View Full Version : On judging books (rant).

02-28-2009, 03:27 PM
Feel free to agree or disagree.

Quite recently, I nearly got into a screaming match with a relative of a friend over the internet. The whys and wherefores, and outcome, are private matters, of course, but I'll just say that I digressed too much, perhaps said a little more than I should have, and the argument turned into something else altogether, which isn't really the point.

But here's the bone of contention: said person reviewed a book. I disagreed with the methods used in the judging, and pointed them out, that just because the views expressed in a book differ from your own, that doesn't necessarily make the author a bad writer. In the end, we agreed to disagree, and here's the closing remark:

"I will never be able to agree with you that there is a better way to judge fiction than going with whether they agree with my values or not. Because how else do I judge it? If it challenges my views, I sit down and think - do I reject/change my views, or reject those of the book? If you mean I should dispassionately only criticise the technical parts of the book and leave aside the ideas, characterisation, portrayal of peoples and characters and societies, than I cannot help but think that you're sorely mistaken."

For the record, I see myself as a Libertarian. Do whatever you want, so long as you're not harming others.

You see, in my previous post about antagonists, I mentioned characters with the "wrong" ideas (by twentieth/twenty-first-century modern western standards), and how they always turn out to be the antagonists, that antagonists more often than not can be identified by being racist, speciesist, misogynistic, holding on to thoughts and values commonly perceived as "outdated" (which the protagonists happily discard without thought as to the greater effects this might have on society as a whole), so on and so forth. When you find your standard fantasy idiot (always male. Bonus points if he's religious) gleefully glubbing about how he's going to remove (insert randomly persecuted fantasy race X here), you've found your antagonist.

Can't imagine your protagonist doing this, can you? It'd be an uphill battle to make this kind of character likable, and unlikable characters aren't very readable, but I always like a good challenge. Anyways, note here how the "wrong" ideas make the character bad, and let's try to apply this to authors.

Let's say an author writes a book, a thriller, perhaps, on how Global Warming is really a big conspiracy designed to use fearmongering tactics to control people in knee-jerk fashions. Of course, "everyone" knows that Global Warming is anthrocentric, and that "the debate is over", that Global Warming is definitely happening and alternate theories are out. Let's say you believe in anthrocentric Global Warming. Does this, then, make the author "bad" for not espousing the common knowledge of the day? Is this author's book somehow inferior to another author's novel, which says, yes, Global Warming is happening and anthrocentric?

I've complained about before, and BFT3Ked two novels with diametrically opposed messages--Dragonknight espouses religion (primarily an expy of Christianity) while Touched by Venom portrays religion as a tool to oppress the masses. BOTH ARE EQUALLY STUPID, IN THE EXACT SAME MANNER--both authors' insistence to blare the pro/anti-theist message through her work ends up warping the story to the point that it's contrived beyond repair.

Similarly, I'll contrast two opposing characters I've read about recently. Halaflora from Dragon Outcast is a Stepford Wife--being in the Imperial Line, she could have been as influential as Tighlia, and later her sister Ayeefia were. Yet she willingly throws away all this, desperate to get married and find a man, then after she does, serves him with mindless devotion and is aching to have babies. As things go, she's as far from the stereotypical feminist vision as you can get, compared to the rest of the female dragons in her family.

Compare this with Princess/Queen Rhian from The Riven Kingdom, who happily declares that she'll break innumerable years of tradition and rule as Queen, enforces separation of church and state (of course, only one way. She meddles as much as possible. Hypocrite.) and tells her to-be-husband he's merely a walking sperm bank (again, hypocrite after refusing "to be a broodmare". How I loathe that phrase cannot be measured--it doesn't help that I'm hearing thousands of similarly whining princesses from all my readings), in addition to learning from the Noble Savage how to kill six men with a flick of her wrist. As Action-Girly and stereotypically feminist as you can get.

Again, both are stupid and annoying, Halaflora for being a satellite character with no purpose in the story but to prop up RuGaard, and Rhian is so because despite being a supposedly strong and powerful woman, she does jack squat for the whole of the novel, instead leaving it to Dexterity Jones and Zandakar to do all the work, completely ruining the feminist message.

But who am I to say that Halaflora is stupid and dumb for choosing her lot in life? She seems happy enough as it is. Similarly, who and I to say Rhian is wrong to blab about sweeping social change and refuse to wear dresses? It appears to be for the better. I can agree or disagree with either of the characters and the message they bring about women (or females, in Halaflora's case) in society. But is E. E. Knight a bad and stupid author for portraying a female character in this light? Is Karen Miller a bad and stupid author for portraying her female character in this light? Are books wrong, stupid, unreadable JUST BECAUSE you didn't like that the society was p/matriarchal and portrayed in a positive/negative light (Age of Fire), that race X, which somewhat resembles white people, doesn't like race Y, which somewhat resembles black people and that everyone doesn't get along and yet race Y just hunches over and deals with it without overthrowing their evil oppressors, where the "black" collaborators with the "white" people aren't evil sell-outs, they're just people trying to make the best of a bad situation?(K. J. Taylor's upcoming The Dark Griffin)

If you ask me, no. These alone don't make the book wrong, or stupid, or bad. It's the way they're handled that are. Oh, certainly, you're free to play around with the ideas expressed within, laugh at the perceived stupidity (I know I did with Dragonknight. Hell, with most of the books I've BFT3Ked), analyse the ideas within, and change your beliefs if necessary. But my stance is that you should keep this separate from any judgement on a book's worth. Going back to a previously used example, Manna from Heaven, a short story by GRRM, my personal thoughts were siding with the president of the planet and her refusal to forcibly take away the freedoms of her people, even if it meant their possible self-destruction. Did the eventual outcome of Tuf declaring himself to being akin to a god and forcing his solution on the planet cut well with me? You can guess as to that, and no prizes for a correct answer. But is the story stupid or bad, because it didn't have the outcome I desired? No.

The thing is, as with characters, to try and understand why the author did this or that his his or her work. Why did he portray this character in this light? Why did she gloss over this expy society and yet focus on another one? It's not always because the author is EVUL! Maybe s/he has a target audience to aim for. Maybe there wasn't enough time and the copyeditor was knocking on the door. Maybe the society in question was just being passed through by the characters, in less than a day. Maybe s/he just didn't bother to do the research. Maybe s/he really is an evil prejudiced bastid and hates (insert group here) in real life.

Things happen for different reasons, and often more than just one of them. If you're reasonbly sure you know what the author believes, ask yourself why was this the case, instead of just brushing it off. To invoke Godwin's Law, Hitler is as evil as anyone can get. That didn't stop me from reading Mein Kampf to try and understand why he did what he did. My Making Sense of Society module has Karl Marx's Conflict Theory of society, so I looked him up to see the social conditions in that time and place which might have led to the formulation of this theory. I came across an 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica excerpt that talked about the "eleven races of man" and their "strengths and weaknesses", and did a little look-see as to why eugenics were so popular at the time. It's all about the understanding of whys and wherefores, and just because something is "wrong" doesn't mean you have to mindlessly parrot the party line and decry anything remotely associated with it without understanding. If you're confident in your beliefs, you shouldn't be afraid of having them challenged.

It's a bit like Jake in Rune Factory 2. Everything about Jake, from his appearance to his dialogue to his introduction cutscene and even the wheedling, nasal voice Natsume gave him in the translation make you want to hate him. He acts like a pretentious dick and takes every opportunity to proclaim the superiority of elves over humans. Cecilia, the only other half-elf in town, tells you the other men in Alvarna won't even speak to him, and he stays outside the village during festivals. Most people simply loathe and ignore Jake. Take a little time and energy to befriend him, though, and you learn the whys and wherefores of his actions--that he's secretly miserable, confused about his identity as to whether he really fits into elf or human society, that he deals with this by clinging to his elf half, and so forth--and while it doesn't excuse him from his actions, you at least are better informed to loathe Jake in spite of knowing all this.

Ugh. I digress again.

02-28-2009, 03:49 PM
What is the book/author trying to do in fiction--entertain, teach, use certain characters for expousing certain beliefs, etc. If it's a good story I'll usually fall in for the ride--this despite my dislike of a character, the bringing in of subplots that fade off, the awkwardness of certain sections. I'm not looking for a new meaning to life and the universe when I read fiction. It's like people who hate TV characters and send hate mail to the actors that play them--get a grip! This too is fiction-unreal, not earthshattering, not life-changing, won't stop or start the Apocalypse. I don't a damn who shot JR (Dallas), Mr Burns (Simpsons) or Jenny (L Word), etc.

02-28-2009, 06:17 PM
I got a little more than 1/2 way through your rant before I had to quit. My head isn't up to this... I guess I need more coffee. I do have a question, though.

What does this mean? BFT3Ked two novels

From what I managed to wade through I get the impression your friend's relative doesn't like authors who have characters who have different moral viewpoints than the readers own in their fiction novels. If that is true, it is a very weird viewpoint imo. Fiction is just that, fiction. Not real life. It is stupid to attribute any traits or beliefs to an author based on what is in a fictional work. But, even if the author has those belief sets it does not mean the novel is bad.

Relatives are often weird. Since this is your friend's relative and not yours, I say just stay away from them. It will bring less stress in your life.

I will try to read the rest of your post when I wake up and my head stops hurting. ;)

02-28-2009, 06:19 PM
Oops. This is actually cross-posted from my LJ, where I do a little series on dissecting books and laying out what does and doesn't work. I named it BFT3K after the legendary MST3K.

02-28-2009, 06:22 PM
Oh, that clears it up...

02-28-2009, 06:25 PM
Oh, that clears it up...

03-02-2009, 07:04 PM
MST3K = mystery science theatre 3000 -- TV show--a man and 2 puppet robots in a theatre critique scifi film. You either hate it or love it.

BFT I don't get either

Wayne K
03-02-2009, 07:11 PM
What she said.

03-02-2009, 07:27 PM
Good rant, LC!

03-02-2009, 07:36 PM
I read half of that...and then I skimmed the rest. I still have no idea what the hell you said or what is going on.

03-02-2009, 07:37 PM
To try to dictate how a book is read or reviewed is to take away the pleasure of reading. Your friend is entirely correct to review the book however it struck him or her.

03-02-2009, 07:50 PM
People are free to like or dislike a novel based on any criteria they deem relevant. But if someone says to me they hated [Insert Novel Name Here] because of the viewpoints of the characters or author, I'm equally free to think that's bullshit. I shall then read that novel, if I so desire, and decide for myself.

03-02-2009, 07:52 PM
Besides being way too long, there were too many references to other books that I haven't read, so the comparisons are completely lost on me.

03-02-2009, 07:54 PM
True. My comment only covered the first quarter of the post. If the point substantially changed by the end of post 1, then what I said could be irrelevant. In that case, don't mind me.

03-02-2009, 07:56 PM
True. My comment only covered the first quarter of the post. If the point substantially changed by the end of post 1, then what I said could be irrelevant. In that case, don't mind me.
Oh, me too. Rants, to be effective, need to be way shorter than this one (but not necessarily sweeter :)).

If you want to see some great examples of rants, Canada's Rick Mercer is a master. See if you can view any of his rants online.