An Alternate View of Sci-Fi Criticism (best viewed from ... right ... over ... HERE!)

Sam White
Sam White's picture

At some point, all art is subjective.

As I read the arguments in favor of (or against) more vigorous critiquing of science fiction, accompanied by discussions of just what exactly is science fiction, what isn’t, what is fantasy, where they do or shouldn’t intersect and whether sentences like this can actually be diagrammed, I have many thoughts, which may or may not be arranged into a cogent article but … why not try?

I find the discussion interesting, but fraught with peril. That is, of course, hyperbole because [spoiler alert] we’re just writing here. Anything one writes in our modern world and (especially) posts on a web site somewhere, runs the potential of starting a veritable firestorm. This is because the people who write in to (or “comment” upon) web writings fall into roughly three categories: eloquent and loquacious disagreement (15% of all replies); eloquent and loquacious agreement (12%); and mentally deficient people who surf the web looking for chances to type swear words with one hand on sites far beyond their capacity to understand (73% [in case you’re counting {or part of this third group and needed me to do the math for you}]).

No one who writes with any skill for the web minds a reply from the group that agrees with them and most will even put up with some constructive disagreement, but the fact that there are so many horses’ cabooses (cabi?) who clog up the blogosphere it can quickly come to seem that one really has written something that “touched a nerve” somewhere. Rarely is this so for a blog written with the exact opposite conclusion would have inspired the 73% to write just as unpleasantly as they have for the current blog.

I used to read quite a bit of science fiction and fantasy—even “real” sci-fi such as Heinlen and (my favorite of the genre) James P. Hogan. In fantasy, I read Herbert (or tried to, to me his writings were always wonderful cures for insomnia) but really enjoyed Lewis, Tolkein, Bradbury, Haldeman and a many others whose paperbacks I picked up, read, enjoyed, and passed on (or sold back to the used book store).

Eventually—and I do not say this in any way intended to slight someone else’s experience—I grew out of science fiction. I don’t mean that, upon reaching adulthood, I found them to have been childish; I just mean that something happened and I lost interest. And, other than Tolkein and Lewis, I lost interest in fantasy as well. I still read voraciously, but if someone were to ask me who my favorite authors of fiction are, the first answers to come to mind are Louis L’Amour, Agatha Christie, Tony Hillerman and—possibly—Dick Francis. I tend to find an author and read everything they have written, which is true of the preceding four (as well as Michener and Faulkner). My non-fiction tastes range all over the board but I have read most everything by Philip Yancey and much of Charles Colson and John MacArthur and many histories of 1800s baseball.

I say this not to impress you so much as to telegraph that my perspective on what I’m about to say may be seriously skewed, but … I have a great distaste for literary criticism. Maybe it’s just that the basic idea smacks of elitism to me, but my stated reason is that way too much of it subjectivity posing as objectivity.

“Book A is good fiction but Book B is bad.” Why? If Book B is rife with misspelled words and bad grammar, that’s an empirical judgment that can be backed up. If we’re talking about whether the science is real science or not, then that can be backed up.

But, if we’re going to argue that Eric Flynt’s “1632” (yes, I know I’ve wondered back into fantasy) is superior to, well, anything by Ted Dekker … oh, heck, let’s just go ahead and admit that anything written by just about anyone is better than anything written by Ted Dekker (a position I will gladly take as I think TD doesn’t even qualify for a safety—ha!), we have moved into pure subjectivity and, as much as I dislike Dekker’s work and find it very predictable … that’s me! Flynt spells all his words correctly (though he does use some of them more than once) and Dekker spells his correctly, too. Both are students and proponents of good grammar (as far as I can tell), and both have their fans. But—and here’s a revelation that may surprise you, at least as far as this paragraph is concerned—I didn’t like either of their works. Of the two, I have preferred what I have read of Flynt, but I’m not going to walk across the street to read anything by either one of them.

Now, my second point in this discussion of high-sci-fi (hereafter referred to as hi-sc-fi or HSF) vs. lo-sci-fi (or LSF) [author’s note: for those of you wondering what my first point was, don’t knock yourself out with rereading it all again, just go with the flow] is that to make such a distinction is certainly within your rights as an American but, always remember, as your fellow Americans the rest of us don’t have to pay any attention.

This is what really bugs me about criticism as it relates to most art forms. In the vernacular of the street, “Who gives a dried up piece of fecal matter?” To lift this discussion up out of the gutter, let me say that while higher criticism of any art form may improve the artists and improve the participation of a few of the patrons, the problem is that most critics come to assume that their criticism should be appreciated by all, which is, of course, asinine.

I am, for instance, a member of the local art society. As we gather to paint (OK, they paint, I draw) discussions will ensue about whatever the current art show being displayed at the museum and the strengths and weaknesses of the various paintings (or sculptures, or quilts). Sometimes, such discussions can be quite technical or very esoteric (“Her use of light on that pigeon is so very ANGRY!”) and, sometimes, we fall into the trap of thinking everyone should see the artwork the way we do. That’s both arrogant and absurd. The fellow who just stopped by the museum while on his lunch break from building the hotel next door—who may have never taken art in school and doesn’t know linseed from printer’s ink—who looks at the painting of the pigeon sitting next to the painting of the pumpjack (this is west Texas, after all) and declares he likes one but not the other has made every bit as valid a judgment as any of us “experts”. Maybe he doesn’t know technique or that the one painting was done by a highly esteemed artist and the other was done by a high school kid who had to do it to graduate, the purpose of any art is to convey an idea (or several ideas) and—in “speaking” to that worker one painting was successful and the other was not.

As an artist—of whatever medium—the artist must decide who he wants to reach and what he wants to tell them. If an HSF writer (artist) wants to reach those people who are most involved in the higher criticism of HSF, then he should write accordingly. Many critics will argue that, if he is successful in doing this, he will attract the audience of LSF fans as well, but they argue this because they are stupid. Their arrogance has led them to believe that they are adequate arbiters of what others not only will enjoy, but should enjoy. Or, they have become convinced that their subjectivity is based on objectivity which it really isn’t.

I, for example, believe the best drawn (and maybe best written) comic strip on the major scene these days is “Zippy the Pinhead” by Bill Griffith. The artistry is amazing and the writing is superb. However, I am aware that the vast majority of people—even comic strip fans—can’t stand Zippy (and some even get headaches from trying). It would be extremely arrogant for me to claim that any of you who don’t enjoy Zippy are somehow inferior in your comic taste than I.

To put this in fantasy terms, I think the final arbiter of whether or not “Star Wars” lived (or lives) up to its potential is not judged by the box office or the toy sales or even the critiques of the critics but whether George Lucas thinks he released the movie(s) he wanted released. The fact that many of us enjoyed his vision (and many didn’t) says nothing about the inherent worth of the enterprise.

Am I, then, saying that all art is equal? Yes and no. Paintings are pigment on surface. Some effect many people in many ways. If that’s what the artist was going for, more power to ‘im. If it wasn’t, then try again.

Another thing that troubles me about this discussion, is that someone will say (in a haughty manner, which really bugs me), “You mean to say you thought ‘Star Wars: Attack of the Clones’ was better than ‘Spider-Man 2’?!?!” To which I will reply, “Yes. I’ve seen SWAC about a gazillion times and I fell asleep during SM2 and couldn’t generate the interest to find out what I’d missed.” On the other hand, even though “Star Wars: A New Hope” is in third place on my “All Time Favorite Movies List”, it still falls behind “Field of Dreams” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

So what?

I have written several novels myself (which, as I mentioned in another blog elsewhere) that are finally beginning to sell (it’s a trickle, granted, but it’s there) and I have had them critiqued by various people*. Some suggestions and criticisms I have taken to heart and addressed. But some of them I couldn’t accede to, not because they were inherently bad or incorrect ideas, but for the simple reason—as I once stated to an editor, “That’s not what happens in my story.” Perhaps their suggestion would have made my book more palatable to someone—maybe even the general public (leading to pleasantly high sales)—but I knew how the story went and it didn’t go there.

Maybe listening to such criticism would make me a “better” writer, but there’s also a streak of individuality that leads me to believe that if I changed these things I would be weak, as if I had sold out somehow. Sure, I’d like to have more readers, but at some point I have to be accountable to the final arbiter of my artistic work: me.

So, if you agree with those who think SF (both H & L) needs textual criticism, go right ahead and promote it. Just remember, the author may say your criticism is bunk … and he just might be right.

*Available at Amazon. Just type in the words "Garison Fitch".