Posts Tagged ‘Context’

Prompted by the current kerfuffle about book reviews on Goodreads, I’ve been thinking about what, for me, constitutes a good or useful review, and reached the conclusion that overall tone is vastly less important than the lucid contextualisation of arguments. By which I mean: when we react strongly to something – whether positively or negatively – that reaction is contextualised by our existing beliefs, morality, tastes and biases, none of which will necessarily be shared by anyone else, and without at least basic reference to which our reaction will not be useful or even comprehensible to others. For instance: say I have a strong aversion to sex scenes, a nonexistent interest in or knowledge of baseball, and a preference for stories which feature multiple points of view, and I unknowingly pick up a book where the characters have sex, talk constantly about their shared passion for baseball, and which has only one narrator. Clearly, the odds are stacked against my liking this book, and particularly if I’ve chosen it under the misapprehension that I’d enjoy it – say, for instance, because a well-meaning friend with an imperfect knowledge of my tastes recommended it to me – then chances are, I’m going to be disappointed. This does not, however, mean that the book itself is terrible (although it certainly might be) – just that I was entirely the wrong audience for it.

A good review, no matter how negative, will openly contextualise its biases for the reader: I don’t like sex, baseball or single narrators, and therefore disliked these aspects of this book. A mediocre review will hint at these issues, but fail to state them clearly, such that a reader could easily mistake the reviewer’s personal bugbears for objective criticism about structure and narrative flow: the sex scenes were unnecessary, all the baseball was boring and it would’ve benefited from multiple POVs. A bad review won’t make any attempt to explain itself whatsoever – instead, it will simply react: this book is terrible, and I hate everything about it. To be clear, that last remark could well appear in a good or mediocre review as part of an opening gambit or conclusion; but in those instances, the reviewer would have also tried to distinguish their own hangups from whatever else they thought was wrong with the book, so that someone who didn’t object to sex scenes or baseball and who enjoyed single narrator stories (for instance) would be able to make a reasoned judgement about whether or not to read it.

The same principle applies to positive reactions, too: a gushing review is useless if it fails to explain exactly what pleased the reviewer so much, or – just as importantly – if it doesn’t state the reviewer’s personal preferences. This is particularly relevant in instances where the presence of a beloved narrative element might cause the reviewer to ignore or overlook flaws which, were that element not present, might undermine their enjoyment. Personal taste is a balancing act, and one it pays to be aware of. For instance: I love trashy disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Twister and The Core, all of which are ludicrous to varying degrees, and all of which contain noticeable plotfail of the kind which, in a different context, would have me ranting and raving the whole way home. I give disaster movies a pass because I expect them to be illogical; but if a similar species of illogic ever crops up in a fantasy film, my husband can vouch for the fact that I’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy dissecting it afterwards.

The point being, a good review doesn’t just tell us about the story: it also tells us a bit about the reviewer, which lets us judge whether our tastes are roughly aligned with theirs – at least in this instance. After all, people are complex, and it’s rare for any two people’s likes and dislikes to always be in perfect alignment. A good review should function a bit like a Venn diagram, showing you the circle of the reviewer’s relevant biases so you can put your own beside it and see how much – if at all – they overlap. Which isn’t to say that a total absence of agreement is useless; all you have to do is reverse the judgement, like making a mental note that if Friend X says a particular film is terrible, then it’s probably going to be awesome. (I mean, come on. We all have this friend.)

For me, a reviewer’s tone is only important insofar as it helps me to contextualise their tastes. I tend to enjoy reviewers with an evident sense of humour, because it suggests to me that they’re not above poking fun at the things they love; and as I don’t always take things seriously, that can be as a  refreshing change from earnest adoration. Which isn’t to say that I never enjoy serious reviews – certainly, I tend to write them myself – only that I hold them to a slightly higher standard: comedic reviews can make for enjoyable reading even if their usefulness is limited, whereas straight reviews have nothing to recommend them but their usefulness, and should that be lacking, there isn’t much point to them. That being said, I’ve little patience for comedic reviews that are more concerned with abstract jokes than actually making a point. Humour might help to emphasise a good argument, but it isn’t a substitute for one, and in the case of negative reviews, it can sometimes feel like it’s being deployed purely or primarily to conceal the reviewer’s lack of relevant insight. A good review isn’t simply about your gut reaction to a book: it’s also an explanation as to why that reaction should matter to other people.

Which brings me to the subject of negative reviews in particular, and my personal approach to them. While I completely understand that some authors choose to refrain from posting negative reviews of their peers’ work, this isn’t something I feel comfortable with. The reason I review at all is to engage in conversation about a particular work, and the idea of abstaining from that simply because I tell stories as well as read them isn’t one that appeals to me. It’s important to note, however, that I’m not a big name author – quite the opposite, in fact – which means that, in the vast majority of instances, my public dislike of a book will have little to no impact on its sales, its general perception and the self esteem of the author. Should that situation ever change, I might well rethink my policy, or at least be extremely judicious about which books I review, because as much as I enjoy writing about stories, popularity (I think) comes with an inherent responsibility to use it, well… responsibly. And the thing about speaking to the mob – or fans, or readers, or any other large group people inclined to pay attention to you – is that you can’t control its reactions, or account for the comprehension of its individual members. And while that doesn’t preclude you from having opinions, it should certainly behoove you to consider what the negative consequences of voicing them might be.

But, I digress: for now, I’m a little-known author more widely recognised for her blogging than her books, which gives me comparative leeway to talk about the things I dislike without worrying that I might accidentally break someone else’s career. (Even so, while I sometimes post positive reviews on my blog, I restrict any negative ones to Goodreads, which feels like the more appropriate place to put them. To me, this is a meaningful professional distinction: unless I actively want to cheerlead for a particular author – and sometimes I do – reviews, whether good or bad, belong on the review site. Simple as that.) And when I do write reviews, I always try to think about why I’m bothering. It’s not my policy to review every single book that I read, or even a majority of them: I only do so is if there’s something about a given story, be it good or bad, that seems to invite discussion. In instances where it’s a negative thing, I try to be very certain about what, specifically, I’m objecting to. Am I morally outraged by something in the text? Does a particular character rub me the wrong way? Does either the plot or the worldbuilding have a hole in it? Is the writing style jarring, or does the author have narrative tic I find irksome? Is it a combination of factors, or just one thing in particular? It’s important to stop and ask these questions, particularly if your emotional reaction is a strong one. Don’t let the popularity of a book overly influence your critical judgement of it, either: by all means, be angry and flabbergasted that something you didn’t enjoy is selling like hot cakes, but unless you’re making a specific argument about successful trends in fiction, keep it out of the review – after all, you’re trying to asses the book itself, not pass judgement on its readers. (And if your review is less about the strengths or failings of a work than it is about mocking its fans, then I’m going to count it unhelpful, and therefore bad.)  And even if you are discussing narrative trends, blind anger at their existence is ultimately less useful than a lucid deconstruction of what they represent and why you find it problematic.

Ultimately, I think, a useful review – even a negative one – should invite conversation. If I dislike a book, I’ll strive to say so in a way that opens the issue up for discussion; which isn’t to say that I’ll always succeed, only that I find the idea of actively trying to discourage discussion incredibly problematic. Making someone feel stupid for liking something – or not liking something – isn’t an outcome that appeals to me: I’d much rather invite people with different opinions to contribute to the conversation than surround myself exclusively with like-minded people, whose agreement – while certainly flattering – does’t teach me anything. Which is also why, on occasion, I’ll actively seek out negative reviews of books I like: to see if other readers might have picked up on something problematic or interesting that I missed. I’ve had some genuine epiphanies about writing, narrative, implicit bias and tropes by doing this, and if you can bear to see something you love being criticized without wading in to defend it, I highly recommend giving it a try. But of course, it only works if the reviews you encounter are useful. They might be cheeky, snarky, serious, lighthearted, deadpan or investigative in tone, but so long as they contextualise their arguments, you could well be pleasantly surprised.

 

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Here’s an uncontroversial statement: different people find different things sexy, just as different people find different things repulsive, outrageous, risque or tawdry. This is why so much of the porn industry nowadays is devoted to kink and specialisation. People are weird, and so, quite often, are our fantasies. It’s a thing.

When I walk into a newsagency and glance at the lads’ magazine section – Zoo and Maxim and so on – I’m usually blinded by a sea of very large bosoms in very small bikinis, hoisted proudly on the torsos of half a dozen tanned and pouting women. These mags are sold over the counter, but while I’m not grossly offended by the sight of mostly bare women, I tend to think the content is more pornographic than not. That’s less a moral judgement than it is a statement of fact: no matter how much skin they may or may not be showing compared to their hardcore counterparts, the models are there to be looked at in a lustful context.

When trying to determine whether something is pornographic, it’s certainly logical to consider why it was created in the first place, and for what audience. In many respects, I’d argue, this is actually more important than what is (or isn’t) on display, but there’s always going to be dissonance between the reaction an image is intended to provoke and the reactions is actually provokes. Because people, as has been mentioned, are weird. We get turned on by weird and unexpected and – sometimes – terrible things. And that’s what throws a spanner in the works when it comes to the current debate on child pornography.

Paedophilia is an awful thing, one that leads to awful crimes and ruined lives. It is a violation of trust and a sexual circumstance in which it is actually impossible for one of the parties to consent, meaning that it should never be condoned or legitimised. We have a social responsibility to protect children from sexual predators. And yet, in trying to do this, we have managed to paint ourselves into a legislative corner, one  in which any image of a child becomes pornographic, regardless of the context in which it was taken.

Because children – and children’s bodies – aren’t the problem. Taking a photo of a child is no more synonomous with making child pornography than being a child is synonomous with being a sexual creature. This is an instance where only two things are capable of making an image pornographic: the perspective of the viewer, which is entirely removed from the original context of the photo, and those disgusting occasions on which an abuser has recorded images of their crime. The latter instance is both vile and undeniably sexualised. But the former is where we hit a snag: because it forces people to be concerned, not with the content of a given picture, but the likelihood that someone will view it in a sexual context.

At the moment, in our zeal to protect children, we are dangerously close to smothering them. It is no longer acceptable to show up to your child’s school sports day and take photos: parents are concerned with how the images might be viewed later. But do we stop the sports day entirely for fear of what perverts on the sidelines might take away in their memories? No: and yet, this is exactly the same logic used to justify the current stance on photographing children. The more we behave as though the general populace cannot be trusted to be in the same room with our children on the offchance of what they might be thinking, the more we buy into the mindset that children need to be locked up, protected, sheltered, kept from the public eye.

On the surface, that might not sound so bad. But take that last sentence and replace the word ‘children’ with the ‘women’, and you have a viable description of the logic behind societies whose female populations are required to stay covered up at all times. Men cannot be trusted in the presence of women, this argument goes: it is futile to pretend otherwise, and much easier to make the women invisible than it is to change the attitudes of the men. This is a mentality which ultimately punnishes those whom it claims to protect, by restricting their actions and, by default, assuming that they exist in a constant sexual context. For many reasons, this is not a perfect analogy, but given our current social struggle to decide how much freedom children should have online, outside the home and in their decision-making, it strikes me that our debate over the definition of child pornography stands as a parallel issue.

Ultimately, we live in a changing world. We worry about online predators grooming or luring children away; we worry about the digial distribution of photos of children, and how our knowledge of their possible misuse might taint our perception of their contents; we worry about stranger danger, and whether it’s better to let our kids walk home by themselves and gain a bit of independence, or whether we should constantly be holding their hand. We are making decisions with the best of intentions, but I also worry that we are approaching things the wrong way. Life will always hold dangers, no matter how effectively we seek to curb them: nothing will ever be entirely safe. With new technology opening up the world in an unprecedented way, our instinct has been to clutch tightly at what we hold most dear, trying to protect it from these new, expanded threats. But the more we grip and shelter, the harder it eventually becomes to let go, and the more difficult it is for children to grow up into confident, capable adults. There is both nobility and necessity in our desire to preserve the sanctity of childhood, but in so doing, we should never forget that childhood is something to eventually be outgrown. The real world never goes away, and the more fearful we are of its dangers, the closer we come to never understanding it at all.