Introducing Maureen Kincaid Speller

Introducing Maureen Kincaid Speller

By Maureen Kincaid Speller

I find it difficult to talk about how I write critically because it is a thing I’ve learned mostly by doing. There was never a moment when I actively decided that I would become a literary critic. Rather, my critical practice came into being over a long period of time. Even now it is a work in progress. I always feel I could do better, and I’m forever trying to work out how.

What do I do? I read. And then I write about what I’ve read. It is as simple and as complicated as that. In ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, an exploration of meaning in Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’, Derrida focuses on the word ‘pharmakon’, paradoxical because it means both ‘remedy’ and ‘poison’. Plato sought to argue that speech was superior to writing because it required an act of memory, an act which was weakened by the use of writing. Derrida prompts us to ask whether writing is a remedy, in that it helps you remember things; or a poison in that it enables you to forget things? And I am going to argue that critical writing is both poison and remedy, depending on how you use it.

Plato argued that before writing there is speech. I suggest that critical writing cannot exist without reading. And that is so much more than just looking at words on the page. It can be that, but it is also about turning them over to see what is underneath. This deeper kind of reading is a series of epiphanies, moments of revelation, and maybe of understanding, but it is also hard work. What you bring to a text is dependent on what you’ve done, and what you’ve read. This is of course true for both reader and writer. As a critic, I mainly write about science fiction and fantasy, but what I bring to the text is everything I’ve ever read, from my first encounter with Janet and John to that biography of Joseph Conrad I read last week, as well as all the science fiction and fantasy I’ve ever read. That is all in my head, waiting until such time as it might be useful. The critic’s art’ (if criticism is an art, and I firmly believe that it is) lies in recognising what is germane to what I am reading at any given moment, and bringing it into the discussion as appropriate. To be quite clear, you need to look beyond your chosen field and read widely if you want to be an interesting critic. And being an interesting critic involves asking questions.

Writing about books can be surprisingly easy if you don’t ask questions. My early critical writings were book reviews – artfully constructed plot synopses with an opinion as to the novel’s success or failure tacked on the end. They were at best nicely written, at worst somewhat ill-informed, and my opinions were jejune, to say the least. I’ve never disowned a thing I’ve written but I look at some of my early reviews and wonder what the hell I was thinking. What I was doing was writing reports that described books. I had not yet learned how to ask questions about those texts. I had not yet learned that they even were texts. I had ideas but no means to test them.

An effective reader asks questions of a text. An effective critic should be asking questions the reader hasn’t thought of, perverse questions maybe, whatever it takes to go deeper into the story. To write critically means to peel back the layers of a text, digging deeper into the ideas, making connections with other texts and ideas, linking the narrative to the rest of the world. No text exists entirely in a vacuum, no matter what anyone tells you, and the critic is there to reveal at least some of that extra context. For me, the ideal result of writing a piece of criticism is that someone reads what I’ve written and says ‘I hadn’t thought about this story in that way. I need to reread it’. That’s a remedy, a dialogue beginning right there. Reader and critic may never talk directly to one another about the text, but something has been ignited.

The flip side of this, of course, is the reader who says ‘how dare you suggest that this novel is talking about anything other than what I’ve found in it. You are clearly wrong’. Remember what I said about critical writing as both poison and remedy? Clearly, I have in such instances failed to persuade, and my work is poison as a result. Maybe the reader is so confident in their own reading they don’t want to hear another view. Which is a position, but I am puzzled when people strenuously resist other interpretations because, to me, reading and criticism should be about opening up rather than closing down.

Texts don’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do readers or critics. I have my biases and prejudices; they’re reflected in the things I choose to write about. Part of my job is to acknowledge those influences rather than pretending I am unsullied by the outside world. I come to criticism as a white European cishet woman, mindful of how that impedes my understanding as much as it assists. I’m a political creature in that I try to be alert to the ways in which power and status are in play, in the world, in fiction, in criticism. I’m interested in science fiction that addresses these issues, and that undermines the hegemony of science fiction written by white men. As a critic, I like to break things down and then build them up again, and I adhere to the Clutean ideal of excessive candour, which will mean speaking my truth and not dissembling. That is the approach I’ll be taking when I make my selections from the Clarke Award submission list, and when I write about the shadow and official shortlists.


Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and reviewer. She is Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons, and Assistant Editor of Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction. She also reviews for Interzone and Vector. She is a former Arthur C. Clarke Award judge, and a former James Tiptree Jr. Award judge. She also blogs at Paper Knife.


  1. Standback 6 years ago

    All the intros so far have been fantastic. This one manages to be especially so.

    I love this in particular:

    > For me, the ideal result of writing a piece of criticism is that someone reads what I’ve written and says ‘I hadn’t thought about this story in that way. I need to reread it’. That’s a remedy, a dialogue beginning right there.

    I’m so pleased to see the Sharkes this year focusing on the process of criticism — probably one of great interest to anybody following along with a shadow jury! — and the essays so far have really started off on the right foot 🙂

  2. Standback 6 years ago

    There’s an interesting point in the idea of an unpersuasive review being received as poison, though:

    Sometimes a reader resists a new interpretation because he’s closed to new examinations, but other times you read some criticism and find well-supported objections. Think the critic is not unpersuasive, but outright wrong.

    Is that being “open” or “closed”, I wonder?

    • PhilRM 6 years ago

      Isn’t ‘outright wrong’ just the extreme end of ‘unpersuasive’? 😉

      More seriously, I think that (with one caveat) cases like that depend on whether there is honest engagement both with the text and with the criticism. If the critic has done their job (which is not necessarily a given), it’s one thing for a reader to say (even if only to herself) “No, I think your interpretation is incorrect, and here’s why”, and an entirely different thing to say (as Maureen put it) “How dare you suggest that this novel is talking about anything other than what I’ve found in it.” I would classify the first response as open and the latter as closed.

      The caveat is that there is that irreducible thing known as taste, which is an individual preference that is a reflection of our life experiences and who knows what else. One of the popular Sharke selections from last year was Martin MacInnes’s Open Ground, a novel which I found absolutely astonishing – and yet I recognize it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. Not all novels work for all readers, and especially all novels do not work for readers with very different life experiences and backgrounds, and this is an important (and difficult) thing for the critic to keep in mind, as Maureen mentioned. I’m sure many people would find my tastes in fiction as inexplicable as I do theirs. For example – do I recall correctly that you were reading Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka? I think that’s an amazing novel – and yet one commenter over at File 770 dismissed it as “a collection of 50 year-old cliches”. Now of course, that’s not a critical discussion of the novel, just an offhand insult, but my reaction to that is “Did you actually read the same book as I did?”

      • Ziv W 6 years ago

        You recall correctly re: Amatka, and I am *astonished* to hear of that comment. 😛

      • Ziv W 6 years ago

        I think “honest engagement” is an excellent observation here, and one of the reasons this is so difficult here in the exponential age: it’s very, very easy to question somebody else’s motives, particularly when you disagree with them.

        Reviewers are dismissed as “pandering” on the one hand, or “elitist” on the other. As liking something for “partisan” or “political” reasons. As being part of a particular clique. It’s very hard to tell when somebody is closed to a critical approach in general, vs. engaging (and arguing) with a specific piece of criticism.

        Differences in approach can be… alarmingly divisive. I’m suddenly imagining somebody seizing on Speller’s line that I liked, reaching an “I hadn’t thought about this story in that way,” and protesting that stories shouldn’t *need* to have hidden layers or critical analysis in order to be enjoyed (and, indeed, some don’t, and some works are poorly served by trying to force new insight out of them).

        …it’s tough, is all I’m saying. It’s tough.

        • PhilRM 6 years ago

          It is tough. And while my personal preference these days runs towards novels that are complex enough to need (and reward) analysis, not everyone reads novels for the same reasons. Some people read purely for escapism and comfort – and they have every right to do so.** I just wish that less of the SFF community found different, critical (in the formal sense) approaches to be so alarmingly divisive, as you put it.

          **The day after the 2016 US election I curled up on the sofa with one of my favorite Jack Vance novels. I adore Vance’s fiction – his wildly inventive cultures; that dry, inimitable voice – but I wouldn’t dream of denying that there are some pretty problematic aspects to a number of his novels. But that was not something I wanted to think about that day; I just wanted to be taken someplace else.

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