In Defense of Criticism

Got a note from my editor earlier this month, saying The Stepsister Scheme [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] was going back for a second printing!  Always nice to hear.

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It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about racism in Transformers, research failure in Criminal Minds, plot shortcomings in Avatar … pretty much all of these discussions eventually produce comments along the lines of:

Why are you wasting your time and energy on this? Relax and enjoy it for the mindless entertainment it is.

I was able to turn off my brain and enjoy the first Transformers movie.  I even sat through most of Attack of the Clones yesterday.  (Though I did fast forward through the “romance” scenes.) I’m perfectly capable of choosing to enjoy brain-dead entertainment.  But it’s one thing to make that choice.  It’s another thing entirely to wander into someone else’s critical discussion and tell them to stop all that unnecessary thinking.

I’m speaking as someone who writes light fiction.  My first book was called bubblegum fantasy, and I’m good with that.  But the moment you try to tell me that light entertainment isn’t worthy of discussion, that it’s somehow exempt from criticism, I’m going to take it personally.

Good writing — even fluffy bubblegum writing — takes work.  It takes research.  Goblin Quest [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] required a consultation with a geologist, weapon and armor research, lots of time looking up real-world recipes for Golaka the chef, and several re-reads of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

When someone e-mails to say I messed up a sailing term in Mermaid’s Madness [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], am I supposed to tell them it’s just entertainment and they should stop being so critical?  I made a mistake, and that mistake threw someone out of the story.  They have every right to call me on it.  Just as people were right to challenge problematic aspects of Talia’s character and sexuality in Stepsister.

To say it doesn’t count, that there’s no point in critical discussion of such “fluffy” works, is a bit insulting.  It’s also flat-out wrong.

Often, this attitude goes hand-in-hand with the idea that criticism and analysis are academic practices, suited only to dusty old classics.  Keep on analyzing Ulysses. Stop wasting your brain cells on Twilight or the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

I think it’s the other way around.  Those blockbusters are exactly what we need to talk about.  How many people actually read Ulysses?  Compare that to the numbers reading the Twilight series.  The latter might be pop culture fluff, but it’s worthy of discussion because, for better or worse, it is our culture.  Because it reflects and affects our society today far more than Ulysses does.

There’s also the fact that, for many of us, this sort of discussion is fun.  (Just look at Elizabeth Bear’s reviews of Criminal Minds.)  I like stories.  I like disecting them, trying to understand where they worked and where they failed.  Like taking apart a watch to see what’s inside.  Some people might say that the dissection takes the enjoyment out of the experience.  For me, the discussion is part of the enjoyment.

Criminal Minds on Diabetes

From this week’s episode of Criminal Minds, “The Uncanny Valley”:

“Diabetics metabolize everything they consume differently.  Food, drink, drugs … it all gets broken down into blood sugar.”

Ignoring the fact that not all food and drink gets broken into blood sugar (Coke Zero, anyone?), you’re telling me my drugs all turn into blood sugar too?  Guess I’d better start taking insulin with my cholesterol pills from now on.

The show also asserts that diabetics can metabolize drugs faster, and thus our victim could shake off the paralytic.  (Which was being received via an I.V. drip.)  This struck me at first as either poorly researched or poorly explained.

So I spent this morning digging up research so as not to come off as an idiot when I wrote my rant, and what do you know.  I came across a 2007 study from The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases which states:

In fact, type 1 diabetes not only leads to activation of drug metabolic genes, but also has a profound effect on the metabolism of certain drugs. Mice with induced type 1 diabetes rapidly clear their systems of a compound that induces temporary paralysis, while normal mice cannot.

From that same article, “Controlling the diabetes reversed the effect: when insulin was given to the mice, the CAR-induced genes turned off. ”  So in theory, since this woman was off her insulin, there might have been a window where she would have thrown off the effects of the drugs before falling into a diabetic coma.

I’m not finding anything to support the idea that drugs all break down into blood sugar, though.  That one still strikes me as goblin dung.  According to the article above, a diabetic with out-of-control glucose doesn’t clear the drug by breaking it down into sugar, but because (in mice, at least) this activates certain genes that clear the drug from the system.

So, I’m cranky about the “Everything turns into sugar” bit, but it looks like they did the research on the rest.  Thanks for that, Criminal Minds — the widespread laziness and misinformation spread in most books and shows when it comes to diabetes is a huge peeve of mine.

On that note, if any of my writer friends are ever doing a story that includes diabetes and have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.  I’m not a doctor, but I can give you the basics and tell you what it’s like to live with the damn disease.

Also, I think I have a man-crush on Dr. Reid.

File-sharing Follow-up and Friday LEGO

So on Tuesday we had an all-nighter at the E.R.  Last night my four-year-old got sick.  This week officially bites the wax tadpole.

I did have two follow-ups to yesterday’s post on e-book file sharing.

1.  It’s almost a rule on the Internet: Don’t read the comments.  Particularly with something like book piracy, it’s easy to get into rabid nastiness.  Instead, once again people were thoughtful, respectful, and flat-out smart in your comments and conversation yesterday.  Thank you for that.  Y’all are awesome.

2.  One of the questions that keeps coming up is “How can someone be against file sharing but not against libraries and used bookstores and people loaning books out to all of their friends?”  Inspired in part by the discussion over on Facebook, I came up with this:

When you buy a paper book, you purchase a physical object that you now own.  It’s a thing, and you can do whatever you like with it — keep it, burn it, give it away, sell it, etc.  With an electronic book, there’s no physical object.  With file sharing, you’re not sharing a single object that you’ve purchased and now own; instead, you’re distributing that book.  You basically set up a competing “publisher,” one which takes the work done by the actual publisher, then distributes the end product for free.

Again, a lot of good points from yesterday’s comments, but the used bookstore/library question has always nagged at me, and hopefully this clarifies why.  (I know it helped me to sort some things out in my own head.)

And that’s about all my brain is good for today, so here, have some LEGO.  Most of you should recall the Nebulon-B Medical Frigate from the end of Empire Strikes Back?  Steef de Prouw has done it in LEGO.  This thing is amazing, over four feet long, with little docked X-wings and even the Millennium Falcon.  Click the pic for the full photo set.

Attributor’s Flawed Piracy Study

Publishers Weekly posted an article talking about a book piracy study released today by the Attributor.  PW article is here; their link to the original article wasn’t working.  My thanks to Rich at Attributor, who contacted me with a link to their study results, including methodology, here.

From PW:

Publishers could be losing out on as much as $3 billion to online book piracy, a new report released today by Attributor estimates. Attributor, whose FairShare Guardian service monitors the Web for illegally posted content, tracked 913 books in 14 subjects in the final quarter of 2009 and estimated that more than 9 million copies of books were illegally downloaded from the 25 sites it tracked.

Anyone seeing any possible problems here?  Here are two that jumped out at me right off the bat.

  1. The $3 billion figure assumes that everyone who downloaded an illegal copy of the book would have otherwise gone out and purchased a legal copy.
  2. Attributor is a company specializing in anti-piracy solutions.  Hardly an objective or trustworthy source, in this case.

Please don’t take this as approval of illegal file-sharing.  I’ve made some stories available for free over on my web site (left sidebar), so I’m all for sharing some free fiction.  But when you upload a copy of one of my books to a file sharing site, you’re being a dick.  (Downloading a copy?  Lesser dick.)  If you don’t want to pay $7.99, no problem.  Go to a used bookstore.  Go to your local library.

That said, I don’t think piracy is the end of the world.  I just wish we could get more trustworthy data & discussion, and less dogma.

::Takes a deep breath::  So please feel free to talk piracy and file-sharing, but be aware that over-the-top extremism may be heavily mocked, regardless of what side it’s coming from.

Wednesday Updatezzz…

Last night did not go quite as planned, in that I didn’t plan to bring my wife to the emergency room at 11:30, or to stay there waiting for doctors and lab results until 5:30 in the morning.  She’s fine (aside from bruises after five attempts to draw blood) — this was a scare that thankfully started to pass after the third hour of sitting and waiting in the E.R.  But neither one of us are what I’d call fully functional this morning.

So today we do random updates, ’cause it’s what my brain can handle.

Snow Queen is on schedule.  I’m still planning to have the first draft finished by the end of the month.  And I had a happy-dance moment last night where more pieces of the ending fell into place.  I love it when that happens!

Conventions — I’ll be at ConFusion later this month (1/22 – 1/24), doing what looks like seven panels and an autographing session all on Saturday.  (Including a fairy tale panel with Cat Valente and Peter Beagle — eep!)  I’ve also committed to doing Millennicon in March.

Diana Pharaoh Francis is planning to kill me, and it’s AWESOME!  Click over and read the excerpt from her work in progress, Crimson Wind.

And … um … yeah.  That’s what I’ve got.  Sleep now?

Avatar

Given all the buzz about Avatar, I really wanted to see this in the theater. Of course, thanks to that same buzz, I had a pretty good idea what to expect: beautiful effects coupled with a relatively unoriginal story.

There’s been a lot of criticism about this one.  Over at i09, Annalee Newitz  criticizes it as a white man’s guilt movie. Others describe it as a mutant love child of Ferngully, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and the Smurfs.

Valid points, but they miss one very important question: All those mind-blowing special effects, and your subtitles are in Papyrus font?  Really?

Moving on to more serious (and spoilery) thoughts, in no particular order… More

Killing Characters

Normally, I don’t repeat announcements here if I’ve mentioned them on Twitter or Facebook.  This one deserves an exception.  Seanan McGuire was kind enough to e-mail me last night, and — after the prerequisite taunting — informs me that The Mermaid’s Madness [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] is #1 on the Locus Bestseller list!  It’s Snoopy-dance time!

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So lately, I’ve been thinking about killing characters. Not the redshirts who die to remind us how dangerous the story is.  Not the villains who meet their just deserts in the final chapter.  I’m talking the central heroes.

I’ve read and watched many a story that killed off the good guys.  I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it done badly.  Boromir’s death in Lord of the Rings is marvelous.  He dies protecting the hobbits and earning redemption.  Well done, Tolkien.

Contrast this to Harry Potter.  I felt some of the deaths in the series worked, but after a while it felt like a publicity stunt.  “Book six comes out soon. Let’s start the betting pool on who she’s going to kill off this time!”  “Whoops, we’ve ‘accidentally’ leaked rumors that Snufflepuff the Privy Elf is going to off Snape!”

Joss Whedon is another one who’s known for killing off characters.  Sometimes, he does it to great effect.  Other times, it feels like he offs a character not because the story necessarily required it, but to show the audience that he’s willing to do it.  (The second death in Serenity struck me that way.)

So … when do you kill off a beloved character?  How do you do it well? The easy answer is that you do what’s right for the story, but what does that mean?

Among other things, it meant I couldn’t kill Jig off in the goblin series.  (I’m assuming that’s not much of a spoiler.)  The goblin books were light fantasy, on the fun, feel-good side.  I cheated a few times, and I killed off secondary characters, but to kill Jig would have been wrong for the kind of story I was trying to tell.

But what about more serious stories?  I’ve been struggling with this for a few weeks now, and here are some of the considerations I’ve come up with.

  • Is it realistic for all of the heroes to survive this adventure?  (I.e., would not killing someone destroy the suspension of disbelief?)
  • Choices and actions in a story have consequences.  Is death the appropriate consequence for the character’s actions in this story?
  • Am I wimping out if I don’t kill someone?  (Am I letting them all live because I like them too much to do what’s necessary?)
  • Will this death make the story better?

That last one is hard.  Does better mean more emotionally powerful?  More memorable?  More engaging?  More marketable (losing readers who want the fluffier stories, but gaining readers who appreciate the gritty)?

And when is it effective to cheat?  Theoretically speaking, imagine an author who killed off a character at the end of a trilogy, but deliberately planted hints that the character might not truly be dead after all.  A better ending, or a cowardly cheat?

I don’t have answers for this stuff, which is why I wanted to open it up for discussion.  What deaths in books and films have worked for you, and why?  What didn’t work?  When, as an author or a reader, does it feel right?

Obviously, there may be some spoilers in the comments.

Link Roundup

Some links that have come up over the past few days…

Writing and $$$
Lynn Viehl: The Reality of a New York Times Bestseller
Tobias Buckell: First Novel Advances
Kimberly Pauley: A Challenge for My Fellow Authors (more royalty/sales information)

Realms of Fantasy Follow-up
Catherine Valente, Sarah Monette, Kat Howard, Tansy Rayner Roberts, and Barbarienne weigh in on the All-Women themed issue.
Why Film Schools Teach Screenwriters Not to Pass the Bechdel Test
I Didn’t Dream of Dragons: Fallacies of “write what you know” in terms of race, culture, and privilege.  This was powerful.  My thanks to Rose Fox for pointing me toward it.
ETA: Also, updates from Doug Cohen (addressing criticism of his word choice in the original announcement) and copperwise (Artist’s Gallery columnist for Realms, who first pitched the idea for an article about the evolution of feminine images in fantasy art, which I love).

Just for Laughs
The Eye of Argon: MST3K Version: Exactly what it sounds like.  Because I laugh every time I read it.

Realms of Fantasy’s All-Women Issue

Realms of Fantasy is doing a “Women in Fantasy” issue.  For this issue, they’ll only be accepting stories by female authors.

I’ve got a number of opinions on this, but for once I’m going to keep those to myself, at least to start with.

A deliberate women-only issue of Realms.  What do you think?

PS, That’s right, I can write short blog posts!
PPS, Do read the Realms post for further details from Douglas Cohen.
ETA: PPPS, Per an e-mail from Douglas, they have no intention of rejecting good stories just because they’re written by men.  “If I like it (and more importantly, if Shawna likes it), there’s no reason we can’t use it for a different issue.”

Jim C. Hines