On Liking Stuff (or not)

So, back when Ancillary Justice was essentially sweeping that year’s SF awards, there was some talk from certain quarters about it not really being all that, people only claimed to like it because Politics and SJWs and PC points and Affirmative Action and nobody was really reading the book and if they were they didn’t really enjoy it, they just claimed they did so they could seem cool and woke.

My feelings were so hurt that I wept bitter, miserable tears every time I drove to the bank with my royalty checks. I mean, those people must be right, it’s totally typical for non-fans who don’t actually like a book to write fanfic or draw fan art, totally boringly normal for students to choose to write papers about a book that just isn’t really very good or interesting, and for professors to use that boringly not-very-good book in their courses, and for that book to continue to sell steadily five years after it came out. I totally did not laugh out loud whenever I came across such assertions, because they were absolutely not ridiculous Sour Grape Vineyards tended by folks who, for the most part, hadn’t even read the book.

Now I am sorry–but not surprised–to see some folks making similar assertions about N.K. Jemisin’s historic (and entirely deserved) Hugo Threepeat. Most of them haven’t read the books in question.

But some of them have. Some of them have indeed read the books and not understood why so many people are so excited by them.

Now, Nora doesn’t need me to defend her, and she doesn’t need lessons from me about the best way to dry a tear-soaked award-dusting cloth, or the best brands of chocolate ice cream to fortify yourself for that arduous trip to the bank. Actually, she could probably give me some pointers.

But I have some thoughts about the idea that, because you (generic you) didn’t like a work, that must mean folks who say they did like it are Lying Liars Who Lie to Look Cool.

So, in order to believe this, one has to believe that A) one’s own taste is infallible and objective and thus universally shared and B) people who openly don’t share your taste are characterless sheep who will do anything to seem cool.

But the fact is, one doesn’t like or dislike things without context. We are all of us judging things from our own point of view, not some disembodied perfectly objective nowhere. It’s really easy to assume that our context is The Context–to not even see that there’s a context at all, it’s just How Things Are. But you are always seeing things from the perspective of your experiences, your biases, your expectations of how things work. Those may not match other people’s.

Of course, if you’re in a certain category–if you’re a guy, if you’re White, if you’re straight, if you’re cis–our society is set up to make that invisible, to encourage you in the assumption that the way you see things is objective and right, and not just a product of that very society. Nearly all of the readily available entertainment is catering to you, nearly all of it accepts and reinforces the status quo. If you’ve never questioned that, it can seem utterly baffling that people can claim to enjoy things that you see no value in. You’ll maybe think it makes sense to assume that such people are only pretending to like those things, or only like them for reasons you consider unworthy. It might not ever occur to you that some folks are just reading from a different context–sometimes slightly different, sometimes radically different, but even a small difference can be enough to make a work seem strange or bafflingly flat.

Now, I’m sure that there are people somewhere at some time who have in fact claimed to like a thing they didn’t, just for cool points. People will on occasion do all kinds of ill-advised or bananapants things. But enough of them to show up on every SF award shortlist that year? Enough to vote for a historic, record-breaking three Hugos in a row? Really?

Stop and think about what you’re saying when you say this. Stop and think about who you’re not saying it about.

You might not have the context to see what a writer is doing. When you don’t have the context, so much is invisible. You can only see patterns that match what you already know.*

Of course, you’re not a helpless victim of your context–you can change it, by reading other things and listening to various conversations. Maybe you don’t want to do that work, which, ok? But maybe a lot of other folks have indeed been doing that, and their context, the position they’re reading stories from, has shifted over the last several years. It’s a thing that can happen.

Stop and think–you’ve gotten as far as “everyone must be kind of like me” and stepped over into “therefore they can’t really like what they say they like because I don’t like those things.” Try on “therefore they must really mean it when they say they like something, because I mean it when I say it.” It’s funny, isn’t it, that so many folks step into the one and not the other. Maybe ask yourself why that is.

This also applies to “pretentious” writing. “That writer is only trying to look smart! Readers who say they like it are only trying to look smarter that me, a genuine,honest person, who only likes down-to-earth plain solid storytelling.” Friend, your claims to be a better and more honest person because of your distaste for “pretentious” writing is pretension itself, and says far more about you than the work you criticize this way. You are exactly the sort of snob you decry, and you have just announced this to the world.

Like or don’t like. No worries. It’s not a contest, there’s no moral value attached to liking or not liking a thing. Hell, there are highly-regarded things I dislike, or don’t see the appeal of! There are things I love that lots of other folks don’t like at all. That’s life.

And sure, if you want to, talk about why you do or don’t like a thing. That’s super interesting, and thoughtful criticism is good for art.

But think twice before you sneer at what other folks like, think three times before you declare that no one could really like a thing so it must be political correctness, or pretension, or whatever. Consider the possibility that whatever it is is just not your thing. Consider the possibility that it might be all right if not everything is aimed at you. Consider that you might not actually be the center of the universe, and your opinions and tastes might not be the product of your utterly rational objective view of the world. Consider the possibility that a given work might not have been written just for you, but for a bunch of other people who’ve been waiting for it, maybe for a long time, and that might just possibly be okay.

*Kind of like the way some folks insist my Ancillary trilogy is obviously strongly influenced by Iain Banks (who I’d read very little of, and that after AJ was already under way) and very few critics bring up the influence of C.J. Cherryh (definitely there, deliberate, and there are several explicit hat tips to her work in the text). Those folks have read Banks, but they haven’t read Cherryh. They see something that isn’t there, and don’t see what is there, because they don’t have the same reading history I do. It’s interesting to me how many folks assume I must have the same reading history as they do. It’s interesting to me how sure they are of their conclusions.

12 thoughts on “On Liking Stuff (or not)

  1. Anne, Cranky Cat Lady says:

    Oh, good grief. Let people like what they like.

    I’ve read everything by Jemisin I could get my hands on. They aren’t always comfortable (I have issues with dead kids and kids in danger), but they are good, and I’ll read anything new she wants to write.

    Your books, on the other hand, live on my comfort books shelf for rereading when I have a bad day. They’re good too, they just hit me differently.

    Some people need to mind their own business and leave the rest of us alone.

  2. D
    David Casperson says:

    One comment/question/thought.

    My brother once overhead a young boy leaving a movie theatre exclaiming, “Wow, that was the best movie ever!”, and gently asked “Did you like it?”

    Or, in other words, should we be distinguishing between really liking a book, and really thinking it’s good?

    I think that it may be possible for some people to acknowledge that a book may be good even if they themselves don’t like it; and, conversely, if they really think that Jemisin doesn’t deserve her three Hugos, they ought to talk about what makes books good and what, in their opinion, Jemisin’s books lack.

    I’ll confess that the more I think about what makes a book good, the more confused I get. I’m not even sure that I understand why I like the books I like. But there are certainly books and movies that I like that I would never consider nominating. … and when I read the Hugo fiction, I really try to be conscious that my vote says that I think that this book is good, not just that I like it.

    I think that reducing Hugo voting to a popularity contest, where everyone supposedly votes for what they like most, actually gives ground to the sad puppies. Once you (one) ackknowledge that other Hugo readers are thinking human beings trying to vote for the best novel, not just the most exciting (although exciting can be part of being good), or the most politically relevant (although that too can be part of why a novel), or the sexiest, or the coolest, or the sentimental favourite, etc., it becomes really hard to hold on to a political-correctness conspiracy theory.

    BTW, many thanks to you and N K Jemisin and Mur Lafferty and Yoon Ha Li and Kim Stanley Robinson and John Scalzi for making this year’s Hugo novel slate one of the toughest to rank.

  3. m
    mg says:

    There are books that are considered excellent and win literary awards that leave me cold. I figure that means I have different taste than the voters, or different things that are important to me.

    One of the best things about having an adult son who also loves SFF is the discussion we get into because while our tastes overlap, there are books we disagree on. Some criteria matter to both of us (character development, good plots), while others matter more to him (excellent detailed world building) or to me (likeable characters, don’t kill off everyone).

    With friends, sometimes I’ll get more out of a book than they do because it explores my religious background or the immigrant experience, while other times the book will explore aspects of their families/background that I have no experience of. We can each see things that the other doesn’t, and can learn from them.

    Life would be boring if we all liked the same things.

  4. C
    Casper T says:

    People not having read Cherryh. Poor souls. Image all that they have missed. (SO looking forward to the upcoming Alliance Union book!)

    Oh, and good post btw. I have difficulty understanding why so many people actually needs this explained. Thanks for doing it.

  5. t
    teawithbuzz says:

    Oh dear, now I will have to re-read AJ, etc to look for the hat-tips to Cherryh, who is one of my favorite favorites. Poor me!

  6. R
    Russell Franklin says:

    Interesting. I definitely thought you’d been influenced by Banks when I first read the trilogy, especially as they felt like they almost lead up to the creation of a proto-Culture society. Cool to know you came to (vaguely) similar ideas via a completely different route. Great minds think alike!

    I’ve never read any C.J. Cherryh. Can anyone give me a steer on which of her books might be a good entry point?

  7. There is so much great writing out there, especially your work. What a complete thrill to read Ancillary Justice! Wow. And each subsequent book has been wonderful. Thank you.

    Even reviewers with whom I agree 95% of the time, we sometimes disagree. That can be fun too.

    Posers are a problem in so many aspects of modern life. Not worth the bother, really.

    Can’t wait to see you again in London. Seeing you and Peter last year was incredible. I will see him again next week!

  8. S
    Sharon Palmer says:

    AJ still strikes me as one of the best books I’ve ever read. While the others you’ve written are “merely” very, very good. One of the parts I like the best is the way you switch viewpoints between the various ancillaries,

    To Russell Franklin, I think a good place to start reading Cherryh is with the Pride of Chanur (it’s available now as an omnibus as the Chanur Saga).

    1. C
      Charles Wheeler says:

      Fully agree that Chanur is a great place to start, but Downbeow Station and Cyteen are must reads.

  9. Alex Ronke says:

    I am a bit surprised that NKJ won for all three books in the trilogy. It was an excellent series overall, but I thought that the second and third novels were a bit on the weak side (especially “Obelisk Gate”).

    I don’t believe her win had to do with political correctness, but I do think there’s a tiny kernel of truth there: she was able to tap repeatedly into a contemporary zeitgeist interested in challenging assumptions about gender and sexuality. Her writing found that modern pulse and spoke to relevant modern issues; that’s not a bad thing. “Ancillary Justice” is somewhat similar in that respect. It’s not PC; it’s being aware of the current atmosphere.

    I think it is both possible and important to recognize when books speak to contemporary issues and sensibilities, whether or not that was an author’s explicit intention. It’s not like NKJ or Leckie wrote some simplistic, over-obvious allegories of modern day (e.g. the “Star Trek” episode with half-black/half-white aliens). Tapping into today’s issues and interests artfully is a praiseworthy practice. The anti-PC crowd seems unable to recognize the value in this.

  10. R
    Roger Powell says:

    For me, the significance of the Hugo Awards has always been that these are the stories that will stick in my memory – after I read them, I’ll continue to think about them and turn them over in my mind for years afterward. The best of the Hugos are stories that bring something new to the table, something that hasn’t been tried before or hasn’t been implemented as skillfully. Something like a culture that doesn’t recognize gender and calls everyone “she” regardless of their bits, or a deep dive into the nature of ego and personal identity when “self” can be distributed across multiple bodies. Or whatever the hell Jemisin is doing, which I can’t adequately summarize, it’s so novel. These are the stories I’ll still be thinking about twenty years from now. They’re not always comfortable reads, and there are plenty of Hugo winners I don’t actually like very much, but I’m never sorry I read them.

  11. Damien says:

    Huh. I have read much of Cherryh, and didn’t notice her in the Ancillary series.

    She’s also a funny example to bring up in the context of likes, because in my experience there’s more disagreement about which books of hers are good. Like, with Discworld, most fans will say that Small Gods is really good, and Colour of Magic is meh and a poor starting point. (Not all fans, but it seems reliable.) OTOH if someone does really like Colour, they probably like the other Rincewind books too.

    Cherryh… you’ll get one fan calling Cyteen a masterpiece, and another hating it. Ok. But then I can’t predict which one will like Downbelow Station, or Heavy Time, or Faded Sun, or the Russian fantasy books, or Chanur. It felt like every Cherryh reader liked some random subset of her books, more so than for other authors. It helps that she wrote a lot, and diversely, I guess.

    Chanur does seem to be the most commonly liked work and so a good place to start.

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