...this is one of those things that strikes me very odd, like reviewers accusing an author of writing in a way that seems "artificial" or "self-conscious." It is, of course, a necessary prerequisite of fiction that one employ the artifice of language and that one exist in an intensely self-conscious state. Same with "self-indulgent." What could possibly be more self-indulgent than the act of writing fantastic fiction? The author is indulging her- or himself in the expression of the fantasy, and, likewise, the readers are indulging themselves in the luxury of someone else's fantasy. I've never written a story that wasn't self-indulgent. Neither has any other fantasy or sf author. We indulge our interests, our obsessions, and assume that someone out there will feel as passionately about X as we do.I agree that it's an entirely inappropriate term (though I may have perhaps used it myself; I hope not), but how it gets used is, nonetheless, interesting. Let's look at some random and unscientifically selected examples:
- From a review of an Ani DiFranco CD: subtitle: "Self-Indulgent, Self-Righteous Babe"; from text: "an overly indulgent song which utilizes an answering machine message that has little to do with the actual song save for a single shared line"
- From a review of the movie The Anniversary Party: "I would have liked to have written the film off as self-indulgent claptrap made by some self-indulgent actors and starring their self-indulgent friends. But, the film, tho' seriously flawed is very human, perceptive and emotional."
- From a review of the book Headless by Benjamin Weissman: "little more than a series of self-indulgent, self-impressed, self-titillating set pieces of forced weirdness and utter pointlessness."
- From a review of the Criterion Collection edition of John Cassevetes films: "Many, including Leonard Maltin and Ephraim Katz, have labeled Cassavetes self-indulgent. Demanding and austere, perhaps, but self-indulgent? Not once does he impose directorial flourishes of the kind we expect from Hitchcock, Fellini, or Spielberg. And he gave everything he had--money, script, crew, ideas, time, loyalty, ego, and energy--to his actors and their search for emotional honesty. They returned his graciousness with performances startling in their disregard of flattery."
- Finally, from a reader's response to Mervyn Peake: "To sum it up in the best possible way, its BORING! stagnated, fossilized, long and very Self indulgent. I just didn't like what Mervyn Peake was telling me. So what happens ( very little if you ask me )..."
What reviewers who use the term "self-indulgent" are suggesting is that the person created something they knew the reviewer wouldn't like, but they went ahead, the bastard, and did it anyway.
I should probably note here that I'm not suggesting the reviewers are all maligning masterpieces. A judgment of whether a work is worthwhile or not is less interesting to me than how such a conclusion is reached (call me self-indulgent). It's not the inaccuracy of the term that bothers me so much as the argument it hides: an accusation of self-indulgence, like an accusation of "elitism", lets a reviewer disguise the fact that they're trying to speak for some imaginary mass audience, to say "I did not understand/appreciate/enjoy X, and therefore you should not, either." (Which is essentially what one of the commentors to Kiernan's post suggested: "So, the reviewer is basically saying, 'It doesn't interest me, so it shouldn't interest anyone else,' but taking a roundabout way of saying it so as, perhaps, to stave of consciousness of this indiscretion.") I suppose all of us who make our opinions public are doing this to some extent, trying to shape a consensus to make ourselves feel less alone, but there are many more subtle, nuanced, and useful ways of doing it than throwing around terms like "self-indulgent".
Update: Or maybe this is wrongheaded.