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 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.


*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.

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

  1. John D. Hughes

    So I infrequently read your blog posts and never comment, because… I have no idea why, really. But I will now, because this makes me SO MAD! Like, raging mad. Like, Stabby McStabberson mad.

    Criticism is not simply useful, but entirely required. Especially because the writer, being the creator of the piece in question, is guaranteed to be the least reliable source of objective opinion. Who could be more biased about a thing that the creator of that thing? Outside opinions are a necessity, even when you dislike that opinion. [I] Especially [/I] when you dislike that opinion.

    1. Kat

      That’s cool. I rarely read or comment on other blogs either. Because, well. I suck at commenting.

      Anyway. I agree criticism is entirely required. I wouldn’t be anywhere near a good writer if I didn’t listen to criticism. However, I tend to listen to criticism before something is published, and not after. Once I and my editor feel something is polished enough for the world and we release it, that’s it. If I look at criticism after it’s been released then I’ll try and take it back and change it some more, and at some point… you have to let it go. Besides, looking at bad reviews? Shitty for my mental health. I’d much rather hear honest criticism from beta readers before the book is ready to go out into the world. People I trust to give me an honest opinion and not call me names while they’re doing it. 😉

      More than this, though, I see literature as an ongoing conversation, and literary criticism — whether about current authors who can see it or about ones who have been dead for decades — is part of that conversation. It’s pointless to have art without a response to said art, and literary criticism is definitely a response to literature.

      (For future reference, to get italics you can use HTML tags. BBcode won’t work on WordPress comment forms. I can go ahead and edit it so the italics work for you, if you like.)

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