Posts Tagged ‘Critical’

I started watching Once Upon A Time a few days ago, intrigued by the idea of fairy tale characters with amnesia being slowly reawakened to themselves in the modern world. Despite my initial misgivings, I was interested enough to keep watching beyond the pilot, but having now started episode 9, I think I’ve reached my limit. Setting aside the frou-frou costuming and stilted dialogue that characterise the fairy tale sequences, the show definitely has its positives – excellent performances from Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla and Robert Carlyle; a profusion of interesting female characters who talk to one another; an original premise; the involvement of Jane Espenson – but try though I might, there’s some major negatives I just can’t seem to get past.

Neither the least nor worst of these – but certainly the most omnipresent in terms of jerking me out of the narrative and invoking repeated moments of fridge logic – is the ageing problem. In a nutshell: all the fairy tale residents of Storybrook have been frozen in time for 28 years, which… I’m not sure what that means, exactly, given that they’ve all been awake and functioning while the Evil Queen/Mayor has been running the joint, but the practical upshot is that none of them have aged. Which means, for instance, that Cinderella/Ashley is implied to have been pregnant with the same child for nearly thirty years:¬†this isn’t explicitly stated, but we never see the FT baby’s birth, the name she’d picked for her FT baby gets bestowed on the daughter she has IRL, and we’re also told that as Ashley, she has no other children. Similarly, Hansel and Grettel are still children, while 10-year-old Henry – who lives in Storybrook but isn’t a FT character – has been actively growing up. Which begs the question: if the curse only affects the actual FT characters and not their children – and bearing in mind, too, that none of the FT characters is able to leave the town – you’d think that, over a period of 28 years, at least some regular kids would’ve grown up, left home, and started to get suspicious about the fact that nobody else was aging,¬†let alone able to come visit them. Plus and also, given that Henry is desperate to find evidence of the curse that Jiminy will believe, you’d think that a woman who’s been nineteen and pregnant for nearly thirty fucking years would leap to mind as a winner.¬†In other words, it’s a worldbuilding/logic problem, and all the more irritating for being so vaguely dealt with.

But, OK, whatever – let’s handwave all the age-weirdness away and focus on the premise itself: that only Emma can break the curse and (presumably) send everyone back to FT-land, where all the proper Happily Ever Afters can come true again. Only, here’s the thing: despite the incredibly saccharine early scenes with Snow White and Prince Charming, the FT-land? Is not a very nice place. There’s terrible dark magic, parents getting turned into puppets, children being forcibly kidnapped to fight on the front lines of an ogre war, Rumplestiltskin screwing everyone up, down and sideways with evil bargains and Pyrrhic victories and a boatload of stolen babies, poverty and theft and patricide and monstrous dragons and evil King Midas threatening war, and it’s just… I cannot, I cannot get behind the idea that the FT-world is better, when in fact it’s demonstrably worse. At least in real life, Ashley gets to have her baby in a hospital, instead of screaming in medieval pain like Snow White in her palace. At least in real life, kids aren’t being stolen to go and fight wars. And look, maybe that’s going to be a long term plot point: that the characters will have to choose which world they prefer to live in, and that even with the Happily Ever After factor, real life will still win out for some. But in the interim, it feels like all the nostalgia for what’s been lost in the show is based on reconstructing an idealised and false version of the Middle Ages, one that’s completely whitewashed – the sole exceptions so far being the face in the Evil Queen’s magic mirror and a black fairy godmother who gets murdered quicksmart – and where ¬†sexism is weirdly absent despite the number of women still getting shafted, and the monarchy rules all, and… you get the idea.

But OK, again, whatever: say that doesn’t bother you, either. And say also that, unlike me, you’re not getting wearied by the constant back-and-forth switching between the two timelines, worn out by the¬†aforementioned¬†naffness that characterises the FT-world and bored by the fact that, reimagined or not, we already know these characters, settings and stories, making them vastly less interesting than the story IRL. Say that you’re not immensely pissed off by the fact that after nearly nine hours of television, the one character who actually started to remember his other life and thereby move the plot forward was immediately killed off (and that’s before you take into account that this was one of the more interesting characters, possessed of on-screen chemistry and massive potential for original development). Say you’re unbothered by the heavy deployment of abandoned, adopted and stolen children as plot points intended to tug the heartstrings, particularly where Emma is concerned; and say you don’t care that, were you to make up a drinking game that involved taking a shot whenever Regina showed up and warned Emma to keep away from someone or something, you’d be utterly legless by midway through episode 2. Say all of that doesn’t phase you. What’s the problem?

Here’s the problem: the Evil Queen, aka Regina, aka Mayor of Storybrook, aka The Villain.

Or, more specifically, the fact that “Evil Witch-Queen” as a job description apparently translates handily to “career-driven, single mother”. This isn’t just an idle comparison: all the FT characters appear IRL in positions and circumstances that are deliberately reflective of their fantastic origins. Cinderella is a maid; Red Riding Hood and Granny run a bakery-slash-guesthouse; the Huntsman is a Sheriff who also works at an animal shelter; Jimminy Cricket is a child psychiatrist; Snow White teaches primary school; ¬†Rumplestiltskin is a pawnbroker. All of those parallels very purposefully mean something: so when I see that the¬†villainous, universally evil stepmother queen has turned into a career-driven single mother, it bothers me a lot – almost as much, in fact, as the way that every FT character except the queen has been made more complex and three-dimensional than in the original stories. By which I mean: dropping a few hints about how Snow White might actually have done something to make the Queen legitimately angry at her, no matter what this turns out to be, cannot possibly justify all the horrific abuse and murder she goes on to perpetrate against everyone else. Even Rumplestiltskin gets a sympathetic origin story: he’s tricked into becoming a vessel for dark powers that immediately consume him. But the Queen – as now, as ever – is simply greedy and callous and evil, manipulating everyone around her through murder, seduction, magic and double-dealing. We’re shown definitively in the pilot that she doesn’t love her son, making every subsequent moment where her expression might invite us to think otherwise a farce. She doesn’t show mercy; she doesn’t change or grow. She’s a one note character completely consumed by a disproportional revenge which, even if justified, would still fail to explain her random cruelty to others. The Evil Queen is, quite literally, the mother of sexist archetypes, and it physically pains me that a show which otherwise takes such care to develop its female characters is content to have Regina simply be evil.

Because, oh, the brilliant possibilities of what might be if she weren’t! If the Queen had somehow been trapped by her own curse and left unaware of her origins – if Storybrook actually represented a fresh start for her, a way to escape the loss and rage she felt in the fairy tale world – then so much would be different. If Henry didn’t think she was the Evil Queen – if he actually loved her as a mother and just felt conflicted by her approach to him – if she actually loved her adoptive son despite her mistakes, and felt genuinely threatened by his sudden rapport with Emma – if she was able to succeed in Storybrook on her own strengths and merits, and not because she was the only one with power and knowledge of what was going on – if she’d become the Mayor because she was skilled, and not through manipulation – if she was a complex woman struggling with herself, one who started to experience flashbacks to a more¬†venomous¬†past that deeply unsettled her sense of self – if, in other words, the curse had actually reinvented her in a positive way, rather than reinforcing sexist stereotypes for seemingly no reason – if that were the case, then I would still be watching the show; because you would, in fact, be hard-pressed to tear me away from it.

But instead, we have the Once Upon A Time that is: a land of overwhelmingly pretty white people, none of whom have ever aged, all of whose backstories are laid out and spoiled as soon as they’re introduced rather than being used to invoke suspense or mystery, where the worldbuilding logic doesn’t make sense and where, subsequently, I’m sorry to say, not even episode after episode of interesting women talking to one another can compensate for the fact that Regina is still unthinkingly the Evil Queen, rather than potentially the most fascinating and complex character of them all.

Plus, I have an overwhelming desire to punch Prince Charming right in the face. But on that point, as with so much else, your mileage may vary.

‘Duty Calls’, xkcd 386

Ever since I became a published author, I’ve been struggling with the necessary tensions of belonging to the community whose output I most want to critique. Internally, the questions I’ve been asking myself have ranged from Should I write paid reviews to supplement my income? to What’s the best response to a book that enrages me?¬†I’ve said¬†before¬†that total self-censorship is not an option I feel comfortable with – at least, not at this point in my life. After all, I’m still new to the authoring game; old habits are hard to break, and if I’ve been writing stories for longer than I’ve been reviewing or thinking critically about them, then it’s not much longer. To phrase the scenario as crudely as possible, I comprehend the wisdom of not shitting where one eats, but at the same time, I feel deeply uneasy with the idea that being an author means I’m no longer allowed to be moved by books, to be angered or disgusted or made quizzical by books – or rather, that I can be all these things, but only on the proviso that I’m secretive about it, as though my native reactions to narrative have somehow become shameful.

This is a difficult tightrope to walk. Stories of authors reacting to criticism on the internet abound, and are seldom remembered in a positive light (though frankly, I think we’re all on Neil Gaiman’s side when it comes to the whole pencil-necked weasel thing). Then there’s the mafia issue¬†– which, for all it exaggerates the power of individual authors to affect someone else’s career,¬†is nonetheless a salient footnote on the¬†etiquette¬†of criticism, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on. Way back in the mists of time (2008) when I started this blog, my second ever post was on editorialising in the media: the creeping intrusion of personal opinion into factual content, such that the two are now almost irreversibly blurred. I said then, and maintain now, that a large portion of the blame for the current state of our news media can be fairly apportioned to a public thirst for sensationalism – or rather, to the perceived public thirst for sensationalism. I mention this because, while artistic opinions of any kind are always going to be subjective, certain regions of the internet have developed a taste for snarky, pejorative book reviews, which I’m coming to think of as being inimical to good criticism in the same way that editorialising is inimical to facts.

That’s not to say I don’t read snarky reviews. I’m not even claiming never to have enjoyed them, however guiltily. But I am saying that the general inability of readers, reviewers and writers to distinguish between critical reviews, humorous reviews and pejorative reviews ¬†is becoming a genuine problem, particularly in a culture where blogging, social media outlets and review sites like Goodreads are all so deeply interconnected as to constitute a single hivemind. Anything you say in public is both easily attributable to you and, as such, open to yet more criticism. This can become something of a viscious circle, and while many disputes are tiny storms in tinier teacups, the blogosphere itself is a super-sized coffee mug as broad across as the internet is deep, its viscous contents routinely stirred by a combination of citykilling typhoons and the sorts of electrical disturbance usually found in¬†Star Trek nebulae.

Or, to put it another way: shit you say on the internet gets read. Possibly only by that one guy who found your blog by accident that one time, and possibly by every adherent of every major online publication after the guano is flung at the rotating turbine. Anonymity is only the default right up until it isn’t, and the important thing to take away here is that you don’t get to choose what piece gets noticed. As John Scalzi so succinctly put it, the failure mode of clever is asshole, and as alluded to by xkcd, someone is pretty much always wrong on the internet. (For extra credit, refer to: Rule 34, Dante’s Internet,¬†Godwin’s Law, The 18 Types of Internet Troll,¬†and any site involving fanon, slashfic or religion, particularly if it combines all three.)

So, for the purposes of attempting to enable a happier, safer, more constructive internet, here is a rough dissemination of the difference between critical reviews, humorous reviews and pejorative reviews, respectively:

1. Critical Reviews

Contrary to what you might think, critical reviews are not necessarily negative. Rather, they involve an awareness of literary conventions (pacing, writing style, structure, plotting), a demonstrable familiarity with the genre in question, and a knowledge of standard tropes and plot conventions. As much as possible, they endeavour to be written in the spirit of informative objectivity. By which I mean: no personal vendettas, no ad hominem attacks, no profanity (exceptions made in the case of positive usage, i.e: this book is fucking brilliant), and no snide remarks. Given the native imperfection of human beings, a cultural preference for humour and the fact that sometimes, in our honest opinion, a book just doesn’t work, your mileage may vary¬†when it comes to enforcing these points; at the very least, our own views frequently lead us to be more lenient or strict with a particular review depending on the extent to which we agree (or disagree) with its conclusion. Note, too, that while I certainly think reviews of this kind are important, they can also be somewhat bloodless, especially when it comes to books we actually like. Thus, while critical reviews as characterised here can certainly be either positive or negative, I’ve chosen my guidelines with negativity in mind, if only because there’s a world of difference between laughing with and laughing at. Which leads us to:

2. Humorous Reviews

Ranging from gentle, tongue-in-cheek send-ups to gleeful mockery, humorous reviews are generally written with mirth in mind. This doesn’t prevent them from containing critical insights, however – they’re only couched differently. For me, the most successful humorous reviews are positive in tone. The best books infect us. Like viruses, they mutate our cells and turn us into replicators, instilling the urge to go forth and infect yet more people. Humour is an excellent means of transmitting this enthusiasm precisely because it overwhelms our objectivity with laughter and story-greed. When used in more negative reviews, it can serve the purpose of attracting readers, not to the book in question, but to the reviewer, displaying their personality and particular taste while still providing critical feedback on a novel’s pros and cons. Though sometimes verging into snarkish, schadenfreude territory (see above, re: your mileage may vary), a funny-yet-critical review will support its jibes with reasoned analysis and, where appropriate, balance the tone with lighthearted humour, ensuring that the end result doesn’t read wholly as a joke at the book’s expense. For all that I’m a fan of critical reviews, I tend to prefer them as one-off reads, or as tie-breaker votes when other, more subjective sources disagree. But when it comes to choosing a regular reviewer, humour is what wins out for me: not only because it affords a greater sense of who the reviewer actually is, but because even a negative review can still make me curious about a particular book – and if there’s one thing I don’t want a reviewer to do as a matter of course, it’s make me feel like a cretin for enjoying something they disliked. Which leads us to:

3. Pejorative Reviews

Often, pejorative reviews are based on adversarial reading by a hostile audience. Maybe the reviewer just doesn’t like the author, or the genre, or the voice. Maybe they think the premise sounds ludicrous. Whatever the reason, unless they’re willing to be talked into a full¬†face heel turn, there’s a good chance that the outcome will be just what they expected – and, finding this to be so, they’ll be even angrier at the end than they were at the outset. Alternatively, they’ve gone in as hopeful, willing readers, and had that trust betrayed: their berserk button is pressed, and the result is an irate, shouty review full of capslock and swearing. Note that this is not, of itself, an inappropriate reaction, nor does it automatically make for a bad review. Sometimes, issues are important enough to get angry about, particularly when we feel our perspective is otherwise being ignored. But while such pejorative might be objectively understandable, it can also undermine its own critical significance, simply because of the difficulties inherent in disentangling venom from facts. So often when something makes us angry, we don’t slow down to explain why that anger is justified – or at least, not in a way that’s comprehensible to someone who hasn’t already read the book. This can lead virgin readers to assume incompetence on behalf of the reviewer – and if we want our views to be taken seriously, this is clearly a¬†disadvantage. A further consequence of adversarial reading is the snowball effect: past a certain point, being reasonably annoyed with several things in particular easily leads to being irrationally irked by many things in general. For instance: while I might be perfectly willing to overlook one or two small typos in a brilliant book, their presence in a lesser story suddenly becomes a noteworthy factor in my judging it as such. Combine this with attacks on the author and an openly disparaging attitude to anyone who disagrees, and even the most eloquent vitriol is still tarred with the brush of being, well, vitriol. We might seek it out when a book disappoints us, desperate to know that we weren’t the only ones to feel that way, but overall, pejorative reviews tend to be of the least help, both to readers and to the wider literary community.

So! It is now late, and I have done my blogging duty for another day. Internets, what do you think about reviewing?