Russell Letson: Round and Round

Reviewers, unless they make themselves notorious by panning Hamlet or running off with some real writer’s spouse or running for Congress, are barely remembered at all. Which is one reason I don’t worry about missing the next cultural bus or backing the wrong artistic horse. (Though maybe I’ll be remembered for shameless metaphor-mixing.) Reviewing is a short-term business, and even when one or two of us rates a collection of columns (I name no names), there’s a good chance that even that will wind up serving as a bibilography entry in a 22nd-century grad-school course in the History of Taste in the Late Hard Copy Era, with the single surviving example preserved in the Dead Tree Vault (scan available from GoogleLib on request, expect a short delay while the off-line archive is accessed)…

I know, I know: the book reviews of William Aetheling, Jr. and Damon Knight—fanzine reviews, of all things—are foundational documents of SF criticism. And out in the secular world, we have Edmund Wilson and now James Woods. But these examples are noteworthy partly because of their rarity. (Well, all right, they’re also insightful and well written. But they’re still part of a tiny category.)

Reviewing is, to oversimplify and thus mildly falsify, for the immediate audience and criticism is for the longitudinal one. They are famously distinct jobs, and in my experience, while there is a great deal of overlap in the analytical tools used for them, they feel quite different in the doing. I think of a review as 20 percent recommendation and 80 percent conversation with imaginary friends about why and how a recommendation fits into others I might have made or why I am surprised to be making this one. So, yes, advocacy, but not prophecy. In fact, given my aforementioned position in the demographic bulge, I don’t expect my recommendations to find a sympathetic reception outside a small segment of the general SF audience. So instead I just try to describe the object, put it in some sort of historical-generic context (there’s the criticism angle), and justify my position in a way that is personal but not completely subjective.

When I’m operating in critic mode, I’m not interested in how much or even whether I like the work but how well I can account for it—that is, trace its ancestry, anatomize it, understand its operations. (I am by training and inclination a taxonomist and rhetorician with a historical bias, so value statements of all kinds are the last things I worry about.) Critic-mode is more clinical and less personal than reviewer-mode and (insofar as it is possible) unconcerned with current tastes—there is no prophecy at all, and not much advocacy, either.

— Russell Letson

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