Sunday, June 05, 2011

Essay: Do the Details Matter?

How many times have we heard the statement saying that "I'm only interested in looking for a good story," with politics, agenda, race, culture, and author not factoring into the equation? Various critics, editors, and writers are baffled by the pervasiveness of this ideology (Nick Mamatas has a brief discourse on why a "good story" is not good enough). For me, it hearkens to one of the common tools (perhaps erroneously) still used in literary criticism and theory: Formalism. You only need to read the text itself; author, history, and context is discarded.

It's a lazy approach yet it has a certain appeal. After all, when we approach an unknown author or book--especially from a genre or field we're not familiar with--this is the paradigm we're working with. I don't care who the author is, when the story was written, or what the background of the material was. All I have to work with is simply the text. This was, for the most part, also the norm half a century ago, considering the unavailability of the Internet, and how the positive effects of globalization have yet to take place.

To a certain extent, "blind" readings also attempt to work within this framework, as the author's name is stripped from manuscripts and the reader or juror only has the text to wrestle with. The value of blind readings for me, however, is discovering the context of the story once you've accepted it as a "good" story. Who is the author? Under what scenario was it written? What was the agenda? It's also a great tool to expose the claims made by people like VS Naipaul. Naipaul's argument for example isn't new: science fiction already witnessed--in print--the folly of Robert Silverberg when it came to James Tiptree Jr.


Formalism is an old theory and with it comes a certain idealism that is impractical. It assumes that there is a certain level of objectivity that can be attained when reading a text, perhaps the same assumption people have when it comes to history ("it's fact!") and the news ("gee, your choice if headlines is not biased at all"), when that's not the case.

Let me sum it all up with one word: Baggage. We all have baggage (emotional, cultural, political, religious) and this informs how we read texts. An atheist for example might interpret the Bible as fiction at worst, or mythological history at best. A fundamentalist Christian, on the other hand, will read the Bible as truth more factual than the latest scientific discoveries.

Allow me to spell it out for you: there is no objective story, whether it's fiction or non-fiction. It's not just in the way it's written but in the way we read it.

For example, if an alien suddenly arrived and acquired our literature (assuming it understands our language--and that's a big if in itself), the way I read The Lord of the Rings will be very different from the way they'll interpret it. Will they consider it as fact instead of fabulation? Or perhaps they'll root for Sauron instead of Frodo. Or maybe they'll just find the work simply too long and futile.

Just look at the headlines from a hundred years ago. What was deemed important at the time is irrelevant by today's standards.

I bring this up because I just watched X-Men: First Class last Thursday (warning: spoilers), and while it has a few flaws in logic (Cerebro, Magneto's helmet, the missiles at the end), it is for the most part an enjoyable film with lots of relevant highlights (the characterization, the interplay between Mystique and Beast, etc.). It has one significant problem though, although for most people (and reviewers, apparently), this is a minor detail. Which begs the question, how important are details?

My one problem with the film--and this is ironic considering the theme of X-Men is that they represent the outsiders of our society (I once saw a blog post label the series as racial minorities and gay people if they were White)--is how the people of color are treated. Guess what, they either die or join the evil side. It's not new politics but one that has been in place for the past few decades and its recurrence starts to become a pet peeve once you notice it. Some people will brush off this detail as a "minor flaw" in the story. Others, those who've either experienced this problem firsthand or witnessed this too often, will not simply let this slide as the dilemma jars them from the entire movie experience.

Another, more personal experience for me, is Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, which is either the bane or the blessing of science fiction Filipino fans. On the surface, it's a book to be praised (pro-war politics aside), since it's one of the first science fiction novels to feature a Filipino protagonist (and this was how I felt when I first read it). Over time though, I started questioning this assumption. For example, the hero's culture is never revealed until the very end, although occasional irrelevant-to-the-story hints have been dropped here and there. If we strip out the character's name--let's make it Rick--there's really nothing there to suggest that he would otherwise be a Caucasian American. The only moment of Filipino-ness is his awareness of Philippine trivia, namely that one of the spaceships is named after a Filipino president. As far as the novel is concern, the character's cultural heritage (at least the part that's not American) did not have any impact at all (others are, of course, welcome to debate this thesis). Most non-Filipinos will probably skim this part of the book, but it's an important detail to me, as a Filipino.

Formalism has its place in critical theory but it's not the only tool we should be using, nor should it be an excuse not to eschew other paradigms. At the end of the day, I say Fuck good story, because that phrase doesn't really articulate what kind of stories interest you. It's like reading a book review that simply says the book is either good or bad.

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