I Want My 21st-Century William Atheling Jr

Oh dear. In a discussion of Rich Horton’s Locus review of Salon Fantastique, Kelly Shaw says:

If I’m remembering correctly, Horton also gave the Trujillo collection a lukewarm review. To each their own — but a Shepard story is a Shepard story, and a reviewer has an obligation to comment on it, positively or negatively.

I like Kelly, but I (and most of the commenters in the ensuing thread) think he’s dead wrong about this. He raises an interesting question in his later comments, about the purpose of Locus reviews, but I don’t think there are many cases where a reviewer has an obligation to comment on any particular aspect of a book. Sometimes you can see that there are aspects of the book that many people reading the review are going to want to know about (I suspect a lot of people reading reviews of Accelerando, for instance, were interested in whether the stories worked as a novel, rather than as a magazine serial), but I don’t think there are many such cases. If Lucius Shepard published as infrequently as, say, Ted Chiang, Kelly would have more of a case—but at the moment, Shepard is publishing quite a lot, if not as much as a few years ago.

Actually, I’m probably even further away from Kelly’s position than that would suggest. I’ll explain why in a minute, but first a question, tangential to the discussion, that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while: how healthy do you think sf short fiction reviewing is?

Take this review of Interzone 205, at Tangent Online. I think it’s reasonably representative of the majority of short fiction reviews out there at the moment. It takes Kelly’s position to its logical conclusion: runs through each story in the issue, tells you what each is about, whether or not the reviewer (Paul Iutzi) thought it worked, and why. I don’t want to knock Tangent, because its breadth of coverage is something we need, because some of the reviews it publishes are more involved, and I don’t want to knock this review specifically, because it’s fine as far as it goes; of the reviews of stories that I’ve read, Iutzi’s observations seem fair (and he’s spot-on about David Mace’s “This Happens”).

My problem with it is that it just doesn’t go very far. Moreover, Mark Watson’s review at BestSF takes the same approach. As does Lois Tilton’s review at IROSF. Which is to say that my problem with it isn’t a problem with the approach per se, but with the fact that it’s the only approach that anyone seems to be using. They are all driven by the need to say something about every story.

And here we come back to Locus, which is probably the most significant source of short fiction reviews we have. Locus runs two short fiction columns each month, one by Horton and one by Nick Gevers. They usually cover a different-but-overlapping selection of magazine issues and anthologies each month. And they do it in a few thousand words, which means they can’t cover every story, unless they go down the Gary-Wolfe-reviewing-Year’s-Best-books route and allot each story its single sentence, phrase or adjective of assessment. They also tend to do a better job than most of the other reviewers out there of jerry-rigging the separate reviews into something resembling a continuous piece of prose. But like all of the reviews I’ve mentioned so far, they consciously trade depth for breadth.

I don’t think they should. Now, this is where the argument about the nature of Locus comes in: it’s a magazine that exists, more or less explicitly, to provide a record of the field. A venue like NYRSF can afford to be somewhat eclectic in its choices, but Locus is expected to—and, I think, aims to—review every major book and story published; to the point where there can be a danger of assuming that if Locus hasn’t covered it, it’s probably not worth covering. I still don’t think Horton has an obligation to mention a new Lucius Shepard story, but you can see how the nature of Locus could give rise to that expectation.

But in all honesty, I’d prefer they go the other way. Or if it’s not appropriate for Locus, I wish someone was going the other way. None of the reviews I’ve mentioned so far, including Horton’s and Gever’s, offer much context about either the subjects the stories tackle, or about the body of work of the writers who produced them—indeed, some of the reviews linked above arguably are not reviews of Interzone 205 at all, since they take each of the magazine’s component parts in isolation, and never address the question of whether they work together. As I said above, it’s useful that these sort of reviews exist, and I don’t dispute the amount of work that goes into writing them. But I’m sceptical about their value to the reader, as opposed to, say, the genre historian.

Over the past few months, I’ve been dipping in and out of James Blish’s two collections of criticism, The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand (1964 and 1970, both as by William Atheling, Jr). I’ve also read, relatively recently, Transformations, the second volume of Mike Ashley’s history of sf magazines. Ashley likes lists, and whole chapters of his book read like immensely long reviews of the type I’ve been discussing above, with brief summaries of up to fifty stories in one go. Blish, on the other hand, did what none of the reviewers above do: picked out a handful of stories for each column that he thought were worth talking about (these were not always the good stories), and talked about them in detail and in context. And he is by turns perceptive, trenchant, infuriating, and entertaining—but most of all, he has things to say, above and beyond a prospector’s report. Here’s the punchline: I get far more of a sense of the shape and state of the short fiction field in the mid-twentieth century from Blish than I do from Ashley. Or to put it another way, I can’t see anyone putting any of the current crop of short fiction reviewers between covers, and I think that’s a reflection on the format they’re working to, not on their ability. Laundry lists don’t really last.

Short fiction may not be the center of the field in the way that it was when Blish was writing, but as long as there are writers doing notable work primarily or exclusively at shorter lengths—and there are; Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, M. Rickert, Theodora Goss and Paolo Bacigalupi are just the first examples who come to mind—it will be a vital part of the field. At present, the detailed reviews of these writers only come when they put together a collection, and I can’t help feeling that’s something of a shame. For one thing, short fiction markets can be more responsive than publishing at large (the first good 9/11 fiction I saw was Shepard’s “Only Partly Here”, in Asimov’s); for another, even reviews of collections can be skimpy on analysis of individual stories. In short, we don’t have anyone writing regular Atheling-style columns at the moment, and I think we’re the poorer for it.

Although I say all of the above as a reader of reviews, clearly I’m not a neutral party here. Most of the content (as opposed to lists of links) I’ve been putting up here has been reviews of individual short stories. And while there are several reasons for that—for example, I can justify reading a short story now and then, but taking time out to read a non-review non-Clarke novel is somewhat harder (yes, the writing takes up a fair bit of time too, but that comes out of a separate budget, see?)—an important one is that yes, I’ve been trying to write the sort of review that I would like to read, on the assumption that if I’d like to read them, some other people would as well. I’m emphatically not saying my reviews are as insightful or useful as those of James Blish, and neither am I saying that they’re better than all the other short fiction reviews out there. If nothing else, I’m not reading widely enough in short fiction at the moment to have the sort of perspective that a modern Atheling would need.

And maybe I’m just plain wrong about this. Maybe everyone else is happy with the coverage that sf short fiction is getting; maybe short fiction reviews aren’t relevant to you because you never read it before it reaches book form, anyway, or maybe you think the sort of context that Blish provided is surplus to requirements, and all you want is to know whether a given issue of a magazine is worth reading or not. Hence the question at the start of this post: how healthy do you think sf short fiction reviewing is? Is it doing what you want?

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13 Responses to “I Want My 21st-Century William Atheling Jr”

  1. Pigeonhed Says:

    Not quite reviewing, and in some cases not quite criticism either, but amongst the posts on the ed_sfproject are some very good articles on individual short stories.
    Obviously there is no place for reviews that go into the depth that some of those contributors went to, but what about the critical venues such as Vector? Is there, and should there be, a place for in depth articles focussing on individual stories, or groups of stories, in the same way that specific novels are analysed?

  2. Zara Says:

    I like to write about, and discuss, and think about individual short stories (and have a few such pieces floating around) but there are two other issues at hand, here.

    The first is that the kind of reviews you write about above, from Tangent, and IROSF (and from ASif!) serve a specific purpose, to my mind. That is, they tell a reader whether or not to buy a current issue, and they try to do it in a timely enugh fashion that you can make that decision while the issues are still on the shelves. For many readers, myself included, subscribing to some of the magazines isn’t a worthwhile proposition (been there, done that) because the number of stories that trigger my desire to discuss them is so few, and I have have little enough time. By summarising each story, I can use the reviews to tell whetheror not there’s a critical mass of decent story. Rich Horton’s and Nick Gever’s reviews also serve this purpose — what they have that Tangent and IROSF and Asif don’t is enough of a boy of work to serve to tell me whether something is worth it in a few words. However, since they are both publishing in magazines, it’s also usually after the fact, and I can only tell if something would have been worth it. I like the Tangent review style a lot, for a number of reasons.

    But like you, I also wish there were more in depth coverage of short fiction.

    But that brings me to the second issue — unless you are reviewing the Hugo or Nebula nominees in great detail, the chance that anyone will have read the short you are reviewing enough to discuss it along with you is vanishingly low.

    While I love to write those kind of pieces, the reward is very low (except for the pleasure in exploring something, which is nice, but … I only have so much time, and so many projects). Without the reward of interesting discussion, there’s little left to inspire me to pen them.

  3. Ted Says:

    Tangent Online used to have a feature called “SF by Starlight” in which a reviewer would focus on a single work of short fiction. Here’s Rich Horton’s review of MacLeod’s “New Light on the Drake Equation,” stored at the Internet Archive. The current incarnation of Tangent Online hasn’t done one recently, but the venue does exist.

  4. kev Says:

    Zara, I know what you mean about the reward of discussion. My contribution to the ed_sfproject so far, commenting on Richard paul Russo’s ‘The Dread & Fear Of Kings’ is probably the best, most sustained piece of criticism I have written in five years. I think. I have no idea if anybody has even looked at it. If they did do they agree, disagree or not care?

  5. Niall Says:

    Kev:

    amongst the posts on the ed_sfproject are some very good articles on individual short stories.

    Absolutely. Matt Cheney has also made some very good posts about short fiction, although less recently, sadly. And Abigail reviews the award shortlists, of course.

    But mentioning ED SF leads neatly to …

    but what about the critical venues such as Vector? Is there, and should there be, a place for in depth articles focussing on individual stories, or groups of stories, in the same way that specific novels are analysed?

    … this, because hey, that just happens to be sort of what Geneva and I were thinking with Archipelago, and we took some ED SF pieces for the first instalment of that section. (All the British fiction magazines in the previous post are for an upcoming Archipelago feature).

    That is, they tell a reader whether or not to buy a current issue, and they try to do it in a timely enugh fashion that you can make that decision while the issues are still on the shelves.

    Sure. As I said, they’re useful. But I’m still sure we don’t need all the regular short fiction reviews to be like that. Though to be honest, buying individual issues is such a hassle, and magazine subscriptions are so cheap (less than a hardback book for a year of F&SF? C’mon!) that I almost never use the reviews in that way myself — I’m already not the target audience. I’m more likely to look up a recommended story, and then wish there was something more in-depth for me to read afterwards.

    (This whole issue is one reason I’m enjoying Daughters of Earth.)

    Without the reward of interesting discussion, there’s little left to inspire me to pen them.

    Clearly I’m just stubborn. Also, for me the writing is a reward in itself — I enjoy the process of working out my thoughts like that. But I’m not sure why it can’t work in the same way as the other reviews; at least, I wouldn’t mind shelling out a few pounds for one story that sounded particularly interesting. I may be … special … of course. :)

    I should also say that I’m not only talking about pieces on single stories. I’m not even sure I’m primarily talking about that — I was more thinking of half a dozen stories per column, much like the other Locus reviewers cover four or five books.

    Ted:

    Here’s Rich Horton’s review of MacLeod’s “New Light on the Drake Equation,”

    “The Wayback Machine is experiencing technical difficulties”. Dang; I love that story. I’ll try again later. I’m glad Tangent did/could still provide a home for pieces like that, though.

  6. Rich Horton Says:

    Actually, I think you are completely correct. My reviews in Locus are too broad, and don’t go into enough depth about individual stories. The main reason is very simple — there are a lot of decent stories published (though not that many great ones) and I feel an enormous amount of pressure (not necessarily quite at Kelly Shaw levels, but still) to mention as many of the good ones as I can. In particular, I feel a lot of pressure to at least indicate for each of the “major” magazines how basically good each issue is, and for many of the less well-known magazines to bring them to readers’ attention when they are doing notable stuff.

    I do think that to some extent that is what Locus wants — broad coverage. A way to give a feeling of the whole field, however briefly, each month. And I do think there is a place for that. But the deeper reviews you mention — there aren’t enough of them, and they would be, in the long run, more valuable.

    I must confess there is another reason I don’t always go into as much depth, a less worthy reason. Sometimes I don’t feel up to writing something more complete — put another way, the deeper reviews are harder to write, more work (but more satisfying). But that’s just an excuse …

    By the way, I was able to link to that old SF by Starlight piece when I tried, but if you still can’t get to it, I could send you a copy if you want. (The linked version is slightly garble due to character translation problems — question marks keep popping up …) I think I did another SF by Starlight piece on M. John Harrison’s “Suicide Coast” for Tangent though I’m not sure it’s anywhere on the Web.

  7. Martin Says:

    I think I did another SF by Starlight piece on M. John Harrison’s “Suicide Coast” for Tangent though I’m not sure it’s anywhere on the Web.

    I’d be really interested in seeing that. Any chance of republishing it online? (Although then we are bakc to the question of what venue is available…)

  8. Niall Says:

    Rich: Thanks for dropping by. I’m not surprised you feel that pressure and, to reiterate, I do think that sort of coverage is useful. If I seemed to be picking on Locus, I didn’t mean to, and I suspect it’s because having your review side-by-side with Nick Gevers’ just strikes me as an obvious opportunity to showcase different styles (you could take it in turns to do roundups/in depth pieces, for instance. Er, not that I mean to be telling anyone how to do their job).

    And trying to go into more depth can be very hard work (without wishing to undersell the amount of work involved in compiling a more comprehensive overview. Different kinds of hard work, I think.) I’ve been trying to articulate exactly why I love “Magic for Beginners”, in more than just outline, for months. Must have another go at that.

  9. Paul Kincaid Says:

    You know there is a significant differnce between reviewing short stories. reviewing magazines, and reviewing short story collections. Of the books I’ve reviewed so far this year just about half have been short story collections. In those reviews I may linger on one or two stories, and dismiss several others in a word or two (and in the case of a number of the collections pass yet more by without a word) – but I am always conscious that what I am reviewing is the book not the individual stories. You have to look at common themes, at the balance between stories, sometimes even at where the stories are placed within the collection. None of this would apply if you were actually reviewing the story alone.

    Over the last year or so I’ve written a couple of longish review-essays on individual short stories, and that is a very different procedure from reviewing a collection of stories. When you are writing about a story on its own you can treat it pretty much as you would a novel, examine what it is saying and how, put it in context – none of which would necessarily be relevant if you were reviewing that same story as part of a collection.

    It’s a long time since I reviewed a magazine, but I imagine the practice is different again.

    In other words talking generally about reviewing short stories is confusing, because you’re really talking about several very different things.

  10. Niall Says:

    Paul: that’s an excellent point, thank you. To reframe my post in your terms, I suppose what I’m saying is a combination of two things. One, I feel as though because magazines fall into a middle ground between collections/anthologies and individual works, a lot of reviewers *don’t* necessarily know how to handle them. Which is not necessarily true, but it can seem that way because almost everyone has defaulted to the same approach. And two, I would like to see more individual story reviews, whether grouped together in a column format, or as standalone pieces.

    I just had a thought for the next Vector year-in-review: rather than commissioning one overview of the year’s short fiction, we could commission four or five people to review one of their favourite stories of the year. Hmm …

  11. Paul Kincaid Says:

    Niall, as I say, I haven’t reviewed a magazine for years and I’d hate to do so now, because I’m not sure what I’d be reviewing.

    Like you, I’d like to see more critical discussion of individual short stories. But this doesn’t mean changing the way we review collections or even magazines; rather, it means finding some new forum for the discussion. And I think this is what you’re working towards with what you’ve been doing in Vector.

    The thing to bear in mind is that a 1-2,000-word discussion of a 100,000-word novel is not the same as a 1-2,000-word discussion of a 5,000-word story. I don’t know how it works but there is some significant ratio between the length of the criticism and the length of the thing criticised. And I know Samuel Delany wrote a whole book about one Thomas M. Disch short story, but there is not much that could bear such critical weight.

    So the number of stories that could justify and support extensive critical discussion is probably very small. My gut feeling is that the figure is probably many times less than the number of novels per year that warrant such analysis. I don’t think we can build – or would want to build – as extensive a critical network for stories as we have for novels. So far this year, for instance, I’ve probably read two or three times as many stories as I have novels; but (with the obvious exception of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, which I re-read for Vector) none of them stand out in my memory the way three or four of the novels do. And I’m not sure even the good collections (by Kit Reed, Peter Beagle, Polyphony 5, for example) would yield any story I’d want to devote enough attention to for an in-depth critique.


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