For some time as a writer I’ve wondered why so many books that I and others have found good or even excellent seldom ever get discussed by the critics and reviewers within the F&SF field, and why so many of those books that get praised are demonstrably weaker than all too many of those that are never mentioned. The most obvious answer, and the one that comes up the most often, is that it’s just a matter of taste. That’s certainly a factor, and one that can’t be discounted, but I don’t think it’s the only factor and not even the dominant one.
What first got me to thinking about this was a conversation I had several months ago with several of the noted and leading reviewers of a magazine that publishes a great number of reviews every month. The magazine reviewers explained that they liked to concentrate on “newer” writers and books that readers might not have seen or heard about. That’s a reason with thought behind it, and one that has a certain validity.
Then, the other day I read a review column about the “best” works of 2009 by one of the newer “flavor-de-jour” reviewers who’s currently everyone’s darling, so to speak. Rather than explain, I’m just going to lift a few phrases from the column, each phrase about a different book: “fearless deep dive into worlds of fantasy and of sex…avant garde fantasy elements”; “wonderful ability to be utterly modern”; “strange scenes involving bizarre fish and other monstrosities”; “never blinks in its depiction of horrors of the mind and the body”; “gleefully subvert most of heroic fantasy’s tropes”; “strange creations and enchanters”; “beyond the idea of cyberpunk or the New Wave in its approach”; “kinetic energy and hard-to-define originality”; “potent sampling of the author’s Southern-tinged dual gonzo and horror impulses”; “most experimental and formally daring genre fiction of the year”; “interesting fantasy experiments”; “extraordinary credit for publishing an anthology with few marketable names.”
I understand the appeal of the new, especially to critics and reviewers. After all, who wants to write reviews, year after year, that say something like, “XXX provides another well-crafted, well-plotted, and well-written work with virtually no flaws… sure to please those who have followed…” Even writing a review that states “YYY offers yet another well-designed and enchantingly written experimental novel whose plot and characters are based on the musical motifs of…” gets old after a well-established author achieves yet another milestone or artistic triumph, particularly if he or she does so without excessive sex or rhetorical fireworks.
Coupled with the praise of newness is also, so far as I’m concerned, far too much praise for the violent violation of taboos and the equating of explicit and often vulgar sexual episodes to excellence or insight or being daring. As I think Marion Zimmer Bradley once said (and she should have known, having written pornography under pseudonyms), “Describing sex in detail is like describing plumbing.” Technical manuals and descriptions, whether about technology or sex, should definitely be limited in good fiction.
Seeing newer or unrecognized writers getting exposure and praise doesn’t bother me in the slightest (although I do admit to a bit of jealousy because I would have liked a share of that when I was new and unrecognized), but what does bother me — a lot! — is that all this gushing over newness and shock value is equated with excellence, and all too many excellent works are overlooked in the critical pursuit of “newness.” But then, I suppose I should remember that the very term “novel” comes from the Latin, through French, term for “new.”