Previous Entry Add to Memories Share Next Entry
and close up these my weary weeping eyes
spacefaring dino

Originally published at Ann Leckie. You can comment here or there.

Every now and then, I run across the comment that too many books are written “for critics” and not “for readers.” Sometimes the comment explicitly states that books (or stories) ought to be entertaining, and fiction that is difficult to read, highly stylized or poetic or idiosyncratic in its prose, and/or requires some amount of previous reading or cultural knowledge, or has some complex structure, the apprehension of which enhances the piece but requires a fair amount of thought to puzzle out, or …books like this aren’t entertaining. They’re hard work to read. They’re just meant to impress “critics” who somehow, by definition, aren’t actually readers.

Now, I have absolutely no argument with anyone who says something like “These are the sorts of books that entertain me. These others, over here, they really aren’t my cup of tea.” No problem. “I tried to read [Abstruse Masterpiece] and really didn’t enjoy it so I put it down.” No sweat.

But I’ve got a problem when it’s stated as an absolute–”I find this opaque and hard to read, and am not entertained, therefore this sort of book is not entertaining and anyone who writes something like this intentionally has made the mistake of not trying to entertain but instead attempting to impress critics.”

You do see the difference between the two?

I get frustrated with the second sort because I actually find (some) of those opaque, difficult books entertaining. I find their opacity and the intricacy of their construction pleasing to work at. Not all of them, of course. I can think of at least one book that was up for a major award this year that had a prose style that put me off before I’d gotten a hundred pages in. I could. Not. Read. It. Not without major effort that, in the end, I decided I didn’t want to bother with. But I would bet real money the author didn’t sit down at their desk and say “You know what? I want to write something that’s really hard to read so that only a few people will really be able to get into it! Something critics will laud me for, who cares about readers?” And I don’t think the only people praising that book are “critics” or “pretentious” or whatever. They’re people who genuinely enjoyed that book.

Critics get to be critics because they like to read. Critics are readers. They may (or may not) be a particular subset of readers–they may or may not share tastes and predilections with other critics that they do not share with the wider set of readers. But they’re readers. And just like any other reader, each one has their own idiosyncratic personal taste.

For people who like those books, the ones that are “pretentious” or “written for critics,” those books really, genuinely are entertaining. I mean, seriously. When a critic says “This is a great book” that pretty much means they found it entertaining. It’s just that the specific nature of the entertainment they derived from that book isn’t the same as the sort you, or I, or some other random person, might want or enjoy.

Entertainment is whatever entertains you. And not everyone is entertained by the same things. And people who like difficult books do in fact find them entertaining. Really.

It happens with music, too, actually–I used to work for New Music Circle, and while we generally had very small audiences (the few exceptions were things like Stephen Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble–click on the samples and you’ll see why) the folks who came regularly to the concerts really, genuinely enjoyed the stuff. I’d see my boss in the front row really grooving to one or another free improv ensemble, and if it wasn’t someone’s thing, if they’d never really gotten a taste for that sort of sound, that someone might sit there watching him and think “He’s got to be faking this, so he can look intellectual or something. Because this isn’t music!” But it sure as hell was music, just not that incredulous watcher’s thing. My boss? The season ticket holders? They genuinely enjoyed it. The only “problem” with that music is, it’s not the kind of thing you like to listen to. It’s not aimed at you in particular. So, you know, shrug and say “not my thing.” Don’t write a diatribe about how the problem with this music is no one could actually ever enjoy listening to it. Cause I’ll point to my old boss, grooving away, one hundred percent sincere.
*If you’re feeling adventurous, try listening to some Kaffe Matthews, whose music I, yes, genuinely enjoy. (Her stuff is amazing live.) Or some Gunda Gottschalk.

If none of that appeals, here’s some more bowed piano.

I just want to ditto this!

YES! This kind of reverse (hell, let's not even call it reverse, it's the same thing) snobbery is my #1 beef with (some factions of) the SF/F community. You'd think that people who themselves enjoy a genre of limited appeal wouldn't be so hasty to judge others for liking other genres/styles of limited appeal. I also wish that the veneer of "pretention" hadn't kept me from checking out David Foster Wallace until this year, since he is the first author I thought of when reading this.

Your basic premise can be summed up as:

"book I, personally, don't like" =/= "book only critics will like"

which is completely true and legitimate.

However, the underlying concept, that there are books which appeal primarily to critics but not to the larger public, is also sound. This doesn't invalidate those books as works or art or as worthy to have been written and to read. Nor does it negate the pleasure enjoyed by both critics and the relatively small segment of the population who enjoy those books. ("Relatively small" is an unproven quantity, I admit. But I'm speaking specifically of that population of books which are critical successes but don't sell many copies.)

I live pretty well with the idea that there are books that aren't my thing, but that the world consists of 7 billion people who aren't me, and they're entitled to books they like, too. Like you, I get annoyed by people who forget that they're not the only arbiters of what is good or worthy.

But I do get annoyed by two other, related phenomena:

1. when some writers bitch that their book was a critical darling, but isn't selling, and they blame it on lack of publisher support. It might be lack of publisher support, or it might be that the book really does only appeal to the narrow segment of readers that includes most critics but few "typical readers."

2. the increasing distance between certain highly regarded reviewers and actual mass audience tastes.

As long as there are many reviewers, with different tastes, I'm good. Most people were either "Siskel" people or "Ebert" people, and would select what movies to see based on the comparison of the reviews. But it seems to me that the most prestigious book review venues (hello NY Times) are only reviewing a limited segment of the book population.

That's not a big problem--I turn to other sources for book reviews; they are myriad--but I do resent the superiority complex that afflicts the prestigious venues. I don't think it would damage the NYTBR's reputation to expand their mass market section, or to hire some more downmarket reviewers. There's a distinction between good and bad mass market genre novels, too.

(Deleted comment)
Critics, having spent so much time reading, can get jaded and so have an unusual love of novelty.

I agree that people who read a lot, especially in a narrow category, can be more impatient with certain plot things (for example) than people who are less well read in the category. It's a problem: if you read extensively in the category, you're going to no doubt end up with more demanding tastes than people who are new to it or who visit only occasionally.

I have the same problem with horror movies. I only watch very occassionally, so once sat through a bunch of horror movie previews and nearly had a heart attack. I went to a slasher flick with a date (her idea) and she just calmly watched and ate her popcorn while I squirmed and covered my eyes.

But on the other hand, sometimes a person is extensively read in a catagory because they are more tolerant of certian plot tropes. I usually feel like a mystery is cheating me with bait and switch clues, so don't read many of them. On the other hand, a mystery reader might call it cheating if it turned out that murderer was able to establish his alibi by using a time machine.

I guess, whichever way they roll (whether they have more tolerance for stuff or less), the people familiar with the genre are likely to be more sophisticated readers of it?

This is true. I suppose if my brain had been working I could have asked for some comparisons and the context of the movie in question (John Carpenter's Vampires).

I think it's true that certain segments of society paint certain genres as "proper" or "smart" or "socially acceptable" and others not. It's regrettable, but it's true. And yeah, things with girl cooties get the shortest end of that stick.

And I'm also sure it's true that some number of people do read things because they think they're supposed to because otherwise they won't look smart or with it or educated, or whatever. And I'm sure there are writers who would rather eat worms sprinkled with ground glass than have their work described as sci-fi/romance/chick-lit.

But those writers--how do you know that's their motive for putting whatever markers of "serious fiction" in their work they do? I myself don't sit down and say "Oh, I'd better put some fantasy genre markers in this!" I write fantasy and science fiction because that's what I like. Because my aim is to be a fantasy and science fiction writer. The writer of "serious" fiction is also working in a genre, that has genre markers, and whatever social or cultural implications we or anyone might think "serious" fiction has, in the end the writer puts those markers in because that's the sort of story s/he wants to tell. Whether that's out of "pretension" is something only the writer and the Unconquered Sun know--I'm not sure that's a call we can make, sitting from here.

The reviewers? It's true that if they don't give the kinds of reviews their publication's readers expect, they'll lose their jobs. But why assume they're faking it, out of pretension or ambition, rather than assume that they really do like and appreciate the works they're reviewing? Sure, there's cultural cachet that goes with certain genres ("serious" or "literary" fiction) but why do we assume that those reviewers aren't reviewers of such fiction because they really like it and are good at and enjoy articulating why? That's part of the game, with that sort of fiction, that's part of the fun you get out of it. The snobbery is a separate deal--bad news, something I really don't like, but it's not an indicator that the snob is only praising a given work because otherwise he'll be out of step. The only way we could know that a reviewer was just angling for Elite Brownie Points is if we were there in hir head. We aren't--why not take hir at hir word when s/he says s/he likes a book?

And readers? Sure, I don't doubt that any number of people pick up books that are aspirational--a certain group reads them and has a high opinion of them and this reader wants to be a member of that group. But when that reader finishes the book and then says, "Yeah, that was good," why not believe them? Why assume they're faking it just to look cultured? Once again, that's between them and Mithras. We can't see it.

Even if they came to liking it by reading a bunch of whatever the NYT recommended, that liking is probably still entirely sincere--I've found that repeated exposure to genres or styles or techniques leads to my eventually appreciating them better, even if they're not my cup of tea generally. So, sure, I'd say maybe some aspirational readers come to like that "serious" fiction because they kept banging their heads against it in an attempt to become someone who appreciated "serious" fiction. Their ultimate enjoyment is no less sincere for that, IMO.

There have been a number of, let's say, artistic endeavors, that for various reasons over time I've come to appreciate better than I once had. And having come to that point, hearing someone say "This is bullshit, a scam, these people at this exhibit/concert are just trying to look smart," and thinking, "Wait a minute, I really like this music/painting." After a few of those experiences, I realized that the only basis they had for making that judgement was the fact that they did not like the work.

Maybe if they spent time with it they'd understand it better and come to like it--maybe they'd understand it better and still not like it. No problem. Why conclude that no one else could really be honest when they say they like it?

Critics get to be critics because they like to read.

Er -- There's no guarantee that they will continue to like to read after being a critic for a while. For one thing, it becomes work not fun; for another, they can get jaded.

C. S. Lewis recounts a time when he said something to another English professor about a poet off hours. The other professor was astounded that he would talk about them off the job; he thought he had escaped English literature.

Great post and great comments. I think you're right that people too easily dismiss things they don't like as things no one would like or as things that are in some way not valid or not good. I do get stuck trying to decide how, if at all, we *do* decide what's good, and the best temporary conclusion I can come up with is that we should try to judge it on its own terms. Within the category "Books whose language is tapestrylike and rich," there are those where all the interwoven threads of words really work and those that don't--though I guess if you had two critics, they might argue about whether the words did work or not. But you wouldn't judge that piece on its Hemingway-esque brevity.

I do get stuck trying to decide how, if at all, we *do* decide what's good

Yeah, this is a sticky question. I'm not sure I can come up with a really good answer. I mean, partly, I'm not good at articulating that sort of thing anyway--when I can see (or hear or whatever) some pattern or...quality that is really pleasing me or impressing me, I often have problems saying what it is I'm seeing.

And partly because that's a question that a lot of folks who ponder philosophical questions like that have worried at, and I suspect not really come to a good answer. Or the answers they come to only open more questions--I remember being introduced to John Cage's 3'33" or maybe, I mean, the idea behind it being explained to me. It's not a famous piece because it's three and a half minutes of nothing--it's a famous piece because it completely knocks to pieces a whole set of assumptions about what is and isn't music. And once you get to that place, what grounds do you have for saying anything is objectively good or beautiful or anything like that?

I'm left, like you, trying to judge things on their own terms. What is it the work is trying to be? What is the work doing? And it's easier to figure that out if one knows the conventions the artist is working with (or against). And also, in the end, judging whether I feel...well, not pleased, because, for instance, "Spar" was not a pleasant read, but it did what it was trying to do, very effectively, I thought.

But a lot of readers didn't get what "Spar" was doing and thought it was doing something else entirely. So I guess in the end, I can only say "This worked for me, because.." if I can articulate that because. Or "This didn't work for me because..."

Yes, I find the "This worked for me because" language very helpful, in a review. It shows where the reviewer is coming from, and then I can assess the review's relevance for me better.

I try to do that when I'm in a workshop environment. I tell them that I gained these impressions from a novel or story, and if those are the impressions you wanted me to have, bully for you. If not...

And sometimes I'll be watching a movie, and I'll see what they are trying to do, but they fail, and I don't hate the movie. I might feel sorry for it, but I don't hate it. Sometimes I think, if only I had a day to tweak the script before they filmed it, it could have been really cool.

I just read a book treating Donaldson's "Thomas Covenant" series as a literary work, and in the interview in the back, Donaldson came right out and said that he wrote "Covenant" fresh out of graduate school and wanted to convince professors that fantasy could be serious literature. That didn't stop it from being popular. Thomas Covenant the character might have limited it's appeal, but not the series' literary difficulty.

Personally, I do think some writers put more effort into their books than others, purposely thinking it all out, intertwining everything together, and the more they do that, the harder the book is to read. However, some of these writers are better at making a book complicated than keeping it understandable.

Arguments like these make me wish I could read minds. THen I could tell how many people who criticize other books/genres/people are really just acting out their own insecurities. I remember when I was a teenager I had a reputation for being a brain, so I pretended I liked classical music more than I do. I do enjoy classical music, but I love British rock. I'd tell you the bands, but that would date me.

You are viewing ann_leckie