A while back Nick Mamatas talked about the superior sort of reader and the inferior sort of reader, which got me to thinking a bit (and no, not just because he sorted me into the “superior” category, but thanks, mister).
At Astrogator’s Logs Athena Andreadis writes about The Dark Knight Rises and The Bourne Legacy: Fresh Breezes From Unexpected Quarters.
I detest Christopher Nolan’s ponderous dourness. The only film of his I found remotely intriguing was The Prestige. Auteur pretensions aside, the closest relatives of Nolan’s Batman opus are the abysmal Star Wars prequels. The two trilogies share pretty much everything: the wooden dialogue, the cardboard characters, the manipulative sentimentality, the leaden exposition, the cultural parochialism, the nonsensical plot, the worshipping of messiahs and unaccountable privileged elites, the contempt for “mundanes” and democratic structures, the dislike of women and non-hierarchical relationships. To be sure, Nolan’s second Batman film boasted the unforgettable performance of Heath Ledger’s Joker. But TDKR should have been called Bat Guano or Darth Vader Meets the Transformers.
Abigail Nussbaum also has a thing or two to say about The Dark Knight Rises:
The Dark Knight Rises extends Batman’s authority past crime, into technological progress, and even into social welfare–when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Officer Blake, a Batman believer who is one of the first to uncover signs of the film’s villain, starts his investigation by following up the murder of a homeless teen, he learns that the boy was kicked out of his group home because the cash-strapped Wayne Foundation has stopped funding it. In other words, it’s not just the police that needs to be augmented by a caped crusader, but every level of government that must be replaced by private enterprise and private philanthropy. And when that private benefactor is mocked, derided, hobbled in his efforts to keep his community safe and even hunted down for those efforts–why, then he will retreat from his obligations, and the result will be disaster.
Fine pieces of criticism. Now I would like to take a look at some reviews for a bunch of assorted things.
Jayne S, of Dear Author, on some novel:
Then comes the suitors the Eeeeeeevil stepmother tries to foist Mariata off on and it dawns on me that Mariata is a Mary Sue. All men either love her or want to screw her – depending on their own evilness or lack thereof. And for a woman who’s lived out in the wild and traveled across deserts and been around camels all her life, Mariata is certainly ignorant of how to prepare for a journey and whiny once it starts. Only when she doesn’t have anyone to bitch to does she suck it up and get on with survival.
Somedude on some shitty D&D tie-in:
I love Marsheila’s writing style. It is descriptive, painting a vivid picture for the reader, and the prose is tight, with no wasted words. Each and every word carries the plot forward with maximum efficiency. No fluff or filler found here folks. Here is an example of probably the most beautiful battle sequence I have ever read.
“Greddark’s blade flamed, casting hellish shadows as the cavern walls echoed with the music of battle; the high, ringing tones of steel on steel melding with the lower, more brutal notes of steel on flesh.”
It is not a long sequence in terms of word count but the visual it gives the reader will stay long after the book is finished. I not only saw the battle but I felt it.
If you’re over the age of eight, you might like me be forced to come to the conclusion that both Andreadis and Nussbaum are considerably superior readers (or, well, critics–though both review books too) than Jayne S and Somedude. This isn’t simply because Nussbaum and Andreadis are writing negative reviews; so’s Jayne S. But there’s an immense difference in the way they review, and that’s not even about the style or tone but the substance. Somedude believes “Greddark’s blade flamed…” et al to be beautiful prose that makes him “feel” the battle for one, though that’s far from the only disparity. How about Brandon Sanderson (the homophobe, if you recall) on The Wise Man’s Fear?
I often suggest it to people; it’s become–alongside Tigana, Eye of the World, and Dragonsbane–one of my top recommendations for fantasy readers. Often, however, people ask why they should read the book. Why do I recommend it?
Because it’s awesome.
Why is it awesome?
This often stops me. Why IS Pat’s writing awesome?
Well, the books have an absolutely wonderful magic system. One part science, one part historical pseudoscience, one part magical wonder. It’s the type of magic system that I’m always delighted to read, and ranks among my favorites in fantasy literature. But that alone doesn’t describe why the books are awesome.
It’s awesome. What makes it awesome? Because it’s awesome, that’s why. Go buy it now. That Sanderson is subliterate is already evident in his insistence that Tigana and Eye of the World are books everyone ought to read–but the rest is sheer embarrassing fanboy jizz you just shouldn’t let people see you spurt in public. He calls the writing beautiful, and fails entirely to quote a single memorable passage; he dwells on stupid shit only nerds could love (the magic system, say); he is unable or unwilling to consider the dreadful gender politics, and in short there’s nothing in his “review” that approaches insight or or a suggestion that he’s an intelligent or even literate human being. If the two aren’t already fast friends (shitstains of a color!) then this seems like a blatant call for attention and a circlejerk to further his career, which only exists because fellow Mormon bigot Orson Scott Card gave him a helping hand (were you ever in doubt that being a bigot did not reward well in this genre? Other bigots stand at the ready to give you a boost!).
Consider this review from Jennie of Dear Author:
Even though I was intrigued by the set-up, after reading a bit I’m not sure why someone would be that interested in staying at a place like this. The charms of 19th century England don’t really make up for the drawbacks, in my opinion, which include uncomfortable clothing and primitive plumbing. Though some concessions are made to the comfort of 21st century guests, I think if it were me I’d rather go all in or just forget the whole thing (and if it were me, I’d honestly choose the latter). Of course, there are plenty of people who go in for reenactment societies and the like, and I suppose this isn’t so different.
A reaction that amounts to “well, if I were in the character’s shoes I wouldn’t do these very specific things due to my personal preferences” is entirely irrelevant, useless, and not especially intelligent. You’d expect this on Goodreads or Amazon, but not so much on a site that makes money and which presumably pays its reviewers.
Paul Weimer, on a hilariously appropriative YA novel:
This exploration of themes and the costs of a society dominated by Steampunk are some of the best things I found in the novel. Stormdancer itself is the story of Yukiko, daughter of a hunter under the auspices of the Shogun. She winds up accompanying her father on a quest to find an arashitora, a griffin, long believed extinct. The Shogun has had a vision of leading the final victory against the gaijin on the back of one, and despite the fact that wild animals of any kind are scarce, the penalty for failing is extremely high. So Yukiko travels into the wild in search of the impossible, and finds it, but that is just the beginning of the problems for herself and those she loves.
Again, we get a plot summary that can just as well be gleaned by reading the title’s product description on Amazon, and not much else. Just “this is what happens in this book, and this, and that” plus a few stated reactions too vague to constitute anything approaching sentience. Compare with this review of the same book which, whatever you might think of the style or tone, points out glaring cultural errors in detail.
This review. To let such deathless prose–
And his body. Even in his current lean-and-mean state he was still built on heroic lines. She’d have to be blind not to notice so much male beauty.
But he’d always been tall and dark and handsome and he’d always had the body of a god and it had never bothered her for a second before.
–go unremarked would suggest you are linguistically tone-deaf to start with, but to call it “deft writing” is something else again: not just tone-deaf, but outright praising Justin Bieber as the zenith of musical accomplishment unequaled by any before or since.
These reviews share a common thoughtlessness, an inattention to prose, a focus on trivia and irrelevant personal reactions. These then are the inferior readers. The ones who genuinely can’t (or don’t want to, or don’t think they should try to) approach texts as anything more than stories, the ones who wouldn’t be able to perform close reading if threatened at gunpoint. It’s not even about their tastes or what they choose to review–it’s the way they engage with, or rather fail entirely to engage with, anything beyond “oh, that’s nice” or “oh, that’s bad.” These are cardboard cut-out opinions when they aren’t blatant favor-currying/unpaid marketing efforts like the embarrassment that is Sanderson’s ode to Rothfuss.
There’s an attitude prevalent in the western culture and specifically American culture–or, to be even more exact still, in the SFF genre: that any and all opinions are equal, and no one is more informed than the next person, and we should take a five-year-old’s opinion on a book as seriously as anyone’s, thus Tolkien deserved a Nobel. It probably has a good deal to do with the anti-intellectualism of fandom, what with the instinctual recoiling from the idea that some individuals are better informed or more experienced than others, and therefore may produce criticisms proportionally more worthwhile. This also solidifies the attitude that there is no good or bad writing and that everything is subjective, and “I like this” becomes confused with “this is good.” A conviction that you too can be right, absolutely right, just like those snobbish ivory-tower types. Any suggestion that you might be genre-locked and therefore badly read, or that if your standards for “good writing” is tie-in fiction you might want to reevaluate, elicits instant resentment and is seen as a personal affront to your dignity. How very fucking dare! Robert Jordan’s prose isn’t bad, it’s just flowery. Everything is subjective! Having standards? That’s elitist bullshit, you jerk.
This is perpetuated by the practice of inferior reading. Now inferior reading, maybe, has its place on Amazon and Goodreads, where nobody expects lengthy critiques or political analyses–”Will I like this book?” is the criterion there, to be concluded at first glance from star ratings and a few lines of reader feedback. But I get the impression that in the blogosphere you’re supposed to be just a bit meatier–not necessarily of Andreadis’ or Nussbaum’s caliber (since frankly most people are not that literate or that smart) but hopefully something a bit more than Sanderson or Somedude up there. I’d even go as far as saying that, taken to extremes, inferior reading produces things like this endorsement of Save the Whites, a logical step when you look at how oblivious most inferior readers are to blatant, galloping bigotry.
Or perhaps inferior reading is just what people want? The inferior reader is often vacuously and comfortably apolitical, prone to falling back on “it’s just a book/movie/game!”, a battle cry no superior reader–and by superior I mean nothing loftier than “reasonably intelligent”–should ever take up, but which many genre fans would chant and march to in a heartbeat. The inferior reader does not care for strength of prose, insisting that it’s the “story and characters” that count–any suggestion otherwise is decried as pretentious, because when you evaluate a textual medium the arrangement and rhythm of words are surely trivial. This too is another favorite genre argument, helped along by the fact that if you only ever read genre chances are good you’ll never have seen good prose and therefore mistake insufferably pedestrian for “minimalist” and horrifically overwrought for “poetic.”
It’s all prime condition for mediocrity to flourish. For proof of that–well, does anyone really need proof that SFF is where the mediocre, the subpar, the outright bad are celebrated? George RR Martin just got a “lifetime achievement” award after all. What achievement that might be is anyone’s guess, since as far as I know he hasn’t done anything that might constitute a contribution to humanity–or even anything that might be considered innovative within genre itself. All he does is shit out soap opera. Entertaining, sure, but ultimately worthless. Which sums up most of the genre very well, and provides ready answer as to why genre will never be taken seriously outside its fandom (no, not even Nebula and Hugo winners–maybe especially not those winners).
Recommended reading: Everything That Is Wrong With Commercial Fantasy In A Single Quote and The Literature of Delusions.