Smuggler Army Trash and Treasure

Trash & Treasure: Accepting imperfection in media while still valuing criticism

Trash & Treasure is a miscellany of monthly opinions on SFF, fandom and general geekness from Foz Meadows. This month’s entry is a lengthy look at accepting imperfection in media while still valuing criticism, critical discourse around critics and more.

In light of various recent fandom dramas, such as those surrounding shows like Steven Universe and Voltron: Legendary Defender, I’ve found myself chewing over the importance of accepting imperfection in media while still valuing criticism. Particularly in the context of advocating for more diverse storytelling and narratives, there’s a thinly veiled toxicity to the argument that a diverse narrative only really “counts” and/or merits promotion as such if it gets absolutely everything right. Not only does this mean holding diverse stories and creators to higher, more sharply punitive standards than their more homogenous counterparts, but it promotes the false and ultimately damaging belief that there’s only one or a small, finite number of acceptable ways to portray certain narratives, characters and experiences, and that anything beyond this makes the whole irredeemable. While I agree that bad representation can often do more harm than no representation at all, going the extra step of arguing that anything less than perfect representation must therefore be bad by default does nobody any favours. But in order to get past this particular hurdle, there’s a need to accept that different readings of the same text can be equally valid – and right now, this is a sticking point for far too many people.

Here’s the thing about criticism: it’s always easier to deconstruct than to create. While it’s the job of both critics and editors to point out where a story could be better, unlike the critic, the editor can’t just see the failings and stop there – they also need to lay out a map for rebuilding. A truly good editor is to a writer what a structural engineer is to an architect: a voice of reason who points out which aspects of an on-paper design can or can’t work in three-dimensional space, but who still supports the desired aesthetic and function. A critic, however, doesn’t work under the same auspices: they’re free to suggest what the story might have been, but this is ultimately secondary to the goal of evaluating what it is. While there’s frequently some valuable overlap between those two observations – “This book suffered for spending insufficient time with its female characters,” for instance – reviewing a book is not the same as writing a soliloquy to its non-existent, alternate-universe incarnation. (That’s what fanfic and meta-analysis are for, and I salute them accordingly.)

That being so, if a critic articulates the failings of a work as they see it, regardless of whether they ultimately liked the story on balance, it’s easy to accept their negative analysis as objective fact instead of informed opinion. Particularly when we are trying to be Good Readers, virtuous in our championing of marginalised creators, seeing a trusted reviewer criticise aspects of a book or TV show can lead us to discard the whole entirely without making our own assessment – to fail, in other words, at being critical of critics. This can be a tricky point to articulate, but it’s a deeply necessary one to acknowledge: the opinions of critics and reviewers should be used as guidelines for where to spend our time and money, not as a means of completely outsourcing all the work of critical judgement to other people. Acknowledging another person as a greater, more informed authority than oneself on a particular topic is one thing; assuming that they are infallible, and that there’s no informed way to hold a valid counter-arguments to theirs, is quite another.

Complicating the issue is the context of online discourse. When a fannish opinion is spoken aloud, unrecorded, in casual conversation, we don’t inherently assume that its owner is speaking from the pulpit in a voice of Official Judgement: they’re simply talking, engaging in a shared reaction to or appreciation of a particular narrative. But online, where everything typed visibly is a matter of public record, the distinction between conversation and criticism frequently blurs. An offhand tweet about liking a particular story can be taken as a blanket claim that the work is Unequivocally Good, such that strangers feel the vehement need to retaliate with a list of critical points. Reviews that list the failings of a book might be shared as cast-iron, factual proof of Why Nobody Else Should Read The Thing And If You Do, You’re Morally Bad – I’m thinking here particularly of the Black Witch debacle, about which I’ve written at length, but that was neither the first nor last example of the phenomenon. It’s exhausting, continual and toxic, because it leaves no room for enjoyment that doesn’t take the time to justify itself; no room for liking a thing despite – or sometimes, even because of – its imperfections. Discourse has always been a vital part of fandom, but the liminality of the internet has, I think, lead us to start conflating it with the whole of fandom. Certainly, there’s an entire separate-but-relevant conversation to be had about how online etiquette and context cues impact the development of digital chain arguments, particularly in terms of people being worried about both expressing and receiving criticism, but at base, the fundamental problem – I suspect – is a deep-seated unease with acknowledging the simultaneous validity of two differing points of view.

People who share a common marginalisation or experience don’t necessarily agree about how it “ought” to be portrayed, nor does their dislike of a particular portrayal universally cause them to dislike or abandon the surrounding narrative as a whole, not least because they might find it empowering or worthy in other ways. As important as it is to be respectful of the lived experiences and knowledge of marginalised readers who speak about the pros and cons of a particular work, treating the views of one person as if they speak for the Borg-like hivemind of their entire people, such that disagreeing with their take along any axis is Morally Bad, is not going to take us anywhere productive in the long-term. We can always speak for ourselves and our experience of group identity, but while there are salient patterns, commonalities and experiences that we invariably share with others, there is no completely universal experience of marginalisation, just as there is no completely universal experience of belonging to a majority. We can argue about which opinions are more contextually or historically informed, we can point out bad faith engagement and the spectre of bias, but ultimately, whether we’re acting as critics or not, we all need to take ownership of our own opinions and responsibility for the decisions we make about which sources we deem trustworthy: we cannot simply outsource our judgements wholesale through fear of disagreement and then say “but so-and-so said it first!” when called to account.

A single story, no matter how excellent, cannot be all things to all readers. That’s not an authorial failing; it’s a simple acknowledgement of the fact that, whereas the imaginings of fans are potentially infinite, the canon itself is finite. Loving a work doesn’t mean it exists beyond criticism, just as criticising a work doesn’t mean we don’t also adore it. Oftentimes, perversely, we expend the most critical energy nitpicking something precisely because we love it and deem it worthy of long analysis, but from the outside, such essays are easily mistaken as Reasons Why This Thing Is Bad, instead of – as they more frequently are – Reasons Why This Excellent Thing Is Complex And Thought-Provoking Even When Humanly Flawed. It’s a distinction, I think, that we could all stand to meditate on a little more frequently. Advocating for better, more diverse stories shouldn’t – and, I would argue, cannot – happen by continually paring away at what counts as “good,” wicking the acceptable parameters ever leaner as successive stories teach us to raise our personal standards above and beyond the works that first inspired them. There is room in the world for imperfect; there is room in all the many worlds we write.

There must be, always – or else we will eventually squeeze ourselves, and all our many foibles, out of our own creations.

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