When we were first asked to take on the Strange Horizons Reviews department, in the summer of 2014, we said yes for two main reasons: the first was that we knew each other already in various ways, and thought we would enjoy working together (in the years since, this intuition has proven more correct than we knew); and, secondly and even more importantly, because we thought reviews were important.
That’s why, since our appointment and barring a week or so here and there, we have done our utmost to deliver three long-form reviews in every single issue of this brilliant magazine (we really have no idea how our successive predecessors in Reviews, Niall Harrison and Abigail Nussbaum, possibly achieved this alone). It’s a pleasure to do so, but also—we think and hope—a valuable contribution to the field.
Why do we think this? In part because in-depth reviews which approach texts critically often seem in such short supply outside academe. Most newspaper reviews are either announcements that a title exists, or at best a brief attempt, via a plot synopsis, to determine whether a reader might be interested in a title, while the longer broadsheet or literary journal review might talk about why a book is interesting, or why it might not be what the reader was initially anticipating. There is, though, little attempt at serious engagement with the text in question, either because of lack of space, or because there remains a reluctance to dig deep into a text, or indeed, both.
However, we all think there is also something else going on. Would it be too dramatic to say that, outside the academy, over the last few years there has been a change in the general perception of what reviews are for? We don’t think so. We variously got into reviewing because we had things to say about books and wanted to share those thoughts with like-minded people; find a community, maybe, or start a dialogue, but something. Over the last ten, fifteen years, it feels as though the perception of writing criticism has shifted: where it was once about a clear-eyed assessment of the text under discussion, now the approach is often more tentative, more akin to “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
This is a delicate dance we do, of course, because all reviewing outlets rely on publishers to supply them with things to review, and one should not bite the hand that feeds. Indeed, we are grateful to all the publishers and writers who send us their books, print and digital. However, certain assumptions about the dance have changed in the last decade or so. There is no denying that the development of social media has changed the publishing ecosystem. Publishers can reach readers directly, and readers can seemingly reach authors just as easily. A certain fuzziness about the nature of these relationships has developed, or perhaps it is just more immediately visible than it was. There’s some confusion over just what it is that critics and reviewers do. There’s always been an element of publicity in it—why else would publishers send out titles, if they didn’t want people to talk about books, and there’s no doubt that every publicity person wants a good review.
But here’s the rub. None of us believes that a critic’s job is, as Maureen says in her article on Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker, to serve up quotable nuggets to go on the back cover of the paperback edition; but it’s clear from things we see online that some people do genuinely believe that the reviewer’s job is to promote the novel, and if the reviewer says something adverse then they’re not doing their job properly. As reviewers and critics, we see ourselves more as “critical friends,” talking about what works, and what doesn’t work, while setting all of that in a broader context. That’s the philosophy we carry into our roles as Reviews Editors at Strange Horizons, and the philosophy we encourage our reviewers to bring to the table.
Beyond filling a gap in the literature, as they say, there is also something specific we want to do with Strange Horizons reviews. Reviewing often seems to assume no audience outside of certain contexts—the nation, the global north, the anglosphere, “SF fandom.” While we can’t entirely do away with those categories (this is a magazine of speculative fiction, and we publish primarily in English), we do see it as in keeping with the magazine’s ethos (and its globally dispersed staff) that we trouble those boundaries where we can. Widening our sense of who gets to be part of the critical conversation, as well as what contexts and frameworks and forms of expression are available in engaging in that conversation, is a political choice.
As we write this, in the UK (where two of us are based), a well-regarded writer recently attempted to remove a critical review of her work from the internet, accusing the reviewer of fabricating “racist” quotes in order to condemn her book. The quotes in question were subsequently found to have been genuine; the author has been the subject of (at last count) twenty outraged articles about cruel internet mobs and cancel culture, and the bulk of the abuse has been targeted at three other authors, all women of colour. It’s hard to take from this mess a positive lesson about the Power of Reviews (indeed, we’ve all been having panicked flashbacks to times when critical reviews have punctured SFF writers’ sense of themselves as the Good Guys); the evidence suggests that close reading a text, analysing what’s there, and examining what it means within the wider world, is a thankless and futile job. But it’s also a reminder that critical scrutiny can be a form of speaking truth to power—and that’s surely worth something.
For Strange Horizons’s Twentieth Anniversary, we curated a round-table discussion about reviewing. Much debate was had in the course of that conversation about what—if anything—separated criticism and reviewing. At the length SH reviews often stretch to, perhaps the line is smudged; but reviews are often initial judgements on a particular text, while criticism is a more considered form, with distance and breadth of reference. One, however, cannot exist without the other—and in this sense they are symbiotic.
That’s why this Criticism Special seems so exciting to us: after some years of learning how to do the Reviews department, the writers who have kindly done all of the hard work for us may have built up a body of criticism, together and collaboratively. Co-operation seems to us increasingly fundamental to thinking well about literatures of all kinds, modes, and forms—indeed, to thinking well at all and about anything. In this issue, we try to demonstrate what criticism and reviews can do—and why, in our opinion, there should be more of it across many more venues.
In the issue’s three critical essays, M. L. Clark, Artur Nowrot, and Maureen Kincaid Speller each show what criticism can do: in addressing wider questions, and reading specific texts to investigate and interrogate them, the essays both review specific works and build them into an argument that goes beyond them. Reviews in this way can build on each other to create something larger. In three special “In Conversation” pieces, meanwhile, an author and a critic come together to discuss what this sort of thinking about literatures feels like from each side of the coin. All this, too, is very much not just about books—our round-table on The Wheel of Time makes clear that criticism of visual culture can proceed in much the same way and to much the same ends. Indeed, glance at the six reviews in this issue—twice our usual number, and with three in particular (Prashanth Gopalan on Dilman Dila, Shinjini Dey on Adam Soto, and Eve Morton on Vivian Wagner) approaching the text in especially “critical” ways—to see that process in action, querying a wide range of works in multiple ways towards the same end: to deliver, in dialogue, some further understanding. Likewise two of the poems in this issuerespond critically to other works; in doing so adding depth and meaning to the source text as well as the one included here.
Indeed, if this special achieves anything—other than hopefully entertaining you and recommending something you might enjoy—we hope it is to encourage more voices to consider criticism: to writing it, publishing it, reading. The more populated the field, the busier the conversation—and the broader the voices taking part, the better the criticism will be. Thinking critically about texts isn’t always easy, or sometimes (in publishers’ PR departments, for instance!) entirely welcome … but we think it is as important as we did when we said yes to taking on this wonderful department in this excellent magazine that serves this amazing community: because understanding texts helps us make them, ourselves … and the culture that produces it all … if not a little bit better, then perhaps—just maybe—a little more honest.
Enjoy. And drop us a line when you’re done—we’d love you to review something for us.