It all started when I said something on Twitter about Amazon being a good platform for indie authors.
Out of the blue, I got this reply from someone not in the initial conversation:
I searched for “The Directorate” on Amazon and several results popped up. Just none of them were your novel. Nowhere to be found unless I click on the direct link on your Twitter account. Same thing on Google. Looks like that Amazon platform is doing wonders! $10 in sales!
I want to point out that this is a great way of making a Twitter argument. He never used rude language, and he actually went and looked up my book. (Which will help me, marginally, in future searches.)
I have actual, real-life friends who can’t be bothered to go look up my book. The fact that this guy did it, just for the purpose of arguing with me, is actually kind of amazing. Most people would just say something on the order of “LOL u suck” and call it a day. Not him.
Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.
This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.
This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1
Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.
What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.
Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:
“1984” by George Orwell
“Knights of the Old Republic II” (2004)
“Jane Got A Gun” (2016)
“Eating Bull” by Carrie Rubin
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
Nineteen Eighty-Fourby George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
Eating Bullby Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)
KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.
Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.
I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.
Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3
But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.
To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.
This book is probably the single most significant and influential book for my intellectual development. It changed the way I thought about fiction. When I talk about motifs and imagery and thematic coherence in my reviews of novels, movies, TV shows, and yes, even video games–that is Wren’s influence.
Without this book, I might not have ever learned the critical skills needed to appreciate dramatic art the way that I do. I’m not saying everyone’s reaction to it will be the same–it’s probably just a function of it being the first piece of critical writing I ever read–but nevertheless, I can’t overstate how much it shaped my thinking. It influenced me tremendously as a writer of fiction as well–after all, you can’t criticize fiction if you aren’t willing to put your ideas into practice, and hold yourself to the same standard you hold others.
But enough about how it completely altered my life. You’re here because you want to know if it’s any good.
Answer: yes, it is very good, although I disagree with Wren on a few points.
A Most Ingenious Paradoxis a critical analysis of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Wren’s thesis is that each one contains a central theme, usually about Love, that is supported by all the lyrics, dialogue and music. Wren argues that this underlying thematic element is the reason for the incredible staying power of the operas.
For example, the conflict of Love vs. Duty is a theme that occurs in at least 9 of the operas, and Wren argues that it is not fully realized until Yeomen of the Guard. (The only G&S opera with an unhappy ending.)
Wren’s thesis is that the endurance of the operas is due to their powerful central themes rooted in human nature. Wren points out that scholars have long given the same reason for the longevity of Shakespeare’s plays. He makes a good case, offering extensive examples of how all the elements in each opera tie together to reinforce a thematic point–or don’t, in the case of less successful operas.
Still, there are some objections that can be raised to this idea. For example, if Ruddigore is vastly more thematically coherent and developed than H.M.S. Pinafore–as Wren argues it is—then why has Pinafore been more popular, from its original run to the present day? Wren makes some effort to explain this, but never quite does.
(For the record: Ruddigore is my favorite of all the operas, and Pinafore among my least favorites, even though it was the first one I ever heard. But while I agree with Wren’s analysis, there is just no way to argue Ruddigore is more popular. This suggests that perhaps the thematic element isn’t what determines a G&S opera’s fortunes.)
Then there is the problem of The Mikado, which is Gilbert and Sullivan’s all-time greatest hit, and Wren has to admit it is not as thematically sophisticated or emotionally deep as the operas either before or after it. Wren writes: “The opera has something of the charm of a clever clockwork… [T]he ingenuity of the machinery is so remarkable, so flawlessly meshed, that it remains a source of joy on many repeated viewings.”
He’s right; and it would be hard to find any G&S fan who didn’t like The Mikado. But where does that leave Wren’s central argument? If the most enduring of the operas doesn’t contain the things he says make an opera endure, the whole thing looks shaky.
Re-reading it now, for the first time in about a decade, I realize I don’t–and never did–know if Wren’s main thesis is right or wrong. And I don’t care. What I do know is that it is an absolutely brilliant piece of critical analysis. Wren’s masterful critique of what went wrong in Utopia, Limited should be required reading for all authors and dramatic critics. It is worth learning about the opera just to be able to understand that chapter.
Of course, if you don’t know Gilbert and Sullivan at all, you have to familiarize yourself with their work before the book will even be intelligible. Obviously, I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t love G&S, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you won’t understand this book.
For anyone familiar with the operas, however, I consider it a must-read.
I think there are a lot of people who don’t really listen to song lyrics. This occurred to me the other day as I was listening to the song “Waltzing Matilda”–the unofficial Australian national anthem, by Banjo Paterson. It’s a catchy tune, but it makes no sense. And no, I don’t mean because of the Australian lingo. Here are the lyrics, via Wikipedia:
Once a jolly swagman [vagrant] camped by a billabong [a pool of water]
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy [tea] boiled:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?” [“Waltzing Matilda” means wandering carrying your belongings in a bag.]
Down came a jumbuck [sheep] to drink at that billabong.
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”
Ok, so what kind of sheep is this that you can fit inside a bag? Or did he slaughter the sheep before he did that?
Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.
Down came the troopers, one, two, and three.
“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”
This is a remarkably efficient police force–homicide investigations are not treated with the same rigor as this sheep theft.Also, why do the policemen use the same expression? Are they planning to carry the guy off in a bag?
Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
“You’ll never take me alive!” said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”
So… this guy committed suicide rather than give back the sheep he had stolen? Was the punishment for sheep theft worse than death?
Anyway, that’s my opinion. Don’t let it stop you from enjoying the song; it’s a nice little tune. Maybe some other time I’ll post about why the confusing syntax in the official United States National Anthem is so annoying, and why we should replace the “Star-Spangled Banner” with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Thingy pointed out something I haven’t really addressed in my posts about John Steinbeck: that his preponderance of flat, unlikable and (in the case of Cathy from East of Eden) downright evil female characters may not have been simply a reflection of animosity towards women on his part, but symptomatic of the era in which he wrote.
Maybe so. As I said in my comment on Thingy’s blog, I can think of some female characters from other periods who were better than Steinbeck’s, but still, her point is a good one: maybe that was just how things were back then,
I’m glad this came up, because I’d been planning to do a post about this article in The New Statesman by Sophia McDougall. The point of the article is basically that “Strong Female Characters” can be almost as bad as “Weak Female Characters”, in the sense that both imply a dearth of character development. They are equally simplistic and flat as characters.
I don’t like to list “favorite” fictional characters, because you can get to comparing apples to oranges very quickly. Nevertheless, if you forced me to choose, I would say my favorite female character in all fiction is (you guessed it) Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. In fact, she’s probably my favorite fictional character, regardless of gender. And the reason is because she’s complicated.
None of Steinbeck’s female characters are that. They are all very one-dimensional. Now, as Thingy said, some of his male characters are pretty much cut-outs as well, but I can’t think of any female of Steinbeck’s who is as interesting as Mac from In Dubious Battle.
But back to Thingy’s point: was that just Steinbeck’s attitude, or was it the spirit of the time? I think probably both, but I also think it’s significant that I couldn’t think of any ’30s-era female characters in books written by males that I’d consider good examples. Perhaps you, dear reader, can think of some?
I’ve often wondered about this myself, but I’ve ultimately concluded that it’s getting the order wrong. I think the popularity of gaming will lead to the emergence of such critics and not the other way about. I think the reason for this is that what popular criticism requires to exist is a sufficiently rare set of qualities that you need a large pool to choose from.
Now, that said, I think having a “Roger Ebert of gaming” would be awesome. In fact, that’s kind of what I dream of becoming whenever I write a gaming post. Not that I ever will be. I think the thing few people realize about criticism is that the key quality it takes to be a good critic of anything is to be a good writer. It’s not enough to know your subject matter and be able to come with interesting analyses of it; you need to be able to do it concisely, intelligently and above all else, cleverly.
Let me cite one of my favorite literary criticism essays: Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses“. I suggest you read the whole thing–it’s short–but to encapsulate what makes it great, let me explain that I have never read any Fenimore Cooper books, and yet I enjoy the essay tremendously. For all I know, Twain’s criticism is completely unfair. But I enjoy the essay anyway. Think about that: I have no idea what these books are about except for what Twain mentions, but his evisceration of them is fun to read.
So consider that the most important element of criticism isn’t about what you’re criticizing or what you’re saying about it; it’s about how you phrase it. If you can be witty in your reviews–that’s the real key, I think. Not that there isn’t plenty of wit in game criticism, but the issue with game criticism is that the humor too often comes from “in-jokes”, or references to other games. It’s not accessible to the layman.
In contrast, take this quote from Ebert’s review of the movie Armageddon: “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense, and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.” I’ve never seen that movie; so I don’t know if I agree or not. But it’s a great quote. He could have said it about any bad movie, though; it has nothing to do with the subject of the movie. It’s just a generally funny line.
I’m not saying that’s all Ebert was about–he had truly interesting ideas about movies, too. But that’s not what made him famous. What made him famous was that he was a very witty writer.
All we need then is somebody who loves video games, has interesting things to say about them, and is an extremely witty writer to boot. So where is that guy? Everybody who writes about games, including myself, wants to be that guy, but no one yet has succeeded.
Here’s another question: where’s the new Roger Ebert of movies, now that the original Roger Ebert has passed away? I don’t know that there is a comparable figure in movie criticism. Spector apparently couldn’t think of one either, or he would have used that person’s name. He pretty much said on his blog that Ebert was the most famous movie critic he could think of for an example.
I have a theory: criticism in general is not as good nowadays. People just are not as good at it, possibly because the internet makes it easier to seek out criticism targeted at their specific interests. Criticism is Balkanized now, unlike in Ebert’s heyday, when there was one movie critic in the city paper, and he had to write to appeal to the widest audience he could.
This theory could be wrong–I don’t like it because it’s a little simplistic, “things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be” kind of thinking, but it does account for why there is no Ebert of gaming.
NOTE: Spector’s article has generated a lot of reaction–Shamus Young and Chris Franklin, among others–have written posts in response to it that make some good points about the issue. Young makes basically the same point I did about the need for game critics who can be read by non-gamers.