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.
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.
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January 19, 2010 @ 11:45 am
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January 19, 2010 @ 4:07 pm
Ulysses was the Twilight of its time.
January 19, 2010 @ 5:07 pm
Kind of like enjoying MST3K or RiffTrax? I still love the movies, but I also enjoy sitting down with friends and pulling them apart as we watch. We used to have “Bad Movie Night” for that purpose.
Also, taking apart stories to see what works and doesn’t work helps us (you) become a better writer. You have the ability to see how they wrote something instead of just focusing on the end result.
Jim C. Hines
January 19, 2010 @ 6:47 pm
Best comment I’ve read all day! 🙂
Jim C. Hines
January 19, 2010 @ 6:49 pm
All of the above. Some stories are just so bad they’re fun to mock. Sometimes you disassemble to learn how the thing works. Sometimes it’s almost a game, trying to find different layers of meaning that the author might or might not have intended.
Now I’m wondering how hard it would be to do graduate-level criticism in the style of MST3K. I have at least one professor fro grad. school who might have let me get away with it…
January 20, 2010 @ 7:42 am
Sometimes, too, the critical attention paid to supposedly “bubblegum” and/or “mindless” novels or films can show how they have more substance and are more complex than originally presumed — or, at least, that they can bear (and inspire) various kinds of critical discussions. This development can then possibly give such works a new life, as we might see a work in a new light that invests it with a new significance.
For me, one point that many are missing in all of the negative reactions to and criticism of Avatar is that, in this respect, the film has succeeded as a work of art: i.e., it is generating discussion, debate, analysis, and on a nearly global scale. Very few films (or novels) achieve this sort of broad cultural penetration, whether people love it (like me) or hate it or refuse to see it. If anything, all the discussion about Avatar shows that the film is perhaps something more than a merely clichéd, unoriginal story that looks really pretty. At least, that’s what I think …. 🙂
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January 22, 2010 @ 3:00 pm
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