Taking It Seriously: Defending the Criticism of Fiction

Part 1 of 3.

Whenever anyone has the utter gall — the gall, I say! — to criticize fictional works, especially ones beloved by the person viewing said criticism, the defensive party’s argument is generally is along one or more of three veins.

  1. It’s just fiction and exists merely to entertain. There is no need to take it so seriously.
  2. The adaptation of this fiction cannot be blamed for elements that are true to its source material.
  3. It’s fiction and is not meant to be a political statement / politically correct.

I have ranked them from most to least flimsy, but really, they are all quite flimsy. Here’s why the first holds the least water.

Stop Taking It So Seriously!

Firstly, and most importantly, this is a clearly disingenuous argument. If the person making the argument actually thought that the fiction in question weren’t to be taken seriously, then they wouldn’t be bothering to defend it. Instead, they would have quietly ignored arguments regarding the problematic elements of the fiction and resumed their mindless enjoyment of it. That they speak up at all says that they take at least their fandom of it somewhat seriously.

Furthemore, fans who defend their favorite works with this argument are demeaning the object of their love far more than those who bother with criticisms of it. Are they saying that their treasured fiction has no effect or impact on the world whatsoever? Fiction in the form of a radio adaptation of widely-consumed comics was a huge part of what turned the most notorious racist organizations in the United States from a scary threat to mostly a laughingstock. That isn’t to say that all fiction has such an important impact, but to claim that fiction never shapes people’s perceptions is patently false.

If the idea that fiction could influence reality seems to absurd, then consider the flip side, where fiction reflects reality. Are fans really saying that the fiction they adore is so poor at world-building and character-development that it cannot serve as a mirror of or statement about real life? A well-built fictional universe with fully-realized characters can very much serve up insights about the societal context of both the creators and the consumers of that universe. Even poorly-conceived worlds and characters often betray the biases and preferences of their creators. The reactions and interpretation of fans, in turn, betrays their biases and preferences.

The quality (or lack thereof) of a particular work of fiction aside, analysis is part of some people’s entertainment. Thinking about fiction’s reflection of and influence on reality is highly enjoyable for people whose interests are in sociology, cultural anthropology, psychology, sociobiology, and/or the general “meta” of existence. For example, zombies and vampires can be seen as reflections of the fears of the right and the left, respectively

As an American, I find tracing the vampires vs. zombies line against the Democrats vs. Republicans one to be a highly pleasurable pursuit. That I do so hardly demands that everyone feel that way, yet I find myself chastised by people for doing what I like. I find that more than a little hypocritical given that those people’s transparent excuse for being opposed to me doing what I enjoy is that they enjoy the thing about which I choose to think critically.

Please note that in the original version of this piece, I erroneously attributed to the downfall of the reputation of the KKK to the Superman comics. It was actually the radio adaptation of the comics. Thanks to George Grimanelis for pointing that out to me.

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Taking It Seriously: Defending the Criticism of Fiction
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13 thoughts on “Taking It Seriously: Defending the Criticism of Fiction

  1. 1

    People who get upset about literary criticism need to get back to 10th grade or so when you get introduced to that kind of thing. Really, I don’t expect people to understand literary criticism on a college degree level but they should have at least some understanding of the process involved.
    I think your first point is the most significant: If they think it’s “just fiction, no need to get upset”, why are they getting so upset?
    What I really want to know is: Where do they think people get their ideas from? Since they’re apparently convinced that media and culture don’t influence us at all and therefore we should not bother criticising them, where do people get the ideas they have? Do they only ever get outspoken messages and if nobody ever loudly says “women have to stay in the kitchen” it does not matter at all that children always only see women in traditional roles in the media?

  2. Ed
    3

    This is a very thought-provoking article, and I’m interested in reading the upcoming installments. Sometimes I admit that I’m annoyed by criticism of fiction and the arts in general, but it’s not because I’m against analysis of these products.

    It’s that I often find that criticism as practiced is based on imposing a set meaning on a work or incorporating it into a pre-existing conceptual structure. This is OK up to a point, as everyone has their particular point of view, but I like seeing the same thing from different angles and am more interested in multiple interpretations and layers of meaning within the same work.

    For example, with the Vampire vs. Zombie thing (which is fascinating and clever by the way–thanks for sharing it!) I like the take on it that the author in Cracked has, but I could see the symbolism reversed in many instances.

    To start out, I love the use of the sympathetic vampire as a symbolic celebration of the marginalized and persecuted. Many writers intentionaly use the vampire this way and the best stories of this kind are written by members or supporters of the LGBTQ community.

    The villain vampire, though, is more complex as a cultural figure. I agree that in the original modern vampire works like Carmilla and Dracula, there was a very reactionary value system. Though beautifully written, Carmilla is particularly painful to read for its demonization of female sexuality and general pompous moralism.

    Dracula is of course we’ll known for its themes of a foreign menace and corruption of “purity.” But there are competing themes as well. The seemingly superstitious Eastern European villagers Harker encounters in his journeys turn out to be right after all! They know more than the English big shot who thinks he’s in control. What’s more, they genuinely care about his welfare when he insists on putting himself in danger.

    And without endorsing Catholicism, I think the efficacy of Catholic icons and rituals was a serious departure from the dominant religion and culture of the British Empire. Van Helsing is after all a foreigner himself.

    There is also a persistent theme of predatory use of wealth and power in fiction and films with Dracula or Dracula-like villains. The vampire is someone (usually, but not always a man) who has set himself up as fundamentally better than his fellow humans with a right to take everything they have to get far more than his share.

    This can be contrasted with the contemporary sympathetic vampires who have found ways to coexist with humans.

    Vampires of the Dracula type could be seen as the ultimate members of the “1%” . They live in fortress-like homes (gated communities?), belong to exclusive clubs and manipulate humans`lives from behind the scenes (like insider traders and other Wall Street con artists?).

    As the presentation of this kind of vampire became more contemporary, writers and film makers explicitly placed them as the heads of corporations. See the boardroom scene (I think from Blade) in the Cracked article and the recent fairly good novels but mediocre TV series The Strain.

    I swear I won’t be as wordy about zombies. 🙂 I agree that zombie movies usually have a fairly liberal worldview with bigoted rednecks, unethical corporate and military scientists, religious traditionalists (don’t desecrate the dead, even if they want to eat you!) etc. making the zombie problem unmanageable as they do with real life problems.

    I also agree that Tea Party rallies remind me of the zombie hordes. But the zombies also strike me as a traditional right wing caricature of “the masses.” The fearful suburbanites`s nightmare of city streets and subway tunnels. Or more importantly, the dehumanized “other” who must be kept out and can be slaughtered without conscience.

    And while the heroes of zombie movies are often fairly progressive and sensible people trying to deal with the crisis in the face of obstructionist idiots who make it worse, much of the appeal of the “zombie apocalypse” setting are its implications of radical individualism and survivalism.

    1. 3.2

      Ah, but isn’t that the great thing about actual literary criticism?
      You look at vampires and the cracked article looks at vampires and you both put forth your arguments and then we can analyse them and discuss the merits and get a more nuanced picture, like that the view of vampires and zombies depends on more than just the mythical creature, but also the context they are placed in.

  3. 4

    The only types of criticism of fiction that annoy me is when someone condemns a work simply for containing nudity, sex, violence or language they consider obscene. Why? Because it’s a very surface-level view that ignores the fact that 2 works could be equally violent but have vastly different perspectives on violence. Nudity is something worth really looking at, not to go WOW at nude bodies, but to note what the nudity and how it is shown tells you about the body, gender politics, who is the intended consumer? I’ve recently been viewing lots of Fassbinder movies, and I note how the director Fassbinder frequently puts his own body on camera. To some extent, it’s a statement, and also a statement of self-acceptance from a GLTBQ person.

    Fiction also can get criticized for bad messages, faulty outlooks and an author just not getting the issues they’re writing about. And some of that writing can still be good, but it pays to be aware of what the work might be saying.

    If you look at older works by white people, some attempt to be less racist by putting in token minority characters, but at times it’s very embarrassing or a mess of stereotypes and orientalism. You can *get* that ‘they included a Black character’ but also get ‘they included a ridiculous stereotype that, even when positive, makes me want to *headdesk*’

    On Zombie films, I recently saw ‘night of the living dead’ and I noted that it made the unusual choice of having a Black protagonist for a film in 1968. In the end, he survives and sees a group of white men approaching who are killing zombies. They see him from a window and shoot him even though he’s not a zombie.

    Seeing that, I was wondering if there was a bit of commentary going on about the propensity of white people to just shoot Black people without hesitation. Or whether this is something that owing to ‘stand your ground’ I just happen to read into it?

    Vampires do seem to be able to do much in terms of what they represent. They could be stand ins for a parasitic ruling class, or sympathetic and misunderstood outsiders forced to hide who they are.

    I suspect zombies may not be able to be as interesting since… well, the nature of the ‘zombie’ is kind of not conducive to great character depth. I tend to have a hard time getting into any narrative where too many actors are more or less simplistic automatons . I think part of it is that I feel like the simplistic automatons end up being a simplistic caricature of real people who have more depth and such. It’s like taking ‘the Other’ and turning them into faceless extras.

    Just thought I would add, as a person who is an artificial intelligence researcher, I get a bit annoyed by the boring cliches of ‘thinking machines’ and ‘robot rebellion’ that pop up so often, which might be why I don’t like a lot of sci fi. I feel that a lot of it assumes that machine intelligence and if they got that far, emotions, would be close to human ones. I mean, with humans and machines, we’re not really competing for the same resources necessarily. Then again, the ‘machine’ in fiction isn’t necessarily about real machines. Rossum’s Robots were stand ins for actual workers. Though I think truly non-human intelligence could be interesting to write, but very hard to do well.

    1. 4.1

      The only types of criticism of fiction that annoy me is when someone condemns a work simply for containing nudity, sex, violence or language they consider obscene. Why? Because it’s a very surface-level view that ignores the fact that 2 works could be equally violent but have vastly different perspectives on violence. Nudity is something worth really looking at, not to go WOW at nude bodies, but to note what the nudity and how it is shown tells you about the body, gender politics, who is the intended consumer?

      I tend to be leery of these statements. Too often valid criticisms of nudity, sex, violence, or language in a work is written off as “oh, you’re just clutching your pearls” or “you just find it obscene.” The “intended audience” part also kinda sends up red flags… but it might just be that I’ve been having too many conversations with gamergaters that it’s causing me to jump to conclusions.

      As for zombies, if you just accept that the zombies aren’t characters, you might to better. They’re the environment. Sure, the violent flesh craving environment, but they aren’t characters (there are exceptions of course). They’re there to represent the impending death of the characters. What will people do when faced (both literally and figuratively) with their own mortality. Humans already typically have issues with dead bodies as reminders of their own mortality, add to that corpses that are mobile and trying to kill people, you get fear of death squared. The only actual characters are the living, and it’s about how they react to the situation. Also, like freemage said, the creators can also put other metaphorical spins.

  4. 5

    smrnda: You should check out Shock Value ( http://www.amazon.com/Shock-Value-Eccentric-Nightmares-ConqueredHollywood/dp/B007HW3UVU ). It’s a look at the evolution of horror movies and their tropes, and there’s a whole chapter on Night of the Living Dead, which includes some discussion of the racial attitudes at play in the movie.

    I think you might want to take another look at zombie movies, too. While characterization is generally pretty non-existent (the recent rom-com Warm Bodies being an intriguing exception–note, the movie contains most of the problems of rom-coms from a feminist perspective), the metaphors involved are actually pretty variable. In the best movies, zombies aren’t so much about The Other as they are about alienation and its causes. In dawn of the Dead, it’s banality and consumerism; in 28 Days/Weeks Later, it’s political hatred. Hell, in a hilarious Key & Peele sketch, it’s about racism. (I won’t link here, to make sure it doesn’t embed, but if you Google “Key & Peele Suburban Zombies”, it’ll come up as the first link. Bonus points for Kevin Sorbo getting a bit-part in a sketch that argues FOR the existence of institutional, societal racism; I guess his deeply held conservative values don’t override his willingness to get a paycheck.)

  5. 7

    Alex has a couple of blog posts on how the chronicles of Narnia promote a highly problematic and reactionary agenda. This is a common problem with children’s fantasy, wind in the willows endorses aristocratic privilege while LOTR racializes good and evil. I did a couple of posts on how the Redwall series: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redwall my own favourite when I was a kid, is one of the worst offenders, which I’ll summarize below:

    The anthropomorphic creatures of the Redwall universe are divided into good ‘woodlanders’ (Mice, voles, squirrels, hedgehogs, badgers etc) and evil ‘vermin’ (rats, weasels, stoats, ferrets, wildcats, pine martens, foxes etc) reptiles and amphibians are ‘primitive’ and conform to stereotypes of ‘savage’ cultures.

    With an handful of exceptions these traits are considered innate: in outcast of Redwall the abandoned baby of a ferret warlord is adopted by the Redwallers, wise elders caution that this will only end badly, they give him the name ‘Veil’, and later reveal they did so because it’s an acronym of evil. They are proved right when the baby grows up to become an attempted murderer. By contrast, in the Taggerung another ferret warlord adopts a baby otter, based on a prophesy that he will be a ‘Taggerung’ a mythical invincible warrior. The child, despite growing up in a tribe where violence and brutality are normalized, grows up good and honorable, eventually escaping and finding his way to Redwall Abbey, for a reunion with his biological mother and a showdown with his adopted tribe. The message? good and evil are innate qualities, written into one’s genetic code, they are unchangeable and lesser breads should never be given a second chance.

    When you think about it, the world of Redwall is very similar to the world of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Redwall is a compound, secure, prosperous but rigidly controlled. Mossflower is the pleeblands, free, exciting but dangerous, and characterized by massive inequalities of wealth, between ‘woodlanders’ who typically occupy the best sites of habitation in Mossflower and form a middle class; ‘vermin’ leaders who fill the role of the crime lords in Atwood’s book; and ordinary ‘vermin’ who constitute a racialized underclass. The role of the CorpSEcorps is filled by the hares of the Long Patrol, a brutal military elite dedicated to upholding the status quo.

    The circumstances that brought this about are explained in the second book of the Redwall series Mossflower. Here the woodlanders are portrayed as being under the occupation of a cruel tyranny, after the Wildcat warlord Verdague Greeneyes invaded their lands. We are told he ‘made a sort of pact with the woodlanders’ in return for a fifty percent tax in kind on their agricultural produce, the woodlanders enjoy limited freedom, and Verdague’s army protects Mossflower from any future invasions. This is scarcely ideal, Verdague doesn’t offer the woodlanders any say in this arrangement, but the woodlanders themselves have no notion of democracy, indeed, there are numerous instances where the very act of questioning authority is treated as scandalous amongst the ranks of the supposed ‘good guys’. The woodlanders inevitably rebel, and their demands are not ‘no taxation without representation’ or lower taxes, or greater freedom, but zero tax, and the total expulsion of Verdague’s army, who by now have lived in Mossflower for generations. They gradually pull away from the settlements Verdague confined them to, and, ignorant of agriculture and deprived of any means of support, Verdague’s army begins to starve. you might recognize this as the exact same plot as Atlas Shrugged

    Verdague’s daughter, Tsarmina, stages a palace coup, poisoning her father and launching a military campaign to regain control of the woodlanders. The semi-mythical figure of Martin the Warrior embarks upon a quest to the fortress of Salamandastrom, to raise an army and defeat Tsarmina. He succeeds, diverting a river under the foundations of her fortress Kotir, flooding it and surrounding her fleeing army as they escape across the newly formed lake. With the ‘Vermin’ army (which, you remember, have lived in Mossflower for at least two generations now, and offered to perform a vital public service, defence of the realm, albeit entirely on their own terms) disarmed and at their mercy, the woodlanders debate what to do, cold-bloodedly execute them, or expel them from Mossflower? Genocide or mere ethnic cleansing, these are the only two options, despite the fact that most of the ‘vermin’ hate Tsarmina almost as much as the woodlanders do. Eventually the woodlanders opt to expel the ‘vermin’ with an added twist, they are not only banned, on pain of death, from returning to Mossflower, but also from venturing back to the northlands where they came from. So, completely unarmed, the ‘vermin’ are packed off to live in totally unfamiliar, and potentially hostile territories. In every subsequent book the ‘vermin’ are depicted as living in dire poverty, and every attack they make is against a centre of wealth. Ayn Rand with a touch of Serb-style ethnic cleansing and Apartheid thrown into the mix for good measure. Happy reading kids!

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