The OF Blog: There are no sacred cows any more, just sacred bullshit it seems

Friday, July 16, 2010

There are no sacred cows any more, just sacred bullshit it seems

The responses to my little quote of Borges briefly responding to a question about Tolkien have been interesting, to say the least.  In reading them, whether they be full of vitriol or not, I am reminded once again of the old adage "there are no more sacred cows."  Such a phrase is helpful for the beginning critic, as it reminds her that all topics are fair game, no matter how offensive it might be for some individuals.

Currently, the old, respected term of "Critic" has come to take on a very pejorative connotation.  Gone are the days (if such ever fully existed) where a learned individual could give his opinions, harsh as they may be, in a setting where such would be weighed, measured, and discarded by like-minded individuals.  No, over the past two generations, the very notion of there being an "èlite" that could process such disagreements and new literary developments has been discarded.  Czech writer Milan Kundera had this to say in the essay "Sixty-three Words," which appeared in his book The Art of the Novel:

ELITISM.  The word "elitism" only appeared in France in 1967, the word "elitist" not until 1968.  For the first time in history, the very language threw a glare of negativity, even of mistrust, on the notion of elite.

Official propaganda in the Communist countries began to pummel elitism and elitists at that same time.  It used the terms to designate not captains of industry or famous athletes or politicians but only the cultural elite:  philosophers, writers, professors, historians, figures in film and the theater.

An amazing synchronism.  It seems that in the whole of Europe the cultural elite is yielding to other elites.  Over there, to the elite of the police apparatus.  Here, to the elite of the mass media apparatus.  No one will ever accuse these new elites of elitism.  Thus the word "elitism" will soon be forgotten. (p. 127)

Even a quarter-century later, Kundera's words ring true.  Look at how "the Critic" is so often portrayed, not as being a highly-educated person whose opinions may be worthy to consider, but rather as a cartoonish, pompous figure whose opinions are "pretentious" and whose takes on a favorite work should be rejected uncritically.  It is a fascinating turn of events over the past century.  Before, critics were viewed as arbiters.  Their opinions were hotly contested, yes, but the discussion that ensued, usually in journals or letters to the editor in the publications of the day, generally allowed the reading public to develop a well-formed opinion on the works of their time. 

Nowadays?  In the Instant Communication Era, the Age of the Geek?  Such considered responses, hallmarks of an age where a conversation via mail or publication might span months, is mostly gone in a time where arguments blow up and are gone within a three-day span, if not much sooner.  Opinions are thrown out, counter-arguments rarely considered in this rush to have it all spill out in as short of a time as possible.  There are few self-reflections that take place; it is, more or less, discouraged in this sort of environment.

Compounding this is the belief that everyone has an equal opinion, that everyone is a special snowflake.  Look again at some of the responses in those links I posted here.  Notice how defensive some people got about their opinions?  It is the reaction of those who are seeing their "sacred cows," those things that they are nigh fanatical about, apparently being "attacked."  What has this world come to when one critic's opinion generates such visceral responses from several people?

I myself am a (mostly) online reviewer.  Some, wrongfully in several aspects, view what I do as being a sort of reaction against some perceived "monopoly" that "the Critics/Elites" have.  Such responses about there being "no more gatekeepers" baffles me.  I am a critic.  I was trained to be one and I understand it not to be Olympian pronouncements on matters of literary taste.  I also understand that fan-centric commentaries, their so-called "discussions" are rarely much more than uncritical pronouncements of "sacred cows" and "unholy devils," each to be defended or slashed at, respectively, without much considerations to the hows and whys of those opinions.  For the more fanatical of these uncritical quasi-critics, the levels of debate drop from the abstract down to an Animal Farm sheep's "Four legs good!  Two legs bad!" level of sophistication.  And yet one is not supposed to criticize (oh, that damnable word these days!) another for taking an uncritical stance.

So yes, this is a rather disturbing development, one that for now I'll just merely content myself with skewering with satire on occasion.  I still believe there are no "sacred cows" when it comes to a literary source, but it seems for some that they have taken unprocessed bullshit and made it sacred in its stead.


Adrian Faulkner said...

For me, elitism is the equivalent of leaving someone alone in the corner of the room whilst everyone else parties. By my definition (which may be different from other people's) it's exclusionism.

The problem (although 'problem' is maybe too strong a word) I have with critics is that often they are more worried about their own self-importance than what it is they actually have to say. As a result I've read some dreadful critical reviews - dreadful not because of the points they are trying to make which are learned and intelligent, but because they are clouded by the critics witty remarks and increasingly... snark.

There should be no sacred cows, but there should (in my opinion) be respect, because if you can't approach a piece of art respectfully, how can you be neutral? What is this piece trying to do and how does it live up to it? If the critic is already dreaming up their snarky one-liners, surely they are approaching the piece negatively.

And that's not to say everything has to be positive. I've read incredibly respectful reviews that tore things apart, but did it through reason and considered debate, rather than the equivalent of literary masturbation.

And if it just stayed there, I wouldn't have a problem. The problem is when someone new comes into genre, tries to put their thoughts down, and maybe misses the mark - either by not understanding something fully or not conveying it correctly. This happens - idiocy is a trait anyone is capable of. But instead of educating, informing, investing that person with knowledge that will help them, all too often, the elites jump down their throat like rottweilers at the gates of genre. I'm sure they don't mean to, and people I've met in real life have been extremely nice people. But this online castigation - this feeling of "I can be as rude as I like because I am learned" - bothers me. Some of the wisest things I've ever heard said are not from learned people. I believe anyone can have that moment when they have perfect insight into something. This is why I don't believe in exclusionism.

I used to run a very large and popular pop-culture website (between 20k - 60k people visited a day) and when I started the comments were of the "Four legs good! Two legs bad!" variety. But by taking the time to educate people, to share my knowledge and insight, not only did the general level of debate and discussion rise, but I found myself enriched by their opinion as well.

Surely instead of creating divides, investing into the community, so the general level of discussion and debate becomes more educated, benefits everyone?

Eric M. Edwards said...

I'll endeavor to keep this brief - but fair warning that brevity is not my strength.

The rippling expansion of social media has irrefutably changed the way art, film, books, and games are collectively treated when it comes to reviews and to the role of the critic.

There is little chance of putting the djinn back in the bottle. Pay-walls are unlikely to save the old institutions. I'm not a SF writer so predicting the exact shape of what will come next is nothing I'd dare speculate.

I personally view it all with a mixture of hope and horror. Hope - because in the case of genre fiction it is giving this oft maligned subset of fiction a renewed presence. Renewed, because SF&F has always thrived on the passion, popularity, and the word of mouth spread by its most fervent fans. Horror because it is easy to think that it may go the way of a Yeats poem and that we slouch towards a future where the devaluing of critical opinion in art will be absolute and the blinkered insistence that it's all just a matter of taste.

The demise of newspapers and other print mediums in which professional critics of the arts and literature were firmly encased has seen the rapid filling of this vacuum by amateur (we'll speak on this more later) and fan run review sites. The landscape has changed and there is no going back. Add to this the explosion of social media where everyone has the potential to put their oar into the discussion no matter what their training or degree of rigour they bring (or fail to) to the art of the critique - and now the whole edifice slides towards what has always to a degree, existed for SF&F. In a sense, a great number of the differences between the loftiest of literary genres and the newest offerings of speculative fiction - have been smoothed over, at least where it comes to critical reviews. I suppose it doesn't hurt that sales of the latter are helping to prop up the former. I know this is also not absolute, nor has this touched much the remaining enclaves of professional literary criticism - but that is my point. These holdouts are fast becoming islands, and their inhabitants technological castaways.

And before I invoke the ire of our host and those who have patiently followed me this far down the hole I'm digging, let me state that I am using the term amateur here in an exact sense: a great deal of the most vibrant and well distributed reviews are coming not from professional critics but individuals who have chosen to do so as mostly unpaid volunteers. They are love letters to genre and to literary life in general, at least in the best cases. Now, this may be part of a larger effort to drive traffic, to increase prestige within the social community, or even just to have a platform for their rants and opinions - there are and likely will be those who straddle the line between making a living from it and simply being "fans."

Nor is the above to say that their abilities or insights need be any less trustworthy or hard-won than that of their professional equivalents. But it doesn't mean that they are, either, and in most cases we'd have to agree I think, that many are fans first and critics (if at all) a long, long second. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing - but an important distinction to point out and sometimes frustratingly hard to tell from a view of the surface.

We have then, the remaining ranks of bona fide professional critics and reviewers, online fans and social media movers, and everything in between. And here's the rub for me - it's a lot harder these day to immediately tell one from another. Eventually, when most media is fully digitalized - such distinctions may be entirely nonexistent, or at least, will be replaced with a system I haven't yet imagined.

(cont.) part I/II

Eric M. Edwards said...

I'm fine with this. Really.

At first I admit to being dismayed. I'm a dedicated lover of the past, getting on in years myself, and cling to old ways like a man to a rope dangling over the abyss that is the future. I'm more hopeful now, in no small part because of people like Larry our host here, Paul C. Smith, and Jonathan McCalmont: Individuals who have gone a long way towards showing me that people are riding the changes, and bringing them about, who are as dazzlingly skilled, well read, and possessed of professional and scholarly levels of training and ability as any you'll find behind a pay-wall. They are in effect, a free critic, frequently updating, and widely available. Add to this the ability to interact with both readers and authors alike and you have something very powerful and potentially transformative.

Looking at this, I can only feel hopeful.

They're not alone and even those who do not aspire to such levels of engagement and analytical rigour, the tide of enthusiasm, discussion, and well-wishes produced by the greater field of interested parties lifts all boats one might say. In the long run, I expect that the disorganized mess that we find today will stratify or perhaps not, but be at least organized or rank-able or searchable in a more dynamic way. Whuffie anyone?

So long as individuals of talent continue to participate and individuals of passion (sometimes in the same person, of course) continue to distribute, enthuse, and promote their opinions and the opinions of others to whom they are linked in such shared values or hold in respect across the social media, then I can only see this wide distribution and amateurization of ideas as a good thing.

It's teething pains right now, but I can't wait to see how it all grows up.


Eric M. Edwards said...

You wouldn't know it from the length, but I wrote that in a hurry.

Here are the links to those individuals whose sites I was discussing:

Paul C. Smith -

Jonathan McCalmont -


Adam Whitehead said...

Some interesting points overall, but on the particular issue of the Borges quote, Borges's opinion of LotR basically came down to "Well, it didn't do it for me." He doesn't do a Moorcock and go into a lengthy rationale of why it didn't work for him, he just says he doesn't get it. So not getting a considered, lengthy response-analysis of Borges's statement is unsurprising when there is little there to engage with in the first place.

If Borges had started talking about the book's comfort-factor (the somewhat puzzling line Moorcock took), or berated Tolkien's dubious skills as a poet, or the length of the work or the lack of female characters (in LotR), then people have something to engage with. But when all he said was, "I don't get it," then that really doesn't require detailed responses. And in fairness to him it was an off-the-cuff comment in an interview conducted over thirty years ago, not a detailed crtique of the work.

Matthew Cheney said...

Beckett, Waiting for Godot Act II:

That's the idea, let's abuse each other.

They turn, move apart, turn again and face each other.





Sewer rat!



(with finality). Crritic!


He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.

Nathaniel Katz said...

I see no problem with the dissolution of a critical/professional elite. The key thing about blogging is that it is free; the only barrier to reading everything that is out there is time. As a result, you must simply find the people that, in the old system, would be sitting up on their mountain and dispensing judgment and follow them. Yes, it's a system where everyone can scream just as loudly as anyone else, but there's nothing saying that you have to listen to them all equally. Find the critics that you believe have the ability to properly analyze and understand a work, as Eric has evidently done, and read their opinion as you would the print journals. There is, admittedly, more leg work, but the profusion of opinions leads, at least potentially, to more gems to be found amidst the deluge.

As to disparaging the new wave of book discussion that forums have brought about, I'm afraid I can't agree with you. You cite the Borges quote as an example, but as others have pointed out, there was simply nothing to respond to. It was one man's opinion, and he's welcome to it, but there was nothing to debate within it and nothing to do in response but either say "sure, not a fan of Tolkien" or "Naw, I believe Lord of the Rings deserves the accolades."

Yes, there are taste driven discussions on westeros (and I see no problem with that), but there are also direct debates aplenty. What about, exhaustive as they might have grown, the numerous Bakker and Women threads? Were those simple categorical dismissals of a work, or were they debating the author's thematic take on a subject?

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