Sunday, April 29, 2012

Criticising Undelivered Yet Umpromised Expectations ... A Rant

OK, so this has been brewing in my head for a while and I thought I would use the luxury of my blog to have a little rant ... after all, what is the internet for? Topic of discussion ... people criticising things (in this case novels) and labeling them as some kind of failure for not meeting expectations that they have placed on them that probably have no place being there in the first place.

I need to preface this by saying that I am an artist - I make, watch, teach and discuss choreographic and theatrical works for a living and because of this I think it has developed in me an ability to look at works abstractly and obliquely. It is always important to form your own opinions about a work and how it affects you, but it is equally important to understand the artists intent so that you may further understand and more fully appreciate what they have done. There have been some works I have watched and hated them overall, but I have respected them for their place and their integrity (and other things) and have enjoyed at least some elements.

This has transferred to my reading. To put it very simply, I may be reading a book featuring cats, which in fact describes cats as well as a whales ability to swim in a supermarket, but it has great interpersonal relationships that are so intriguing and beautiful it makes me cry at the end of the book.

This is where my issue lies.

A lot of people out there will slam the book because it is obviously about cats and the author has failed so miserably at describing cats that it can be classed as nothing but a spectacular failure - especially when you compare it to that other novel Kittens, which was pretty much the same thing but those cats were heaps cooler. However, I'm pretty sure that the novel was actually about the relationships occurring and in that regard it was incredibly successful ... the cats were only a front. But because you were so set on your kitty cat read, you actually missed the more beautiful part of the story.

That being said, I am not excusing authors who have have written woeful books that may somehow have had one great redeeming feature ... obviously books need to be well written and realised as a whole. I also need to acknowledge that of course personal opinion plays a part ... you could still hate it all regardless of anything I said above.

I'm going to talk about The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins because it's such a useful example at the moment. 

Firstly, mainstream/popular ≠ trash. I have heard so many people say they read the books to see what the hype was, even though they know they are trash. Who said they were trash? You enjoyed them didn't you? And if not, was it really because they were trash? Last time I checked, a large part of the reason that something became popular was because it was good and people enjoyed it. And just because it may be a little more simpler than what you read as an experienced and accomplished fantasy enthusiast does not make it a lesser work or invalidate the enjoyment people get from it who might not be fantasy aficionados. It seems to me that more and more people are shooting down popular novels/films because by being critical of something that has been well received, it makes them look like they are far more educated and experienced and that this kind of thing, like all the other people who enjoyed it, is beneath them.

This brings me to my second point. The Hunger Games is essentially aimed at a young adult audience. That usually means some things are simplified and kept to-the-point for all the little youngins out there with the attention span of a shovel. That is not to say it can't be enjoyed by adults - quite the contrary! But you can't then criticise it for not having enough gore and violence. I don't know about you, but I don't want my kids reading Silence of the Lambs: The Arena Spectacular.

Luckily, I believe that being a young-adult book isn't even the reason for the lack of violence. Point number three, the most important and a return to my initial argument, The Hunger Games was never about the blood and gore and terror of the games - you just thought it would/wanted it to be. 

The number of people that have complained that it is the same story as Battle Royale, except not as good because Battle Royale was more realistic because it had at least 73% more blood, is reaching epic proportions. Let us remember that novels are also works of art and as an artist the author can choose to highlight or distract from certain elements to make the statement or tell the story they want to. Battle Royale was controversial, graphically violent and a little horrific - all the things the Japanese do best. That was the point of the novel/movie.

The Hunger Games was about the physical and psychological journey of Katniss. We saw the world and the story through her eyes, to such a point that events and observations were incredibly skewed by her views, including her own flaws and failings. Thrust into the role of protagonist and heroine, Katniss is a tragically beautiful mix of capable and incapable, independent but lost, strong-willed yet confused. Throughout the novels we see her forced into the spotlight yet simultaneously sidelined. We follow as she and the other young victors start to unravel as the Games take their psychological toll. Through her we watch others rise to action while she tries to comprehend what is real and what is fake and perhaps unknowingly, refuse to acknowledge the truth behind her personal relationships.

For me, this whole story could have taken place in a single room. The Hunger Games themselves were superfluous. They were just a vehicle for all the other beauty and complexity in the story.

So yes you could have hated/not appreciated that part of the story too, or felt that the other elements were still not up to scratch ... all personal opinion. My point though is I feel too many readers are being far too critical about books when in most cases the criticism is aimed at goals that the book never aimed to achieve in the first place. 

Another great example is Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire. This is an incredibly lengthy and often monotonous book that denies to reader of anything grand and truly magical. And this is what is so brilliant about it. Maguire wanted to tell the fantastical story of Oz through the eyes of the realist. Life is rarely as dramatic as it is in books, there are far less magical coincidences and a lot of the time things do not live up to expectations. Through telling of the incredibly uneventful lives of Elphaba's child and grandchild it allows us to see something beautifully simple and brutally honest, even though it isn't a roller-coaster of drama and emotion that we would like it to be. Unfortunately most readers saw the novel as just plain boring.

I urge people to be more open-minded when reading. Accept the book for what it is and what beauty it brings to you. By allowing yourself to be receptive to what the author has to give you (and look they're published, so they must have at least something) you'll enjoy the book a lot more. If you go into every book expecting the same fantasy-filled, tick-the-boxes pro forma, then you will often be disappointed and miss out on a whole world of opportunity.


  1. Great post Josh. I agree with you wholeheartedly and I offer up another example, the stories that originally made me think of all this- Twilight. I know, I know, probably anyone who reads this will roll their eyes, but your post reminded me of a quote I read by Stephen King somewhere along the way. He stated, very bluntly, that Stephanie Myer basically didn't have a clue how to write a book. Yet in the same statement he said something about her describing the emotions teens go through. Okay, well, excuse me, but duh! Young adults generally aren't in it for the stunningly executed plot or literary style writing. She wrote a bunch of books that a whole lot of teenagers gobbled up like candy. Obviously she met her objective: writing a book (or books) that young adults would enjoy.
    And if rendering the emotions into action was her key to success, well then bravo! That's the best way (in my mind)to make a story real.

    Now that's not to say I'm always so open minded. If a book is flat out boring, I don't care what your platform is. If you want to write something bland in order to prove some point, go for it. Just don't expect it to sell very well.

    Happy blogging :)

    1. I agree Kaye and was going to use the same Twilight example, but my rant was getting rather long winded. And in regards to Stephen King's comment, while there may be traditional ways to write and compose a story/novel, there is no one right way ... I'm pretty sure authors can do it how they want to, otherwise how boring would it be!

  2. I completely agree with what you're saying here. There are more than one way to write a book, even a book in the same genre as another one. And hype definitely does not equal trash. The worst people who complain about a book are usually the ones who haven't even read it too.

  3. I'm guilty of this :( *holds hands up*

    I shall try to be better!