In this first episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian, Dan Hartland, and Maureen Kincaid Speller present a discussion on where, if anywhere, we can find this thing called SFF criticism.
Critical Friends Episode 1
Dan Hartland: Welcome to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast.
Aisha Subramanian: I’m Aisha Subramanian.
Dan Hartland: I’m Dan Hartland.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: And I’m Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Aisha Subramanian: In every episode of Critical Friends, we’ll be talking about SFF criticism, what it is, why we do it, how it’s going.
Dan Hartland: In this episode, we’ll be talking about where SFF criticism can be found online right now, and whether it can be found at all.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: That means we’ll be thinking about how criticism is doing online, why it’s being done that way, and where we might take it in future.
Dan Hartland: Okay. We’re here this week to talk about where, if anywhere, we can find this thing called SFF criticism.
Aisha Subramanian: Um, if we say nowhere, does that just make this a very short episode, or …
Dan Hartland: That’s the concern? Yeah.
Aisha Subramanian: Okay. So we’re not, we’re not saying nowhere, okay.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: We’re not saying nowhere, but I think we might be suggesting that it’s not always immediately obvious where we might find these things.
Dan Hartland: I think that’s really important because if it’s not obvious, it’s incredibly difficult to build a community or critical mass around a particular discussion or topic, if no one can find where the conversation is happening, it’s actually quite difficult to have a conversation at all.
Aisha Subramanian: I think that criticism as a whole has been one of the casualties of the move away from blogs, that often when I see any sort of conversation happening, it’s happening in spaces like Twitter, which … not great for archiving conversations or indeed for having them at all, but that’s a different matter. Or places like, at least five or six years ago, Tumblr and these are sites which are really not built for preserving a body of text and people’s responses to that body of text in any sort of sustained or even just basically chronological way. And I found that really difficult to navigate, personally.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes. I always have done as well. I enjoy the cut and thrust of a Twitter debate, but you do kind of have to be there at a particular moment. There’s no asynchronous forums that I can think of, places to actually go and debate something at the moment.
So again, it may be that I’m just not seeing them, but everything I can think of, if you say, talk about, using a Discord, for instance, you have to be there. If you have to sort of sit and read back, you’ve just lost the thread of the discussion before you’ve actually got into it. I tend to notice, being an early riser and on GMT or British Summer Time, that I tend to actually miss a lot of what’s going on because it tends to be late at night, at other time zones. So I usually get up in the morning and find that something’s—it’s like a storm that’s been through overnight and all I could do is look at the debris and think, oh, okay, and then it’s already gone before I’ve actually had a chance to engage with it.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. I think there’s something really in this, and I know that Abigail Nussbaum, who is one of the few people still really waving the blogging flag, and all power to her for that, thinks as well, that, especially, the death of Google Reader really had a huge impact on blogging, which was where a lot of criticism outside of journals that very few people have access to was actually happening.
So, in the absence of that kind of space, where as you both rightly say, people can lay out their arguments in a way that sit there so that other people can mull over them too, before responding either there or on their own blog, I think that the whole conversation is kind of evaporated. If not evaporated, then certainly become extremely atomized and difficult to gather together.
I remember years ago, blogs such as, I’m thinking Torque Control, which was Niall Harrison’s BSFA Blog, would gather links, links to these essays that people could read. And although I’m not as against Twitter threads… as some are, you know here is my thread number one of 472,000, they are no replacement for a blog, which looks very similar to a traditional essay.
I mean, maybe that’s part of the problem, that we’re looking for something that looks like that, maybe we should be looking for something else. So for instance, some of the best criticism I’ve seen recently is in video form on YouTube.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yeah. Actually, one of the things … I’ve had a couple of projects in mind, one of which was to actually sort of start looking at YouTube and book vlogs. I’m not a visual person, so I don’t tend to go for things where I have to sit and watch, but if I can treat it as a podcast, so I’ve got it running in the background and I don’t sort of bother much with the visuals, so I think I could probably get engaged. The other thing I’d actually been thinking of for a little while, and Paul Kincaid and I’ve talked about this without really sort of starting anything, was to actually start some sort of little project to gather up links on a regular basis and put them in a place, probably another blog.
So actually put them in a place where people can go and look at them and see if anything comes out of that. I mean, I think too, that there is almost certainly a certain level of conversation going on through the back channels now, you know, through things like Slacks and private Discords and whatever else there is available.
And so of course, there’s the trying to get to where those things are happening . Apart from that, as well as trying to sift through all the podcasts that are available. And if they provide transcriptions, that’s great. There’s stuff that you can read if you don’t want to actually sit down and listen to everything. But again, it’s as you say, Dan, everything is very atomized. And if people aren’t aware of what’s out there, it can be very difficult to get a foothold in the landscape of the discussion.
Aisha Subramanian: I feel like there’s two problems here. And one of them is, as you both said, that things are very atomized, that a lot of the time, the conversation is happening somewhere, but unless you are already a part of that conversation, you don’t necessarily know where to go and access it .But then there’s also the problem that a lot of those spaces aren’t accessible and sometimes for good reason, I mean, I don’t think any of us necessarily wants our private channels where we discuss current SF to be necessarily available to everyone. If we were to actually collect the links and put them in one place, I’m still not sure there would be that many links because the conversation has shifted so much to these other venues and these other formats that I’m not sure what we would be linking to.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: This is probably why we haven’t actually started the project yet.
Dan Hartland: Is there a tension here then in that, on one hand, we’re saying that it is difficult to find criticism. And on the other hand, we’re saying actually there’s quite a lot. Maureen mentioned you need to sift through all the podcasts that exist and there are lots and we’ve just added another one to the list.
There’s video essays that may or may not be right for some people, there’s umpteen Twitter threads that go out at all sorts of different times of the day. So if people are in different time zones, they can’t see them. Is the issue one of quantity or is it one of character, of type? I’m not going to say quality, but of, you know, the stuff of it, how we’re doing criticism rather than whether we’re doing it.
Aisha Subramanian: Yes? Um, that was a very tentative yes. I think that we’re in a place where the mediums we have—the media we have, for criticism, very much about responding to things, but they’re not necessarily very good for a large block of idea, if you can separate ideas into blocks. And I think that in some ways that’s quite useful for some kinds of criticism, I think the fact that we’ve all been focusing on conversation as a big part of how we think about criticism at the moment. These are really good mediums for conversation, but if I want to have a conversation and also put large blocks of thought into that conversation, I’m not sure how to do that right now. And I’m not sure that these are formats that necessarily provide much space for that.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I admit there are times when I feel like what I’m actually searching for is a kind of online rehash of seminars when I was at university. It’s a format I still miss, you do the readings beforehand, then you get to get together and discuss it. There’s no way of actually translating that, as far as I can see, into a kind of public forum. I keep testing this idea and I can’t come up with a way of making it, actually translating it into a thing that everybody can engage in.
Dan Hartland: That’s really interesting because I suppose I associate the seminar format with—it depends on who you get in the seminar, but hopefully a consideration of a text, more than what Aisha was talking about, which I think is spot on, a reaction to it. And we are very reactive. As again, Aisha was absolutely right to say that the media that we have are either inherently or the algorithms encouraged them to be reactive.
And this seems to me a much wider question than one merely about SFF criticism. I think it’s a cultural issue, more widely. But there is something in this. We get towards what is criticism and what is a review? A review is, in some senses, a reaction. Criticism is not that.
Aisha Subramanian: I mean, having said that, I’d want to add the disclaimers that a review doesn’t need to be just a reaction obviously, and that criticism can be a reaction. So, I sort of, kind of agree with that definition, but also, want to disclaimer it to the point that that definition is no longer necessary. Uh, sorry.
Dan Hartland: No, no, I think—I think you just did criticism.
Aisha Subramanian: No, I was reacting, which makes this a review of your definition.
Dan Hartland: Well, the reason that I ask about that is because, instinctively I felt that you were right to say that the media that we have encourage—I was going to say reactionary, but I won’t—encourage reactions. So why is that bad?
Aisha Subramanian: I think for me, it’s partly what—earlier on, we were talking about the question of asynchronous discussion is no longer possible. And I think that’s a big part of it. When I am trying to respond critically to something, I want time. I want to be able to take away my response to it, and chew on it for a while, and pace the room a bit, mutter to myself a bit, and then eventually come back and maybe make some kind of claim. I’m not a very reactive person in general, or at least I try not to be.
So now of course, if I’m trying to have a conversation on, say Twitter, about something that’s just come out and everyone’s very excited or very outraged, because those are the opinions available to you... By the time I’ve chewed on it, cleaned the house, gone through a long walk and come back, everyone is now outraged about the next thing. And there’s no way I’m going to respond or quote tweet the thing that was said three days ago and get any sort of conversation going. So I end up just not saying it, or saying it somewhere that is private for a few people that I know want to engage with that idea. And that of course is unavailable to the majority of the internet, which is probably not a bad thing most of the time. But if someone did want to engage with that idea, they’ve lost that opportunity.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes. I used to feel that way about the sort of culture of the hot take, because by the time the hot take had happened and I’d read it and was ready to respond to it, there was a different hot take happening. It was just always way, way too late. So I never ended up participating in all of that.
So I’m sort of toying with something that I think it’s connected, but I’m not quite sure how, so one of you may be able to deconstruct this for me, but we’re talking about sort of being reactive, but it’s actually struck me, since the days of things like Google Reader—I’m not going to say the death of blogs because I don’t believe they have died, I think they’re just in abeyance at the moment—but there is a kind of passivity in play at the moment. There’s a lot of consumption of criticism. If we assume that criticism is available to us in one form or another. I wonder if people are, given the way the world is, simply happy to consume, and disinclined to engage because they don’t need to, because it’s been done for them, or is that that a wildly off-base idea?
Dan Hartland: I think it’s interesting. Is what you’re suggesting that there is demand for criticism, but not necessarily an equal supply?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I’m not entirely sure what I’m suggesting actually, because I’m throwing the idea out there to test it.
Dan Hartland: I think you might be on to something, that people want to see it, but they are not necessarily doing it.
But whether that is a cause of the phenomenon we’re talking about or its effect, I’m less sure.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I mean, it’s also, there’s the sort of levels that don’t necessarily want to do it. Do they want to respond to it? I mean, yeah, before we started this, we were casually talking about people who are saying, oh yeah, I do criticism of films, I read criticism of films, but I don’t want to read criticism of books.
So I’m sure that goes the other way as well. People who are not very comfortable with the idea that certain forms of criticism exist, because it requires something of them. Whereas they can read a few lines of notice or a very short synoptic review of a book or a film or something else. And that’s the level of engagement they’re comfortable with. I wonder if we’re asking people to do something that for a lot of them is beyond what they want to do.
Dan Hartland: I think we might be, I mean, criticism has always, I guess, being a minority pursuit, but its benefits, I would hope and probably argue accrue more widely.
It’s interesting, what you were talking about, Maureen—people may not want to do criticism, but are they responding to it? And for me, responding to criticism is partly doing it. The critical ecosystem, for want of a less awful term, relies on actors of different volumes. So there are some people that engage with the criticism, but don’t do it. There are some people that do it and ignore everyone else’s. There are some people that do the lot, and you need a bit of everything. And perhaps one of the things you’re describing is that at the moment, there are a few people—and this is online—bearing an awful lot of the weight.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: You’re absolutely right with that. While you were saying that, I was sort of thinking, if we do think of this as an ecosystem, is this is suggesting that parts of the ecosystem are rather weak at the moment? You know, this sort of very small pool of critics or people engaged in the pursuit of criticism on whom to draw. You know, we’re sort of there going full, “we must recruit more people”, because we’ve seen fandom do that and we all know how that went down. Do we just have to accept that this is the thing that ebbs and flows, because at the moment, yeah, it has ebbed, the tide may be on the turn. To judge from people’s responses, it begins to feel like it might be on the turn, but I’m not quite sure where we go. How do we encourage a healthy ecosystem? And one that is a well balanced ecosystem.
Aisha Subramanian: I think the one concern I have with the idea that, okay, things ebb and flow is that they are still held up by structures that, as we’ve been discussing, are maybe not currently very conducive to have them flowing essentially.
So I don’t know if part of encouraging a healthy, critical ecosystem is to build those spaces. Or if we just accept that certain forms of conversation are increasingly not possible and we should maybe try and adapt the kind of conversations that currently are possible to serve our current critical needs, and I’m not really sure what those would be. So please do not ask me .
Maureen Kincaid Speller: One of my own views is that—okay, I’m going to rage against the dying of the light. The question is how we rage and I think you’re actually onto something Aisha, with the idea of adapting. You know, it’s actually looking at what is available to us and how we can adapt this.
I mean, even on something like Twitter, if we actually accept that the longevity of the threads is fragile, but I’ve been struck by, I think it was the Lit Crit Guy who had actually sort of set a time, for people to turn up and talk about something online every week. I never participated, but that’s my problem, not his, but in fact, that people knew that there was a place online that they could be for a period every week to talk about a particular thing, and that seemed to work quite well for him for a while. But again, not everybody’s going to be there for that. It’s almost as though we need a format that hasn’t actually been invented yet, but which will be completely perfect when it does turn up.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. I think there may be something in that, that the reason that we’re in a lull, again as Aisha says, is that the structures that we’re all currently operating within don’t necessarily provide the appropriate support for the activity that we’re advocating should take place.
That is difficult, especially as I was struck by Aisha’s "walking around the house muttering to herself" thing, as what is necessary for criticism, I agree. And the slow movement in all sorts of things is one of the reactions to the reactiveness of the structures: slow food, slow travel, all those kinds of thing.
Criticism is an inherently slow activity, which we’re trying to get going in a set of structures which emphasize speed. What we perhaps need is something that sits parallel to those structures that enables—we’re looking for something that records a conversation, as well as enables the conversation to happen, I think.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It sounds perilously like we’re going back to forums and bulletin boards.
Aisha Subramanian: Let’s not. It was terrible. But I also think it’s worth stating—whether we do anything with that is a different matter, and I’m not sure that there is anything to do beyond stating it—that it’s not an accident that we are currently working within media that emphasizes reaction over any sort of slow reflection.
And that’s not going to change, unfortunately. So anything that we do build has to be built with an awareness of that larger political context as well.
Dan Hartland: Yeah, I a hundred percent agree. And I think part of why I’m so enthusiastic about the sort of critical approach that we described here is that it feels profoundly counter-cultural in the present moment, this idea of taking stock, and thinking critically. It feels to me quite powerful, but you’re absolutely right, it’s not necessarily the ways in which we’re being encouraged to behave. I think of, for instance, Pankaj Mishra, An Age of Anger, in which he lays out fairly bluntly the obstacles that we face, if we are not to live in an age of anger. And it strikes me that criticism is not an angry pursuit. Is that fair? Sometimes, in fairness, I really hate a book ... but would that be fair to say?
Aisha Subramanian: I mean, I’m angry about a lot of things when I’m doing criticism, and sometimes it’s the quality of a book or a film, and sometimes it’s a world in which this book or film got made. This is me versus the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So I think anger is useful, and I think anger can be a part of our response to things, but it’s also an anger that has had a chance to cool down. It’s not, you’re not lashing out. You have thought about this and you are still very angry sometimes.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: But it comes back to what I still often say. I don’t mind people being angry about things, having particular views, as long as they can explain why they have that particular view. When I’m editing reviews, we’ve all seen this, if somebody makes a judgment, but can they actually underpin that judgment and explain why they’ve made that judgment. And it’s the explaining why that to me is always the important thing. And as long as you can justify your anger, then that’s absolutely fine.
Dan Hartland: That’s right. And the number of times as an editor that I find myself encouraging the reviewer to own that anger, I’m losing count of, you know, or I mention The Age Of Anger, which is Pankaj Mishra’s book, but reviewers seem more interested than ever in, in not hiding anger, but being careful …
Aisha Subramanian: Apologising for it sometimes.
Dan Hartland: Yes. And they clearly don’t like the book, but they don’t want to say they don’t like the book. It feels wrong to do that.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I wonder if we’ve been trained? Well, I have been trained because I’m past redemption on that, but I wonder if there is something about the current climate, particularly of engagement online, where people are being trained into being very careful about what they say because they fear the social media pile-on. So in the old days, when it was print only, you might get to the pile-on, but it would be very, very slow. I mean, you still see it in the letter columns of the Times Literary Supplement, for example, fought very slowly over many weeks.
And I mean, at that point, it’s quite funny because again, everybody has time to reflect upon what they’re saying and we can all tune in for the latest instalment. But when you’re putting something online, I think even if you don’t articulate it, even it’s not in the front of your mind, you are probably aware of what’s happened before and you probably don’t want that to happen to you. And running alongside that is the cult of "if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all". Which is another thing I’m not massively keen on. I am really not keen on that.
Aisha Subramanian: I’m a little susceptible to that, I think. I am extremely non-confrontational in many ways, unless the anger builds to the point that it has to have an outlet somewhere. And I think as well, a lot of what I see online is, so for example, if I follow an author on Twitter, which is always a terrible idea—some of them are lovely people, I accept this, but responding in this very wounded way to reviews that they’ve seen of their work, for example, and I’m not even talking about the author who has been doing that all over the British press, but even quite innocent and not awful responses can still look very sad, and then you suddenly have a group of people comforting this person and saying, no, actually you’re brilliant. That person must be awful. And they haven’t necessarily read what was said about this particular work or engaged with it in any way, but the idea is still this nice person that we know has been hurt by someone saying something somewhere.
And that becomes your main lens through which you then access the piece that was written, which is sometimes quite lukewarm. I mean, they weren’t really saying that this person should be hounded out of existence. They were saying, well, the ending of this wasn’t great, was it? And somehow that was enough to trigger this kind of response.
Dan Hartland: Can I propose then that one of the—we were talking about adaptation earlier and perhaps, perhaps we can’t put the genie back in. Well, there are several genies and several bottles here, but the social media has personalized criticism in a way that I don’t think it was before. Of course, fandom, and we’re here talking about SFF in particular, fandom has always been a small pool and reviewers have often known authors. And certainly when I first started getting involved in SFF reviewing, I was scandalized how close some reviewers were to the authors that they reviewed. Although in most cases, once you read the reviews, it was clear that that didn’t really affect the work, but on social media, this is amplified an awful lot.
And again, it’s linked to the immediacy, the reactivity of the media, and perhaps criticism does have to evolve a little bit to reflect and accept that. I’m not sure.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I think it can be a problem when you are a newer reviewer, or rookie reviewer, and you’re also trying to find your own feet in this space. I’ve been reviewing for donkey’s years and I’ve got to the stage where I don’t particularly care what anybody thinks about what I say. I can just brush it off because I come from a print culture where I probably didn’t really sort of see what people were saying about my reviews and because opportunities for being in touch with authors were very limited anyway, so there was unlikely to be a reaction to anything I’d said. So I learned my craft in that way, and that sets a sort of certain attitude in my mind, you know, how I felt about authors. So I review now and I’m not going to lose any sleep if authors or indeed fans of authors get upset with me, but that’s not going to be like that for a lot of people because you are apparently so, you appear to be so close. There’s just a screen between you and them. I would imagine it is incredibly daunting on occasion. And also, I mean, I choose not to get too close to authors. I have friends who are authors, but I feel, I like to maintain a certain distance. The criticism is important to me and I want to be able to do criticism.
Aisha Subramanian: I think that it can depend quite a lot on context though. I’m thinking of, say, very niche genres or very specific communities. And say, for example, if I wanted someone to review a book of poetry by an Indian trans writer. It’s very unlikely that I would find someone who would have a reasonable level of understanding and engagement with the material and who would have absolutely no connection with the author. And that becomes a challenge.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Science fiction and fantasy poetry is particularly interesting because it is such a tiny community to begin with. I remember feeling quite scandalized when I discovered that poets were happily reviewing one another and none of them thought that that was really strange. Whereas, when it came to me and something I needed to deal with, I was thinking, oh my God, that just feels wrong.
I’ve made my peace with it, but it seemed to me to be such a strange thing. But when you sort of think about it, I mean, it’s one thing we find with Strange Horizons. It can be quite difficult to find people to review poetry anyway, since it’s a much more niche thing, but I suppose it’s sort of having to learn to adapt to the situation.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah. And I think there’s a difference between that, where we’re basically thinking, who is the best person to give a reader insight into what this thing is and how it works. And it turns out to be this person, fine. Whereas I probably wouldn’t commission you to review one of Paul’s books, even though you would also have an astonishing level of insight into the process.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: That’s a very interesting example because (a) I’d never do it, because I absolutely would refuse point blank because that would be a much too close relationship. If for whatever reason I was obliged to do it, what I would actually be doing, the reception of it would be so heavily reliant on people knowing that I would absolutely not give Paul a gushing review, if I thought he’d got it wrong, if he’d done something really awful. I hope people understand that I am firm, but fair. I like to think I’m firm, but fair. It’s up to others to decide, but that’s what I work for because I am not in a position to be all things to all people and nor do I want to be.
Dan Hartland: It’s interesting, you mentioned Strange Horizons in there, and I did want to bring the conversation back to what we do there, because I’d like to think we’ve been talking about trying to build somewhere that this stuff can happen in. And I like to think that’s what we’re trying to do with Strange Horizons and both in terms of being firm, but fair, but also accepting that conversation on Twitter is important or happens.
And I think we do find reviewers in the way that Aisha suggests, that are relevant to the book, but also have the knowledge to do it justice. But secondly, certainly I edit very, very clearly with a view of what the reception of a review might be. And obviously the focus must primarily be on crafting the best review, but often one of the ways to test whether the review is the best it can be is imagine what people might say about it.
So in that sense, in Strange Horizons’ case at least, and I wonder whether we can think of anywhere else online that is obviously not as good, but similar to Strange Horizons ... The conversations on these slightly ill-fitting media that we’ve been talking about, whether that’s Twitter or YouTube or a Discord or whatever else, they are shaping what we’re doing at Strange Horizons.
Certainly for me, I consider it. So perhaps all is not lost, could be better, but it’s... all is not brok.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It’s funny. I was just going to say, actually, I wonder if we’re thinking about particularly focused on one part of the ecosystem, we need to actually think about the ways in which it all interlocks. None of these things exist in isolation, but just because we can’t see how they all join together doesn’t mean they don’t somewhere in some way link to one another. And the question is, do we actually want to find a way of making those intersections more immediately visible?
Aisha Subramanian: I think part of the point of criticism of any sort is any way making intersections between things visible, isn’t it? So from that perspective it’s part of our job, whether it’s actually possible to encompass entire ecosystems in digestible, coherent ways, that’s a slightly different matter, and I’m not sure it is.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I was going to say, I think it’s something to strive towards perhaps, while accepting it may actually be impossible to achieve, but the journey is the interesting part of the endeavor.
Dan Hartland: And I do think that this podcast may well map at least one aspect of our journey in that way.
Aisha Subramanian: Thank you for that, Dan.
Dan Hartland: You’re welcome. Will we find any of these connections? Tune in next week—
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Wait, I don’t remember saying weekly!
Dan Hartland: Thanks for listening to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF Criticism Podcast. Our theme music is "Dial-up" by Lost Cosmonauts. You can hear more of their music at GrandeValise.Bandcamp.com. See you next time.