Posts from TOR part 2

Yesterday I wrote about some of the things I learned from participating in a discussion forum about The Wise Man’s Fear. There are some really smart people on this TOR thread, and they know how to take apart an argument. Their responses to my writing led us to uncover the roots of our disagreements. I ended up making a long statement about my critical theory, which I thought should probably make its way back here, because the underlying assumptions I carry when I analyze books should be public on my blog.
In the entire discussion, I think the most dangerous thing that was said was this: “you can’t judge a fantasy book the same way you’d judge ‘proper literature’. the whole ‘fantasy’ element indicates that it will explore areas of the human psyche that lead to politically incorrect territory, the sex-god or sex-demon trope, etc.”* The idea that a certain type of book or cultural product is immune to criticism is alarming and ridiculous. Of course we should use the same critical tools to judge all books, movies, shows, etc. All cultural products could potentially carry insidious messages, and thus should be scrutinized. This isn’t about being “politically correct,” but about being allowed to name what we see when we find sexism, racism, etc in our culture.
Several readers felt that my criticisms of characters and societies in WMF were too harsh because I was biased, or because I wasn’t allowing the Adem and 4 Corners societies to make their own rules and exist independent of the norms of our world. They were saying my arguments were invalid or inadmissible for these reasons, which indicated a deeper-rooted disagreement than simple differences in interpretation. It seemed like these readers might have been misunderstanding my theory, or reading using a different theory. So I explained my theory, the ideas that underpin why I thought it was acceptable to make the arguments I did. It mostly relates to fantasy books, but applies to almost all literature:**

We all have multiple critical lenses we can use to view any book or movie, and we can take them off and put them on like glasses. Sometimes I want to simply enjoy a book, and I put on my popcorn-and-soda lens. But when I come across something that alienates me as a woman or that I find racist or something, I feel like that set of glasses just got knocked off my head. I’m forced to put on my critical feminist glasses and articulate why I’m offended before I can move on and put the funtime lenses back on. [However,] I [do not claim] that either the popcorn lens or the critical lens [a]re objective. Both of those lenses are colored by the fact that I’m the one looking through them. We always read through the lens of our experiences and identities, which we can never fully escape. … I can read for pleasure, then switch to reading more critically when I get offended, and all the time be myself reading, with my personal beliefs coloring all I read. …

Reader response criticism teaches that we are all always embedded in our own point of view, which we can never fully escape. It encourages us to become aware of and acknowledge where we’re coming from as readers, including our own limitations. … [It would be] impossible [for me] to forget everything I’ve ever known and read in order to have fresh, virgin eyes for this book, to accept what I read without having any reaction that is informed by what I know of this world. Indeed, if I were able to do that, the bigger problem would be making any sense of the book at all, since there is a lot of assumed knowledge that an earth reader has that allows her/him to make sense of the 4C world. Since we can’t ever be truly objective, the next best thing is to acknowledge the biases that we do inevitably have. … Being a responsible critic means being self-aware of these things … [This] is the closest we flawed humans can come to objectivity. … Admitting my biases isn’t saying “I’m right because these are my biases and they’re true.” It’s saying, “This is one of the reasons why I’m coming to the conclusion I am. These biases may be coloring the way I see this issue, so I’m going to put that on the table and see if it makes things any clearer for all of us.” My admission of my biases is not an invitation to completely dismiss my point of view.

[Just as we can’t escape our points of view,]… this book can’t escape the fact that it’s on earth, written by an earth author for an earth readership. That imposes certain constraints on the reactions that people will have to it. It also means that the book has to be responsible for the way it relates to earth society.

Fantasy worlds are in dialog with our world. They are defined in terms of how they’re different from our world, and we understand them in relation with our world. Sometimes the relationship between the story-world and our world is obvious and the author is blatantly using it to make a point about our world. Examples of this might be The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Left Hand of Darkness. In some of these books, it’s pretty clear that the author is trying to say something specific about a troubling trend he/she sees in our world; they wear their politics on their sleeves. With books like this, it’s clear that they’re in dialog with our society because they’re yelling their message so loud. (I don’t mean any of that as criticisms of those particular books, which I enjoy.) Other times, like with KKC, the relationship between our world and the story-world is more vague and subtle. The author doesn’t have a particular ax to grind and may be just exploring new ideas. Nonetheless, even these authors have perspectives that are formed in relation to everything they know in our world, and create their worlds in response to their experiences in this world.

Readers are also constantly making comparisons with our world as they learn about fantasy worlds. Sometimes the fantasy world makes our world look like a great place to live in comparison, and sometimes it makes our world look worse. Readers get ideas and attitudes from books and take them into this world, no matter how fantastical the book-world is. Sometimes it’s clear that the ideas don’t translate to our world at all because they relate to things that don’t exist in our world, like the Jedi mind trick. And sometimes an idea presented in a fantasy world is totally acceptable in the bounds of the fantasy world, but in the dialog with our world it creates problems and issues. I don’t simply mean someone trying to physically do something they read about, like ‘monkey see, monkey do,’ but attitudes and subtle values that are insidious. In its dialog with our world, the fantasy world may say something that in its own language is inoffensive, but sounds a lot like a string of curses in our language. It’s hard to tell if the fantasy world meant to cuss us out or not. And to some extent intent is irrelevant (death of the author, etc). It sounded to us like we got cussed out, and we react accordingly. That reaction is fair because the fantasy world always knew that it was in dialog with this world and it knew what the cuss-like language would sound like to us. (Language is an imperfect metaphor here, but I hope this analogy makes sense otherwise.)

… It seems like generally, the criticisms I’m getting are rooted in the idea that I’m not taking the Adem or the entire KKC on their own terms and am imposing my terms upon them. … [But] a story written in our world, even though it’s set in another world, doesn’t get to have “its own terms” because it can never fully escape the terms of this world, just as we can never fully escape our own perspectives. I know that a good part of the appeal of fantasy is escapism, so this idea is a bit of a turn-off because in some way it seems to deny the promise of fantasy to do something entirely new and different. Fantasy can still say some really interesting and fascinating things in the dialog it’s always having with our world, but it can’t pretend not to have a relationship with our world, and it can’t pretend this dialog isn’t happening.

* This quote can be found in @142 on the discussion thread.

**This argument is quoted from the discussion thread. For unity and ease of reading here, I’ve edited together a few separate posts, @126, @131 @141 and @165. Places where I have omitted sentences or phrases are marked with ellipses, and places where I have added text are marked with brackets.