Friday, December 19, 2008

Probably a Big Mistake

One of the first things a professional writer learns is to never, never answer negative reviews. It only gets you into energy-sapping flame wars, alienates reviewers, and looks petty. Despite knowing all that for at least 25 years, I'm going to do it anyway.

Reader Steve Mollman, on his Live Journal site, reviewed FAST FORWARD 2. He didn't like my story, which is of course perfectly reasonable. A lot of people don't like a lot of my fiction, for one reason or another, and they are entitled to their opinions. But Mr. Mollman's review underlined a point I've been making in recent blog entries, and which is much on my mind. He wrote:

"The Kindness of Strangers" by Nancy Kress -- Aliens destroy most of the world's major population centers yet do their best to assist the survivors. Why could this be happening? You won't really be surprised by the answer, and neither was I. These sort of better-than-you-primitives aliens who like lording over us were sort of done to death by Star Trek in the 1960s, you know? Except here, there's no getting out of the situation with a grand, moralistic gesture, just some empty nihilism. I'm pretty sure this same story turned up at least twice in Brian W. Aldiss's Galactic Empires collections, anyway.

My problem with this is that it seems to me to miss the point of the story, which was NOT its SF idea. There are many types of "kindness" in the story, and it's necessary to consider all of them to see what I was saying about the nature of kindness and its mis-applications. Thus, the actions of Carleen and Jenny are just as important as those of the aliens, and the relationship between Jenny and Eric is a necessary comment on the aliens' violent goal. To look only at the "SF idea" is to bring a tunnel vision to my story, and thus to negate entirely the reason why I wrote it.

The larger point here is that, in my view, SF should be more than its "idea." I am not writing about a "galactic empire" or about aliens who "lord" anything over humans. It may be that my story fails on these other literary dimensions -- character, emotion, human insight, moral implication -- as well. But I would like a reviewer to at least say as much.

Mr. Mollmann?


cd said...

It's a dreadful game that some SF literati play: to each and any story, there is always some response that one can offer akin to, Cordwainer Smith did this in 1953, or, Olaf Stapledon wrote something similar in 1904.

My all time favorite, I once heard one fan ask another: did you read Hyperion yet? Dumbass's reply: I'll read Chaucer if I want to read the Cantebury tales.

If I'd had a copy of the Decameron with me I would have used it to beat the insufferable dumbass.

I aim to get FF2 this weekend. Buying is the best revenge.


Steven Francis Murphy said...

I think the worst review is the one where you do not really understand what the reviewer is getting at. I had one of those with my first publication and to this day, I've yet to hear a satisfactory explanation for "the story was emotionally manipulative."

Per your story, I've not read it so I can't say. But so what if someone else has done it before? Execution is just as important as the potential newness of the theme.

S. F. Murphy
On the Outer Marches

Mark said...

As per Murphy: The topic is not the only reason we read/watch/listen to stories. I'm sure we can trace some plot elements of Puzo's The Godfather to Shakespeare or earlier, but that doesn't make it bad drama. We'll still watch it again when it's on AMC, and I'll still read certain books regularly, and listen to certain music over and over (ok, sometimes friends tell me I do this too much over and over).

The message is the medium is the message.

Steve said...

It's a fair cop. I was being brief and somewhat snarky, so it obviously wasn't the best review I've ever written-- I always struggle to review multi-author anthologies for some reason. As I was skimming through the book again, the thing that I remembered most was feeling underwhelmed by the end revelation of the story. I had been expecting something interesting/different/fascinating behind the aliens' motivation, so I was disappointed when the "twist" (if indeed it is fair to call it one) was a pretty common twist, and one I got tired of when reading Brian Aldiss's collections. A lot of sf stories are all about that sort of twist, and when it's not actually a good twist, the whole story is wasted.

You're right that there was stuff going on in the story beyond the twist, but most of the emotional content of the story did not do much for me. I did briefly consider putting in a comment to that effect, but it felt like I would have been harping too much on one story.

I could say more about the other content of the story, but my copy of the book is at home and I am not.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

"The dogs bark, but the caravan passes on."

Yappers will yap, Nancy. I don't think it's hot news to anyone who writes, or composes, or works in art, or acts, that critics are consumed by their bitter envy of creative people. "Didn't like that story, pal? Hmmm...haven't read any of =yours= lately."

Ignore them.

TheOFloinn said...

A story consists of many elements: plot, character, idea, setting. To this we may add the styling. (Content and form: These are inseparable. What is being said is inextricable from how it is being said. A bit of Aristotelian hylomorphism in litcrit!) We could represent this in a four (or five)-dimensional hypercube, but we won't.

But what that means is this: We might write a gang-buster great tale on the "character axis" and, by the law of the conservation of word-count, which I have now this minute made up*, this may be done at the expense of setting or plot.

A reviewer intent on plot - and so on the "twist" - may miss the other axes. (O. Henry has a lot to answer for. The twist doesn't have to =surprise=, it has to satisfy!) I had the experience of writing a story with rivets - i.e., with a kool techy detail (KTD). A reviewer then made the assumption that the story was =about= that KTD. He liked the story fine, but he missed the point.
(In similar fashion, we could have a really wild plot populated by fairly stock characters. We could even have stories where the =setting= is the point. A lot of "world-building," utopian, and dystopian stories, for example. Middle Earth is the real main character of LOTR. But we digress.)

Julia said...

SFSignal loved "Kindness", and said it was a standout in the collection:

James A. Ritchie said...

I stopped readin rviews about twenty years ago when I realized even the reviewers who loved something I wrote still missed the point more often than not, and had no clue.

And, really, who cares what a reviewer has to say? Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything that concerns me less. I'd rather read the contents label on a can of corn that read a review of my own writing, or of anyone else's, for that matter.

Nancy Kress said...

I am going to disagree with you on this one, James. There have been times when a reviewer has identified for me something weak (or strong!) in a story of mine that has helped with subsequent writing. Gardner Dozois is especially good at this.

TheOFloinn said...

David Hartwell has also proven helpful. Of course, these are editors, not reviewers.

I have found some reviewers helpful in the sense of providing a different insight into a story, not always my own. I recently read one review of The January Dancer that dwelt on some of the symbolism involved and, first I said, "I didn't do that," and then thought, "well, yeah, I guess I did, without thinking about it."

Unknown said...

When someone "doesn't get the point of my story" (not quoting you in particular, just authors in general), my initial response is "Well, then you didn't make your point very well." An author can be much more blunt with the point (John Kessel did this to great effect in "Invaders"). Which then can detract from other parts of the story of course. I read lots of interviews and other commentary by authors where complain that reviewers have reviewed the author and not the book. Well, now we have a dilemma. Which is it: read the book, or read the author's intention? Once a story is released to the wild, you lose control of it. Then again, you get back some control by being able to write commentary like this blog post.

Reading is subjective. Very very very subjective.

Also, this is one of the better responses to negative criticism on a blog post that I've seen.