In this episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, the critic and reviewer Paul Kincaid joins Aisha and Dan to discuss how and why critics persevere in their work, what changes about it as the platforms and delivery mechanisms that surround criticism shift, and the challenges that face those writers who seek to collect or look back on their previous work. He also discusses A Traveller In Time, the forthcoming volume of reviews and essays by the late Maureen Kincaid Speller, a founding critical friend—and Paul’s wife of more than thirty years.
Alongside memories of Maureen and her critical practice, Paul remarks on the work of John Clute, Jared Shurin’s definitions of cyberpunk, the book as object ... and why moving house can be such a pain.
Critical Friends Episode 8
Aisha Subramanian: Welcome to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast. I’m Aisha Subramanian.
Dan Hartland: And I’m Dan Hartland. In every episode of Critical Friends, we’ll be discussing SFF reviewing: what it is, why we do it, how it’s going.
Aisha Subramanian: In this episode, we’re sitting down with veteran critic Paul Kincaid to talk about his own history of reviewing, the process of anthologizing and collecting criticism, and why you should read Maureen Kincaid Speller’s forthcoming collection.
Dan Hartland: We began by trying to establish whether we even like books.
Dan Hartland: Okay, so we are here with the esteemed Paul Kincaid after our what I have to admit was a little bit of a summer vacation last month—which was mostly my fault because my idea of a summer vacation is to move house.
Paul Kincaid: You are weird.
Dan Hartland: It has been said! There is the moment as well—and I’m sure many people listening to this are the same—there’s that moment when you’re moving house, when you realize, “Oh, I really did buy a lot of books.”
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah. There’s also quite a prolonged moment—possibly weeks and months—of really, really hating books.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. I haven’t got through that yet. I’m still there.
Aisha Subramanian: I mean, all they do apparently is take up space and collect dust.
Paul Kincaid: The last time we moved house was 1990, because the experience was so horrendous that we decided not to move again.
Aisha Subramanian: I don’t think you should ever move again after that!
Paul Kincaid: What I remember from that is the number of occasions you pick up something thinking, “Why do we have multiple copies of this book?" And equally the number of times you’re thinking, “I’m sure we had that book. Where is it?"
Dan Hartland: And there are these moments of clarity, aren’t there, where you are moving house and you realize these things, but then, I don’t know, what is it, six weeks, eight weeks, three months into the new house, you’re like, “No, no ... definitely need to buy those duplicate coppers again!" And all the habits ... I’m in the moment of transition.
Paul Kincaid: Can I give you a … a promise, a look to the future. When you get as old as me, I’m now in the process of downsizing the number of books I have to get rid of some books, doing some building work on the house. There’s less, there’s less space. So I have to get rid of a fair number of books to allow for everything else.
Dan Hartland: Is that as painful as it sounds?
Paul Kincaid: ... It’s worse.
Dan Hartland: Well, thank you for that vision of my future.
Paul Kincaid: It comes to us all.
Dan Hartland: Well, one of the things that would be really useful to talk about is related to your—self-confessed, these are not my words!—great age. Which is: Aisha and I recently were looking through the Strange Horizons archive of reviews. Names come and go often. So there are people that produce a lot of reviews for a short period of time, and then they go away. Some people come back; and there’s this undulating coming-and-going of names.
That’s not the case with your name, Paul. You are just always there, and I just wonder: what is the source, if you even know, of this persistence? That you ... you keep reviewing, you keep doing criticism?
Paul Kincaid: I think part of it is, is very simply, that’s what I do and it just never occurs to me to not do it. Um, I’ve been writing criticism in one form or another since the late seventies. It’s sort of ingrained. I don’t think about it now. It’s just a natural way of doing it, and when I’m reading for pleasure, I end up thinking in my head, “How I would review this book?" What I would do, what I need to say about it, what it opens up for me. So it’s just, it’s an ingrained habit of mind.
Dan Hartland: Is that an unalloyed good thing? So you mentioned, even when you are reading a book—quote unquote—for pleasure, not for review, you’re kind of reviewing it. I mean, is that something that ... gets in the way? Is it something that you’re grateful for?
Paul Kincaid: Sometimes yes. Sometimes it’s a right pain. There are times when you … you just want to shut off. I’ll give you an example. Uh, a few months ago I read Daisy Jones & The Six. Because there is nothing like anything I have ever reviewed, ever would review. It is as far away from what might be seen as my province as possible. And I was reading away quite happily, and I certainly found myself constantly thinking about the technique, about the structure of the book and about not what I was reading, but the shape of what I was reading. Even something like that, I just can’t get away from it. It’s a pain sometimes, but it’s also interesting.
Dan Hartland: And is that something that happens to you with things other than books as well? So is it, is it a specifically literary thing that you do, or does it kind of affect texts of all types?
Paul Kincaid: Kind of, but not to the same extent. Films and television, I tend to regard them that way when I have an idea that I might want to review it.
Dan Hartland: That’s really interesting. To link it back to the original question about persistence, the persistence is literary to some extent. There’s a weak link, but it’s a link, with books specifically. I mean, is there ever, it sounds like there is, moments when you wished, “Oh gosh, I wish I didn’t have to be this way!"
Paul Kincaid: Yeah, obviously. And there are times ... I mean, quite frankly, there are times when you are reviewing a book and you know, you are reviewing the book and you think, “God, I wish I didn’t have to do this." I’m reading a book at the moment The Big Book of Cyberpunk.
Dan Hartland: Is that the Jared Shurin?
Paul Kincaid: Yes. Yeah. Yes. 1,150 pages, and I’m about 800 pages into it. Part of me is going to really enjoy writing the review. I’ve got a lot of it planned out in my mind already, and I’ve got far more notes than I’ve got space for in my review, but at the same time, I’m thinking, “Oh God, really, can I just put it ... You know, I’ve been doing this for days and days and days and days and days. Can I just go away from it? Leave it?"
It is just so big. I don’t think anybody who isn’t reviewing the book will ever read it beginning to end. It’s not that sort of book and, quite frankly, if they do read it beginning to end, I pity them. But when you do read it beginning to end, you see connections, repetitions, links, and you can’t stop yourself. I can’t ... well, I can’t stop myself.
Dan Hartland: That’s … that’s so interesting, because you have just answered the first question, which is you just—you can’t stop yourself. So there’s no noble answer to this persistence, you know, to your contribution to the field over decades. It’s just ’cause it’s what you do and you can’t stop it.
Paul Kincaid: The simple response to that is: I never thought about it as a contribution to the field. This is just what I did. Other people interpret it as a contribution to the field. But I actually think if I started thinking those terms, I’d freeze up.
Aisha Subramanian: From what you just said, that idea that you put ... you do this work and you put it into the world or into a particular publication, and presumably the hope is that someone somewhere is going to read it and enjoy it. Is there a point when you start thinking of yourself as someone who is being read?
Paul Kincaid: I’ve got to, I’ve got to see it in my terms, not as some sort of noble endeavor on the sake of the whole of science fiction, because that would be soul destroying. One thing that strikes me about contributions to the field is absolutely they’re in the eye of the beholder.
Dan Hartland: It’s interesting that you bring up the Shurin book. Any anthology is also itself a form of criticism, right? So you are reviewing it. You are doing criticism. But in collecting those stories and in writing the introduction, Jared is also doing criticism.
Paul Kincaid: Oh, yes. Very much.
Dan Hartland: It begins to get a bit recursive. Does it? How do you avoid that when you’ve been especially doing it for such a period of time that you’ve been through several of these critical moments?
Paul Kincaid: I’ve been putting together a collection. A third collection of reviews and essays and things that I’m hoping will be coming out sometime in the next couple of years.
Dan Hartland: Is this an exclusive for Critical Friends?
Paul Kincaid: Probably, yes, but I’m not gonna say ... I’m not gonna say who’s potentially publishing it or anything like that. The draft I originally did included all my reviews of collections of reviews, because I’ve done a lot of them. And I read through the whole thing at the end, and I’ve decided to take all of those out because it’s too recursive. I’m going in a circle that, you know, you can’t get off of. So I’m leaving, I’m taking out the reviews of reviews. I have this vision of writing a book that’s made up of reviews, of reviews, but the reviews themselves were also of reviews and there’s no end to that. And I just ... it’s crazy. It was doing my head in, so I’m going to take them out.
Dan Hartland: One of the consequences, you know, of the perseverance is that you keep ... you wind up with this kind of back catalog that you’re anthologizing in one way or another. How did you begin building up that back catalog? Like this is the obvious question to ask, but it’s such ... I do find it interesting beccause almost every reviewer has a slightly different story. Like, you say that you do it because you do it. But there was a point where you didn’t do it. So how did it begin?
Paul Kincaid: Okay. Um, this is going back to the early seventies. I was at university in Northern Ireland, at University of Ulster, and where I was living at the time, there was only, other than the university bookshop, there was only one little news agents that had books in it. And, most of these tucked away in a rather difficult-to-reach corner of the shop, were those old digests of science fiction: compact book editions of, you know, New Worlds, Science Fantasy, things like that.
So I amassed quite a few of those and was reading them, and actually that is where I really got thoroughly into science fiction. So when I moved on to do a post-grad at Warwick, I discovered purely by chance that there was a science fiction convention in Coventry that Easter, the year I was at Warwick. So I thought ... God knows! You know, “I’ll go along and see what it’s like." And I did and rather enjoyed it, started getting involved in fandom. And of course when you are in fandom, there’s always things called fanzines. And I thought ... maybe, you know, everybody was doing them. So I thought I should ... I should at least contribute to them.
But I didn’t feel comfortable writing the sort of, jokey, self-revelation-type pieces that made up most of British fan writing at the time. So I thought I’d write about a book. You know, we’re all science fiction fans. We obviously like books, and I’d just read Chip Delany's Triton, as it was then called. And, having studied philosophy at university, the thing that struck me was the philosophical bit at the end of the book, the afterword. So I wrote about that and it was ... I was rejected by a fanzine.
But there was a comment in the, “We Also Heard From" bit in the next issue of the fanzine saying, “Somebody even wrote to me to tell me that Delany’s Triton was all about philosophy!" That was it. That was the sum total of my impact on science fiction fandom at the time.
But I’d started doing it. I’d started doing it because I couldn’t think of anything else to write. I did write a few stories, but they were mostly crap. But one thing I seemed to be able to do is write book reviews. So I got into writing reviews for Vector. At that time, the late seventies, there was a big ... well, basically a revolution in the BSFA [British Science Fiction Association]. A new breed of fans, the younger fans, were sort of taking over from those who’d been running the organization for years, and I found myself part of that new company—and therefore I was, you know, one of the writers that they kept turning to for reviews.
And that was it. I just started. At that stage, you had 400 words for a review in Vector and I was doing at least one review per issue for a lot, lot of the time. Practice. You just start finding yourself doing it more and more and more, and it becomes ... it just become just what you do. The way you ... the way you are, the way you perceive books. It’s like I started there rather than getting to that place.
Dan Hartland: The question I asked was, “Was there a point where this wasn’t what you do?" But your answer is, “No, no, no. It was always what I did."
Paul Kincaid: As soon as I started doing it, it was what I ... it was just how I did it.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. Yeah. Was that how everyone else was doing it? Because I’m conscious you’re talking about the late seventies, so this is after Mike Harrison at New Worlds. So was it ... was how you do things being done elsewhere? Did you feel different?
Paul Kincaid: I didn’t feel different. I was reading book reviews. I mean, I’d read a lot of Mike’s reviews and John Clute’s reviews for New Worlds and picking up what reviews I could. I always read reviews in the newspapers—there used to be reviews in newspapers in those days!—and I suppose you just absorb it by osmosis. You just absorb that sort of critical angle.
Dan Hartland: So you were conscious of being part of a ... of a critical ... “community" might be too strong a word?
Paul Kincaid: Far too strong a word.
Dan Hartland: Tradition?
Paul Kincaid: I’m not even sure I’d grace it with that strong a word. It was more like that was just where I positioned my own writing. I wrote reviews and all these other people wrote reviews. So I was presumably part of it, but I didn’t see it as a unity. I didn’t see myself as part of something that was going on.
Aisha Subramanian: Earlier, when Dan was asking about how much you felt that you were part of a kind of critical community or tradition ... I suppose the difference between those two things is, with a tradition, you are aware that other people have done work and you are responding to it, whereas, with a community, there’s a sense that you are one of the people being responded to.
Paul Kincaid: Ooh, I like that. I occasionally, very occasionally, get emails from people I’ve never heard of saying how much they enjoyed something I wrote or something like that. That’s always gratifying. It must’ve been when my second collection, Call and Response, was published, or had a launch party as it were, to coincide with the London Worldcon in 20 ... whatever, 14?
Aisha Subramanian: (It was 14.)
Paul Kincaid: It was 14? Uh, the memory goes, you know! But the launch party was me and John Clute and Gary Wolfe. And I felt simultaneously the junior in that company, but also in that company, because they’re both writers I respect as writers as well as as critics, even though I couldn’t write like John to save my life.
Aisha Subramanian: Can anyone?
Paul Kincaid: I presume there’s a pasticher somewhere who might be able to do it, but, you know, I couldn’t!
John was always scary. When I first got into fandom, John was the scary one because people knew he was erudite, but they didn’t know how to take him. So you’d always get warnings about John and how fearsome he was. And I worked out pretty quickly that the reason everybody else found he was fearsome was because nobody dared to challenge him. He knew more than anybody, so you didn’t argue with him, and therefore he became this ... object more than a person.
But I challenged him. I argued with him, I always have done, ever since I first first met him, and I got the distinct impression that John enjoyed that. So that’s how I feel I got into that group without actually ever feeling I was a member of the group. I was still part of it.
Dan Hartland: One thing that strikes me is that I think what you were just talking about could go for critics more broadly as well. Because the sort of trick of criticism—I don’t know whether you agree—is that you have to write this thing that is robust and holds up to scrutiny, and so seems complete. But actually, one of the reasons that we do criticism is because we like to have these kind of conversations. A critic produces something that seems quite final—and a good critic produces something that seems very final—but, like Clute, we kind of want to argue about it anyway.
And I just wonder whether, to return to Aisha’s question about being read: being read involves having an audience, but also does it involve engaging with that audience too? Or do you just write the things and let them go?
Paul Kincaid: Oh God, do I? There are, given the number of reviews I’ve written over the years—bloody hell, an awful lot of them!—there are certainly reviews I’ve just written them and let them go. Contractual obligation reviews, if you get the meaning. I didn’t really want to write it, or I didn’t really have anything to say, but I produced something and sent it out there. But, most of the time, I write to express my view, but not to overwhelm everybody else’s view. I like arguing. I like to win in arguments! I like to be the one who comes out ahead! But at the same time, I do like to argue. I like to challenge people to change their mind and to have myself challenged to change my mind. And it does happen.
I think if all you’re doing is the passive job of putting words down—just go out there and that’s it, you know, they’re out there, they’re no longer part of you, you never hear from ’em again. You know, they’ve left home and never write. That feels sort of redundant. It feels like a wasted opportunity, and I don’t like wasting opportunities.
Dan Hartland: So I was listening to ... are we allowed to talk about other podcasts?
Paul Kincaid: ’Course we are.
Aisha Subramanian: Um, it depends. Not too much praise though.
Dan Hartland: So there’s this other terrible podcast that no one should listen to called Decoding TV. It’s presented by Dave Chen. They did a recent special episode on ... I don’t know whether you saw the New York Times piece about movie criticism on TikTok, which caused a bit of a stir in certain circles. There was lots of sort of discussion about studios getting involved in funding various movie critics on TikTok and YouTube, is that good? Is TikTok as a format even able to do criticism? All those sorts of things. But the podcast was so good because it held a lot of space for the idea that, hey, TikTok is the platform that the next generation have. We can’t necessarily change that so much.
Dave and Patrick Klepek, who were having the conversation, came up in blogs—which I suppose you and I did, Aisha—and then, Paul, you came up in paper fanzines.
Paul Kincaid: Because I am ancient.
Dan Hartland: I didn’t say Gutenberg, you know, you weren’t hand pressing the ... well, actually maybe.
Paul Kincaid: I have done!
Dan Hartland: [laughter] Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, each generation has a slightly different story of how they come up, which affects the format or expectation of not just what they produce, but also that dialogue, that engagement that feels like an important part of the process, but is different for each generation. And I don’t know where I’m gonna land on this myself, which is why I’m gonna turn this into a question, which is: do you notice those changes as you move through them, Paul? Because I mentioned the Strange Horizons archive that you appear in very early on ... but Strange Horizons—you know, if we go Mike-Ashley-Rise-of-the-Cyberzines—that was leading edge when you first landed on that! So do you consciously move through the platforms? Or do they just kind of find you? Do they change how you write? Do they change how you don’t let the reviews go? What impact does that change have?
Paul Kincaid: Let’s go back to the idea of moving through platforms. When I started writing, I was writing on paper, I was using a typewriter as well, you know, really ancient stuff. And you know, you’d send it off and it would with luck appear some weeks or months later. I got into the habit ... I always read my reviews when they finally appear, partly because in those early reviews they appeared so long after I’d written them that I’d forgotten what the hell I said. And it’s a way of reminding myself.
So you start doing that, the types of magazines you write for start to change as you become competent or develop interests that lead you into new areas. So you start writing for different magazines, you start writing for different journals. You know, I moved from things like Vector and fanzines into things like, Foundation and more academic journals, things like that. I got into the TLS a few times as well, which is rather pleasing. So you’re changing—you’re changing your approach slightly with each one, but not as much as you’d think. You know, you’re writing 400 words for Vector and writing 1200 words, 1500 words for Foundation: obviously there’s a difference because of the length, which is a difference in how much you can say, and therefore a difference in the way you can structure an argument.
But the argument itself is not necessarily that different. And then online magazines like Strange Horizons came along and in a sense that was ... you know, I moved naturally into those. I still write for print, I still write online. I have a blog which I write occasionally. So you use different media and it allows you sometimes different modes of expression, but it’s not that different in the substance of what it is you are saying.
That’s my experience. It’s not always what I pick up. I mean, let’s say when the book blogging phenomenon really got going, I got really, really irritated with the people for whom the most important thing was cover reveals or unboxing or things like that. Because that turns the book into an object, not into what a book really is, which is a mode of expression, a part of your interior cinema if you like. And there is always that carry-through in what I write, whatever the medium: that what I’m writing about is the substance of the book, the substance of what is going on within that book. I’ve never been remotely interested in … in the book-as-object.
When Maureen and I got married, there were people down, we had the party here at our house. There were people going along the shelves and taking books off and just checking whether they were first editions or not. And I think they were disappointed that many of them weren’t first editions because I’m not that sort of book collector. I like my books for the content, not for whether it’s a first edition or, uh, anything as special or anything like that. Because the book-as-object really, really doesn’t interest me. So that approach to books, which I don’t think I can justify by the name criticism, is one of the things that irritated me.
But as long as the people are about writing about what’s inside a book or talking about it as we are talking here, that’s okay. That I like, that I can go with, and the actual medium isn’t going to bother me too much, so long as what I do with that medium is on the same spectrum as what I do whenever I’m talking about a book.
Aisha Subramanian: And I’m also sort of slightly thinking now about how much I care about books as objects, and to what extent I do or don’t ...
Dan Hartland: I mean, we began this conversation talking about my experience with having an awful lot of objects that are books. Like Paul, I don’t collect the first editions. I don’t even check, really. But nevertheless, I also still prefer to read the book in its paper form. So if I’m reviewing a book, or just reading for pleasure, I still kind of enjoy most of all holding the paper book rather than reading it on Kindle (other e-readers are available). I prefer the experience. So there must be some element of me liking the book as an object. But I would agree, Paul, that it’s not the thing itself. It’s not the primary purpose of the reading, which I think for some people is—yeah, just having them is the thing ... which I get! They are lovely things to have!
Paul Kincaid: I suppose one exception would be illustrated books or graphic novels or anything that involves something other than just words on a page. There you need to talk about such things as reproduction, how they come across on the page, how they fit within the text and things like that. So you’re talking about something slightly extra-literary in that, but in the main—no, it’s, it’s just the words.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah. And it feels like the discussion that we started off with was essentially the disconnect between wanting to have the content of the books available to you and the massive inconvenience of their physical forms just taking up space in your house.
Paul Kincaid: And yet, like Dan, I’m not a great fan of ebooks. I read them, but I don’t think I’ve ever read an ebook purely for the pleasure of reading a book. The only times I read ebooks are when it’s a book for research or it’s a book for review.
Aisha Subramanian: I think I’m the opposite in some ways! I will read an ebook for pleasure. If anything, for pleasure and for quite a casual kind of reading experience. But for anything where I feel like I want to pay attention, and where attention is going to be a big part of my thinking about the book or my enjoyment of the book, that’s when I want the physical copy. So I read a lot of sort of trashy historical romance in ebook form, because I can just read that and I don’t have to really ... it is one of the times where I can turn off being a critic, to go back to something else that we talked about. Whereas I don’t think I can do good critical work with an ebook.
Paul Kincaid: I’ve had to sometimes, but it’s not as much fun whenever I’m offered a book for review and they say, you know, you can have it as an ebook or, you know, I’ll see if I can get a finished copy. I always ask for the finished copy, if at all possible, because there’s something about the way the words are arranged on a printed page compared to how they’re arranged on a screen, that makes a big difference in appreciation of the text, I think, and I really don’t understand that. It’s some sort of animal instinct in my mind, I suppose, but it’s the case.
Dan Hartland: I’m interested that this exchange began, Paul, with you saying that you weren’t interested in books as objects, but in fact we’ve realized that something about, if not this sort of objecty-ness of them, but something about the physicality of a text, does influence the reading.
Paul Kincaid: Yes.
Dan Hartland: And I completely agree.
Aisha Subramanian: Me, too.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. For me, it’s actually about part of my technique of doing criticism. So I’m an awful person that writes on pages and sticks notes in things and, you know, finds parts of a text by physically applying myself to the pages. And that is so much less effective an approach with a digital file.
Paul Kincaid: I’ve been sorting through some of Maureen’s books. I’ve a lot of her books on Native American literature and politics. I’ve donated them to her PhD supervisor because he and his students would get more use out of them than I ever would. But some of them you ... you don’t actually have a book. You have this rainbow of little Post-It notes sticking out around the side and actually working your way through it is almost impossible. I honestly dunno how she did that.
Dan Hartland: Well, since you mentioned Maureen, I wonder whether we could talk briefly about her collection, which is coming out later this year. And I know you’ve been super involved with the editor of that book, Nina Allan, in kind of producing it and so on. I genuinely don’t know how or where to start with this, but we’ve spoken about your volumes of reviews, which of course were produced, if you like, in harness. So you’re curating yourself, are overseeing the kind of ... the canon, if you like, the Kincaid canon.
Paul Kincaid: God, I suppose it is, but it’s a horrible thought.
Dan Hartland: Isn’t it? But that’s not the situation here, right? So other people are doing that for Maureen.
Paul Kincaid: Yeah. She wouldn’t have done it, honestly. She wouldn’t have done it. We lived together for 30-odd years and I spent most of that time trying to persuade her to produce books and she would nod and say, “Yes." And then not do it. And there’d be an excuse, there’d be a reason she never got around to producing anything like that. And it would’ve happened with this. If she had been doing this book, putting this book together, it would never have appeared. There would’ve been ... she ... there would’ve been some reason not to go ahead with it, probably right at the last minute, but it would not have happened. It wouldn’t have appeared.
The only way that a collection of Maureen’s writing could come out is if somebody else took on the task of compiling it. And Nina did a brilliant job. I’m heartily grateful that she did. Actually after she started that, Paul March-Russell suggested doing the same. So something would’ve appeared of Maureen’s writing anyway. But this collection is excellent. And it’s the only way it would’ve appeared.
Dan Hartland: Do you know why? Do you know? Because it’s so interesting, isn’t it? We’ve spent … we’ve spent the last minutes or so talking about reviewers and why we review and, you know, how we do it, and where we do it; the process of then sort of winnowing that product down into a canon. Why did Maureen do most of those things—do you know?—and then just was not interested or just didn’t feel, at the last moment as you say, that the book was a thing that she could or wanted to do?
Paul Kincaid: Practically the first thing I ever talked to her about was to persuade her to review for Vector. I was Reviews Editor at the time when we got together, and she kept putting me off for quite a long time, saying, “I’ve not read enough. I don’t know enough. I can’t trust myself on this." Eventually, you know, obviously she did start writing and she wrote very good reviews right from the start.
But I think that sense of herself as not being quite good enough, not being quite knowledgeable enough, not having read quite enough, was a persistent part. It stayed with her throughout her life. She couldn’t shake it.
Dan Hartland: So I agree that the volume is great. Aisha and I have seen the text of it, and in her introduction Nina does talk about Maureen as a woman in criticism and that must have been part of that feeling that she had, right? Because I’m conscious, you know, we’ve spoken about when you were coming up Paul, and we’re talking about, you know, Mike Harrison and John Clute and Gary Wolfe ... and this is ... surely that’s part of the picture here.
Paul Kincaid: I’m sure it is. Fandom, and Maureen and I both came through fandom though we came at it slightly different ways ... fandom was always incredibly sexist throughout the time I knew it. There were more and more women getting involved, but they were never, I think, central—right into the nineties, I suppose, which is pretty much the time we started being somewhat less engaged with fandom. But right into the nineties, conventions would have “Women in X" panels, and they were often the only panel at that convention with any women on the panel. It wasn’t conscious, but it was something that was just done. Everybody did it. Nobody thought about it. And therefore any woman trying to establish yourself, having—trying to have—opinions was going to have a hard time of it.
I get it in the neck sometime, you know, for some particular views or something like that. But basically I don’t get it in the neck for being a critic. Maureen would’ve done and I wouldn’t have seen most of it.
Dan Hartland: So that’s ... I think that’s one reason why the collection is so important actually, because here is work as you say, which hasn’t yet been collected despite the fact that it clearly is … is worthy of the volume. And will demonstrate—does demonstrate, from its breadth and depth and the publication dates—that, even though perhaps the visibility still isn’t there, women critics are writing if we provide the platforms—and we’re back to that, that word platforms again.
Paul Kincaid: Yes. There are thankfully many more women writing criticism now, and it’s often some of the best criticism out there. I don’t want to say that there’s a difference in tone, a difference in quality in the writing, because she was a woman; there is a difference in tone, there is a difference in quality, because she was Maureen and because she had that very distinctive outlook on what she was doing. I suspect at some points it would’ve been easy for other people to dismiss it not because it was Maureen, but because it was a woman.
Dan Hartland: And the volume is A Traveller In Time, which is out with Luna Press in—I think it’s September, isn’t it, Paul?
Paul Kincaid: Well, I think the official launch date is that launch at Fantasy Con. So that—is that the 16th?
Dan Hartland: It is, yes.
Paul Kincaid: Official launch date, but it’s available to pre-order all over the place now. It’s available, it should be bought. It is worth reading partly because her voice ... her voice comes through on every single page and it’s very distinctive, very sharp. Very funny. I remember many, many times reading her stuff and thinking, “I wish I could draw it like that."
Dan Hartland: When we published the tribute issue to Maureen, one of the things came through in an awful lot of the things that people wrote about Maureen was that voice. And yeah, its distinctiveness as you say.
Paul Kincaid: Yeah. Yeah. I always thought she was a better writer than me and don’t argue with it. That’s just the way I feel.
Aisha Subramanian: So A Traveller In Time obviously is a collection of writings. And so to go back to something that we were talking about earlier where we were talking about your collections, Paul, and deciding ultimately to leave out certain things because you didn’t see them as being necessarily that valuable or as being too recursive.
And obviously with something like, with something like this volume, there’s a much stronger need to not leave things out. But on the other hand, a very limited space to do it.
Paul Kincaid: I’ve counted. There’s an awful lot of pieces in here, but it’s nowhere near comprehensive. Whether all the pieces left out would be worth collecting is another matter. But there were a lot of things that she wrote that aren’t in there as well—probably another collection’s worth at least choosing what goes in, I mean, I’m glad Nina took this on because I hate doing it when I’m putting my own collections of reviews together. Because you’re trying to second-guess yourself all the time.
You know, you’re thinking, “Oh, does that review really work the way you think it does?" Or, you know, “Is that saying anything worthwhile? Or is it just repetitious?" You know, “Are those two pieces just doing the same thing?" Should you just drop one of them and you always get it wrong? That’s just the way these things work, but it’s a nightmare job. As I was saying, I put together material for another collection a few months ago, building on something I’ve been sort of noodling with for a long time before then I sent it off as a draft as it were. And the moment I sent it off, I was thinking, no, yeah, those pieces take them out: you know, they don’t work or maybe I should add that, that piece in or—you are always arguing with yourself.
Editing like that is a nightmare job. I don’t know how editors per se do it. Like you, I suppose.
Aisha Subramanian: I’m not sure how we—I’m not sure how editors—do it either!
Paul Kincaid: So the thing about doing a … putting a collection together is not amassing the material. The material’s all there. You just jam it together and then you cut it out. Putting a collection together is about removing things, not putting them in. This collection had two pieces from the 1990s. Everything else was from this century. You know, they were pieces I had a lot of time for when I wrote them. So I automatically included them and put ’em in. Then I read the whole thing and said “No no, they’re too old now. They’re not relevant. Take them out. Take them out."
Dan Hartland: Because there’s an element there, isn’t there, where it feels like a volume of that sort is a retrospective, but currency is still important to you by the sounds of it. So, you know, the older pieces felt old. So even in a retrospective they don’t go in.
Paul Kincaid: I think they, it ... it’s a matter of noticing your own style. Style changes. The way I write now is nowhere near the way I wrote 20, 30, 40 years ago. And you look at pieces like that and you think, “Does it actually look like it’s the same author to somebody else?" It may do, but I’m too close, too intimately connected to it, to not feel that what I’m doing there doesn’t quite work. Not in the way that I would if I was doing it now. It’s not thought through, not carefully planned, but more a matter of instinct as you’re going through it and you sense ... I don’t know what’s wrong, but it’s wrong.
Dan Hartland: That’s that, that’s my approach to criticism. Full stop!
Paul Kincaid: The thing about writing criticism is that you really have to understand what it is you are reading, and if you don’t understand it, you can’t see what’s right about it or what’s wrong about it. But if you write a piece of criticism that doesn’t say what’s right or what’s wrong about the piece, you are not doing criticism.
You know, it’s essential to approach each new book or collection or whatever with essentially a blank mind, a blank canvas. See what fills it up, what things stand out that you want to make a note of, what things stand out that you think, “Oh God, that’s horrible, that really shouldn’t have been done, or, that’s a wonderful piece that needs to be emphasized."
You’ve got to ... you’ve got to be aware of not necessarily how the thing works, but how it works for you. Because criticism is always intensely personal. You are writing for a public sphere, but you are writing personally about it. It is your own mindset that is engaged with the work, and it can’t be anything other than personal.
Paul Kincaid: I am no judge of what I’ve said. Can’t even remember what I’ve said mostly.
Dan Hartland: And you are producing a collection of your own work, are you, Paul?
Aisha Subramanian: Unrelatedly!
Dan Hartland: Thanks for listening to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast. Our music is “Dial Up" by Lost Cosmonauts. You can hear more of their music at grandvalise.bandcamp.com. See you next time.