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.