WHY CAN'T THE AUTHOR MEET HIS CRITICS?
by Isaac Asimov
I suppose there comes a time in the life of every novelist when he feels brought face to face with the messy problem of what to do about the critic who feels he has a license to indulge in personal insult, and does not feel bound by accuracy and simple fact.
When that time comes, what can the author.do? His book is out. Custom allows it to be fair game for anyone who can crank up a pencil and make legible marks on paper. Custom draws no hard line between legitimate professional criticism on the one hand and fishwifery on the other.
The science-fiction novelist, I am glad to say, is more fortunate than most. Such reviewers as Groff Conklin, P. Schuyler Miller, Villiers Gerson, Anthony Boucher, Damon Knight, J. Francis McComas, Robert L. Lowndes, L. Sprague de Camp, Mark Reinsburg, Sam Merwin, and George O. Smith, are gentlemen who have cut. their eye-teeth on science-fiction. What they do not know about the field has not been yet thought up. Most of them have the inestimable advantage of being able to write science fiction themselves, and they have turned out first-class stuff, too.
In discussing a novel of which they disapprove, they point out succinctly what it is of which they disapprove. They balance that by such merits as they believe the novel to possess. Their language is restrained and they feel no need to salvage their own ego by personal attacks against a target which they know in advance to be in a poor position to defend itself.
Unfavorable reviews from a reputable and capable critic are of the utmost service to the novelist. I have myself learned a great deal, by carefully considering some of the thumbs-down reviews of my own books, notably Anthony Boucher's comments on my Foundation books and George O. Smith's remarks on The Currents of Space. I did not agree completely with what they said, but I was very grateful to them for having said it.
Damon Knight, in particular, is a dissector of novels who has no parallel in science fiction. The pains he takes to illustrate his points, the care with which he achieves objectivity, and the cogency of his reasoning, makes every one of his reviews a virtual course in writing technique. His remarks may make the writer wince, but so does iodine on a cut.
Unfortunately, we now come to a reviewer whom I shall refer to only as The Nameless One. The Nameless One, safe behind his barricade as "Critic" aspires, apparently, to be as witty and fearless as Damon Knight. He doesn't succeed, of course, because he substitutes invective for reasoning and personalities for analysis. He manages (and this be does admirably) to be inaccurate and insulting.
In a review of one of my books, for instance, he states that although I am educated and articulate, I am neither a writer nor a story-teller. He doesn't say that Isaac Asimov is not a good writer; he says he is not a writer.
He is welcome to his opinion, but how does he define the word "writer" now? Certainly I put words on paper. Certainly I sell my fiction. In the last thirteen years of my sixteen-year writing career, I have sold every word I have written, and to decent markets. On the whole, reader comment and reviewer comment has been kind to me. Will The Nameless One tell me what else I must do to be classed a "writer"? Not a "good writer" mind you; I lay no claims to that. Just a writer.
In a review of another one of my books, The Nameless One states in rather shrill exasperation that someone must like my books because they pour out in an endless stream. He admits that some people may claim they like the book, but he insists they can't have waded through it. The implication, to me, is that no one can both have read the book and liked it; that The Nameless One does not understand how I could possibly get the book published. A person who knew nothing of me or my work but what he read in the review by The Nameless One might easily conclude that I got my books published by a combination of threats and bribery.
What arc the facts? The novel he denounces in this manner was liked well enough by Horace L. Gold to be serialized in Galaxy Science Fiction. It was liked well enough by WalterI. Bradbury to be published as a Doubleday novel. It was liked well enough by Truman M. Talley to be slated for publication as a Signet paperback. These three gentlemen read the books they buy, and they are not as easy to fool as The Nameless One may think.
Do the readers approve of the book? In its first three months after publication, 28,000 readers bought the book. I dare say some of them knew what they were doing.
Do the reviewers approve of the book? With Lee Riddle's kind permission, I would like to quote a random handful of reviews of [The Caves of Steel]. Bear with me.
"...accomplishes something various science-fiction writers have been trying to do for a long while--it tells a first-class detective story in terms of a future and very advance technology. Even his robots are completely believable..."
--SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE
"...a good fast-,moving murder mystery which will hold your interest right up to the last page. This is one you shouldn't miss."
--FANTASTIC UNIVERSE SCIENCE FICTION
"...a first-class thriller--- The book has a fast pace and the inventiveness is logical and mentally stimulating."
---SOUTH BEND (IND.) TRIBUNE
"...fascinating glimpses of the world to come."' -
---HONOLULU STAR BULLETIN
"...the first wholly successful balanced blend of science fiction and the strict detective story."
-- -NEW YORK TIMES
"It's a first rate detective...story, too---a suspense novel that will leave you breathless."
---GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION
"...the tale...is an excellent suspense type thriller..."
---SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
"...If you want reading to set you free from the shackles of every day drudgery, try this prescription...a copy...a comfortable chair and about four hours of reading time."
---FORT WAYNE (IND.) NEWS SENTINAL
"...It has remained for Isaac Asimov to write the purest sciencefiction-detective-story yet....an exceedingly good one."
---NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE
"...not only thrilling, but believable."
You may think all this is beside the point and in a way it is. Even if everyone in the world loves a book, .a reviewer would have a perfect right to dislike it and say so.
My point is that his dislike ought not to extend to the point of untruth. He ought not imply that the author is an imposter. He ought not imply that no one likes the book when that is palpably false. For God's sake, he ought at least read the book, rather than the book jacket. The Nameless One devotes very little of his review to a description of the plot, and that very little is ludicrously wrong.
For instance, he states that in the book, the author takes the entire Galaxy, no less, for his sphere. Had he as much as glanced through the book, he would have noted that not only is the scene of action confined to Earth;. it is confined to New York City.
Why am I writing all this? For a specific purpose. In writing this for PEON, I am addressing a small and reasonably select audience, an audience of fans interested -in Science-fiction.
I have a question for them. What can an author do that will serve to point up gross inaccuracies in a review, perhaps downright malice, without laying himself open to the charge of being a sorehead?
It's a problem that is particularly galling to me, since it has never been my practice to skulk in the corner with my finger in my mouth when someone is waving a fist in my direction.
(Visit this blog again soon for the next installment of this account of the Bott-Asimov feud, for Bott's reply and that of Imagination's publisher, William L. Hamling. And wonder along with us if it was all a put-on to increase circulation.)