What Price, Your Critical Agency?
Last week, I happened to receive an email from a publicist claiming to act on behalf of a celebrated genre anthologist. Said email inquired whether I might be interested in reviewing said anthologist’s latest project despite the fact that a) the page containing my contact details specifically mentions my lack of interest in unsolicited review copies, b) I no longer regularly review genre books and c)past interactions with said anthologist directly contributed to my decision to stop reviewing genre books. Needless to say, I did not bother responding.
The interesting thing about this email was not the publicist’s evident desperation in trying to find someone willing to review yet another of the countless genre anthologies being dumped onto an already over-saturated marketplace but the paucity of what they had to offer in return for my time and attention. In return for agreeing to read and write about this anthology, I was being offered the exciting opportunity to download a digital ARC from a service called NetGalley.
Now… I can completely understand why the publishing biz might want to replace the old-fashioned mail-out with invitations to a central depository of e-ARCs. Back when I was still reviewing, I somehow wound up on the mailing list of an American genre imprint that would send me 2 or 3 unsolicited review copies every single week. Appalled by the waste and wracked with guilt at my inability to write about any of the ghastly books arriving at my door, I tried to get myself removed from the mailing list only to wind up having to talk to half a dozen people before the tide was finally stemmed. In my dreams, Kafka and Borges collaborated on a story in which an inhumanly perverse coterie of publishers conspires to fill a critic’s home with the middle volumes of impossibly long fantasy series. ‘So many hooded men… so little space’ the critic splutters as he sinks below the surface of his papery grave for the third and final time.
Clearly, any system that would allow such cataclysmic levels of waste is a system in need of vigorous reform and yet I cannot help but wonder what this transition will mean for the future of our cultural ecosystems.
These days, few cultural ecosystems operate independently of commercial interests. The ability to artificially engineer an interest bubble means that commercial interests will always have some control over the agenda of an enthusiast press. Reviewers will request DVD screeners and ARCs of books they have been encouraged to look forward to and editors will always be happy to slipstream a wave of hype by providing content that satisfies the readership’s artificially-engineered interest in a particular subject. Money and effort devoted to creating buzz translates into traffic and so anyone who is interested in getting more traffic will always go out of their way to chase the hype.
While traffic is a significant carrot to offer in return for collaborating with commercial interests, review copies are another great way of controlling the agenda. At an institutional level, it is difficult to run a reviews department without review copies you can pass on to your reviewers and so the output of a reviews department will always be dependent upon the nature of the screeners and ARCs provided. At an individual level, a commitment to operate any kind of reviews platform means an open-ended commitment to media consumption and while you may very well be willing to pay for the media you choose to consume, the volume of reviews required to build an audience realistically means deep pockets, a relationship with publicists, or a willingness to obtain review materials for free by either borrowing or stealing.
One of my favourite recent discoveries has been S.C. Flynn’s Scy-Fy, a blog that features no fewer than 100 different interviews with book bloggers, magazine editors, podcasters and something he somewhat alarmingly refers to as ‘booktubers’. One thing that struck me about these interviews is that despite many of them warning about the dangers of writing only about new books and how setting your own critical agenda is the best way to stay productive and stave off burnout, most of the interviewees operate platforms that lavish their attention on new releases. In other words, they know that allowing commercial forces to influence their critical output is dangerous and yet they continue to let it happen.
Another suggestion that keeps appearing in Flynn’s interviews is the importance of developing your own critical voice. I’ve written about the importance of voice a number of times myself but while a voice can reside in things like sentence structures and essay formats, it also resides in the decision to engage with some topics rather than others. Aside from being a vital component of a reviewer’s creative identity, critical agenda is also a serious cultural issue as reviewers who allow publicists to dictate the nature of their output run the risk of perpetuating any and all structural inequalities present in the output of the associated industry. To put it in simpler terms, it’s all very well talking about the need for more diversity in your chosen medium but if you review what the publicists send you then you will inevitably wind up devoting a disproportionate amount of space to Hollywood tent-poles and epic fantasy novels written by politically dubious white men.
To create a critical platform is to grant oneself critical agency. What we do with that critical agency is entirely down to us but while there are undoubted benefits in lending that agency to commercial interests, we should be aware of the prices we demand; a living wage is one thing, a physical copy of a book we were probably going to buy anyway is another but what of access to a suite of digital files that might not even survive the next technological iteration? Would you sell your critical agency for nothing more substantial than a DRM-encrusted pdf or limited access to a pre-release video stream?
Of course, I am being glib… reviewing nothing but the New Shiny is not just a matter of getting read and gaining access to culture, it is also about participating in a broader conversation and if everyone else is talking about the New Shiny then absolute control over one’s critical agenda will come with the added benefit of complete cultural isolation. I do nothing to promote my writing and write purely about the things that happen to be of interest to me and while this has allowed me to become more happy and productive than I have been in years, my complete indifference to the outside world means that the outside world is just as indifferent to me.
The nature of the capitalist system requires us to sell our energy and our time in order to stay alive but what of the energy and time that remains at the end of the working day? What of the labour we perform under the auspices of fun and relaxation? Why do so many bloggers make it look as though they are working an extra job as unpaid interns in the entertainment industry?
One possible answer is that we surrender our free time in return for a sense of community. Community creates a set of values and interests that imbue our lives with meaning but in order for that meaning to take, you need to buy into the community and the price of belonging is usually some degree of dependence. Humans have been performing this trade-off for as long as we have been sentient… it is one of the fundamental pillars of the human experience and yet many of the communities we choose to buy into are coming to resemble workplaces. All the way back in 2009, I wrote a piece about the alarming similarities between the workplace and fantasy RPGs used to escape it:
What does it say about us as a society that we choose to escape to virtual worlds that are depressingly similar to our own? What does it say about our collective imaginations that our fantasy worlds are filled with property speculation, peer-pressure, divisions of labour and the endless capitalist drives for greater profit and efficiency? Is it perhaps some manifestation of the failure of capitalism to ensure universal material success that makes us project the dream of a steady job and a second home into our fantasy realms?
The sociologist Max Weber compared life in an over-regimented society to living in an Iron Cage. I can think of no better evidence that we are the broken and beaten inmates of such a cage than the fact that the frenzied wings of our most cherished dreams carry us no higher than being an elf with a good salary and a decent chance of being made section head.
Anyone who has played Dragon Age: Inquisition will realise how little things have changed in the last six years: In 2009 we played a game that encouraged us to buy and do-up properties in a series of fantasy towns, now we engage in pointless, time-consuming tasks followed by management meetings and the hope of an office romance. Many people see the professionalization of the blogosphere as a sign of progress but I worry about the state of our collective imagination when the only community that makes sense to us is one that resembles our jobs.
As the torrent of physical review copies dwindles to a trickle, I do wonder about the future of the blogosphere and the non-professional enthusiast press that intersects it… As many a ‘thinkpiece’ will tell you, the age of the blog is supposedly over and many independent writers will by now have been approached by larger sites seeking to harness their critical agendas in exchange for either money or (more-or-less) imaginary kudos. The near-abandonment of RSS has forced many out onto the roads of social media where public spaces have been enclosed and reconstituted as marketplaces where they compete for the attention of an audience already subject to incessant and intrusive demands upon their dwindling attention spans. Read my post, link my tweet, share my anger, validate my fetish… is this really the best we can do?