Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll
When we critique, we say as much about ourselves as we say about what we are criticizing.
The other morning I read a short story in the March 29, 2021 issue of the New Yorker, a story by Ayşeqül Savaş titled “Future Selves”. I found it stirring, a subtle evocation stirring universal feelings about growing into adulthood, of envisioning the futures we see for ourselves and creating them, and the mild befuddlement over the tragedies in life that often feel inexplicable. It reminded me of Hemingway, or the short pieces by Rivka Galchen. It also made me think of “Casting Shadows”, a story by Jhumpa Lahiri in the same magazine’s February 15/22, 2021 issue.
That same morning I found a post by John Kessel, a name ubiquitous in genre fiction. He’d read the same story by Ayşeqül Savaş and remarked that it read “as if written by somebody on novocaine.” He went on to say that he could not “imagine a more bland story”, and asked, “Am I missing something?”
Many people commented on the post, most of them a huddle of parroting minions, but a Charles Oberndorf gave a wonderfully measure response. He liked the story and said some very intelligent and considered things about the piece, and about writing in general. It was a pleasure to read such calm, reasoned prose.
Now, you can’t argue too much with what people like. We can, as critics, tell the world why we think others shouldn’t like what we don’t like, and why. While such critiques don’t make me like what I like any less, they are valuable to read in that they reveal thoughts and considerations which have not occurred to us. I especially enjoy this in movie reviews.
But Kessel’s posting reopened an old undeveloped thought: science fiction, and genre fiction in general, is like the rock and roll side of literature. Noisy, loud, adolescent and loaded with sugar, salt and fat. Very tasty. I myself swear by it. I was going to say that it was my cup of tea, but it’s more like my drink of choice.
But I like the dissonance in loving different things, things that sometimes seem polar opposites. And the dissenting sparks between the opposite teams makes for good copy and beats watching sports on TV.
It’s possible that I haven’t adequately understood Mr. Kessel’s point. It’s possible that I’m on novocaine. And yes, it’s possible that Mr. Kessel is indeed missing something.
It’s something which he, apparently, doesn’t really miss.