Regular readers of this blog, particularly its more mature pieces - will have noticed I'm in the tricky but interesting position of trying to bring the language of criticism - heartfelt, individualistic, provocative, unashamed - into the world of fandom, which tends towards the conformist - (did everyone else dislike it?) - the tentative - (of course that's just my opinion) - the anti-intellectual (you're taking it too seriously, how pretentious to use such big words, what are you on about?) the accusatory (you're just jealous, you're just trying to demonstrate your own superiority) the insulting (don't be obnoxious, don't troll, get a life, he's mad, what a strange man) the abbreviated (LOL, TL: DR, IMHO) and the labelling (Hah! Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons! Trainspotter! Geek!)
One of the creepiest trends on both twitter and forums is the trembling, "don't hit me" use of "IMHO" in an opinion. Why do it? Of course it's your opinion: what else could it be? The only way "that's just your opinion" would work as a riposte to anything on this blog would be if I'd claimed to be able to produce figures backed up by The Lancet. Yet so many are nervous of upsetting someone who liked that show, book or film, they're deliberately removing authority and even conviction from their tone.
This is partly because criticism exists in a separate world from fandom, and perhaps a truce of some kind needs to be called. If you enjoy watching something and only want to share that enjoyment, then understandably you might see any less than adulatory opinion as pissing on your parade. Conversely, though, if you want to be left alone with other positive-minded fans, surely you can leave those of us who are enjoying debating an interesting point alone too rather than coming over to shout "WELL I LIKED IT!" There's room enough for both types, and no need for one to antagonise the other.
What's more worrying is seeing this panicky response to criticism spreading amongst writers themselves. Paul Cornell has written superbly about fandom foibles - this piece on canon and this one about fandom's relationship with drama are essential reads - but this curious conversation about Doctor Who Confidential on the comments section of his blog provides a typical example of the brief glimpse of humourless, feudalistic threat displayed when one of the readers/viewers, without being rude or offensive, speaks out of turn:
Sourpuss comment coming, for which I apologise in advance: The "family feel" of DW:C is no doubt wonderful to be part of, but it's the single biggest contributing factor to my no longer watching the show. The whole thing is so cliquey and self-congratulatory that it often seems as if an in-house lark has been broadcast by mistake. 'Ave a word, there's a love...
Rob, how many Making Ofs do you know that are scathing attacks on their subject matter? They like what they do! And they transmit that to the viewers, and the whole makes a jolly celebration.
A third poster, SK, had a terrific reply to this:
Some 'making ofs' are actually watchable, interesting pieces which show how various effects (special or otherwise) were achieved, and what the people behind the scenes were aiming at (which is especially interesting if it didn't quite come off, and they realise that it didn't quite come off).
Not all of them are as cloying and indulgent.
A debate like this is surely everything a comments page is for: neither Rob nor SK have been rude: all they've done is criticise a TV programme. But this was Paul's reply:
Excuse me, SK, I rather harumph at your tone, especially at this time of the year, and especially because the people concerned were mentioned here only because they were kind enough to send me a gift. They don't deserve to come here and see that. Which is not to say I don't think you should be free to say it, just not in my gracious abode. Now, have some mulled wine.
And that's it. Discussion quashed. The mulled wine reference doesn't quite disguise the flash of warning: "careful old chap, don't care for your tone." The thing about "jolly celebrations" is that those in a different mood need to be cast out.
It's significant that this conversation should have revolved around Doctor Who Confidential, as that show was a good example of the Pollyannaism and enforced jollity that has taken hold of Doctor Who since 2005. SK's point is strong: compare DWC to the featurettes you would find on, say, the DVD of a Christopher Nolan Batman film. They assume their audience wants to know interesting details, and have enough respect for them to reward that curiosity rather than endlessly praising their own work. Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan and the team behind Seinfeld realise that there's more you can give the audience than a "jolly celebration."
The world of Doctor Who, of course, didn't always use to be like this. In the 1990s, when new content consisted of novels and fan-produced videos rather than a lavish Caitlin Moran-approved BBC One series, there was a greater belief in the importance of refusing to pull punches in your criticism. Doctor Who Magazine's reviewers at the time - Craig Hinton, David Owen, Vanessa Bishop - were searingly honest if they disliked a novel, video, factual book or documentary, even though this would sometimes cause tension if the author was offended.
In the same decade, Red Dwarf Smegazine once had a feature called "The Great Red Dwarf debate", in which Steve Lyons and Joe Nazzaro debated whether the show had gone downhill or hit its stride with series 3. Lyons argued that what had made the earlier series work had been lost. Now, I don't agree with Lyons's view- for me Red Dwarf matured from 3 onwards - but I find it interesting: it's the kind of discussion I want to read and enter into. Can you imagine Doctor Who Magazine running a similar debate today? They've run one about whether the brightly coloured Daleks are better than the old ones: that's as controversial as it gets. Turning to the most recent DWM, I notice the latest "debate" is about what is better: horror in Doctor Who or science fiction in Doctor Who? It's interesting, too, that while the stronger reviewers like Vanessa Bishop, David Owen and Gary Gillatt all continue to review releases related to the old Doctor Who (to the same critical standard as before), the DVD release of series 5 was reviewed by Toby Hadoke of "Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf" fame, while their most prominent reviewer of new episodes is the remorseless Graham "I loved it" Kibble White.
The example I used in an earlier blogpost for the tendency to stomp on any interesting opinion in order to create a sense of critical agreement and unity was Steven Moffat's response to hallor on twitter. To recap, this was the conversation (Moffat had just referred to River Song as bisexual)
appreciate the thought but I don't understand how River works for bisexual visibility when people need to be told she is bi
If people need to be told she's bisexual, she's clearly not contributing to bisexual visibility. How is this hard to grasp?
When did I say I thought I was contributing to bisexual visibility?? Please stop being rude to me, you have no reason to be.
I'm just questioning your portrayal of a character you claim to
Be bisexual. How is that rude? I thought this was a discussion.
How is your rudeness hard to grasp?
I've been nothing but polite. Disagreeing with your opinion on something does not automatically mean I'm being rude.
Tom Spilsbury [editor of DWM]:
The comment that was rude was the 'hard to grasp' one. I know, because I get strangers who talk to me like this too. It is rude.
Good though the response to my blogpost on twitter feudalism was, it's depressing how many people took the view that Hallor's tweets were rude. I still can't see the point of responding to a coherent and civil question with five question marks, nor can I understand how five question marks could denote anything other than a failure to grasp something - what else are question marks for?
Anyway, Steven Moffat deleted his Twitter account in September, which his wife says is due to work commitments, but which Graham Linehan and Ian Levine saw as evidence that the "trolls" had won, and which script editor Andrew Ellard claims was preceded by a series of tweets of Dickensian pathos asking how he could reduce his more negative "@s". (See September 2013 update below this piece) Those mean, mean fans. Don't they know what it's like to work in the media? Don't they release the damage opinions can do? Hard to grasp: what a cheek. Feel free to say their episode made you cry and that Matt Smith is fantastic and that you hope the Cybermen are coming back, but asking about River Song's contribution to bisexual visibility in the media: that's just out of order. It's sad for those of us who find the latter kind of discussion more interesting.
It's interesting to compare this conversation with a piece of correspondence published in DWM in May 1994, in which a reader from California named Sarah Keller wrote in to protest against the late Craig Hinton's review of Paul Cornell's Doctor Who novel No Future. Here's some extracts:
With all due disrespect to Mr Hinton, I ask that this whining overgrown schoolboy be fired and forced to grow up for a few years before thinking he is equipped to review books.
[...] Another example of Craigie's 'wit' being unleashed is his attack on Paul Cornell's gay characters in Love and War. I felt they were portrayed as people. Interesting people with problems. Which means that they can be "deeply unhappy" and unfortunately die of AIDS! It happens in life. Maybe not in Hinton's worldview, but as I've said, he needs a strong dose of reality. Certainly, honey, gays can be well-balanced and just happen to be gay, but some also dare to have human problems.
[...] This foolish little git is becoming more than I can tolerate. Please, please, please put a nuzzle on his rabid snout and kick him out into reality. He is disgusting.
Here's some extracts from Craig Hinton's reply:
Sarah - you seem to have misinterpreted my criticism of Ace and Benny in Paul's book. I was referring to the complete lack of character development since Love and War.
[...] in the Sixties, the Lord Chamberlain's office in Britain decreed that the only homosexuals permissible on stage and screen had to be "deeply unhappy", tragic people, whose nature meant they were flawed human beings. My comments expressed my disappointment that it's taken a long time for the opposite view to be seen in the series.
[...] Please don't presume that my "world-view" excludes people who have died of AIDS - I only wish this weren't true.
Sarah Keller's letter, like Hallor's tweet, brings up interesting issues. Unlike that tweet, it actually is rude, using wildly abusive language, implying that Craig Hinton was homophobic and wrongly assuming he wasn't gay. What's fascinating is that it doesn't occur to Hinton not to respond politely and intelligently: his reply is admirable and quite moving. The comment made by the editor at the time before he hands over the discussion to Hinton is noteworthy too: not only does he also decline to reciprocate Sarah Keller's rudeness, but his remark that "the 'who's your favourite doctor?' discussions of my youth are now stating to seem like a long time ago"' is actually used as a joke, a rueful acknowledgement that the time has come away to put away childish things. Nowadays it's not at all a joke, it's DWM editorial policy. Keller's letter would not have been published, and the current editor would have blocked her on twitter.
Paul Cornell has praised both the review and the letter in recent years when someone posted it on a forum. A quick look at the posts he used to make on the Doctor Who newsgroup rec-arts-drwho reveals a Doctor Who fan unafraid to challenge dreary received wisdom, frequently using the admirable maxim "dissent is good" (one I'm sorry he used first, as I can't use it for this blog), and raising the valuable point that Doctor Who itself is about someone who loves new ideas (a point he also makes well in the more recent canon piece, and which Lawrence Miles has made about Ian Levine, observing that no-one would detest Levine's closed mind and contempt for opinions different to his own more than the hero of the TV series he has dedicated his life to).
Similarly, Gareth Roberts, another writer for the modern series, wrote a sharp piece in DWM in July 2003 - two years before the show's resurrection. He rightly asks: "if you were coming to Doctor Who for the first time with Trial [of a Timelord], what on Earth would you think the series was about?" and writes of Silver Nemesis "I have no idea what Lady Peinforte, or Herr De Flores, or the Cyberleader want. What does the Nemesis do? The Doctor and Ace are so odd that's almost as hard to figure them out." Isn't this equally true of the recent series, which features as its heroes a girl whose baby has been stolen from her but who doesn't care about that too much, a woman who happens to be that baby grown up into a regenerating, time-travelling, gun-toting archaeologist, the girl's husband, who died and spent centuries watching over her as a plastic android replica, but is back to normal now, and a Doctor that all three have seen gunned down? Given the dream-like opportunity of writing for a wildly successful TV version of the show, a generation of intelligent critics like Cornell and Roberts have blunted their fangs as far as Doctor Who is concerned.
The presence of writers on Twitter and logging on to forums, leading to them accidentally ingesting criticism, is a complicating factor. It's significant that Paul Cornell's objections to speaking ill of Doctor Who Confidential centred around the possibilities of those that worked on it seeing the comments. The antipathy towards fans Answering Back doesn't stop at twitter "@" etiquette, though. It's fair enough to say that it's unreasonable to send mean tweets on a show directly to its writer (mean being crucial here: not "I appreciate the thought but don't understand how River works for bisexual visibility" or wondering if someone who used 5 question marks is finding what you said "hard to grasp", and the same goes for "didn’t enjoy episode three, but episode two was surely best of the series! Love your shows, and IT I can really relate to, thanks!" which resulted in a lesson in etiquette from Graham Linehan detailed here. With forums, however, the comments are not addressed to the author. Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook's shocking book A Writer's Tale, which unintentionally explains so much of what went wrong with Doctor Who from 2006 onwards, contains an enlightening section where Davies reveals that writer Helen Raynor logged on to Outpost Gallifrey and read what fans had said about her Dalek story. Davies relates that, according to her, the experience was like being ganged up on and threatened by a group of bullying men. He reveals that he had to spend a large amount of time on the phone persuading her that they did indeed need her services. Now, if people had been sending Helen Raynor unpleasant remarks about her work directly to her, or making them to her face, I would agree with Davies's point, but to chastise someone for criticising a TV programme on a public forum because of the possibility of the author choosing to log on and read it is a preposterous as eavesdropping and then saying "How Dare you?" Sending strangers harsh criticism of their work uninvited is unpleasant and pointless but to say that you shouldn't make those criticisms anywhere on the Internet in case the author finds the site is a step too far. None of this is to say that a lot of nonsense isn't uttered on forums, of course, only that those that utter it are not "trolls", as Graham Linehan or Ian Levine would brand them. Trolls abuse people, not episodes of TV shows.
Another Doctor Who writer, James Moran, responded to one of Graham Linehan's anti-forum rants with this telling tweet:
You'd think comedy forums would be funny, wouldn't you? Read one once that was slagging off a mate. Yikes.
Every writer someone criticises is someone's mate and yet the very idea of criticising someone's mate has now become such a palpable fear, it's seen as a damaging enough case to end the tweet there, as forcefully as if Moran had said "can you believe they even drowned a little puppy?"
After the ferocious Graham Kibble-White had unleashed his nervously-awaited critical take on Victory of Daleks (he really liked it) someone asked his editor Tom Spilsbury on Gallifrey Base what he would do if Graham the Jackal loathed an episode. His response was that he couldn't see how he could employ anyone that mad. One thinks here of the response to Lawrence Miles's provocative - and in my view, spot on - argument on his blog that The Unquiet Dead endorsed anti-asylum seeker xenophobia in DWM's Fact of Fiction on that story. The piece summarised Miles's argument, and then simply expressed gratitude that most fans "knew when to stop reading things into" Doctor Who. That was it: no counterargument, no defence of the episode, no refutation of Miles's argument. The cry of fandom: stop reading things into it: we're not going to tell you why we dislike or disagree with your reading of it, nor offer a contrasting reading of our own: we just want you to stop reading. The dreariest conversation I ever had was with a fan who used to tell me I was "overanalysing" whenever I ventured a less than positive opinion about Doctor Who. He subsequently shortened this to just that word with an exclamation mark, which he fell back on whoever I said anything he disagreed with. This is a dangerous fallacy. You can't over-analyse anything or read too much into anything: you can analyse something poorly (in the other person's opinion), you can read or interpret something poorly (in the other person's opinion) but you cannot think too much. If every decoding is anther encoding, then every disagreement should be another opinion: what's chilling about fan language is that it attempts to bring the debate to a halt: arguments are met by insults and denials, but not counter-arguments or defences of whatever was criticised.
When I wrote my piece on The Thick Of It, an obvious aim was to stir debate: no decent writer only writes pieces he or she knows everyone will agree with. On Twitter I had some pleasing debates with admirers of The Thick of It, exchanging contrasting ideas while remaining friends. The comments section of the blog, curiously, was a different story, attracting insults only a few days after the blogpost went up (unlike the pieces on Moffat's Doctor Who and Graham Linehan, which still haven't attracted anything offensive). What was most telling about the first comment, written in a tone of humourless anger throughout, was what it didn't say: there was no defence of The Thick Of It, nor was there any actual rebuttal of any aspect of my argument: instead the piece focused on my stupidity for having written such a disrespectful article in the first place. There was a lot of insults: the piece was "rubbish", it was "egotistical" of me (I actually have to agree with Martin Amis here and say calling a writer egotistical is like calling a boxer aggressive: I'm not sure a meek, diffident essayist would be worth reading) to think that I could "deconstruct" The Thick of It, the piece was "not really criticism at all" but "an impotent attempt to assert your intellectual superiority." Again, note the denial: rather than countering the criticism, a very loud "NO!" is sounded: I don't need to disagree with you or because your opinion doesn't exist. I tried to make some of these points in my replying comment:
Hello angry anonymous comment-person.
Interesting that these panicky reactions to someone saying something critical about your favourite show apply as much to The Thick of It as they do to Doctor Who. (God knows what a Thick of It Forum would be like)
It's not egotistical to deconstruct Shakespeare, let alone The Thick of it. Is your strange idea of deference towards a tv show part of that tired old "when you make tv shows yourself then you can talk" argument, or do you think no-one has any business talking disrespectfully about tv? Would you prefer me to know my place? Are there no tv shows you feel superior too? How intimidating you must find switching on the tv if so. Don't you even feel superior to Jeremy Kyle? Piers Morgan? Frankly I'd rather have an egotistical critic than a diffident or meek one.
There's a slight contradiction between your annoyance at my less than polite tone towards a tv show and your own towards me: apparently it's fine to leave messages on someone's blog saying their piece is "rubbish" and that they are motivated purely by an "impotent attempt to assert you intellectual superiority" (and personally, I've no problem with you doing that) but bang out of order to mock a much-loved tv show on one's own blog. Have a look at The Thick of it on iplayer: there, see? It's still there, the nasty man's horrid little blog didn't hurt it.
The sheep-like attitude you would seem to
prefer to see in viewers and bloggers is depressing. No-one should be afraid to say they don't like something. It will have no effect on the programme/book/film (so if you're of a fan of it: why worry?); what it will do is encourage debate.
What's particularly striking is that you offer no counter-argument or defence of The Thick Of It: you focus entirely on how you hated the post.
The piece IS a criticism of The Thick of It: they exist, get over it. They're not going to cease to be criticisms and stand revealed as the work of "impotent" and "egotistical" fakes because you point at them and scream "that's not real!"
A second commentator named Melissa Naylor posted a brief reply telling me I "came across as obnoxious" and advising me to "work on your people skills". The debate - which could have been on The Thick Of It, comedy satire, fandom and politics - had now descended into insults (again, note the wide gulf between "work on your people skills" and "appreciate the point but don't understand how River works for bisexual visibility"). Rather than post testy replies on the dubiousness of holding forth to complete strangers about their "people skills", I deleted all three of our comments. This was a mistake, and in retrospect I should have kept a copy of the conversation to quote in full.
However, I offer two reasons for this uncharacteristic act. Firstly, if I wanted to swap insults I'd join a forum (although you can approach me on Twitter for that kind of thing). Secondly, I'd prefer to debate the pieces on Twitter rather than on the same blogpage, as my posting a defence immediately below the piece itself seems to me to dilute it: it should stand for itself, and follow-up comments I write within a day are inevitably going to be weaker than something I've spent time thinking over. Many blogs don't enable comments, and I've long wondered if it isn't self-defeating for an author of a long provocative essay to put shorter posts immediately below it, and both of the comments bear this out as the posters are clearly uncomfortable with things that are actually going to be a given in anything I write (of course the essays are going to be egotistical, of course they'll be unafraid to "deconstruct" anything and of course they're not going to worry about "people skills"). Leaving comments enabled makes this more like a forum with the essay as the first post, and that leads to other posters wondering why the first person posted such a long piece, and why they expressed an opinion with the assumption that it was true, with no IMHOs in sight. (If you don't like this piece,by the way, you can tweet me at @richardhcooper)
The same panicky, anti-intellectual tone can be found on some of my favourite responses to my "How Steven Moffat Ruined Doctor Who" blog, which were posted on a forum (I quote from them in a spirit of interest, not spite, as these comments are not addressed to me, which makes them opinions, not insults):
This article is nothing more than a long-winded opinion made to sound authoritative and important. Some of us don't like the vapid, cheesy emotionalism of episodes like Love and Monsters and the whole of RTD's time and prefer arc-heavy, mystery laden shows. It's fine to have an opinion. He seems to be confusing "I don't like it" with "It's bad and has no value." I sure as hell disagreed with a lot of what RTD did at the helm, but I wouldn't accuse him of "ruining" the show.
If you look toward the comment section, it all makes sense. He basically tears Moffat apart using pseudo arguments, makes lite criticism of RTD to seem like he's bring fair and balanced, and adamant Moffat hates eat it up as though it were an intelligently well thought out article backing their own opinions. It's persuasion on the most basic level. Appear intelligent by saying things people won't necessarily understand, be assertive in your opinion, and sprinkle in exactly what people want to hear, in this case it's the opinion that Moffat is a horrible writer that has ruined Doctor Who.
After reading through this, I realized I'd read through it before. And Terror is right. It's a long winded way of saying that this person just plain hates Moffat Who. I had written up a list of things to refute points and such, but I just can't be bothered to. People are always bashing the current showrunner and saying tv has degenerated from intelligent material to flashy lights and bangs. I was about to type up more but I had to stop myself. I'm stopping. I remember the first time I read this, it actually convinced me of a few things and I started disliking Moffat. It's articles like these that now force me to require a good slap in the face every time I start to whine about some aspect of the show that is apparently not good. These rants are like commercials- they get in your head.
As others have said. It's too conflicting with itself, ignoring a lot of parts of Classic Who. And far too negative. Why the hell does he even watch this show? He seems like a bit of a negative sod overall too. Sure...it's an in-depth analysis...but it's an incredibly picky analysis.
What a sad title for a topic. I don't mind discussing these things here, but in the future, could you please link articles with titles like "An opinion piece on Moffat", etc.? I love visiting this place and I really dislike seeing sentences like these hovering halfway down the page every time I go here.
This is the kind of guy that irritates me the most. He thinks that just because he has a blog, and can write an essay length entry, that he is intelligent and knows what he is talking about.
Claiming that JNT was better than Moffat? The balls on this author.
It's fascinating, endearing and sad to see the lengths the commentators go to deny that they were impressed or saw any merit in the article, whilst describing the dangerous, seductive cleverness of its rhetoric. Exactly how could I "make" a long-winded opinion "sound authentic and important"? That would be quite a skill. The one thing that seems to be absent from these fans' world-view is the conceit that something can be entertaining, well-written, interesting or enlightening even if one disagrees with it. They seem to soften momentarily, expressing interest in the way the piece is written, (do they not realise that "the balls on this author!" is precisely the kind of compliment an essayist dreams of ?) and then quickly back off.
The third comment is the most fascinating, revealing the palpable sense many fans have that a differing opinion poses a threat. The commentator sees my piece as a potential brainwasher. If anything, that's preposterously flattering to me. Raymond Chandler used to direct people to his bookcase when they asked if Hollywood had ruined his books. "There they are - they're fine." Couldn't someone tell fans the same thing? The distinction the first commentator makes between "I don't like it" and "it has no value" is false, and would only be valid if I had a tendency to wipe master-tapes, burn books and shout "what are you reading that rubbish for?"'at people reading Dan Brown on trains. Only a bigot would: I pose no threat to what you like, even if I happen to hate it.
It''s a familiar set of comments to anyone who's ever observed forum posters respond to a Lawrence Miles piece. Is he mad? What a saddo. Why talk about the show so much if he doesn't like it? Why's he use such clever words to sound clever? Why's it so long? Why's he so pretentious? What's he on about? The notes sounded most often here are a lack of interest in anything you can't understand, and annoyance at opinions different from your own, neither of which are very Doctorish traits.
One of the most chilling moments I've had on the Internet came when I found out what TL:DR meant (if you don't know yet, google it. If you don't experience any revulsion you may be reading the wrong blog). It's the ultimate expression of the fear of different opinions, the fear of reading, the fear of controversy, reduced to an easily replicable slogan, which doesn't even bother to spell out its own words. The essay is a long form. The freedom it affords its author to develop their ideas comes from its assumption that the the reader can take or leave it. The piece isn't written for your convenience, so its length and the forthrightness of its opinions are not tailored accordingly. It's only aimed at readers who are prepared to consider another's viewpoint. If you can't be bothered to read the piece, is there much point in bothering to take issue with it?
The reaction to Christopher Priest's piece about the Clarke nominations saw the problem spreading wider still. Priest's blogpost was far from perfect, but it was an interesting and heartfelt piece that raised a number of good points. Damien G Walter's curious response piece put it down to jealousy - heaven forbid it might be an opinion:
So why then would a man held in rather high esteem by the community of Science Fiction writers and readers throw a hissy fit about the recently announced Clarke awards shortlist? The immediate assumption one might make is that Priest is somewhat vexed about his own novel The Islanders being overlooked for this year’s shortlist. And no doubt this is one of many straws piled upon this particular heehawing donkey’s back, but in this case probably not the most significant one. A more significant reason might be that Christopher Priest has spent most of his professional career not being J G Ballard. The two writers began their professional careers around the same period of the early to mid 1960′s, among a number of writers who would become known as the New Wave, all loosely connected by their shared agenda of making SF a serious and respected literary genre. Priest is not now among the first writers that come to mind in discussions of the New Wave…which is of course the point. [...] Christopher Priest has spent his entire career being close enough to the top table to smell the gravy, but has never quite been invited to sit down. [...]And now, just when Priest might have expected to be acclaimed as an elder statesman of the genre, another wave of writers have taken the limelight instead. The bulk of the criticisms Priest lays at the feet of the current generation of SF writers including Charles Stross and China Mieville are products of his own swollen, bruised and delusional ego, but a few are true
Equally dispiriting was Pat Cadigan's open letter to the Guardian in which she said she was "really disappointed to see The Guardian has picked up what is an extended tantrum by a disappointed writer and treated as if it should be taken seriously." Just what is the most depressing part of this? Is it the insistence that this must be down to jealousy - a complaint which essentially denies the existence of a criticism instead of refuting or countering it - or the idea, echoed by Cheryl Morgan in her response to Priest, that one thing that SF doesn't need is people taking it too seriously. Stay out of this, Guardian, no controversy here, nothing the outsiders need to know about: now let's get back to praising each other.
As Catherynne M Valente pointed out here: "saying 'he’s just jealous' as a way of discounting everything a person says does not become a critic." Adam Roberts, similarly, suggested that debates are what shortlists are for, not encumbrances to them. One might also recall the reaction to AS Byatt's excellent piece on Harry Potter, dismissed by Salon editor Charles Taylor - as a "Goblet of Bile":
It’s clear that we’re dealing here with an acolyte at the temple of high culture barring the doors as the ignorant masses who love pop culture come a knockin’. Loath as I am to resurrect the old canard accusing writers or critics who dislike a popular work of art of being jealous, in Byatt’s case it might be true. Remember, this is the same writer who went into a highly publicized hissy fit some years back when Martin Amis was given a lucrative advance against future books. It’s only human for writers or filmmakers or musicians to feel resentful and even contemptuous when what they consider good, serious work is being passed over in favor of some pop artifact. But sooner or later, if you choose the life of a writer, you damn well better be able to make peace with the possibility that in all likelihood you will not enjoy spectacular commercial success. Byatt has it better than most, enjoying a modicum of fame, more than her share of respect, and the distinction of being one of the relative few who has been able to make a living at literary fiction. But success on the scale of J.K. Rowling’s clearly gets under her skin.
As with the reactions to Priest, the isn't a counter-argument but a very loud SHUT UP! Note also that Byatt's piece contains this:
- as they do not now review the great Terry Pratchett, whose wit is metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively secondary world, who has a multifarious genius for strong parody as opposed to derivative manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death with startling originality. Who writes amazing sentences.
Perhaps Taylor has never head of Pratchett: a vastly superior writer to Rowling who attracts far more literary snobbery (and whose collected short stories features an introduction by Byatt as erudite and delightful a corrective to literary snobbery as anyone has ever written). Fay Weldon's comments were spot on:
Byatt does have a point in everything she says but at the same time she sounds like a bit of a spoilsport. She is being a party pooper but then the party pooper is often right.
This leads us to my favourite piece about this topic. It's a fine argument for the superiority of anger, contempt, indignation and conviction over mulled wine and forced jollity. How can one have an interesting opinion without negativity, any more than one could have one without positivity? When we get angry about things is often when we care the most, and frequently more things are achieved by people who have had enough than by Pollyannas. Of course "it was the worst thing in the history of television" and "you can't write" are bloody useless criticisms, but only because they're one-note, poorly expressed and, in the case of the latter, personally insulting. We need to judge critiques in terms of quality rather than negativity. As the great Adam Mars-Jones - perhaps the best critic working today - said recently, "the only bad review in my book is one whose writing is soggy, its formulas of praise or blame off the same stale shelf" (He also said "a book review is a conversation that excludes the author of the book. It addresses the potential reader", which is a valuable reason why "Amy Pond is one of the most unconvincing and poorly-crafted characters in TV history" is better blogged than tweeted to her creator, why calling the author of a blogpost "obnoxious" is better posted on a forum than the comments section of the actual blog itself, and why you should never go on the offensive against someone for what they said about your work on a forum).
Tell me Bond films or Doctor Who are crap and I'll be bored. Tell me why you find them dreary, repugnant or troubling and I'll be interested, even if I don't agree. Tweet to me "Read your latest blogpost: God, you're so full of yourself" and I'll struggle to see what you'd expect in reply, tweet to me "your piece is riddled with holes: for instance..." or "that's a preposterous argument because..." and I'll be interested enough to debate with you.
The age of TL:DR and IMHO has left a generation frightened of opinions. Increasingly, the image for the future of interesting critical opinions on SF, fantasy and comedy looks like that of a boot stamping down on a human face, and whatever the owner of the boot might say, that doesn't look like Comic Book Guy's face to me. If it's "people skills" you want, maybe you should join a forum or find a meeker blog. There's no mulled wine here.