Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Culture is Downstream of Criticism

As far as I can tell, critics are pretty well anathema to the average author.

That’s not my experience, though:

Seriously, Jeffro just opened my eyes to a core theme of the Soul Cycle that I’d missed for years. To paraphrase Adrian Veidt, only the very best reviewers can accomplish that! — Brian Neimeier

Rarely, very rarely, in the life of a writer, does he come across a book review by a critic who actually “gets” the point of the book he wrote. — John C. Wright

Keep in mind, I am a complete amateur. I have no formal training in what I do. I just read books and then write about what ever struck me about them.

And I get feed back like that. When practically everywhere else, literary critics are reviled.

Why?

Well I think it’s pretty obvious what’s happened. Even a modest survey of they past hundred years of science fiction and fantasy will flush it out. Literary criticism was corrupted. It was then used as a weapon to fairly well destroy an entire field. I’m not exaggerating. The two most influential authors of the twentieth century after J. R. R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs…? That would be H. P. Lovecraft and Joanna Russ. The former used literary criticism to push the state of the art of science fiction and fantasy forward. The latter used literary criticism to decimate it.

I think people sense this even if they can’t quite articulate it. Certainly, people that love classic science fiction and fantasy hold critics in contempt. I don’t blame them. But I think badmouthing critics wholesale is short-sighted– and not just because I am one. See, not only is politics downstream of culture, but culture is downstream of criticism. The fact the authors routinely denounce critics is a sign not only that literary criticism has been perverted to the point where it no longer serves its intended purpose; it is a sign that we have ceded valuable ground to an enemy that is very efficient in using it against us.

I think it’s time to take it back.

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12 responses to “Culture is Downstream of Criticism

  1. pcbushi September 22, 2016 at 8:01 am

    I’d venture a couple of thoughts –

    1. I think being a good critic requires a number of skills, but one of which is the ability to separate the good from the bad and to be able to analyze in a relatively unbiased way (or to at least be clear about one’s biases). This is one thing I’ve appreciated in reading your reviews and also those at Cirsova and Every Day Should Be Tuesday. I know personally when I write reviews or mull over stories I’ve just read, I sometimes struggle to find positives when I didn’t enjoy the work as a whole or conversely to find weak points in something I loved.

    2. Being a good critic takes a lot of courage of a certain kind, I think. Perhaps this is why I don’t write a lot of reviews of more contemporary media. Especially for critics who fraternize with the writers they’re charged with reviewing (of course they same applies with video games or what have you), I think it can be difficult to write honest criticism and there is the temptation to inflate positives. Hell, these pressures are even present when you don’t personally know the creator. I’ve reviewed or wanted to review games I’ve played where it pained me to list negatives because I really liked or sympathized with the developers.

    Anyway keep up the good work, Jeffro.

    • jeffro September 22, 2016 at 8:06 am

      One thing I enjoyed about writing about dead people’s work was that the authors did not pick fights with me in the comments the way game designers used to do with me when I was first starting out. Although… getting flamed by A. Merritt would have been really, really awesome come to think of it.

      • John E. Boyle September 22, 2016 at 4:27 pm

        A Flame letter from A. Merritt, the Master of Purple Prose himself?

        You would have been able to frame that and hang it over your mantle piece.

    • jeffro September 23, 2016 at 7:23 pm

      Ah, thanks for alerting me to that!

      • Chris September 27, 2016 at 9:27 pm

        No problem – also, if you’re looking for critical works about weird fiction especially, then you need to see S.T. Joshi’s CV – he is the Lovecraft guy. Tom Shippey – “The Road to Middle-Earth” for Tolkien. Hippocampus Press put out a nice antho of criticism of William Hope Hodgson lately, probably the only substantial one outside of anything published on the Night Land website, which John C. Wright has contributed to.

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  3. fletchav September 26, 2016 at 12:10 am

    I have a definite agenda in deciding what to review – I’m looking to open modern readers’ eyes to the best old stuff and find new stuff inspired by the best of the old stuff. I’m acting really as more of a promoter than critic. The only writer I’ve ever been really harsh towards was the late Lin Carter.

    When it comes to short stories, I just read what the magazines put out. When I read something I don’t like, I try not to be mean or dismissive, because
    1) I’m just a nice guy
    2) I respect the work that went into even a bad story
    3) Nasty reviews are too easy and lazy. Forcing myself to try to understand why and point out any good points is more valuable.

    pcbushi is right about it the dangers of being too soft, too positive. It’s a struggle I’ve faced for years now.

    • jeffro September 26, 2016 at 12:17 am

      At some point, the overall thrust of modern storytelling devolves into a de facto attack on the imagination. If conveying truth or beauty or awe-inspiring moments that take your breath away is the purpose of fiction, then you’re inevitably going to be harsh on the bad stuff regardless of the work that went into it.

      And yes, when the bad stuff is taking up bandwidth that ought to be devoted to superior works, that to is the job of the critic to point out.

      • Tim Hall September 27, 2016 at 4:49 am

        In rock criticism there’s certainly a role for critic-as-curator, finding the good stuff amidst the dross that might otherwise have flown beneath the radar.

        I get the “cultural bandwidth” issue, but that’s only really applicable to scenes and subgenres where it’s all a zero-sum game, and that’s less applicable for a lot of music outside the commercial mainstream.

        Critic-as-gatekeeper is less useful. And critic-as-would-be-censor needs to die.

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