Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Quoth the Scotsman | Steven Erikson On Deconstructive Criticism

You may or may not realise that I'm basically AFK at the moment.

I haven't made a thing of it, and there's enough content on the roster for the next few weeks that the difference is likely to be minimal - plus I'll be tweeting and talking in the comments second as much if not more than as I usually do - but I've had to resolve to stop blogging for long enough to take in a few of the tomes that have arrived in my mailbox lately.

Which is to say, I have copies of Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton, The Twelve by Justin Cronin, and Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson — three huge books that I'd love to read. None of which I would, if I'm honest, unless I put the brakes on for a bit.

So that's what I'm going to do. In fact I've started, and I'm already reaping the rewards. Forge of Darkness has been absolutely fantastic so far: if not easy reading - far from it, actually - then nevertheless incredibly compelling. Thoughtful and evocative, powerfully put and smartly structured, this first volume of Erikson's dark Kharkanas saga engaged me from word one, once I made the decision to slow down for a moment.

But this is a Quoth the Scotsman post, so let's get to the quote in question!

It's of a conversation - from the very early going of the novel, so not at all a spoiler - that's stuck with me in a strange way. A dialogue about the relationship between art and art appreciation that speaks, in a sense, to my own relationship as a reviewer with the books I blog about.

First, a bit of scene-setting: over supper after a sitting, Urusander, so-called saviour of the Tiste people, attempts to express his opinion on the portrait in progress by the famous artist Kadaspala. But Kadaspala doesn't want to know what his subject thinks of the piece, for these reasons:
"When stripped down to its bones, criticism is a form of oppression. Its intent is to manipulate both artist and audience, by imposing rules on aesthetic appreciation. Curiously, its first task is to belittle the views of those who appreciate a certain work but are unable or unwilling to articulate their reasons for doing so. On occasion, of course, one of those viewers rises to the bait, taking umbrage at being dismissed as being ignorant, at which point critics en masse descend to annihilate the fool. No more than defending one's own precious nest, one presumes. But on another level, it is the act of those in power protecting their interests, those interests being nothing less than absolute oppression through the control of personal taste." (p.33)
A typically provocative point from a fantastically confident author.

Riddle me this, then, readers: are critics essentially the antithesis of opinion? Or is Kadaspala's perspective tantamount to an arrogance as offensive as any suggestion or assertion about the perceived quality of an objet d'art?


  1. It's both, and that's the genius of Erikson's writing. Keep reading - there was juicy bits in the Forword and a later conversation with Haut and his hostage is quite nice and deliciously meta (that's my new favorite term for Erikson's writing).

    In my mind it's a continuation of a 'coversation' that Erikson has been having with his fans for around 5 books now. In many ways, the books that Erikson are writing and the books that his fans are reading are very different, and that has caused conflict. The biggest seams to be issues of timelines and other small 'facts' - Erikson clearly doesn't care all that much and is more than happy to sacrifice that sort of continuity for a thematic goal. Fans of epic fantasy aren't so forgiving of that - because we all know that continuity of a plot is much more important. Also, Erikson really enjoys it being murky - in reality facts are tricky and continuity is in the eye of the beholder. People remember things differntly, interpretations of events differ, etc. So, he's just fine with things not adding up in a nice, neat row. Many fans are not. Almost every book he's written since about Toll the Hounds contains some passage or another that mocks all of the situation (both himself and his fans). I think it's brilliant and amusing.

    I suspect that my review will cover this quite a bit - and that it will end in a sort of rant against the fan backlash Erikson receives for all this.

  2. I wouldn't describe it as a provocative point, it is simply a bunch of unsupported and easily dismissable assertions.

  3. "When stripped down to its bones, criticism is all too often a form of oppression." Fixed.

    Criticism is vital. However, most critics are utterly clueless and thus bruit about their ridiculous views which in turn leads to those views being shared by the wider artistic world. The same principle applies to other genres, most notably film.

    Erikson is an amazing writer and frequently what he writes is hard for people to follow, and that makes them cry. Personally, I find that hilarious.

    Kadaspala's comments would be entirely valid if all he'd ever encountered were poor quality critics. In Neal Asher's "The Technician" there is an excellent comment regarding the quality of critics as being of dire importance to the promotion of quality art in particular, and by extension writing.

    With the rise of the AIs, criticism reaches a higher point and rubbish criticism drops away, and then there is this line(paraphrased from memory):

    "And finally the time had come around once again, where a piece of art created through painstaking effort over weeks requiring a great deal of skill and inspirtation drew more acclaim than a pig's penis place in a glass of vodka."

    For that is the problem with critics. Not so much that they restrict people's enjoyment, as they promote bad works as good, and good works as bad, leading to a degradation of the genre itself.

    However, for the an excellent example of the theme of the critic, read Merchant Of Souls.