The Polis of Positive Criticism? For you, I mean.

A kerfuffle in fiction!  Christopher Priest declares the Clarke Award short list dreadful.  Priest is a very admirable writer.  So are the people he criticizes.  Favorite of criticisms is calling Charlie Stross an internet puppy.  I like the internet, and I love my puppy,

and so this aligns with my liking Stross.  Similar praise could be offered by me about Mieville.

But I confess I appreciate the provocation.  It’s interesting to watch the prods of a critic, if she or he is thoughtful.  It makes you consider about the craft a bit more carefully.  And, published criticism of any kind of my own work is sometimes helpful to me.

But here’s the rub: most critics are presumably writing not for the producers but rather for the consumers (or, if you prefer, the ingesters) of art.  And I suspect, as a consumer of art, a negative criticism has never done me any good.

It helps me not at all to to be told a book is terrible or a film is inane or a play is a wreck.  I would not have read the book or seen the movie or play anyway.  Our problem as consumers of art is not to filter out the bad, as if there were so few options we could benefit from excluding one or two.  It is not the case that we have so few options that shaking out a few will leave us with only good works as remnants.  Our problem is to find the good in a forest of options.  We don’t need filters.  We need pointers.

If you ask a guide for directions and she points one way or another and says, “don’t go that way,” she has done you no good.  She’s wasted your time.  There are boundless directions you can take.  Ruling out one is nearly worthless.  If instead your guide points the way to some specific and beneficent location, she has done you a service.

The great service, and I suspect the only service, critics have done me, as a consumer of art, is to point out something good that I otherwise would have missed.  When someone directs me to a body of work I did not know and which I come to love, they have added value.  I’m greatly indebted.  What a great gift to have first been pointed to Tarkovsky, the Strugatsky brothers, Conor McPherson, Anselm Keifer….  The best criticism in the world would be a list of good things I’ve not discovered.  But when the critic tells me something is not good, she is just howling in the noise — indeed, she is just adding to the noise.  She has wasted my time (again, I mean my time as a consumer, as an appreciator, of art).

This is why criticism can seem self-indulgent.  Who are those snide comments meant to help?  Are they really just self-assertion?  One wonders if they compete with art — if these critical works all say, don’t look at that, don’t read that, look at me, read me.

In his book Real Presences, George Steiner imagines a polity without criticism, where the artwork is experienced always directly.  He recognizes that — at least in the Twentieth Century — criticism (he may mean academic criticism) had become the envy-driven enemy of art.  He concludes, however, by recognizing that the polity without criticism is an ideal we shall never have.  Fair enough, but why not strive for a polity of positive criticism?

Still, as a writer, I appreciate the negative criticisms.  Even if, as I said, I doubt they are meant for the likes of me.

Spec Fic’s Designer

I got mail from the Met today, which reminded me that last time I went there, I saw the show on Alexander McQueen.  You could barely move because of the crowd.

I confess to feeling McQueen is our designer.  He had a speculative fiction sensibility that did not see SF as an excuse for a costume.

The videos of his final show look like someone succeeded in filming the love children of Neuromancer and “Call of Cthulhu.”  Unembeddable but available:




I have three original Jack Kirby pages that hang over me while I write.  Kirby is a great inspiration to me.  I find in his aesthetic a celebration of technological possibility that is without cynicism, that is totally joyful, without being imperial.

From Sandman 1

One of my pages is from Sandman 1, another is from one of his late independent projects, and one page is from Omac 5. The Sandman is interesting in part because it reveals how completely Gaiman transformed the comic when he revised it.

A Panel from Omac

Omac is one of the comics Kirby did for DC, and like most of the brilliant work he did then it was quickly killed, presumably by some suit — or else by Kirby running off to another project.  Omac is not deliriously exuberant, like New Gods or Demon, but then in terms of plot it is downright bizarre.  It comes off as a kind of invertedly-Kafkaesque science fiction, in which a pleasant but perhaps clinical world is defended by literally faceless U.N. police.  The disarming thing about it is that Kirby does not criticize the seemingly dystopian elements of his story, so that the faceless police and their ominious panoptic artificial intelligence (“Brother Eye”) are treated as normal, if not proper.  A nearly-psychedelic SF experience.


The Howling

It is sometimes disturbing to read reviews on Amazon.  Sometimes books I consider masterpieces receive the most vicious criticism.  I wanted to send a friend a copy of John Gardner’s Grendel, which I consider a superb novel.  I re-read it often, and have always considered it a model of prose and pacing and characterization.  I believe it is one of our greatest modern fantasies.

My eye was drawn to the bright yellow stars, and then I saw that some people gave the book 1 star.  Unable to look away, I clicked on the disaster, and found comments like:

So due to this piece, I disregarded John Gardner as a complete idiot. A moron. An inept hack. The worst kind of author. One who has gained notoriety through some kind of fluke. John Gardner became a swear word within my group of friends, something only to be braught up so one could watch me rage against, “That idiot who probably didn’t even read the source material!”

It’s hard not to marvel at something like that.  (Also: it’s curious that some people act so personally hostile.  Why insult John Gardner?  Does he think Gardner isn’t a human being?  Does he think Gardner didn’t try his best?  Not to mention, of course, that this person would not have had the courage — nor, one hopes, the bad manners — to insult Gardner like this to his face, were Gardner still with us.  Why does print make it acceptable?)

But there is also something liberating about seeing these critical vomits.  They remind us that every book — every work of art — has to find its audience, and the people outside that audience might be not just uninterested, but even actively hostile.  Even hostile to a vile degree.

For a writer, it’s always painful when people write dismissive or mean things about your work, and always someone does.  But seeing that any work, even great works like Grendel, will earn some dismissive and mean criticisms reminds us that everything is hated by someone.  Indeed, everything is hated by someone eager to shout personal attacks on Amazon.

Moebius is dead. Long live Moebius.

I think of the 70s as a time when two visionaries created transcendent visions in comix.  One was Jack Kirby, who made technology numinous.  The other was Moebius, who somehow made whole worlds — cities, deserts, forests, seas — particular, concrete, and so believable.

World comes that Jean Giraud died yesterday.  His worlds will be missed.

The Dark Forward

I’ve taken my first plunge into Kindlespace.  My Marrion stories, which appeared in Analog, have been collected into a novella available on Kindle, under the name The Dark Forward.  I’ve written an afterword, and also revised the third story in the trilogy after I decided the end could be improved.

Genetically engineered children is now a subgenre in SF.  But these stories are unique in developing the idea of an engineered trait with a moral aim.  The Marrion children are not engineered to be smarter or to be sleepless or to have any other trait of — shall we say — obvious commercial benefit. They are engineered to care more about the future.  My conceit is that this would be a very important, and perhaps even very dangerous, trait.

Why SF is no longer a young person’s game

Those who watch the field have often noticed that the median and mean age of an SF writer has crept upwards for decades.  Anecdotally, this seems to be true.  Let us assume the trend is real.  Some fear that this is a sign that SF is dying, as young people no longer take an interest in SF, and so only old readers and writers are left.  But I think the explanation is much simpler, and does not bode ill for the pipeline of SF readers and writers (that is, I do not believe that young people are losing interest in SF) but does indicate a trend that makes it challenging to produce quality SF.

Short stories and novels are the life blood of SF.  Sure, movies are the main exposure for the general public, but 99% of the movies are trailing indicators (lagging decades behind the written form in their creativity) and are not very innovative.  John Carter is coming to the screen a century after Burroughs wrote the books.  Don’t expect to see The Windup Girl on screen anytime soon, but expect the sequel to Avatar to arrive with fateful certainty some summer or fall.  New and innovative science fiction happens in prose.

So let’s consider stories.  Here’s the rub.  The pro rate as defined by SFWA is $0.05 a word.  And that’s not much different than what some magazines were paying in the 1950s.  In nominal dollars.  Now think about what that means.  A 5000 word story published in Galaxy in 1955 would have earned about $150.  A 5000 word story published in one of the big three today would earn $250 (or a tad more — and in most other mags today it would earn much less that $250).  Again, that’s nominal dollars.  I’ve not adjusted.

In 1955 the median household income was $4,400.  In 2010 it was $49,445.  You see the moral.  A 5,000 word story sold in 1955 at $0.03 a word to Galaxy would earn a writer about 2 weeks of a middle class existence; a 5,000 word story sold today at SFWA “pro-rates” would earn less than 2 days of a middle class existence.  So, in 1955 if you sold two short stories in a month, you made a decent middle class wage for that month.  You could pay rent or a mortgage, eat, go to a movie, buy clothes, and so on.  It would be possible to have a middle class life just writing short stories.  Today, you could not manage a poverty wage selling short stories.

The result is that a young person selling a short story in 1955 could have seriously considered become a full time writer on the spot.  She had a chance.  Today, that same writer selling a story when she is 25 cannot then just drop everything to become an SF writer.  She would starve.  She must pursue a day job.  And that means that she will be producing less, and her production will likely become noticeable when she is substantially older.

I’ve not run the numbers for novels, but I suspect it’s exactly the same.  We’re in an environment where traditional publishers might offer a new writer $2,000 for a first time novel (which they’ll pay out slowly in thirds, etc.).  I suspect in nominal dollars that has not changed much.  The result would be similar:  you could probably make a middle class living as a mid-list novelist in print selling one or two novels in 1955 or the decades that followed.  Today this is nearing impossibility.

(There may be hopeful counter trends, of course.  Indy e-publishing may offer a new alternative to this downward slide.)

My conclusion is that if the age of SF writers creeps up every year, then it is because every year it becomes more difficult to earn a living as an SF writer.