Friday, May 15, 2015

a short set of thoughts on fan criticism, and recent academic science fiction criticism

       In the years that I have studied science fiction, I have read a fairly large amount of criticism produced either by fans of the genre, or authors who regularly engage with fans.  It's not surprising.  After all, some of the first literary criticism of the genre arises from fanzine publications and other texts produced within the subculture of fandom.  I've read the work of Damon Knight, Judith Merril, H.P. Lovecraft, and various fanzines such as Khatru, to name a few sources. 

      Through that engagement, I've found that fan criticism most often produces taxonomic criticism, that is, it creates categories to group texts together in order to see thematic and occasionally formal connections between texts in the genre.  I've always had a mixed response to these critical texts.  One one hand, I find myself wanting the sort of rigorous, formal engagement that one gets out of academic literary criticism produced after the structuralist moment, and on the other hand, I always enjoy the interesting thematic connections that these authors produce, and, just as significantly, frequently find myself using these critical endeavors to expand what I read. 
     To be honest, it's a set of benefits that I really didn't give much thought to until recently.  I took it as an inadvertent result of reading the comments of a thoughtful and well read person who is engaged in the genre.  But I've been rethinking that unthought assumption as I work through Farah Mendlesohn's relatively recent book, Rhetorics of Fantasy.  It would be a mistake to understand Mendlesohn's text as simply operating within the same critical framework as those texts.  It brings in a critical vocabulary from the structuralist literary criticism of Todorov, amongst others, and brings in art criticism, as well.  At the same time, it produces a similar chain of associations and connections through rhetorical categories that you find in those texts. 

      What I've finally realized is that this chain of texts is consciously designed to put its readers in touch with a chain of texts that the reader might find similarly interesting, to open up the reader to new worlds of reading through this critical apparatus.  In effect, it's a structure that is not that dissimilar from the book reviews that are also published in such publications, although they offer a broader evaluation of the genre.  At the same time, it points to a criticism that goes beyond that form, through the production of a critical archive, and the production of a series of connections that can be developed further.  But in both cases, the central focus of the engagement is the pleasure of the text.  The works are deeply normative, in this regard, asking what texts might be enjoyable to its readers, as well as why they might enjoy these texts.  Writers such as James Blish and Damon Knight go further as to identify what qualities might produce better fiction. 

      Through that engagement, they remain much more connected to the genre, refusing the separation of critic and writer that is produced by post-structuralist critics such as Pierre Macherey.  Instead, the critic operates more as guide to consumption, a critical archivist, rather than producer of knowledge.  However, we're seeing a synthesis of this older form of criticism with academic criticism recently.  We can see this with Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fiction, along with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr's The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, and the Parabolas of Science Fiction collection edited by Brian Attebery and Victoria Hollinger. Each of the texts take a pluralistic approach to the reading, while simultaneously engaging in a pluralistic disciplinary approach, combining the structuralist tendencies of Todorov, Suvin, and Delany with the taxonomic approaches that one traditionally finds in the fan and authorial critical writing of any number of writers. It's an interesting approach.

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