Today is the seventh birthday of my blog, Paper Knife. I’ve not worked at it consistently over the years, and in 2017 I began to wonder whether it might be time to do the decent thing and close down the blog altogether, because I had become just so dissatisfied with it. But somehow I can’t quite let go, because no matter how unfocused it’s been, I’ve put a lot of work into Paper Knife and I can’t bring myself to just snuff it out.
And much has happened in the last few months. I’ve watched the ebb and flow of discussion about critical writing outside the academy, and whether there is any point to it, or even any need for it. I’ve watched with dismay as various people have represented reviewing as being purely about promoting books on behalf of authors and publishers, or as a means of assessing fictions’ suitability for being nominated for awards. And I keep thinking, no, no, that is not at all what critical writing is about. Being a part of the Shadow Clarke project in 2017 was also something of an eye-opener when it came to dealing with people’s responses to critical writing.
I’ve seen a lot of other things too. So many things, not least among them yet more ridiculous lists of 10 sf books you should all have read, filled with books by old guys alongside Ursula Le Guin as the token woman. Naming no names but if Andy Weir’s interview in the New York Times comes to mind, then … ok, I’m thinking about that Andy Weir interview. He’s not the only one, of course; he’s just more visible than most.
I also saw the people asking why those of us mocking that interview couldn’t just accept that some people like that kind of thing. And that, so far as it goes, is an entirely reasonable point. The problem with so many of these lists, however, is that they don’t reflect the state of contemporary science fiction and fantasy, or what most people are actually reading, although they generally say an awful lot about what the list compilers were reading when they were twelve, which in many instances is what their fathers were reading when they were twelve. There is perhaps some sense that these texts are foundational, and maybe they were once, if you’re a reader of a certain age, or still are if you’re studying science fiction. But if you’re a new reader, just interested in reading some really good science fiction recommendations? Well, I personally wouldn’t start from those lists.
Or, to put it another way, when I was twelve, I was reading Lord of the Rings, the available fantastic works of Lord Dunsany and William Morris, and Hope Mirrlees’ incomparable Lud-in-the-Mist, but I wouldn’t dream of offering up any of those as the ‘best fantasy’ were I asked to compile a list today, with the possible exception of Lud-in-the-Mist, which I genuinely do think everyone should read because it is such a startlingly good fantasy. So much has happened since then it would make far more sense to point new readers at some good contemporary fantasy and let people find their own way back.
One morning a while ago, I woke up and found Robert Heinlein was trending on Twitter, which seemed a little strange as I was fairly sure he had already been dead for some time. It turned out that Weir’s list had generated a lot of discussion about which authors one should read when starting out in sf, and various writers, most visibly Seanan McGuire, had queried this insistence that one absolutely needed read the old guys. For some people this was a new conversation but for many of us it was yet one more iteration of an old conversation that became much more visible because McGuire and others play a strong social media game. The conclusion, though, seemed much the same – you don’t have to read the old guys to enjoy reading science fiction. And yet that feeling persists. Why is that, I wonder?
It’s a matter I’ll come back to in the future, I’m sure, but for now I’ll just note that it prompted me to say that, were I in a position to teach a class on sf and fantasy, I’d love to teach one called ‘Beyond 2001’, which would only discuss work published in the twenty-first century, with a heavy emphasis on work by women and writers of colour, and as much work as possible from outside the usual US/UK publishing axis. A number of people responded very enthusiastically to this idea but given I am unlikely to ever be in a position to teach such a course, it seemed doomed before it even got going.
But thinking about it later, I realised I could do quite a lot with this concept, and at the same time respond to another discussion that’s been going on, about the way in which we write critically about short fiction. Or, rather, how we don’t. Here, I’m thinking about the very inadequate reviews of short fiction on sites like Rocket Stack Rank, by no means the only site to devote itself to trying to apply some sort of order to the vast outpouring of short fiction, but possibly the most nakedly egregious in the way it sets about its self-appointed task. This is not reviewing; it’s triaging material for those who want to nominate for awards. Again, I’m not going to have that discussion in detail right now but ranking stories according to their nomination potential, a process that not coincidentally allows the ‘reviewers’ to bring into play a slew of exceedingly distasteful personal prejudices, is not critical writing; it’s barely even reviewing as I understand it.
So I have come up with a new plan for Paper Knife. During 2018, I’m going to devote more space to writing about sf and fantasy published after 2001, and also focus on discussing short fiction in depth. I’m also going to talk more about my own critical practice, because getting involved in the Shadow Clarke project made me realise that there is a lot I’ve begun to take for granted about my own work, and it feels like the time has come to reassess what I’m doing.
I’m excited about this plan, and looking forward to getting down to work. It’s been a rough couple of years for me personally, but these last few months things have begun to fall into place and, even despite the world outside looking like a dumpster fire right now, I feel a little more optimistic about life generally than I have done for a long time.
In which case, it is clearly time to write.