On Reviewing

I periodically find myself confronting the question of exactly what it is I’m doing here as a reviewer. I don’t want to call myself a critic because that means, to me at least, that there is some theory involved, and I’ve found most critical theories to be lacking: the various schools set limits that often preclude a full discussion of the work. Coming from a critical stance also implies preconceptions, and I really do try to leave those behind: I’d rather work from what the artist is actually doing than figure out whether the artist is doing what I think he/she should be doing. Sometimes I’m challenged by a reader, which is generally fun, but usually I’m scratching my head wondering just how I get myself into these fixes.

I think I can safely say that I share with my colleagues here at GMR a certain degree of experience, even expertise, in a field or two, and also a propensity for analysis. These are useless, however, unless you are in command of the basic tools of the craft. I think the most important is vocabulary, which is why I find books such as Wood and Fels’ The Natures of Maps so useful. Vocabulary is simply shorthand for articulating basic concepts, and while such discussions may introduce new concepts to go with the terminology, more often they provide a handle for something that was in the back of your head already, formless and waiting for a name. Wood and Fels talk about creating realities, which is what just about everything we deal with at GMR does, whether it be fantasy, science fiction, mainstream fiction, music, what have you.

We focus on genre here, in music and literature, at least. My own stance is that everything is genre, which is to say part of a particular tradition with its own expectations and conventions, its own definitions of acceptable reality. I, and I’m sure my fellows here, attempt to build a context for each individual work, once we’ve figured out what the work is really about. Thanks to my well-worn degree in psychology, I can say that this is a necessity, because we, meaning humans as a group, understand something better, and remember it better, if we can relate it to something we have already learned. The context is also important because we feel, quite rightly, that we have to be able to justify our remarks. I was challenged by a reader not so long ago about a review that was uncomplimentary toward her favorite fantasy trilogy. I had apparently said something unforgivable. (Actually, as it turned out, pretty much everything I said was unforgivable. She eventually forgave me, though, either because I write charming e-mails or because I refrained from turning her into a newt.) She asked at one point if I expected people to just take my word for it. Well, no, of course not: I don’t take anyone’s word for anything, so why would I expect anyone to take mine?

And so we need reasons for our opinions.

I’ll quite often go for an historical approach: it’s quick, easy, and most people get it pretty readily. I’ll read something like Robert E. Howard’s Kull stories and immediately tie them to Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion. I’m on solid ground there because Moorcock recognizes Howard as an influence. You’ve seen me do that too often to bear repeating, especially in the area of fantasy noir.

I’m even more likely to do that with science fiction: after all, we grew up together. Isaac Asimov’s stories, for example, are a good type specimen of the post-War Golden Age, while Robert Silverberg, who actually started publishing during the Golden Age in the 1950s, settled comfortably into the New Wave, although I don’t think he identified very much with that generation. But then, you have someone like Gene Wolfe, very definitely one of the New Wave generation, and one of those who moved science fiction out of genre and made it a literary form, who also fits comfortably into history: it is, after all, a process of reactions.

With something such as genre, which is always in danger of coming unglued anyway, you reach a point where it all falls apart, because although genre (with due apologies to Ursula K. LeGuin) is something more than a marketing device, it has a sort of structural integrity to it; it’s also an attempt to define what is, as often as not, undefinable. I mean, how do you explain a novel like Elizabeth Bear’s All the Windwracked Stars? Mythic fiction, i.e., fantasy, sure. Plus science fiction. Plus a couple of other things, if you stop to think about it. You start to get into the slipstream/interfictions/spec fic territory there, where writers are deliberately trying to trash the genre boundaries, such as the stories of Leslie What.

This sort of thing points up one of the problems with genre as a concept. I’ve even found it in graphic novels and manga,, which are, if anything, even more fluid when it comes to genre boundaries than purely verbal narratives. Matt Wagner’s Batman/Grendel and Joss Whedon’s Fray use elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror within the graphic novel medium. It’s even more marked if you take a look at some of the manga available, in what I’ve called stories about things that go bump in the night as well as heroic fantasy and those that are more or less firmly science fiction.

Or look at something like Saiyuki: manga/graphic novel, but also heroic fantasy, with an aesthetic basis that grounds itself in yaoi (another genre that spans both graphic novels and narrative fiction), while what I call the required anachronisms are pretty extreme, along with the attitude, which is another blast at the heroic fantasy paradigm. The conventions get really stretched and everything starts to run together, which is the way I think it should be: it’s marvelous fun.

I think this whole issue is obvious in music, if cast in slightly different terms. I tend to call it the tension between vernacular and high culture, or alternatively, between tradition and innovation, but we’re really talking about genre and how tightly an artist is going to be bound by it. You have as obvious an example as the music of Leonard Bernstein, which is all about that synergy, about the feedback loop between popular and high art, and between the conventions of the concert hall and the Broadway stage. You can also see it in another form in the career of Igor Stravinsky, from the strong folk music influence on his earlier works to the late examples of post-Schoenberg serialism: a long sequence of tradition and innovation combining and recombining, with influences from wherever Stravinsky wanted to find them.

It’s somewhat more subtle in something like Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, but its still there. I mean, combining the poems of Wilfrid Owen with the traditional requiem mass would be a stretch for a lot of people, but it makes sense once you hear it. This translation back and forth between idioms makes it possible for a composer such as John Corigliano to take elements of a film score and turn them into a violin concerto: a concert piece, with all that implies. And so I make use of those obvious commonalities myself, and discuss a post-grunge/country-blues rock band such as Nickelback within the same framework that I use with an historically informed recording of Beethoven’s symphonies.

So there you have it. Its not just my reaction to something, but how it fits into the framework I’ve put together to enable me to write about it, which I think you’ll see in the work of the writers on this site as a whole.

But don’t take my word for it.


Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

More Posts