I believe there's a lot of people out there sick of the constant whining and moaning and tearing down - after all, it's much easier to destroy than create. That's why myself, and so many other brilliant authors, are involved with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics project (the SFFE) because we want to promote a positive attitude in the industry, and make and ethical stand against the constant poison and vitriol which, I think, has been invading and escalating for a long time.This, of course, begs quite a few questions, most notably: who are the motherfuckers? You can read some of the puzzled responses to Remic's statement in the Mind Meld comments, and a more vigorous discussion, with Remic himself and at least one other SFFE contributor in attendance, in the comments to this post by Martin Lewis. What you can't do is read an entry on SFFE itself titled "Some Confusion," in which Remic accused Martin and the other commenters on his site of "[hiding] behind their anonymous internet connections," because, as Alastair Reynolds points out in the Mind Meld comments and as Jeff VanderMeer notes in this post, it was deleted some time last night. In the interim, Remic has responded to further queries with tautologies ("We are out to promote the positive. Some people are out to promote the negative. We don’t do that."), requests to conduct further discussions in private e-mail, and a refusal to name names (from "Some Confusion": "I assumed people would make up their own minds as to who I was referring; after all, we all get annoyed by certain things, comments, sites, people, while other stuff goes over our heads"). The closest thing to a straight answer seems to be his response to Reynolds at SF Signal, in which he excuses his decision to delete "Some Confusion" with the headache-inducing claim that "the SFFE site just didn't seem the right place to having that sort of argument," and apologizes for the 'motherfuckers' comment by saying "Yes, I presented my views badly. Yes, I presented them after a few whiskies."
I chose the name "Ethics" not because I wanted to explore the ethical contexts of novels or films, but because I wanted to make an ethical stand against the motherfuckers who, to my mind, are systematically ruining the SFFH genres. In short, I wanted to do what I believed was intrinsically, morally, ethically and intuitively right. I want to celebrate everything that is good in SFFH, because it's all subjective, right?? - and, hopefully, we can lead by positive example.
The Princess Bride jokes are left as an exercise to the reader.
As of this morning, the mission statement of SFFE has changed to "The aim of this site is to promote positive reviews of books, movies and comics" (the old mission statement can still be found on the group's old blog). This emphasis on positive reviewing as opposed to positivity in general is bolstered by comments by SFFE contributor M.E. Staton on her own blog--"It isn’t that we disagree that their [sic] should be criticism in the world but that it doesn’t always have to be negative and if you find you really love something the SFFE is someplace you can share that joy without the worry of ridicule." Which would be almost anticlimactic--a blog on which people can talk up the things they like, how novel--were it not for the continued emphasis on positivity and ethics. As Jonathan McCalmont puts it, "If you say “I think we should do more of X” then by definition you’re saying that there’s some kind of problem with not-X," and statements like Remic's and Staton's (or Neil Williamson's observations in the comments to VanderMeer's post) make it clear that there are specific people who have not behaved in a manner which the SFFE members consider to be positive and ethical, and whose effects the blog is intended to counteract. (Though it should be noted that Remic and Staton don't necessarily speak for all SFFE members; in the comments to Martin's post Jetse de Vries, for example, quickly distances himself from the fracas.)
Meanwhile, the issue of positive reviews was already on my mind due to a Torque Control post Niall made a few weeks back, in which he quotes a writer describing her experiences bumping up against a "Prominent SF Magazine"'s mostly positive reviews policy. In the comments, NYRSF editor Kathryn Cramer posts links to two essays on the subject: her own, titled "On why what people like about books is more interesting than what they don't like," and a 2004 editorial by David G. Hartwell. There are several assertions I find questionable in Cramer's essay ("There are all kinds of reasons one might react negatively to a book, many of them personal"--as opposed, one takes it, to positive reactions, which are entirely objective?), but it's Hartwell who takes the cake, with the following "hard-won guidelines for responsible reviewing":
First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet, or a license to kill.To which the most polite response I can make is: um, no.
I could go through this list point by point, but they all seem to boil down to the same thing. Hartwell, and Cramer when she says things like "We publish to promote the aesthetic advancement of the field and are not a buyers' guide," are working under the assumption that a reviewing organ should be oriented towards the industry. That a reviewer is writing for, perhaps even in service of, authors and publishers. That's not an unreasonable stance, but I don't hold to it. I don't write for authors or publishers. I'd like to say that I write for other readers, but that's not really the truth either. I write for myself, because I have thoughts in my head that are clamoring to get out, and for the pleasure of being able to express them clearly and beautifully, and in the hopes of finding someone else with whom to discuss and develop them. I am not a parasite. I am a reader.
Obviously, this approach can be taken to extremes, and lead to self-regarding wankery for the sake of nothing more than the sound of one's voice. As aggravating and overstated as I find it, Anton Ego's argument about the critic's responsibility to his material is sound. I do owe something to my readers, be they publishers or authors or just people who read, but it is no more and no less than this: honesty, clarity, and the best use to which I can put the English language. I don't owe anyone positivity, and it is this frustrated entitlement that I sense at the core of the SFFE's complaints about vitriol and ruination. Like Cramer and Hartwell, it seems to me that Remic and Staton think that reviewers write for the sake of the industry, and that negative reviews represent a reviewer's failure to live up to their side of the bargain and thus constitute a meaningful, and no doubt deliberate, blow against the genre. (Interestingly, this kind of reaction isn't limited to industry insiders--check out the irate, almost injured comments to Martin Lewis's negative review of Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villjamur by fans of the book, as opposed to Newton's own cheerful response to it.)
At the close of his editorial, David Hartwell laments "reviewers who perform to entertain the reader rather than to illuminate the text for the reader." I was all set to become outraged over this statement as a reviewer (seriously, is it that difficult to believe that we genuinely and truly didn't like the book?) when I suddenly realized that I ought to become outraged as a reader. What the hell is wrong with entertaining readers? I like to be entertained. I derived a hell of a lot more entertainment out of John Clute's takedown of Brian Stableford's Streaking, or Adam Roberts's skewering of the new Star Trek movie, than I did out of the works themselves, and in fact those reviews offered me some small compensation for having slogged through Stableford's senseless, terribly written novel, or the brain-dead experience that is new Trek. Isn't that an achievement worth celebrating? For a reviewer, isn't it worth emulating? Insight and illumination are important--good reviewers crave them--but sometimes the only insight to be had is 'this is a lousy book.' If there's any meaning to be drawn from the muddled and self-contradictory statements made by Andy Remic and M.E. Staton, it is that this is an unworthy, perhaps even unethical sentiment, and they are more than welcome to pursue their goal of a blog founded on that philosophy. But I'm staying out here, where people aren't afraid of a little negativity.