There’s a bit of an ongoing kerfluffle in the furry writing community about critics of stories and the role they should play. From my admittedly limited experience with the subject, it seems like the argument has been broken down into two camps. Some folks feel that furry literature should be subjected to the same standards as any art form; critics should be able to call out bad writing wherever it might be found. Others feel that critics are useless; they’ll never be happy with the quality of writing found in our humble little corner of the SF/F fandom and are really in the game to make themselves look or feel better by putting others down. After seeing some of the more vitriolic and controversial reviews out there, I have to admit that I could see why someone would think that way. But that’s a problem with the critic, not criticism itself. It’s important to make that distinction. Good criticism is an essential element in the growth of any art form; we need to have a way to share our opinions about where our work is at any given point, and keen eyes to point out what preoccupies us as a community, what we talk and dream about, and how well we all communicate what we’re trying to say.
In case you haven’t guessed, I’m for the critics. A good critic provides a valuable service to the artistic community he talks about. All art is essentially communication, and writers are trying to say something in a way that moves past language by using language extremely well. It’s a difficult thing to do, especially since the combination of words that might hit us where we live might just make someone else roll their eyes. In order to be successful as a writer, we need to know the effect our writing has on someone else. We may have picked up a few tricks that navigate past the defenses of our audience, but it’s by no means a sure thing. The more sophisticated our audience, the more important it becomes to use the right trick at the right time in conjunction with the right combination of other tricks. Critics can help us know whether or not our gambits have worked, and they can help us gain exposure to an audience dazzled by a multitude of choices. As writers, we want the time and attention of our readers, and critics can help us out by telling our potential readers which writers are worth paying for.
In order to do that, though, critics have to be honest, fair and respectful. Honest because any reader savvy enough to read a critique in the first place is very good at smelling bullshit in the first place; fair because it does no one any good to judge a book the same way as any other book — each work has to be judged by its own measure; and respectful because art communities are small and fragile things, and it’s far too easy to tear ourselves out of them. A good critic never tears into a work unless its creator can handle it, and the work is truly disrespectful to the time we’ve spent on it. I don’t think there are many furry works that qualify for that, but I’m admittedly a novice when it comes to reading our fiction.
And that brings me to the next point, one that a lot of anti-critic people like to point out. We’re a genre of hobbyists for the most part; we simply don’t have the resources to match the quality of output of professionals. That’s true. We’re all hobbyists with (hopefully) day jobs, and that means we can’t put the same time and effort into writing, editing and promoting furry fiction as we could if we were getting paid for it. Critics should be aware of this, and be fair about it. At the same time, it does the fiction itself a disservice if we’re not trying to make it the best we can. For writers, that means refining it until we’re happy with sending it out into the world. For editors and publishers, that means catching mistakes and issues that the writer may have missed, further refining the the story until it has the shine of professional work. For critics, that means telling the audience which works have been taken care of properly and which have been rushed out perhaps before they were ready. The audience gets to know what’s really worth their precious attention, and the writers and editors get to know what needs to be improved on their next project.
The strive to get better at what we do extends to critics as well. I’ve seen far too many critics of furry fiction try to make a name for themselves by tearing down the works of others. What’s worse is they do it without a sharp and critical eye. They don’t actually know the craft of the writer, though they might think they do, so they end up missing a trick deployed well and focus on a difference in style. They mistake this for poor writing, and put together a slickly-produced essay with all of their best put-downs and call it a day. This isn’t about the work; it’s about themselves. Critics should never attempt to establish a personality cult; their attention should be on the work, and they should help their audience to make informed choices about the work. Anything else is a waste of time.
I know that most of us are in our infancy with this sort of thing. Writers coming up are still learning the tools of the trade, and what it means to be professional. Editors and publishers are learning about the tremendous workload necessary for producing a good story, making it the best that it can be. And critics are still learning how to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way, directing audiences to the best that the fandom has to offer and telling writers and editors about gaps in their process wherever they may be found. But we’re all in this together, and we all want the same thing — for furry fiction to stand on its own as a worthy, accepted part of the greater SF/F umbrella. And we can’t do that if we’re trying to step on the faces of the people we should be helping to rise above the pack. A lot of critics have made this mistake, and it’s left a bad reputation on this entire part of the community.
However, saying that criticism is worthless because so much of it is bad is a mistake. It’s just like a reader saying that all furry fiction is worthless because they have yet to read a book that’s grabbed their attention. When a critic has missed the point of a certain story, or given it an unfair review, the writer, editor or publisher is well within their rights to have a respectful, personal debate about it. The critic needs a check and balance as well, after all. His audience won’t respect his opinion if it’s all flash and no knowledge. Worse yet, he’ll burn down the relationships with the rest of the community that he’ll need in order to do his job (or his hobby) effectively.
Everyone in this process should be striving to get better at what they do, whether they’re a hobbyist or have designs to make this a living. And every link of the chain should be trying to encourage every other link to strengthen themselves. I know that this hasn’t been the relationship that critics have had with their counterparts in the rest of the community, but I really hope that it can be established moving forward. It’ll be much harder to develop the quality of our work if we don’t.
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Relevant to the discussion: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/19/nicholas-lezard-case-for-professional-critics