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Meta-review: A Review of My Reviewing

The other day, the Professor observed that it has been a long time since I posted a straight review. And it’s true: while I tend to discuss many books in my posts, and often specifically discuss new books that I’d received as ARCs, I haven’t posted a straightforward review since May of this year. I have read plenty of books in the interim, some of which I requested, some of which were sent to me, and some of which I picked up in the store because I was interested. So why, then, the dearth of reviews?

Genres and Conventions in Literary Criticism

As anyone who has read a single post of mine can probably guess, I like criticism. I like dissecting literature, art, and culture to gain some modicum of understanding. And over the course of the past few months, I have been thinking about the purpose and nature of literary criticism, about what it accomplishes, and how my own meager attempts contribute in some fashion to the field. In a sense, I’ve been turning a critical lens on the field of criticism itself.

And I am quite surprised that this field of meta-criticism features a more muddled vocabulary than even literary criticism itself (which is saying something, and what it says is not very polite).

Everyone these days plays the role of “critic:” reviewers who recommend books to other readers, analysts who explore the broader field of literary production, writers who discuss their methods, process, and thinking, etc. To express a thought – any kind of thought – about the written word is likely to be labelled “criticism”, and with global communications at our fingertips, the barriers to entry are very low.

But criticism itself takes on many forms, and we write it and read it for many reasons. Like the stories we read, criticism can be sub-divided into a number of genres, each of which has its own conventions, its own devices, its own markets, and its own audiences. Like genres in fiction, critical genres have porous borders, and there is much overlap between their methods and devices. But all that being said, I think it is safe to propose several key categories:

Commercial Reviews
Short (< 300 words) reviews which typically provide a brief overview of the story’s plot, highlight one or two salient details (either positively or negatively), and sometimes mention similar or vastly different titles for the sake of comparison. Primarily aimed at a professional audience of booksellers and librarians, and because of their professional reputation used by publicists to provide consumers with juicy and authoritative blurbs.

  • Kirkus Reviews
  • Publisher’s Weekly
  • School Library Journal
  • Locus Magazine

Perception Pieces
Longer (300 – 2,000 words) articles that are targeted specifically at prospective readers. Structurally, they tend to present the critic’s highly subjective perceptions of a specific title, of their experience reading it, and offer a handful of very specific examples from the text. Sometimes, depending on the critic, those perceptions are contextualized through a discussion of the title’s broader genre, or of the author’s previous work, though these are not defining features of the category. What is notable about this category is that there are no structural differences between a typical perception piece in The New York Times, a book blogger’s review, or a consumer’s write-up on GoodReads. Much as professional reviewers might grumble, the only real difference lies in the audience’s perception of the reviewer’s authority, which typically stems from the brand on the masthead (although the quality of individual reviews will, of course, vary).

  • The New York Times
  • The New Yorker
  • The Los Angeles Review of Books
  • Book Bloggers
  • GoodReads
  • Reader Reviews

Technical Analyses
These are also longer reviews, but they differ structurally from most perception pieces in that they focus more on the methods by which a given story achieves its effects. I suspect many of the reviewers who write technical analyses (myself included) are themselves writers of fiction, and see their “review” as a dissection of authorial technique. The level of technical detail into which such reviews go, the “closeness” of their reading, exceeds that typically found in a perception piece.

  • Book Bloggers
  • Books/Essays on Writing
  • Books of Literary Criticism

Generalized Commentary
Where perception pieces focus on the reviewer’s reaction to a specific title, generalized commentary broadens the discussion to encompass an entire artistic field (however the critic chooses to define it). Such generalized commentary draws broad conclusions, sweeps the field with generalizations, and discusses stylistic, thematic, structural, commercial, etc. trends. While such commentary can often resemble that found in perception pieces or technical analyses, the scope is broad enough to extend beyond individual titles.

  • The New Yorker
  • The Guardian
  • Book Bloggers
  • Writers’ Blogs / Essays
  • Books on Writing
  • Essays in Anthologies

Academic Criticism
At its best, academic criticism resembles a fusion of technical analysis, generalized commentary, and perception pieces. However in contemporary practice, it has become a genre unto itself. Its markets are limited to peer-reviewed critical journals and (at book length) university presses, and its stylistic conventions often veer towards the incomprehensible (for which I think we have Jacques Derrida in particular to thank – and by thank, I mean the opposite). Its audience is almost always limited to academics, to critics with a stomach for the stuff, or to truly adventurous writers.

  • University press-published books of criticism
  • Critical conference proceedings
  • Academic papers

My Goals as a Critic

As I said when I first started up this blog, lo these two years ago (my how time flies when you’re having fun!), my goal is to better understand the field of speculative fiction, both on a cultural and a technical level. I want to understand the roles that science fiction, fantasy, and horror all play in our lives, and to understand how (by what means) different stories affect us as individuals and as a society. Or at least I want to understand it more than I do today.

The majority of my blog posts tend to be general commentary, probably closer in kind to technical analysis than to perception pieces. And my reviews, whose frequency has gradually decreased, tend to be more technical. As I state in my review policy, I tend to review books and stories that strike me in some way, where something about either their ambitions or their methods stands out within the broader field.

Does the decreasing frequency of my reviews mean that there is less technical innovation taking place in speculative fiction? I honestly don’t know. Does the fact that few books have recently moved me sufficiently to write a review mean that I subscribe to the much-discussed belief in the genre’s exhaustion?

I hope not. I hope it’s just a combination of having more interesting thoughts about broader subjects, or of wanting to discuss specific titles within a wider context. But despite this hope, I still find myself awake at night thinking about what this implies for both myself as a reader/critic, and if anything, for the genre.

For those who’ve been reading me for awhile – or for those who’ve gone back in the archives and read some of my reviews – do you miss them? Should I try to cast a wider net in my reading or to make a concerted effort to write more of those kinds of reviews? Or does my general commentary from the last several months still work for you?

Structure and Perspective in Children’s Stories and Films

NOTE: For those of you in the United States, since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I want to wish you and yours a wonderful, fun, and loving holiday!

This past weekend, Skyfall was sold out, so we saw Wreck-it Ralph instead (n.b. It was absolutely delightful: if you haven’t seen it yet, please do! It’s worth it, particularly if – like me – you spent a large part of your childhood at the local arcade.). Sitting in the theater I was struck by an observation I had never noticed before: all of the best (and most successful) children’s movies in recent memory (e.g. Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Shrek, etc.) feature adult protagonists. But children’s books, whether middle-grade classics like From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, more recent fare like Harry Potter, or edgier YA titles like The Hunger Games, almost never adopt this strategy.

It has become axiomatic that in children’s literature, the protagonist must be a child. Why? And why the discrepancy between children’s film and books? In thinking it through (and discussing it with The Professor), I think it stems from the basic structure of all children’s stories, and in particular from the point-of-view through which that structure becomes most accessible.

NOTE: Forgive me if the thoughts here are a little muddled or plum off-base. I’d love to know what you think, since I feel like these ideas are still a little fuzzy in my own mind.

The Cynical Argument: Parents Should Want to Go

There is, of course, a cynical argument to be made: parents are more likely to spend their hard-earned cash on children’s entertainment that they enjoy, and parents are more likely to enjoy a children’s story that on some level speaks to their adult sensibilities. Children’s movies – through which parents must sit – are more exposed to this commercial logic than children’s literature because kids of a certain age can read books on their own. As a result, one might think that parental enjoyment is less important for books than for movies.

But this commercial argument – while true insofar as it goes – strikes me as superficial at best. If constructing an excellent, enjoyable story were as simple as that, then we wouldn’t have any bad stories. Instead, I think that the methods by which the best kids’ movies and kids’ books are both constructed, and the ways in which they differ, deserve a deeper exploration.

The bildungsroman Structure of Children’s Stories

At its heart, every children’s story is a bildungsroman (coming-of-age story). While this may be a broad, sweeping generalization, I think it remains accurate. Every artistically and commercially-successful kids’ story (in film or print) is a story of personal growth portraying a character who gains a more mature understanding of how to navigate the complexities of the world.

Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles show Taran struggling to prioritize selfish desires, duty, and self-identity. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy follows the development of Katniss’ moral compass in a world that is far from black-and-white. Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower models a troubled young man’s development of self-confidence.

The same dynamic works in kids’ movies: Monsters, Inc. centers around coming to accept the Other. Lilo & Stitch is built around the acceptance of family and the responsibilities that come with it. The Incredibles focuses on the development and support of self-identity.

Just because these are stories of personal growth and maturation does not make them either formulaic or didactic. In fact, there is no surer kiss-of-death for a children’s story (regardless of medium) than didacticism. Instead, these stories all model the gradual process of maturation, in which by their conclusion the character(s) come to a more nuanced view of the world and their own roles in that world. Children’s stories model the maturation process every kid undergoes, and by doing so provide kids with a framework for dealing with the world’s complexities.

A Question of Perspective

Personal growth is – by definition – an internal, private journey. The perspective from which the story gets told is closely tied to the dramatization of that journey. Children’s books are axiomatically always told from a child’s perspective. Whether they are written in first person, or close third, etc. the point-of-view is invariably that of the child. It is the rare kids book indeed that tries to tell its story from an adult perspective (I’d like to call particular attention to Anna Waggener’s recent debut Grim, which makes a noble attempt at this daunting challenge).

We see Hogwarts through Harry Potter’s eyes. We struggle through the Arena on Katniss’ shoulder. We face the horrors of Uglyville and New Pretty Town alongside Tally Youngblood. Children’s books model the child’s experience directly, unmediated by any narrative distance. Authors face the challenge of giving their youthful protagonists agency and the opportunity to exercise it (e.g. “getting rid of the parents”) but once the adventure begins, the reader can experience the journey directly.

Children’s books tell their stories from a very close, very personal perspective. The emotional power of stories like Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Halse Anderson’s Speak, or Larbalestier’s Liar derives from the intimacy of being in the narrator’s head. Interior monologue and narrative voice – two tools which film lacks by its very nature – are key to this process.

Children’s movies that focus on adult characters obviate the need to empower their protagonists with agency. Sully and Mike Wazowski are grown ups, in relative positions of authority within their world. Wreck-it Ralph, though not in a position of authority, is clearly a grown-up with all of the freedom of choice that implies. Mister Incredible and Elasti-girl likewise have theoretical agency, however constrained by circumstances. When children’s movies focus on adults, they don’t need to “get rid of the parents” the way children’s books do.

However, movies are inherently more distanced from the character’s emotional journey than books. Movies generally lack an interior monologue or narrative voice to communicate the internal journey. Camera angles, voice work, shot composition, and lighting all contribute (often significantly) to give us that emotional window into the journey, but the relationship is always at a slightly greater remove.

When they focus on adult characters, children’s movies accelerate the speed at which the character’s expression of agency occurs. This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to rapidly develop the character and their emotional journey through dramatic action, which is key to entertaining the audience and getting us to identify with the character.

Because the adult characters in children’s movies are portrayed with agency, and with clear motivations expressed simply (however complex their underlying logic) kids understand how to interpret them. They may not be able to empathize with Mister Incredible’s frustration at a dead-end job, but they are able to understand the fact of his frustration’s existence. But it is through the adult characters’ relationship with non-focal children’s characters that the real accessibility occurs.

While kids will find it harder to empathize with Mister Incredible’s job troubles, or with Elasti-girl’s marital concerns, they can definitely empathize with the experiences of Dash and Violet, and in particular with the consequences of their parents’ difficulties as experienced by the children. The adults’ personal journey is modeled in the experiences of the youthful secondary characters, and the relationship between the youthful secondary characters and the adult protagonists itself models relationships familiar to the child audience. This gives the story an immediacy and relevance to audiences young and old.

In children’s books, this type of an approach is more difficult: the internal experience of an adult character is a greater (though not impossible) imaginative leap for children to make. Because the written word by its nature yields a more intimate audience/character relationship, this complicates and slows the emotional accessibility of the story.

The Value of Narrative Unity

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think the trick to effective storytelling for children – whether in film, in prose, or in sequential art – ties back to the concept of narrative unity. Whatever perspective the story is told from, and regardless of whether the protagonist is an adult or a child, if the relationships in the story model relationships understandable and relevant to both kids and grown-ups, then the story is likely to be accessible and engaging to both audiences. And those stories where the personal journeys of both adult and child characters are tied together and their resolution is explicitly and emotionally unified are likely to be the most resonant and the most lasting.

Does this concept make sense? We just repainted the upstairs hallway, and the paint fumes might be making me more fuzzy-headed than normal, but it seems a little muddled to me. What do you folks think?

Going to be a Day Late This Week

Sorry, folks! I’m afraid I’m too swamped with day-job stuff today to get this week’s post out. However, I should have it ready to go tomorrow (Wednesday). Sorry for the delay!

Ephemeral Horror and the Diffusion of Genre Markers

Content, when it comes to genre taxonomy, is king: we categorize stories based on the conventions they employ and the devices that show up within their texts. Spaceships, time travel, aliens? Let’s call it science fiction. Magic and knights? Let’s go with fantasy. A five-act structure centered around mutual attraction and misunderstanding? Romance. A crime that needs to be explained? Mystery. (Yes, I know this is a gross over-simplification – but that doesn’t make it wrong.) These devices, the objects and tropes of most genres, can easily be slapped on a cover to communicate the story’s category to booksellers and readers.

But then we come to horror. Peter Straub is right (hat tip to Robert Jackson Bennett for pointing this essay out) when he says that horror is the only genre whose defining characteristic is absent from the text: horror gets categorized as horror because of the reaction it produces in the reader, not because of the devices it employs (although those devices do contribute to the reaction). The ephemeral nature of horror’s defining characteristic is both a strength and a weakness for the genre.

The Strength and Freedom of Ephemera

Creatively, Straub is exactly right when he writes:

…this absence of specificity is not at all a limitation but the reverse, a great enhancement. That no situational templates are built into horror grants it an inherent boundarilessness, a boundlessness, an inexhaustible unlimitedness. If the “horror” part is not stressed all that overtly and the author spares us zombies, vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, hideous things in bandages, etc., what results is fiction indistinguishable, except in one element alone,  from literary fiction.

Horror lacks the constraints that more solidified genre conventions impose. We can write a horror story – like Shirley Jackson’s classic “Flower Garden” – without a single element of the supernatural or the inexplicable. But even such a “mundane” story can still evoke a sense of horror similar to The Haunting of Hill House.

This freedom means that – in order to be effective – horror must sneak past the reader’s natural defenses, must directly speak to the reader’s perceptions, values, and fears. This is the kind of deep-seated, emotional and perceptual communication that the literary fiction genre has traditionally claimed for itself. But where literary fiction uses such emotional and philosophical intimacy to explore comfortably distanced morality, horror uses a highly sensitized point-of-view to get as close to the nerve as possible, to map even the most painful experiences from the inside.

When a horror story fails to achieve this effect, when it fails to develop such a reaction, it fails to be a horror story. There is a reason why vampires and werewolves and zombies now fill shelves of urban fantasy and paranormal romance: fictional devices that once terrified, now no longer do so. And herein lies the weakness of ephemeral genre definition.

Content is (un)Dead

What is the taste of blue? That is the same kind of unanswerable question as “how can you tell a horror story from its cover?”

There was a time – not all that long ago – when vampires were horrific. Their stories evoked the frisson of terror and repulsion that characterizes the horror genre, and so slapping a vampire on the cover sent a message to the reader that said “This book will horrify you.”

But over time, and in paticular over the last thirty years, we have become acclimated to vampires. They stopped horrifying us, and so have oozed into science fiction (e.g. Peter Watts’ Blindsight or Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series), romance (e.g. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stories, etc.), fantasy (Jasper Kent’s Danilov Quintet), and so on. When we see a vampire on a cover today, we are more likely to think of these genres than of horror.

This dissolution of the communicative value of fictional devices is a normal part of the creative cycle, and it affects every genre (and is particularly accelerated in YA). But because horror is defined by the reaction it produces, the genre is more exposed to this danger, and its covers (and sales) are disproportionately affected by it.

The Future of Horror?

I think the future of horror will be much like its past: subject to boom-and-bust cycles closely tied to society’s fluency with and acclimatization to the devices which evoke the reactions that define the genre.

For designers and publishers in the field, I think that the challenge is to disentagle cover design from the devices used in the content. Thrillers and (to a lesser extent, mystery) have both broadly succeeded in doing so: their covers tend towards the iconic, rather than the representational. It is worth noting that cover designs for horror perennials like Stephen King and Peter Straub seem to employ this exact strategy, and I suspect that it helps to smooth the genre’s traditional boom-and-bust cycles.

For authors in the field, I think that the trick to continued artistic success will be to focus on that reaction, on the emotional and perceptual effects which define the genre. Essentially, to stick to our knitting. Those who manage to evoke that sensation of visceral repulsion or terror will continue to sell, will continue to have readership, because the darker facets of human nature have and will always fascinate.

And with that being said, I have to wonder: how does reader reaction and the diffusion of genre markers extend or impact on other genres, like science fiction and fantasy?

What is Science Fiction for?

NOTE: Thank you so much to everyone who wished us health and safety during and after Hurricane Sandy! I’m happy to report that we’ve got power, cell service, Internet, and cable TV all working again. Thanks again. If anyone wants to help those hit much worse than we were, I urge everyone to make a donation to the American Red Cross Hurricane Relief fund.

No matter how many times the community debates science fiction’s viability, direction, and future, a fundamental question goes unasked: What is the purpose of science fiction? The answer to that question is at the heart of every (often recurring) debate about the genre, yet I have rarely seen it asked directly. Consider:

Quality: Genre vs. Literary Fiction Science Fiction’s Exhaustion Award Criteria

These are just the most recent paroxysms of genre self-confidence that I can recall from the past year. And in most cases, the resulting discussion is necessary for the continued health of literature (and of our genre, in particular – see my earlier thoughts on that front here and here). But in each discussion, the debaters speak from a particular perspective, heavily informed by their underlying and unarticulated perception of science fiction’s purpose. It is the implicit background which every one of us takes for granted, but which leads to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and grossly divergent conclusions.

The Amorphous Purpose: A Definition

(NOTE: I would love to see a story entitled “The Amorphous Porpoise”. Just saying.)

The purpose of a genre is – by its very nature – protean. It is an amalgamation of methods, effects, and consequences within literature and society. If the concept appears fuzzy and imprecise, there’s a good reason for that: It is. Like so much critical discussion, it is a philosophical abstraction. We cannot apply it to any particular title, nor even to a particular series. To be meaningful, it must be broad enough to contain contradictions, and resilient enough to withstand them.

Despite its imprecision, genre’s purpose remains a powerful critical tool. When Damon Knight says that “science fiction is what we point to when we say it”, he relies on the particular mix of methods, effects, and consequences of a given story to group it with other stories of similar purpose. Conceptually, it is similar to Brian Attebery’s “fuzzy set” of genre markers, but its value goes beyond the merely taxonomic: genre’s purpose contextualizes the stories within the genre, and thus creates a framework for our interpretations and responses.

When Christopher Priest laments the nominee slate for the Clarke Award, or when Paul Kincaid observes the “exhaustion” of science fiction in the Best-of anthologies, their concerns can be reframed in terms of genre’s purpose. Between the lines, they each suggest an indistinct and idealized vision of science fiction. Neither offers a clear prescription, but it is clear that they have set their own bars on the basis of some criteria, whether articulated or not. If we reframe their arguments (hopefully without doing damage to their intentions), we find that Priest observes that the Clarke Award does not reward the fiction he believes aligns best with science fiction’s purpose. Paul Kincaid believes that much of contemporary science fiction aligns with an outmoded purpose, which may no longer be culturally relevant.

In both cases, they leave the purpose of science fiction implicit and unarticulated, which I think does their core arguments a disservice. I think a debate about the purpose of science fiction and its role within literature and society is an interesting and valuable one, from which interesting ideas about writing and genre can both flow.

On the Constitution of Purpose

I think of genre purpose as having three components. There may be more, particularly since this is still a concept I’m trying to wrap my head around. But in general, a genre’s purpose is the combination of its:

These are the techniques, conventions, and devices which are employed in stories ascribed to a particular genre. They are directly observable within the text, no one story will ever use all of them, and any one story may specifically reject or subvert one or more of them.
Science Fiction Examples:

  • Scientific plausibility
  • Fictive Neology
  • The Novum
  • Rational actors/consequences
  • Naturalistic prose
  • Reliable narrators
  • Unreliable narrators
  • The imagined future
  • Interstellar travel
  • Intelligent alien life
  • Sentient artificial life

These are the emotional and mental responses produced in the individual reader as a direct result of the genre’s methods. They are not observed within the text, but are observed within its individual readers. Certain effects may be generalizable across an audience, but because no two readers experience a story in the same way, the effects are never universal for any story. The effects can likewise be directed, e.g. “fear of science” or “fear of government”, etc.
Science Fiction Examples:

  • Escape
  • Entertainment
  • Imaginitive speculation
  • Wish fulfillment
  • Ethical Uncertainty
  • Sadness
  • Horror
  • Terror
  • Optimism
  • Ambition
  • Transcendence
  • Affirmation
  • Curiosity
  • Rumination
  • Satisfaction

These are the cultural reactions that a genre produces. They may be expressed outside of the literary sphere, for example in education, cultural sensibilities, or public mores. They may also be expressed within future texts, as a response to or expansion/subversion of the genre’s purpose.
Science Fiction Examples:

  • Fleeting enjoyment
  • Scientific/technological development
  • Changed social acceptance/rejection/prejudice
  • Perceptions of government power
  • Perceptions of civic responsibility
  • Perceptions of civil rights/roles
  • Adjusted conceptions of justice
  • Adjusted aesthetic sensibilities
  • Adjustments in personal priorities

I believe that all fantastic genres (science fiction, fantasy, and horror), and possibly all literature shares the majority of their effects and consequences, but that they rely on different methods to do so. I imagine – and I hope – that there are people who disagree with this, as their thoughts might provide fascinating insights into the purpose of literature and art.

The Evolving Purpose of Genre

When each of us thinks of a literary tradition – be it science fiction, biography, or mystery – we value different methods, effects, and consequences differently. This is partially a consequence of our individual tastes, and partially the result of our philosophical values. Genre’s purpose – in its abstract philosophical sense – does not have intentionality. But when we begin to discuss a genre’s purpose, each of us prioritizes certain methods, effects, and consequences over others, and this gives genre’s purpose a directionality.

The cycles we see in science fiction – whether it was the gradual move away from scientific romance conventions in the pulp era, or the New Wave’s focus on the sociological, or cyberpunk’s psychosocial aesthetics – are a consequence of genre’s constantly-evolving purposes, which in turn are an emergent property of our consumption of media and our experiences of daily life. The sometimes acrimonious divide between “hard” and “soft” SF merely reflects differences in our community’s priorities, tastes, and philosophical values.

Our individual values, and the intentions they lend to our perception of genre, inform everything we do when it comes to genre. When we write genre fiction, we (hopefully) write what we think it should be, applying and communicating our values. When we review genre fiction, we express how an author’s work is executed relative to our individual conception of the genre’s purpose: did the story successfully align with what we want from the genre? When we criticize genre fiction, we generalize across multiple stories to either gain insight into how genre’s methods, effects, and consequences interrelate or to articulate our generalized desires about the genre.

Perhaps, rather than rehashing the perennial “genre is exhausted/dying/dead” debate it would be helpful to take a step back, and articulate what we think genre should be, and start from there. There will be plenty of disagreements if we do: this is actually pretty complex philosophy, and it has flummoxed much smarter people than me. I suspect that for many of us, it is easier to express our values through our fiction than it is to spell them out. But I think as a community, it is a discussion worth having nevertheless.

But if we want to advance our understanding of the art form, and if we want to advance the quality (howsoever it gets defined) of that art form, shouldn’t we at some point spell out where we want it go?

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