Reviewer Subjectivity

Friend and reviewer Ria, over at her blog Bibliotropic, posted a while back about subjectivity and objectivity in reviews. Her post was borne out of her experience reading a novel that, while in and of itself was a good piece of fiction, did not measure so well when put in context of the genre it was written in. In short, she was writing about subjectivity and objectivity in reviews as an experience, rather than a review style or mindset.

And it got me thinking about my own experiences. I had never really considered this before, you see. I approach each novel, each comic, as an object on its own, without the context of the wider genre or industry first and foremost. That evaluation is something I do subconsciously, without thought, and it is automatic. In my reviews, I rarely if ever mention whether the piece of fiction being reviewed compares to the industry/genre at large. I merely note if it is as good as other books/comics I’ve read, and even then, I use a very sample of such works, only the ones that I consider to be absolute best.

And therein is the contradiction of it.

We are all shaped by our reading experiences. Reviewers more so since it is our hobby to be critical and we generally draw upon a vast body of work coming in to any book. If I’m reading an epic fantasy series, then it is a given that mentally I’ll compare it other fantastic epic fantasy novels I’ve read, such as Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles or Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga or James Maxey’s Dragon Apocalypse. If I’m reading military science fiction, then I’ll compare the book/series to various Warhammer 40,000 novels such as Legion of the Damned or the Salamander trilogy or the Gaunt’s Ghosts series or outside of that to Jean Johnson’s Theirs Not To Reason Why or various Star Wars and Star Trek novels with a military bent. And so on and on with other genres and subgenres.

We are creatures that thrive on comparisons. We do it automatically, without conscious thought, because we are always measuring everything things and evaluating their value. As a reviewer, one of the things that I’ve learned is that you cannot approach any novel or comic (or any other format) without doing some comparisons. And often, talking about them. Books like the ones I’ve mentioned above are popular books in their genres and popular books often set a benchmark of both excellence and mediocrity.

One of the important distinctions that need to be made here is that just because something is popular does not mean it is excellent, or that if something is NOT popular, then it is mediocre. We just need to look at the entertainment industry as a whole in the last couple years or so to see how that is.

The Twilight novels (which I have not read, but have seen the film adaptation of) depict a very unhealthy, obsessive and creepy set of relationships between the protagonists. Yet, they were good enough for Summit Entertainment to put some money down and make five movies. 5 movies that have been incredibly successful. Popularity =/= excellence.

Pacific Rim is a movie that, on the surface, seems to riff off on Transformers and Godzilla alike. But nothing could be further than the truth. You can read my review of the movie here. It is a surprisingly nuanced and intelligent film that, while it doesn’t exactly push borders all that much, is well-written and has a great representation of POC characters. American cinema audience slammed the movie following negative marketing from people who hated the movie as a concept and denounced it before release, but international viewers have made it a big success with something like 80% gross coming from the international market. And that’s before we go into the home sales. Lack of popularity =/= mediocrity.

Iron Man 3 follows on from two successful previous movies and builds on a character that has starred in a prominent role in the commercial success The Avengers. But it has a terrible story with good actors, horrible pacing, and lack of any significant payoffs by the end. Yet it was hailed everywhere as a masterpiece. It made over a billion dollars at the box office. Popularity =/= excellence.

And I mean, let’s not forget last year’s Dredd here either. A fantastic movie with a down-to-earth plot and yet home to a great setting and brilliant acting. It got ignored largely because the marketing wasn’t all that good, it had to compete with an apparently similar-looking Raid: The Redemption and it was pretty much a British Indie movie (albeit set in a near-future US) where the American audience just didn’t know much about the character. It flopped horribly at the box office but recently has been gaining traction due to extremely hot home sales and there is a petition floating about for a sequel. Lack of popularity =/= mediocrity.

The above goes for other big-budget movies of this year, such as G.I.Joe: Retaliation and Star Trek: Into Darkness, although I’m a bit neutral on the latter. And the same goes for last year’s Prometheus as well.

But again, we are talking about books here specifically, and by extension, comics. Not movies.

There are ample novels that I could name here that, for me, show that popularity does not mean that the product is an example of excellence. Dan Abnett’s Pariah. Adam Christopher’s The Age Atomic. Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Apprentice. And so on. There are ample novels that I could name here that, for me, show that a lack of popularity does not imply mediocrity. Nick Kyme’s Salamanders trilogy. Nathan Long’s Jane Carver of Waar duology. Graham McNeill’s Heldenhammer. And others.

The same goes for comics. People love Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman for New 52, but I think it is one of the worst titles that DC is putting out right now because it is full of misogyny and sexism of late and because the story is just being artificially extended and milked for far more than it is worth. People harp on about Mark Millar’s Kick Ass series so much, and yet, all that I’ve seen indicates to me that that is a series that, under the guise of being satire, propagates some the worst excesses of the industry. Conversely, the much-maligned Aquaman is getting some excellent exposure in his current ongoing title by Geoff Johns but people can’t seem to get beyond the fact that Aquaman has psychic powers that enable him to communicate with all manners of fishes and other sea creatures and so they relegate him to mediocrity. Gail Simone’s recently launched The Movement (for DC) is an extremely under-rated title but I’m enjoying the hell out of it because it is daring to do something different with superhero comics, connecting the comic world with the real world in a very metaphorically tangible way and I wish more people were taking note of it.

The list goes on. And I speak subjectively of course. Additionally, there are plenty of examples where popularity is justified and the converse is true as well.

We all have different ideas for what is good and what is bad in relation to our entertainment intake, whether that be books or comics or movies.

And this brings me back to the point about looking at something within the context of the industry at large. In novels (specifically from the list I mentioned), Pariah dares to do something completely different from the norm but it falls flat on its face because it is riddled with the worst of the author’s classic mistakes. The Age Atomic attempts to recreate a winning formula (it is a sequel to an actually fantastic Empire State) but it fails horribly because it doesn’t do anything different even minutely. The Assassin’s Apprentice plays on the fantasy genre’s classic tropes and attempts to do something different but just ends up as eyewash. The Salamanders trilogy is notable for the fact that it presents something different to most other Space Marine novels and is heavy on the obvious symbolism is an way that it all appears refreshing. The Jane Carver of Waar duology recreates the magic of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novels, except with a female protagonist, sexual liberties, and being set not on Mars. Those are the winning components there. And being the odd one out here, Heldenhammer is a by-the-numbers-and-straightforward story but it is enjoyable for the fact that it doesn’t pretend to do things differently and is honest about it.

From a combined reading experience from the last 2 years, I’ve actually read very little in the way of books that tend to do things by the numbers. Almost all of them take chances of one sort or another, outside of a few notable examples like the ones I mentioned. And that’s good. Taking chances is how the genres can evolve. Otherwise its the same old, same old, and that’s no fun. There needs to be something in the market to spice things up for the better, not worse, which is what novels like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey do.

The same can be said of comics as well. But it is a somewhat much more thornier debate there. The comics industry is absolutely rife with sexism of all sorts, whether that has to do with female characters being objectified repeatedly, or the hate towards female geeks (the whole bloody “Fake Geek Girl” trend, which gets my blood up because there’s no such thing as a “Fake Geek” period). Or the rampant nepotism. Even using the same kind of tactics to generate interest in a particular issue, such as the death of a character, most recently Damian Wayne and the planned-but-canceled John Stewart in DC Comics.

Shit just gets old, you know?

In the end, what matters is the following:

  • Just because something dares to be different or unexpected, doesn’t mean that it is going to be terrible. Recent case in point: Ben Affleck being cast as Batman for 2015’s Batman vs Superman.
  • Just because something is (actually) the same as others, doesn’t mean that it is going to be bad. Case in point: Heldenhammer.
  • Just because something appears to be the same as others, doesn’t mean that it is not going to be good. Case in point: Pacific Rim and Expendables 2 and Dredd.

Always have to keep in mind that we are creatures of habit and that we like certain things and dislike others.

I think, by now, I’ve kind of lost my thread here and have rambled on. For that I apologise. I hope there is some coherence to all that I’ve said here. I realise that a lot of my examples happen to be movies here, instead of novels or comics as was the original intent, but then again, I didn’t exactly specify that I would be talking about just novels and comics here, despite the fact that Ria at Bibliotropic was talking about books in her original post.

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Posted on August 24, 2013, in Editorial, General and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Interesting thoughts, and I’m also glad you found my original post that thought-provoking.

    I definitely understand what you’re saying about how popularity does not mean a thing is, by default, good or bad. I usually take it a step further (or perhaps just a step in a slightly different direction) and even draw distinctions between things I like and things that are good, and will admit without reservation that the two do not always coincide. Case in point, the Queen of the Damned movie was a bad bad movie. It was okay so long as you don’t compare it to the source material, but even then, the plot moved at an odd pace, half the characters were never introduced outside of the credits, and wow, if you do compare it to the source material, you just spend half of the movie facepalming. And yet, I like to watch it. It’s actually my go-to movie when I’m feeling crappy, because it cheers me up. Plus it has an awesome soundtrack. So it’s totally possible to like something and still know that it’s bad. Lack of quality =/= unenjoyable!

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    • Haha yeah, good point there, and I agree! Queen of the Damned, for me, was a very forgettable movie, so not something I’d watch again. But say, something like Expendables I’ll watch again for the sheer fun of it. Its a not-good movie, but I don’t mind. Its all about brainless action right?

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  1. Pingback: Monthly Report: August and September 2013 | Shadowhawk's Shade

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