Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How Not To Do Criticism

Full Disclosure.  I'm a big fan of Sandra McDonald's work.  And so should you be.

If you haven't encountered McDonald yet, lucky you!  I'm about to introduce you to a great ride.

The first work I read by her was the story I edited for Crossed Genres, which was "Drag Queen Astronaut."  I loved it to pieces, and it made the Tiptree Honor List that year.  I immediately began seeking out all the work I could find by McDonald, something I have continued to do.

Some of my favorites by her:

Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots.

Tupac Shakur and the End of the World

Your Final Apocalypse

There are plenty more.  And most recently, she published what might be my favorite story by her yet, at Apex, Our Daughters.

Apparently this story and another in this issue (by Rachel Swirsky, another excellent writer) upset Dave Truesdale, who wrote an appalling review of both stories on December 14.  He seems to find "Our Daughters" mean-spirited and humorless, which bewilders me; and having said that, he descends into personal attacks against the author -- or rather, against an entire generation and class of authors.

What I see here….is a wistful nod in the rearview mirror hearkening back to those halycon early 1970s anti-male feminist rhetoric days full of anger and in-your-face generalized animus toward the male of the species.….We’ve come a long way baby, and this nostalgic reiteration of the strident feminist attitudes prevalent in the latter part of the past century is a welcome blanket of comfort to those young breast-bobbing firebrands who once burned their bras, who are now old broads gone to flab and seed (and who need their bras now more than ever)

Truesdale continues this personal attack -- rather than engaging with the work -- when he turns to Swirsky's story, claiming that because Swirsky is unable to be "pure" like Cindarella (what?) she has decided to mock and destroy that mythic icon.

Rather than acknowledging that such models of purity and innocence as Cinderella might be something toward which to aspire, or look up to as an ideal, the author has decided to destroy that which she cannot attain in real life. Envy? Jealousy? A desperate, angry attempt to knock from her pedestal a fairy tale princess realizing such is not to be in her own life? 

This is too bizarre to be insulting, but really: this is a professional review of science fiction, yes?  I haven't clicked onto a MRA site by mistake?  And this Truesdale seriously believes slut-shaming a writer is an appropriate critical response?

He goes on to argue (again) not against Swirsky, but against an entire class of writers whom he claims Swirsky represents: those who wish to overthrow the current system, which Truesdale seems to believe is a perfectly workable system, since it is possible to achieve success.  (Grace Kelly married a Prince!  That shows it is possible for a worker to escape poverty!)

The story takes direct shots at the ideal of purity, the pristine nature of a virginal Cinderella who lives with her stepmother and stepsisters, who labors hard from dawn to dusk doing scut work, but is rewarded by falling in love with a handsome, rich prince. It’s an idealized rags to riches story. Pain, suffering, abuse, and hard work pay off for Cinderella. Sure, it’s a fairy tale story and we know this happens rarely in real life (though actress Grace Kelly did fall in love with, and marry a true prince—it does happen), but the values it expresses are worthy ones.

Truesdale's reading of Cinderella differs from mine.  He does not see it as being about an abused child, oppressed by those who have power over her, who endures because she has no choice, and is rescued due to her actions toward those who are more powerless than she is (remember her kindness to the ants and the mice in most versions of the tale).

No, he sees it as a story of a girl who is "pure" and "virginal," who succeeds because she "works hard."  Her hard work, and her purity, lead to her success, says Truesdale, and this (he insists) is what infuriates the class of writers he is attacking.  That's why they attack the mythic Cinderella so relentlessly.

I don't remember anything about purity in any of the Cinderella stories, frankly, so I don't know where he's getting that, except out of his own head.  And her hard work does not in any of the versions lead to her success.  In all of them, it is either her kindness to others or plain luck or her beauty that leads to success.  (And her happening to be the sort of beauty that attracts the prince could also be luck.)

I'd also argue against his notion that these values are "worthy ones."  Do we actually want to endorse the values of enduring abuse and oppression, especially among women?  Or is Swirsky's interrogation of this tale a more interesting one?

Truesdale's inability to see any of this -- to see past women who won't be passive and enduring, I suspect -- is a real hindrance to his skill in writing valid criticism; or, for that matter, his skill in reading competently.


Tree of Knowledge said...

The snippets of his review make me want to read it. Probably not what he intended.

delagar said...

Ha! No indeed!

But you should totally read it -- both of them!

Tree of Knowledge said...

I did read it and loved it. I will follow the other links and read more.

Unknown said...

This reviewer sounds like a total pill. You are exactly right.