Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Authorial Worldview and Reader Reactions

My review of It's a Dangerous Business, Going Out Your Door generated a lot of discussion in the comments section.  A number of interesting points concerning why people did or didn't enjoy the story were brought up, but there's one in particular that I want to take a closer look at.  Specifically, a few posters mentioned that they disagreed with the moral ethos which underlay the piece.  Now, I'm not interested in debating the philosophical underpinnings of that story or any other (at least, not here--I don't know about you, but I try to keep my theological discussions and my pony fanfiction separate), but I do think it brings up an interesting point: how does it affect one's enjoyment of a story when the piece contains a worldview which one finds objectionable, or even abominable?  My thoughts on the matter, after the break.

To quote Issac Asimov, "There is a perennial question among readers as to whether the views contained in a story reflect the views of the author.  The answer is 'Not necessarily-' and yet one ought to add another short phrase, '-but usually.'"  People write what they know, and this by necessity includes things like worldview; few and far between are the writers who can both convincingly and positively portray a set of beliefs or morals which are at odds with their own.

This can lead to problems when a reader's worldview conflicts with an authors.  When I finally got around to reading Heinlein's Starship Troopers, I absolutely hated it.  There were a few flatly objective reasons (I disapprove of lengthy moralistic monologues even when I agree with their content, and Troopers is full of ten page soliloquies extolling the responsibilities of citizenship, the failures of representative democracy, the familial structure which underlies the military, etc.), but I won't deny that much of my dislike stemmed from the fact that Heinlein's vision of the future seemed absolutely abominable to me, yet the author clearly felt that it represented a positive, even ideal, look at what values humanity might one day turn to.  It's hard to enjoy something when one's initial reaction is disgust.

Of course, Starship Troopers is a polemic, so it's natural that its worldview should be presented in such a way that it cannot be overlooked.  But many stories which are by no means moral or philosophical treatises can suffer the same fate; off the top of my head, I've found significant aspects everything from of Philip Pulman's His Dark Materials trilogy to Goethe's Faust to the entirety of Asimov's writings set in the Foundation universe after the first trilogy to be at odds with my own worldview to some extent.  Yet to varying degrees, I enjoyed all three of these.  So what's the difference?

For starters, all of the examples above (in contrast to Troopers) are shaped by the opinions of their authors, but none require the reader to totally concede to these opinions in order to follow the logic of the characters.  Furthermore, each of these authors at least allows for the possibility that those who disagree with them aren't stupid and/or evil, which is always nice (one thing I have observed over the years: if you start your argument by telling somebody that they're stupid and/or evil for disagreeing with you, they probably won't be swayed by anything else you say after that).  And of course, each of these stories has more to recommend it than authorial outlook: Faust is a fascinating character study, whether one buys into the primary moral dilemma or not; Lyra's world from Pulman's books is a delightful place to read about in its own right; and Asimov, of course, could build up and resolve a mystery like few other writers.

So there are ways to write a story with a moral message that can be appreciated even by those who don't share that particular view of morality.  That's good, because exposure to differing viewpoints is one of the best ways to develop one's own moral ethos.  If it were impossible for anyone to read and enjoy anything they didn't fully agree with... well, the world would be a very sad, isolated place.  Exploring how other people view the world is a noble endeavor, and I feel there are few vehicles better suited to this kind of learning than fiction writing.

So how does all this apply to fanfiction?  Well, the fandom has produced a few pieces which fall into the category of polemics (Blazing Glory comes to mind--leaving aside any discussion of the other merits of the story, I can't imagine anyone who doesn't accept that morality is a unique product of Christianity could enjoy it), and many more which either are too short/unfocused/random to express any kind of coherent worldview (which isn't a knock on them, just an observation), or which are unlikely to rankle any readers by virtue of being near-universally accepted.  But what about stories like Dangerous Business, which expresses a worldview which some people clearly do find objectionable in one or more ways?

I don't have a simple answer for this.  There are plenty of fanfics I've read which have morals that I don't personally agree with; some I disliked, others I quite enjoyed.  Blueblood Returns and its sequels (which collectively have earned six-star status on EqD, so I'll give them a full review eventually) take a "the ends justify the means" approach to rulership and individual responsibility that I find abhorrent, yet that didn't stop me from enjoying them.  On the other hand, Reconnection (sequel to Severing, one of the earliest grimdark stories in the fandom) takes a similar approach to justifying its protagonists (albeit in completely different circumstances), and I found it outrageous.  Part of that is that the Blueblood stories are simply better stories than Reconnection, but a lot of that has to do with the way the moral was treated.  In the former, the characters all ultimately accept the machinations to which they are subjected as being for the best, which I might not think right (or in-character, but that's another matter), but it's presented in such a way that I as a reader can disagree and still appreciate the story for what it is.  The latter goes out of its way to show that mercy and kindness are weaknesses, and are the product of a dangerous naivety that cannot endure in the face of "reality."  Heck, the author even wrote an "alternate ending" to show just how stupid and foolish s/he thinks it is to not sink to the level of your enemies.  As someone who vehemently disagrees with those conclusions, I found the story offensive and unpleasant to read.

So what can we conclude from all this?  Well, I think it behooves an author to make sure that their work, even if it is necessarily predicated on a controversial (or at least, not a universally accepted) premise, respects the presence of alternate worldviews and allows for their existence, even if they aren't directly addressed.  And as readers, it's easy for most of us to dismiss one story because we don't like the moral, and almost as easy to overlook flaws in another because we're inclined to agree with the message behind it.  While we can hardly help having our own philosophies, and interpreting what we read in light of these, we should never be afraid to try reading something with which we might not agree.  And if we end up hating it anyway (and make no mistake, every reader has the inalienable right to dislike what they've read for any reason, including authorial worldview), then the time "wasted" in reading seems to me a small price to pay in the name of literary exploration.


  1. You've mentioned that you're tackling increasingly long stories, which makes sense as you move through 6-star ponyfic's history. Two thoughts: one, I certainly won't mind if posts become more irregular as a result. You might post brief updates/initial impressions as you go if you don't want the blog quiet for too long. ("I've reached chapter 23, and I'm warming up to the characters in a way I didn't expect . The author's writing has become much tighter.") Two: If you feel the need to post something meaty, non-review posts, like this one, could certainly be interesting. I enjoyed this point.

    I continue to look forward to your posts!

  2. My first reaction to this post in general is kind of shocked disbelief at the existence of Blazing Glory, and from a scan of the comments the realisation that it includes a rape scene and somehow still exists on Equestria Daily. What?

    Oh, you know what, I don't care, it's the internet.

    Anyway, my general position is that it's bad form to include assumptions of any kind in your story which aren't deliberately made to support the story. Writing a story should be about exploration and learning, reflection and contemplation. I instantly get turned off when the story sacrifices it's structure for moralising. I regard that as a failure of storytelling akin to spilling coffee on the paper. As an author your job is to tell a good story. If you sacrifice the integrity of your story to make a moral point then you've essentially lied to your audience.

    1. Ever read any of Project Horizons? I'm going to guess probably not, haha.

    2. For the first part of your comment, that is.

      I have to say, I agree with your ideas in the second half. Perhaps it is just a reflection of how I have learned how to write, but moral 'soliloquies', or anything quite as blunt, strike me as lazy storytelling. The beauty of literature is in its openness to interpretation. By removing that aspect, and essentially stating moral positions, you have an essay, not a story.

    3. Well, Somber did include an warning before the scene, even if rape is one of the main plot drivers. And don't forget FoE's Chapter "20.5". But then again, Fallout Equestria as a whole seems to play by it's own rules.

    4. Unfortunately, the submissions process only requires a chapter, maybe two at most, and once a story is posted, it's assumed that the rest of the story will be of similar quality. Thus, things like chapter 20.5 don't get any vetting. It's bitten us in the ass before, see also Terra Tumultus, aka "Hitlerjack" (although that was a case where I think we had the offending chapter submitted and no one had pre-read it).

    5. Then again, chapter 1 of Project Horizons was pretty horrific in itself. Rape, incredibly high-impact violence and cannibalism, and that was just to get the ball rolling. It was brutal and yet it was executed brilliantly.

      But the point has been raised, and I think in this case it is particularly true, and that is Fo:E really does play by its own rules.

  3. Let me admit something, first. While I didn't agree with the spiritual and destiny aspect of "It's a Dangerous Business", I didn't mention because quite frankly, I felt it wasn't something worth mentioning. It was simply Jetfire's point of view and I didn't feel it was a good reason to judge a fict (he had already done enough otherwise to keep me from enjoying it that I found far more annoying).

    True be told, not all fanficts share my view but that's fine. I may not have enjoyed "A Rose is a Rose" by the time it was finished but it had nothing to do with the antagonist's philosophy that I shared to an extent and more to do with how there last couple of chapters meandered and what the villian did in the last chapter was just flat out unbelievable. By comparison, the "Monkey's Paw" (not fanfiction) didn't share my point of view but I still like it a lot.

    However, let me admit right now that I find certain point of views to be so repugnant that I can't help but pound my fist and shout "NO" and say that no amount of quality could make me enjoy it.

    I'm going to mention a commercial piece of ficiton because it will allow me to release some steam that's been building up over the years. That would be Brian Jacques's Redwall series. First off, I loved the first book, in fact my first foray in intending to write fan-fiction (even before I used the internet) began in sixth grade with Redwall (I even have some the old maps I drew for my unwritten stories). Then I got to one of the prequels, "The Outcast of Redwall", six months later .

    Now let me point our one of Jacques's weaknesses, he's a terrible writer of gray characters (he even admits that there is no and almost all (there about a handful of exceptions) character of a species is good or evil. Every mouse, every otter, every badger is good, while every rat, every ferret, every fox is evil. But you could accept that because well, they were raised that way. "Outcast" shot down that belief. It was clear that Veil, who was raised by the good creatures of Redwall, committed repulsive acts such as stealing and attempted poisoning and continued to due such acts as the story all because he was born a ferret and the son of the main villain (who he hates for abandoning him). The only good act he did was at the end and then Jacques (through other characters) put into question the goodness of it a chapter later. Honestly, that was the first book by him I didn't enjoy and thoughts about it left me disgusted. There may have been later characters who crossed the species-moralirty line but that was when Jacques put the idea up front and he failed at it miserably because there was a bad case racisim and morality determined at birth that I couldn't like.

    And that was why I fell out of love with the series (you feel the greatest amount of contempt not to the things you've hated but to those you used to love), I couldn't accept that point of view. When I finished "Salamanstron", there were only two options. Either Jacques had to grow as writer or I had to not grow up if I wanted to enjoy what he wrote. I decided just to abandon all of what I read and be done with it. When I read Taggerung (it's the samething only reverse, an otter who is still good despite being raised by vermin) in high school just to see where he had gone, I knew I made the right choice.

    It's when a work has a point of view that's truly despicable ( which I admit varies between people on what those are) that I have a problem. I have no issue with making a nazi a human being even when he's done horrible acts (I love Tezuka's "Adolf" and Bernard Krigstein's "Master Race" for this reason). Just don't present his actions as acceptable.

    1. Let me add something else to this. This applies to artists as well, but more on their moral character and how they conducted themselves. It's also a harder to fall into the "I abhor you" category. I may not have agreed with a number Walt Kelly's or Pablo Piccasso's or Walt Disney's or John Ford's actions and opinions, but I still love their work.

      By comparison, I find Salvador Dali to so repulsive (he admits to considering pushing his wife off a precipice, amongst) that I can't enjoy what he paints, not matter his obvious skill.

    2. Oh god, don't talk to me about nature vs. nurture in Redwall. D: Taggerung was, if not the last, then the penultimate Redwall novel I read, and it was at once terrible and amazing, but that issue always bothered me, and with Outcast as well. I actually stopped reading the series because I realized it had been written on a very recognizable formula and I'd just been ignoring that for a while. At least you already said everything I have to say on the subject.

    3. *Now let me point our one of Jacques's weaknesses, he's a terrible writer of gray characters (he even admits that there is no and almost all (there about a handful of exceptions) character of a species is good or evil.*

      Good gravy, this what happens when I don't write beforehand and then edit (and type at minutes after two AM). Even for me, that's bad.

      This is how it should read:
      "Now let me point out one of Jacque's weaknesses, he's a terrible writer of gray characters (he even admits that there is no gray, just black and white in his books) and almost all (there are about a handful of exceptions) characters of a species are good or evil."

      Perhaps I should thank my lucky stars that the pre-readers are not reviewing the comments here because otherwise I'd never get anything published.



    5. @ Bugs

      You probably want to be using past rather than present tense there...

  4. Personally, I am a very big proponent of death of the author. I generally make two exceptions, though: self-inserts, and when the author comes out and states that the views of the story and his or her own views are congruous.

    It can be fun to read a story with an absolutely horrific amoral world, where everyone does awful things to each other, and in the context of that universe (or point of view), these horrible, awful, and sometimes even nonsensical things are justified. After all, where would we be left without our Humbert Humberts or Tom Ripleys? There's a lot to be learned from series like A Song of Ice and Fire where just about everyone has different viewpoints, ethics and religions, and no one person can truly be said to be a hero or a villain (Okay. Joffrey and Gregor Clegane. Fine. But people like that are the exception rather than the rule in the series.).

    Sometimes even when an author outright states his or her intent for a story, I like to go in and make my own interpretation anyway. I refuse to read The Chronicles of Narnia as religious allegory, and instead it's a tragedy about the fate of the struggling nation of Calormen, told from the viewpoint of the Narnians. Shasta is an unfortunate peasant boy, but because of his birthright, he is thrown into a political situation he was not raised for, and he longs for his home back in Calormen. Everything else in-between is setup and epilogue.

    I know a person who read the entire ''A Song of Ice and Fire'' series as straightforward adventure fantasy, with Daenerys Targaryen as the white-knight heroine who will save the world against the evil Stannis Barthaeon, avenging the tragic hero Renly.

    My interpretation of The Giving Tree is that it's a story about a child-sociopath who is willing to slaughter a sapient being for material gain, teaching us all a valuable lesson about how you should never trust children.

    A large part of the fun in media is what you make out of it as the reader. People enjoy different works for different reasons, and who's to say that interpretations have to be the same for everyone?

    1. Oh yeah, just to add to that. I'd like to recommend Laura Bohannan's article, Shakespeare in the Bush ( to really hammer in the point of messages that transcend all cultures, religions, eras and ages. Alas, poor Hamlet. I knew him, Western Culture, a mofo of infinite wangst.

      It makes you wonder if back in the day, the Bard ever just sat down and wrote his plays and went, "Dude, this line is raunchy as all !@$^. Awesome! Oh yeah, and this dialogue sounds pretty neat too... But who cares! I get to make donkey&#&$er jokes!"

      Perhaps he would be rofling over in his grave, about how people are taking his work so seriously now.

      Phew. There. I did it. I said something about Shakespeare without using a single f-bomb.

    2. I just want to say that that interpretation of The Giving Tree is totally win.

  5. For me, the problem comes when the author is trying to sell something you disagree with in such a way as it undermines your empathy with the characters. I can happily read stuff that I find no philosophical or moral agreement with, as long as I'm not forced to assume that the character is definitively 'right' in order to empathise or sympathise with it. Hell, some of the best tragedies come from stories where you KNOW the characters assumptions or principals are questionable, and you get to watch the ramifications of that. Again, I happily site Cudpug's 'Hospice' for that because the tragedy is not that Rarity dies at the end, the tragedy is (for me, at least) the attitudes of the main characters as they approach that point. If I shared those character's point of view, the story would not have been as powerful for me.

    That was my issue with Dangerous Business. If you don't actually buy into the 'faith' thing, then the story itself gets caught between either making no sense, or being locked into a path where the characters have no free will. Consequently, I've read other stuff that tackles faith in a way that I have no problem with, because as the reader, I can watch from the outside and make my own decisions on how it affected the story.

    I suppose the breaking point in that sense, is when the world the story is set in forces one ideological point to be definitively true. Usually, even the most direct polemic is only once character's view, and that prevents it from being binding. However, when some magic or other (in this example, future prediction) demonstrates one position to be fundamentally true, I feel that it removes the reader's ability to form their own opinion about it. THAT is the problem.

    So I don't think it's about whether I share the world-view of the author: it's about heather I am left enough wiggle room to interpret it's validity for myself.

  6. Well, someone already brought up death of the author, so all I can do is say "ask anyone who's written m/m or even straight shipping" and wonder what my point is in bringing that up. ._.

  7. I'm so pressed for time that I can't really get all my thoughts on the issue down on paper (so to speak) but I just have to take time to say that the comment section here is some of the most interesting and intelligent (and polite) discussion I've come across on the entire interwebs.

    Bronies for the win!