Yesterday’s post on genders and reviews got quite a bit of attention. So here are a couple of addenda to the Strange Horizons/A Theft of Swords part of the discussion:
Paul Jessup responds and views the negative review of A Theft of Swords mainly as an attack on the self-publishing/indie publishing (though Jessup dislikes the term) movement.
Now Paul Jessup has made his objections to the indie publishing movement clear on more than one occasion. And of course, Liz Bourke’s review of A Theft of Swords mentioned the fact that the novel had been originally self-published and blamed some of the issues she had with the novel on that. Nonetheless, I don’t view Liz Bourke’s tear-down of a bad novel as a slam against all indie writers – never mind that the edition she reviewed had been republished by a traditional publishing house which obviously thought the novel was good or successful enough to republish. And while the comments are a slapfight, it’s not so much an indie versus traditional publishing slapfight (though the issue does come up in a few comments), but a commercial fantasy versus literary fantasy slapfight or an epic fantasy versus the sort of fiction favoured at Strange Horizons slapfight.
Besides, I think that everybody is aware that there are a whole lot of truly dreadful self-published books out there. For example, there is one regular poster on the Kindleboards whose work is utterly, mindbogglingly awful. It’s so mindbogglingly awful that I honestly wonder who buys that stuff and that I feel sorry for the readers unfortunate enough to come across those books. But in addition to the really awful stuff, there are also a lot of middling and perfectly serviceable books and some which are very good, but were not commercial enough for traditional publishing due to length, subject matter, genre or whatever. Will the occasional bad indie book become successful? I doubt that the really mindbogglingly awful stuff is going to be picked up for a traditional publishing deal anytime soon, but some not so good books will probably be and sometimes already are successful. A Theft of Swords may well be one of them – like I said before, I haven’t read it. But then, it’s not as if every book to come out of a traditional publishing house is necessarily good.
At Ruthless Culture, Jonathan McCalmont turns the uproar about Liz Bourke’s review A Theft of Swords and the recent “yoga is bad for you” article in the New York Times (If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong – duh) to question the role of the critic in the modern world in general.
Now Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose views are pretty much diametrically opposed to my own. Unlike Liz Bourke, whose review was harsh but within the limits of criticism, McCalmont’s occasionally crosses the line into pointless aggression (it is one thing to dislike a film/book/TV show, it is another to write that a bad book/film/whatever makes you want to do bodily harm to its creator – the link has unfortunately vanished into the depths of the internet) or at least used to. I haven’t read his criticism in years, so I don’t know how he writes today.
The yoga row IMO has a different background, one which involves the fact that yoga is big business and that not all studios are necessarily good as well as the fact that there is still a lot of distrust of yoga in various quarters (and unquestioning trust in other quarters) because it’s Eastern, non-Christian, linked to the New Age movement and used to be favoured by hippies. At any rate, I wonder if the New York Times would have published an article entitled “Baseball is bad for your body”.
However, I actually agree with Jonathan McCalmont that the age of the universal critic is over, though I don’t necessarily lament it. I enjoy watching Marcel Reich-Ranicki tearing apart a book he doesn’t like as much as everyone. And Marcel Reich-Ranicki knows a thing or two about excessive authorial reactions to bad reviews, since two different authors wrote two different books in which a thinly veiled Reich-Ranicki stand-in was murdered in the same year. But would I want Marcel Reich-Ranicki to be the sole authority in Germany on which books are good and which are bad. No, because even though he is a fantastically entertaining critic, I hardly ever agree with his tastes.
Hence, McCalmont’s point about the fragmentation of subcultures does tie in to my recent post on taste hierarchies and how there is suddenly a right and a wrong thing to like in every single subculture and sub-subculture and woe betide you, if you have the “wrong taste” too often.
Finally, Jonathan McCalmont’s post touches on one part of the Theft of Swords controversy that I don’t quite get, namely that a lot of commenters seemed to have issues with the fact that Liz Bourke is an academic, which in their view either makes her automatically elitist or unqualified to review a work of light commercial fantasy or somehow disqualifies her from writing a snarky, non-academic review of a bad book in a non-academic venue.
This is not the first time I have noticed a certain anti-academic bend in parts of the SFF community and in Anglo-American culture in general. I suspect that there is a cultural gap at work here, namely the fact that there is more anti-academic prejudice in the US and that the gap between academics and the rest of the population is bigger. At any rate, the idea that academic credentials would disqualify anyone from writing an article on a matter of personal interest in a non-academic venue strikes me as absurd. One of my professors at university, a writer and scholar of British literature, also happens to be a huge football fan. For many years he wrote a football column for a local newspaper. And absolutely no one ever complained that this professor of literature had no right to comment on football, because it was understood that he was commenting not as an academic but as a fan.