Sigh

*Wakes up, looks at email, reads through SF Crow’s Nest–spits coffee.*

Whoa. Okay. Soooo, just barely a month after a titanic whine from SF Crow’s Nest founder Stephen Hunt about the BBC not taking genre seriously and not showing any respect, resulting in a petition and more whining…under Hunt’s auspices SF Crow’s Nest posts this review of Best American Fantasy 3, edited by Kevin Brockmeier, which includes this snark about Thomas Glave’s “The Torturer’s Wife”:

“If I was a casual reader I would have given it up after four paragraphs but as a dutiful reviewer I finished all thirty-three pages of this rambling, disjointed mish-mash (Oh so arty, with lots of things in brackets) that is not really a fantasy. It’s a psychological story about the wife of a high placed state torturer in a totalitarian regime cracking up with guilt. I highly recommend you avoid it like the plague.”

And then concludes with these beautiful paragraphs:

Most of the other stories were okay but they lacked a certain something and, after some consideration, I think I know what. Firstly, they did not lack fine writing. Finer writing has never been more evident and this is hardly surprising because nine of the contributors have creative writing degrees and five of those teach it. The list of contributing magazines at the back has many that are published by universities.

Also lacking was the classic notion of a story as commonly understood, namely a protagonist facing a series of challenges which he overcomes by dint of his character and which changes him in some way, usually for the better. In too many of these stories something happens to someone and that’s it. This being modern urban fantasy the thing that happens is sometimes quite daft, like coughing up a little Bach who grows to full size, but never mind that. Many of the stories are mildly depressing. Perhaps they are meant to send you off to your analyst.

I find it all too arty, too academic and too refined. I also fear that a bright young Jewish chemistry student (Asimov) or a navy midshipman retired with tuberculosis (Heinlein) or even an English graduate working in a laundry and writing in his spare time (Stephen King back in the day) would find it hard to break into this cosy world of writing professionals, polishing their prose to a high gloss, publishing each other in their little journals and awarding each other prizes. Writers used to have some life apart from writing or at least had one before success. They had been doctors or biology professors or secret agents. If you go from school to writing degree to teaching writing might you not be too immersed in the stuff of fiction rather than the stuff of life? The other thing is that the general public don’t buy this sort of thing. They buy the three volume fantasy novels with swords and elves and a hero who overcomes obstacles and gets changed by his troubles. I fear the fantasy short story has left the general reader behind, perhaps forever. Too bad.

A negative review is a perfectly normal and natural thing in the publishing world. And I don’t really need to defend Thomas Glave—one of our finest writers, and someone whose stories that address political repression and prejudice are incredibly brave and unique. Nor do I have the time, because it would take a whole day, to unravel the stupid in these paragraphs.

But I do have to point out that when you promote a mentality of “us against them” this is the kind of bullshit you are going to get in your reviews. A disgustingly simple binary that negates all of the complexity and beauty of fiction and of individual writers from vastly different traditions.

26 comments on “Sigh

  1. With a few earnest exceptions who should probably try writing for a more open-minded (not to mention larger and less ossified) audience, the reviews department at SF Crowsnest is a sink-hole of provincial MOR FAIL, and best ignored.

  2. But without reification, people couldn’t feel superior to “others.”

    Plus, what the what is up with that last paragraph from the reviewer? “I’d like to take this opportunity to piss all over the writers I am reviewing, based less on their stories and more on what I think about characteristics they possess that I am going to now make up and hyperinflate like razored balloon animals.”

  3. Anubis says:

    The writer vs. the real world, fiction vs. life, depressing art vs. healthy everydayness. Dull story. A pre-WWI conservative German intellectual could have written this. They always used to whine like this about art being segregated from life.

  4. Craig Gidney says:

    I read both ‘literary’ fantasy and fat trilogies. Both allegory and muscular fast food fiction. I don’t understand why one has to be pitted against the other.

  5. Craig–me neither! I think it’s a strength to be able to enjoy the best of both, ya know?

  6. Will Ellwood says:

    Is it really a surprise that this appeared on SF Crowsnews? Stephen Hunt’s letter to the BBC stank of conservatism.

  7. Jonathan M says:

    SF Crow’s Nest claims to be : “the most popular SF site in Europe (and the second most popular in the world)” and yet nobody ever links to it (aside from now obviously) and nothing that ever appears on there is ever discussed either within the walls of British SF or seemingly outside of it.

    One of the reasons for this is the quality of writing and thought present on the site (of which you have uncovered a fine example): provincial, stunted and ugly.

    Normally I will defend to the hilt any author who gets criticised in this manner as reviewers do an important job within the community with very little for their troubles other than the scorn of self-righteous fans but Hunt’s persecution complex combined with his evident ignorance and scorn for what he sees as the opposition really must be challenged for so long as SF Crow’s Nest continue in the lie that they are somehow central to online discussions of science fiction. They’re not… and that review ably demonstrates why.

  8. Jonathan: Yep, you’re quite right about defending a reviewer’s right to a negative review. If the reviewer had stuck to analyzing the stories, I wouldn’t have blogged it. If the review had been about a book I had written, I don’t think I would have blogged it. And I still wouldn’t have blogged it if not for the stance Hunt just took. I don’t have any comment on the rest.

    JeffV

  9. James says:

    I would like to know who this “general reader” is or who he thinks it is, because I am pretty sure that the general reader isn’t the one bitching about how fantasy isn’t falling in line with preconceptions and stereotypes.

  10. “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends.”

    – Anton Ego, ‘Ratatouille’

  11. Drax says:

    I just told that idiot to go fuck himself. More or less.

  12. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Well, I may have been a little intemperate in my response. I’m just a little sick of a few ridiculous ideas, as espoused in those paragraphs. But I’ve got a little time tonight, finally. Here goes the vivisection…

    “Most of the other stories were okay but they lacked a certain something and, after some consideration, I think I know what.”
    —Okay, gross generalization gathering strength, about to be unleashed upon us. *All* of these other stories he thought were just okay lacked *the same thing*. That’s right, these other writers with vastly different backgrounds *all* wrote stories with the *same* missing ingredient. (Which later on appears to be that they haven’t been sufficiently lathered in genre fat so as to grease them through the appropriate plot tunnels.)

    “Firstly, they did not lack fine writing.”
    —Usually, this would not be a criticism, and indeed it’s fairly awkward to folllow up the prior sentence with this one. But “Firstly” suggests it is indeed a criticism. So…fine writing is a problem. Fine writing should be looked upon with suspicion, because, ya know, genre writers never engage in fine writing.

    “Finer writing has never been more evident and this is hardly surprising because nine of the contributors have creative writing degrees and five of those teach it.”
    —Uh oh, I feel an indictment coming on. “Your honor, nine of the contributors *admitted* they have creative writing degrees–and *five* actually admitted they teach it. It is irrelevant that the nine are vastly different writers with vastly different cultural and environmental backgrounds and vastly different approaches to and ideas about fiction. Nor does it matter that they didn’t go to the same universities or attend the same writing programs or have the same influences or were taught by the same creative writing teachers. Fact is, every university is the same and every creative writing professor has the same agenda–and that is to teach *fine writing* to the exclusion of all else.”

    “The list of contributing magazines at the back has many that are published by universities.”
    —OMG! Seriously?! We all know universities are were minds go to die and writers go to write soulless prose that reads real purty.

    “Also lacking was the classic notion of a story as commonly understood, namely a protagonist facing a series of challenges which he overcomes by dint of his character and which changes him in some way, usually for the better.”
    —WTF? “Also” indicates I was *right*–the prior statements *were* a criticism. Fine writing *is* a curse, and a university affiliation is the kiss of death. (I feel a “style versus substance* debate forthcoming.)
    —A protagonist facing a series of challenges is just one of many, many different approaches to plot with genre and in the wider world of fiction.

    “In too many of these stories something happens to someone and that’s it.”
    —This isn’t true.

    “This being modern urban fantasy the thing that happens is sometimes quite daft, like coughing up a little Bach who grows to full size, but never mind that.”
    —Not exactly the most cogent supporting evidence, but let’s continue reading.

    “Many of the stories are mildly depressing. Perhaps they are meant to send you off to your analyst.”
    —Yes, there’s never been a dystopic moment in the whole of modern science fiction. Not in The Windup Girl. Not ever. It’s all sunshine and pretty biospheres and singing and dancing and la la la la fucking la.

    “I find it all too arty, too academic and too refined.”
    —Yes, again, all of these stories are the same and they’re all too “arty”. We should only ever stick to artless, non-intellectual, rough-hewn fiction.

    I also fear that a bright young Jewish chemistry student (Asimov) or a navy midshipman retired with tuberculosis (Heinlein) or even an English graduate working in a laundry and writing in his spare time (Stephen King back in the day) would find it hard to break into this cosy world of writing professionals…”
    —Wait. Are these “writing professionals” or writers who have to have a day job in universities, teaching, who often look with wonderment at even the midlist sales of a SF/F writer?
    —Oh, I get it. This is a match up between the blue-collar man-on-the-street typified by science fiction genre writers and those hoity toity university types and their glamorous and elitist jobs. A navy midshipman retired with tuberculosis would never be caught dead around a university. A bright young Jewish chemistry student would never deign to take a college creative writing course.

    “…polishing their prose to a high gloss…”
    —Again, taking care with your prose is *bad*. It’s a sign that you’re somehow elitist and don’t care about your reader.

    “…publishing each other in their little journals and awarding each other prizes.”
    —I can think of no better definition of the pathetic side of a genre community I generally love than this part of the sentence, ironically enough.

    “Writers used to have some life apart from writing or at least had one before success.”
    —Yes, because, again, all of those writers in universities are independently wealthy and rolling in money and garnering huge success from their writing. Um, *all* writers have some life apart from writing. But it’s nice of you to judge every single writer that you do not know the life experience of from their tiny bios in the back of the anthology. Excellent idea! There’s not a chance in hell any of them ever held an odd job or anything like that. Because that would burst the received idea that anyone working in a university is an elitist jerk.

    “They had been doctors or biology professors or secret agents.”
    —Yes. This is correct. I was a doctor, a biology teacher, *and* a secret agent before *I* became a writer. How about you?

    “If you go from school to writing degree to teaching writing might you not be too immersed in the stuff of fiction rather than the stuff of life?”
    —Don’t you think it depends on the writer and their experience up until that point, and other ways in which they lay themselves open to experience and the world? No, of course not–question asked and answered before the “?” hits the eye.

    “The other thing is that the general public don’t buy this sort of thing.”
    —What kind of thing? There are a wide variety of careers and writers represented by the bulk of the stories therein. Some of them sell quite well. Some don’t. So this is just quite simply not true.
    —As a separate point being made: not only should these writers not bother writing this crap, reviewers shouldn’t have to bother reviewing it, because all that should be reviewed is whatever has amazing sales numbers. It doesn’t matter if a writer can reach 5,000 readers with their work–that’s not good enough. Off with their heads!

    “They buy the three volume fantasy novels with swords and elves and a hero who overcomes obstacles and gets changed by his troubles.”
    —Um, yeah, that’s a very particular type of reader, not necessarily the “general public.”

    “I fear the fantasy short story has left the general reader behind, perhaps forever. Too bad.”
    —Wait. The reviewer has *just spent the last few paragraphs telling us why these writers are deformed elitist exceptions to the rule of real down-to-earth genre writers, so why now has the fantasy short story left the general reader behind? These aren’t even *real* fantasy stories–they’re some kind of anomaly, with no plot, nothing but fancy-pants writing, and we all know fancy-pants writing is a sign of a sickening lack of soul and of substance.”

    Maybe it’s overkill to vivisect these statements, but you see these sentiments in one form or another more often than you should. They’re corrosive mind stupidities that spread through thoughtlessness.

  13. Craig Gidney says:

    “The other thing is that the general public don’t buy this sort of thing. They buy the three volume fantasy novels with swords and elves and a hero who overcomes obstacles and gets changed by his troubles.”

    The “general public” also buys auto-tuned songs about bling and grills, and watch shows about screaming housewives. Snooki is a bestselling author. Just because something is popular does not mean it’s good. And that’s what this reviewer is suggesting with this sentence.

  14. Danny O'Dare says:

    I would like to thank the review for introducing me to the works of Thomas Glave, whose work I was previously unaware of. I’m grateful that my ignorance has now been rectified.

  15. Danny O'Dare says:

    “reviewER”, that is.

  16. Megan says:

    The BBC doesn’t take genre seriously? There’s a little show called Dr. Who. Hunt may have heard of it. Guess what channel it’s on?

    “The other thing is that the general public don’t buy this sort of thing.” That, right there, is a lovely argument for polishing up one’s prose a bit. Well done for using “thing” twice in one fourteen-word sentence.

    Who is the “general public”? Non-university professors? Non-“fine” writers? Joe the Plumber? If I buy this book and not a three-volume Tolkien-rehash with terrible, clunky prose, do I cease being a member of the general public and then have to go to some special country where the elitist academics sit and polish their prose all day? Modern urban fantasy is exactly the sort of the thing the “general public” is buying right now, if the SFF bookshelves at my local (UK-based) bookshop are any indication.

  17. Matt Denault says:

    In the same way that The Onion has “area man” and “area woman” t-shirts, I want to have one made that has “general reader” emblazoned upon it.

  18. @Matt – There is a huge debate right now about ebook pricing and someone said that by pricing the book too low the author is attracting the wrong kind of reader. I joked that I was going to make a shirt that said “wrong kind of reader” on it. I’ll take one of your shirts too.

  19. Ryan Day says:

    The “General Public” bit struck me as particularly absurd. The General Public, if there is such a thing, reacts to three-volume sword-and-sorcery fantasy epics with derision and caricatures of overweight nerds living in their parents’ basements, as we saw with some of the Game of Thrones reviews – which, not unlike this review, made a host of assumptions about authors and audiences, and looked rather stupid doing it.

    It’s foolishly naive, but I’d hope someone who was interested a relatively niche genre would know better than to draw even more lines between “us” and “them.”

  20. Nick Mamatas says:

    What part of “Outlanders! BEWARE THE OUTLANDERS!” didn’t you understand?

  21. Cora says:

    The first red flag for me was that the reviewer recognized only one of the literary works referenced in Pride and Prometheus and mistook it for Victorian. The rest only confirmed my suspicions.

    As for that letter to the BBC, my initial reaction was similar to Megan’s. In the past five years or so, the BBC gave us Doctor Who, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Torchwood, Being Human, Becoming Human, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Outcasts, Survivors, Bonekickers, Merlin, some comedy about zombies in the Big Brother house as well as new adaptions of Day of the Triffids, First Men in the Moon and Dracula and yet they supposedly hate SFF? Somehow that doesn’t compute, even if many of those programs weren’t exactly good.

  22. Will Ellwood says:

    @Cora – I believe the crux of their complaint was that the BBC may have made all of those things but they weren’t good enough.

  23. kamal verma says:

    The first issue, themed “De Mislukking” will be printed in a limited edition of 250 copies and available exclusively via VOORDEKUNST.boat shipping

Comments are closed.