On literary criticism

So I haven’t updated the gay fiction booklist in a very long time, and part of it is that I hadn’t (until very recently anyway) been reading all that much fiction, my time getting eaten by school and more school, but the other part is that I’ve become increasingly introspective about what the role of the critic should be, how to distinguish what I like from what is objectively good, and whether it’s even possible to quantify the quality of a book.

Because as I’ve gotten more analytical in my reading, it’s become clear that what I read for, what gets me hot and bothered, is emotional engagement with the characters. (To get technical about it: immersion in the protagonist’s subjectivity, usually achieved by heavy use of narrated monologue aka free indirect discourse.) That is what sends a book skyrocketing to the top of my list with a throbbing “top pick” icon next to it — regardless of what else it does (or, more damningly, doesn’t) have going for it.

But that isn’t what everyone reads for. Some people aren’t as enthralled by melodrama as I am, and what they want to see are new and mind-blowing ideas, not the umpteenth take on Ye Olde Medieval Fantasylandia. Some people want a tight and well-scripted plot, a roller coaster that takes off on the first page, drags them through a wild ride, and deposits them at the end, breathless and satisfied. (And from what I’ve gathered, some people just want dragons.) And while I’m certainly not opposed to excellent ideas or an excellent plot (or dragons), they’re not my priority. Emotional engagement is, and a book that can’t provide that is never going to rank above “s’okay” in my personal assessment. I can’t bring myself to wax rapturous it — but on the other hand, how is it fair to detract points for not giving me something that it never intended to?

The booklist got linked on Reddit a while ago, on a gay subforum so it wasn’t getting homophobic nonsense, just commentary from other gay readers who’d read plenty of the same things I’d read and had their own opinions on the subject. And a comment that jumped out at me was about Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand: I had described Delany as “like the James Joyce of science fiction — lyric prose, light on the plot, and frequently incoherent,” and given it 2/5 stars. Someone on reddit archly commented that I must be an idiot and deaf to irony to be able to compare Delany to Joyce and then give him two stars in the same breath.

To which I thought, Fuck you, plenty of people don’t like James Joyce either.

(I like Joyce in small doses, the way I like hard sci-fi and cold showers in small doses. Different, refreshing, but not exactly something that I do for pleasure.)

And yet — plenty of other people do like Joyce. The novelty, the artistry of what he’s doing is what does it for them. Meanwhile, I’m clawing my own eyes out because my kingdom for a character that I can give a shit about. How do you balance those conflicting demands?

The first step, I think, is to recognize that these factors are working on independent axes. There is no single scale with “good book” on one end and “bad book” on the other. You have to grade it on multiple criteria — but what should those criteria be? I tentatively propose:

– Plotting: how clever/original is the plot, and how well is it executed? Is it boring and meandering, or brisk and clever? Is it one you’ve seen in a dozen other books before? Does it come together for a satisfying climax, or does it turn into a muddle and leave half its threads unresolved? Does it even have a plot? Books without plots (hail, Anne Rice!) aren’t necessarily a deal-killer for everyone.

– Innovation/novelty: what do they bring to the table that hasn’t been done before? I, personally, am not a fan of novelty for its own sake — if I see the words “zany” or “madcap” on the back cover summary, that book is going back on the shelf as fast as I can get it out of my hands — and the only really novel writer who works for me is China Mieville. Me, I’m perfectly happy to see old tropes reworked (ideally, reworked well), so most of my top picks, sad to say, are not standouts for what they’re doing new.

– Prose: ideas and content aside, how good is the writing on a strictly stylistic level? Overwrought metaphor? Preponderance of showing vs. telling? Dizzingly beautiful, lyrical prose that makes your breath catch in your throat and brings tears to your eyes? Most fantasy books — and rightfully so, given the definition of “average” — I’d put at three stars: utilitarian prose that neither enhances the story nor detracts from it. Bujold, Flewelling, Huff, etc are 3-star prose writers, and no shame in it; their aim is to tell you a story, not to dazzle you with Their Precious Words. Sarah Monette is a cut above (two cuts above in her short stories), as is Jacqueline Carey, Gemma Files, and Jim Grimsley. Much below three stars, and odds are good I won’t even be finishing it. Life is too short.

– Emotional engagement: I can’t tell if this is the absolute most subjective thing on this list, or the absolute most objective. Because even though we don’t all like or care about the same things, achieving reader-investment in your characters seems to be a pretty straightforward matter of (1) increasing the subjectivity of your narration and (2) using more narrated monologue (aka free indirect style) than psychonarration. There are many strong candidates on that list, but the writer who brings home the goddamn gold for emotional engagement is Karin Lowachee; I defy anyone to read her and say otherwise.

– Characters: I’m dubious on this one, because it seems to have a lot of overlap with both novelty (are these characters whose ilk I haven’t seen eleventy million times before?) and emotional engagement (do I care in the slightest about what happens to them?), but for now I’ll make it a category of its own, one whose success or failure is determined by the terribly subjective question of, Are they interesting? Pluses: characters with a complex and well-depicted interiority feeding into their actions. Minuses: characters who are not people, but puppets acting in accordance to the demands of the plot. They’ll win points for being likeable, but not necessarily lose them for being unlikeable, as long as I’m still engaged enough to want to know what happens to them next. (Unlike, say, The Swimming-Pool Library, where I could not tolerate being in the protagonist’s vain, empty head for more than 20 pages.)


Taken altogether, I think it makes a much fairer way to evaluate fiction. By these standards, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand gets a 4 for novelty & prose, 2 for plot, and 1 for emotional engagement & characters. On the other hand, Sarah Monette’s books (perennial favorites of mine) are going to average 5 for characters, 4 for prose & emotional engagement, and 2 for plot & novelty. They’re not trying to achieve the same things, and these numbers reflect that — Delany isn’t trying to write drama, and Monette isn’t trying to write a post-modern novel. And you, as a reader, are likely to Know Thyself well enough to tell which stars you’re most interested in.

One Of These Days I’ll go back and revise the booklist; in the mean time, book reviews and commentary on my blog will henceforth be using the new system.

8 thoughts on “On literary criticism

  1. I think this way of looking at things makes a great deal of sense!

    I would suggest adding one more point though – setting or worldbuilding or however you want to phrase it. Something I really love is an immersive setting, a book that makes you feel like the character’s world (whether it’s a coffeeshop or a fantasy kingdom) is really real. That’s something I deeply enjoy in a book, and it isn’t covered within any of the parameters you lay out.

  2. Hmm, I know what you mean — a setting that feels real, “whether it’s a coffeeshop or a fantasy kingdom” (hah, Coffee, Black or Kirith Kirin), which I’m also a big fan of. (Another really good example of this would be Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac — a day in the life of an environmental terrorist.)

    I agree that an immersive setting is a huge plus, but I’m not sure that should be one of the pillars on which to judge a book. There are a lot of factors that can enhance one’s reading experience that aren’t covered above, and some that can utterly break it even while ostensibly passing everything above. (I’m thinking: writers who betray a massively racist/misogynist/problematic worldview in their writing. Goodbye, Brent Weeks, even though you did everything else fine.) Or gaining points for having an excellent sense of humor, or really hot sex scenes. But if it’s something that doesn’t crop up often enough to even grade other books on, then I think it’s worth a mention when someone does it really, really right (and I will mention ^_^) but shouldn’t be one of the staples on which to grade.

  3. I don’t think it’s in the same category as things like humour or sex. It’s not something that some authors choose to include and others don’t. ANY book has a setting, it’s just some books are better at doing things with their setting than others.

    I think this might just be about the different amount of emphasis different readers place on this. I just went through the last ten posts in my “book thoughts” tag and something like half of the books in those posts are ones I would mark as being above average in terms of worldbuilding (whether of the social world or the physical world) – it’s something that’s very important to me as a reader, and seek out for books I read!

    And it’s like how with prose you talk about most sff books being a solid 3, serviceable and unspecial. Maybe most books also have merely serviceable settings, but that doesn’t mean (to me at least!) that it shouldn’t also be included in a metric of what needs rating in a book.

    I’m aware that I’m pretty unusual in what I look for in a book (eg: plot is the least important to me of all the metrics you list!) And possibly I’m a drastic enough outlier that most people would not find worldbuilding to be a useful point on which to measure a book. But I can’t help but remember back to high school when we were taught the beginnings of how to analyze books and iirc we were told that the three things that make up a book are plot, setting, and character. Which implies I’m not the only person to pay attention to setting!

  4. Joyce clearly took great pleasure in his work, with all its wordplay and allusions, and in sharing it with other people who sincerely liked it, and in abusing idiots by convincing them to pretend to like it when they actually had no positive response to it at all, and were merely terrified of not being one of the cool kids. He took an awful lot of money away from those posers, for which I salute him. But there have always been people, including perfectly capable authors, who understood Joyce’s work perfectly well, still found it tedious, unfunny, smug, unimpressive, and unpleasant, and were unafraid to say so, and as painful as that reaction always is for an author, I can’t possibly imagine Joyce was truly surprised by it. Not everyone takes much pleasure in wordplay and allusion.

    Over time, you may shift away from those five axes, and toward just recording how a book made you feel as you read it, and writing reviews analyzing and explaining the ways it made you feel and how and why it did so, including whichever of plot, prose, originality, characters, and emotional engagement are relevant, and whether the overall experience of reading the book made you feel good or bad, and how your readers can predict whether reading the book will make them feel good or bad overall.

    It would also be interesting to see whether there are readers out there who care deeply about emotional engagement but whose investment doesn’t correlate with subjective narration and narrated monologue.

  5. abusing idiots by convincing them to pretend to like it when they actually had no positive response to it at all, and were merely terrified of not being one of the cool kids.

    I feel like that’s what winds up happening with a LOT of literature, whether the original author intended it or not. Past a certain point, you can’t even criticize it without people writing you off as a pleb who just doesn’t “get it.”

    Part of the problem, at least for me, is that historically it’s been middle-to-upper-class straight dudes who get to decide what gets to be GRATE LITERATURE, so what winds up in the literary canon — regardless of how excellent and innovative their prose stylings — are stories that don’t resonate with me, about characters that don’t ring true (their women, usually) or that I couldn’t care less about (their straight dudes, usually). It was analyzing the disconnect between what is GRATE LITERATURE and what I like that’s led me to pinpoint what I read for — so that I can recognize and acknowledge what these books are doing well, without being obliged to “like” them.

    (Shakespeare is about the only canonized writer that I get genuinely excited about, and it’s telling that he’s also waaaay ahead of the curve when it comes to issues of race and gender. Even the work that’s generally considered to be his worst — Titus Andronicus — has a vastly more intelligent treatment of racism and sexism than, say, Tolkien’s entire oevre.)

    Over time, you may shift away from those five axes, and toward just recording how a book made you feel as you read it

    That’s exactly what I’m trying to get away from, actually, and why I’m instituting a (marginally) more objective set of criteria. Obviously my excitement about a book (or lack of it) is still going to color my review, but my ~feels~ alone are not particularly useful to people reading the reviews, unless they want exactly the same thing from their books that I do.

  6. It’s not something that some authors choose to include and others don’t. ANY book has a setting, it’s just some books are better at doing things with their setting than others.

    Hmm. You are correct, of course — I suppose I’m just so accustomed to serviceable three-star settings as the norm that I don’t even see it as being worth remarking on unless it’s a standout. Is it innovation that appeals to you in a setting (ala Mieville’s New Crobuzon) or simply well-realized detail? Atmospherics?

    Re: plot, hah, that isn’t one of my particularly important metrics either (just above innovation), which I attribute to an early adolescence spent rolling around in Anne Rice books. Heavy of the atmosphere, heavy on the prose and emotional engagement — nary a plot to be found. :D

  7. Great point about Shakespeare!

    I think as you practice articulating why and how a book produced a certain response in you, it will provide a lot of useful information to your readers about whether they’ll like the book and why, aspects of the book they might enjoy noticing but not have noticed on their own, whether they’ll like reading the rest of your reviews, and ways their taste is like and unlike yours.

  8. It’s well-realized details I appreciate the most, the insignificant imperfections and oddities and down-to-earth realities that indicate things aren’t just set-pieces made to look good but actually seem to function.

    Or alternately, for close-pov, the lack of certain details that the pov character would think of as obvious and thus wouldn’t mention, and the reader has to read around what IS mentioned to figure out what’s being taken for granted. Which is itself a well-realized detail, that the author has figured out what would be taken for granted by the character! (either that or the book was written a long time ago or in a different culture than mine, and the author thought the reader would be taking the same things for granted as the character. That’s not intentional worldbuilding, but it works for me just as well. I think this is one of the reasons I love reading books written in bygone eras.)

    I do appreciate innovation, but for example I like how thoroughly realized Heyer’s meticulously-researched Regency world is just as much as I like fantastical creations.

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