A while back, I was pleasantly surprised to see Jo Walton, the author of Among Others, a wonderful book about the power of books and reading and how that can help us when we’re in a tough space, done through a magical realist lens (and which won a Hugo Award) had gotten a book commentary column on Tor.com, and I was equally pleased to see a bunch of her columns collected into a book – What Makes This Book So Great – which I have finally gotten around to reading.
So, not to get too tautological, but What Makes This Book So Great, well, so great is that as a writer about books, Jo Walton is not here for academic literary criticism – she’s here because what makes a book enjoyable is subjective, not objective, and she talks about the works in question in that matter. It’s an approach that is absolutely night and day from reading reviews in a lot of more conventional media sources (the New York Times, NPR, or what have you), because as much as I enjoy breaking a work I enjoy (or not) down and seeing how and why I enjoy it (or don’t) – hence the name of this blog and my show – I’m also very aware that the things I dislike are things other people might not like. It’s why as I’ve grown older I’ve come to grumble more at the video game magazines of the ’90s putting bylines on reviews behind colorful pseudonyms, along with the idea that a media review is some sort of objective truth. There may be some points of objective fact – Digital Foundry’s framerate examinations and loading time examinations for video games, or my pointing out issues with the layout in Nintendo Power, for example. However, many of those issues generally don’t apply to books.
So, reading this book got me thinking about how, in the past, I, like many other online critics of media of a particular generation, got in a sort of Doug Walker-esque hangup on “plot holes” and similar issues and viewing them as significant flaws in a book or other work of fiction, without thinking about how those elements made me feel in the moment. I was failing to consider the emotional content of a work – whether intended or unintended by the author. Walton doesn’t have those hangups, and reading the essays in this book got me rethinking how I write about books.
You’ve seen some of this shift already – my review of The Jasmine Throne was written while I was reading this book, and so my discussion is about my emotional response to the book as much as it is (possibly even more than it is) about the nuts and bolts of the book’s story. And that’s fine – that is not only a good way to talk about the media we watch, read, and listen to, but that might be an even better way to talk about those works.
To be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about when works promote regressive social views – like depicting BIPOC in a racist light, or having misogynist depictions of women, or have slave apology, or having plots that use bigoted conspiracy theories as a core element of the plot. We should absolutely talk about those things – and indeed, bringing emotional content and context to the discussion of fiction here actually helps with that discussion. Trying to stick to the “objective truths” of criticism is often something that is used to shout down and shut down the voices of women and minority groups of all stripes. By encouraging a discussion of our emotional experiences in partaking in a work, with the added knowledge and awareness that everyone’s emotional takeaway is valid, whether or not they agree with us, we create a situation where we can recognize why a work can make us feel something different.
For example, I found the narrative around Deku in My Hero Academia to be one that resonated with my experiences as an autistic person, and how I experience the world. Deku’s experiences of the physical toll that One For All takes on him over the course of the series, and the way he “powered up” through not the use of learning new techniques (necessarily – I wrote that essay before I found out about Blackwhip and the other powers from past holders), but through learning coping strategies to help keep from over exerting himself. However, there is an equally valid perspective that MHA is copaganda. I do think that the story tries to get a little more complicated than that, especially after the time skip which comes up after where the currently airing TV arc is – but that’s something for a different post.
So, what makes What Makes This Book So Great such a great book? Well, it got me rethinking how I talk about books for starters – which is a good thing for a book like this to do.