The Last Diplomat

Jonathan McCalmont put his blog SF Diplomat in suspended animation the other day. The site is not being taken down, McCalmont has merely quit adding to it. In signing off, he made some very apt statements about blogging:

My relationship with blogging has been an awkward one for a while as I do think that the medium brings out the worst in me. Aside from bringing the confrontational and argumentative elements of my personality to the fore, it also plays in to my fondness for objectively quantified measures of success. 

Would McCalmont agree that his latest verbal duel with John Scalzi is symptomatic of the “confrontational and argumentative elements” that bring out the worst in him? While the blogosphere relishes a good cage match — Google shows lots of people linking to that page at SF Diplomat – it’s stressful on those who square off in these verbal brawls. McCalmont presented a resilient face to the world in July. Yet two months later, the cumulative effect of that and other clashes has contributed to him shaping a different course.

The pressure of controversy can only accelerate the burnout of a prolific and talented critic. McCalmont began his last post with an explanation I found strongly reminiscent of Cheryl Morgan’s explanation for ceasing production of her Hugo-winning reviewzine, Emerald City. Said McCalmont:

Regular readers will have noticed that my enthusiasm levels have been dipping of late.  My tone has turned increasingly sour, my reviews increasingly half-hearted and my general output sluggish at best. 

Morgan told SF Signal in 2006:

In addition, over the past year or so I have become very disillusioned about both the quality of my own work and the general usefulness of online book reviews.

Pretty much nobody can go on indefinitely doing consistently excellent reviews at the pace demanded for a successful blog, though it may not be the pace itself that drains our top reviewers.

A great many, like McCalmont and Morgan, are part of the sf community, which means to some extent their social milieu is composed of people whose artistic ambitions and livelihoods are affected by what they write. Reviewers who are any good (there are lots of reviewers, but how many get read?) court controversy every time they tell authors that their literary offspring smell bad and look funny. And the authors are not the only ones who take this badly, there are editors, agents, friends and fans.

Since criticism is creative, and creative work thrives in community, the unfortunate side effect of being a prolific critic is progressively alienating some members of the society he or she depends on for the joy of living.

Thankfully, McCalmont has decided to write finis to one outlet for his work without giving up criticism altogether. He says he will still write in other venues, taking the time he needs to do his best work.

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2 thoughts on “The Last Diplomat

  1. If any nearby awards included one for insightful reportage on an element of the scene – and, I hasten to add, I’m not pushing to expand – then this would probably be in contention even without considering what might still come along in the last quarter of the year. Nice eye, Mike.

    It’s good to see File 770 creating its own niche on a broad patch of the Web. I think we’ve been ready for some time to have someone provide the range of coverage which you have added to the “news” component of sf fandom. I wish you success with this.

  2. I should note here that in all my years of publishing Emerald City I don’t recall ever having an unpleasant row with an author about a review of a book that author wrote. Authors, in general, are very professional about such things. Other people can and do take offense on behalf of authors who receive bad reviews. Fans, I’m afraid, are by far the worst in this respect. I’ve had fans furious with me over reviews that the authors concerned were happy with.

    If there is a problem, it is much more in terms of pressure of expectation. If you are any good, then everyone wants you to review their book. Mostly they are very nice about it, but some publicists are quite pushy. This inevitably leads to people reviewing more books than they can sensibly cover (especially if they are doing it as a hobby and have full-time jobs), and that leads to a deterioration of quality.

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