I’ve made no secrets about what my passions are. I also feel that, whether you’re passionate about the same things I am or not, it is my duty to share what I enjoy with you, the readers, and maybe we can reach a mutual admiration of the same things, or at least hopefully mutual respect for each other and our preferences. Today I want talk about people who are biased against one of the things I love most: speculative fiction.
The guys and gals over at TV Tropes have given this bias a particular name, “The Sci-fi Ghetto”. By putting speculative fiction inside a “ghetto” (i.e. a specific section in book or video stores) you create this idea in people’s minds that “genre” fiction has less “artistic merit” than “mainstream” stuff. You’ve probably encountered this attitude at least once in your life. If the phrases “kid’s stuff shouldn’t be taken seriously”, “men in tights or brightly colored costumes fighting bad guys is pure juvenile escapism” “Only immature men watch cartoons” “Yet another Tolkienesque fantasy”, sound familiar to you, then welcome to the ghetto!
Of course, two things to keep in mind: they are plenty of exceptions with this kind of stuff, and considering how much pop art and niche art have changed over the years, attitudes have naturally shifted. Genre writers/producers like Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Steven Spielberg and Guillermo Del Toro have won lots of critical and popular acclaim, and have instilled their passion for magic and aliens into a new generation of kids.
I was pleasantly surprised when I looked over my first year university syllabus and discovered that I had to watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and read several comic books for one of my courses. Harold Bloom, one of the most famous American literary critics alive, has added several classic fantasy and sci-fi novels onto the Western Canon!
So is this so-called “segregation” of art still a problem? It depends on who you ask, of course. Batman fans will swear to their dying day that the Academy of Motion Arts & Sciences bias against speculative fiction movies (in this case, super heroes) is the reason why The Dark Knight didn’t win Best Picture in 2009. Animation fans will tell you that the reason why a separate category for was made for animated films at the Oscars will tell you it was due to this same bias against animation. I can provide three other infamous examples to prove beyond doubt that the “ghetto” is still a thing that exists, or at least, that many people (including me) still believe that it does, and then we can talk about what to do about it.
Edmund Wilson was a well-known 20th American literary critic and writer, whose claim to fame among Tolkien fans was an infamous negative review of Lord of the Rings he wrote for The Nation in 1956 titled “Oh Those Awful Orcs”, wherein he calls the professor’s work “juvenile trash” and says fans of the books are “pretentious”. Now to be fair, the trilogy, while seen as a classic now, does have its flaws, and many works regardless of the time, place or medium they are created, undergo constant critical reassessment by fans, non-fans and professionals alike. I can understand Wilson’s POV, especially considering that modern fantasy was a far smaller market than it is today, and Tolkien was first and foremost an academic, not an artist; the story structure, the characters, the dialogue; it doesn’t exactly seem earth-shatteringly awesome at first glance. I remember being bored a lot during my first reading of the books. Do I love them? Of course, but I don’t see them as gospel; I can notice the flaws in stuff I enjoy.
Now fast forward to 2011, when Game of Thrones premiered. TV critics like Nancy Smith of the Wall Street Journal and Gina Bellafante of The New York Times incurred the wrath a new generation of fans when they published negative reviews of the show. Smith called the first episode “infantile”, Bellafante used the phrase “boy fiction”, which tells you that they are definitely not fans of fantasy. It’s not necessarily their ignorance that pisses me off; it’s the condescension and the laziness that gets under my skin. You don’t like what I like, fine, but at least do some research and don’t insult a large group of people who enjoy something you don’t, and which you don’t even attempt to understand. To give you an idea of how bad these reviews are, Bellafante bizarrely puts Game of Thrones in same category as The Hobbit, which makes absolutely no sense to anyone who has read either work. Sure, George R.R. Martin has been called the “American Tolkien” by some reviewers, but ironically that nickname is the result of the same bias I’ve been going on about. Hell, one of the reasons Martin is so popular is because his work is nothing like Tolkien’s!
A more recent negative review of something I enjoy, Sailor Moon, didn’t anger me like the previous examples, but it sort of baffled me, and even hurt me, because it came from someone I highly respect: Doug Walker aka The Nostalgia Critic.
Doug Walker gave a negative review of Sailor Moon last year, which he’s caught a lot of flak for. What’s really odd about this case is that, not only has Doug collaborated with other reviewers who are more knowledgeable about anime than he is (see his review of Digimon: The Movie with Hope Chapman aka Jesu Otaku), but he’s shown several times that he’s been willing to research the source material that a movie is based on to give a more informed opinion of movies he’s reviewed ( his review of The Last Airbender is probably the best example of this).
Yet with this episode, which is fondly remembered by a lot of ‘90’s kids (including me), he does neither. I just don’t get it. It’s clearly something he’s not familiar with, and although he does bring up a few good points, especially concerning the changes made to Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus’ relationship in the original English dub, a lot of his criticisms against the show fall flat because he’s speaking from ignorance here. To give an example of what I mean, Doug is annoyed most by the depiction of the show’s main heroine, Usagi Tsukino, who begins the story as your typical ditzy, clumsy, boy-crazy teenage girl. But she undergoes significant changes throughout the show’s run, and Mr. Walker never acknowledges this, claiming she remains a static, clichéd personality. Doug failed to live up to his usual standard in that review, and with something this popular, that was a bad move. I guess it pays to keep in mind that our idols are just as human as the next person. There is a more meta-irony to this story too; one of the Doug’s biggest influences, Roger Ebert, was famously dismissive of the artistic potential of video games, so maybe it’s safe to say that Doug knows how I feel.
Now we finally come to the conclusion. I’m going to be pointing out a few things that (I hope) should be sensible. I’ll try not to be preachy or pretentious here, but seeing as how I’m speaking as a fan, it’s most likely that I will. So I apologize in advance.
Speculative fiction, like any other type of art, involves an extremely broad range of styles, themes, settings, characters etc. It you do not like sci-fi/fantasy/horror or anything you consider “niche”, or “odd” that’s fine; no one is forcing you to like it.
But if you find yourself having to talk about something which you only have a superficial knowledge of, whether it be about Harry Potter, climate change, or even, God forbid, religion, please keep a few things in mind. Admit to your audience that you don’t know, or you don’t like what you’re talking about at the outset; do as much research as possible and double-check your facts, or, and this is possibly your best option, try and find someone who is knowledgeable about this subject, and either get them to help you, or just defer the job completely to them.
If you want to risk putting your ignorance on display, fine. But it really hurts your reputation among people who are knowledgeable and passionate about stuff like fantasy, sci-fi, comics or anime. It hurts your reputation if you show yourself to be a person who makes snap judgments, or someone who doesn’t bother to at least try to be objective and open-minded about things. Oh of course, everyone’s biased to some degree, fans and haters alike. But if you don’t try and work through your biases, how else can you improve yourself, and become not just good critics, but good thinkers overall?
The worlds of elves, aliens and magical girls are far deeper and richer than you might think. If you’re willing to try new things, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you’ll discover.