, I don’t understand the fan’s mindset.

    For me, genre conventions are these patterns and habits of thought that appear on literary scenes devoted to certain topics. So if someone writes fantasy stories then they get in the habit of using elves and having a really needlessly detailed world.

    From my point of view, these habits of thought are bad things. They’re things that should be fought against. I cannot understand why one would seek out works that are more-or-less like everything else in a particular field. To me, a writer who comes up against a genre convention and embraces it rather than confronting it is being either lazy or is pandering to his audience.

    For me, the ‘core-genre’ fans are like Gilbert and Sullivan Savoyards complaining vociferously because someone dared to set Princess Ida in the 20s or because someone ad libbed a bit of dialogue during HMS Pinafore.

    I don’t understand that mindset.

    Another example, I was dragged to the opera a while ago to see some Wagner and it was a production from the 70s that was being revived. During the interval I complained vociferously not only about how lazy the director was (why bother to direct if you’re not bringing anything new to the table?) but also about how absurdly out of date the libretto was and how it invoked all of these words and concepts that simply had no relevance to modern audiences.

    I am a proto-fan and part of what I am a fan of is innovation. which is a level of abstraction/analysis further up than liking books with good strong characters and a world you can immerse in.

    but allowing that I’m a fan and I’m criticising things that other fans like. Surely this is all debate and disagreement even is? If I disagree with you about whether or not it’s going to rain tomorrow, I’m a fan of the “it’s going to be sunny” hypothesis and by disagreeing with you I’m (by implication) attacking the “it’s going to rain” hypothesis. In such a situation an angry response is absurd. Why is it not absurd in the case of Martin’s review?


  49. You say you were fed up with that type of review… which type?

    I didn’t say *I* was fed up. I said that’s what I read into some of the reactions. I haven’t commented on that review other than to use it as an example of *not* falling into one “assuming authority” trap (asserting spurious speculation as fact).

    As for what type of review I mean specifically. OK, I think we can piece it together from those complaints. The majority were, I agree, pretty wild, but I think there are two underlying themes. I’ll deal with the most obvious first:

    1. The anti-Fantasy argument:

    So people are complaining that Strange Horizons has a bias against fantasy books. For this read *traditional* Fantasy books. Which *means* books that do not challenge the boundaries of genre. Same accusation, different angle. A biased review policy means either forcing reviewers to write lies (which is implausible conspiracy tosh) or, consciously or unconsciously, finding reviewers who share your distaste — hence the *utterly unsuited*. This, of course, parses to a suspicion that Martin has that distaste, that he “does not read much fantasy” and “chose the book knowing he would not like it.” So all those accusations are basically the same arguement.

    Pare away the force of articulation that turns these into conspiracy theories of malice aforethought, and how crazy is the basic idea that the focus of interests of SH reviewers is skewed away from the traditional Fantasy? I mean, the magazine itself is definitely on the “challenging the boundaries of genre” side of things in terms of fiction content. You cop freely to your own disdain of generic Fantasy, and Abigail’s expressed *her* general dislike of epic fantasy. It’s hardly surprising that literary-minded (is it fair to say Rationalist?) reviewers (or for that matter, poncy Modernists like myself) would not really get on with unreconstructed Romanticism. Add the natural assumption that “challenging the boundaries of genre” means anti-traditional to your confirmation that that’s how you see it, and anything any SH writer/reviewer has ever said carrying similar sentiments, and it’s not hard to see where the hypothesis comes from.

    Now, is this criticism founded? Well, the *expression* of it indicates a *perception* that *could* indicate a simple disjunct: a relative difference in where tastes are focused/limited between the SH reviewers and the SH readers. Could be just a vocal minority being unreasonable, but I reckon it’s less likely to be zealotic fanthink, since those true believers are less likely to be reading SH. More likely? It is possible to enjoy generic Fantasy *as well as* literary strange fiction. Seems to me there *are* reviewers at SH who do. But maybe there’s a sufficient weighting in one direction that a portion of the readership is dissatisfied. The “mismatch” they’re really complaining about is between reviewership tastes and readership tastes. X percent of both readers and reviewers like the challenging stuff. But Y percent of readers *also* like the more trad stuff, while only Z percent of reviewers do. The bigger the difference between Y and Z, the more likely *that* mismatch will become perceptible.

    Does that make this complaint just a strop? If you get what I’m saying in that Ethics and Enthusiasm post, you should get that I would *not* consider it a valid complaint. I mean, consumers are entitled to *try* and demand a better match if they want, but there’s no onus on SH to supply that demand. No more than I’d bow to readers who wanted me to supply them with vampire fiction. But, we’re talking SH here, so one would assume those complaining *do also like* edgier fiction, that they’re *not* kneejerk devotees at the Temple of the Terrys. So I think this is much less likely to be fanthink than it is to be readers with eclectic tastes latching on to this review as a focus of dissatisfaction.

    But why the extremity of the reaction? That brings me to the next group of complaints…


  50. So the next group of complaints actually follow on logically from the anti-Fantasy argument, because what we’ve got here is a projection of *why* SH would have this bias.

    2. The elitist argument:

    The purest philistine form of this is the ad hominem attack that Martin is jealous of the author. There *is* the possibiity that this just means “critics only criticise because they can’t write fiction themselves” but within the field this commonly means “those elitist intellectual types only criticise (commercially) successful authors because they lack that (commercial) success”. Read the forum discussions on writer responses to BSG and you get this pure fanthink; I know I’ve seen it levelled at myself for my criticisms. This is the basest articulation of a projection of motivation, of an automatic (and irrational) disdain for any author or work that’s popular. This is why you get the accusation that “Martin read a lot of positive reviews of the book and decided to produce a negative one as a result”. This is the nature of the “vendetta” being projected onto Martin. And of course this neatly connects with a distaste for the immensely popular and commercially successful genre of traditional Fantasy.

    So what type of review do I think people were pissed at? High-brow reviews that come across as the product of reviewers actively prejudiced against anything that smacks of popularity, including but not limited to traditional Fantasy. In other words, stuff that reads like muso bullshit.

    In and of itself this is a patently spurious accusation, right? You’d think only the purest fanthink would come up with such a notion, no? Except that the whole anti-populism suspicion keeps getting *fueled* by high-brow reviewers blathering about hype, about how positive reviews make them suspicious. The Chance Morrison / Locke Lamora stramash a few years back was pretty much the highest profile instance I can think of; that blew up partly because Morrison’s anti-hype response came across as knee-jerk hostility: “As soon as I hear the words Next Big Thing, I reach for my gun”. Much of the discussion that followed circled around notions that fan-site reviewers and high-profile bloggers might be swayed by pretty ARCs and publisher promos. Hell, I’m sure I’ve read at least one comment from a high-brow reviewer, as part of the SFFE discourse, specifically justifying “compensatory” negative reviews — though I can’t remember where. It was, to be clear, in reference to sacred cows like Tolkien, but in context it came across as validating the general strategy.

    Seems to me SH has that suspicion hanging over it, to the extent that I know *I* groan every time I read a review there that opens with some reference to the way the book is being heavily promoted or positively received, and establishes from the get-go that It Ain’t All That. The Hallie O’Donovan review of The Forest of Hands and Teeth has a quite harmless “I feel completely out of step with all the positive reviews this book is getting”, but even that gave me a sinking feeling. And Martin’s? Nights of Villjamur is high-profile enough that the negative review would have been taken as “compensatory” anyway, I reckon, but Martin doesn’t do himself any favours with his opening. It’s nice to be in “the vanguard of British fantasy” and all, but the subtext is clearly that Newton is being touted by Macmillan as the next member. And He Ain’t All That.

    What that suspicion of hype ultimately reads as to many, I reckon, is the flipside of fanthink — the muso attitude with its auto-sneer at anything the plebs might like. Cause, you know, only the most obscure bands are really any good, cause everyone knows those major labels just manufacture the Next Big Thing, produce the fuck out of the talentless hacks, pay the NME to put them on the cover, and punt them out to all the sheep.

    Again, I’m not trying to justify the accusations as accusations, just to explain how I think they fit together, what I think the thrust of it all adds up to. The timing of this with the SFFE debacle adds weight to this idea, I think. All the “arrogant” and “holier-than-thou attitude to reviewing” comments tie in with the idea of a perception, I think, that some of the high-brow reviewers are taking on that “Last Man” role. Martin’s review was just in the perfect place at the perfect time to act as lightning rod. It took a fantasy work that’s getting the Next Big Thing treatment; opened by referencing that fanfare; ripped into the book scathingly, unremittingly, and extensively; and closed by dismissing it for its traditionality. Because of all that it has a “muso” vibe to it that, given when it came out, was bound to make it the focus of hostilities.


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