Taste and Criticism

Just because I don’t like something does not necessarily mean that it is bad.

People often make the mistake of equivocating their personal taste with objective criticism. This is particularly true in the age of the internet. There are very few mechanisms in place that prevent people from over-reacting or conflating their opinions with some universal truth. I see this every time I shop for a game or a book and check the write ups under the ratings. Lack of originality, for example, is often used as an excuse to give a game a bad rating. This is foolish, in my view, because true originality is exceedingly rare. If a game is fun, I don’t care if it isn’t all that original. As long as it keeps me interested and entertained then I don’t mind familiar ground.

Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files makes an art of using “cliche” fantasy elements and a purposefully formulaic mystery novel structure and I find it vastly more interesting because of the way the author combines those exceedingly familiar elements into a coherent, entertaining, exciting, and relatable tale. Butcher uses the familiar as a primer for his series, using it to draw us into a world that is more complex than these elements might suggest. By doing so Butcher manages to dominate a genre, Urban Fantasy, that is difficult to write well.

World of Warcraft and the Warhammer 40K franchise make use of many of the same fantasy elements. People who play these games will be familiar with orcs, demons, portals to otherworldly realms, the undead, and so on. But its not like either of these franchises invented these elements. They simply borrow from the vernacular of fantasy (and sci-fi in Warhammer 40k’s case) and add their own spin to it. They don’t bother to disguise monsters and races be renaming them because by doing so they would lose the lore and image that other works have lent to that element. Calling something an elf is certainly not original, but it carries with it a set of strong associations that can be very useful to both writer and reader alike. Over time these archetypal elements get integrated into the whole, becoming distinct and interesting on their own. Orc/Orks in World of Warcraft and Warhammer are both borrowed from Tolkien/Mythology but if you delve into the current lore for either of them you will find new distinctions added to the old elements. Warcraft Orcs were once the pawns of inter-dimensional warfare and still carry the scars of that while 40k orcs are actually part fungus.

In Bloodlust I use traditional fantasy races. They exist in a multi-cultural society however, which I think separates them from the way many other authors and developers use races in Fantasy, where culture is often determined by race. Some people take one look at my book, see elves and dwarves and don’t want to read it. I have no issue with that. But when they come after me for not creating “original” races and naming them things C’nir and !shum I get a little annoyed. It is one thing to dislike a book because of the elements it uses, it is another to attack someone because you feel originality is the holy grail of fantasy.

Some people like plot driven books, while others prefer writing that focuses on the characters. I frequently encounter people evangelizing one at the cost of the other. Again, I have no problem with this until the would-be-critic tries to present their opinion of whichone is better as fact. Different readers prefer one or the other, and it may even vary depending on how one reader feels at the time. Gritty versus heroic, first person versus third person, and so on are all personal preferences. I recognize that my preferences do not constitute objective criticisms and will generally try to judge a work based on what I think the author/designer is trying to convey. If I slam Joe Abercrombie because he is too “gritty” for my tastes it says more about me than it does about his work, and one wonders why, if I don’t that style, I would be reading his work in the first place.

Here are two snippets of criticisms I have received from Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale reviews (they’ve been altered a bit to prevent stepping on people’s toes).

  • Criticism A: I like blood, but there is way too much fighting in this book.
  • Criticism B: For all the fighting, I don’t feel like the characters are ever in much danger.

Criticism A has very little merit. It amounts to the person not enjoying the level of action in the book and offers little else. One should expect a book about Gladiators to have a lot of fighting. I am left asking why the critic even bothered to buy the book when it is fairly obvious from the title, the samples, and the description that the cup runneth over in the action department. Seriously, what did you expect?

Criticism B is much more useful to me. In fact I added a few bits to the book in response to it. For one it is much more specific. The reviewer narrows down what they see as a problem and why they see it as a problem in the context of the book. Not bad.

Try to keep personal preference out of reviews and criticisms. Ask yourself if you fall outside the target audience of the work? Don’t get hung up on ideas like originality, tone, and style being the final word in what is acceptable. Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean that others won’t, nor should I act that way and try to persuade people that my view of the product in question is more important than it is. I hated the latest Batman movie with rabid passion, but that does not mean that I feel that other people shouldn’t watch it 😉

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3 comments on “Taste and Criticism

  1. judaidan says:

    Haha! I somehow managed to write a response to this on your previous post window. Sorry about that – pretty dopy of me. ;P

  2. judaidan says:

    Yeah, I find the complaints of “originality” frustratingly oblique. I can assure you, as (having been) a prolific reader and an English major, that there really are no elements of a story that are new under the sun. The trick is adding something interesting to these character types or motifs. People forget that Tolkein’s fairy culture both celebrated old myths and were a direct reaction to the cute fairy artwork, poems and stories that were rampant when he was a young man. Faeries were magestic creatures to be feared – truly feared (apparently my grandmother would always holler out before dumping her washing water to give the Faeries fair warning – just in case, you know) not cherub faced winged scantily dressed (those Victorians) tousled headed girls. Tolkein’s writing itself is a beautiful fusion of Victorian travel writing and mostly Anglo-Saxon epics he so admired, neither being unique by itself. Combined they created an entire new genre. Likewise plenty of authors I’ve admired are able to both celebrate and critically respond to their predecessors. I absolutely adored Marion Zimmer Bradley’s retelling of the Arthurian legends and Trojan war myths from the female perspective. She was criticized for treading on tired old ground too – but her response was that these particular stories have never been told. I would agree. Hilary Mantel also suffered initial dismissal from literary critics with her Thomas Cromwell series for writing a historical novel and even worse, a novel concerning the romantic woes of Henry VIII, and even worse, a trilogy! Of course, these novels are masterpieces – but the subject matter has been adapted so many times it could fill a whole library. Need I mention Shakespeare? He wrotÛe only one play that was probably entirely his own (and not mined from Holinshed or other works). So originality is a silly argument. Gygax may have called his hobbit character a halfling – but we all fucking knew it was a hobbit. 😉

  3. grimkrieg says:

    Agreed. I find people often just use lack of originality as a blank attack statement against books they don’t like. Ironically their argument is often centered around how people should write more like their favourite authors. Criticism that is specific to the work itself is infinitely superior.

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