In this, the first of our The Author and the Critic series in this special, Christopher Priest and Paul Kincaid discuss an involvement in fiction and reviewing that dates back to at least the early 1970s, as well as the present and possible futures of SFF criticism. Chris is best known as a novelist, whose genre-defying work includes The Prestige (1995), The Affirmation (1981), and The Islanders (2011). His most recent novel is The Evidence (2020). Paul is primarily a critic; a prominent reviewer for many years at Strange Horizons, he has written for almost every SFF organ of note. His most recent book is a critical study of the novels of one Christopher Priest (2020).
In this conversation convened by Dan Hartland, they begin by talking about their first encounters with “reviews,” whatever those might be.
Christoper Priest: Before I wrote and published my first novel I had already written several amateurish book reviews. I was young and inexperienced, unguided, learning slowly as I went along. I was writing for fanzines published by Peter Weston and Charles Platt, and others. It was a way of writing something and seeing it in print—or at least, typed out by someone else, which at the time felt almost as good because after the process of being retyped, with bits cut out or changed or just got wrong, it looked different. By looking different it made me read it again and look at it with some objectivity. Overall, it was much easier and quicker to write an opinion piece on a new book by Brian N. Ball or Ken Bulmer than write a novel of my own. None of this counted in the long run, of course, although I still think for a beginning writer it was a good way to learn.
Paul Kincaid: Personally, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read reviews. This goes back to a time when newspapers used to publish things like book reviews and film reviews. But I never thought about writing them until I started getting involved in fandom. I don’t know what it’s like now, because I’ve rather drifted away from all of that, but at the time there was a lot of peer pressure to write for fanzines. I didn’t feel comfortable writing the sorts of things that were popular in fanzines at the time, except for the book reviews that did appear occasionally. So I wrote book reviews. My first was a review of Triton by Samuel R. Delany, which was never published, though in the next issue the editor of the fanzine said he’d received a review of Triton that said it was all about philosophy. I don’t think that was quite what I said, but I suppose it was close. The lesson I learned from that is that the editor was an idiot; but I suppose every reviewer needs that kind of arrogance.
Anyway, I kept at it because it was something I could do, and that I enjoyed doing, and it gave me a (vanishingly small, in most cases) readership. I started reviewing regularly for Vector. My first review there appeared in 1978, and I’ve had at least one piece in Vector every single year since then. At the time, and for a long time after, a Vector review was around four hundred words, just enough to give a broad flavour of the book and a quick and dirty opinion, so it was an excellent way to learn the craft. But anyone serious about writing reviews quickly begins to chaff at such limitations, and I started trying to find venues where I could write longer reviews. Around about then, a couple of guys I knew said they were starting a new fanzine and would I write some reviews for them. So I did, 1,500 words apiece on Gene Wolfe and Lucius Shepard. When the fanzine finally appeared they had, without saying anything to me, cut my reviews down to little more than one hundred words each. I was so angry that I bundled the two original reviews up and sent them off to the Times Literary Supplement: and they were published. Which taught me there is no qualitative difference between a good fanzine review and a good review anywhere else.
Christopher Priest: I’m nervous of the distinction between “fannish” and “anywhere else”—it’s not one I would make. When I first encountered fandom in the early 1960s it was very different from the way it is now. Most of the fans were middle-aged or elderly, they had come through the war, they didn’t read much any more and they certainly couldn’t be bothered to write book reviews.
So when I finished, sent in, sold, and eventually saw my first novel published—Indoctrinaire, in 1970—I had no expectations about a critical response. About a month after publication, someone at Faber sent me a thin stack of cuttings from newspapers, with a note saying something like, “Here are some marvellous reviews!” It didn’t take long to read them. Most of them are what I would now call “notices.” I have fond memories of one of them, from a newspaper in (I think) Burton-on-Trent. It’s ages since I last looked at it, but as I recall it consisted of three short paragraphs. The first said something like this: “Christopher Priest’s first novel shows that he is a worthy successor to H. G. Wells and John Wyndham.” The next two paragraphs were a word-for-word reproduction of Faber’s blurb on the book jacket. From this I realized that whoever had written the notice definitely hadn’t read the book, knew nothing at all about speculative literature, and probably hadn’t even read Wells or Wyndham. In other words it was worthless in every way. Faber were insanely excited, though: they had a sentence they could quote! (Although in practice I stopped them.)
The rest of the cuttings were almost as trivial. I drew a negative conclusion: that the whole business of being reviewed was a bit meaningless. Then a few weeks later I saw a review published in a fanzine. (I forget which one, possibly Pete Weston’s Zenith, or maybe Vector.) It was written by a guy called Tony Sudbery, a lecturer at York University. It ran for about two and a half pages. I read it with real interest. Sudbery had clearly read the book, understood it, appreciated it. He didn’t like it all, and said so, but he found good things to say and was sympathetic to it in the way that counts: he was responding interestingly to what I had actually written, evaluating that from the context of being familiar with the SF activity of the time, having a broad and informed view of literature as a whole, and also making allowance for the fact that it was a first novel. I read it with interest, and felt I had gained something from it. (No quotable lines, though—sorry, Faber!)
For the next few books, this pattern was broadly repeated: most of the “professional” reviews were trivial or misplaced or ignorant, but somewhere out there in the SF world somebody took the trouble to read the book properly, think about it seriously, write about it well. (By this I do not mean “favourably”.) I used to reckon on one review of that type with every book ... at least until A Dream of Wessex. After that things changed a bit. I was starting to get more serious reviews in newspapers and magazines as my name became better known. But the word serious was not the same as thoughtful or sympathetic, in the way I am using those words here.
Anyway, I felt I was learning the difference between a review and a critical essay.
Paul Kincaid: To be honest, I’m still not sure what the difference is between a review and a critical essay. The first time I reviewed not a work of science fiction, but a work about science fiction, was probably in the 1980s. I was asked to review a collection about Ursula LeGuin. I hated it: I thought it was pretentious, jargon-ridden, and the various contributors tended to use high-flown academic language to disguise what were really rather mundane perceptions. I still feel like that about a lot of academic criticism. But my English qualifications stopped with an O-Level, so I started to read other academic reviews, essays, critical theory and the like. The language is now not so impenetrable (though I still think it is used more to obfuscate than to clarify), and I learned a lot. What you read inevitably starts to infiltrate into what you write, both in the language you are comfortable using and in the way you think about the things you are writing. My reviews had always had an element of comparison about them (I hate reviews that treat the subject work as though it were hermetically sealed off from the whole of the rest of literature) but now, increasingly, I found myself thinking in terms of context and resonance and interaction. No book is an island, so how is it affected by everything else around it?
It has been a long, slow process: at one time I was writing for a publication called The Good Book Guide where the reviews were around fifty words, little more than the sorts of notices you talk about. Then there were the four-hundred-word reviews for Vector. Then reviews started getting longer: one thousand words, twelve hundred words, fifteen hundred words, five thousand words—reviews or review essays or critical essays, whatever you want to call them—and the more space you have the more you can say. So the reviews become more complex, cover more territory. At the same time (hopefully, at least) one keeps improving as a writer. So, theoretically, I’m doing more and doing it better. Though that, of course, isn’t always the case.
I still write reviews that seem, to me at least, unsatisfactory; but I cannot tell if, had I written the exact same review word for word a few years ago, I would have been delighted with it, and so the problem is more rising expectation than falling quality. Yet there are occasions when, by chance, I come across an old review of mine and think: I couldn’t have written that now. All I can say for sure is that the more space you have the more chances you give yourself to get it right, to say something interesting or acute or worthwhile. And now I’m writing books, and the canvas has expanded again, and consequently what you can say and how you can say it has changed again. For instance, in my book on your work, there are some of his works that probably receive less attention (in terms of word count) than they would have done if I had written a review of them. Yet, because they are necessarily placed within the context of everything else he has written, I think what I say about them maybe resonates more and reveals more than I would have been able to do in a review of the one book alone.
Christopher Priest: I don’t think word-length alone makes any difference. An easing of restriction on word length gives a reviewer space to expand an argument, or to bring in comparisons, but if the quality of comprehension, taste, and expertise is not there then a few hundred extra words are only going to reveal the lack not the substance.
Paul Kincaid: For my first proper book, the challenge was simply writing 70,000 words, which was something I’d never done before. As I was saying before, I keep wanting to push myself, to do new things. I knew about the Modern Masters of SF series because I’d reviewed one of the early books on the list and, frankly, I thought I could do better. So I found out the name of the editor of the series and wrote to him to sound him out. I gave them a list of subjects I’d be interested in writing about, including your work, and, because he had just died and so was on my mind, Iain Banks. They came back pretty quickly saying they were interested in Banks, so I wrote the proposal and in time the book came out. After that choosing a subject for the next book was fairly straightforward.
I’ve known you for more years than I care to remember, and I’ve interviewed you and reviewed you and written essays about your work countless times, so it seemed natural to want to write a book about all of that, and Gylphi decided to publish it. My challenge with that particular volume was not in writing the book but in the structure (which is not absolutely straightforward and seems to have confused some people)—and also in maintaining enough distance from you to be properly analytical. And I’m too close to the whole thing to have any idea whether I succeeded or not.
Christopher Priest: On breadth of knowledge in a reviewer: I think everyone who has written in the fantastic mode will have experienced the unique irritation of having a book negatively discussed by someone proudly boasting that they are in complete ignorance of SFF. Or, equally offensive, pretending they are old hands at the game and inadvertently revealing their ignorance. But the other extreme is just as bad: a lifetime reading nothing but the stuff is no qualification at all. I often think of Rudyard Kipling’s line, said of England: “what should they know of science fiction who only science fiction know?”
Paul Kincaid: So what makes a good reviewer? That is not an easy question to answer. For instance, I regularly read the TLS, London Review of Books, and New York Review of Books which are, for reviewers, the peak that we all might hope to scale. And in practically every issue you will come across a review that makes you stop and say: what is that doing here? There are always bad reviews, even in the best places. (For the record, I am, throughout, using “bad review” to mean ill-written or ill-conceived; I am not using “bad review” to mean negative review, which is something else entirely.) Anyway, back to the bad reviews: in several cases I have found bad reviews coming from the same reviewer. Naming no names, but there are some people I consider reliably bad reviewers. So what are they doing turning up repeatedly in these august journals? The editors of these journals have a good reputation, a good track record, they presumably know what they are about. So what do they see in the reviews that I don’t? Or, vice versa, what faults am I spotting that they aren’t? It may be a matter of specialist knowledge, of course, but more often than not it probably comes down to taste. This is all about reviewing, for heaven’s sake, taste is central to all we do. And how do you regulate for taste?
Christopher Priest: In 1974, I started work as Reviews Editor of Foundation. (Something else that is different now from then.) I drew on the fund of good writers I was in contact with, both established fiction writers and reviewers/critics. The fiction writers included Watson, Masson, Holdstock, Aldiss, Shaw, Saxton, Bailey (H), Sladek, Le Guin, Brunner—and, as the saying goes, many more. The non-fiction writers included Shippey, Strick, Gillespie, Morgan, Pringle, and more. I made no strictures about word length. I tried to match books with reviewers I thought would have a particular interest. I always urged the reviewers to say what they felt to be true, to argue from a point of sympathetic understanding, and to write with an intelligent general reader in mind. The results were something I still feel proud of, half a century later. I was constantly amazed and impressed by the work as it came in, and couldn’t wait to see the overall impact when the reviews appeared in print a few weeks later. I still believe that those reviews, separately and collectively, create a marvellously informed and idiosyncratic insight into what was being written and published in the mid-1970s.
Paul Kincaid: So … what makes for a reliable reviewer? Taste cannot be imposed, only acquired. And the only way to acquire it is by reading, as widely and as eclectically as possible. You learn how to read with taste when you start thinking: oh, that book wasn’t very good, this book was better. But that is only the start, to become a reviewer you need to make the next step: why is book A better than book B? I know that Northrop Frye and his followers argue that evaluation has no place in criticism, that criticism is like a scientific formula, you take all the right steps in the right order and you arrive at the one true reading of the work. Nonsense! Evaluation is the heart and soul of reviewing; reviewing is an art not a science. The reason no two reviewers will agree precisely in their evaluation of any particular book is that no two reviewers will have exactly the same breadth of knowledge to draw upon.
Your critical judgement is a tool that has been shaped by everything you have ever read, and how any one reviewer uses that tool is unique and individual. But to be a reliably good reviewer you need to have that judgement, and you need to have that breadth of reading to shape the judgement. I shudder sometimes when I think back on some of my early reviews, not because I think they were bad reviews (though a lot of them probably were) or that I was wrong (in most cases I’m sure I’d feel the same way now), but because my background reading was still relatively limited and as a consequence my judgements tended to be apocalyptic. The books I reviewed were either straightforwardly good or, more often, straightforwardly bad. But the more I read, the more “breadth of knowledge” I acquired, the more subtle and nuanced my reviews became. This isn’t going soft on the writers, but it is recognising that a more complex array of things go to make a book good or bad. Of course, this brings us to the point we were making earlier about the length of reviews: the more nuanced you are trying to be the more space you need to express that subtlety. You can do it at short length, but it’s not as easy, and there is always the danger that a delicate point you are trying to make may be coarsened by cutting it down to length.
Christopher Priest: From the Foundation period I have especially fond memories of a pedantic but gloriously uninhibited review written by David I. Masson, of Keith Roberts’s The Chalk Giants. It was headlined “A Bloody Muddle”, but no one afterwards could remember if that was Masson’s own title or one made up by Foundation’s editor, Peter Nicholls. It certainly summed up the review with wit and economy. The review provoked, unsurprisingly (if you knew the amazingly short-tempered Mr Roberts), a five-page angry letter from the author, and then a humorous and fairly humble two-page response from Mr Masson.
Speaking of Keith Roberts, it has seemed to me for many years that he is an example of author who would have benefited from a body of criticism. I can think of many more. The general argument I make is that in the most basic way novelists require criticism to find out if they are any good or not. Keith Roberts was a writer who could again and again produce fine and sensitive and original material. I think of him as the most interesting traditional writer to emerge from the New Wave period in Britain. I rate his Pavane as quite possibly the finest fantastic novel of all, one which bears re-reading and whose stature grows with time. But Keith Roberts was also capable of awful whimsy, sloppy writing and characterization, especially of young women. He often induced a cold sweat. It often seemed he did not know the difference between his good and his bad, and you can’t help thinking that an authoritative, dispassionate body of criticism might have worked wonders on him. (But having experienced Keith Roberts’ paranoiac bad temper at first hand I confess I would not like to be among the critics who wrote it.)
Paul Kincaid: Years ago—must have been, what, about 1980—I reviewed his then-new novel, Molly Zero. I mentioned in the review that the three central sections of the novel echoed the three decades—the 1950s, 60s and 70s—leading up to the breakdown of society whose aftermath the novel explores. I received a letter from Keith, who I’d not met at that point, saying: that is not at all what I intended, but looking back at the novel you are absolutely right. I’ve always considered that an exemplary response to criticism, so I think Keith would indeed have been able to benefit from a sustained body of criticism. And that might also have kept his work alive, because I firmly believe that he is one of the best writers of science fiction we’ve had. In the 90s, I got Serconia Press in Seattle interested in a book on Roberts, but the project fell through. That was probably a good thing because I don’t think I would have been able to produce a book that did him justice back then. I’ve tried a number of times to interest people in a book on him since then, but without luck.
On which note: I know there is a general perception that critics hate books, after all we spend all our time criticising them, but the truth is exactly the opposite. Critics love books, we want them to be the very best they can, we want to tell everyone how good they are. Saying a book is bad is invariably said with disappointment, not with relish. Which is why we tend to write reviews in the areas we’re interested in, because we have naturally acquired the breadth of knowledge necessary to write such reviews. There are three things I would say about this. First: this is why it is necessary to be as eclectic as possible in your reading. Knowing everything there is to know about science fiction is fine, but SF also draws on mainstream literature, on crime fiction, on historical fiction, and on all sorts of non-fiction. So you are better prepared to evaluate science fiction if you also have knowledge to draw on from outside SF. Also, there is very little “pure” science fiction (however that might be interpreted), and a lot of the most interesting and innovative work appears on the borders of the genre. But looking at these borders can widen your own opportunities as a reviewer.
I once got a gig reviewing for a market that hardly ever touched SF by sending as sample reviews pieces I had written for an SF magazine of books by William Golding (Darkness Visible) and Iain Sinclair (Downriver); to me they were borderline SF, to the journal they were mainstream. Second: this is where fannish reviewing can have an advantage (I say “can” deliberately; this is not a given, and as you say fannish reviewing is as likely as any other reviewing to be myopic and chauvinistic). Someone immersed in the genre can give a far more knowledgeable and sympathetic reading of a work of science fiction than someone not deeply familiar with the genre for whom the devices and characteristics we take for granted do not come as second nature. But, third: this can also be a trap. If all you do is work within your comfort zone, your reviews can be repetitive (the dark obverse of reliable) and boring, because there is nothing fresh to say. As a reviewer, you bore yourself; I know, because I’ve been there myself on more than one occasion. So you want to expand your range, take on other challenges. But if all you know is science fiction, you’re not equipped for those other challenges. And I do feel that one of the reasons I’ve been able to last as a reviewer for more than forty years is because I stretch my interests into many other arenas. And I also feel that those other interests enrich the things I have to say about works of science fiction.
Christopher Priest: My point was a serious one about critics: what should they know of science fiction who only science fiction know? I suggest this test question should be engraved on the mind of anyone who commissions book reviews in the genre, and applied in each case. The blame for the genrefication of fantastic literature can be placed originally on the American pulp magazines of the last century and the people who edited them, and to a lesser extent on the writers who went along with it for commercial reasons. That’s long over, but the die is cast. It has been the work of a minority of independent writers to recognize this and try to restore the fantastic to the generality of literature. It’s made more difficult by the determined defence of genre tropes from people so completely invested in the genre that they have lost sight of the larger view. This is what I’m talking about now. Dismissals of fantastic literature are in effect only given credence because on the receiving end the genre mind is embedded, even in many people who should know better. One looks towards a body of critical thinking that should routinely challenge genre clichés, but with a few exceptions that is not there. By a consensual critical acceptance of the clichés, and in a lot of cases an apparent ignorance of the fact that they are clichés at all, the process of genrefication carries on.
Paul Kincaid: Chris, given how many words I’ve written about your work, has anything I’ve said made one iota of difference to what you have done? I’d be flattered if it had, but I doubt it very much. And I’m not altogether sure I’d want it: the reason I enjoy your books is because they are Christopher Priest novels, NOT Paul Kincaid conceptions of what a Christopher Priest novel should be. On the other hand, I do not hold with the popular notion that a review is simply saying: buy this, or don’t buy that. I am not writing a buyer’s guide. Years ago I came to the perhaps solipsistic conclusion that the principal target for my criticism (note: target, not audience) was myself. That is, I use my criticism to help myself to more fully understand and appreciate what is going on in any particular novel or body of work. Hopefully, there are others looking over my shoulder who might also discover something interesting or worthwhile in what I say, but I can’t set out to explain things to them until I have worked out how to explain it to myself. In other words, setting out to write criticism is to embark on a journey of self-discovery.
For example: in my reading around Mythago Wood for a forthcoming short book with Palgrave, I’ve been learning about a British nationalist movement in areas such as folklore, archaeology, music and the like between the wars, and some of the people involved in these areas were associated with Mosley’s British Union of Facists. Looking at the context for when the Huxleys were first exploring Mythago Wood allows us to see the novel as a contradiction to prevailing contemporary ideas in politics and culture. These rather inchoate notions are enhancing my reading of the novel, and if, in the course of writing my book, I am able to find a way to clarify them and set them down, they may also influence the way other people read the novel. But I have to explain it to myself before I can explain it to others.
Christopher Priest: Too much importance should probably not be placed on my suggestion that writers could learn from criticism. I see that as about one per cent of the function of well-written criticism, which is or should be a larger debate, around and in and about the literature. Do writers read reviews? I have heard of several who loftily claim, “I never read the reviews”, but I always suspect that’s not true. Remembering my remark that you shouldn’t mount an argument from a single example—if I see a review of something of mine, of course I read it, but in all truth I can rarely remember what it says. Praise is nice but quickly forgotten. A negative review is disappointing, but just as forgettable. (Unless the reviewer writes wittily: my early novels were trashed by Martin Amis, then a teenage wunderkind, who was memorably nasty. I have quoted these somewhere on my website.) In my half-century of being reviewed I can remember only one review that made a difference: it was written by Judith Hanna, recently lost to us, alas. Her review of my novel The Affirmation spotted something I had done with it that no one else had, and commended it. I took quiet but real encouragement from that.
Paul Kincaid: The first book of yours I ever reviewed was The Glamour (the original Cape hardback). As it happened I ran into you at a BSFA London meeting before the review appeared. As we propped up the bar together I said how much I had enjoyed the book, but that I thought the ending was weak. Two days later I received in the post a manuscript copy of a revised ending for the novel, the first of many revisions that the book underwent. You didn’t revise the ending in response to my comments, I’m sure the new version was already written before we met. But you recognised what I was saying about the book, and reacted in the best imaginable way. Another good example of this is Mike Harrison. A few years ago I gave a paper at a conference devoted to his work (the papers from that conference were collected in M. John Harrison: Critical Essays published by Gylphi in 2019). Mike attended the conference, listened to all the papers, asked questions, was happy to respond whether people were critical or supportive, and along the way confirmed something I’ve long suspected, which is that a key part of The Course of the Heart was inspired by Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts.
I’m tempted to say there’s a generational component in this, because most of my examples of good interplay between author and critic involve older established writers, whereas newer writers tend to be thinner skinned. That isn’t always the case. Brian Aldiss, for instance, was notoriously tetchy with anyone he perceived as attacking him. I remember writing once that what he called the “cosy catastrophes” weren’t all that cosy, and I got a postcard in response saying: “Why do you hate me so?” From what I’ve heard, I wasn’t alone in receiving such postcards.
The other sort of response you get is typified by a first-time author (in the years since I’ve never come across his name again) who complained to Strange Horizons because my review of his novel contained a major spoiler. Now, I hate the idea of spoiler warnings, because to my mind they infantilise the art of reading. I read books over and over again, and knowing what is going to happen has no effect on what I get from the book. But in this particular instance the spoiler I had so maliciously revealed came at the end of part one, no more than a quarter of the way into the book, and because there was a change in the character of the novel at that point it would have been impossible to talk about anything else in the book without that spoiler.
Christopher Priest: To me the current condition of SFF criticism looks a bit like a train wreck. Most of the press has given up on serious book reviewing, and the fantastic is mentioned only in passing or in parentheses. References to “sci-fi” are now common. I thought after more than half a century in this game I might see some change or improvement, but the uncaring and ill-informed shorthand media jabs carry on untroubled by reason.
Outside the newspapers and weekly magazines, opinion on books of course runs riot on the internet and in social media. There are still a few good writers around, but there’s a general absence of authority and experience, and much of the writing I have read recently is dull stylistically. That could just be a subjective view.
Paul Kincaid: All of this brings us, inevitably, to the “platonic ideal” of criticism. I think it was Neil Gaiman who once said something to the effect that good writing should stun the senses; really good writing should raise the dead and change the world. That is not an exact quote, Neil was pithier and wittier, but you get the idea. And that certainly applies to criticism. I don’t think that criticism should change books; after all, all criticism is postmortem as far as the text under review is concerned. You cannot write criticism until, there is something to critique. I might, for instance, write the most incisive and insightful essay ever composed about Tristram Shandy (if only), but that is never going to change the book, it exists and will continue to exist in the same peculiar form. But I might change the way people read the book, and that would be to change the book, to move the world fractionally on its axis.
Therefore, what I hope I might achieve with my criticism is also what I look for when I read other critics. Tell me something I don’t know. Make me understand the book better. Provide a way to explore the book. Help me think differently about the things the book says and does.
Christopher Priest: A platonic ideal of criticism – I haven’t the faintest idea what that means, but I do have formed feelings about the platonic dilemma of universal literacy, as it is applied to social media. Under the dilemma as applied, news in social media becomes rumours, information becomes gossip, and facts become opinion. For our present purposes of discussing criticism, I would extend this to literary judgements ultimately becoming part of cancel culture and depending on emojis for nuance. I exaggerate, but only to dramatize the point.
Here’s what’s intended to be a positive summary. Any generalization about SFF (or science fiction, or fantastic literature, or even “sci-fi”) is inherently flawed. Years ago, I wrote a long essay, which is still available in book form, about the widespread but accursed use of “it” as a holding pronoun for the published field of fantastic literature. “It” should be avoided. There are only individual books written by individual authors. Each book should be approached as a separate piece of literature, read and appreciated and discussed on general literary grounds, ignoring all blurbs and publisher claims, and informed by whatever special circumstances obtain. These include the standing and past achievements of the author, the quality of the use of language, the skill or otherwise of the characterization, the relative position apropos contemporaries and forebears, the market or readership at which the book appears to be aimed, and so on.
For example, a novel which is the second volume of a trilogy, or part of an ongoing series, is in a special circumstance, but that should be critically examined and challenged, not merely indulged by being taken for granted. Sounds a bit tiresome? Well, good criticism is and should be hard work. And never very popular—Alfred, Lord Tennyson once said that critics were lice in the locks of literature.
Paul Kincaid: And there isn’t only one way to read a book, and the critic shouldn’t be my one and only guide to interpreting the book. I have, on numerous occasions, been the only reviewer to praise a book that everyone else hated, or to hate a book that everyone else loved. That is part of what being a critic entails. You are not coming down from on high with tablets of stone that proclaim the one truth. You are offering a reading, you are saying how a book spoke to you, how it made you feel, what it made you think. Those are entirely personal responses. But sharing those responses can help other people to interpret their own response to the book. Even if they disagree with everything you say, just the fact of you saying it might make them think a little more carefully about their own response to the book. If I read a piece of criticism that makes me go: oh, I didn’t get that from the book, then even if I subsequently decide that the reason I didn’t get that from the book was because it wasn’t in there in the first place, still it has made me consider the work more closely, and there have been many occasions when that has led to other valuable insights.
I write criticism because books make me think, and one of the best ways I have found of doing my thinking is via words on a page. I write to clarify what I think about the book. Hopefully, what I write may also help others to clarify what they think. At least that’s what I get from reading criticism.
But to return to the present state of criticism: I confess that I am not optimistic, either. Despite how it might seem, I think there are fewer venues for serious criticism than there used to be. The internet clearly favours immediacy over depth, and while more people are writing reviews, those reviews are saying less. A few years ago I was at a launch party for a book that includes one of my short stories. While there, I met the head of the publishing company. He asked me what I did and I said I wrote reviews. This caught his attention and he asked where, so I reeled off a load of journals where my work appeared, and I could see his eyes glazing over. Then somebody else came up, and he asked her what she did. I’m a book blogger, she replied, and within seconds he had literally turned his back on me. The book blogger was of value, the reviewer was not. I think that is becoming a more and more common attitude. I’m not sure how the patience of lengthy critical evaluation competes with the immediate excitement of a cover reveal. And the trouble is that the fewer opportunities there are for criticism, the fewer people will be tempted to write it, and I think authors and their works will be poorer as a result.