Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why so srs?

Lately I've been thinking about how absurd literary criticism is, and trying to discover a more meaningful mode of talking about why one book makes me feel one way, and another book makes me feel completely different. Rahul Kanakia sort of primed the pump on this one, but I expect it's something we all think about, and all you lovely people really ought to have some wonderfully brilliant opinions with which to lampoon me.

That's my opinion, anyway.

Although I don't actively review books on this blog, I read books, and I review them in a space between my pate and my jaw. I usually retain them there to avoid the scorn of those who might disagree with my opinions, and to avoid infuriating professional authors with whom I, in dreamland, am already sharing beers while thinking, somewhere between my pate and my jaw, "Man, this guy writes really awful novels." Anyway, the point is that I do critically think about the works I read; it helps me concretize what I do and do not like about what I read, and apply it to my own work.

The problem is that any kind of intellectualization of these matters tends to shade over to the absurd. When I think hard about the last two books I read, I really ought to hate the one I liked, and like the one I hated. For example: at the moment I'm reading some of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian (or Barsoom) saga. I just finished "The Mastermind of Mars," and I am presently chowing down on "A Fighting Man of Mars." Now, aesthetically, I feel confident saying that Burroughs' work is pretty awful. Sentences and paragraphs alike are unwieldy and verbose; the language paints an image of old He-Man and Scooby-Doo cartoons in my mind's eye (the characters run with spinning legs on sterile backgrounds). I feel vaguely as though I am reading the works of a less-talented, other-dimensional version of H. P. Lovecraft. There's something very Heavy Metal about it all.

Which, of course, must be precisely what draws me to it--or, rather, both the aforementioned cartoon and the Barsoom saga possess ineffable elements that I appreciate. Despite the fact that I, reading Burroughs, am certain I am reading something that is "literally" quite awful, I am thoroughly invested in it emotionally and would have for it no substitution. Something precognitive is operating on me, inciting me onwards in this grim endeavour that is all gorgeous Martian damsels, strapping young warriors, and the iniquities of alien tyrants. Despite the fact that the Barsoom saga is annoyingly introspective, painfully unrealistic, and depicts characters, genders, and attitudes of the most shallow type, I forgive it every last one of its excesses because I cannot help but adore it.

On the other hand, sometimes no amount of good writing, interesting settings, or awesome characters can divert me from a primal hatred I feel towards some book or author...

I think I've managed to pin down what it is that I like in it; not just in writing, but in art and philosophy more generally: it is a lack of seriousness. There are exceptions, of course; sometimes the most serious work is that which, to the one experiencing it, appears to be the least so (I cannot help but expect that Burroughs' work was meant to be enjoyed for reasons utterly alien to my own).

Anyway, analogs tend to be much more effective in communicating what it is about stuff that you do or don't like, and I've decided that one of last week's Scenes from a Multiverse comics thoroughly illustrates how I feel about everything that SF&F culture comprises and how I like to approach the topics of the genre--do check out the webcomic if you haven't already (it's hilarious). The point is that serious work tends to put me off; this certainly resonates with my negatory opinion of rigour in speculative fiction.

Be that as it may, I still read serious fiction--and quite frequently, actually. The problem here is that I am speaking about these things at all. Better to have kept my mouth shut and left my brain unbefuzzled.

The grand point of all this is: criticism is sort of a futile business, though it is highly unlikely that I--or the rest of you scumbags--will stop doing it anytime soon. And with this in mind, I will assure you that a lack of amplifiers and power cables is not a valid indictment of Immortal music videos.



  1. "And with this in mind, I will assure you that a lack of amplifiers and power cables is not a valid indictment of Immortal music videos."

    No, but perhaps their outfits are.


  2. Haha. No way. Leather? Spikes? Eternal frowns? Black metal ist krieg.


  3. It's often hard to pinpoint what we like about things, especially when we consciously recognize reasons we shouldn't like it (For example, I personally love Counting Crows, but think the lead singer can’t sing to save his life. If there’s a reason to hate a band, that should be it, shouldn’t it? But if he was replaced, it just wouldn’t be the band I love.) Bravo for pinning some reasons down regarding your reading preferences. I think people sometimes forget about fiction’s basal purpose: to take you away from the everyday. Life is so serious, why should our imaginations always follow suit? There's a place for fantastic, over-the-top, Conan-esqu fun, as there should be.

    And I think critique is always way more beneficial to the critiquer than the critique-ee. Which is why professional reviewers who don’t write kind of confuse me…