Most sf/f criticism can be sorted into
three four heaps (as far as I’m concerned): book reviews, literary history, snark, and stuff that doesn’t interest me. The first two categories are obviously useful, I expect; I wish those last two categories overlapped more. One wastes a lot of time in the snarkosphere.
Every now and then, though, I read something that goes elsewhere. I wouldn’t call it a heap–there aren’t enough things there to qualify as a heap. More like a stack. These are pieces of sf/f criticism that help me think about reading and writing–that enrich my experience.
Like I say: there’s not much there. But sf/f isn’t unique in that respect: much (not all) literary criticism strikes me as stuff by people who can’t read who are telling other people how to read. I generally find it unreadable and, what with one thing and another, I have to read a lot of it.
In sf/f litcrit, though, there are some things I’ve read that meant something to me. At the base of the stack are four books I used to read and reread when
dinosaurs had just recently taken up smoking the world was young: Knight’s In Search of Wonder; Issues at Hand and More Issues at Hand by “William Atheling jr.” (a.k.a. James Blish); and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Language of the Night.
Knight and Blish were essential to me, although I’m not sure whether they are of use to anyone now. The stuff they were talking about was mostly ephemeral, even in terms of popular literature (a field with a fairly short memory), and much of it was dated even when I read them. Is there anyone now alive who is interested in reading a thoroughly detailed post mortem on “Final Exam” by Arthur Zirul (from the March 1954 Astounding)? But Blish/Atheling devotes an entire chapter to it in The Issue at Hand.
On the other hand, as it were, that’s exactly why I found this stuff useful. I wasn’t interested in Zirul, and even his legendary editor was long dead by the time I was reading Blish and Knight. But the technical issues into what made a genre story effective, and what kept it from being effective–these were of interest to me. Zirul’s forgotten story, and many another, was just a body in the dissecting room. Blish, as Atheling, was particularly interesting when reviewing the magazine work of a late-blooming Futurian named James Blish, and he had a knack for seeing the fantasy latent in science fiction.
Here’s Blish on Clarke, part of an interesting passage that’s too long to quote entirely:
… an important part of Mr. Clarke’s success as a fiction writer … can be attributed to the use–the unashamed use–he made of these semi-erotic, semi-irresponsible daydreams, which he told as soberly as though they were as worth taking seriously as hard truths. Instead of clinging to them in privacy, shame or penuriousness, he voiced them for all of us, as though he were reporting an important part of the real world. And of course he was; hence, how could we have failed to be moved?
More Issues at Hand p. 48
But Knight and Blish agreed too much, far too much. One looks in vain for much daylight between them on issues where reasonable people might differ. They kept an eagle-eye out for any icky femaleness that might pollute the stern sleek masculinity of their beloved
clubhouse genre. And their judgement was often weak, very weak: their verdicts on Vance’s Dying Earth are particularly tone deaf. In fact, straight fantasy was a little out of their critical reach (although both of them would turn to writing it later in life, and Blish was a particular enthusiast for James Branch Cabell). As critics, they did not speak the language of the night.
For a corrective, I would read Le Guin. She was writing later (and is still, of course, firing off sharp critical salvoes, to the delight of some, the sorrow of others), so her issues were a little more alive for me. She was not, of course, saddled with Blish/Knight’s weird gender bias (though she has developed one of her own). Her best creative work ranks well above that of Knight or Blish, so she speaks with more authority than either of them. And she writes and reads with a poet’s luminous, razor-sharp sense of style.
But, speaking of razors, this post is already getting a tad long, so I’ll slice off the rest of my comments and post the dripping remnants here next week.