Thursday, July 26, 2007

Interrogating 'bully readers'

A particular species of comicbook fan is utterly fantastic at deflecting criticism of their most beloved creators and titles. A typical and awful exchange from any number of message boards:

Reader 1: I think Book W sucks because of X, Y, and Z.
Reader 2: If you don't like Book W, then don't read it.
Reader 1: Fine, I won't. But I still think it sucks.
Reader 2: I don't care. If you're not reading it, then you're not entitled to an opinion.

It's a ridiculous turn of logic that seems aimed at eliminating criticism or negativity altogether. It's very nearly a twisted sort of syllogism, I think: if you don't like it, you shouldn't read it; if you don't read it, you can't comment; therefor, if you don't like it, you can't comment. It is also, in fact, surprisingly common to internet discussions of all sorts.

There's a certain common sense appeal, of course. That is, if you aren't informed, you shouldn't be writing as if you are. Quite right. But people of the Reader 2 sort are never satisfied by claims to information or authorities that are not
Book W itself.

The problem here is that Reader 2s are (unselfconsciously, I'm sure) setting themselves up to be revealed as hypocrites. Thing is, we all register opinions all the time based on something other than direct experience of the topic in question. I can confidently say that Michael Bay's
Pearl Harbor is a piece of crap, but I've never seen it. So how do I do it? Well, I've never seen anything by Michael Bay that I've liked; I think that the leads are terrible actors based on other films they've been in; it was utterly trashed by the film critics whose authority I respect and trust; the trailers didn't interest me at all; the blockbuster historical romance/war film genre generally don't interest me at all. (Granted, I could still be wrong - but, again, experience has taught me that my educated guesses are usually close to the mark.) And I'm sure that I'm not the only one who makes these sorts of decisions, whether we bother to enumerate them in this way or not.

There's an additional problem, too - the problem of never having the time or money to read or see everything. Should we be prevented from commenting or registering an opinion on a text simply because it's beyond our means to acquire it? I'm reminded of jury selection in the recently completed Conrad Black corporate fraud and racketeering trial, where Black's lawyer requested a change of venue because the average Chicagoan was not wealthy, did not own multiple homes, and did not employ servants - that is, the jury could not possibly consist of his "peers". These ploys by various Reader 2s strike me as disturbingly similar - the field of "peers" for the purposes of discussion is being systematically reduced to only those who have a similarly positive experience of the comicbook in question, reducing the space for discussion to those that would not only fail to interrogate each other and their texts, but would acquit one another of their "criminal" reading practices.

Note added several hours later: I linked this blog entry to a post I made in the discussion that directly prompted me to write this entry in the first place. The response it elicited from at least one poster is both quite (inadvertently) funny and wholly deserving of my 'bully reader' characterization. Just click the link above and follow the exchange.


entzauberung said...

I as with you until...

"Should we be prevented from commenting or registering an opinion on a text simply because it's beyond our means to acquire it?"

Eh...if you haven't acquired a text, what sort of weight would your opinion of it hold?

Thinking that way that leads to mindsets like "rock music is the work of the devil" or "no genre fiction can have any artistic merit", or shit like that.

neilshyminsky said...

I can see what you're gesturing toward, but I think it's wrong-headed. You're being too reductive, for one thing. Objecting to an entire genre of music or fiction is another matter entirely, I think - I'm talking about specific texts or films or what have you. When I decide that 'Transformers' holds no appeal for me and looks awful, I'm drawing on my experience of its genre and my experience of its director's body of work, as well as the discourse of reviewers. This must be reasonable, because this is how all of us justify not seeing certain films or reading certain books - all of our related experiences have been unenjoyable, so to put ourselves through what is in all likelihood another unenjoyable experience could only make sense if you're a masochist.

What you're describing, on the other hand, are arguments premised on 'willful ignorance' - people who don't read genre fiction and have no frame of reference, people that pay no mind to the critical or artistic discourse of rock music and so don't understand it, much less listen to it. I understand genre and narrative, and I understand superheroes and their politics, and lastly I have a rather substantial archive of superhero stories stored in my brain that provide me with a frame of reference. I can't say that the pre-judgements they lead me to make will always be right, but I can confidently say that I believe them to be pretty thorough and fair.

And that anyone who denies that they make pre-judgements of their own is lying or incredibly unself-aware.

neilshyminsky said...

I realize that I didn't respond to this question: "if you haven't acquired a text, what sort of weight would your opinion of it hold?"

It varies. I've never had any desire to read Orson Scott Card, for instance, because I find his personal politics abhorrent. I've also hear from others who have read him and literary critics that those politics influence his writing, and so I think that's a perfectly valid basis for stating an opinion. I don't have time to read everything, and I don't have the patience for absolutism.

So is reading something in isolation from all secondary sources or its cultural or literary context preferable? I wouldn't value their opinion all that much either. Maybe it's just me, but I'd lump that in with the 'willfully ignorant' just as quickly as I would the people burning records. These relations don't exist in a binary with 'read it' on one end and 'didn't read it' on the other.