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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.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 68 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jan. 19th, 2010 02:35 pm (UTC)
Jim, was there a post in particular that generated today's entry?
Jan. 19th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
Nothing in particular. It's more in response to the pattern than to any specific post or comment.
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 19th, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 19th, 2010 02:48 pm (UTC)
It's one of those Writing Paradoxes. I write to entertain you (generic you) -- and I want you to have fun with the story. In an ideal universe, I'll have fun writing the story. But in order for us both to get as much pleasure as possible from the project, I have to pay serious attention to the details.

Looking at what throws me out of other stories, and at what works helps me to write my own stories better. If I didn't care about this stuff, I wouldn't be a writer.

Jan. 19th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
Definitely. One of the reasons it's so helpful for me to dissect other stories is because it helps me to find and avoid pitfalls in my own work. (Or on the other end of the spectrum, to see what works and shamelessly steal it for myself :-)
Jan. 19th, 2010 02:55 pm (UTC)
My take on it is that we should examine popular/bubblegum/brainless entertainment for what it's saying. After all, you can look at movies made in the 30's and 40's to examine where we were as a society by what we chose to present on the screen.

However, the one trap that you can fall into is trying to perform too detailed of a critical exegesis on a particular work of art. There's a difference between examining a work that was intended to examined minutely and one that was ever intended as such. For the latter, you can end up seeing things that might not really be there. I'm drawing on some of the exegeses I was required to do in high school; you spend so much time trying to be overly analytical that you miss some of the bigger things.
Jan. 19th, 2010 03:06 pm (UTC)
The problem is, it's only the author's story until he surrenders it to the public.

Then it's their story and the author has no control what they take from the story. People will filter it through their own experiences and beliefs. I was always amazed when I was taking "Ethics in Fiction" at college at the wide variety of responses people in the class had to the same story (and I don't mean like/dislike). I had to wonder sometimes if I hadn't read the wrong story after listening to a few of my classmates dissections.
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 19th, 2010 03:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 19th, 2010 04:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nightwolfwriter - Jan. 19th, 2010 05:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - zvi_likes_tv - Jan. 19th, 2010 10:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 19th, 2010 03:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Jan. 19th, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 19th, 2010 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - swan_tower - Jan. 19th, 2010 07:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 19th, 2010 07:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 19th, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
I sympathize on both accounts.

Especially having done mostly tie-in writing, because the fans tend to be very "attentive" to ensure you have the characterizations right and the equipment right. Some of the fans know exactly what episode X used the left-handed electric spanner and left it on the right desk. For God's sake, don't have him pick it up off of the left desk. *grin*.

As someone who's working on a fantasy story with privateers, I'm doing everything I can to research the old sailing ships and I've picked up several nautical dictionaries (to include "The Pirate's Dictonary") to try and avoid the slings and arrows of sailing affecionados.

Discussions about both factual matters and characterizations are good signs though. It shows the readers are actually paying attention to the book and it resonates enough to make them want to contribute (either a correction or an opinion). I'd hate it much worse if I put something out there and got no response at all.
Jan. 19th, 2010 03:09 pm (UTC)
Re: sailing ships, just remember that "sheets" actually refers to the lines, not to the sails. I knew this, but managed to slip up in Mermaid anyway, to my eternal shame. (Where eternal = until I can get it fixed in another printing.)

Agreed about the discussions. It also shows that they care enough to talk about it.
(no subject) - wulfsdottir - Jan. 19th, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 19th, 2010 06:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wulfsdottir - Jan. 20th, 2010 04:41 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 19th, 2010 03:10 pm (UTC)
Those blockbusters are exactly what we need to talk about.

You're wonderful. Thank you for writing this.
Jan. 19th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you :-)
Jan. 19th, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC)
Oh, I totally agree with you! The funny thing is to think that back in the day (let's make that day, oh... 1700), in Europe, things like Shakespeare weren't considered worthy of study. It was all Greek and Roman classics. The rest was frivolous modern stuff.
Jan. 19th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
My stepmother will often get frustrated with me and my father as we discuss the sociopolitical implications of films - to her, it ruins the film. But it's his fault. He's a film professor, and I grew up with those discussions. And from those discussions, I learned about story structure, dialogue, theme, metaphor... I would not be the writer I am without them. We learn from the good and the bad and the in-between. Discussion helps us all learn to be better writers. IMHO.
Jan. 19th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
I know it was frustrating for me when I was first learning to write fiction, because I had a hard time turning it off for myself, if that makes sense. But after a while, I got to the point where I could do both. I can go in and enjoy a movie, but also do the critical piece after the fact without ruining the enjoyment.

And I definitely agree with you -- the more we analyze what other people have done, the more we learn for ourselves.
Jan. 19th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
On the other hand
There's always the twit who tells you you got it wrong -- and he's wrong.

I was thrown out of a book once because a king was addressed as "Your Grace." I didn't know at the time that "Your Majesty" was a modern innovation and "Your Grace" the medieval form of address.

And I have gotten hectoring crits about how I got how feudalism worked -- in an imaginary country, but it was wrong because it did not exactly conform to whatever country he studied.

And I have certainly seen people whose complaints are that a book did not conform to their prejudices about the way works -- but did conform to the way the world has really worked in some times and places. Pity. They are the people who most need their minds broadened, and you would think exposure to other modes of thinking was exactly what they needed.
Jan. 19th, 2010 06:38 pm (UTC)
Re: On the other hand
Oh, yes. I've seen that pop up before. "Your research doesn't conform to my misconceptions, therefore you must be wrong!"
Jan. 19th, 2010 04:00 pm (UTC)
I tend to twitch when writers get details wrong, but I'm an editor.

The worst one that comes to mind is Jim Butcher's Fool Moon when Harry thinks about how at night your eyes and teeth are the easiest things to see. Clearly, Jim talked to a person of African descent or a LARPer who plays a Dark Elf. Let me tell you, white people practically glow in the dark on a clear, moon-filled night.

...but I know that because I've been LARPing for a dozen-odd years, and I've done lots of night combat. (My character also happens to be The Darkstrider becuase I see in the dark really well.) Am I going to write to Jim and point this out? Probably not, because your Average Reader has no clue.

Getting back on topic, a number of people enjoy sailing. I know enough to appreciate the research you did, but actual lessons on a clipper ship cost a lot of money. I'd say write back to the person who offered their opinion, thank them for their input, and politely remind them of this.

Or you could start a "Jim and Family go on a Mystic Clipper Cruise Fund." My grandma took me on one when I was twelve, it was a lot of fun!
Jan. 19th, 2010 06:38 pm (UTC)
I like the cruise fund idea! And the best part is that the whole thing could be tax deductible for research purposes :-)
Jan. 19th, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC)
There were several details on sailing that made me blink--but when it's a fantasy world one can say, "They have magic to make that work" and read on.
Jan. 19th, 2010 04:43 pm (UTC)
Just as people were right to challenge problematic aspects of Talia’s character and sexuality in Stepsister.

Not to derail the discussion-but what were the problematic aspects? Is there a link I could read that discussion? I liked Talia. She was complex.

Addressing the topic: There's another website I visit, which discusses film, television, advertisements and books from a feminist perspective, where with the regularity of the tides some bozo or other has to pipe in and say, "What is your problem? Lighten up! It's ONLY a [fillintheblank]."

Not only is it rude, it's dismissive.
Jan. 19th, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC)
Dismissive is how we straight rich white guys keep the rest of you down, you know. If we're not dismissive of your opinions, then we're admitting that your position has some validity, and we can't be having with that.
(no subject) - gategrrl - Jan. 19th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - georgmi - Jan. 19th, 2010 08:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 19th, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gategrrl - Jan. 19th, 2010 08:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 19th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 19th, 2010 05:08 pm (UTC)
It's interesting to see people responding to a non-specific example of criticism which you selected to enlighten a post entitled "In Defense of Criticism" by giving you reasons why you should not have to pay attention to that criticism. :)

Though I wonder whether I'd have noticed that point if I didn't think it was specifically my criticism to which you're referring, and so I am primed to be hyper-defensive on the topic.
Jan. 19th, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC)
You're one of two people to mention the sheet mistake to me, FWIW. And I wasn't thinking of any particular criticism or discussion when I wrote the post; more about the trend in general for people to comment and say you're overthinking things.
(no subject) - georgmi - Jan. 19th, 2010 05:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 19th, 2010 05:40 pm (UTC)
I have LONGED for a description of what I write. SO happy to hear this term used. I write bubblegum mystery!! yay!! thanks so much!
Jan. 19th, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC)
You're welcome :-)

I hadn't actually heard the term until I saw that early review, but I liked it, and it fit for the goblin books.
(no subject) - acetachyon - Jan. 22nd, 2010 05:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 19th, 2010 05:56 pm (UTC)
Very much the point I took here:

The people who get annoyed by the mere idea of criticism fall into two categories, roughly: the know-nothings (don't know, don't care), and the reverse snobs (already know, but stop trying to make me care).

The folks who commented earlier that the popular stuff needs to be talked about most precisely because it is popular have the right idea. It's been said that a society's greatest madness and delusion is the one it itself cannot see.
Jan. 19th, 2010 06:06 pm (UTC)
I'm the other person to mention the sheet thing to Jim -- actually, my wife was reading the book and said I "should tell my friend Jim..." So I did what I was told. (grin)

Dr. Phil
Jan. 19th, 2010 06:29 pm (UTC)
And, how awesome is it that Jim provides a space for such feedback, and seems comfortable with getting it?

Really, the feeling that the books are part of a conversation rather than a one-way communication makes a huge difference to my feelings about the author, and enhances my enjoyment of the books themselves.
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 19th, 2010 06:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 19th, 2010 06:28 pm (UTC)
Hear hear. Hell, I figure that the discussion of the goofs is more worthy, because then the challenge is on to write a better story.

By way of example, during my science fiction magazine days, I used to hear that "relax and enjoy it" litany over and over when it came to bad television series. For the sake of this argument, let's pick on Space: 1999, a series I adored when I was nine, but that I realize now was bloody ridiculous. The main problem with the basic theme is that you had a lot of ridiculousness that got in the way of a wonderfully iconic image: the moon getting thrown out of orbit, taking the people living on it away from everything they've ever known on Earth. Even at the age of nine, when the show was still in its original syndication in the US, I knew that you couldn't have our protagonists visiting a different alien world every week, just because of the sheer distances to be traveled. Oh, and I'd bring this up with friends, and they'd drop the "relax and enjoy the mindless fun" mantra on me. It's understandable when you're nine, but it gets cloying at 19, and it's just annoying at 29.

Now, the fun here is that you have the iconic idea, of the moon going gallivanting around the universe, and the only thing that the production crew could do with it was turn it into space opera. But then the what if? ray takes effect. What if instead of a massive nuclear explosion, which would probably shatter the moon, its leaving Earth was due to experiments in teleportation (which Greg Bear used in Moving Mars)? What if the planet of the week was due to said teleporter automatically homing in on gravity wells? What if the colonists of Moonbase Alpha could get home right away if they knew which gravity well to tap, and their perambulations were necessary to locate and triangulate the moon's old position in space? Worse, what if they have a distinctive timeframe to work with, before the teleporter burns out and everyone's stuck wherever they may be?

That's why I call shenanigans on not poking big holes in existing stories if the story fabric is too weak. You can always make stronger stories by the action of creative destruction.
Jan. 19th, 2010 06:41 pm (UTC)
I for one as an artist love hearing about the meaning that people find in my artwork, I have a painting that I did that has been on my wall for years and I have had people describe the figure in the same piece as calm and as tortured. I know what meaning I ascribed to certain peices when I painted it but as far as I know no one has taken that same meaning away. This is part of why I both love and hate Artist's Statements, I'd love to be able to have people view a piece and after they've had a chance to consider it, read or hear my thoughts on it.

It can be amazing how someone telling you what something is about can shape your perception of it. This feeds into why I don't dissect any media until I've taken it as it is and come to my own conclusions. Also mostly out of personal preference I prefer to know as little as possible about a movie before I go see it so I can see it for what it is and then spend time analyzing it after.

I do however thing it is important to consider how our media reflects us a society and us as individuals. One of my friends and I have a habit of judging people by their music/movie/book collections, not on individual pieces but on the collection as a whole, it can say a lot more about a person than you'd think.
Jan. 19th, 2010 07:41 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to say that the younger generation of the academy is totally on board with the notion that current blockbusters are an equally worthy object of study. I mean, jeebus -- why would we NOT want to stop and think about the most powerful forces in our culture today?

Also, mark me down as the perverse sort of author who would be very pleased indeed to know that someone had gone digging through her work with a critical shovel. Bring it on; I'm interested to know the implications of how I've played with English history. :-)
Jan. 19th, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes. My officemate in grad school did a term paper on South Park. My Masters thesis relied heavily on Darth Vader. Much fun :-)

I'd love to see that sort of work done on the princess books! Both to see if they recognize some of the research and ideas I'm working with, and also to see what they come up with that I hadn't thought of.
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 19th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - swan_tower - Jan. 19th, 2010 08:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 19th, 2010 08:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - guinwhyte - Jan. 20th, 2010 02:04 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 19th, 2010 07:58 pm (UTC)
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.

Definitely insulting, to everyone who produces or consumes "fluffy" material. [nod]

My experience is that one of two things (or possibly both) is going on when someone does this. First, the person using that argument is trying to express their own superiority, smirking down at the ignorant folks who actually believe that this stuff is important. Second, it's a drailing tactic -- the person using that argument does think the subject is important but disagrees with your point of view, and is trying to strong-arm the conversation over to some other area to prevent people from discussing the subject in a way the arguer disagrees with but can't refute.

Either way, it's obnoxious.

Jan. 19th, 2010 08:02 pm (UTC)
Yay! COngrats on that second printing :)
Jan. 19th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC)
Thanks :-)

Stepsister took longer to reach that second printing than the goblin books, despite selling better. I just take this to mean DAW has been giving me bigger initial print runs, which is also a good thing!
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jan. 19th, 2010 08:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 20th, 2010 11:55 am (UTC)
I got my copy of The Stepsister Scheme in the mail today - woohoo!

Now to find time to read it! *tries to clear stuff off her calendar to no avail*

re: your post

If it was produced from a human mind, it reflects humanity. If it reflects humanity, it's worth discussing. If it's worth discussing, it's worth criticism.

Enjoy it? By all means. But be aware of the buttons that are pressed to bring the enjoyment. Think about the tropes that hit your kinks and learn to recognise them. Learn to be critical of the tropes that people use to control your thought patterns, your perceptions, your thinking.

Why? Because if you're uncritically absorbing whatever someone else throws at you, you're letting someone else tell you what to think without ever questioning the why.

I'd rather not be a moron, thanks.

Edited at 2010-01-20 11:56 am (UTC)
Jan. 21st, 2010 02:17 am (UTC)
I am a non-writer, and yet I LOVE reading about writing. It makes me appreciate my reading lots more. So: I LIKE the dissection; I LIKE knowing something of the technical aspects; and these improve my appreciation of the work that I cannot do, but that adds SO MUCH to my enjoyment of life.
Jan. 21st, 2010 01:08 pm (UTC)
It's Moff's Law: "Of all the varieties of irritating comment out there, the absolute most annoying has to be "Why can't you just watch the movie for what it is??? Why can't you just enjoy it? Why do you have to *analyze* it???" // If you have posted such a comment, or if you are about to post such a comment, here or anywhere else, let me just advise you: Shut up. Shut the fuck up. Shut your goddamn fucking mouth. SHUT. UP."
Jan. 24th, 2010 09:59 pm (UTC)
I like your thoughts, and linked to them in a post of my own, which was partly on related issues. Shall be Friending you from both this LJ and the one I mostly read via.
Jan. 25th, 2010 07:48 pm (UTC)
"Problematic aspects of Talia’s character and sexuality in Stepsister."
WHAT??? That's Bologne!Talia is my favorite character, her complexity is what helps make the stories great!
And to just throw it in there, I really hope Snow White and Talia get together, I'm a sucker for happy endings, and despite Talia's statement to Danielle that not everyone has a happy ending like her...I'm keeping my fingers crossed!
Jan. 25th, 2010 08:00 pm (UTC)
Actually, I agreed with the comments. I love Talia, but she's also in the position of being the only character in that book who is non-white and non-straight (that we know of). She's also a rape survivor, which starts to play into some of those problematic areas. (The angry lesbian cliche, for example.)

I don't think that makes her a bad character. In a lot of ways, she's my favorite. But I do see how writing her the way I did, with that backstory, could be troubling.

As for Talia/Snow, well, we'll see how that works out in 2011 :-)
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Jim C. Hines

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