Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Are You Allowed to Criticise the Fiction of a Writer You're Sleeping With?

Gee, I hope so.

In a discussion over at Torque Control about a review of the October/Nov 2006 issue of the Mag of SF/F, one commenter pointed out that, as writers/industry pros who knew the writers of these stories, we weren’t looking at the critiques the reviewer made objectively. We were concentrating on the critique the reviewer made of the writers and not of their writing.

I agree that we were far more interested in the critiques of the writers than we were of their work, mainly because there were some public facts about the writers that the critic got wrong, and she made some assumptions about those writers based entirely on their stories.

So, sure, when somebody makes incorrect or weird assumptions about people you know, you’re going to be like, “Um, whaaa…?”

But the criticism of our response was an interesting one, because it made the assumption that writers are going to object to critiques of the writing of people they know and be more lenient in their own criticism of those writers’ stories.

I thought about that for awhile, because it’s true that critiquing a writer’s work gets harder the more you know them. To some extent, it also gets easier: “Aha, yeah, here’s that bullshit lazy thing they always do. I’m going to call them on it again.”

But it does also mean that you’re less likely to tell your buddy, “Hey, you’re a misogynist asshole and the race relations in this book suck, you racist pig!” (which I would probably do far more readily, yes, to someone I didn’t know). What I’m more likely to say in response to a writer I knew whose work I saw had some of this lazy, likely inadvertent stuff in it is, “Uh, you realize all the women in your story just want to get pregnant. And I realize that’s very noble and good, but they come across like happy pod people, and this isn’t a story about pod people. And why is the only race/culture distinction made in this book based entirely in the characters’ skin color? There are going to be other slurs people will use. They’ll assign characteristics to the peoples of those cultures/races. Also, in your narrative voices, saying `the white people and the Yupsuks’ is ignoring the race of the white people and setting it up like `white’ is some kind of universal norm race. That’s fine from the POV of a character from that culture, but if you’re being pure narrative, it’s probably `the Kols and the Yupsuks.’” Etc.

Now, that’s *private* critique. In public? Yes, it’s harder for me to post here about writers I know whose work I either hate outright or just don’t get but who I get along great with in person and who I think are great people. I tend to avoid posting about them, mainly because it’s not worth the time. There are better, more deserving folks to skewer and better, more deserving books to talk about constructively.

But you know? Critique is half my job, as a writer. I critique myself and my buddies I call them on weirdly sexist stuff and plot holes and flat characters and stereotypical characters and “why is the only gay guy in the book evil?” stuff. It’s my job, as a writer, to call other writers on their shit, and I fully expect other writers to call me on mine (“Kameron, why the hell is Nyx raped in this book? You’ve set up a society where any guy who did that would be fucking crucified. Is this just another slapdash `look how evil my bad guy is!’ characterization.’ Oh. Um. Yes. Yes, it is. And out the gratuitous crap goes).

There are writers I like quite a lot who’s stuff I hate and whose stuff I love. I love a great deal of VanderMeer’s stuff, but that didn’t keep me from getting into an argument with him about his lack of female background characters in his earlier work (I need to finish reading Shriek, actually; I know the protag is female, but I’m curious about those female background characters…). I also think Daniel Abraham, as a fellow, is about twelve kinds of awesome, but that doesn’t mean I love his books with an undying passion and believe they’re the best thing since sliced bread (but there’s some good stuff in there). There are all sorts of writers I love dearly on a personal level whose stuff underwhelms me to the point where I don’t actually make an effort to pick up their books (and yes, I feel really awful about it).

I love the vast majority of Carol Emshwiller’s stuff, but that doesn’t mean that I think she’s a radically feminist writer. I quite enjoyed Carnival, but I don’t think it was a perfect book (I don’t even think The Hours is perfect – if only because of that shitty one last connection bullshit thing at the end - and I’ve read it at least 20 times. Seriously. 20 times. Of course, I’ve never met Michael Cunningham).

Then, of course, there are writers I know who’s attempts at feminist fiction make me snicker (David “I could *so* write you!” Brin), or whose fiction (some of it) I enjoy but whose politics I hate (Orson Scott Card). Being an ass in real life doesn’t mean you aren’t a good writer and doesn’t mean I won’t like your fiction (I am a huge fan of Hemingway. But then, I’ve never met Hemingway either). And being a kewl person who I love dearly and want to hang out with doesn’t mean I’ll like your fiction.

I love Maureen McHugh and she is eight kinds of awesome. I still get vaguely annoyed at the endings to all of her books.

I’m also reminded of reading a review of an Elizabeth Hand novel written by John Clute. Why yes, even writers who are sleeping together can be critical of each other! (I have a certain someone’s scathing review of God’s War saved for posterity. I intend to auction it off at WisCon in 20 years).

In fact, writers have a long history of saying really mean things about their friends’ work (Algonquin Roundtable, anyone? Expat writers in Paris? Hemingway and Fitzgerald were best friends and best enemies). In our industry, we call that Clarion, Blue Heaven, Sycamore Hill, Milford, Viable Paradise, Odyssey, the bar, and the bedroom.

I know that, the more writers I get to know, the more self conscious I am about posting about their work, but I’d like to think that if somebody I knew wrote something I took serious issue with (as opposed to just it not being my cup of tea) that I’d post about it. I certainly post about books I enjoy and hit the points I think are weak in addition to the stuff I think is good. I love Nicola Griffith’s Aud books, but I think that travelogue to Scandinavia in The Blue Place was, pacing-wise, really weird and awkward.

Writers are not perfect people and they’re not perfect writers. One of the things a lot of writers, fans, reviewers and publishers yearn for is really great criticism in the genre. We don’t get enough of it. It’s probably one reason why we’re so interested in reading fan reviews of our work and the work of others (because, let’s face it, we’re all fans), and it’s one reason why we all get so disappointed when we read lazy and/or incoherent rants about our work (I had someone review a story of mine who got the title wrong. The review went downhill from there. It was a “positive” review of my story, but that doesn’t mean it was a “good” review. And this was a review posted in one of the genre’s secondary review sites. I’m hungry for good criticism as much as anybody).

None of us want to write in a vacuum. As a writer, you want to have an audience. You want to be read. You want discussion, passionate debate. That’s the whole point behind sending it out instead of keeping it in a drawer. There are certainly writers who despise criticism and/or who don’t take it well, but I’d wager that many-to-most of us really welcome it. We want to get better. We want people to call us on our bullshit.

We want a dialogue.

It’s why we write.

5 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Jackie M. said...

But there's a difference, isn't there, between a critique which is intended to help the author improve an unpublished story and a criticism of an already-published work?

And even after publication there's still a difference between a criticism such as "you do realize that all the women in your story want to do is get pregnant and the only cultural distinctions are based on skin color?" and telling someone that they are "a misogynist asshole and a racist." The first observation is a judgment of the work itself, and is intended to start discussion; the other is a statement about the author's character. And while slapfights can be interesting, I wouldn't call them "dialogues." Not in the sense that I think you mean.

Kameron Hurley said...

But.. but... I *want* dialogue!

Kameron Hurley said...

OK, yeah, maybe "discussion" is the better term there.

Jackie M. said...

I'm lumping "discussion" with "dialogue" here. As in: do you want "discussion/dialogue", or just a nice slapfight?

Jackie M. said...

Oh hey, now that livejournal is back up, have you been paying attention to the discussion of negative reviews at James Nicoll's place?