Snap! Criticism: An Introduction

Dan Hartland

In his recent—and excellent—short book on Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, Paul Kincaid writes of that novel’s worldbuilding that “we do not pass into the world of story, but rather story already occupies the real world.” In the Mythago Wood cycle, the fantastic is immanent in a world otherwise recognisably our own, rather than separate, confined, or accessed via the portals, liminalities, intrusions, or even immersions of Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy. That is to say, Kincaid notices in Holdstock a pervasive fantastic, a working assumption that “Northern European shamanism, or the Celtic Dawn, or whatever,” which already exist as tales in our own world, also have agency within it. This is in a sense a soft kind of fantasy, one that simply sits alongside us.

The line caught me up short, however, because it seemed also to describe Kincaid’s practice as a reviewer and critic—and among the most careful and respected in his field, at that (full disclosure: I say this as a friend of his). For Kincaid, the world of story occupies the real world in a truer sense: story must be wrestled with. In reading it, we invite it into our own perceptions, our own realities—and it must contend with what it finds there, just as we must contend with the story’s arrival in our head. Reading renders worlds; in a certain way, it makes them immanent. Not for nothing is one of Kincaid’s other books entitled What We Do When We Read Science Fiction.

But what is the record of these wrestlings? Here we begin to skirt around an hoary old debate: the difference between criticism and reviews. John Clute has described reviews as “immediate interactions with texts new to the world”, and in so doing expresses a common understanding of the review as a response-in-harness: if not an immediate, then certainly a vaguely contemporary encounter with a text. Criticism, it is often argued, is simultaneously a more leisurely and a more intense affair, one which makes use of hindsight and perspective, opening itself to texts other than the one under immediate inspection (if indeed the criticism in question even has a single textual focus). In this common schema, the review is the crucible of opinion: a test drive of a text, an initial wrestling-with what this new story-in-the-world may signify, what it may be capable of doing.

Reading renders worlds; in a certain way, it makes them immanent.

In several ways, however, this doesn’t feel an entirely helpful definition either of the two terms or—with apologies—what it is we do when we read (and then write about) fiction. In the foreword to her Words Are My Matter, Ursula K. Le Guin characterised writing about fiction—indeed, also writing fiction, since in this sense she saw similarities in the two disciplines—as “an exploration, a voyage of discovery resulting in something I didn’t know before I wrote it.” True, in the same foreword she argues that “a book review is usually pretty short, under a thousand words, and naturally limited in topic”; but this feels so specific a definition of the form that it implicitly allows for that hybrid form, the “review essay”, as a sort of hedge case. If we allow that reviews can be—like criticism—a voyage of discovery, we begin to see why the traditional understanding of what separates the two forms of writing is so limited. Whether a satisfying trip is short or long, instant or delayed, barely matters to the ends of personal development. 

If the point in time at which a piece of writing on a text appears is in fact not quite so important, then what, too, of the fact that a good review might – arguably should – include all of the apparatus and supporting structures of “criticism”? By this I mean comparisons with other texts, acknowledgements of existing writing on the present text’s genre or subgenre, a reflection on its author’s wider corpus, a consideration of the text in the context of the evolution of all of these? There is an increasingly fuzzy line, here, between reviews and the vaunted “critical essay”. It comes to feel as if the only difference between reviews and criticism is—as in so much else—the capitalist urge to professionalise activity and exclude the identified amateur from production. Reviews are what happen outside the academy; criticism is what happens inside it. 

Centering how the review/criticism debate creates obstacles to understanding, rather than serving it, matters. This is because in so doing we might liberate the experience of reading, and the ways in which we express those readings, from the endless back and forth between the two—about which more shortly. But, less ineffably, liberating how we understand writing about fiction, and who can and should do so, is also intimately involved in how we develop better, more inclusive knowledges. Nearly twenty years ago now, in an essay for Extrapolation (“Recovering midcentury women’s sf as a literature of social critique”), Lisa Yaszek offered a canonical demonstration of how limiting what we understand as criticism serves to marginalize writers—and therefore to limit thought to “acceptable” areas of inquiry. Yaszek showed not just how women writers of fiction had been erased from the genre’s history, but how women critics had been—were being, are being—forced to fight for their right to redress this balance. How we define what reviewing and criticism are and do—and therefore who the reviewer and the critic is—has material impacts.

What, though, would be the consequence to a critical review essay—we really need new words—of breaking down the separations between forms in this way? Of course, writers have been doing this for decades already, although not always in such a way that the radical potential of this work has been placed at the forefront. More often, critics rationalise their modes and methods into some approximation of the review/criticism divide (in some cases, the contortions are even useful or instructive). But the internet, in eliminating any technical need for word limits or privations of space, has contributed hugely to this modal play; the London Review of Books hardly prints reviews these days; if the recursive meta-commentary of Twitter isn’t criticism, I don’t know what is.

There is no need, however, to do this work by accident. Let’s think through the smashing-together of the review and the critical essay by design. It’s easy to fall into this praxis, but I want to try to be conscious about the slippage. 

Last year, I wrote what I guess was a review of Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly for the Strange Horizons fund drive. Immediately I hit on a snag: it was not possible simply to react to the text, or at least not in a way that would produce a readable piece. Le Tellier is an extreme example: the fourth president of Oulipo, that largely Francophone literary group which emphasises constrained writing as a vehicle for experimentation, Le Tellier is a trickster, a writer of fiction whose method explicitly involves codes and encryption. In other words, few novels are as in need of parsing as an Oulipan one. Accordingly, the review I ended up writing of The Anomaly—a novel that, despite its theoretical backgrounds, has sold a huge number of copies and has been optioned for a major television adaptation—leaned heavily on critical theory. It was an immediate reaction with a text new to the world, but one which necessarily needed time also to read around the space in that world it had created. 

I’m a reader first, a writer about reading second. I have a desire to understand the book in my hands better, and I have sought to gain access to the tools to do so. But I’m a journeyman, essentially: a reader doing practical criticism as I go. The theory I drew on to understand The Anomaly was not new. It was drawn from the literature in the way of the critic as traditionally understood: that is, I was drawing on hindsight and the accretion of scholarly knowledge to arrive at a more “considered” view of the text(s) at hand. But I did so to review a text new to the world.

We have as a culture perhaps begun collectively to realise that hot takes are the enemy; but endless delay, too, can be deathly.

Shortly after that review for Strange Horizons, I wrote a review of Gillian Pollack’s Story Matrices for The BSFA Review. This was a critical study of the process of cultural transmission which used the genre of science fiction as an illustration of the literary phenomenon Pollack was seeking in the work to identify. In writing the review, I found myself wanting to apply the book’s formulae to a wider range of science fictional texts than Pollack drew on herself—in fact, this seemed to me to be the best way to review it. For me, one purpose of a review—and, yes, of criticism, too—is to ask, “Does this text work? Has it equipped itself sufficiently to achieve its goal?” A work of criticism, it is possible to argue, is more testable in this sense than a novel: does its theory work in practice? Is it of utility to a reader?

If, to follow Sheryl Vint, SF is our “vernacular theory of the present moment” (Science Fiction and Cultural Theory: A Reader), then it may follow that it becomes ever more urgent to test the genre’s theories by applying them to its texts-as-written. But, as we’ve seen, the current separations placed between reviews and criticism can sometimes fail to serve this kind of understanding: the twain cannot meet usefully, one marooned in a permanent now, an ecstasy of immediacy, the other in the slow, exclusive process of scholarly consideration. This returns us to that question around which, perhaps for all I know like mere bathwater being drained, this essay has been circling: what would be the consequence to the shape of a critical review essay of breaking down these separations of form?

I’ve resolved to try and find out. In the coming months, I’m going to attempt to review recent—new-to-the-world—works of science fiction criticism by applying them critically to equally recent—just-as-new-to-this-world—pieces of fiction. Usually this will mean taking a book-length study and testing (some of) its suppositions against a specific novel. What I hope this will help us do is assess critical work in a practical way—test criticism by doing it—but in a manner which can lend the exercise immediacy, and create more informed initial readings of works of fiction. We have as a culture perhaps begun collectively to realise that hot takes are the enemy; but endless delay, too, can be deathly. Is it possible to achieve a practical balance—not a perfect and complete comprehension, but a quotidian kind of consideration? I don’t know, but it feels for a number of reasons worth giving it a try.

Now, this all may sound rather grand. But Snap! Criticism is not going to save the world; it is unlikely even to save science fiction, a genre which has spent its entire existence stumbling, Buck Rogers-like, from one cliff-hanging imminent demise to another. Rather, I intend it as a jeu d’esprit with intent: a way to have some productive fun with fiction and form, a means of mixing up how we work with literature in an effort to open it out. There are a lot of books, more than ever; there can also sometimes seem to be less and less time to do any of them justice, in an attention economy fuelled by novelty. On a personal level, it’s a challenge my own practice of reading may benefit from; it’s possible some of you may feel the same. Snap! Criticism isn’t an attempt to slow down science fiction; it’s an attempt to keep up.

“[E]ach visit to the interface of myth and reality, to the meandering timescape of his stories,” writes Kincaid of Robert Holdstock in that book on Mythago Wood, “could answer one set of questions only at the expense of raising another.” Such is also true, it seems to me, for each return to the deep well of reviewing. More reason, perhaps, to gather as much water on each trip as we might. We’re gonna need a bigger bucket.

Dan Hartland (he/him) is Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons. His reviews have appeared for many years there, and also in Foundation, Vector, The Los Angeles Review of Books and more. You can find him on Twitter and Mastodon.

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This series was commissioned by an emailed pitch from the author, who is acquainted with ARB editors through review work elsewhere. It was edited by Zachary Gillan and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB did not arrange any review copies for this series.

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