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Marissa Lingen

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Concede less. [Jun. 15th, 2011|04:05 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Recently there's been another round of internet indignation in defense of dark YA novels. Every few months it seems I run across another spate of people defending romance novels. Awhile back it was fantasy because of the TV series made from Game of Thrones. And sometimes these defensive posts are really great, rallying cries for art and freedom and all manner of good things, and sometimes they're sort of the same old same old, preaching to the choir. But I keep having a problem with an overwhelming majority of them.

They concede too much.

When you defend a dark YA novel because darkness in YA novels can teach empathy and awareness for various social problems, you make that the standard for judgment--rather than saying, hey, you know what? Teens are people, and novels aimed at teens deserve as much breadth and as much of the author's critical and artistic judgment as any other art form aimed at people. Period. Sure, you try to figure out what your audience will get and what they'll like--you always do. That's true of any novel.

And when you defend genre romance by noting that a great many writers--usually Jane Austen comes up here, often Shakespeare--have concerned themselves with love stories, you are palming cards that only readers who are sympathetic to your cause will miss: the idea that a love story and a genre romance are identical, rather than the latter being a subset of the former. Nobody actually buys the, "One genius could make this a worthy thing, so it's a worthy thing!" argument, particularly not the sort of people who are condemning entire genres wholesale. They buy them even less when the worthy thing you're pointing at is arguably not the thing you're defending. Shakespeare's genre, in the old technical sense, was plays or poems, not novels. If you have to call on Shakespeare to defend a group of novels, you have already lost your argument nine times out of ten--worse, you have conceded it by not forming a coherent defense of what you actually value.

When you rely on moral improvement or references to the canon to defend what you like, you are reinforcing the idea that these are the standards on which these things are to be judged. And that's far too narrow a view of fiction. "You're being unnecessarily prescriptionist," for example, is a reasonable thing to say, or, "Not every book has to do the same thing, and here's what this one does well," or even, "Go to hell; I like books like that." But when you're defending genre romances, for heaven's sake use genre romances to do so. When you're defending SF, you don't have to use that one time that totally reputable writer wrote one book that's sort of SF except totally not in conversation with the rest of the genre. You can say, "Here's what's lyrical in this book," or, "Here's what I found interesting," or relaxing, or touching, or fun. Some of us have fun with dark stories. Some of us have fun with a particular genre type of love stories. Some of us have fun with books that are intensely focused on language or theme. Fun is okay. Do not concede the fun. It doesn't have to be everybody's fun, but it can be yours. It doesn't have to be Morally Uplifting or Deeply Intellectual--some books are, and that's great, and some aren't, and that can be great in its own way too.

Incidentally, it's also okay to not bother to defend what you love and what you do when people are sneering at it ignorantly. I'm glad that sometimes people do so, but it's also sometimes okay to look at those people and say, "Okay, but moving on, I want to talk about something more interesting now because we have done this and that person was clearly not listening." People will keep sneering at romances. They will keep sneering at literary fiction. They will keep sneering at SF. It's not because you've been insufficiently eloquent to silence them. It's that they have a shtick. You are not required to care about their shtick.

From: swan_tower
2011-06-15 09:17 pm (UTC)
I'd like to say something intelligent, but you already included it all in your post, so all I'm left with is:

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[User Picture]From: cakmpls
2011-06-15 11:09 pm (UTC)
That's pretty much what I was going to say. So: seconded.
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[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2011-06-15 09:35 pm (UTC)
Excellent! This is all stuff I wanted to post, but haven't had the time. Now I don't have to! I can just link. Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-06-15 09:41 pm (UTC)
We aim to please.
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2011-06-15 10:51 pm (UTC)

If a specific person I like and respect asks "what do you see in that?" and it seems to be an honest question, I may try to answer. (I put it that way because even people I basically like and respect have blind spots, and they can lead to profoundly unsatisfactory conversations: the sort where the person is looking to hear "I don't really like that, I like this other thing that you consider okay" or "No, I don't like that, what gave you that idea?")

If the question doesn't seem honest, I don't owe it an answer. Or if it's honest but not respectful: people who come at things from the assumption that their judgment must be better than mine (because I like Category X, or because I am not male or not an academic or simply not them) may well honestly believe that, but it's going to make the conversation frustrating.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-06-16 02:04 am (UTC)
"What do you see in that?" can be immensely useful. papersky has been going into some detail on what she sees in Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, and while it doesn't make me like the book, it at least provides edifying discussion.

"What do you see in that?" is rather different.
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From: stfg
2011-06-16 12:41 am (UTC)
For whatever reason, this seems to happen less with TV. If you come home tired after a long day and want to watch brainless TV, people understand that. But if you want to curl up with a good book, it's just not seen the same way. Reading seems to be automatically defined as a virtuous activity. I never hear 'I wish I had time to watch more TV,' like I do with people wishing they had more time to read.

I think that because reading is seen as good for you, arguments pop up about which books are more good for you. It aggravates me, because while books certainly can be important and mind-expanding, with insight into vital social issues, they don't have to be. Books can just be a fun, good read, and I totally agree with you that that should not have to be justified.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-06-16 02:05 am (UTC)
Yah, there is TV that is doing well at its art form just as there are plays or books or songs that are doing well at theirs, and on the one hand it's a little frustrating to have it assumed that all TV rots the brain. But on the other hand, hurrah for not having to assume that everything must be dire, dreary virtue.

I get frustrated when people assume any nonfiction I read must be dire, dreary virtue. Occasionally it is. Mostly I just like nonfiction.
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2011-06-16 02:30 am (UTC)
It's the opposite for me. Any TV at all has to be justified and explained, and it's hard. (Why am I watching Top Gear, anyway?)

Because TV rots the brain, you know.

(I should point out that I finally got an HD TV, to replace my 1986 tube TV, this spring. And a Netflix account. Yeah, my instinctive reaction is that TV is junk, but there's some fun junk out there, and some stuff that's good in some ways, especially documentaries.)

But then, I've always accepted and understood books as for fun.
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[User Picture]From: leahbobet
2011-06-16 01:55 am (UTC)
It's that they have a shtick. You are not required to care about their shtick.

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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2011-06-16 07:58 am (UTC)
What bothered me most about the dark YA criticism was the claim that all YA is increasingly dark. THat's just not true; I know this because I'm not personally all that fond of extremely dark novels and yet I find no shortage of new YA to read.

This is like the critic of fantasy who claims that all fnatasy novels are Tolkien-style epics, and then rips them down for being boring and derivative. There are at least three points they're missing. One is that, as you say, some people just enjoy Tolkienish epics, and that's a valid preference. Another is that lots of stories may resemble Tolkien in being of an epic character but then go off to do different and interesting new things. And the third is that there's a whole lot of other stuff out there, and by claiming it's all alike they're actually missing most fo it.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-06-16 11:20 am (UTC)
Sure, that's very true. But there are a million articles in newspapers like the New York Times that are essentially, "My next-door neighbor says, and my sister-in-law agrees, that something I'm going to blather about is a trend, even though I could actually do research and find that it is not." It's fine if we want to rise to logical defenses against these articles, but I think it's even better to recognize the class of journalism involved, whether it's talking about dark YA or 4-year-olds Gone Wild or what.
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