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Family and Friends is my everyday journal. Captain's Log is where I pontificate on religion and politics.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Thoughts from David Gerrold

This was posted today on my Facebook page. I decided what David Gerrold said was so important that I copied it and am posting it here. Very much a word to all bloggers and reviewers.

David Gerrold is the author of numerous books, movie screenplays and Teleplays. His most notable is Star Trek's The Trouble with Tribbles.

Back in the Cretaceous days of my misspent youth, I read the review columns in the magazines. In those days, reviewers included Theodore Sturgeon, James Blish, Thomas Easton, Damon Knight, and others who had proven their way around a short story, a novella, and even the occasional novel. So reading the review columns was not only an insight into whether or not a story worked, it was also an opportunity to discover insights about writing from actual writers.
Ahh, those were the days.
Fanzine reviewers were another realm entirely. Some were brilliant, some were methodical, and some were ... problematic. Let's leave it at that.
Today, we have the blogosphere, the commentariat, and the various special-interest sites that encourage comment threads ...
As I have said elsewhere, there are only three questions a reviewer needs to answer:
1) What was the author trying to do?
2) How well did he do it?
3) Was it worth doing in the first place?
That's it. Example: 1) In "Starship Troopers" Robert A. Heinlein demonstrates the obligation of the individual to the society in which he lives. If you benefit from that society, you have a corresponding responsibility to serve it. Heinlein uses an alien threat as the mechanism for a young man's journey through the military, but the meat of the story are the lessons he learns along the way. 2) Heinlein writes with military precision, moving the story forward at a machine-gun pace. He makes his points directly, without subtlety, but also without being obnoxious about them. It is one of his better-written tales. 3) Heinlein wrote this book as a reaction to what he saw as excessive liberal beliefs. This is his answer to the disarmament and peace movements. As unpopular as military fiction might be to those who dream of a world without war, Heinlein uses an alien war to make a point that is well-worth considering: What is the responsibility of the individual to the hive? What is the responsibility of the individual to the community? Worth reading.
Now, that's a review that touches all three points. And it provides enough information for the reader to decide whether or not they want to read the book.
A critic is different than a reviewer -- this is something some amateur reviewers miss, they think they are also critics.
The job of the critic is to analyze from a meta-position. Example:
Although some reviewers have pointed to "Starship Troopers" as a justification for Fascism, it isn't. It's an unsubtle glorification of the military. Because Heinlein writes so well, he makes war look fun--we do not see the shattered bodies of young men, we do not see the bloody amputations and the post-traumatic stress disorder, not in this book. Yes, there are deaths, but they are kept offstage. What is more disturbing, however, is that Heinlein has stacked the deck. (Again.) By putting his hero into a war against mindless alien insects, he justifies the extinction of that whole species. It's either them or us. There's no middle ground. It would be a lot harder to make the same point if the enemies were human beings — just like us.
Now, having prefaced the rest of this rant with some examples, here's the point I set out to make.
Too many amateur reviewers think they are critis. Worse than that, too many amateur reviewers seem to be operating with a fundamental disrespect for the subject at hand. Or, let me say it another way — too many amateur reviewers are operating from a presumed superiority to the author, as if every book put before them must be judged — not evaluated as a reading experience, but judged within the context of the reviewer's own specific cultural agenda, biases, perceptions, beliefs, prejudices, and political philosophy.
Now, let me dial that back a notch. It is not unfair for a black reviewer to discuss how an author has dealt with racial issues. It is not unfair for a person who is LGBTQ+ to analyze how an author has dealt with LGBTQ+ issues. It is not unfair for female reviewers to examine the implied misogyny in a work, nor is it unfair for disabled reviewers to discuss the various tropes in stories about disability. If one has a vested interest in how one's cultura identity is portrayed in popular entertainments, it's fair to point this out. It's also fair to indicate that. (Example: "As a gay man, I found The Boys In The Band a well-produced but depressing exercise, when it first came out and again on subsequent rewatchings.")
But just as it is important for the reviewer to treat the work with respect (or don't review it at all), it is equally important for the critic to discuss the ambition of the work without using it as a platform for the critic's agenda or for an ad hominem attack on the author. The responsible critic separates the author from the work, because criticism, constructive or otherwise, is always about the work.
This is not to say that Lovecraft, Rowling, Card, and others should be immune to public examination — but that's a different conversation than the discussion of the work. Those are two separate discussions and should not be confabulated — unless, of course, one is specifically examining how an author's personal views show up in the work, but my experience with that particular brand of literary analysis suggests that can be a foolish endeavor, especially when one cherry-picks the works to prove a philosophical point.
I've been fortunate enough to know a great many authors whose works informed my childhood and shaped my adolescence, and who were role models for great genre writing — I have learned to admire most, I have also learned to recognize the enormous chasm that exists between every author and what finally shows up on the printed page.
For instance, as much as I loved Theodore Sturgeon's lyrical writing, as much as I admired him as a brilliant mentor, as much as I sat in awe when he delivered his great speeches, "Ask The Next Question" and "I Won't Have It," as much as he is well-regarded as a literary giant — my personal experience with the man, Ted, was tainted by several of his less-admirable behaviors. (I am not alone in that.)
I could say a similar thing about Harlan Ellison. As much as I admired and loved him like the big brother I always wanted — over time, I learned to see how his personal passion informed his writing. He was magnificent, ground-breaking, remarkable, and one of the people who set the standard of excellence. I also learned to see how his personal passion animated him as a man, sometimes in admirable ways, and sometimes in ways that were ... problematic. (I am not alone in that.)
The job of the reviewer, the job of the critic, especially those who are primarily readers and have much less experience pushing, dragging, contriving, staggering a story from page one to page last — that job is to be a fair reporter. Where I do take issue with any reviewer or critic, especially the amaterus, is their implied authority to sit in judgment not only of the work, but of the author as well.
I admit, I have some bias in this.
If a reviewer/critic wants to point out where a story doesn't work, where I might have stumbled, I can learn something from that.
But if that same blogger also points out what a flawed human being I am — i already know that, you don't have to tell me, but when that essay is published online, the intention is no longer about examining the work in question, it's about impeaching the credibility of the author. It becomes a personal attack with the intention of hurting the author's reputation. (I believe that if an author wants to hurt their reputation, they can do it themselves — and I can name three living authors who have done enormous damage to their reputations by making assertions that are ignorant, malicious, and polarizing. There are probably many others.)
The job of the reviewer/critic is to take their enthusiasm for the genre and treat their subjects with respect, if not affection.
But as I said above, I'm biased. Your mileage may vary.


Yogi♪♪♪ said...

Great post.
My book reviews are pretty darn shallow. I just talk about whether I liked the book and maybe a little bit why. I try to not review books I don't like, what's the point in that although I have pointed out when things seem to be going downhill.

P M Prescott said...

I'm the same wi, Yogi.