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Maureen Kincaid Speller

How do we demonstrate love?

This is a question at the heart of criticism. Yet that last word is often used as a pejorative. After all, when we want to refer to positive commentary we are forced to add an adjective, writing of “constructive criticism”—as if in its essential, unmodified form, critique must perforce be negative.

Yet to do criticism is to pay a text devoted attention. And to spend with any text the time necessary to understanding it is to make a judgement about its value. When a critic invests in a text the effort that is required to analyse it, she pays that text the highest compliment. Why critique anything that cannot repay that effort? Why do criticism at all if that which is to be critiqued is worthy only of negative comment? Criticism is always constructive; the adjective is redundant.

To seek to understand a text deeply is a sign not just of respect but also a form of—if not affection—then certainly regard. Understanding requires a holistic view—nothing, perhaps, is perfect, and therefore any complete comprehension of an object must involve a delineation of its flaws. To want to know a text so fully is to argue for the reward it can offer for the endeavour; but—since no text is perfect—to get to know it fully must also involve coming to know all the ways it might ultimately fail to repay our efforts.

This is the paradox of criticism. But it does not negate the simple truth that all critique begins in love: for a text, for an author, for the genre in which either sit. Out of that love comes the desire to look deeper, to embrace a work as fully as possible. To do criticism is in this way the surest token of esteem.

Maureen Kincaid Speller did criticism like it mattered—because she knew it did. She loved SFF because she understood all it might achieve—and she was careful and concise in her defence of its potential against work which did not try as hard, or push as far, as it might have done. If in the contemporary discourse it can sometimes feel like poor form to argue there are such things as bad books, Maureen knew that to pretend there are not is to fail to protect that which we love: good books, great books, the capacity of art to make us anew.

There is little more inspirational than a writer who devotes her talents to the work of others. The critic—a figure often distrusted as an ingrate incapable of the finer work of the author—can in fact be a selfless artist, a writer who attends to the work of others so that even better work might yet be done by authors yet to come. The critic aims not to anger readers who wish only for their favourite book to be seen, but to help those same readers find more books to love—or to deepen their knowledge of the ones they already revere. The best knowledge is evenhanded; the deepest loves are honest. And the best critics are clear-sighted.

The critic can be waspish; perhaps they even should be. Certainly the critic must be perspicacious and might go so far as to be unforgiving. This isn’t to say the work of criticism is an aggressive or adversarial pursuit—at its best, it proceeds in conversation with the text, encouraging it and suggesting avenues for improvement. Sometimes, in their enthusiasm, a critic might bite off more than they can chew; at other times, they might—in their pursuit of evenhanded honesty—even offend. The critic’s lot, perhaps, is to put noses out of joint, even while they seek—as best they can, accepting sometimes they will fail—to make things if not better then surely a bit clearer.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was capable of producing among the best criticism SFF has to offer. Now she has left us, our understandings of the genre will be poorer and less complete. We will know our favourite texts less well, and we will struggle sometimes to express a reading she would have worked into prose of wit, clarity, and pith. We will miss her because, as a critic, she helped us be better readers; because, as an editor, she made us better writers; and because, as herself, she was fearless in achieving these ends. But most of all, we will miss her because she was our friend—was the friend of all readers, and all authors, and all books. She showed us this every time she attended to a text and asked not just why she liked it, but why she—or why we—might not. Friends make us better, and they often do so via the unvarnished truth.

So. How do we demonstrate love? We write about it. And here we are.

Aishwarya Subramanian and Dan Hartland are Reviews Editors at Strange Horizons.
Current Issue
27 Mar 2023

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