This is what happens: a promising first novel comes in; you read it with excitement, wondering vaguely what the second will be like; within what seems to be about a quarter of an hour, the second is glistening on your desk; you read it with reserved admiration; then, slap, comes the third; you read it with growing unease; then comes the fourth—and you read it if you can. The way things are, most SF authors have to write more than a book a year to go on being SF authors. They spin short stories into novellas, novellas into novels. They write faster and faster, and with less and less energy. They turn into hacks before your eyes.
Martin Amis, The Observer, 8 May 1977
Matthew Davis has a long article at Strange Horizon about Martin Amis’s tenure as the Observer’s science fiction reviewer. He goes into quite a lot of detail, perhaps more than was necessary to make his point, and the most interesting parts are when he moves away from the forensic to talk more generally about reviewing science fiction:
Amis is famously Nabokovian in his prescription that “there is only one school of writing—talent.” As a reader and reviewer, his special concern is to determine the resiliency, precision, craft, and quality of the reviewed writer’s prose and his formative sensibility. Amis treats SF in general with respect, though not always all SF writers with the same consideration… What pained the SF fraternity was Amis’s exercise of metropolitan literary manners, since his idea of entertaining writing could be fierce. As Jonathan Raban notes, there is an off-the-peg standard issue accent for the smart English reviewer: smartyboots, mocking, alternating between a donnish high-Augustan pose and come-off-it-mate low slang.
This clash of manners which leads to arguments about tone rather than substance is something I’ve been thinking about since the various discussions about my review of Nights Of Villjamur. Davis goes on to conclude:
To say a book was a better one of its type, be it planetary adventure, historical novel, or even interior monologue, is only incidental to saying whether it is a good book, for the only real, demonstrable proof of quality is a personal vision realized in crafted prose of distinct metaphorical intensity. It is probably easier for SF writers to sustain the hurt of SF being dismissed en masse (and indeed this dismissal probably contributes to a bumptious sense of community pride) than it is to have the finger jabbed directly for individual failings. All writer-critics are necessarily cranky, as they intentionally or not use the book under review to explicate the prejudices and practices that underlie their own works.
I’m not sure how writer-critics differ from any other critics in this respect. This ties in with a recent post at Ruthless Culture in which Jonathan McCalmont suggests that people pay more attention to the pre-theoretical values their criticism embodies.