Can’t sleep at all, might as well blog!
How to define and discuss quality and maturity or lack-thereof in writing (comics, novels, films, tv, whatever) is something that has always fascinated me and caused me endless frustration. It’s almost impossible not to drag in personal opinion and tastes, and of course, I (along with most everybody else) just happen to think that the things I enjoy most are the things with the most quality and creativity.
I really get a kick out of sharing entertainment I love with people I like, so it can be especially disheartening if something that I consider to be of really high quality is met with a lack of enthusiasm. It makes me question both my taste, and my definition of what “quality” really is. It’s always with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation that I recommend a story to someone! So, with all this turning over in my mind as usual, I posted on a thread on Whitechapel about Sci-Fi TV shows, and found some thoughts coalescing in a far more coherent way than usual! I’ll try and put it down here before it leaks out.
I guess to start with, we need to establish what exactly is being measured when we talk about “quality” or “maturity”. I think the first thing that occurs to most people is whether they found the story enjoyable and engaging, and this is a good starting point, since most disagreements seem to spring straight from it. It’s pretty obvious that everyone enjoys different things, and that some incredibly popular pieces of entertainment are also disliked by critics, whilst less popular things can be branded as incredible storytelling. It’s easy to have a disagreement with someone about say, whether Harry Potter is actually well written or not, and give up all hope of ever establishing what “well written” actually means beyond the ability to string a sentence and a plot together coherently. Some people like Harry Potter and think it’s well written, some people hate it and think it’s poorly written, some people have never read it and still have an opinion, and I’ve even met a few who have read and enjoyed it, but openly call it poorly made. They can’t all be right, so it’s tempting to stop right there and say that there’s no such thing as “quality” in fiction beyond the ability to master the basic tools of the trade to the level required to satisfy the majority of non-professional consumers.
But this grates at me, as do all forms of total subjectivism, there’s got to be a better way of looking at this…
It occurred to me that everything’s going to depend on what you’re looking for in a story and how good you are at looking for it. Ursula Le Guin points out in her collected essays Cheek by Jowl that a story can be both carelessly written, and carelessly read. Readers can just as easily miss the aspects of a book that define its quality as writers can forget to include them! The counter-argument to this would be that it’s the author’s job to make every aspect of their work visible to any reader, but I think this is unfair. Every reader has a different level of comprehension, interest and life experience – it’s literally impossible to cater to all.
Given this, I find that I lean towards valuing stories that require lots of life experience, lots of thinking and lots of interest to enjoy fully – after all, if all those layers are there, but as a reader you don’t have all the tools you need to experience every single one, you’ll appreciate those levels that your current experience means you can access, and every re-read will be rewarding because you’ll have changed and grown in the meantime. I’d refer to this multi-levelled aspect of a story as “maturity”, but this is a bit of a loaded term, so I want to take a moment to address it.
It’s obvious that a lot of young adult (YA) and kid’s entertainment has less seriousness and general darkness of tone than entertainment for older people. Plot convolution/complexity, violence, grittiness, sex and death are all regularly trotted out examples of things that get left on the cutting board when YA fiction is created. Because of this, I notice a lot of people assuming that adding those things to a story elevates it beyond or above kid lit in some way. An example argument is “Harry Potter is great because it gets really dark as it goes on, it ages with its reader” (the inference being that a darker tone is more suitable for an older reader).
Regardless of whether Harry Potter is good or not, this assumption seems too casual to me, it just doesn’t always add up! We all know a kid can appreciate pretty much any type of experience, even if that experience is considered inappropriate for them – what exactly any given child can appreciate in fiction just depends on what their short life has shown them and how they’ve reacted to it. We’ve all been 13, and we all know that sex and violence and death can be, if anything, more appealing and tantalising at that age! If a kid can come by (almost) any experience prematurely, what no kid can come by pre-maturely is breadth of experience and understanding. The contextual and subtle forms of observation that show us what lies at the depths (and the surface, and everything between the two) of human beings and human societies can only come from having both the time and the interest needed to encounter and learn them.
So, regardless of what the literal content of a book, film or comic is, I’d argue that it’s stylistic features like subtlety, quality of observation, depth of character, internal consistency, authenticity of dialogue, lack of comfortable allegory, diversity of cultural influence and layers of meaning that make writing mature or not – and ultimately define the enduring quality of a piece of entertainment. It’s precisely because these things require wide reading, wide life experience, keen observation and thoughtfulness to spot that they’re easy to miss, hard to define and near impossible to argue about coherently. Everyone’s experiences are different, everyone filters out different aspects and quantities of the life they live, and furthermore, everyone’s reasons for becoming attached to a story are just as situational and emotional as anything else. A story might have a contrived and narrow range of characteristics, but if every aspect of that narrow range strikes a chord with your life and mind as it stands, you’re going to love it! It’s only years down the line that you might discover it has no merit when experienced from a wider perspective – assuming you’ve allowed your perspective to widen in the meantime!
This causes no end of problems… I might find a book boring because it lacks this wider maturity, or because I didn’t have the prior experience or level of attention required to notice it was there, or just because I don’t seek it or value it when I find it. I might also have an over-active imagination that fills in the gaps for an author, placing layers and shades of my own experience where they weren’t intended and where other readers would never see them. There’s also the emotional side of things! It feels upsetting when a friend doesn’t enjoy the same things you enjoy, especially if they’ve got forceful opinions – it feels like the implication is that you don’t get what they like, and what you like is less mature than you think. It can be easy to react by simply shutting off and saying “I just like what I like”, or even by actively avoiding this maturity under the assumption that people who parrot on about it are just pretentious.
However, I’d hope to maintain that none of this slipperiness means that maturity and quality aren’t real and definable aspects of storytelling, just that in order to discover and discuss them, we need patience, open-mindedness and the willingness to see beyond our own experiences, question our own tastes and especially our justifications for those tastes.
As much as it frustrates me as a topic of discussion, this is also why I love fiction. I feel that I can expand my own breadth of experience by seeking out as many different stories as I can, introducing myself to new and alien concepts when life-as-usual doesn’t always take me to new places or confront me with new people.