Criticizing Fiction …

Heina Dadabhoy has put up a three post series talking about criticizing fiction and three common arguments that she, at least, gets when she talks about doing it, three arguments that she doesn’t find particularly strong. I’d like to go through those arguments, but before doing that I want to talk a bit about criticism of fiction in general to put this into a context, because I think that in some cases those arguments aren’t flimsy at all, while in some cases they are.

There are, in my view, different focuses that one can have when criticizing fiction:

1) You can criticize a work of fiction as a work of fiction, in and of itself. This means that what you are examining the work to see how well it works as a work of fiction, what it does right, what it does wrong, what could be improved. You look at presentation, plot holes, characterization, world building, and all sorts of things like that, but you don’t go too far into the philosophical, political or social implications of all of that except in service to seeing how those implications and elements impact the work as a whole. So while you might, say, liken the world of Star Trek to a communistic society, you would only bring that up to, say, point out a contradiction in the actions of the main characters, or to show how that focus limits opportunities to advance characters or plots. I’d say that Chuck over at SF Debris does mainly that sort of analysis, as does Shamus when he talks about video games, and that’s what I do in my Philosophical Writer’s Guide. Here, the purpose is to find the elements that the work itself clearly contains and to judge the work based on that.

2) You can do a philosophical analysis of the work, and look at what the philosophical implications of it are. The Philosophy and Popular Culture works do this sort of analysis. Here, you pull out the philosophical issues, but those issues don’t have to actually be in the work themselves, and you don’t have to claim that the author meant for them to be there. Sometimes, they are explicitly there, like the discussion in Angel over whether he should have stopped Jasmine or not, or the question of whether Batman should kill the Joker or not. But sometimes they are just implied, like the question of whether it’s right to make a Robin or not. Works of fiction can raise interesting philosophical issues and provide excellent thought experiments to get people to at least understand what the issues are in a manner that is easier to grasp than a long philosophical argument. But the real key here is that if you do this analysis, you aren’t necessarily saying anything about the work at all. Even if you criticize the answer they came up with, it doesn’t say anything about how effective the work itself is. Often, it’s precisely the opposite: the work is effective because it takes the “wrong” answer, either for dramatic effect or because that’s what most people will relate best to. So, in a philosophical analysis, the work is used to highlight or clarify a philosophical issue, but the work itself isn’t really being examined in and of itself, so a philosophical analysis doesn’t say much about the work in and of itself … but that philosophical analysis itself can be used to highlight good and bad things about the work itself if the philosophical implications matter to the enjoyment of the work.

3) You can also do a political/social analysis of a work. This is similar to a philosophical analysis, except that you look more at the impact it could have or the commentary it could make on political and social issues, or the impact that political and social issues and themes had on it. Again, this sort of analysis can find things that aren’t in the work, and ultimately isn’t a comment on the work itself, overall. Dadabhoy’s example of analyzing zombies and vampires as reflections of the fears of the left and the right in her first post is an example of this sort of analysis.

To look at how these all differ, I think using the Marvel Civil War is a good example. You can criticize the Civil War for not being clear on what registration was all about and for making it so that it was hard to cheer for the side that was ultimately supposed to win because of the bad things they were doing. You can analyze it as a clash representing the three main competing philosophical positions in ethics. Or you can ask about the political and social implications superhumans would have on a society, and if a solution like the Registration Act would be the best or even a credible solution. All of these, I think, are legitimate ways to criticize fiction, but they all have radically different goals and implications … and only the first really says anything about the work itself.

There’s another way to criticize fiction, and while I’m not sure that it isn’t just a subset of the third one, I want to highlight it here: Activism criticism. This is when you take a work and analyze it in terms of what it means to a culture in terms of its social or political aspects, and judge whether the work furthers or harms certain specific political and social views. This is what I think people like Anita Sarkeesian and Dadabhoy herself often seem to focus on. The issue with this sort of analysis is that it kinda combines the aspects of all of the other kinds of criticism, in that it does talk about the work itself and in some sense passes judgement on it, but it often does so by appealing to things that aren’t necessarily in the work itself and are just implications, like the philosophical and political/social analyses do. Thus, it can end up finding that a work is “good” or “bad” from this perspective by appealing to things that were certainly not intended by the work and that are potentially more in the perspective of the critic than in the work itself.

In my mind, one of the major issues with the analysis of fiction has been judging a work not based on what is objectively and intentionally there, but on what the analyst brings to it themselves. This is not a problem for types 2 and 3, but if it bleeds over into judging the work itself people who disagree with the judgement will be frustrated that the judgement seems to be based on factors that aren’t actually in the work. How can you argue against a judgement that a work is bad or reflects harmful attitudes against someone who is reading those themes into the work? And these are often not simply expressed as opinions, but as objective criticisms of the work, especially in the case of Activism Criticism. If these things aren’t objectively demonstrable or even easily objectively demonstrable, there will be push back … and I think that some of the criticisms that Dadabhoy highlights as flimsy are, in context, just that sort of argument: you are reading things into the work that aren’t really there because they were never meant to be there, and you’re just taking the work as something that it isn’t to either judge it as bad or consider it worthy based on this invalid reading in. But we’ll see more on that next when I look at the arguments.


One Response to “Criticizing Fiction …”

  1. Criticism and Criticism | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] want them to do isn’t valid criticism of the sort that Futrelle defends. It might be what I called “Activism Criticism” … but I’m skeptical of the worth of that sort of criticism, and it certainly […]

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