The “Just Don’t Read it if You Don’t Like it” fallacy and other arguments that lack critical thinking

Literary criticism is a good thing.

Let’s just get that out of the way right now.

We need to be able to criticize literature. We need to be able to discuss fiction. We need the freedom to do that in various ways, including fanfic.

We need to adjust our thinking to accept that you can enjoy a work and still find it problematic. We need to see that the world is not black and white, 1-star and 5-star reviews.

Something I’ve noticed a lot of people saying in response to criticisms of books is “If you don’t like it, then don’t read it!”

This is a fallacy, and it’s completely nonsensical — how can you know if you like something or not if you haven’t read it? Furthermore, it doesn’t leave room for people who do like something but find it problematic.

For example, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for certain Anne McCaffrey books, including the Stockholm-Syndrome-tastic Freedom’s Landing. I’m not going to gloss over the massive problems in that book — only weak women get raped, race A good/race B bad, it’s totally cool to marry the dude who tried to rape you because he’s totes changed! — just because I have a fond memory of the 20 times I read it when I was 10.

Honestly I doubt I’d enjoy it as much if I reread it now, but I’m not going to. In my memory, I really liked that book. It was also incredibly problematic (as is a lot of McCaffrey’s stuff).

Yet when people criticize Fifty Shades of Grey and the romanticized abusive relationship within its pages, fans of the book (or even people who aren’t fans) will come out of the woodwork to screech “WELL JUST LEAVE HER ALONE, JEEZ, SHE WROTE THIS FOR SCHOOL AND DOESN’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK ANYWAY!”

It’s the FanFiction.net culture around reviews and criticism, blown up to global proportions.

Look. If you write a book and publish it, you have to be ready for criticism. If you write fanfic and publish it online, you have to be ready for criticism. That is what happens when you put your work out there: people criticize it.

And some people will be downright mean when they do so! They will insult you and your taste in music! They may even write spitefic, or fix the plot continuum by getting rid of your author self-insert character that’s fucking everything up!

This is not silencing*. It is part of literary culture.

Another argument I see quite often is “You’re just jealous of [insert author’s] success!”

Ha ha, no. Seriously, what the fuck.

Dear people who make this argument: please go to your nearest university and find an English major. Tell them they only chose English as their major because they are jealous of the success of all the writers ever.

Their reaction will be anywhere between hysterical laughter and slowly backing away with fear in their eyes. Because you will sound crazytown bananapants.

Criticizing EL James or Anne McCaffrey or whatshisfuck who wrote 13 Reasons Why I’m A Mansplaining Dudebro does not mean I am jealous of their success. It means their books are deserving of criticism, and as a reader who also likes to use zir brain I am going to do said criticizing.

All books are deserving of criticism. If you think your favourite book ever is somehow exempt from being criticised, you are living in a fantasy world. Which usually I’d applaud, but in this case you need to wake the fuck up to reality. This is the reality of literature: criticism happens, and it needs to.

And, you know, I get it. I get the feeling of a knife being driven into your heart when you read someone’s vicious, cutting review of a book you like. When you’re a fan of something it is really hard to accept that other people might hate the things you like. Wars have been started over less.

I mean, look what happens to our favourite community college study group when one member doesn’t like a certain band:

This is what happens with fandom. This is why certain fandoms have long-standing beefs with each other, too (because apparently there can only ever be one science-fiction thing ever).

But it’s silly and counterproductive. You can love both Star Trek and Star Wars and at the same time think that Star Trek is actually a better creation. You can love Whedonverse stuff while still acknowledging that most of it is nowhere near as feminist as people claim and that he’s not the greatest writer that ever lived. You can love Twilight and acknowledge that it’s super problematic because Edward is pretty damn abusive.

You can have more than black-and-white thinking. Which is exactly where the “If you don’t like it, don’t read it!” and “You’re just jealous of so-and-so’s success!” arguments come from. You just need to remember to take a step back, breathe, and remind yourself that people can hate the things you love. And if you really think they’ve got a certain aspect of a book wrong, you can tell them so. You can engage in arguments about it because that is also a part of literary culture, that is also a part of literary criticism.

But telling them to shut up and go away because they’re stupid and they don’t know what they’re talking about and they’re just jealous! OMG!!!!1111oneoneeleven? That’s not. That’s just screaming at the darkness, trying desperately to prove you exist. We get it. You exist. You are also stuck in a black-and-white, 1-star-and-5-star-review dichotomy. Good job.

When it comes to literary criticism, stop with the “If you don’t like it, don’t read it!” argument. It’s not even an argument. It’s the equivalent of a kindergartener screaming to the teacher that another kid pushed him.

There is no rule anywhere that says we must all be nice to authors. There is no rule anywhere that says we can’t criticize fiction, or that it must always be constructive. Sure, it’s nicer to do constructive criticism, but there’s no rule that says literary criticism must be nice. There is no rule anywhere dictating how authors should respond to said criticism or that they should at all. There’s no rule saying authors must read all criticism of their work (in fact, it’s probably better for their mental health if they don’t, but again — there’s no rule saying they shouldn’t, either).

The only thing that comes close to being a rule about literary criticism is that if a book has been published, it’s open to criticism. If fanfic has been published, it’s open to criticism. And that is not so much a rule as just a fact. of. life.

Embrace the shades of grey.** Nothing in life is black and white.

Except zebras. And dalmatians.

Ok some things are black and white. My point still stands.

-Kat

*I disagree vehemently with the idea that things like Protectors of the Plot Continuum or other criticisms of Mary Sues in fic exist as ways to “silence” women authors. If a fanfic writer fucks up the plot of a book and makes all the characters go OOC because s/he wants to bone the main character or out-power the main character or both and s/he does it terribly, criticism of that story is well and fair. Hell, criticism is well and fair no matter if the story is done terribly or excellently and you don’t even care that there’s a Mary Sue cause it’s such an awesome story. If criticism is silencing, then all English departments should be shut down, because they’re silencing authors too.

**Yes, I do find it hilarious that a lot of people who are caught up in this black-and-white thinking are also major fans of Fifty Shades of Grey. And by “hilarious”, I mean I just drank all the scotch.

It’s Not the BDSM

[content warning: description of: domestic violence, abuse, using BDSM as an excuse for abuse, rape]

Some of you may be aware that I have a deep and abiding loathing for the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy.

At first, I was just pissed off that it existed — it was plagiarized from another book series (that is badly written and glorifies abusive relationships, with a fanbase that largely seems, well, pretty offbase most of the time) and yet this seemed ample reason to reward IceQueenSnowDragonFairyFartPrincess — sorry, EL James — with a publishing contract. Oh, and scores and scores of cash.

Then I was pissed off at how badly written it was. I mean, dear gods, if people are going to make an author rich for a plagiarized piece of work could it at least be well-written? Apparently that’s too much to ask. The series is terrible. It is worse than the source material, Twilight, and that really is saying something.

Then, I got pissed off at the combo-deal of crap: not only is the BDSM in the books completely wrong and downright dangerous, the relationship is actually incredibly abusive. And often, Christian uses his “domness” or whatever as an excuse to abuse Ana.

For a while, folks have been calling out the series for its blatant glorification of abuse. And for a long while, there was no response from EL James. Perhaps she was clueless, we thought. Perhaps she just doesn’t know, and once she hears about it, she’ll think about it. Apologize. Say that the books are just a fantasy, and that they shouldn’t be taken as a manual on How to Do Relationships.

Then she said this:

“Nothing freaks me out more than people who say this is about domestic abuse. […] Bringing up my book in this context trivializes the issues, doing women who actually go through it a huge disservice. It also demonizes loads of women who enjoy this lifestyle, and ignores the many, many women who tell me they’ve found the books sexually empowering.”

Quote source. (Be warned, the page plays two mis-timed video ads that are incredibly annoying.)

There went that theory.

Jenny Trout has already done an amazing takedown on her blog, but I feel I must add my voice to the conversation.

Especially as, since we took to Twitter and started asking EL James about her statement, she blocked anyone who said anything about 50 Shades being abuse, and called us all trolls and witches.

Mature.

So, here’s my response to you, EL James. Please note how civil I’m being, even though I hate you with every fibre of my being and hope that Artemis turns you into a stag.

(After the cut, I go into detail about abuse and rape. I put in a read more tag so that you can skip this if you want.)

Continue reading “It’s Not the BDSM”