What I've been reading today: Pinkwater, Knight, & Grey Gardens
Stoker weekend, day 1: a friendly pleasantly serious mellow vibe

A response to Hal Duncan's post "Ethics and Enthusiasm: Are We Calling This EthicsFail Yet?"

I wrote the following as a blog comment, but cannot get blogger to post properly, so I'm publishing my response to Duncan's "Ethics and Enthusiasm: Are We Calling This EthicsFail Yet?" here. Read Duncan's post first, before my response, posted below.

I love this piece, and upon printing it out and re-reading it carefully on paper, I find that I disagree with most of it. In some cases, first time around I had read you to be saying the exact opposite of what you seemed to be saying later when I read it again.

First of all, I think that media reviewing and book reviewing are really separate animals. Hollywood as an industry doesn't care what you have to say unless you have some capacity to get in the way of the making of money. (I was once the assistant to the literary division of an entertainment agency -- we were Elizabeth Taylor's and Michael Jackson's literary agents -- and I have never lost the cynicism engendered by the experience.) Reviewers can advise consumers or mediate the viewing experience of consumers, but except in rare exceptions are not participants in the game of media sf. (You can boo or cheer, but the Big Boys won't let you play the game. Some people turn to screen writing in hopes of being allowed to play; ever hear the one about the starlet who was so dumb that she slept with the writer? Sad, isn't it?)

Writing about print science fiction and fantasy is a very different enterprise: you can be and probably are part of the game of literature. And as such, you should consider your goals. I don't think that fucking good science fiction or blowing it up are particularly good goals.

One thing that has so far gone mostly unmentioned in the discussion of reviewing is that there are some of us who really like genre boundaries and think that they are aesthetically useful, and there are people who detest genre boundaries and wish they would go away and that people would stop talking about genre and let writers just write what they write. Having looked into the matter, I found that this does not cut along any predictable literary-political lines, and is pretty much an individual thing. I myself am one who likes them and finds them fascinating.

The passage I most seriously misread the first time through (I think it is your faux-marble background that is to blame) was this one:

Where Marxist or feminist or queer readings may be asking pertinent questions of the text, and on a very theoretical level, a Rationalist or Romanticist critique is actually compatibility assessment masquerading as ethical critique. The reader’s sense of what the book’s aims are clouded by a confused ethical/aesthetic notion of what they should be -- because, why the very purpose, the responsibility of fiction is to be enlightening/entertaining! -- there is little possibility of a valid evaluative critique, nor even a worthwhile critical review. The reader’s commitment to Rationalist or Romanticist aesthetics will most likely collapse the review to the lowest level as the ethical imperatives are translated into aesthetic prescriptivism.

I think you've got this exactly backwards: the various -isms, while they may raise "pertinent" questions (or impertinent ones, for that matter), are no less compatibility assessments. Science fiction has its own infield critical traditions into whose mysteries I was inducted prior to going to grad school, and I found that the outside -ism-oriented templates for evaluation were often misapplied when brought round to SF. For example, when I was in grad school, Cultural Studies was on the rise, and so finally it was supposed to be OK to talk about genre literature -- as long as you made no claims about it being any good. I think that SF's infield critical tradition has much to recommend it that you seem to be tossing in the nearest trash can.

Regarding Fail crit, Fail crit grew up in media fandom where, as I said, the Industry couldn't care less what they have to say unless they do damage. Because of this, declarations of "FAIL" imply the necessity of some form of punishment. As Claire Light explains:

. . . punishment is advocated at two places: often the remedial action is punishment of the original offender (as in asking a radio station to fire a racist DJ), and the action threatened if this remedy isn't taken up is usually a punishment as well (official complaint up the chain of command, formal boycott, or bad publicity, and the hanging of the "racist" label on the totality of the offenders.) The action is then picked up by the other bloggers and passed around.

Regardless of origins in theory, Fail crit seems to me an extreme example of compatibility assessment in which those judged incompatible are to be punished for their non-compliance.

I think you are misapplying the word template (as in template-matching). Template implies to me something like the Scott Meredith plot outline that SF novels were supposed to have, or the kind of criteria specified by romance publishers that romances were supposed to have. Genre and sub-genre are to me much more dynamic than that: genre is a conversation, genre is a cultural activity. Each new published work is a move in the game. Winning moves are those that advance the literature. When reading for an anthology, those winning moves are what I am looking for.

Returning to the subject of goals: if one's goal is to influence the literature, most of the things people think are influential mostly aren't. Declaring movements and writing manifestos almost never work. Nor does dourly seeking to destroy examples of heresy, which only makes a certain segment want to commit more heresy.

What works is publishing and praising the exemplary (even while disclosing its failings); explaining what is, for example, right about A. E. Van Vogt. I've been trying to remember who defined the novel as an extended work of prose with something wrong with it.* There is plenty wrong with A.E. Van Vogt's fiction. It's clunky, he throws in a new idea every 800 words, etc. And yet he is a writer -- like Hal Clement -- whose work is crucially important in the development of the SF aesthetic. What is right about Van Vogt turns out to be really important. What's wrong about him mostly isn't.

Make love to genre; don't just fuck it.

* Dave Langford provides the quote I was missing: “The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” — Randall Jarrell