Locus Online
Thursday 23 March 2006

Excerpt from Gary K. Wolfe's Hugo Award-nominated
Soundings: Reviews 1992-1996

published July 2005 by Beccon

Introduction: Trainspotting

For anyone who grows up passionately involved with reading, it can be oddly liberating to discover that you have no particular talent for writing fiction. If one devotes part of one's professional career to being a critic, of course, such an admission invites all sorts of canards and snowballs, ranging from the familiar accusations of simple parasitism to darker scenarios of Iago-like malignity. Criticism, in this view, may be cavalierly divided into two categories: sniping, malicious reviews on the one hand, and cluelessly arcane academic theorizing on the other. Both are more plentiful than they ought to be, but neither has much to do with the real politics of engagement that has long made responsible criticism an interesting and provocative part of the literary game. To be sure, such attitudes are heard less often these days (outside of the occasional fan convention, where they're still good for cheap applause lines), and a measure of the maturation of genre fiction may well be the extent to which it's become possible to talk about it without the risk of betraying the home team, or of driving away tourists by noting that it's raining, or of violating the corporate mission statement by acknowledging that some products lack nutritional value. Mentioning in a public venue that a particular SF novel is problematical is no longer necessarily taken to imply that SF itself is a bad idea, nor does praising a particular novel imply that SF is somehow therefore a superior breed of fiction. For SF — or more properly, the reading of SF — to mature, it isn't necessary to adopt Theodore Sturgeon's overquoted dictum that ninety percent of everything is "crud," but it might be necessary to accept that mediocrity will always far outweigh either the crud or the diamonds.

The problem, for both the reviewer and the academic critic, is that mediocrity is not very interesting to write about. Books that are truly, spectacularly dire — what we might call the literature of emesis (as opposed to mimesis) — are perhaps too easy to write about, and are among the critic's most unsavory temptations; the sharper the barb, the wittier the riposte, the better. But with endless piles of books staring balefully from the desk, and with only a handful that can be carefully read before deadline, the question arises as to why the critic would even finish such a book, much less take the time to write about it. A certain sign of a facile critic is one who habitually takes on such books merely as a preening display of weaponry; such reviews are seldom more useful than those of the hungry puppy reviewer who praises everything out of a desire for acceptance or for blurbs on the paperback edition. Usually, though, if favorable or mixed reviews outnumber bad reviews, it's because many of the bad reviews never get written because the book never gets completely read. Far more interesting to me are the books that set out honorably to express or shape a particular vision, and which at times succeed astonishingly well, but more often generate mixed results, or raise more questions than they answer. For such books, context may often be as important as content, and even a book which isn't quite firing on all cylinders may nevertheless move the vehicle forward into interesting new territory.

This, I think, is where that lack of a particular fiction-writing gene might almost become an asset. It helps to retain a certain measure of awe at the entire enterprise of fiction, to remain free of the temptation to think one might have done it better oneself, and to recognize that even the most undistinguished book will have its appreciative readers. This last point is a significant one, since another temptation the reviewer sometimes faces is the temptation to review a book's readership rather than the book itself, especially when that readership seems singularly undemanding. I've been a teacher for far longer than I've been a reviewer, and it's led me to believe that the most serious hazard facing fiction is not a degradation of taste — can one seriously argue that the readers of Varney the Vampire are significantly more sophisticated than readers of Anne Rice? — but rather the wholesale abandonment of reading altogether. University teachers who regularly assign novels to their classes, if they are honest with themselves, will recognize that the last novel assigned in the last class will, for a fair number of students, be the last novel they will ever read. This is a reality not always evident within the relatively sheltered provinces of literature and academia, but it's an important perspective to maintain. As a critic, I can afford to show little patience for the formulaic sentimentality of a Danielle Steele; as a teacher, I have to try to understand what power such novels wield, since the student reading a Steele novel may be the only member of the class who is voluntarily reading anything. The mysterious alchemy that may exist between a particular reader and a particular novel is something we critics have little access to, and in some important sense it's none of our business.

What are we good for, then? For many years before I began writing book reviews in a monthly column, I published a good deal academic criticism in a variety of venues. During these decades — essentially the 1970s and 1980s — the scholarly enterprise about SF and popular fiction in general grew from a relative handful of books, articles, and conventions to a vigorous, polyphonic dialogue informed by resources ranging from textual and bibliographical scholarship to various postmodern theories, feminism, Marxism, and multicultural and postcolonial sensibilities. While this dialogue often remains stimulating, it's also remarkably insular, with major journals in the field numbering their circulation in the hundreds and the attendance at academic conventions often even lower than that. In a disturbingly large measure, the production of academic literary scholarship is driven less by its readership than by the demands of tenure committees, and in a real sense there is almost no market demand at all. Nor, at least in the United States (though the situation seems somewhat more salutary in the U.K.), is there much overlap between this academic dialogue and the parallel dialogues about SF among the readers, writers, editors, and publishers in the field. When I began to find myself involved in these other dialogues, first through the occasional fan convention and later through such mixed-use developments as the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, I discovered there a kind of passionate immediacy, a sense that the literature was constantly reforming itself in the light of its own critical discourse, and that this discourse was often only tangential to what we academics were doing. I thus drifted into reviewing, first in the academic journals and in the now-defunct Fantasy Review, and eventually in Locus. It was over a lunch at ICFA in 1991 that Charles Brown invited me to submit a couple of test reviews, and at the end of that year I became a monthly contributor.

Still, many academic colleagues have never ceased to wonder why I do this, and more than a few times I've been given earnest career advice suggesting I'd be better off spending my time on "real" work. But for someone who remains intrigued with what science fiction and fantasy can be and who has no intention of becoming a fiction writer, the question of finding the most rewarding level of engagement can be a very personal one. I never agreed with the "real work" argument, and I do still write academic pieces now and then, and even less can I countenance the cliché that critics are all failed artists (which, among other things, demeans those quite successful novelists who also write reviews). The notion that a review written under a deadline necessarily involves less engagement and rigor than a critical essay is demonstrably foolish, and a repeated flaw in much academic criticism of SF has been the failure of many scholars to cite reviews as critical sources in cases where they would be appropriate. While serving on the editorial boards of a number of academic journals, I've seen entire essays constructed around some revelatory insight about a novel or writer, carefully marshalling the usual endnotes and works cited, but with the author blissfully unaware that his or her central insight is essentially a recapitulation of what the reviews said in the first place. The failure to regard the central reviewers of the last few decades — Damon Knight, James Blish, Algis Budrys, John Clute, and many others — as legitimate scholarly resources is in many cases a simple failure of scholarship, particularly when these reviewers have assembled selections of their reviews in book form.

Furthermore, I'd long admired the stylistic freedom of reviewers both in and out of the field, ranging from Pauline Kael and Edmund Wilson to Budrys and Clute. Not only were such writers simply enjoyable to read, but they demonstrated a fierce engagement with their subjects in a manner that frankly is hard to bring off in the constrained formalities of academic writing. And a constantly churning field such as SF seemed to invite such engagement. Charles Brown, the editor of Locus, seemed to feel the same way, and wanted his magazine, in the most literal way, to become a locus of discourse on what he persistently terms the "philosophy" of the field. He often challenged and cajoled his reviewers to connect with the field as it is lived, month by month, by those who write it. Many of the reviews which follow are the direct result of arguments or discussions or general-purpose bitch sessions with the editor of Locus.

And it's that engagement with the living substance of the field that keeps alive the surprises of monthly reviewing, even after more than a decade, even after repeated encounters with The Thousand Page Novel That Arrives A Week Before Deadline, The Kindly Author Who You Love To Drink With But Would Rather Not Engage In Print, The Author Who Of Course Never Reads Reviews But Somehow Writes Two-Thousand Word Rebuttals To Every One, The Writer Whose Novels You Admire But Whom You Would Cross The Street To Avoid Talking With, The Experimental Novel That You Find Thoroughly Opaque But Have To Say Something About Anyway, The Angry Fans Convinced You Are Biased Against Their Favorite Subgenre, The Angry Publisher Convinced You Are Hopelessly Out Of Touch With Popular Taste, The Condescending Fellow Professor Convinced You Are Hopelessly In Thrall Of Popular Taste, and so on. One doesn't take up reviewing with the expectation to be lionized, and one ought not to take up reviewing out of an illusory sense of power or influence. One writes reviews because reviews are what one writes: they are essays about literature, and literature is worth writing essays about. They are generally essays written for a somewhat wider audience than academic and theoretical pieces, and under far more oppressive deadlines, but they may collectively provide a kind of chronicle of an evolving literature in a way that the academic pieces are never intended to. Put in more crudely metaphorical terms, the academic critic considers a passing train, often long after it's passed; the reviewer must try to leap on. Sometimes we miss the train entirely, but that risk is part of the exhilaration. Sometimes, if we're lucky, we make sense.

What follows consists of most, but not all, of the reviews written for Locus magazine during the five years between 1992, my first full year as a reviewer, and 1996. (The reviews since 1996 would fill two additional volumes of this size.) For the most part, I have omitted reviews of specialized interest — academic, nonfiction, or art books — although a few of these are included when they seemed to contribute significantly to ongoing dialogues developing in the field or in the culture at large (hence, for example, a discussion of a few spectacularly ephemeral Star Trek memoirs). Observant readers will no doubt note that some important books are not covered, while works by authors already almost forgotten are included. Part of this has to do with the vagaries of monthly reviewing, and which books crossed or did not cross my desk, but the intent here is not to provide "best" or "recommended reading" lists (though a bit of that goes on in the overviews that preface each year's chapter) so much as to offer a chronicle of fairly consistent reading in SF and related fields over a half-decade during which the field began to shape itself into something like what it is today. Context seems to me to be a crucial feature of any act of criticism, and the extent to which these pieces are worth revisiting today largely derives from their possible value in suggesting a history of emerging contexts, of exploring issues not yet fully resolved, questions not yet answered, books not yet written.

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.