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?