In the second episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian, Dan Hartland, and Maureen Kincaid Speller discuss the role of trust in criticism: how it is built and lost, and how can the reader decide whether a particular piece of criticism is worth paying attention to?
Critical Friends Episode 2
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Welcome to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF Criticism Podcast.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I'm Aisha Subramanian.
Dan Hartland: I'm Dan Hartland.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: And I'm Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Dan Hartland: In every episode of Critical Friends, we'll be talking about SFF criticism: what it is, why we do it, how it's going.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: In this episode, we'll be looking at the question of trust, what role does it play in criticism, and how is it built or lost?
Aishwarya Subramanian: That means we'll be thinking about the relationship between the reader and critic, the text and the review, and asking what makes a piece of criticism worth paying attention to.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Okay, so maybe we can start with some concrete examples. Which critics do we pay attention to and why?
Dan Hartland: When I was thinking about this, I realized that an awful lot of the critics, particularly SFF critics, that I trust already right for the reviews department of Strange Horizons, which is a strange coincidence. I mean, it's an odd thing. I don't know how we feel. I kind of think that I have a policy here of not mentioning names, because if I mention one of our reviewers, the rest of them are going to get so cross. They're such a highly strung group of people! So I was wondering about why I trust rather than who, and that led me to a name as an example from outside of SF. I'll read anything, for example, that Jacqueline Rose writes, and I wondered why I thought it was because and this is personal. Obviously, we'll all trust different critics for different reasons. And it struck me that one of the reasons I will read anything Rose writes is because she is aware of context, willing to reread the context and bring in different intersectionalities and all that stuff, but also alive to the text itself. So her approach is holistic in that sense. I suppose it doesn't hurt that she's a little bit iconoclastic, too, but she doesn't write about SF. So I can't talk about Jacqueline Rose.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I don't see why you can't talk about her.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Yeah, I don't think we need to necessarily. Obviously. Yes, as SFF reviews editors and critics, we're interested in SFF criticism, but it is a subset of criticism, which is the thing we care about.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I think I'm going to throw something in. I mean, I read a lot of things like New York Review of Books, TLS, and for my sins, The London Review of Books, which is the one I like least. And there are various authors writers in there in those magazines. Fintan O’Toole is a reviewer who I don't care what he's writing about, but nine times out of ten, it will be interesting simply as an exercise to see what he does with a book and a topic because he writes so beautifully. I think we've noted before, I have certain bête noir, not looking at you, Andrew O’Hagan, but okay, I'm looking at you, Andrew O’Hagan. Again, I read Andrew O’Hagan because it's kind of like driving past a road accident. What is he going to do this time, and how horrifying is it going to be when he does it? Now he's a perfectly blameless writer, but the point is that he's not really writing book reviews. He's reading a book and thinking about how it intersects with his life. And then he writes a little memoir in which he slides in a few mentions of the book and it drives me to distraction. I keep going back to see what he's done this time. The worst one was review of a book about the Colony Room in Soho and all the people flitting in and out of that. And it was basically out of four full-page columns. Three and a half of them was him was lamenting that, in fact, he was never at the Colony Room in its heyday. And in the last half column he mentioned the book, which was nice. I appreciate it, the fact, but this was reviewing as a, I don't really even know how to describe it, actually, other than infuriating but in the end if you put Andrew O’Hagan next to Fintan O’Toole. I know exactly what I'm going to get from both of them, and I know that in the case of Andrew O'Hagan, I'm not going to be very happy. Whereas Fintan O’Toole will expand my horizons in various ways.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Well, those are both a form of trust in a way, though, aren't they? You know that you're going to get a certain experience, and in one case, you know that you're not going to like that experience, but you can rely on its consistency.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: This is a good point. It's like watching Peter Bradshaw review genre films in The Guardian. He's giving it a two. It's going to be fantastic. I'm going to love it. He's giving us a five. Oh my God. I remember there's a friend of Paul Kincaid’s, he once said to Paul, I know that if you write approvingly of a book, I'm going to hate it, whereas I know that if you hate a book, I'm really going to enjoy it. And it was completely consistent. Apparently, whatever Paul disliked, he was going to enjoy and he read Paul's reviews in precisely that way. He was obviously getting something of value out of them, but it just seemed to me to be rather odd.
Dan Hartland: So it's part of developing trust. I think Aisha is right that even trusting a reviewer to be wrong is a kind of trust. Maybe we talk about relationships instead, developing a relationship with the reviewer is about the consistency of that reviewer.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yeah, it's actually exactly what I was about to say. It isn't so much trust as establishing a relationship. I always enjoy reading Gary Wolfe's reviews in Locus. I always feel that he's very kind. He's a very generous reviewer, but I like the fact that he can draw on intelligently on many years of reading. And he's a brilliant contextualizer. And it was quite a long time when I was reading one of the old collections that Beccon Press put out of his essays from Locus, and I'd been sort of reading this all day, and I suddenly realized that once you actually understood the language of Gary Wolfe reviewing that there were some quite pointed little comments scattered throughout the reviews. But if you weren't paying attention, the reviews were very pleasant. But if you actually started digging into them and you read a lot of them, there was something else going on underneath as well. But I could say something about the ways in which certain journals encouraged their people to write. But that's another issue. Perhaps there was the critical component to the review that I would look for, but it was not immediately obvious.
Dan Hartland: It's interesting that you mentioned the organ, the venue in which a review appears, and I was really interested in you talking about the LRB, because I kind of agree. I don't know how I feel about that paper right now, and I do think that the way that magazines encourage or any venue encourages their reviewers to write is important. But the danger perhaps, of emphasizing consistency in a reviewer's oeuvre (thank you) is that you begin to expect or they begin to think you expect a performance. And I'm thinking of people like Adam Mars-Jones. I mean, every piece is how can Adam Mars-Jones fillet this book? Because that's what Mars-Jones has come to be known for, and there are diminishing returns there.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I know that Erin Horáková—who has written for Strange Horizons quite a lot, so this is us plugging one of our own people again—but Erin has complained about the fact that she sometimes feels like she's being called upon to perform a sort of amusing anger, and that's something that, when she does, is hilarious. I very much enjoy that, but it's not what is valuable about her work, and it's a bit of a shame when that becomes something that readers are looking for or that readers are expecting from you.
Dan Hartland: So how do we avoid that? And when I say we, perhaps I am meaning Strange Horizons reviews. How do we, whilst hoping that our reviewers have a consistency which helps them develop a relationship with readers? How do we prevent each voice just becoming a performance? How does any paper or journal or magazine or whatever do that? How does any reviewer do that?
Aishwarya Subramanian: So all the names that we've been referring to so far are people who have these quite long, quite established careers, and that kind of expectation is built up over that time, and that's in some cases great, in some cases maybe not so great. Whereas when we're working with a very broad range of reviewers in the first place, where we can keep holding reviewers to account as far as the actual text is concerned. So the text is still the priority, at least at some level.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I'm wondering if you're in one of those situations, I'm going to take something like the LRB again, where you have your favorite reviewers and they are so favored, effectively, either they don't really like to be edited or you don't want to edit them anymore. Whereas I think that's one of the things that we do certainly with Strange Horizons and I value it anywhere else that does it. We're prepared to engage at the level of editing and have that dialogue with the reviewer. Does this work? Have you thought about this? This is very nice. Not so sure this is does what you think it's going to do. So there's actually that process, that editorial process is going on.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. The invisible hand of the editor. So there are two lines of thought here that we're sort of juggling. We're talking about the relationship between the critic and the reader. But there's a mediating thing in the middle there, isn't there? Unless the critic is a blogger. And we spoke in the last episode about, quote/unquote, the demise of blogs. There can be—and we could talk about that perhaps—like a really immediate relationship between a critic and a reader. But in a lot of situations, there isn't. There's this invisible editor person who is there to … what?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I mean, one of the things I often joke about in my other daytime editing job as an editor, it's my job to save the author from themselves. It's very amusing of me, but at the same time, I think there's a certain truth in that, because if you're close to something, there are certain things you just don't see. Reasonably experienced reviewers are actually very good at spotting this, and others are so intensely engaged with the text that they do find it difficult to step back. And on the whole, they do seem to be grateful for an editor's ... I'm going to use the word "intervention", but I don't mean it in a very heavy-handed kind of way. Just maybe the editor's engagement in the text as well, just to actually sort of give them that extra space to sort of take a step back and look at what they're doing. And it's like going around the museum with a friend, the art gallery with a friend, and looking at things. Once two people are having a conversation, you can see a particular work of art in a very different way as a result of the exchange. And I think the same pertains to actually looking at a piece of writing. So saying that I think one of the things an editor can do is to help the writer to become the best possible reviewer they can be, but without turning into a parody of the best possible reviewers they think they are or a version of the editor. I don't want this writer to write the review that I would have written. Actually, I always used to feel like one of the big problems with the LRB was that there was a kind of a very strong editorial, too strong an editorial impression on it, if that makes sense. In the many years I've been reading the TLS as well, there's only been one period when I knew actually who the editor of the TLS was, and it wasn't a good time. It was actually quite happy when the editor of the TLS sank back into obscurity and I'm focusing on the reviews again, rather than somebody's vision of the TLS. Mentioning no names.
Dan Hartland: I would agree that the TLS is a more transparent read than the LRB can, although of course the LRB has recent had a change in editor. And anyway, this is not Critical LRB Friends, although perhaps it should be.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I believe that's the job for somebody else. To be honest, I would comment upon, say, the reviewing in something like Foundation, except that I'm not the reviews editor and I just do the copy editing. I think one of the interesting things here with something like Foundation-the-journal is that it gives a lot of space to younger, in terms of inexperienced, reviewers and gives them a chance to strut their stuff. And it's very interesting to watch the balance between, “I am writing an academic review and I am writing a review for an audience that is not entirely composed of academics.” It has to strike a very particular balance. Foundation has just changed reviews Editors. So it's going to be interesting to actually see what direction it goes in next. But I've always found it very interesting in the considerable time I've been doing the copy editing. That how it gives the thread of the reviewing between all those different disparate groups of people.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think that raises something that I was thinking about in relation to this idea that you build up a relationship with a critic with a body of work, which is one of the ways in which we can avoid that a kind of mode of reviewing or a kind of reviewer's persona becoming set in stone is to have a really wide range of new reviewers all the time, which is obviously something we try to do. But also that means that none of those individual reviewers is going to have that kind of body of work behind them. And so our relationship with them as critics is slightly different.
Dan Hartland: I think that's a really good point, and I was thinking the same thing as Maureen was speaking. There is a danger, in focusing on the relationship that a reader builds with a critic, of falling back on the same people all the time. And I think SF reviewing can be a little open to that. I think certainly from my background in British SF reviewing, it's a relatively small pool, and it takes effort to expand that pool. And as I said, we try to do that at SH, but it's always a constant job of work to do. But it's really valuable because I do think that it doesn't just bring new reviewers in, it refreshes the old reviewers. And that seems to me really important.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes. Actually, while you were saying that, I was just thinking of all the different ways that we acquire reviewers, let's put it that way. There's a certain amount that we are open recruiting for reviewers. We're talent spotting people, the people who come to us independently. Some we turn down because and others we take on because actually it's a very complicated process. I think more complicatedness than people actually realize at times is trying to keep that flow of new people coming in and actually maintain the regular stable of reviewers. Because as we all know, things change. People spend some time with us, they move on because other things are happening in their lives and we're welcoming new people and regretfully saying goodbye to old people. But I think one of the things I really like about the reviews department of Strange Horizons is it is fantastically dynamic.
Dan Hartland: The other thing, therefore, that I might ask is in terms of newer reviewers, perhaps. So we've talked about relationships building over time; but newer reviewers: how do they establish that relationship immediately? Because it strikes me that we've been talking about a relationship over time. But each individual review, it seems to me, needs to establish, if not authority—I don't like that so much—but some credibility with a reader? Okay, a critic over 5, 10, 15, 20 years—whatever—can be trusted. How does a new reviewer, or even an old reviewer writing in a new venue instantly start to develop that? What is the sign of a review, rather than a reviewer, that we can trust?
Aishwarya Subramanian: The very act of accepting a review, editing it, and putting it up on Strange Horizons; that's an act of trust. “I don't feel embarrassed by this” is the bare minimum that we're saying about anything we put up.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I think we need a little more than that, though, don't we? Actually, we need a fair bit more than that. Okay, let's put it another way. When somebody comes to any one of us, when we get somebody sending us in a review and we've not heard from them before, and we're looking at the reviews and thinking, “Do we want to run with this? Do we like what this person is writing, even though we don't want to review this particular thing?” What is it then, that actually sort of pings the button for us?
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think I respond slightly differently depending on whether it's a pitch or whether it's an actual draft review. With a pitch, I'm looking for a consistent position. I'm looking for someone who knows where they stand in relation to a text, a film, whatever they're reviewing for us. When you've said, I want to write about this, I think the bare minimum is that you have a clear sense of where you are in relation to it with an actual draft review. I think I'm just looking for anything that gives me something I wouldn't have had before I started reading. I think sometimes there's a moment where you just think, okay, I have an insight into this thing that I wouldn't have had if it hadn't been for this person, even if it's not very polished or even if it's a bit lacking in direction. If there's an insight that changes my relationship to the thing that's being reviewed or that opens something out for me, then the question becomes whether that insight is enough to put in any work that this review needs. And sometimes, of course, the review doesn't need that much work, and it's brilliant. But one of the nice things about working with a lot of new reviewers, I think, is that we get to do that: we get to actually take someone who is not necessarily that confident about their work or not necessarily able to articulate some of these ideas and put in the time because we think that what they have to say is probably worth being out there.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I will say the nicest part of that when I get the little note by saying, oh, my goodness, this is amazing what you've done here. I think, well, actually, you’re—the person—amazing because you paid attention to what I said. No, seriously, they took it on board. I pointed you in certain directions that I thought would be productive. But you're the one who actually went away and did the hard work and turned what was an okay review into something that's a lot better.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think that's another thing I'm looking for when we get something like that: a willingness on the part of the writer of the reviewer to engage with the editorial process. Does the person actually want to make this as good as it can possibly be? Are they convinced that it's fine and publishable and that's it? I think we've all had people who said, well, we'd like to suggest you do this. No, absolutely. This isn't happening. Okay, fine. The reviews are not happening. Never heard from them again.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I used to get quite depressed by that, actually, but I realized it's a part of the process circle of editing life. Some people, they're just going to move on to somewhere that will take their work immediately. And I'm quite happy that we are not that place that we are actually going to have an editorial engagement with the review in question. I mean, speaking as a reviewer, I love being edited because it happens so rarely. I love the fact that when I'm reviewing, I get to hand over my work to one of you to eviscerate it for me and make it better, because I've been doing this for a long time. But that doesn't mean I can't do it better. If somebody actually looks at my work and gives me a view again, too, that goes, I think, plays back into the whole idea of trust. As a reviewer, I want to be able to trust a venue, and I measure that trust in how willing they are to engage with what I give them and sort of come back to me with editorial notes.
Dan Hartland: While you were both talking there, I was taking off, actually, my editor hat and putting on my reader hat – and thinking what I look for in a venue. So when I pick up a paper or open a website, part of the trust thing isn't just for the individual reviewer, it is for the venue. And it's because of that thing that you were just talking about, Maureen, which is some venues do feel to me less engaged in working up the product than others. And when I go to a review, I kind of want it to have been pre-tested for me so that I don't have to do all of the probing of the review. I can trust that a bit has been done already, and that trust is a significant part of how I approach a piece and whether or how much I pay heed to it. Am I off-base? Does that seem fair?
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think it's fair. I think that we don't necessarily want venues to have a house style to the extent that everything sounds the same. But we do want a venue to have certain priorities and certain standards regarding those priorities that we share. I mean, there's an ethos which you tend to share with the journals or the magazines that you care enough to pay attention to, and you want that ethos to be in play at some level in what they publish.
Dan Hartland: Yes. I'm thinking now about, for instance, we haven't mentioned it yet, the Los Angeles Review of Books, which is a strange sort of curate’s egg kind of place, because particularly perhaps a few years ago now, it did publish a lot of genre reviewing, a lot of SFF reviewing. I don't know whether I've noticed it as much recently.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: They're doing a fair amount.
Dan Hartland: Yeah, that may be my error. What makes me think about that is that it is unusual for putting the effort into SFF in that way, and sometimes in the non-SFF press – LARB and other venues being notable and honorable exceptions – sometimes the SFF is not given that weight. Quite the same level of … “respect” is the wrong word. But you know what I mean. I'm thinking of Maggie Clarke's recent piece in the Criticism Special that SH did a few weeks months ago.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Well, if you remember, we did a book club on The Buried Giant all those years ago, because I remember the reason that particular book club came into being with the three of us exchanging frantic messages that morning when I finally got my hands on a copy of The Buried Giant and was able to fully express the outrage that had been brewing as I started reading the reviews. And it had become apparent to me already, even before I got the book, that several reviewers were not really paying attention at all. They had completely got the wrong end of the stick, and in one instance, they were very deliberately getting the wrong end of the stick to prove a point about fantasy, which proved me absolutely nuts. But I found it very interesting at that point to actually sort of work through the comparison of all the different attitudes to a book like The Buried Giant.
Aishwarya Subramanian: So are we suggesting that one of the things that builds trust, or at least doesn't undermine trust, is a basic knowledge of context?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I think I might be. You don't want a review to be written by somebody necessarily who's completely familiar with every aspect of an author's work or a particular literary context, because that kind of that's another kind of limiting. Yeah. I mean, it becomes a kind of echo chamber, doesn't it? But it says reviews, and you say, I have absolutely no idea what this book is about. Why did you even bother reviewing it then? Either you're not prepared to do the legwork to try and understand what's going on.
You’re being incredibly lazy about this. You're churning out an opinion, but it doesn't feel like a very well supported opinion.
Dan Hartland: Is there a difference between trusting and agreeing?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Well, here's a question. Where does that point of agreement come? Because does this agreement arise from reading what the critic has read a lot of weird things about sort of reviewing and critical writing. Are we actually going to read the books? Have we read the books that the critic has read? The number of things I read? I know I'm never actually going to read the book they're talking about, but I'm interested in what they're saying.
Aishwarya Subramanian: So there's trust in the fact that I'm relying on them to report back in a sensible and timely fashion and an interesting fashion. And when it's a review of a text, there's also trust that they're giving us a kind of faithful account of that text.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: In the good old days, we then had the leisurely, “But so-and-so is wrong about this,” correspondence in the letter pages of the journal. Whereas now, as we were suggesting last time, this is played out over several torrent hours on Twitter, and then nobody ever hears anything about it ever again.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. I was going to say, I suppose reviews don't exist in a vacuum, do they? So although last time we were talking about perhaps some of the deficiencies of the current ecosystem, in theory, you should be able to check a particular review or a particular reviewer.
Aishwarya Subramanian: It strikes me that this is a really interesting conversation in the context of SF, where we have, on the one hand, that regular conversation about the canon, whether or not to what degree people are expected to have read the canon, assuming that such a thing exists. I think most of the time we'd be on the side of saying, no, absolutely not. You do not have to read the or a canon in order to engage with the genre, in order to engage with specific texts in the genre. But it's also a case of, if not the canon, you do need to be able to contextualize a book in something.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Yes, I tend to think of it as having a feel for what's going on in SFF publishing at the moment, because we can't all read everything, it's impossible. There's too much being published. So as long as there is an awareness of being able to sort of situate oneself broadly within that. I'm perfectly happy with that, because it's always interesting to see people tackling something that they're not entirely familiar with.
Aishwarya Subramanian: But I suppose there's a kind of distinction between a lack of sympathy, should we say, and a lack of familiarity, and also an acknowledgment that books exist in multiple contexts. You may have a great deal of knowledge and sympathy with one aspect of a book, and you may be encountering other things for the first time, and that can actually be really a really rich space in which to analyze a text.
Dan Hartland: One of the things that strikes me is that the undercurrent here, the great unspoken. The implicit assumption is that trust can be lost, that actually trust in the critic is fragile. And we've discussed a few things here. We've discussed a few reviewers and a few reviewerly errors, which can almost immediately lose trust. So you review that book and it's clear you don't know enough about it, or you spoil it without warning me, which is a whole other thing. And immediately, perhaps, the trust disappears. So you can build this up, this relationship between reader and critic; but it's also quite a fragile thing, is it?
Aishwarya Subramanian: I'm very wary of trust as a concept when it comes to criticism, because part of the point is, of course, that you want someone to be able to take you through their working, at least at some level, so they are actually showing you the process a little bit. So I can trust an individual review, and I can feel a certain degree of, okay, this person is probably going to have a good position on this thing that they've written about.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I was thinking, I suppose, how much should we rely on trust?
Dan Hartland: As opposed to … ?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: well, then you find the weakness in my thought. Personally, I just don't like committing myself either. It's a very incoherent thing. If you get to the point where you trust someone, then that replaces … or you trust someone's reviewing, or I was going to get too broad with this! If you trust somebody’s reviewing to the point where you don't actually stop to ask yourself, “Am I just going into this blind, or do I need to actually stop and look at what is actually being said?” I sort of occasionally worry, I have worried in the past, where I'm sort of wildly enthusiastic about somebody's writing, somebody's critical work. “Everything this person writes is completely brilliant and amazing!” And then you come to a point where you think, well, probably it is still completely brilliant and amazing but I need to be a bit more critical about what I'm reading, as well as the kind of interplay of trust and the critical eye—I suppose how the two work together. Because, even with that which we love and admire, I think we do ourselves disfavor if we don't keep testing it as well.
Aishwarya Subramanian: So trust is … essentially what we're trusting in is that this will stand up to scrutiny. But that can't mean that we don't scrutinize it.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Exactly yes, I think scrutiny is a good word, actually.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I love scrutiny, it's a great word!
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It's a lovely word, yes, I think it's a very important thing. I think generally, actually, scrutiny is a concept—a process—that is actually much underrated in society. Things happen, people say things, but there should always be the people who are scrutinizing what is going on.
Dan Hartland: So I know we're only two episodes in but can we change the title of the podcast to Scrutable Friends?
Aishwarya Subramanian: No!
Maureen Kincaid Speller: No, because that sounds really weird!!!
Maureen Kincaid Speller: 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.