A credo for critics


Bad reviews are a basic fact of literary life, you might have thought. There are so many different kinds of literary taste, that no book can be all things to all readers. One person’s comfort reading is another’s trash, and what’s thought-provoking to one is high-faluting nonsense to another. But the essential subjectivity of taste is hard to keep in mind when it’s your favourite book that’s getting a pasting: what seemed to the reviewer to be a careful and evidence-based summary of the book’s failing, seems to you to be an attack on your taste, your culture, and your personality. To criticize something you like is tantamount to criticizing you, and that’s personal, damn it!

It’s this reaction, I think, that explains why responses to bad reviews so often take the form of personal attacks on the reviewer. In fact, there’s such a standard playbook of responses, that you can play along at home:

1. Bad review bingo

You’re a failed writer. You’re just jealous of the author’s success. The book’s popularity proves its quality. You’re stuck in an ivory tower, out of touch with the real world. You’re a frustrated academic, not a real reader.
You’re a snob who likes to sneer at authors. This essay/​interview/​blog by the author shows that you’re wrong. Events in the sequel demonstrate that you’re wrong. Your plot summary contains a minor mistake; therefore everything else you say is wrong. How dare you attack the taste of the readers?
It’s fiction: how can you criticize its politics/​ethics/​accuracy? It’s fantasy/​sf: how can you bring the real world into it? FREE
You’re only criticising because you can’t write. You probably didn’t even read the book.
You’re denying me the right to my opinion. Everyone else says it’s great: how can you disagree? You’re prejudiced against the author. You’re prejudiced against the genre. Your review is badly written, therefore it is wrong.
You’re just trying to assert your superiority. You’re mean. You’re engaged in a deliberate hatchet job. You’re just trolling to provoke a reaction. You’re bolstering your own ego.

For practice, try it on the comments to this review by Janet Potter of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

2. “A natural delight in hurting people”

The thing that inspired me to write this post was the reaction to Liz Bourke’s review of Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy novel Theft of Swords at Strange Horizons. It’s a stinker of a review, to be sure, but the contumely seems pretty solidly backed up by some specific criticisms: the plot is predictable, the characters stock, the prose clumsy, the treatment of women sexist, and the author’s attempts to write Early Modern English are replete with grammatical mistakes (a common failing, sadly). I guess you could politely disgree about some of this—stock characters have virtues of immediacy and familiarity that can be useful in a fast-moving plot—but if you’ve been following along then you’ll probably have guessed that what’s coming isn’t going to be particularly polite:

If you look through the thread, you’ll see some much more personal insults, but I don’t think they need repeating here, even for the purpose of exemplification.

3. “Why he can’t simply write a story?”

There are any number of other examples of this kind of reaction to criticism, but for its viciousness combined with a relatively elevated level of discourse, I’ve picked Jonathan McCalmont’s discussion of conservatism and authoritarianism in mass-market fantasy, where he selects this as an example of his thesis:

My favourite example of this is the case of Stark, in the first book of A Song of Fire and Ice, carrying out his executions himself. [George R. R.] Martin takes this to be proof that Stark does not sentence men to death lightly and takes the job so seriously that he carries it out himself personally but within that idea are the unexamined assumptions that capital punishment is necessary and that a willingness to kill someone yourself is somehow indicative of greater character than having an underling do it.

The commenters propose several lines of objection to this judgement, but the one I’m going to focus on is the suggestion that it’s illegimate for the critic to import morality from our world into the world of the novel. The novel, they suggest, is just describing how things really are within the invented world, and it’s as unfair to criticize an author for describing this world as it would be to criticize a historian for describing a similar historical period. Elio García: “Within the context of the culture created within the series, being willing to carry out the killing with your own hand does seem morally superior to having some underling do it—at least if you’re not a bloodthirsty killer at heart, who enjoys that sort of thing. [Martin] is a writer who is writing about another where and another when (in this case, a fantasy setting somewhat analogous to mid-14th century Europe), and he seems able to grasp what you don’t: ‘the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’” Adam Whitehead: “[Martin] wanted to write a story set in a medieval world of his own devising. Medieval societies are by their nature authoritarian, hence his medieval world would also be authoritarian.”

This objection eventually amounts to a denial of the legitimacy of criticism on political or moral grounds: that an author’s choice of setting and political ethos for a work of fiction cannot be subject to criticism. Brahm: “Writing does not need to be didactic or satirical in order to be important or insightful: you seem to view the situation as that either Martin should be condemned because he supports the medieval feudalist system or that he should be damned because his work is not a satire and therefore meaningless. Why he can’t simply write a story in a medieval world, that realistically shows the workings and limitations of the system as well as the mindsets of those that inhabit it, is beyond me.”

Ethical criticism has got itself a bad name because it’s at the root of the Victorian idea that books must be morally improving. But you can reject that position without denying the legitimacy of ethical criticism tout court. I don’t necessarily agree with every point McCalmont makes but I think his argument is basically right: fiction that treats of kings and queens without any kind of satire, irony or other form of undermining is implicitly endorsing conservative and authoritarian ideas.1 This doesn’t mean that you must hate these books: you can love The Lord of the Rings and still observe that it spends a great deal of time on promoting the pernicious idea of the ‘rightful king’.

4. “I will hate you till the day I die”

After the Bourke review, there was quite a bit of soul searching along the lines of Oh woe, what is the genre coming to? Liz Bourke collects some of these links here. But really, this kind of kerfuffle is as old as reviewing. Authors have always taken criticism of their darlings personally, and have been tempted into responding in kind over the years, from Michael Crichton writing reviewer Michael Crowley into his novel Next as a paedophile, to Alain de Botton’s spectatular hissy fit at reviewer Caleb Crane:

Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary. I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon—so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that’s two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as ‘nice’ in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It’s only fair for your readers to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.2

My own brief venture into book reviewing in print (many years ago) provoked a similar response from a wounded author. My review was as harsh as I’ve ever written, to be sure, but it wasn’t biased, or dishonest. Maybe I’d pull one or two of my punches if I wrote it again, but I’d stand by the sentiment.

Jonathan McCalmont laments what he sees as a retreat into tribalism but I think he has things backward: the Internet brings together worlds that were previously separated. Before the Internet, people who read literary criticism and people who read pulp fantasy could live out entirely separate lives. Most people who enjoyed The Sword of Shannara in 1977, say, were not likely to encounter the criticism of Marshall B. Tymn or Lin Carter. But now, these groups are much more likely to collide: the fans and the critics are both on the Internet and when criticism is harsh, someone is sure to bring it to the attention of the fans.3

This ought eventially to be a positive development: whatever their other qualities, the fans are at least enthusiastic about literature. If they could just be persuaded not to take things personally, I think we could learn a lot from them.4 With that in mind, I present:

5. A credo for critics

(And for readers of criticism.)

  1. The author is dead”, so criticism shouldn’t be taken personally. And claims by the author, while often interesting, take a distant second place to the text itself.5

  2. Even though there’s no way of deducing an author’s views from their fiction, nonetheless a fiction can itself implicitly approve or disapprove of political and ethical positions, by reflecting the truth or falsity (within the invented world) of these positions, or by validating or undermining the characters who hold them.

  3. Aesthetics are relative: in other words, aesthetic opinions are unanswerable. If you don’t like someone’s reading of a work of fiction, you can offer what you think is a better reading, but you can’t refute the original reading.

  4. No one critic or one review can give a definitive verdict on a book: it’s their combined responses over many years that matter.

  5. We all like works that have flaws, and we just have to suck it up when other people point out those flaws. Your taste doesn’t deserve respect just because it’s yours. Before trying to argue away the bad aspects of a work you like, think: are you identifying too closely with the work? Better to treat it lightly, and see its flaws clearly.6

  1. ^ By this sentence I don’t mean that the real author endorses the conservative and authoritarian ideas—it’s the implied author, as deduced from the text (see articles 1 and 2 of the credo). Here’s someone having difficulty with this distinction. It looks like I may need to write some more about this problem.

  2. ^ De Botton having a genius for publicity,7 this could of course have been a piece carefully crafted to get his name (and his book) into the media. It certainly succeeded: there were reports of this blog-spat in the Telegraph, the BBC, the Observer, and elsewhere.

  3. ^ And by “fans” I mean, “people who haven’t fully internalised article 5.”

  4. ^ For example, Adam Roberts spent a number of blog posts trying to figure out exactly what is the appeal of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series? Despite some impassioned discussion with fans, I don’t think we ever really got to the bottom of the question.8

  5. ^ This claim is phrased over-broadly, but I’m not going to change it: I think it would be wrong to fill up a credo with caveats. I don’t deny the validity of biographical or psychological criticism: what I mean is that if someone makes a claim about a text based on evidence from that text, then you can’t refute them by bringing the intentions of the author into it.

  6. ^ Rachael at Social Justice League covers this in more detail.

  7. ^ As illustrated by his recent absurd proposal for an ‘atheist temple’ in London, which I am sure is just a stunt to raise publicity for his forthcoming book, Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion.

  8. ^ This series of comments from Jeremiah Whitmore was perhaps the most insightful.