12 August 2005


Gwenda Bond pointed out that Caitlin Kiernan has made a valuable attack on the term "self-indulgent" as a critical insult of a piece of writing:
...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 )..."
There is something people are responding to here, a certain general commonality in the use of the term "self-indulgent". It is the idea that the creator of the work under discussion has done something that does not please the person discussing it, and the person discussing it has decided that the something was not worth doing, and that the creator probably knew this in the beginning. Thus, Ani DiFranco is self-indulgent because everybody knows answering machine messages don't belong in songs; The Anniversary Party would have been self-indulgent if it had not been "human, perceptive and emotional" (note the multiple selves capable of being indulged in that review -- it's a potential orgy of mutual masturbators); Headless is self-indulgent because its weirdness does not titillate, impress, or indulge the reviewer; Cassevetes was not self-indulgent because his films drew no attention to the director himself, and, instead, involved many sacrifices of vanity; and Peake is self-indulgent because the reader "just didn't like what Mervyn Peake was telling" him. Because, like, if it's not about you, then it's self-indulgent.

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.


  1. Laird Barron8/12/2005 9:22 PM

    Whenever I see "self-indulgent" trotted out in lieu of articulate criticism, I'm torn between considering the reviewer a psychic or a boor.


  2. Jim Flannery8/13/2005 12:10 AM

    Can we throw "too clever for his own good" and "too much time on his hands" into the same bin while we're at it?

  3. Hmmm. I really have to disagree. Something like Eggers' "There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself" (the story of nothing but blank pages) seems to merit a criticism of self-indulgent. No other word really captures how I feel about that bit of nonsense in his collection.

  4. I find Eggers annoying, so I can certainly agree with the temptation, but I still don't think the word is right, because I know people who actually like that sort of thing and get pleasure from it, which would suggest then that Eggers is indulging someone other than himself. ("A cloying attempt at cleverness," that I might say.) One problem I have with "self-indulgent" is where to draw the line -- why is Eggers self-indulgent and not, say, the latest Star Wars novelization? Or any other book? Because it conforms to the reviewer's idea of what is and isn't permitted? And why is it that the term is reserved for work that is written in ways different from the majority of what is written? Attempts at originality are labelled "self-indulgent"; churning out the same old crap isn't. It's an attack on the writer instead of the work -- it says, "Who do you think you are to do this?" instead of, "This doesn't work." The latter allows an implied "for me" that readers of all reviews should add, but the former is an insult that aims at creating a norm and enforcing it.

  5. Attempts at originality are labelled "self-indulgent"; churning out the same old crap isn't.

    Well, of course. People hate originality. That's why books are distributed, positioned, sold, and increasingly produced, in a manner similar to Pop-Tarts. If someone created a Carob Creme Frosted Razzleberry Pop-Tart flambé, people wanting plain' ol chocolate would be outraged, and would blame the producer for daring do what They Don't Like.

  6. No one calls media tie-ins self-indulgent because the central narrative about the writing of media tie-ins is that the books are commercial hack-work and the writers are in it entirely for the money. It's clear in that narrative that they're indulging some aesthetically challenged class of readers, not themselves. (Now, fanfic on the other hand, I'd be surprised if there aren't a fair number of people calling it self-indulgent.)

    I'm with Niall on this one, I'm afraid. Yes, self-indulgent can be a lazy shorthand in a bad review, but that doesn't mean that there is no self-indulgent work, or that self-indulgence is always (or even often) a good thing, or that "self-indulgent" is necessarily code for "too original for my philistine tastes". Also, the fact that there exist other people that may be entertained by my self-indulgence does not mean that in indulging myself, I am indulging them. Their entertainment may be an entirely incidental effect.

    We were having this discussion at Worldcon, and I'm damned if I remember what readerly complaint it was that we were talking about, but the consensus was that really what it meant was: "I was not engaged by this story" -- that the specifics were only the result of the reader casting about trying to figure out why the story wasn't engaging -- and if the reader hadn't made that particular complaint they'd have made some other complaint instead.

    It seemed to make sense at the time, but reading this discussion of indulgences (and looking at my inability to remember exactly what we were talking about in Glasgow), it makes me think that pretty much any readerly or reviewerly complaint could be boiled down to the creator of the work under discussion has done something that does not please the person discussing it.

    Which is true as far as it goes, but not very useful.

  7. You're absolutely right, David, about negative reviews essentially boiling down to "this does not please me", which is why I said I prefer to be able to see how the reviewer got to that point rather than the judgement itself (it applies as well to positive reviews, but since those are ostensibly less hurtful to the writer [or fans of the work in question], we don't tend to get us upset.

    One of the directions Niall seems to be moving toward, and one I basically agree with, is that given the constraints of the review form, there will inevitably be short hand expressions -- we could just as easily show the absurdity of a term like "the reader", which is one I'm afraid I use quite frequently, and probably shouldn't. But I think the choice of shorthand says a lot about the reviewer, and "self-indulgent" covers up too much for me to be comfortable when I see it.

    You're absolutely right that the media tie-in narrative is one that posits the author as a hack, which is why I used it -- the "self-indulgence" narrative is one that posits the author as someone not concerned enough with an audience, the hack narrative is of an author concerned more with audience (and, hence, profit) than with craft. Why is it not self-indulgent to care about making money, but it is self-indulgent to be interested in something that may not please a wide audience? Both narratives suggest that the writer is doing something that shouldn't be done, but they frame the insult differently because of audience and money.

    Niall throws a monkeywrench into this whole formulation, though, by using the example of Stephenson, since the various Baroque series books seem to be selling pretty well. He seems to me to be saying that Stephenson is indulging in a way of writing that is wasteful, and that, through wastefulness, provokes pleasures that are not correct -- the indulgence here is a sort of hedonism of geekery whereby the author's indulgence of himself (evidenced by the prolix prose and details) allows readers to indulge themselves. (Readers who don't like that sort of thing, after all, won't continue to indulge.) I don't quite understand, I guess, how this is different from the regular act of reading and writing fiction, which is, as Caitlin Kiernan started this whole thing by saying, basically self-indulgent both for the writer and reader (unless they're masochists, which is a different argument altogether...)

    I'm not sure I understand, either, the difference between entertainment and indulgence. Is "self-entertaining" different? (I will restrain myself from [self-indulgently] going on and on about Puritanism and its effect on our views of writing and culture and society and.....)

  8. Laird Barron8/13/2005 1:51 PM


    When isn't a reviewer cliche "lazy shorthand"? Sans supportive arguments, etc...


  9. Kiernan's point is that all fantasy writing is self-indulgent, so what makes book X or Passage Y "self-indugent" to a critic is not the mere fact that the author is induging onesself (And even hacks ARE self-indulgent - why does Matt Stover produce Matt Stover Star Wars novels when Timothy Zahn's will do me just fine, other than to indulge his desire to make money as a writer as opposed to as a brain surgeon, priest, or dog catcher?) but that the author is doing it in a way that the reviewer dislikes.

    The Baroque/Accelerando question iluminates the point:

    Of the two, however, Accelerando is the more focused, the more disciplined; you don't have to put up with digressions to get the cool stuff, you get the cool stuff as an integral part of the novel. It makes its cool stuff interesting to you, it doesn't assume that you will already like it. I would call Cryptonomicon self-indulgent, but I would not say the same of Accelerando.

    The indulgence here is not Stephenson's, but Niall's, for insisting that stories should be relatively free of digressions, integrated, focused, and disciplined. The assumption is that Stephenson knows and agrees with thus, but has decided to flout this social fact and put in the digressions anyway, because he likes it.

    The other possibility: Stephenson sees the digressions as central to the experience. Attempting to overwhelm the reader is part of his intention, as this is what conceiving of the world in the general and the zillion little particulars at once is bound to do. It's worldbuilding designed to alienate rather than affirm.

    To call Stephenson's work "self-indulgent" (aside from the fact that anyone who makes art rather than digs ditches is self-indulgent) for lack of focus and discipline is not only to engage in shorthand, it is to miss the point and replace it with one's own desires.

    Niall gives up the game here: "It is frequently and entertainingly digressive, and it is unashamedly targeted at a particular audience. " The last clause describes every utterance ever made. So what, other than Niall seems to feel slightly miffed that Stephenson dares leave some of his pals out of his audience?

  10. Matthew said:

    Why is it not self-indulgent to care about making money, but it is self-indulgent to be interested in something that may not please a wide audience? Both narratives suggest that the writer is doing something that shouldn't be done, but they frame the insult differently because of audience and money.

    This vaguely reminds me of the argument that all actions are inherently selfish because they are voluntary. It's true, but only if you expand the meaning of the word "selfish" so much that it loses most of its usefulness.

    The same is true of "self-indulgent" (or of "hack"). It's one thing to say that you don't want to make any judgements about writers, or that you'd prefer terms that have fewer negative connotations. But that's different than saying you don't perceive any difference between (for example) a blockbuster writer's refusal to be edited and a media tie-in writer's strict adherence to formula. I would say that whether you choose to criticize both or neither, there's a meaningful distinction to be made between these two behaviors.

  11. When I've examined the impulse to call something "self-indulgent," it turns out that what I truly found offensive was (what I perceived as) a gross attempt to flatter a group that the writer's a member of: insular sycophancy, if you see what I mean.

    Honest self-indulgence, though, is a rare and beautiful thing.

  12. Ted: I mostly agree, and I think Nick got closer to what I was trying for than I did, but the blockbuster writer's "refusal to be edited" remains a guess, unless the reviewer has specific knowledge that it's true, and most of the time it comes from the sorts of biases Nick pointed to.

  13. Nick: As it happens, the vast majority of my friends fall firmly within Stephenson's audience. Heck, I'm probably in that audience myself; I haven't read The Baroque Cycle yet, but I did love Cryptonomicon. I do agree that 'self indulgent' can too easily lead to second-guessing the author's intent, I just don't think it inevitably leads that way. And you make a good point about Stephenson's possible intent; I haven't quite worked out yet why I still disagree with it.

    Perhaps throwing in another example will help: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Another big, digressive book, but one that I *don't* feel is self-indulgent. In fact, Susanna Clarke seems to me to be doing exactly what you suggest Stephenson might be doing. Her digressions are vital to the point of the book; they are telling the story of the world. But I just don't get that sense from Stephenson--instead, I get the sense that a lot of the lectures could be removed without affecting the essence of the book. Perhaps part of it is that I find Stephenson's digressions educating rather than alienating.

  14. . But I just don't get that sense from Stephenson--instead, I get the sense that a lot of the lectures could be removed without affecting the essence of the book.

    The conclusion that one can draw here is that Stephenson is less good than Clarke. That's awesome. Less awesome: the claim that Stephenson is less good than Clarke because of a personality flaw, as opposed to a writing flaw.

    I'd make another suggestions as well: genre norms. Stephenson is writing a historical thriller of sorts, overstuffed as it may be. Both historical fiction and thrillers have a peculiar readerly joy that puts it on common ground with hard SF: casual readers feel as though they "learn something" by reading it. Stephenson may well be doubling up. Clarke is writing a (pseudo)historical and one far too leisurely and interested in character to be called a thriller. Thus, she has less of a genre norm to cater to. Again, it's just another possible theory, but one that actually depends on text and context rather than psychotherapy-through-reading.

    Honestly, the whole matter of self-indulgence reads to me as yet more revenge of the nerds. Every pencilneck with a keyboard declaring, "Oh you think you're so kewl? Well, you're not! Nyah!" whether or not anyone thinks that they're "kewl." But since wearing an ironed shirt is grounds enough to be ridiculed as "kewl" in fandom, nerdy revenge is ultimately self-consuming.

  15. An illuminating discussion. I am making a mental note never again to use the word self-indulgent in a review; obviously it is sloppy language because of the way it makes an unfounded assertion about authorial intention and because of the personal/personality-based implications. BUT I still feel that the term has some use, and want to try and explain what that is. Imagine you're reading a manuscript (your own or someone else's) and focusing on ways to improve it. Say you see a lot of passages that clearly were fun to write, entertaining in themselves--worldbuilding fiction, whether historical or fantastic or science fiction, often includes a lot of material like this--but do not really add as much to the book as the space they take up suggests. Wouldn't most books be better if these were cut? It is certainly true in my own writing. And it would seem valid for some reviewer, using professional judgment about when a book "feels" like it's reached its final form versus when it still reads as if there's room for improvement, to use the term "self-indulgent" as a shorthand for that quality ("would have benefited from being 10,000 words shorter," in other words). I'm not saying that most reviewers' use of the term is necessarily sensible or justified, in other words, but that it is a fair enough description of certain novels that are (say) brilliant as they are but would have been even better with a little more discipline/ruthlessness in the editing. (Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" is to my mind an excellent example of this.)

  16. Well Jenny, the problem is just that while one may well be right that a novel could have used extra editing, that not every darling had been properly murdered, it still does not follow that "self-indulgence" is the reason those extraneous (leaving aside the question: "Extraneous to whom?") passages or elements exist. It necessarily involves speculative biocrit, which is fraught with peril.

  17. When I use the term "self-indulgent" about a writer/artist, I mean "the book gets a bit too long" or "the plot drags in the passages where the artist uses several pages just to show off".

    "Self-indulgence" does not indicate lack of skill or message -- only a lack of editing.

    But then again, not all readers want shorter, snappier books... so it's a matter of taste also.

  18. "Self-indulgent" always sounds to me like a john's complaint to his prostitute. "I'm paying--you're not supposed to enjoy this." The hell with that; if you're compatible you'll both get off, and just because you've got the money doesn't mean you get to be the pleasure police.

  19. "Self-indulgent" always sounds to me like a john's complaint to his prostitute. "I'm paying--you're not supposed to enjoy this."

    In terms of this rather odd metaphor, I would say that "self indulgent" equates to "What you're doing looks like it's intended to be fun for you rather than fun for both of us." There may be gentler ways of phrasing it, but I think one could have this reaction while still believing that "if you're compatible you'll both get off."

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