By Gary K. Wolfe
I’m writing this as all of us are still struggling to come to terms with the death of Ursula K. Le Guin a few days ago, and it occurs to me that among all the tributes to the power and influence of her fiction, relatively little attention is being paid to her importance to critical practice in science fiction and fantasy. From the essays collected in The Language of the Night in 1979 to the reviews that continued to appear in The Guardian almost until the end, she provided a model of grace and clarity in critical writing.
I initially came to SF criticism through academia, where matters of grace and clarity are not always the highest priority. My earliest publications were in scholarly journals or with university presses, at a time when everyone seemed enamored of structuralism as a theoretical model. (A few years later, of course, we escaped that cage, only to find everyone equally enamored of post-structuralism.) It was essentially a grammar of analysis and taxonomy, modeled largely on the language of the social sciences, and to the extent that it was evaluative at all, it was mostly in passing. It was also a language marvelously well-suited to disguising thinness of thought.
Then I was invited to begin writing for a now defunct magazine, Fantasy Review, for a very different kind of audience. What models I had for SF criticism consisted of those early volumes by Damon Knight, James Blish, and even Kingsley Amis, and the succession of remarkable reviewers in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – Judith Merril, Joanna Russ, Algis Budrys, and others. Budrys became a kind of mentor in my shift toward real-world reviewing and criticism. We disagreed a lot, but he showed me that while my opinions might be worthwhile, they were a lot more worthwhile if they had solid reasoning behind them, and if they described a context for the works under discussion.
He also insisted that a review is an essay, not a blurb and not a shooting gallery. It should have a shape and a structure, and should have a point beyond buy-or-don’t-buy this book. (This despite the fact that Budrys described himself as an “investment counselor” in his own review columns for F&SF.) Almost none of the people reading your review will have read the book in question, he reminded me, and most of them never will. Why bother to read a review, then, unless it contained something worthwhile on its own merits?
This made sense in terms of how I myself had been reading reviews and criticism. A lot of the books Knight or Blish discussed in their essays were before my time and often forgotten – whoever actually reads Curme Gray’s Murder in Millennium VI, for example? – but the degree to which they succeeded or failed as SF or as fiction gave rise to some useful insights. The same was true of the reviews I enjoyed reading, whether they be Russ or Budrys in the SF world or Pauline Kael and Edmund Wilson in other areas. (Wilson was way before my time, but his collected essays and reviews in Classics and Commercials and The Shores of Light seemed endlessly cranky and fascinating.)
A few years later, I was invited to begin a column for Locus magazine (which has now gone on for more than 25 years) and, much later, to begin one for the Chicago Tribune (which has gone on for five), all while continuing to do the occasional academic essay or book. Now I was juggling three distinct readerships: the academics, the presumably knowledgeable SFF readers of Locus, and a general public who may or may not have any particular interest in SF. Which leads to another seemingly obvious but important point: a review or critical essay needs to know something about who its audience is, and what they bring to the table.
Obvious yes, except it gets complicated when the critical discussion of SF is more balkanized, fragmented, tweetified, and otherwise social-mediated than ever before. Weeks before a book is even published, reviews begin appearing not only in old-world venues like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, but on Amazon, Goodreads, and endlessly-multiplying podcasts and blogs. How do you begin to claim authority in such an environment, and should you try to claim authority at all?
One traditional measure of authority, of course, is the same as with fiction: namely, the role of the editor. Has someone other than the author vetted the piece and decided it’s worth publishing? Is there some sort of definable readership for the venue? Is there a track record? And if there is, does that make the venue somehow elitist?
Questions like these may tend to muddy the waters of critical discussion in general, and of SFF criticism in particular, since it has such an articulate, participatory, and contentious fan base. I don’t think this necessarily means criticism is devalued, but it probably means it’s become diluted, with all the passionate and sometimes very loud voices in the room. I don’t think anyone seriously wants to silence those voices, but it does mean that a challenge facing critics today is simply to be heard. Getting heard, though, isn’t the same thing as getting listened to. That’s something that has to be earned in the critical act itself.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities and former dean at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine and the Chicago Tribune. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee), and Sightings, and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil), and David Lindsay. For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, and is working on a similar set for the 1960s. He received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes.