When Aishwarya asked me to write an overview of Maureen’s career as a critic and reviewer, I responded with alacrity. It would be an honour, I said. And then I looked at the list of Maureen’s publications on ISFDB. Maureen was prolific. Perhaps when Nina Allan’s anthology of Maureen’s criticism is published, we’ll get a better sense of the motivations that guided her as a critic. Until then, faced with such an output, I can only put forward some tentative observations. To some extent, I’m aided by the fact that I knew Maureen for over a decade and had many insightful conversations with her about the nature of criticism. But that fact also makes this task so much harder. Reading Maureen’s words, so full of her personality, brings her back to me—and I am painfully reminded of how absent my friend is from my life.
Yet, that loss also brings me to my first and perhaps most important observation about Maureen as a critic. To read her criticism is to follow the movement of her thought, and in its twists and turns, savour her personal response. Maureen began her career as a reviewer in 1986: a significant moment since, on the one hand, she arrived fifteen years after the likes of M. John Harrison and John Clute had railed against SF as “a literature of comfort,” and on the other hand, this was also fifteen years before the rise of social media and the blogosphere had begun to displace the role of traditional print criticism. In the late 1980s, there was still the sense that criticism could be an intellectual practice, that it could clarify and amplify the radical artistic content of speculative fictions, rather than act as an unpaid adjunct to the PR departments of publishing houses. By the time I met Maureen, she had embraced social media through her own blogs and online platforms, but she loathed when criticism as practised on the Net became no more than what she sometimes referred to as “squee.”
For Maureen, this was the very antithesis of criticism. It lacked distance, perspective, discernment, and judgement, serving to hype or blurb the book, film, graphic novel (whatever it might be) rather than to engage, meaningfully for the reader, with the work’s formal properties. Critique, in its original formulation, is meant to intervene and play with the arrangement of a text—and to find, within that play, a new or deeper meaning that binds the text together. The form of internet engagement that Maureen so disliked, on the other hand, simply takes the textual object as it is. It doesn’t talk about the text, or the reader’s relationship to the text; it talks about its own ego, its own unreflective and unmediated wants. The text becomes no more than an accessory, a commodity, an instrument without purpose except as a subject for empty enthusiasm. It kills the very thing it professes to love; it is the anathema of what art and criticism should be.
So, when I say that Maureen offers “her personal response” in her criticism, I don’t mean that she is merely subjective. She is deeply conscious of her own act of reading. Not calculated, not pulling the reader’s strings to surprise them with some predetermined judgement, but a self-conscious experiment, a process in which one word follows another, one thought ensues another, as Maureen explores the terms in which criticism can occur. For Maureen, the act of criticism is repeatedly re-thought and re-staged in every critical attempt; she does not begin with a premise but seeks to establish it through the activity of criticism. And so with each essay (each literal attempt) we have that sense of a mental process at work: a mind reaching out to its chosen object, seeking to establish connections and relations beyond itself. This, then, is what I mean by the “personal” in Maureen’s criticism. As I read her work, I feel that mind extending, that consciousness touching its object, that self-reflection.
There is inherently a haptic quality in everything Maureen writes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Maureen was a “hands-on” person. I regret I never tasted anything she cooked, but she was, by all accounts, a fine baker. And, of course, she also blogged about her gardening. In the Kincaid-Speller household, she was the one who drove, who dealt with the IT, and who coordinated their various builders. Memorably, she wrote about the often visceral pleasures of herding numerous cats through their home. And when Maureen wasn’t writing herself, she was copyediting and proofreading the work of others—her life was spent in the materiality of language. Words, for Maureen, were physical objects and they necessitated handling with care and precision. But they were also extensions of herself and her domestic situation. Maureen was a committed feminist and environmentalist, but these concerns did not puncture her writing as abstract or didactic statements. They surface through the texture of her writing: that precise, careful handling of words, as one thought pulls the next into view, and gradually we see how Maureen’s relation to the text weaves relations to the wider world. To trace the contours of Maureen’s criticism is to chart its trajectory with how she views the world around her, quite literally, her Weltanschauung.
There is then an embedded quality to how Maureen writes. Not simply formalist, as if nothing exists beyond the text, but a deep sense that how a text works, at its most fundamental level of organisation, is at the same time enmeshed in the world that it seeks to describe. No surprise then that, famously, Maureen was drawn to the work of Alan Garner whose fiction is steeped in the mud and clay of his native Cheshire. But equally no surprise that Maureen was able to critique Garner, to play within the parameters set by Garner himself, and tease out contradictory or incompatible elements with how Garner describes his mental and physical landscapes. Maureen hardly planned the nature of her ending, but there is something fitting that her final published review should have been on Garner’s novel Treacle Walker. Go to that review, pore over its content, and most of all pay close attention to how Maureen structures her response. In tracing the dichotomies of Garner’s novel, itself a tracery of time, myth, and setting, Maureen tracks her own reactions to Garner. She slides in and out of her previous encounters with Garner’s fiction, constantly reflecting upon her past and present responses to his problematic oeuvre, utilising Treacle Walker as a prism to refract and explore a lifetime’s fascination with Garner’s work, much in the same way as the novel cracks open Garner’s own preoccupations with the “inner time” of his characters and the landscape that they inhabit (and which, in turn, inhabits them). Beginning with journalistic reactions to the novel, which all end in platitudes of one sort or another, Maureen steps far beyond them. Delving both into the novel’s complexities and the intricacy of her own relationship with Garner’s work, Maureen draws out a reading that Garner fully deserves: nuanced, knowledgeable, sensitive, and generous.
Another characteristic then—generosity—although potentially a double-edged sword. The bestower of rave reviews probably believes themselves to be generous. Look at me, they say, see how many words I copiously bestow upon my beloved! But their very copiousness conceals how ungenerous they actually are. They make no space for the object of their desire but fill every crack with a display of how they feel. True generosity, by contrast, is always an act of hospitality: of making room for the other and of making them feel at home. Maureen was the epitome of a good host. Whether as an editorial colleague, an administrator, or a convention delegate, she always sought to welcome and include others, to guide them over that potentially awkward threshold, to connect them with other like-minded colleagues, fans, and readers. Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read. By her generosity, Maureen added to the general stock of empathy: to read with Maureen, to follow the trace of her thoughts and to delve deeper into the source of her inquiry, was to exercise and strengthen one’s own capacity for empathy. For Maureen, to encourage the act of critique in her audience was to make such things viable.
A life-fullness, then, permeated everything she wrote. With each step Maureen took, each pause and hesitancy; each double-backing, qualification, clarification; each renewed approach, Maureen took a vivid and vibrant attitude to the writing of criticism. We feel each of her circumlocutions, we feel her edging closer. The quality is not only haptic but also alive with the possibilities encased within each and every thought, as Maureen’s handling of words weighs each and every one, choosing this or that pathway—or, maybe, that pathway. We follow her, and as we do so the possibilities come alive at each and every turn. We come alive at each and every turn. The gift of Maureen’s criticism was to make the process into a living one and to include us in that process. Maureen wrote with genuine enthusiasm: she breathed life into what she wrote and made criticism into a viable activity; she communicated to her readers the spirit of what mattered to her so that it mattered to them.
Put simply, Maureen Speller is inimitable. She is a master (or should that be mistress?) of the critical art because there is not, and never will be, another like her. But she is also a model of what that art can perform and her inspiration outlives her death. Academic or non-academic, fan or non-fan, we can all learn from her modest, incisive approach. Read her reviews, read her blogs, read her essays—and be transformed.
Editors: Reviews Department
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department