More Issues at Hand
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More by James Blish (as William Atheling, Jr.)
Edited and with an introduction by James Blish.
James Blish, in his incarnation as "William Atheling, Jr.," has written more than his share of the most incisive criticism of contemporary science fiction. In 1964 Advent brought out The Issue at Hand, a collection of Atheling's critical essays on stories in the science-fiction magazines.
Now we present a new volume which concentrates on science-fiction books. As before, Atheling's rapier skewers literary malefactors of many kinds, including some well-known authors whose great popularity is all the more puzzling because there seems to be so little reason for it.
To be sure, Atheling does not stint praise where it is due—see especially the chapters on Budrys and Sturgeon—but it is in the nature of criticism that the sins and errors be dealt with in greatest detail. As Atheling puts it:
"There is no such thing as destructive criticism. That is just a cliche people use to signal that their toes have been stepped on. After all, the whole point of telling a man he is doing something the wrong way is the hope that next time he will do it right.
"Simply saying that a given book is bad may serve the secondary function of warning the public away from it, if the public trusts the critic. But if you do not go on to say in what way it is bad, your verdict is not destructive criticism, or any other kind of criticism; it is just abuse.
"A good critic is positively obliged to be harsh toward bad work. By a good critic, I mean a man with a good ear, a love his field at its best, and a broad and detailed knowledge of the techniques of that field. The technical critic (not, please, the scientific or technological one), should be able to say with some precision not only that something went wrong—if it did—but just how it went wrong.
"In writing, as in any other art, there is a medium to be worked in, and there are both adroit and clumsy ways to work with it. The writer should know the difference between what is adroit and what is clumsy. If he does not, it is the function of the technical critic to show it to him. Technical critics are, or should be, invaluable to the writer who is serious about the lifelong task of learning his craft.
"Such a critic is also useful to the reader. Here his work usually takes the form of explication du texte: he uses special knowledge to unearth and expose some element in the work of art which the ordinary reader probably did not know was there."
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