So, What the Hell Am I, Anyway?

So, What the Hell Am I, Anyway?

critic-fsf-august-62

Mrs. [Rosel George] Brown is just about the only one of F&SF‘s former gaggle of housewives who doesn’t strike me as verging on the feebleminded; in fact, I think her work has attracted less attention than it deserves.

That’s James Blish (writing as William Atheling, Jr.) being nice. He was talking about Brown’s story in the August, 1962 issue of F&SF (then edited by Avram Davidson), pictured at right.

He doesn’t name the story – odd that a critic wouldn’t, even in a review published at the time – but a little online research shows it to be the novelette “The Fruiting Body.” It’s a pretty good read, too, as most of Brown’s work was.

For me, though, the salient point of the quote above is the off-hand contempt he throws on fine writers like Zenna Henderson, Katherine MacLean and Miriam Allen DeFord, a blatant disdain that is both unfortunate and unwarranted.

Looking over the first Blish/Atheling volume of collected criticism, The Issue at Hand (Advent Publishers, 1964), in fact, the reader finds similar contempt for one writer or another on nearly every page.

It gets worse. In the March, 1954 issue of Campbell’s Astounding, a story by one Arthur Zirul titled “Final Exam” appeared. It was the author’s very first story. Blish/Atheling, in the Spring 1954 issue of Redd Boggs’ fanzine Skyhook, devoted almost his entire column (which translated to an incredible six pages in book form) to tearing this story to shreds; calling it “…one of the worst stinkers ever to have been printed…”, and on and on.

Why? What was the point?

critic-atheling-1 Is there some reason why a writer, either self-defined as a critic or anointed as such by others, must heap scorn on anything they don’t care for? Spending 2000 (approximately) words to slam the first story by a presumably-young writer is needlessly cruel.

(Sam Moskowitz had an explanation for this fervid attack on a writer Blish had never even heard of before. Writing in Science Fiction Studies #70 in November of 1996, he said:

It turned out that a Blish story was supposed to go into the issue [of Astounding], but at the last minute Campbell rejected it and substituted the Zirul story!

Was this, in fact, the case, or was SaM just being a mixer as was his wont?

I’ve been unable to confirm the story’s veracity, and frankly, considering both his avid willingness to feud with anyone and his personal dislike of Blish, my guess is that he made it up. After all, Blish had been dead for more than twenty years and couldn’t argue.

Barry Malzberg, himself a highly regarded critic, states categorically that “Sam just hated Blish, had hated him for twenty years, old feuds, old loathing… Lying about the motive for the Zirul attack would be among the least vicious of his rodomontades.”)

I wish I could say that this sort of venomous self-indulgence was unusual, but I can point to a number of examples by other critics just within our own field that are no less deliberately contemptuous and harsh, albeit not necessarily as omnipresently so in those critics’ oeuvre as in Blish/Atheling’s.

critic-astounding-march-1954The purpose of a critic, as I see it, is to evaluate the overall creative output of an artist (in whichever medium) in a way that establishes a historical and/or cultural context and makes that context comprehensible to the reader.

In order to do that effectively, the critic may not have to know more about the subject than the audience he/she is writing for, but for damn sure he/she has to know enough about it to be able to both articulate his/her opinions and authoritatively substantiate them.

(This is to differentiate critics from reviewers, whose job is to give their readership a head’s-up on currently available works in order to help said readership make up their collective minds whether to buy that Blu-Ray copy of The Muppets vs. Cthulhu or another sixer of Amstel Light, a more than worthy objective as far as I’m concerned.)

Where is it written, though, that the Critics’ Chair should be a bully pulpit, with the accent on “bully?”

Why are so many critics seemingly determined, even eager, to show so much unreserved contempt for their subjects, to cross the lines of civility to devastate the reputation (not to mention the feelings) of the artists they write about?

Is the answer as simple as their wanting to portray themselves as clever?

cities-in-flightI honestly think that’s true in many cases, I really do. Do I think James Blish, author of the Cities in Flight stories, and the After Such Knowledge books had nothing more in mind than savaging his fellow scriveners and their work, though?

No. In all fairness, and as extreme as I find much of his commentary, there’s plenty of legitimate insight in his writing.

He knew what he was doing as an author, and although he may have been afflicted with the same institutional bitterness so many other writers suffer from — and allowed that acidity to color his critical writings — he was certainly able to shine his analytical light with accuracy and vigor.

So, I can’t be but just so, er, critical of him.

Nevertheless, “Critics” (as differentiated from “critics”) have a reputation for cynicism and mockery that I find not only distasteful, but diametrically opposed to the very thing they’re supposed to be doing; i.e., communicating a persuasive and reasonably accurate overview of the subject to their readers.

I don’t expect complete impartiality (and I ain’t gonna get it anyway), but I would like at least a modicum of civility.

There’s a reason, over and above the fact that my mother brought me up right. Critics, either upper- or lower-case, have a twofold audience: first and foremost are the fans of whichever creative endeavor they take it upon themselves to evaluate – for our purposes, sf/fantasy literature. Fans are far more likely to be interested in detail than more casual observers, and they tend to seek out information above and beyond that commonly given by reviews. They want to compare their opinions with those expressed by people they respect, if only to see if they agree with each other.

The second part of that audience is the very Creative Element about whose work they write. Lemme tell you something about most creative types, if I may.

critic-knightWe who write (or paint or play the Theremin or nose-flute or whatever) tend to possess a less-than-half-full bottle of Self-Confidence Cola. There are notable exceptions, of course, but on the whole we’re a neurotic and overanxious lot, and any criticism is seen as a possible encounter with Jack the Ripper, no matter how gently worded.

If our Critic is harsh and/or snarky, then our Significant Others have to sneak around the house hiding all the sharp pointy things from us.

(Paradoxically, a lack of self-confidence doesn’t preclude Ego; almost all creative types – barring those who secrete their work in closets, either actual or metaphorical – operate under the audacious notion that someone out there actually wants to read what we scribble in our lonely garrets, surrounded by hungry cats and tattered reference books. This ambiguity can cause much serious emotional heterodyning, like a psychosomatic ring modulator. What this means, in essence, is that when we perceive that our work is being attacked, all the various slings and arrows that plague us normally increase geometrically and start bouncing around in our heads like balls of psychic Flubber studded with nails. Ow.)

Here’s another example, not quite as egregious. In Damon Knight’s collection of critical writings, In Search of Wonder (like the Blish/Atheling, originally published in fanzines and collected by Advent in 1967), Knight eviscerated A. E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A, titling the essay “Cosmic Jerrybuilder: A. E. van Vogt.”

The title alone gives the reader a clue as to Knight’s opinion of the writer’s work, and any doubts are dispelled quickly by phrases like “[van Vogt] is a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter.”

critic-null-aThe difference between the two Critics is subtle, but important: Knight wrote what he did not out of simple meanness or, if Moskowitz is to be believed (which I don’t), revenge, but because of a very genuine feeling of frustration at seeing a bright and extremely imaginative writer doing what he considered to be sloppy work.

Did Knight enjoy the same degree of amusement that Blish did in flensing a work he didn’t like?

I honestly don’t know, but I suspect not.

All that above is me trying hard to figure out just what the hell I am. When people mention one of my columns in their blog or on FaceSpacePlace, they frequently refer to me as a “critic.” In reviews of my book, Anthopology 101: Reflections, Inspections and Dissections of SF Anthologies (Merry Blacksmith, 2010), others have done the same.

I’ve always cringed away from the appellation, for several reasons, not the least of which is that I’m not willing to be as malicious as the stereotypical Critic is supposed to be. However….

However. The key reason is that I’ve just never felt qualified. Of course, I never thought I was qualified to write about old anthologies or unjustly forgotten authors, either, but I’ve been doing it for more than a decade now. Mary, who always knows better (don’t tell her I said that, okay? If you do, I’ll never hear the end of it.) had been urging me all along to include more opinion; little by little, I began to sneak some in and was surprised to find that my editors were pleased. This is a good thing, n’est-ce pas?

This shouldn’t be taken as a claim that I have to force my opinions out. Anyone who’s ever spent more than, say, five or ten minutes in a room with me knows better than that. There’s something so terribly permanent, though, about committing those opinions to the cold light of print, isn’t there? I mean, it’s one thing to say “Cordwainer Halvah’s last book really sucked!” in the con suite at 2:00am when everyone’s bleary and barely conscious, but quite another to put it out there where your listeners/readers are clear-headed and ready for an argument, right?

anthopology-101aSo, you have an obligation to make sure that your statement that Halvah’s novel “really sucked” can be supported by reason and judgment, and isn’t just a poopy-headed expression of your dislike for the cover art, or because that cute girl in the chain-mail across the room won’t smile back. That means you have to have a working knowledge of whatever it is you’re talking about. That means you have to have an informed opinion.

Do I got one o’ those? Well, I’d like to think I do. I’ve certainly read widely in the field, both the fiction and the criticism. Not out of some directed intent to become what I was reading, mind you, but out of plain old curiosity. I did the same thing when I was collecting records.

So, what the hell am I, anyway? Some people have referred to me as a critic, as I said before, but then I’ve been called a Commie-Fag-Junky, too, and I’m not any of that. I can state categorically that I am a historian of the field of science-fiction and fantasy, that I’m a biographer of those who helped create it, and that I am (to a lesser extent, admittedly) a bibliographer (and please note that there are others out there more accomplished in these areas than I am). I will admit further that I have developed strong opinions about the subjects I have written about over the years, and that I’m more at ease expressing those opinions now than I was a decade ago. However….

However. I am not, and never will be, concerned solely with their literary work. As anyone who’s read any of my columns (or even these blog entries) can tell, I’m a bull-goose process freak with an insatiable curiosity about the men and women who have created and shaped this wonderful branch of literature, which means that as far as I’m concerned, it’s all relevant and all grist for the journalistic mill.

If you will forgive me yet another “however,” this doesn’t mean that I have any interest whatsoever in making fun of, or being rude or cruel to or about, any of the authors or editors I choose as subjects. If I mention a flaw or foible, it’s because I honestly believe that it affected the subject’s work, not to “dis” from a distance in order to make myself look clever, or to elevate myself above the very people who have engaged my enthusiasm.

If I don’t like a book or an author, I can find very little reason to write about it. Why bother? I’d rather spend the same time and energy covering someone with whose work I have connected in some way than go on and on about a book or writer who leaves me cold. Isn’t it a better use of my efforts to advise readers about what they should actively seek out, not rail about the stuff they should go out of their way to avoid?

Yeah, I have opinions, informed ones at that. Yeah, I have a lot of fun expressing them. But first and last, I am a writer and I’m only too conscious of what it must feel like for some uppity criticizer to go postal for six pages on a five-thousand word story just because they can get away with it. I’ve been harassed by bullies, and I try very hard not to be one. There’s enough of that in the world as it is; I don’t need to add to it. If that makes me not a critic, I’m content.

So, what the hell am I, anyway? Well, as long as you like what I write, it doesn’t really matter, so call me whatever you want. Just don’t call me late for dinner.

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[…] da Davide Rapido post per segnalare un bell’articolo comparso oggi sul blog di Black Gate Magazine, e scritto da Bud Webster. Sulla natura della critica […]

jimvanpelt

Nicely said, Bud. Good article.

mudslinger

Very well done, though you’ve destroyed my theory that there is an inverse correlation between the cruelty of the critic and the critic’s ability to write (Blish was a fine author). I think you hit it on the head, that the overly acerbic critics want to demonstrate cleverness not only in the attack, but also that he or she sees flaws which the common person cannot.

jrcarney52

If you have the time, you should page through Gerald Graff’s _Professing Literature: An Institutional History_ for a great overview of literary criticism and its many forms in the 20th century. The first “literary critics” of this decade were more like scientists than arbiters of taste you’re describing. Rather than assess the artistic value of literary art they choose, rather, to look at literary *language* specifically and to trace its origins and etymologies.

As this field slowly evolved into linguistics proper these “specialists” were replaced by “generalists,” i.e. “literary critics,” hitherto relagated to newspapers where they served in a reviewer function. At first these folks were looked upon in the academy with contempt by the more scientifically minded philologists because it seemed that the work the critics did–which was to describe to the public and to students the significance of literary art–was something any educated person could do. And the philologists were bitter, of course, because literary critics gave lectures and wrote essays that were actually attended to and ready by students and read by the public. So **professional** literary criticism (particularly in the United States) was inaugurated with a chip on its disciplinary shoulder: it had to justify itself as a “scientific endeavor” in response to criticisms posed by those who studied the history of literary language (a discipline that required a lot of technical knowledge and special skills like, say, speaking Aramaic or reading Sanskrit). And so, what you identify as critics trying to “be clever” can in other contexts be portrayed as their attempts to professionally justify themselves within an institution that thought they just weren’t intellectual “hard-hitters.”

Fast forward to the thirties and forties and the rise of genre fictions and their coordinate established canons (e.g. Science-Fiction, the Weird Tale, Fantasy, etc.): you get literary critics who are really sensitive about being portrayed publicly as “non-professional.” Thus–who saw this coming?!–they avoided genre fictions like the plague (consider Edmund Wilson’s famous “reviews” of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. I think he was excessive in his condemnation). In the context of this fear of contamination, we can understand mid-century literary critics strange propensity to elevate to the status of literary art the most confusing kind of literature, the kind that seems to **require** explication: the Modernism of, say, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner.

To an extent I’m generalizing, but–and many historians of literary criticism will agree with me–there was a bias and preference for studying the explicitly confusing. And the subtext of this preference was–you guessed it–an attempt to professionally justify themselves.

Because so many literary critics pretty much disavowed genre fiction you had develop the phenomenon of the fanzine, psuedo-professional publications that were published alongside professional pulp-literature marketplaces. I think a lot of the so-called “criticism” of science-fiction and fantasy today published from the blogosphere to the New Yorker derives more from this tradition than the profession of academic literary criticism. Fanzine criticism–tending to be more bibliographic, “cheerleady,” and “reviewy”–was less about understanding the significance and technical structure of their object of study and more about doing the work that academic critics should have been doing, namely, articulating a beautiful new canon of literary output unique to the 20th century, a canon of literature that not only repudiated high literary art but desired to redefine what literary art even meant.

Sadly, because this criticism took place outside of the literary academy many of the first principles of criticism were never settled, e.g. what is the goal of literary criticism?

[…] last we spoke, you and me, the subject was what I wasn’t. Feel free to go back and refresh your memory, I’ll wait here. La, la, la; biddley-biddley-boooo; […]

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