The new issue of the SFRA Review arrived in my mailbox this week. This is the annual SFRA awards issue, and it has the text of Brian Attebery's acceptance speech for the 2009 Pilgrim Award, presented in June at the 2009 SFRA Awards ceremony, which was held this year in Atlanta. I'm happy to see that in his speech he identifies critics as writers and notes that writing is a significant part of his craft. Indeed, much of the speech is about the discoveries he's made about writing over the course of his career. The third of the discoveries he lists interests me most. So I'll quote a few chunks of that portion of his speech here:
My third discovery about writing is that it only works when I force myself to ask the hard questions. That's especially true when writing about something I care deeply about-- passion has to be tempered and tested by critical thought. Otherwise it does become a mere exercise in political or aesthetic orthodoxy (and I think aesthetic correctness is more harmful than the political variety). When I look back at my early papers...the problem is not that they're badly written or that they misread the material. It is that they don't probe deeply enough into their own--which is to say, my own--assumptions and reading practices. I didn't ask hard enough questions.
But what exactly is a hard question?
Well, that one is.
I believe that when we study literature, we are never studying just the literary work itself. Instead, we're examining our own interaction with the text. That is difficult because it means bringing to consciousness the very structure of consciousness, which is the business of theory. Psychological theory, political theory, feminist theory, semiotic theory: these all have to do with making the invisible patterns of thought and culture more visible, so that they can be challenged.
Sometimes I will be in the middle of writing about a story, when the Theory Fairy peeks over my shoulder and asks something like, "But what exactly is a character?" "What does fantasy reveal about the basic fabric of storytelling?" "If a concept like androgyny changes depending on the direction one looks from, what is its meaning?" These are "Whew!" questions. They're the sort of questions that make you question pretty much everything you've learned about literature and society and your own sense of self. They're big questions: you know you're not going to answer them fully even in a book-length project.
Here are two quick ways to recognize a hard question. First, if you ever hear yourself saying, "Somebody ought to explain this or that," you have probably just posed a hard question, especially if you look around and can't find anyone else stepping forward to be that somebody. You read a study, for instance, of the way fiction depicts consciousness, and you think to yourself, "But what about shared consciousness or telepathy? How does that relate to narrated thought? I wish somebody would write about that." Bingo You've just asked a hard question.
Second, a hard question is one that makes you take up a whole new field of study....[he gives specific examples of doing this]
I have had to reeducate many times to meet the demands of this or that hard question....Not so much fun is confronting myself. The hardest part of hard questions is that they turn back on the questioner: they're double-edged blades. I think writers of fiction all know this: that if you are going to write a story about, say, violence, you are going to end up confronting all your own memories and fears and denials of violent impulses and behaviors. The same is true of good scholarship. You can't write about gender without examining your own desires and experiences and constructed gender identity. You can't write about fantasy and myth without questioning your own mythic beliefs. At some point, the hard question is going to be, "Who are you to write about this?" and if you can't come up with a good answer, you probably won't finish the project. If you are lucky, that last hard question morphs into something more productive: "Who are you when you write about this?" In other words, what does the question tell you about yourself? What I often find, when I probe, is that myself-- my writing self-- is not any one thing, but an amalgam of many voices and many interactions.