Disagreement Is An Absolute Defense To Literary Criticism…but criticism is not an attack.

A week ago, I tweeted my bafflement regarding this xkcd. And, in the course of explaining the muddled premise of the strip, an acquaintance turned me onto xkcdsucks, which is a blog devoted to dissecting and skewering xkcd.

I found this blog refreshing and highly fascinating. But I was also somewhat repulsed by it, because, like pretty much every person, I know that there’s not really any sort of objective standard for quality in art. I might enjoy a work or not. I might find it complex or simplistic. I might find it discerning or idiotic. But the things I see in it are not inherent in the work, even down to the most micro-level.

I might say that the phrase “Tanya thrust the thruster into overdrive and blasted out towards the farthest reaches of the universe,” is terrible writing because “thrust” is repeated and “farthest reaches of the universe” is a cliché and the two clauses have different subjects (Tanya in the first clause and her [implicit] ship in the second clause). But if someone was to say to me, “No, you’re wrong about that, the thrusted thruster is a poetic repetition that calls to mind the sexual act, and the “farthest reaches of the universe” is meant to call attention to the banality of her ambitions vis a vis the scope of her opportunities” then what am I going to say? What meaning does our analysis really have? All we’re describing is…nothing, none of what we said has any concrete foundation. There is no evidence that repetition is banal, or that it is poetic. There is no proof that clichés are bad writing. Nor is there any possible way to acquire this evidence. All we’re doing is producing mental chaff. That is why I often steer away from any sort of criticism.

Disagreement is an absolute defense to criticism. For instance, I think that if this xkcd strip is about porn characters acting in an uncharacteristic way then that is a really confusing and bad premise because porn is already about ordinary archetypes acting in uncharacteristic ways (i.e. the pizza delivery man doesn’t just deliver your pizzas like he normally would…he also has sex with you), so if a porn character acts in an uncharacteristic way, wouldn’t that just mean that the pizza delivery man would deliver your pizzas?

But someone could easily reply to me, “Oh, no, it’s a brilliant inversion of what you’d expect. It’s a Dada marvel.” And what do I say then? Any attempt to provide some underpinning to my reaction, no matter how clever or even brilliant, can easily run up against the wall of just a single person saying, “That’s not true for me.”

That’s why I am always uncomfortable about criticizing any book or work. Because…those criticisms are usually just not true on the face of it. What does it mean for someone to say that Twilight is bad? Millions of people enjoy it. You might have tons of reasons for why it is bad. But if even one person enjoys something, then there is proof that what you’re saying is wrong.

Again, this is not any sort of new notion. It’s something everyone has thought about. And in fact that’s why there’s a FAQ response on xkcdsucks addressing this very comment. And I think that response is actually pretty smart.

I think the best way to describe [the interplay between subjectivity and objectivity in criticism] is to explain what a critic means when he says “this is bad.” Ideally he goes on to explain himself, but this is not an example of pure subjectivity. What he is saying is this: “many of the objective elements in this are ineffective or badly put together, or the ideas, feelings, and thoughts they tend to evoke are otherwise negative.” This is partially subjective, certainly–but I will then go on to describe why I think that something is put together. If I dislike the pacing, I will explain how the pacing doesn’t flow very well, and tends to be highly disjointed–this is an objective description of the pacing. It does not rely on me as an observer to make it a valid statement. I will then say that I think the pacing is ineffective because of its disjointed flow. This is a subjective statement! You may think the disjointed pacing lends the story a really brilliant, fragmented flow. But when you have finished with a criticism, you should be able to identify precisely what it is about the story (its objective qualities) that evoked that subjective reaction in the writer.

Of course that doesn’t really capture the complexity of what he was saying, because it’s hard to even say the “the pacing is disjointed” without being pretty subjective. But, as I was thinking about this over the past few days, I realized…”This is totally beyond the point.”

I don’t really care about trying to convince others about the quality of a particular work. I only care about my own reactions to it. And I use these notions of objectivity and subjectivity, which really only matter in terms of a larger audience, as bugbears to scare myself away from the notion that for me, there is good and bad.

When I read a book, I do have some reaction to it. And there are reactions I enjoy, and reactions that I do not. There are books that I enjoy more and books that I enjoy less. I don’t need to worry about this hypothetical person who might disagree with me, because I am not really concerned with trying to get him to agree with me. What I am concerned with is finding out what kinds of things I enjoy, why I enjoy them, and how to utilize those elements in my own writing

(Although I am slightly uncomfortable with the word I use here — “enjoy” — since it seems slightly facile and concerned with immediate emotional reactions rather than the sort of long-lasting imprint the book leaves on me, which is what I am really talking about. I think a more honest and appropriate word would be “love”. Although an even better word would be <3 because what I am really talking about the books I <3 and why I <3 them. Of course, that’s slightly ridiculous, so I will just go with “enjoy”.)

Because when I put aside my baggage about subjectivity, and go into a book and try to think about why I enjoy it, I can often find reasons. Often it’s about the worldview or ideas expressed by the book. Sometimes it’s just about the style of writing. And what’s more, I find value, for myself, in thinking about those reasons. Even though what I’m engaged in is a rather silly game, it does provide some insight into myself.

Of course, other people could object to what I say on a variety of levels ranging from “uhh, what you see in this book isn’t really there” to “I also see what you see in this book, but I don’t think that thing is very good”. And that would be crushing, if I cared about convincing them.

Which is not to say that sharing one’s criticism can’t be valuable as well. I just don’t think that the purpose of doing it is to “convince” other people that they are wrong. Clearly there is some universality in our subjective reactions. In fact, there is a huge amount of universality. Two people, watching TV in distant apartments, can laugh at the same joke on the same sit-com. That’s incredible, when you think about it. They heard the same words, analyzed the intention, pondered the intended reversal or disjunction or whatever makes humor humorous, and found it enjoyable.

So if I say that I see something in a work, there is a very good chance that someone else has seen it too. But there is no reason why a given person has to see it as well. In fact, it’s rather more incredible that anyone agrees on anything ever. That’s why I think that criticism really only works when it’s conducted in good faith, and I don’t mean good faith on the part of the critic. The critic is documenting his own reactions, as are we all. I mean good faith on the part of the reader.

Because it’s really easy, for me, at least, to say “I don’t see it.” And there is no way to disprove me. Sometimes I am doing it unconsciously. I am willing myself not to see what someone else is talking about. Sometimes I am just unwilling to put in the work to try to understand. And sometimes I’m just pissed off by someone shitting all over something awesome (like Mars Attacks) and I’d rather take refuge in my one unassailable defense. But usually, if I try, I do understand a little bit of what a person is talking about, and I can see a little bit of what they see, even though I am not required to.

11 thoughts on “Disagreement Is An Absolute Defense To Literary Criticism…but criticism is not an attack.

  1. David

    Although an even better word would be <3 because what I am really talking about the books I <3 and why I <3 them. Of course, that’s slightly ridiculous, so I will just go with “enjoy”
    That would not be slightly ridiculous. That would be extraordinarily ridiculous. (Thus, I criticize.)

    Anyway, this can apply to almost anything. Literary preferences (defined broadly to include this xkcd) has a higher amount of universality than some choices and a lower amount of universality than others. Criticism of some of these preferences is an attack (Genocide is good! No, it is bad!), and I don’t think the high degree of universality is the decisive factor in whether it is attack or criticism. I don’t want to go any further into this because both of us could just blahblah on into the farthest reaches of the universe.

  2. R. H. Kanakia

    I don’t think you’re quite using any of these words appropriately. I don’t have any of the philosophical terminology down, but a literary preference is not really a choice. It’s…a preference…it’s a good to making choices.

    But you’re right, moral “laws” are also kind of this way. And an attempt to define a moral law is subject to the same sorts of problems. But, practically speaking, that is not an activity that I or most people I know are likely to be engaged in. We pretty much just take our moral laws as they’re given to us.

  3. Ben Godby

    Immanuel Kant was originally going to call his “Critique of Judgment” the “Critique of Taste” – “that most intimate of senses.” I agree with this metaphor and think that my preference for heavy metal and science fiction is best analogized by my preference for Dr. Pepper and balsamic vinegar. But usually, in everyday life, we rely on the analogy of the “I (don’t) see it,” as though what we judge were as true as what we see. But judgment doesn’t deal with physical appearances (even when it, inevitably in aesthetics, pretends to); it can’t approach the truth of the statement, “What is it that I see there? Oh, it is a man.” It deals with mental re-appearances, which can constantly be re-jigged, doubted, affirmed, discussed, opined, etc. in thought. Thinking never produces anything but what you call “mental chaff;” even formal logic, even mathematics, everything you see can be doubted in thinking (as Descartes, e.g., did), when you withdraw from the “true” symbols and pictures of the world to the ever-doubting, ever-cycling realm of the mind.

    And I suspect that the “lasting impression” a book leaves on you is the fact that it stirs not “the mind,” but “the soul” – “the passions.” Personally, I am never as happy reading a piece of “idea fiction,” no matter how thought-provoking it is, as I am reading about something that really makes me sad or angry. Emotion “feels” like it is part of the body, part of “this world;” thinking can feel like it has been imposed from outer space.

    And to riff off the last comments: the English “morals” comes from the Latin “mores” meaning rules of behaviour, and the English “ethics” from the Greek “ethos” meaning “habitat.” So even if “We pretty much just take our moral laws as they’re given to us,” we can still think about them and hence doubt them.

    -bn

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, that comment about moral laws is really just snipped off the as-yet-unwritten tail end of something else I’ve been thinking about, which is about how books are often about great, big moral dilemmas…but that I don’t think I encounter actual moral dilemmas in life very often (except sometimes, on the lawless frontier that is the highway, when I ponder my responsibilities vis a vis the other speeders and tailgaters and slowpokes).

      Most of the choices I make in my life are between two (or infinity) things held to be pretty morally neutral, not just by me, but by the portion of society that has most direct commentary on and control over my actions.

  4. Alex J. Kane

    Yeah, I’d definitely argue that criticism is, like all manner of philosophy, a conversation for which no end can ever be found. Truth, morality — such things are vague constructs, culturally informed, individually conceptualized, eternally questionable.

    There can never be any true laws of aesthetic quality. It just doesn’t work. The human mind is too abstract, the experience of life too personal.

    Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is chosen by colleges across the nation as a standard of excellent for English-language fiction; I call it a haphazardly-executed narrative. Where’s William Gibson in the canon? Or Dune?

    The world, my friends, is full of ghettos.

    Every neighborhood, though, has at least one house that you can find something positive to say about. Every town has a few nice folks.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Although I think _Heart of Darkness_ was pretty good, I was also taught William Gibson’s _Pattern Recognition_ in a college literature class, right alongside _On The Road_ and _Oh Pioneers!_.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          Yes, this was a class taught by Stanford’s excellent Prof. Ursula Heise. She has one of the most incredibly broad-ranging tastes for literature that I have ever seen in anyone. When I last spoke with her, I think she was starting to read manga, and was planning a course on non-English (particularly Japanese) science fiction.

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