“Words should never fail us. Words are all we have.”
If I’d have been thinking about it, I would have reviewed Adam Roberts’ SFF review collections Sibilant Fricative and Rave and Let Die together, instead of doing what I actually did, which was to publish a hasty and not very well thought-through review of the former on Monday. I wasn’t thinking about it.
Rave and Let Die, then, is (or feels like) a follow-up to Sibilant Fricative, its subtitle being “The SF & Fantasy of 2014”. Like its predecessor, it’s a collection of reviews originally posted in a number of disparate locations; which means that, also like its predecessor, it’s particularly invested in presenting itself as a coherent whole.
I don’t really like the introductions to either book: both feel off-the-cuff and, in some cases, actually contradictory. The main theme of Rave and Let Die‘s introduction is the debunking of “this squee-filled world”, in which, apparently, all reviewers ever do is either unrealistic puffery or extreme scorn, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were all a bit more balanced. This is rich, to say the least, coming from Roberts, the very charm of whose reviewing is exactly the scalpel of his scorn: wickedly sharp and clear-sightedly incisive. It also tends to undermine his point in Sibilant Fricative‘s introduction that a review should stand as a text in its own right, should hold a reader’s attention even if they have never read the book in question. People seek out reviews that use extremes because they are fun to read, and because to some extent they understand that those extremes are rhetorical; they are part of what makes the review ironic rather than mimetic, to go back to Sibilant Fricative‘s discussion of A Good Review.
If I’m honest, though, it’s not, quite, this inconsistency that bothers me about Roberts’ collections. It’s something I could quite happily overlook in the light of the actual contents of the books, which are just such fun to read. No, what bothers me about both Sibilant Fricative and Rave and Let Die is the way in which the introductions to both books, despite being attempts to contextualise and cohere a body of disparate personal criticism, utterly fail to reveal Roberts’ critical biases.
By way of example: my critical framework, the way in which I receive every text I read or watch or whatever, is mainly feminist, slightly post-colonialist and very, very Gothic. Those are my preoccupations; those are, broadly speaking and inescapably, the themes of my writing.
Any good collection of criticism should make the framework on which it operates very clear. But Roberts’ introductions just don’t do that, which is either an astonishing failure of critical self-awareness or a sort of tacit assumption that Roberts’ view (that is to say, the school of Straight White Male) is the default, and by extension the correct. Rave and Let Die presents itself as an overview of “The SF and Fantasy of 2014”; it’s presenting itself as authoritative, as canon-forming. And in a narrow field like SFF studies, pretty much anyone who publishes anything (let alone someone like Roberts, who has published many things and lectures at a university) is bound to have a fairly significant impact. Under these circumstances, Roberts’ failure to elucidate his critical biases just feels mildly elitist.
I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy Rave and Let Die, because I did; a little less than Sibilant Fricative, perhaps, but it still kept me sane on a long, long evening when I accidentally caught a coach to Heathrow instead of Cambridge. I guess this is more of a personal post than anything; trying to contextualise and think through the implications of criticism and privilege, trying to create a different way of seeing. Definitely read the book if you have any interest in SFF studies; just be aware that its voice is not the only voice.