Thursday, April 7, 2011

Taste and critical judgment

Sherwood Smith posted MEN and women a couple of days ago, in which she offers up a few thoughts on the issue of gender balance in reviewing and reviewers of books, an issue that has been considerably clarified by Niall Harrison's statistical analysis. A couple of her points resonated particularly strongly with me. First, she writes:
Harrison himself is a reviewer, sharp and articulate. Our tastes don't often overlap, which has sometimes caused me to ponder on the years that I went away from male-penned reviews thinking that the contrasts in taste meant that I had no taste. When I was growing up, the tastes of men in their thirties and (if famous) older seemed to be the accepted standard.

This point reminded me of how for many years, reading sf magazines and critical publications, I thought I must not be reading sf "correctly." (I thought this though I'd long since rejected the traditional notion that correct aesthetic judgment is absolute and indisputable and not open to individual differences in perception. I just assumed that I must not be "getting" something in sf that everyone else, apparently, was.) More often than not, I couldn't imagine what reviewers and year's best list-makers saw in the works they valued and praised-- and wondered why apparently no one had even noticed the work that I judged interesting and sometimes even brilliant. This constant dissonance was incredibly alienating. And not only that, I figured that same problem must have something to do with the tepid interest my own work received (and the many rejections of stories by editors who characterized them as "fascinating and well-written").

Everything changed for me in late 1996 when I joined the fem-sf list and began posting comments to that list on what I was reading. I discovered that I was not alone. (And that some of the very writers I so respected were reading very much as I did.) Shortly after that, Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge urged me to do more critical writing and reviewing. From the frequent (and often fervent) feedback that resulted when, thanks to the Internet, I began taking my reviews public, I gradually came to understand that the "standard" critical voices in the field were, in fact, not representative of the tastes and values of the entire sf/f readership. What was needed, obviously, was more voices, representing the taste of those whose taste is excluded from the "standard," as Sherwood Smith calls it. Now, thanks to Aqueduct Press, that I'm so frantically busy all the time, it's harder for me to continue writing reviews, and I sometimes think about stopping, but I haven't felt confident that my absence would necessarily be covered by another reviewer with a taste that deviates from the standard. Niall's pie charts demonstrate to me that my intuitive sense was probably correct. I've talked to various people whose voices I'd like to read (more often) in critical venues, but knowing the sacrifice involved in making such a commitment, I haven't felt as if I can really press them.

The second point Sherwood Smith made that particularly interested me was this:
The sense that men write about Important Things and women write about Domestic or Sentimental Things still appears to be pervasive.

Virginia Woolf wrote about this, of course, and the topic has been discussed often since the Second Wave and, more recently, about the spectacle of Jonathan Franzen being lavished with praise for doing "pathbreaking work" when he condescended to write on Domestic Things-- the very kind of writing that women have long been despised for producing. (It's always "new," of course, and "bold" when a man takes up an idea or innovation or usual practice of women.) But what struck me this time in thinking about this was that the problem could also be seen as one afflicting reviewers as well as novelists. What reviewers review has as much to do with shaping their reputations and establishing the degree of their critical authority as the quality of their reviews do. My experience as a reviewer has included a mix of books assigned to me by the editor and books I've chosen, with assignments predominating. Some editors might assign books to particular reviewers at random, but it's more likely that they'll match books to reviewers according to their (largely intuitive) ideas about the reviewers. Sometimes the criteria might have to do with areas of interest, but I suspect that the books the editor considers the most "important" will usually be assigned to the reviewers the editor considers the most authoritative. I became a reviewer for Strange Horizons when Niall invited me to review Charles Stross's Glasshouse-- and explicitly said he'd like my review of it because he hadn't yet "seen a serious review [of it] by a feminist critic." That was in 2006, and I still occasionally receive notes thanking me for the review I then wrote. But most of the books I review have been by women. I was, for instance, thrilled to be assigned the Shirley Jackson Library of America volume. In my judgment, that book is an Important Work. But I can't help thinking that although the book received attention at the time of its release, that was largely because a genre writer had received the honor of being given a volume in that series--and not because her work is, in itself, considered Important. (And in fact quite a few mainstream literary critics expressed surprise and disapproval that it had been selected for the series.)

In thinking about this a bit more, it occurred to me that my approach to reviewing is rather like my approach to publishing-- and thus, in a sense, almost guaranteed marginality. If you are someone with ambitions for becoming a major critic in the field and also have the critical and writing chops to achieve such an ambition, the most sensible thing to do would be to review the books that can be assumed--in advance of their publication-- to garner the most attention. (These, of course, are the Important books.) The upshot is, my primary goal as a reviewer is at odds with the formula for success. This is, of course, the story of my life. But more to the point, I think it's also the story for any critic whose taste isn't in line with the standard and has no wish to betray that taste.

My conclusion? We need to be hearing a wider variety of critical voices. The voices of women, the voices of people of color, the voices of people who aren't US or UK nationals. I'm hoping, of course, that you will be hearing a wider range of voices in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. But I'd really like some of this blog's regular readers to think seriously about adding their own voices to the mix. Please?


Chris Moriarty said...

First of all, how do I get on this fem-sf list? It sounds Ike my kind of place. And second, though I agree with everything you say, it's not just reviewers. As a reviewer (for F&SF) in a traditionally male genre (hard SF), I struggle to find books by women to review. I do find them. And, at least in my opinion, they're some of the most interesting and innovative books in the genre. But it's become clear to me over the years that there are significant barriers to the entry - and survival - of women writers in hard sf. We need to go beyond reviewers and look at the underlying structures that pigeonhole women, denigrating traditional 'women's writing (unless Jonathan Franzen does it) yet at the same time declaring women who write in traditionally male genres 'unfeminine' -- or worse, 'unsellable.' It's a vicious Catch-22, and on some days I look around and think we haven't made much real progress since Alice Sheldon picked her pen name.....

Timmi Duchamp said...

@Chris-- I haven't been a member of the fem-sf list, myself, since early 2001, but I'm sure they would welcome you. Back when I was on the list, current members simply nominated people interested in joining. I believe a lot of readers of this blog are members, & probably quite a few people you know personally are, too. Just ask around.

Second, Aqueduct Press would be happy to send you its books for review! Just drop us a line with your mailing address at

Third, there's been a lot of feminist conversation on the perception problem that hard sf by women faces. (I couldn't begin to guess the number of panels WisCon has held on the topic-- I moderated one myself, maybe ten years or so ago.) There are a handful of male critics who have begun to explicitly name the work of a few women writers as "hard sf," but they are, frankly, exceptions, and I'm not confident that how critics think of hard sf by women will necessarily change how the ordinary fan thinks.

Glad you stopped by!