Friday, October 4, 2013

Between Discerning and Closed-Minded

If you read Wednesday's review, you'll recall that I liked the story I read a whole lot better than I thought I would.  Nothing wrong with that; there've been plenty of other stories which I've reviewed (here and elsewhere) which I liked significantly more or less than I thought I would.  But it did get me thinking about what an appropriate level of pre-judgement is when it comes to reading, fanfic or otherwise--as I also said in that review, I never would have read Pipsqueak's Day Off were I not planning to write a review of it.  Click down below the break for my thoughts on the line between reasonable and unreasonable pre-reading discrimination.

Being able to tell at a glance whether you're likely to find a particular book (or article, or fanfic, or whatever) interesting is an extremely valuable skill.  The reason for this is pretty self-evident: someone with the ability to determine in a few seconds whether or not they'll enjoy a given book with any degree of accuracy will, by virtue of that ability, find that a much higher percentage of their reading time is spent on things they enjoy than someone who lacks that skill.

That skill is also--and this surprises a lot of people--mostly a learned one.  Reading and English teachers spend a lot of time, starting in elementary grades and continuing all the way through high school in most districts, helping kids develop their ability to quickly and effectively judge whether they'll find something interesting.  This has been particularly true in the last two decades or so, as the advent of the Information Age has made the ability to make those quick and effective judgments of interest and/or relevance ever more important.  Even if your English education consisted of the more old-school "feed them classic lit until they learn to love it" approach, I'm sure everyone reading this spent plenty of time at one grade level or another learning the steps you go through before sitting down and trying to read a book: look at the cover, look at the title, compare what you see to other stories you've read, and so on.

When you don't have that kind of discernment, you end up with a child (this is a true story, by the way) who checks out Dragonflight (one of the Dragonriders of Pern books) from the school library for his classroom reading book, then comes back to return it a few days later because he "hated it"... and then tries to check out its sequel, Dragonquest, to replace it.  He wasn't stupid, and he wasn't trying to be cute; he just didn't know how to tell if he'd like the book except by reading it.

Okay, so the ability to use past experience and context clues to tell whether or not a particular book is a good fit for you is a good thing, inherently.  I read Twilight and, to nobody's surprise, didn't care for it at all.  Because of that, I chose not to read the sequels, and more broadly, have mostly avoided the "supernatural romance" genre because I know (based partly on that story, partly on broader knowledge) that I'm not likely to enjoy those books.

But at a certain point, "I know I probably won't like this because it's a supernatural romance" morphs into "I don't like this because I don't like supernatural romances," and that's where things get tricky.  Once you discard an entire genre, or an entire field of writing, you close yourself off to ever having your opinion challenged.  Since almost every piece of fiction you read is intended to challenge your opinion in some way, this kind of thinking can very quickly turn the beautifully diverse world of reading for pleasure into an echo chamber.  I think we all know people who fall into this trap; I'm friends with a man who exclusively reads stories (fiction and non-) set during WWII.  And from that, his reading is pretty much exclusively about American soldiers in the Pacific theatre.

On a related note, I was shocked by just how much historical fiction about American soldiers in the Pacific theatre there is; he probably owns a couple hundred paperbacks of the stuff.

Anyway, my point is that when you pigeonhole yourself to that degree, you create a reading space which may be comforting, but which is also ultimately stultifying.  Reading for pleasure is, in a very essential way, about exposing yourself to new ideas.  Using heuristics to find what interests you is laudable, but we should never be afraid to try something about which we might be dubious.

After all, how much smaller would the world of fanfiction be if everyone went with their gut reaction to the idea of grown men and women writing stories about The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, and yes, MLP?


  1. That's why critics are so invaluable. If you trust their opinion, they can expose you to works you might've overlooked or never even heard of before. I may not've always agreed with Roger Ebert, but he generally gave me a pretty good idea of how much I'd like a film. Sometimes that meant passing over something he gave a low score, but that was usually something I thought looked terrible anyways but that my family wanted to watch. More often his reviews led me to watch movies I'd worried looked too "artsy" or dull or that I thought was just another mindless blockbuster

    Were it not for this site, I very well may have given up on fanfiction entirely, or at least read far less than the already paltry amount I have now. I certainly wouldn't have read Fallout:Equestria because it's too long (which it is), and almost every one of my favorites would've gone completely undiscovered. Even those stories I've read that weren't reviewed here were only because this blog gave me a greater opinion of ponyfics in general (I'm still a little weary of non-pony fanfiction, though)

  2. The same does apply for music as well. I only noticed this recently, and I'm struggling to fight against my own pigeonholing... I like J-Pop, but when it stops me from being able to sit through Coldplay (who I adored a while back) I know I have a problem. Just a thought.

    1. J-Pop and Coldplay? My boy, there's a whole world of music you need to hear!

      Oh and since you're a fan of Japanese music, you might dig this

    2. I know what you mean with this applying to music. I like to think that I have a pretty broad musical taste, since I usually say "anything" when people ask me what music I like. But even then, I have some genres I especially like (i.e. golden-age hip hop and jungle) and some I can't stand (i.e. american dubstep and pop-punk).

      I guess we're all guilty of a bit of pigeonholing at times.

  3. I used to read anything, as long as the description caught my eye. But I've been disappointed so often by particular tags that I don't bother with them anymore unless it gets an emphatic recommendation from a trusted source. I read enough stuff for reviewing purposes that I wouldn't necessarily choose to read on my own, so I'm satisfied that I'm being exposed to a variety of things, though the argument could be made that it should be a variety of good things.

  4. A big reason people restrict their reading to one genre is so they can find other people who read that genre, then discuss books with them.

    That's a key part of the apeal of fan-fiction. TYou can talk to other ponyfic readers and some of them will have read the same stories, but you don't have to restrict yourself to a single genre.

  5. Oh 111% agree with this. If I'd stuck to my comfortable preferences I never would have read Perdido Street Station, which... I didn't enjoy, but nevertheless keep reading over and over again.

    I don't like first-person books, but two of my favourite books are written in first-person (Hadassah by Tommy Tenney, which is a retelling of the story off Esther; and Restoree by Anne McCaffrey, which is just so... I can't explain the appeal, it's a product of its time and so tiny, but I return to it regular as clockwork). If I'd not forced myself out of my preference niche I would never have experienced any of these.

  6. TBH my interests were always pretty broad. Whether it's music, movies, books, or fanfiction, I generally don't decide what to look at based on genre. For reading, I ask one question: Is the premise interesting? If so, it usually gets a look from me regardless of how likely it is to actually be good, because I like to give authors a chance to surprise me, and sometimes I come across some real gems this way.

    If the premise by itself isn't enough to sell me though, then I often won't read it, even if there are plenty of recommendations saying it's good. I can recognise a story's quality, but whether it will entertain me is the key factor here, and if it won't, then I'd prefer to spend my time elsewhere. This is my reaction to most of that classic literature you mentioned teachers force feeding us.

    Shakespeare's works were brilliant, no doubt, but they never really grabbed me. I did genuinely enjoy Of Mice and Men when they made us read that though, just because I found the characters so interesting. Even if they did make us dissect it word by word.