My Frustrations With A Lot Of Speculative Fiction

So, I finally gave in and read A Song of Ice and Fire. This has been a long time pending. I remember I was introduced to the books at a Christmas party in 2011. I…didn’t actually finish them then. But I have now! And I really enjoyed them! I have some issues, but on the whole, they were very enjoyable. Enough to get me to watch and finish the show. Unfortunately, that kind of made me aware of some other issues that I have, both with the books and the show. They’re issues of personal taste, not anything objective, but when I think about them, they’re the same reason so much stuff lately has been hard for me to get through, why that genre that I once loved and still do enjoy isn’t satisfying me anymore the way it once did: the trend towards huge, expansive universes rather than completing actual stories is too much for me.

I like tightly plotted works. I like focus, I like conservation of detail. I like to follow the trail of cause and effect. When it comes to most genres, people would agree with me – excess detail in thrillers or crime novels is unappealing because it slows down the pace. Excess detail and tangents in romances would often be deemed pointless purple prose. But when it comes to fantasy? It’s almost the opposite. Fantasy novels are expected to be sprawling, on an epic scale, with details about every character we ever meet or every place the characters ever go. Like so much else to do with modern fantasy, this began with Tolkien. And my only reaction is…why? Of all the possible ways to be inspired by Tolkien’s work, why did this one have to stick around so much?

I like world building as much as the next person. But a story is more than that. Quite frankly, I think in most cases, it’s overrated. It takes away from characterization and plot development. And while both things can and should exist together and enhance each other, my experience has been that few writers balance it well, instead focusing on the world building to the detriment of everything else. That’s true when it comes to fantasy, that’s true when it comes to “hard” science fiction. Writers are so busy showing off how great their imagination is, they just info dump stuff that isn’t relevant to anything at us just to do it. They never use one word when they could use ten and when they think of a phrasing they like, they use it over and over again. It’s getting really tiresome.

One of my main takeaways from A Song of Ice and Fire was that George R. R. Martin needs a better editor. At least someone to remove some evidence of his creepy fucking fetishes that have no reason to be in the story, but preferably someone with the firmness to insist he pare down and stop going on tangents about the food at a feast or the colours and sigils of some minor house we’re never going to see again. Hell, maybe that would help me decide if I actually like his writing or not. Because as much as I enjoy the story, I’m a lot more conflicted about the writing. It alternates between some utter nonsense that seems to confuse verbosity with eloquence, embarrassingly bad sex scenes, and genuinely wonderful pieces like Arya’s delightfully simple and gorgeous reminiscing about how Needle is all she has left of her home and family. For all that it claims to be a political drama in a fantasy setting that explores how war is hell and power corrupts and all that happens is misery for the commoners that don’t care who sits on the throne, that’s diminished by the fact it’s still almost exclusively told through the eyes of the aristocracy. It tells us a lot more than it shows, and it tells a painful amount.

Take the so-called Broken Man Speech. Out of context, it’s fine. It’s good. But put it back in context and it’s like…we don’t ever really see those broken men. Not like the speech describes. We see traumatized people that start to do worse and worse things to survive, but we don’t see the effects of plain old war on regular old people in any way that really matters to me. Think about the commoners we meet. They’re rarely actually portrayed in a positive light, as the victims that they are, and when they are, it’s still through the lens of the nobility. Like…during the riots at King’s Landing. The focus isn’t on the misery of the people starving when the powerful play their games and use innocents, it’s about how their suffering turns them into savages that rape and abuse women tangentially related to the people responsible. Are there antiwar themes in the story? Of course there are. Are there criticisms of the monarchic systems? Sure. Is it ultimately a story about the human relationship with power and its corruptive influence? I think it is. But when it comes to specifically the idea of the impact all these things on the people on the outside of the power struggle, it doesn’t explore them in any real depth. While I’d be willing to accept that that’s not the story this is, the Broken Man speech indicates that that’s what it’s intended to be, and if that’s the case…I really would appreciate getting more attention on it, rather than the same amount that gets devoted to countless things that don’t actually matter. Concise is a good thing. Conservation of detail exists for a reason. Either explore something or don’t. But don’t just talk about everything for the sake of it.

I’ll admit it – I don’t care about the historical members of each house that are only tangentially related to what is going on in the here and now of the story. I don’t care about however many hundreds of thousands of words that he’s dedicated to the history of the Targaryens that aren’t relevant to the story. It’s great that he has so many ideas about his universe. But what does any of that matter if that’s all so big a distraction, he can’t focus on the central story? I’m in favour of writers writing what they want in their own universe. But I also shouldn’t be expected to care about it. Tolkien spent his whole life revising The Silmarillion. But he did finish the key story that was Lord of the Rings.

Martin defies every rule of conservation of detail ever, and honestly…breaking rules is overrated. Holes is one of the greatest novels ever written. I mean that most sincerely. It’s the closest thing to a perfect book that I’ve ever read. And that’s partially because it follows the rules in a way that children’s fiction tends to do better than adult. It’s not about the what, it’s the how. I wish more people took cues from it when it comes to developing plots. It’s less than fifty thousand words long and it uses every single one of those words to full effect. Three interwoven storylines. Beautiful characterization. Criticism of the American justice system. An explanation of the history of Camp Green Lake and how everyone got to the points they did. There is a reason that it’s taught in schools. It goes on exactly as long as it should and not a minute longer. It’s laser focused. It’s elegantly simple. On a technical level, it’s brilliant, and I wish fantasy writers – and people writing for an “adult” audience – took the same approach.

This focus on the details often seems to me to be another way in which writers try to convey maturity in their works. Sex, profanity, violence, and painstaking detail. I get where that idea comes from…but I don’t think it’s very accurate. First of all, there’s no actual reason why there needs to be such a distinction between what is made for children and what is for adults. Many of the best pieces of fiction can be enjoyed by both. The best children’s books are written in blood, after all. Some works, by nature, are best appreciated by people in a given age group. But artificial ways of intentionally catering to one demographic over another…it seems silly to me. I think what’s needed in adult fiction is the mostly same as what’s needed in children’s literature. That includes focus when focus is needed and exploring the impact of darker subject matter, rather than just including it for its own sake.

On a tangentially related note, I am not even remotely interested in constructed languages. That they exist in so many fantasy – and science fiction, I suppose – works is another clear indication of Tolkien’s inescapable influence on the genre, but seriously? All these other writers are not Tolkien. And I don’t mean that in terms of a quality judgement, I mean it in terms of the fact that Tolkien was a linguist. He wasn’t composing these languages to flesh out the world. In many ways, the languages were the world. They mattered. That’s not the case with most other works, because Tolkien, Arrival, others like them – those are exceptions. I watched Game of Thrones and some of the time, I wanted to scream! It took every bit of willpower I had to not just fast forward through the scenes of Daenerys shouting made up words for entire scenes. There are situations in which having the rudiments of a conlang are useful. A few words, grammar rules, and so on. But entire languages gets annoying. It’s detail at the expense of the broader story. It’s the same reason that I don’t enjoy a lot of hard sci fi.

I have a STEM background and I am fascinated by scientific developments. But when it comes to stories, I mostly prefer softer sci fi, because in most cases, I don’t care about the details of how these things work. Especially because science and technology march on. Ten years from now, a meticulously researched piece may turn out to be completely obsolete. Hard sci fi, all the details about how this fictional thing could work, are usually the purview of people that want to demonstrate how smart they are or how much research they’ve done, not tell a story. For me, the best science fiction has to be the kind that uses enough detail that we can accept it’s based on science, rather than a space fantasy – not that there’s anything wrong with space fantasy at all, it’s just not really science fiction in my eyes – but not so much that that becomes the story if it’s not a driving part of the plot. It’s why I liked things like The Martian, with its clear focused man vs. nature conflict, but have a harder time with some other pieces: the focus on the technicalities gets to be too much for me.

I love fantasy. I love science fiction. And I love expansive universes that feel like real, lived in places. But sometimes, I just we could have more stories that end. Plot, characters, voice, tone, themes…those are what interest me most of all about stories. I’d rather have more focus on them to give me a story that gets to a point than one that drags on forever in the name of worldbuilding.

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Confessions of a Recovering “Book Person”: The Culture Of Prioritizing Books Over Stories Sucks

Do you remember that time a bunch of white girls on Twitter reacted to Marie Kondo’s gentle suggestion that people only keep books around that mean something to them with an absurdly over the top kind of performative outrage? Yeah. That to me is an extension of the same kind of books-for-aesthetic, turning-one’s-nose-down-at-e-books, stupid-phrases-on-mugs-and-bags-about-books-and-tea nonsense that makes me frustrated about how so many readers don’t seem to actually care about the stories in books as they do the books themselves. It’s a weird snobbery that doesn’t actually make sense.

I have always loved reading. I used to go to the library as often as possible, get large stacks of books, blow through all of them within the next day to a week. And I’d read everything. I didn’t have a preferred genre. I’d read everything from Stephen King to Gordon Korman to Shakespeare, Nancy Drew to Of Mice And Men to Harry PotterBut there was a period – late elementary school through to high school, if I could guess – where I’d shifted away from reading whatever, so long as I enjoyed it, to reading for the sake of impressing others.

When I was in elementary school, I was known for reading. It’s what I did. I always had a book on hand, I read ahead in every book we were assigned for class, I participated in discussions, I always had a book of my own on hand. So I became known as one of the “smart” people. Which is fine. But at some point, I had started internalizing the idea that that was what made me smart or unique. That I was a reader had become a cornerstone of my identity. That, I think we can all agree, was really, really stupid. And it started to manifest in other dumb ways – like the recognizable characteristics of white girl book culture. Whenever I had to annotate something for class, I used sticky notes rather than writing in the book itself (this one I probably would have always done). I pearl-clutched at the thought of ever cutting up a book to use it for an art project or using e-books because it’s not the same! I’d always preferred books to television, and I started to think that demonstrated intellectual superiority. It became a point of pride that any of the classics we had to read were things I’d already read. All these things combined to make reading a lot less enjoyable for me. It was only once I started to push back against them that I started to actually love reading instead of doing it out of habit again.

A friend of mine got me a copy of Good Omens several years ago. But there was something about that edition and the size of the pages that meant I could not get through it. I tried. I’d been told it was great by lots of people, and even if I hadn’t been, it’s a little quirk of mine that if someone buys me a book, I have to read it. But I had to restart more times than I can remember because I just couldn’t process it. It wasn’t until I set aside the hard copy and tried the e-book that I could actually finish and enjoy it. This is reflective of a broader pattern in how I’ve begun to interact with books.

When I was younger, I could read anything quickly and process it immediately. I was one of those people who, when a popular theory or idea was floating around about a series, could say, no, that can’t be because of this thing that was mentioned in passing in book 2 after reading a series once. I’d remember every plot point and character name for years after the fact. One hundred percent not the case anymore. Now I often get halfway through a book – not even a long one – and have to stop myself and think, wait a minute…who is Alice again and how is she related to the main character Bob? For whatever reason, that’s less frequently the case when it comes to e-books. So lately, I’ve been reading a lot more ebooks and a lot fewer hard copies. It does nothing to promote reading to behave as if what matters is the physical book. If I still bought into that, then I’d be reading a lot less than I do, not more.

Books – as in the physical paper and ink – are not sacred objects. They’re not magic. They’re just a container for a story. Are those wonderful? Sure. I do enjoy holding a physical book and the feeling of turning the pages. But books are meant to be read, not sit on shelves to impress people – even when that person is yourself. They’re not a symbol of intellectualism and having more of them lying around doesn’t make you more of a reader than someone else. What matters is the stories inside these objects and that they’re consumed, and e-books help that. Removing books from your shelf that you are never going to actually read or reread to make room for books you will help that.

The idea that the physical books are someone special extends to the holier-than-thou disapproving of people using books for art and the suggestion that doing so is destroying it. But this isn’t the Cultural Revolution or Fahrenheit 451. It’s not censorship. These aren’t books being rendered unreadable so that no one can read them. These books aren’t being destroyed. These are mass produced and widely available. Someone using their copy for something else does nothing to make that book less available for someone else. And sometimes a physical book has to be destroyed! If books don’t sell, they get recycled, and then new books can be made from their remains! Would you rather deforestation progress even faster for the sake of never destroying a book? Five hundred years ago, if a book was destroyed, the world was deprived of that knowledge. That is not even remotely the case anymore. A book being discarded or repurposed into an art project does not mean you’ll never be able to read it. So maybe some people should mind their own business instead of fixating on what other people do. This obsessive attitude about what other people do with stacks of paper, ink, and glue does not make you more of a reader or book lover than anyone else, because books are meant to be enjoyed, not sit on shelves to impress people and/or gather dust.

None of this is to say that I don’t appreciate books as a physical object. Even aside from novels, I have a possibly embarrassing number comics around, including some repeats with different covers. Sometimes it’s because I love the art and want a hard copy of it. Other times, it’s because I absolutely love the specific story.  And it took me a long time to get to a state where I was okay giving away my copy of a “classic” book I didn’t like without feeling guilty about it. So I’m certainly not one to judge people for keeping books around. I get it. But I think it’s important to self reflect on why you’re doing it. If you don’t enjoy a book or you never finished…doesn’t it show more respect for that book and its contents to pass it onto someone that might actually enjoy it?

I think it’s tied to the obsession over ~classic literature or the meaningless category that is literary fiction. In a lot of cases, it’s not actually about the book itself but the idea of it. While many of these books are very good and have had a lasting influence on their genres, there are a number of others that are heavy handed, sexist, racist, no longer relevant to today’s society, just plain boring, or all of the above at once. There are books published far more recently that are just as well crafted and thematically meaningful, if not more so,  while also being more engaging and interesting that are dismissed for their genre or the fact that they were written in the twenty first century. That’s silly. Books should be enjoyable. There are books today that have just as much value as books from two hundred years ago. There are books with less. There are a lot of books out there, written over the centuries in countless languages, and each one deserves the same chance as others do to be read and loved. By extension, that means that each book can be hated and discarded. It’s a book and an individual’s feelings towards it. People have different feelings about different books. That’s perfectly fine. Stories are subjective, and there is no right answer about what is good and what is bad.

Books are great. And stories are wonderful things, whether that story be in a book or an e-book or a movie. I just really, really wish the focus was more often on the actual story, rather than the form in which it’s consumed or the object containing it. Books aren’t a sign of how smart we are, so maybe we could just enjoy them instead of dictating how others do or preaching the virtues of something to someone that hated it? Pretty please?

The Troubles Of Format: Why The Conventions Of Children’s Literature Worked Against ‘Animorphs’

Animorphs was ever present when I was growing up. They were there in every classroom. Every library, both school and public. They weren’t even out of print yet, because I distinctly remember buying book 4 at Chaptersaside. This is pretty standard for children’s books. I mean, it’s the same thing as Goosebumps or Magic School Bus or Nancy Drew or any number of other series. Despite that, finding copies was really hard. Libraries always had several of them, sure, but never the ones you were looking for. They had, like, books 5, 11, 16, 29, 34, and 41, with none of the others – and no, that’s not me picking random numbers. Those are the Animorphs books I remember being the most in circulation. I don’t think I ever saw a library without 5, but finding 53? Forget it!

Normally, that’s okay. With a lot of children’s books, it really doesn’t matter in what order you read them. Take Nancy Drew. It had no long run plot arcs whatsoever. Each book is self contained. All you need to know is that Nancy is an amateur detective, her friends are Bess and George, and she goes around solving crimes. Those facts are reiterated in every book, and even if they weren’t, it’d be obvious, so there’s absolutely no reason why you’d have to start at the first book and work your way through. I never read  Goosebumps, but the impression I got was that it’s similar. Animorphs, though? That’s unique.

Animorphs is usually episodic. Sure. And pretty much every book gives a recap of the premise and makes sure you know who all the characters are, so most of them will make sense if you read them out of order. But there’s also very much a running plot – or maybe plot isn’t the right idea so much as theme. Throughout the entire series, the focus is on how the Animorphs are dealing with the Yeerks. And there is a lot of character development there. It’s so subtle that you might not even realize it at first – but then, you’ll read a situation that mirrors one from twenty books earlier, and the characters will react in such a different way, that you’ll think, holy shit. You do not get the full force of that if you read them out of order.

Sure, it’ll probably make sense if you don’t. But if you don’t, you’ll miss a lot. If you’re reading the series out of order, you miss the development of these kids from wide eyed idealists being like, “oh, we can hold them off until the Andalites get here!” to hardened veterans that know in their bones “if the Andalites come, it won’t be to help us”. You miss Rachel going from a thirteen year old that gets a thrill out of gymnastics to a genuinely terrifying adrenaline junkie that gets off on violence. You miss Jake going from the thoroughly average kid that ends up in charge pretty much because he’s the one that everyone knows and likes to the teenage military commander of the entire planet that sends other kids to die without blinking. Unfortunately…the format of the series made it almost impossible for members of the target audience to get a hold of them all.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a believer that the structure of the series was hugely beneficial when it comes to telling the story. Applegate’s major strength is how she can pack in the full gamut of human emotion in just over a hundred pages, and the length of the series helped contribute to the impression of a long time passing, as well as helped the slow character development. Fewer, longer books just wouldn’t have had the same effect. However. This was terrible for the reader. Finding the books was hard! I know of at least two people that never read them all, not because they weren’t interested, but because they couldn’t find them, and didn’t know what they’d read and what they hadn’t. Today, you can get them all as ebooks. If there are kids reading them today, they can find them without too much hassle…but the Barnes and Noble website lists each book as four dollars. There are 62 books. That comes out to a lot of money!

It’s an awesome series. I love it with all my heart, as can be evidenced by all my posts tagged Animorphs. I will never not beg people to read them. But wow, was the format a pain for readers.

Aside: I think my memory of the timeline is a bit skewed, because I always say I’ve been a fan since I was eight, but I don’t think the books were still in print at that point, and I feel like I was younger when I bought that book. Maybe eight was when I finally read all of them. Never mind.

Earning Your Ending: Following Through On Story Themes And The Frustration Of Stories That Don’t

One of the things I admire most about Animorphs has always been the ending. It wasn’t a downer, exactly – the world was saved, after all, and if the cost is the souls of six children…well, many would call it a small price to pay. It was tragedy in the truest sense. The good guys weren’t rewarded with happily ever after. Not because they didn’t deserve a happy ending, not because it’s just, but because it’s war. And like in any real war, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, it just was. There is no such thing as a glorious war. Necessary, perhaps, like the one around which Animorphs revolves. But even a necessary war will result in a lot of dead and injured and grieving.

Everything about the ending of the series felt earned. Like this was where it was always headed. It wasn’t a triumphant victory where cutting off the head of the snake or capturing a MacGuffin resulted in the good guys winning. No, it was years of them chipping away at an unstable empire, poking at different places and seeing what worked until it eventually collapsed. And there’s something about the narration…It’s childish. It’s simplistic. It’s so, so real. Because it’s not just a question of them being books for kids, it’s about how they’re written about kids. They’re children’s books from the perspective of a child. There are bits of gorgeous prose interspersed between scenes of horrifying violence and hilarious ones of aliens discovering chocolate. There are references to poems like The Second Coming and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as well as works like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. It was children’s literature pointing out the best and worst of humanity, how we don’t have the best track record of tolerating differences, how we kill each other for praying differently to the same god.

A happy ending would have felt dishonest. And the sheer boldness of book 54 still takes me aback. This was a children’s book. Not a young adult one, an unashamed children’s book. A children’s book with no happy ending. That was the gutsiest writing choices I’ve ever seen. That book is probably why I am – or used to be, at least – a bit more susceptible to writer fake outs than most people. Because where most people see a major character death or what looks like an upcoming tragic ending and think, like you would really do it, I remember Animorphs, which did do it. For that reason, book 54 is pretty much my favourite book in the series and one of my favourite books altogether. I am fully in support of happy endings. But there’s a reason it’s the bittersweet ones that stick with me.

Something I’ve found is that epilogues that skip a significant amount of time into the future are dangerous. They run the risk of being contrived happy endings, where we’re told something is happy, but they don’t really feel happy, partially because we don’t see how the characters get to that point. There are two obvious examples of this – the first is the most famous example of young adult dystopian fiction. The second is the children’s series that completely changed the course of children’s publishing.

The Hunger Games was about children being forced to fight each other to the death for entertainment and a rebellion against an oppressive government. At best, I expected it to end bittersweetly. After all, we’re talking about one of the closest equivalents there is to Animorphs. Targeted at a young audience, a huge amount of graphic violence, heavily anti-war themes, a lot of the books dedicated to the characters’ trauma…when Mockingjay came out, I thought I knew, generally, where it was going to go. I even continued thinking that through maybe half the book. It seemed poised to deliver a sad ending. Maybe not quite a tragedy, but certainly not a happy one. And at first it did. But then came the epilogue.

The last chapter of Mockingjay was much more satisfying to me than the epilogue. I didn’t love the book overall – I thought it was by far the weakest of the trilogy. But the last chapter didn’t feel like a cop out. It hinted at future happiness without being too overt and saccharine. District Twelve was in ruins and pretty much everyone decided to leave and never come back. The people that stayed were the ones that thought everywhere else was worse, that had lost everything, that were so traumatized by everything that had happened, the only thing they could think to do was go home. But despite that, Peeta, Katniss, and Haymitch were all alive and together and recovering. They found things to focus on. They lived with the only people around that understood what they’d gone through. Katniss and Peeta rediscovered their love for each other. It felt right. But instead of just leaving it at that, there was that epilogue that skipped years into the future to have Katniss watching her children play in a meadow. Maybe it’s just me, but that felt disingenuous. It felt like running away from the earned ending.

On a similar note is Harry Potter. At the time The Deathly Hallows came out, I’d spent my entire life with these characters – the first book was published the same year I was born. I started reading them when I was like four. I wanted a happy ending. I still think the epilogue was a pretty good kind of cheesy, but it was jarring when you compare it to just a few pages before.

I’m not one of those people that hates the Harry Potter epilogue or what Harry named his kids. But skipping ahead nineteen years, skipping the recovery period…it felt kind of cheap. It felt far less fitting than the last chapter. The last chapter wasn’t a downer. It was bittersweet, and much more sweet than bitter – lots of people were dead, but Voldemort was one of them. The war was over. There were still things to do and loose ends to tie up, but it was clearly pointing in a hopeful direction. It wasn’t The Hunger Games, which practically gave me whiplash with the contrast between the epilogue and the rest of the book. It was closer to a logical extension. But it still didn’t feel right.

On the other end of the scale is stories that, instead of forcing a happy ending instead of the earned sad one, are stories that pull a downer out of nowhere, out of the misguided belief that True Art Is Angsty. Like, I recently read My Sister’s Keeper. To me, that came across as such a huge Shoot The Shaggy Dog story, I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t a contrived happy ending, it was a contrived and manipulative sad one. Instead of genuinely exploring the characters’ emotions, Jodi Picoult opted for melodrama and cheap twists. I find endings like that just as – if not more – annoying than those that pull a happy one from thin air. Because when it comes to me and endings I find satisfying, it’s more than about earning a happy ending. It’s about following through to the ending you’ve earned, the one that makes sense for the story. That’s not to say a brutal, devastating story can’t have a positive ending, or a mostly positive, hopeful story can’t have a dark one, but if handled poorly, it feels like a cop out. That’s precisely why so few things have ever lived up in my eyes to the Animorphs ending.

The format of Animorphs was both a blessing and a curse. Sure, it resulted in books of wildly varying quality being pushed out at a breakneck pace. It meant the series was never going to be taken seriously by a wider audience. It meant that it would never work as a movie adaptation. But I have to love it, because if we had fewer, longer books, or if they were published at a different time or for a different audience, we never would have gotten something like the final book.

That entire book is dedicated to the “what happens now”. And that makes you expect that it’s going to turn around, that it won’t be bleak, that the book will be about them them moving on and getting better. And it does…at the same time as it doesn’t. It has everything every book in the series does – it makes you feel every emotion possible in less than two hundred pages. Even more impressively, it does that without a real driving plot.

Book 54 is more focused on character development than it is with having its own individual plot. It’s about wrapping up the character arcs and plot threads from the preceding books. It’s slow. Or maybe that’s not quite it – slow is close, but the wrong word for the feel of the book. Maybe measured? Introspective? It’s calm. Compared to the frenzied pace of pretty much all the other instalments, it’s downright placid. It gives readers time for it all to sink in. It takes all the brutality of the series and brings it to its natural conclusion, because as it made clear from the beginning, there are no happy endings in war. It’s honest about it – there are no right answers. There are no glorious wars. Some people will be able to move on, even thrive. Others won’t. Because even the most necessary of necessary wars with clear lines between good and evil, right and wrong, will end with death, grief, and horror. That’s why I always find myself coming back to Animorphs. It’s one of the greatest endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s just too bad it kind of ruined me for books that don’t follow through on what they’ve earned.

Do you have any books with endings that completely satisfied you? Let me know! I’m always looking for new things to read.

The Strange Sense Of Elitism In Film Criticism

There was a debate all over my Twitter timeline a while ago about something Ethan Hawke said about how superhero movies get overpraised and that Logan is a fine superhero movie, but not a great movie. And regardless of my feelings towards Logan  specifically, I think this betrays the typical genre elitism that does more harm than good by preventing excellent works from being recognized as excellent and thus keeping standards from getting higher.

There are countless counterexamples to Hawke’s point. So instead of listing all of them, let’s focus on three main points: the literary merit of commercial entertainment, the dismissal of the superhero genre, and the pretentiousness behind the idea that literary fiction is its own category.

Meaningful Stories In Popular Media

If you pick out any member of the Animorphs fandom and ask them about the series, I doubt you’d find a single one that would argue that it isn’t kind of trashy sci fi aimed at children. Because it is. They were cheap paperbacks pushed out at a breakneck pace to sell toys to kids with a lot of lighthearted, funny scenes largely centred around fish-out-of-water comedy. No one will deny that. But that absolutely does not preclude them from having literary merit.

It’s a story about child soldiers and trauma and galaxy wide imperialism. Sure, there are moments where the lead characters argue over Teletubbies and an alien eats chocolate off the floor, but that doesn’t negate the themes of genocide, slavery, and depression. They coexist. They work together to build multifaceted characters. Anyone is free to not like it, or think it’s not well written, but if your argument for why it doesn’t have merit or why those themes aren’t meaningful is it’s about kids turning into animals, you’re not making a good case.

“It’s written in a simplistic style targeted at children and lacks the sophistication necessary to appeal to me” is a fair enough statement. I can’t say I’ve ever felt the same way about a novel – sure, I like things that sound good, pieces of literature that can flow over me where how it makes me feel is somewhat more important than what specifically is happening, but I’ve always felt that that is best suited for poetry and short stories than for a full length novel – but I can understand why someone would feel that way. I don’t agree, but it’s an infinitely better case than “it’s not a great book, it’s a fine adventure story, it’s still about kids turning into animals”.

I don’t have much use for media that doesn’t tell me a compelling story. Characters, plot, themes, and style all work together to create a story. No amount of interesting style or themes or both of them put together is enough to make up for boring characters or a nonexistent plot. Animorphs? It does a great job handling all of them together. The books take themselves just seriously enough. They’re a perfect example of how meaningful and pretentiousness don’t have to go hand in hand, how there doesn’t have to be a trade off between developed characters and a developed plot, how themes in children’s literature can be handled more subtly than by dropping an anvil over the reader’s head, how a blunt style isn’t inherently worse than anything else. Most of all, they demonstrate how it doesn’t even matter what the plot is – any plot can be the plot of a meaningful story.

Dismissal of Superheroes

I genuinely don’t understand this need to be all it’s not a superhero story, it’s a whatever story with superheroes! “Superhero” isn’t a genre, it’s an archetype. A wide range of stories can fall into the superhero category. It comes across as people trying to separate something they enjoy from other things with similar elements, not for the sake of describing what it is, but for the sake of making it sound more “high brow”. This extends far beyond superhero stories. Like, what does the phrase “genre fiction” even mean? Nothing. It means nothing.

It becomes a vicious cycle. People expect superhero movies to be straightforward, so people go watch them when they want some shallow entertainment. That results in those that try something new not doing as well, which in turn results in less creative movies, which solidifies people’s belief that superhero movies should be straightforward entertainment. Then you have Batman v Superman, which is a whole different thing altogether.

Never once does it shy away from being a superhero story, because there’s no denying that’s what it is. It’s based on a comic book. It’s about the most iconic superheroes of all time. But that doesn’t preclude it from being a layered story, filled with allusions and themes. It’s the most high budget arthouse movie ever made. All the political themes are interwoven into the story. It’s more than just pseudo-deep quotes, all the themes are rooted throughout the movie. That the characters are public figures and heroes mattersIt’s thoughtful and unique. But critics expected they didn’t have to pay much attention because it’s a superhero movie and didn’t get nearly as much out of it as people thought about what they were watching.

If our expectations for superhero movies included that they must mean something, and critics actually thought critically, the reaction to Batman v Superman would have been hugely different. If you took the same movie and didn’t tell them it was directed by Zack Snyder – because critics clearly have something against him – it would have just as much action and bombast, but critics would be more receptive to the themes and quiet drama of the whole movie. They’d call it – rightfully – a work of art and a political statement. They might even go so far as to make the mistake in saying it’s not a superhero movie, it’s a drama about our relationship with power. It is that. But it matters that it’s told using superheroes. Pretty much the only reason that critics didn’t analyze it through that lens is because it’s a superhero movie. This goes back to the “superhero movie” as compared to “movie with superheroes” issue. If you extend that further, you get the frequent argument that something is not part of a given genre, it just has elements of that genre. That takes us to the “literary fiction” debate.

Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

Perhaps the reason a certain demographic claims “genre fiction” is a lesser art form than so-called “literary fiction” is that they’re constantly redefining the best works in any genre as something other than what it is – especially in retrospect. Consider – The Book Thief has beautiful characterization and striking prose. It’s a piece of historical fiction set in Nazi Germany, and it’s widely considered to be an excellent book. It’s also narrated by Death – that makes it a fantasy. But I’ve seen multiple critics ignore that fantasy aspect and focus solely on the historical setting. Similarly, I saw an article once about literary fiction that claimed All the Pretty Horses is not a Western and 1984 is not sci fi. I think most of us can agree those claims are absurd. Style doesn’t change the genre. Being well written or memorable or having literary merit for whatever reason doesn’t stop something from fitting the conventions of a given genre.

It especially irks me when it comes to the topic of science fiction, because some of the core tenants of sci fi have always been questioning the world and society. It’s a weird kind of self-importance to suggest that only literary fiction addresses those themes, and even weirder to pitch your work as literature, as if that’s something you or critics get to decide and not time. There are lots of movies and novels that have literary merit. But that doesn’t change the fact that they belong to different genres. It reminds me a bit of the way some Game of Thrones fans try to talk about how much it transcends a genreThere’s a line about it in Parks and Recreation that’s something along the lines of “they’re telling human stories in a fantasy world”. Is there something about fantasy which means fantasy writers don’t tell human stories? No, because that’s stupid. Everyone tells human stories. Saying that it’s not a fantasy story, it’s something else in a fantasy setting doesn’t actually mean anything.


Hawke had a very valid point in that when it comes to superhero movies, most aren’t very good, and they’re praised for being mindless entertainment. But the reason for that has nothing to do with what they are. It has nothing to do with “people wearing tights” or “having metal coming out of their hands”. I’ve been vocal about my issues with Logan as a movie, but something I will never say is that one of the problems with it is the fact it involves people with metal claws. You can make anything sound silly if you talk about it like that – Slaughterhouse-Five is about a man who gets put on display in an alien zoo.

With live action superhero movies, we’re talking about a fairly small sample size. Sure, that’s expanded a huge amount in the past fifteen years, but we’re not talking about anything so broad as “fantasy” or “science fiction”. So we can say things like most superhero movies are lazy without generalizing, because a lot of people have seen a significant percentage of the movies that fall into that category. If that’s what Hawke meant, that’s what he should have said. But what he did say was dismissive of entire genre based on what the genre is, rather than what it’s produced. We have to judge people’s statements for what they are, not bend over backwards trying to find a way to justify them as correct because we agree with something kind of relevant to what they’re talking about.

Logan isn’t a great movie and most superhero movies are overpraised and carefully calculated to sell rather than actually make a point. Yeah. True. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the science fiction and fantasy elements of those stories.

Has Any Writer Of Young Adult Fiction Ever Gone To High School?

Years ago, I read a book called Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie. It was okay. Maybe a little on the side of trying too hard at being clever and a bit gimmicky, but it was a pretty entertaining read. I recently – this morning – discovered there was a sequel (Sophomores and Other Oxymorons). Me being me, I had to read it (after rereading the first book as a refresher, of course). My only thought upon finishing was, huh. And now that I think about it, there are a whole lot of other YA books that evoke a similar reaction in me. The way I see it, there are two options here: 1) The authors of YA fiction and I had vastly different high school experiences, or 2) The authors of YA fiction are very much misremembering what high school is like.

Okay, so fine. I went to a small magnet high school that wasn’t particularly cliquey. It was instead filled with pretty smart, motivated kids that were all largely supportive of each other and made a lot of IB jokes. No sports teams. So maybe my experience wasn’t quite standard. But seriously? Are these real problems that any high schooler faces? For me, high school was a time when I dedicated an absurd amount of time to robotics, learned to play the bassoon, and stressed out a lot over everything under the sun. But my worries were more along the lines of I’m socially awkward help me and oh my god I have a lot of work and if I can’t do this and get good grades I’ll flunk out and have to live in a cardboard box. Seniors taking my lunch money was not one of my concerns at all.

Sophomores and Other Oxymorons is more in line with what I understand to be the high school experience than its predecessor. It’s less reliant on clichés like “jocks vs nerds” and a main character with a crush on someone he idealizes while knowing nothing about. But it’s also oddly heavy handed. It’s Scott learning a bunch of random lessons rather than things that actually fit together thematically. It felt like more a series of ideas piled together than a story. It covers practically everything from “piracy is bad” to “creationism should not be taught in classrooms” to “people that think they know everything after learning a little bit are annoying”. Things I agree with? Sure. But not much of an actual plot. It was cluttered and felt like it had way too much going on. Maybe it was somewhat intentional – after all, there was a line near the end about every event not being a thread in the plot of a novel. But seeing as it is a novel, I don’t think it really worked.

This book reminded me of why I’m really not into romantic subplots. Full on romantic novels may not be my thing, but at least there, the romance serves the story rather than potentially muddling it. Interestingly enough, that distinction between a romantic subplot and a romantic novel can be seen when comparing Sophomores and Other Oxymorons to its predecessor.

In Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, the romantic element serves as a plot trigger. Scott wanted to get closer to Julia, so he joined the newspaper, stage crew, student council. It was because of this that he learned he liked to write, that he made friends with Wesley. Everything in the book felt related. By contrast, Sophomores and Other Oxymorons is a much messier and clumsier read. Scott’s character development from the first book means he doesn’t do as many stupid things in pursuit of Lee as he did with Julia, which is good follow through, but it also means that his spending a year trying to figure out how to ask her out was just another thing thrown into an overstuffed book. Again, probably intentional. But intentional or not, it didn’t really work for me.

I enjoyed Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie when I first read it. I thought it was a funny, entertaining read. Upon rereading it and reading the sequel, I still think it’s a decent enough story, despite its ridiculously dramatic interpretation of going to school. However, it’s also possible I only think that because it looks good in comparison to the sequel. Neither book is terrible. It’s an okay way to kill time. But if there’s another option…I’d recommend picking that one up instead.

The Impact of Adaptations on Perception of Characters

Adaptations are a funny thing. When it comes to superhero movies or TV shows, it’s almost inevitable that someone out there will absolutely hate it.

It’s easy to mock the “not muh Superman!” people that complain about a different interpretation of the character that holds true to the source material. But some of the time, I do understand where they’re coming from. Sure, with a lot of characters, one bad adaptation isn’t the end of the world, but adaptations have a major role on how people perceive comics and comic book characters. Especially live-action adaptations and first adaptations. Especially when the adaptation is of a character non-comics fans don’t know much about.

One of the reasons I’m so anxious about Titans is because as much as I adore Dick Grayson, as much as I know he’s popular among comic fans, I also am painfully aware of the fact that despite his longevity as a character, he’s simply not taken very seriously by the general audience. He’s not Batman, Superman, Spider-Man. All of those characters have gotten multiple adaptations within my lifespan, but Dick? While we’re supposedly getting a Nightwing movie, that’s like the Flash, Cyborg, and Batman ones – stuck in development hell to the point where I doubt it’s ever coming. If he doesn’t stand out as awesome in Titans, he’s not gonna get another chance to do so for a long time.

It’s a similar issue to bad interpretations in a long running series or a shared universe that includes a lot of characters and movies, rather than just a standalone solo movie, or even a trilogy. I mean, consider Harry Potter. In the movies, Hermione took on basically all Ron’s skills and personality. Despite the massive popularity of the series, I highly doubt there’ll be a reboot any time soon, so the only visual adaptation we’re going to have for a long time will be one that stripped one of the most important characters in the series of what made him interesting and managed to make a lot of people – an astounding number, really, considering that Harry Potter was the series that got pretty much the entire world to line up at midnight for a book release and learn about the book version of the characters’ real traits – forget just how important and skilled Ron was.

Take the X-Men movies. Those did a similar thing. Yes, they’ve had both highs and lows that I’ve commented on repeatedly. But what’s more important than deciding how good they are is they’ve had a huge impact on perception of the X-Men. The X-Men were introduced in 1963. The first movie came out in 2000. That means this interpretation of the characters has been around for more than 30% of the characters’ entire lifespan – at least. The characters introduced in 1963 were the original X-Men, from the days before Claremont, the days before characters like Storm, Wolverine, Shadowcat, Emma Frost. Saying that the X-Men movies ruined a character, while still dramatic, is much more understandable than saying the same of a character like Superman or Batman. I have to suppress a laugh at people saying Zack Snyder ruined Superman because that just sounds ridiculous, but complaining about the movie interpretation of the X-Men? That I completely get.

Superman and Batman have had multiple different interpretations in my lifespan, in the forms of both TV series and movies, both live action and animated. The X-Men? Not really. When it comes to live-action, it’s just been the one set of related movies where no one that wasn’t Wolverine, Xavier, Magneto, or Mystique got any real attention and we had to sit through Xavier giving Magneto the same “there’s still good in you” speech like six times. And since there’s never been a real reboot, none of the characters got to be rewritten in a more interesting or more comics accurate way. I try not to say things like X movie ruined Y character, because oftentimes, that’s not fair. There are a lot of unseen people that work hard in the industry on every movie and we should at least try to find something to appreciate before we start complaining about what we didn’t like. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand bitterness towards the X-Men movies for how they treated most of the characters. Scott Summers is my favourite Marvel character, and I had to watch first the original trilogy strip away his background, personality, leadership skills, tactical instincts, and fighting ability, then the alternate timeline make him a totally different person. Believe me. I get it.

Adaptations have a huge impact on perception of characters and stories. Whether it’s how the Richard Donner Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve were so influential that people start talking about that as the source material rather than the comics, or how a first adaptation of a character can make or break their possibilities for a future adaptation, adaptations of superhero comics are arguably even more important than the comics themselves when it comes to keeping those characters alive in public memory. It’s disappointing. Comics are a wonderful medium with amazing stories and brilliant characters that should be acknowledged as such. And superheroes are a major part of cultural knowledge. But when it comes to the general audience, most of that knowledge comes from adaptations, or in a diluted fashion through cultural osmosis.

It’s neither good nor bad that the general audience doesn’t read comics and gets their knowledge of the characters from adaptations. Disappointing, sure, but not intrinsically bad. What is disappointing though is the lack of respect for comics in the writers and directors of a lot of these adaptations. I want the characters I love to get the best possible chance at making it into the public consciousness in an accurate sense. That won’t happen unless adaptations respect them and give nuanced takes. We’ll all still have different perspectives on whether or not those takes are good ones…but we’ll have to respect that there was thought and care put into them. In the long run, that’s what’s good for characters.