A less binary look at Genre Fiction Quality

Earlier this week, Strange Horizons reviewed Michael J. Sullivan’s Thief of Swords, in which the reviewer finds the book quite wanting.  Her review is pointed and barbed, though entertainingly so.  It’s the kind of negative review that, I have to admit, I enjoy reading.  It is scathing, but it makes its points and backs them up with examples.  I’ve not read Sullivan’s work yet, so I cannot comment on the review’s accuracy (or, more accurately, how my opinion would differ from the reviewer’s), but my gut tells me that I would probably agree with her.*  Especially with her point of incorrect usage of Shakespearian style English, where it appears the author had a character speak with  “thou”, “methink” and “would’st” without much regard to how the grammar of Early Modern English actually works.  But that’s neither here nor there.

What is here and there is the bit of online firestorm this review sparked.  The reviewer was accused of being “mean” and “unprofessional”.  There was speculation of her motivation in writing a review, even to the point of wondering why Strange Horizons should even publish a review of this book.  (This puzzles me, since reviewing genre lit, movies and television is pretty much what Strange Horizons does.)  But one of the recurrent points that really jumped out at me was the accusation that the reviewer was too “literary minded”, and thus she couldn’t appreciate what Thief of Swords is supposed to be: a fun, pulpy romp.  The term “ivory tower” is even bandied about.

Now, I’ll admit I have read some Strange Horizon reviews with an air of haughtiness to them, but on the whole, even when I don’t agree, I find them intelligent and well-thought, showing me a perspective I hadn’t considered.  But I won’t get into that.  I won’t even get into the personal attacks made on the reviewer and her motivations for writing it, which had some uncomfortable hints of misogyny to them.  Rather, I’d like to address the notion that a genre novel can be excused of being well-written if it’s a fun, pulpy romp.

The underlying idea here is that there’s only one axis to look at: at one end of the line, you have more literary genre novels (let’s put, say, Michael Chabon’s Cavalier and Clay as an example), and at the other hand you have the pulpy genre novels.  The false argument is that someone who likes books at one end of the line simply can’t appreciate books at the other for what they are.  There’s no looking at the perpendicular axis of skill and craft: how well-written or poorly-written the books are, be they literary or pulp.

To take my analogy to food, it’s not just a choice of haute cuisine or burgers and fries.  Haute cuisine can be a truly well-crafted, elegant dish whose flavors you savor for years to come, or it can be a busy, over-dressed plate whose presentation is designed to cover the fact that the food itself is nothing special.  Burgers and fries can be McDonalds Value Meal, or it can a fresh-ground, fire-grilled grass-fed beef patty served with hand-cut fries.  Skill and craft matter, and I see no value in excusing sloppy writing and poor research under the banner of, “It’s just supposed to be pulpy fun!”

In other news, since we’re speaking of reviews, I found** this review of Hint Fiction which specifically mentions (and praises) my story.  So that’s pretty cool.

*- Strange Horizons, I discovered, also had a review of my current read, Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves, and while I haven’t finished, I’m finding that I am so far agreeing with the negative points the reviewer raised.

**- Yes, I was Googling my own name.  Like you don’t.


  1. 1) I frequently get the feeling that the vast majority of what passes for criticism in genre fiction is either uncritical cheerleading, or authors’s scratching each others’ backs. This does no favor to the genre, so a negative but substantive review is actually refreshing and useful.
    2) If someone takes a litfic red pen to a work that shouldn’t have to bear it, will the author give a damn? That is to say (sorry to reduce art to commerce) will the core audience for the work give a damn in a way that makes them buy less of it? On one hand, there have probably been more than a few mean reviews of Nora Roberts novels, and I doubt her fans ever see them, or care if they do. On the other, those of us who aren’t sword-and-sorcery types would probably never have heard Michael Sullivan’s name if not for this controversy. Same with Jonathan Franzen’s declining Oprah’s book club. I always wondered if they talked ahead of time and worked out the details of the whole affair to mutual benefit. I would admire them both if they did!

    It’s informative how people react when a critic takes a work seriously and treats its author and audience like adults. Good for the reviewer, and may Sullivan’s sales and notoriety benefit from this.

  2. It’s informative how people react when a critic takes a work seriously and treats its author and audience like adults.

    I remember being vaguely pleased many years ago when I got a bad review in the Austin-American Statesman for a play I directed. This was because I knew they had a policy of not publishing negative reviews for people that hadn’t already established themselves as doing quality work. It’s weird, but I took it as a nod of respect.

  3. I expect an assessment of the writing quality to be a part of any critical review. Especially now that there is so much free range (aka self published) material out there. Reading critical reviews, indeed reading critically is not only how we get better as writers but also as readers. To my mind the term “Pulp” today is just another genre, not an excuse for sh*tty writing.

    I haven’t read the background reviews and the flame war you refer to but I’ve seen plenty of that sort of thing across the Internet. It’s a species of the inmates running the asylum. You know, when everyone’s a critic (including critics of the critics) then no one is safe from that 16-year-old douche hopped up on Mountain Dew…

  4. I think this is also what motivates people who ask, “Is Thomas Pynchon SF?” (Or “Is Neal Stephenson STILL SF?”) There seems to be an implicit argument that genre equals poor writing.

    The result is, for some, an attempt to draw into the fold any writer who even glances sideways at genre tropes, in order to beef up the genre’s credibility. Similarly, when a writer displays solid literary craftsmanship, the critics jump to assert that the person has raised himself out of the “golden ghetto.”

    I think this feeds into the “Nowpunk” issue: where do we draw the line between “Nowpunk” and techno-thrillers? The line seems to have something to do with an unarticulated, vague “feel.”

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