Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Essay: Candy Fiction

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

Every other weekend or so, I attend Dean Alfar's (if I was in Dumaguete, it'd be Ian Casocot's) Lit Critters session where writers and aspiring writers discuss, dissect, and critique various short stories so that we may know more about the craft and how to incorporate elements that work and avoid those that don't (or rather how to execute them in such a way that they will be effective) into our own stories.

This reading group is rather small and perhaps one disadvantage of such an atmosphere is that if you're not confident enough, it's all too easy to give in to peer pressure: agreeing with everyone else, not voicing your own opinion especially if it's contrary to something that's recently been said by another member, or simply a hesitation to speak up first. It's like high school all over again.

Thankfully, my peers are open and so far, the Lit Critters is a venue for open discussion rather than a clique that determines what is canon and what isn't. In fact, I've made a fool of myself more than once (it's out there on public record for those of you who took the time to download and listen the Lit Critter recordings) but you know what, it's okay. The important point of Lit Critters is that we are able to identify what we like or dislike in a story and then be able to elucidate our reasons. It's not enough to say that "I like this story" or "I have a bad feeling about this story" but rather "I like this story because of the characterization" or "The story fell flat because of the perpetually-shifting tenses". And because we are bilingual, we use Filipino if we have to, as long as we can convey our ideas. As writers, we need to hone our tools that enable us to communicate.

Having said that, after everyone has given their critique, there is pressure to cave in to the rest of the group's opinion. You might like a story that no one else enjoyed. Or disliked a story that everyone else praised. Once the critique is over, there's honestly nothing wrong from liking a story that everyone has deemed horrible. The important aspect is that you should recognize why the story didn't work--or in your case, why you enjoyed it. I mean there are a lot of flawed stories out there that I enjoy reading. Does that mean I'm oblivious to their flaws and weaknesses? No, of course not. Sometimes, I call these stories "guilty pleasures" because they tend to only excel in one thing and fall flat with the rest. Such stories are what I call candy--they're not nutritious but can be quite addictive. I wouldn't nominate such stories to win literary awards but hey, that doesn't mean I can't enjoy them in my own time and when a critical lens is unnecessary.

There's nothing wrong with liking "candy fiction" anymore that we can blame ourselves for liking sweets or sugar. However, an important part in my opinion is being able to distinguish it from the other types of fiction we might enjoy. For example, I like both Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes and R.A. Salvatore's recent novel, The Orc King. Just because I like both novels doesn't mean that in my reviews, I'll both give them perfect scores. Either book isn't without flaws but they both aim to achieve different goals. The former is more of a coming-of-age book with various themes thrown in such as innocence, redemption, etc. while the latter is this action/adventure fest working with Tolkienesque elements that attempts to change a formerly assumed notion. Between the two, I'd say Bradbury is the better written one on multiple levels, while Salvatore caught my immediate attention more. If I were to designate which one was candy fiction, it'd most likely go to The Orc King and that's not to say that it isn't without its merits--it clearly has, it's just that the other book strives and succeeds at other elements in which this one didn't tackle. Hence there will be a disparity in the ratings or when it comes to recommending books to other people.

At the end of the day, people are more than welcome to like whatever stories they want, even the ones deemed "horrible" by others (critics or otherwise). However, that doesn't mean we should be ignorant of the reasons as to why they appeal to us and why they don't work quite well for others.

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