The errors of popular criticism, part 1: Tropish Aesthetics

Despite my highbrow pretensions and classical music degree, I’m actually quite steeped in science fiction. This means that I’ve paid close attention to the uproar surrounding the Hugo awards and the Sad/Rabid Puppies campaign. I have little to say about the Rabid Puppies, who are clearly nothing more than shit disturbers. But the Sad Puppies campaign is an instance of an annoyingly prevalent conceptual error that stands in dire need of correction.

My intention here is to focus on the misguided aesthetic concepts in general rather than the specific situation because I don’t give a damn about the Hugos as an award: this story’s status as a Hugo-nominated novelette is sufficient to kill the award’s credibility for a decade, I think.

In many ways I have a background similar to the Sad Puppies campaigners: I’ve never been involved with SFF fandom proper. I started with an interest in video games, which brought me onto the Internet with greater enthusiasm than any of my friends at the time (I remember explaining the concept of a blog to an uncomprehending grade 7 classmate about ten years ago). About the same time I discovered TV Tropes, John Scalzi’s blog and novels, and the work of Richard Dawkins.

This last was particularly influential: I became an atheist and a huge fan of his, which meant I had to pretend to care about science and distrust “intellectuals.” I read Dawkins’s elaborate handjob to Alan Sokal (of the Social Text hoax) and from then on harboured an unhealthy skepticism of anything in the humanities, especially the study of literature. I also discovered the fascinating Singularity and transhumanist website Less Wrong, and while I never drank the Singularity Kool-Aid, I was heavily influenced by their attitude toward academia and traditional knowledge.

The three interests led me inexorably to science fiction: TV Tropes had an SFF-ish bent, Scalzi’s novels were easy to read, and liking science fiction was easier and more fun than learning about science. But like the puppies, science fiction for me was centred on movies and the books that aped them. Fantasy was a little more bookish, since there were never any good fantasy movies: I read the Harry Potter series as it came out, The Golden Compass at age 10, The Lord of the Rings at 13, and went from there into Terry Pratchett and Jim Butcher (I know, I know). But it was only much later that I discovered Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, China Mieville, Nick Mamatas, Michael Moorcock, Ursula Le Guin, and all the other SFF-ish writers I know and love today.

Aside from Tolkien, Pullman, and Pratchett, SFF for me was not literary, defined as writing in which the story is created through the use of words which reward study for their own sake. I had gleaned what I now know to be a bizarre aesthetic and literary philosophy from TV Tropes, my atheistic reading, and my overexposure to Hollywood movies. This philosophy precluded any serious analysis of language in novels and militated against taking language seriously as a medium of storytelling.

Atheism and Hollywood movies served to protect the aesthetics by limiting my reading. But TV Tropes was the source of the philosophy’s substance. The TV Tropes model takes atomized bits of story-stuff known as “tropes” and endlessly categorizes them, listing examples and subtropes and variations and inversions. This elaborate taxonomy suggests an aesthetics in which stories are created through a sort of plot and character calculus, and the good stories are all and only the ones that make an interesting and novel pattern with the preexisting plots and characters. A key TV Tropes tenet is a suspicion of originality, construing storytelling as endless variations on a theme. This is what makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer popular, along with its lesser imitators (Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton, Kelley Armstrong, Mike Carey, and God knows how many others): you can always tell what the prime form of the trope is and how it’s been transformed.

Tropish criticism places a story in story space at the intersection of all its tropes and looks at what falls nearby. The unspoken principle, then, is that stories that can be easily placed into story space are the best ones. This spatial concept can be extended to incorporate more unusual works, but it’s never really a good fit. A troper will always see Neil Gaiman as superior to James Joyce.

Certain regions of story space are more interesting than others. This means, if you follow the spatial metaphor, that the aesthetic quality of a work can be evaluated objectively in terms of which areas it explores. If you subscribe to certain key tenets, it’s not hard to prove that Guards! Guards! is better than Jingo but not as good as Men at Arms, and all without quoting a single line. The system probably also explains the Internet’s fascination with extravagantly negative reviews—Doug Walker, Yahtzee Croshaw, Linkara, and the rest are all entertaining performers, but the main reason they caught on is that they flatter the aesthetic beliefs of a large number of people.

This system is extremely comfortable, and many people never do leave it. But needless to say, it is also extremely limiting. It can’t handle any genre fiction that is even slightly unusual—for example, Mamatas’s fiction, which is self-evidently weird and wonderful does pretty badly by any tropish metric (I remember being perplexed by Bullettime, and part of me was strongly inclined to dislike it).

The popular fiction of past centuries—Shakespeare, Austen, Doyle, Wilkie Collins—does all right, but mainstream writers of the twentieth century, Faulkner, Hemingway, Updike, Irving, Pynchon, DeLillo, etc., are absolutely reviled. And the system is not really interested in anything beyond assigning a ranking and pointing out the ways in which the plot-character calculus of a work resembles and differs from that of other works. It is medium-agnostic. Most importantly: it almost entirely ignores language.

When people say that they are looking for good stories without anything “pretentious,” this is what they mean: stories with recognizable tropes put through a given set of transformations to yield a pattern that is new but not in any way challenging or surprising (challenge and surprise would be pretentious). The words are secondary, to the extent that they count at all: Jim Butcher is not a shitty writer, he’s an able practitioner of trope calculus. That excruciating kaiju story is not the literary equivalent of my balls, it’s a variation on the kaiju trope in the form of a short story (something that apparently hasn’t been tried before, perhaps because a giant monster destroying a city is such a visual thing).

Again, I know this from the personal experience of having held similar beliefs not too long ago. These errors of popular criticism depend on a dichotomy between the popular and the “pretentious” to such an extent that the beliefs evaporate once their adversary is taken away. This means the adversary must be a shadowy one that can never quite be pinned down to a specific person or work, aside from the occasional scattered reference here and there.

More on this shadowy adversary in part 2. Part 3 will actually look at some genre fiction in detail.


2 thoughts on “The errors of popular criticism, part 1: Tropish Aesthetics

  1. Pingback: The errors of popular criticism, part 2: The nature of the pretentious | They Never Quite Shine

  2. Pingback: The errors of popular criticism, part 3: Genre literature | They Never Quite Shine

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