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| Science Fiction in the Real World
Book by Norman Spinrad; Southern Illinois University Press, 1990
For a period in the early 1970s, I was a film critic for the Los Angeles
Free Press. Among the films I reviewed was Stanley Kubrick A
Clockwork Orange, and I said in a rather long and detailed piece that the
film struck me, as had just about everything of Kubrick's since Dr.
Strangelove, as a technically brilliant but essentially soulless and
mechanical exercise--that is, that A Clockwork Orange was a clockwork
orange. A week or two after the review was published, I got a late-night
long-distance phone call from Warren Beatty, who was in New York at
the time. He had read the review and had gone to the not inconsiderable
trouble of ferreting out my Los Angeles phone number because he had to
tell me that, in his opinion, my review of A Clockwork Orange had gotten
to the essence of Stanley Kubrick's strengths and weaknesses as a film
maker as had nothing else he had previously read.
Well, there aren't many better conversational ice-breakers than
that, and we had a rather long and interesting talk about the film,
Kubrick, and film in general, during which it became clear that Beatty
knew only my film criticism, indeed perhaps only this one review, and
had no idea that I had published half a dozen novels. But toward the end of the conversation, Beatty paused, then said to me in a strange, guarded voice, "You don't write criticism for a living, do you? I mean, you're a creative artist of some kind yourself, aren't you?" "Well yeah, I write novels. How did you know that?" "Because," Beatty said with no little vehemence, "someone who is not a creative artist himself couldn't have written the kind of criticism you did. All these guys who write criticism without ever having practiced an art themselves are just a bunch of jerk-offs."
Well, Warren Beatty has had his problems with the critics, and
maybe he was moved to overstate the case, but that part of the conversa-
tion stuck with me. How could it not? Beatty had made his point by guessing the truth
about me blind. I had never been a film maker, but Beatty, an artist in
that form, had read from my criticism alone that I must be a creative
artist of some kind, even though he had no idea what art I practiced.
Which is not to say I necessarily agree with him that critics who
have never been anything else are jerking themselves off, for the
evidence is quite persuasive that a good deal of excellent criticism has
been written by people who have never been primary creative artists.
And a great deal of crap has been written by fiction writers convinced
that anyone who could write fiction successfully must certainly be able
to successfully write mere criticism of same.
But I think that Warren Beatty's central point was quite correct, and
it has stuck with me for a long time, and it may have been in a way the
genesis of this very book, for--while not everyone who can write good
fiction can write cogent criticism and while much good criticism has
been written by people who were never working artists--there is a kind
of criticism that can be written only by a critic who is. What sort of criticism is that? What was it that Beatty had seen in my criticism that told him I was a working artist?
In one sense, I am hardly the one to attempt that level of convoluted
self-criticism, though on the other hand, I have the feeling that no one
reading Science Fiction in the Real World would need to know the name
of the author or see a list of his credits to know that it was written by
someone who practiced the art he was analyzing.
On an obvious level, I know personally many of the authors I'm
writing about, and when personal knowledge is relevant, I make no
bones about including it. I even, upon occasion, bring my own fiction
into the discussion. I have been a part of some of the literary phenomena
I am writing about, and if that may limit my objectivity, it certainly has
also enhanced my intimate knowledge of some of the topics in question.
No one who didn't know Ted Sturgeon personally could have had a
prayer of explaining why the text of Godbody is what it is, no matter how
brilliant a critic they were. Anyone could see how I screwed up the
closure of The Solarians, but only I can explain why.
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