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Context, Commentary & Caring

By Paula Guran
Written March 8 2006
Published: DarkEcho #50

Once upon a time, I've been told, readers could (with perseverance and adequate funding) manage to read most of the science fiction published. (This probably included horror and fantasy as well.) If you got into the field yourself, you could still read everything that everyone else wrote and, chances are, you could know the most of the people who wrote it.

I'm not sure when, exactly, this era ended, but it has been over a long while and we should all be glad it is gone if for no other reason than the fact that the "people who wrote it" in those days were almost exclusively male Caucasian heterosexuals. Not that I have anything against male Caucasian heterosexuals, it's just that speculation and imagination has no limits and the world -- current, future, supernatural, or fantastic -- has unlimited points of view that are best served by diversity of writers.

There was, though, an advantage in readers being able to keep up with what was being published. They could debate and discuss the relative merits of it all publicly and privately. Yet, there, too, diversity was lacking. Criticism when confined to a community tends to mean members of the community are unwilling to make negative remarks about the work of others in their community. They also tend to be overly defensive of that community and overlook the efforts of "outsiders".

In the 1960s, Damon Knight, John Clute and others improved this situation for the most part, at least among professionals. Knight insisted that genre criticism be held to the same standards as other literature. Clute called for his "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 the 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."

Since those days, sf/f has splintered into a great many subgenera and broadened past any easy genre definitions. Once splintered, it crossbred and built on what came before and ever more wondrous fictions have been born.

No one critic can keep up with the field as a whole these days, In fact, it is often a challenge to keep up with even a single aspect of that field. No matter who you are you will, by necessity, be blind to a great deal of what is being published in sf/f. Any reviewer or critic faces tremendous challenges when it comes to keeping up with context. Valid criticism (or even review) must place an author's work within the context of previous work as well as within the larger context of related fiction. Without broad contextual knowledge, our personal definitions may become too limited to be valid, yet without specialized knowledge we can't adequately provide the proper expertise an individual title demands.

Even publications specializing in sf/f with staffs of paid reviewers and columnists, cannot keep up with the current context of sf/f. Locus, the premiere review magazine of the field, pays very little attention to horror and young adult sf/f, paranormal romance, or "commercial" fantasy. Outside of their forthcoming books and bestseller lists the popular forms of military sf and media tie-ins are ignored. Locus probably doesn't *want* to cover those areas but if they did, they -- or anyone -- would be hard pressed to provide the space let alone the expertise.

In the three days since his debut, there's been considerable chatter about the New York Time's new sf columnist David Itzkoff [see: review and book list].

As of this writing, I've seen comments from L.E. Modesitt Jr., Elizabeth Hand, Lucius Sorrentino, and Alex Irvine (all as letters to Locus Online, Andrew Wheeler, Matt Cheney, Cheryl Morgan, and Nick Mamatas.

(That's something the "good new days" provide: the Internet and a chance to exchange ideas rapidly and to the world at large.)

Underlying Itzkoff's -- or anyone's criticism and review -- is another type of context: the critic's personal opinion and definitions. In Itzkoff's case his personal context and expertise are being questioned.

There's also discontent with his style and the persona he is using. That's another aspect of commentary: Some critics and reviewers stay with one "voice", others change depending on venue or other considerations.

But that's something else positive about the "good new days", something we still have in common with the "old days" -- passion. People care about this fiction -- whatever it is -- and they care enough to comment on it and on its critics.