26 February 2005

Clubbiness, Hypocritical and Otherwise

Gwenda Bond rants well about accusations of "hypocritical clubbiness" amongst bookbloggers. I was ignoring the entire scuffle, but then with Gwenda's post I began to think I should perhaps state a couple things openly and clearly here. I think Gwenda and others have covered the charges against blogs in particular just fine, but I did want to say a few words about book reviewing within small communities.

When I began this weblog, I intended to write entirely about science fiction and fantasy. At the time, I had met two SF writers in my entire life, and was in semi-regular contact with only one of them. All of that has changed in the past eighteen months -- while I no longer write only about SF, I do it often enough that I now know a lot more SF writers on a first-name basis than before. This could lead to clubbiness. I could write glowing things about mediocre writing by people I know. I have not consciously done this -- I have praised work that I honestly thought at the time I wrote about it deserved the praise, and I have criticized some work when it seemed to me something larger than the book or story itself could be brought into the discussion. On a few occasions, this has caused me to write negative things about the work of people I genuinely like as human beings and respect as artists. (Occasionally with reviewing assignments for other places I've had to write a flat-out negative review of a specific book, because the review was an obligation and I wasn't going to pretend to like a book when I didn't. I do, though, often end up writing a lot of mixed reviews, because for me it's much rarer to find a piece of writing I either purely love or purely hate than it is to find one that I think has both some strengths and some weaknesses.)

Clubbiness exists, and it especially exists within small subcommunities of the literary world. After attending a rather famous writers' conference, I thought the world of mainstream, academically-sanctioned contemporary fiction was stunningly small. Then I went to an SF convention. It reminded me of my college years at NYU, studying playwrighting, when I realized that the world of professional and aspiring playwrights was smaller than the rural town I grew up in. Scary. But exciting, too. It's fun to know talented, intelligent people who share your interests and passions.

What these little worlds need is not for writers to avoid writing about each other's work for fear of clubbiness, but for people to be able to trust that everyone in the clubhouse is at least trying to be honest. Years before anybody had heard the awful word "blog", John Clute said:
Reviewers who will not tell the truth are like cholesterol. They are lumps of fat. They starve the heart. I have myself certainly clogged a few arteries, have sometimes kept my mouth shut out of this "friendship" which is nothing in the end but self-interest. So perhaps it is time to call a halt. Perhaps we should establish a Protocol of Excessive Candour, a convention within the community that excesses of intramural harshness are less damaging than the hypocrisies of stroke therapy, that telling the truth is a way of expressing love: self-love; love of others; love for the genre, which claims to tell the truth about things that count; love for the inhabitants of the planet; love for the future. Because truth is all we've got. And if we don't talk to ourselves, and if we don't use every tool at our command in our time on Earth to tell the truth, nobody else will.

If that means we sometimes make errors, speak cruelly, carve caricature grimaces onto the raw flesh of books, so be it. Some golems are necessary.
Those words were collected in Look at the Evidence, and while they mostly apply to people writing reviews and criticism, some of it is applicable to anybody speaking publicly within a small community.

I have said in the past that I get frustrated with certain SF reviewers because they review piles of material and always like every bit of it. (This is different from a reviewer who specifically reviews only a few books with the intent to point out books that deserve praise. I don't expect Charles de Lint in F&SF to start writing negative reviews for a column called "Books to Look For". That would make it "Books to Look For So You Can Spit On Them".) I don't need to agree with a reviewer, but I do need to trust them, and to know that they are capable of doing what it is reviewers are supposed to do: be discriminating. There are some reviewers I read faithfully simply because I know whatever they praise I will want to avoid and whatever they slam I will want to read immediately.

Of course, judgment can be clouded by familiarity. A book was published last year that I thought was obviously mediocre -- not terrible, certainly, but not phenomenal, either -- and it was praised with more force than just about any book in history deserves. The praise is continuing. In more cynical moments, I think it's because no-one is capable of recognizing true quality when they see it, and so they praise something that is merely okay out of ignorance. But most of the time I think the reason for all the praise of this book is that the people praising it are friends of the author, someone who is, by all accounts, a tremendously nice person, a person who has helped many other writers when they needed it. While I can understand this tendency, it saddens me, because it's dishonest, and I don't think friends should be dishonest to each other, particularly in public.

I'll dump a quote on you now, because I've wanted to link to this article about Dale Peck for a while (and I don't even know the writer, Gary Sernovitz!):
Of course, when we criticize or praise a work, we must discuss the author too, and her morality, and her talent, and her times. Yet a work of literature isn’t an effusion of a writer, it is something made by her, in a hard fight, following aesthetic choices. If we write, and argue, about those choices, we can have a productive, enlivening discussion of how we can continue to try to make a literature that is relevant, absorbing, original--and read. "Art," Henry James wrote, "lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of honour, are not times of development--are times, possibly even, a little of dullness."

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