How do we judge books?

Another way of looking at it is that maybe they have a point. That some people have taken politics into fandom and awards, and that they are judging writers by the color of their skin, their gender and their politics, rather than by the stories they write.

This was part of a comment left on the preceding post, “Sad Puppies and magical thinking“, which used a rather extreme yet pointed example furnished by John C. Wright to illustrate a phenomenon.

The idea that people have been judging stories politically rather than by their contents is an example of this phenomenon, which is assuming there must be a sinister explanation for when reality doesn’t conform to one’s expectations.

The idea that there’s a horde of “Social Justice Warriors” who judge stories not on quality or enjoyment but only on political agenda is oft asserted, but has never yet been demonstrated. This is an example of what I’m talking about when I say it appears the Puppies have fallen into the trap of assuming there must be a sinister explanation for when reality doesn’t conform to their expectations. It’s touted about as a proven fact, but any time this proof is offered round, it’s… not compelling.

In the first place, even when we find people discussing the identity and background of an author or character, this does not amount to judging these things “rather than” quality, does it? You might suspect that quality is being ignored, but you cannot objectively say that it is proven by the fact that other things are discussed.

And really, how likely is it that people would bother with work they don’t actually enjoy instead of work they do? I know that the stereotype of an “SJW” is someone who is soulless, joyless, and completely immune to (or opposed to) fun, but… what’s the motive to read at all, then? The very existence of the stereotype and the attributes… attributed… to it are part of the process.

If you just can’t understand how someone else might not enjoy the things that you enjoy, but enjoy things that you don’t, you have to explain it away when people say or demonstrate that this is the case. The people who said they liked that story did so for the wrong reasons! The people who said they enjoyed that game were lying! The sales figures, however modest they may be, are too high for a thing that you found to be un-fun, so they must be propped up artificially! And look, positive reviews! Award buzz! Why, isn’t that the proof of what you suspected? All these people wouldn’t be lying about their enjoyment of this thing without a reason, after all, and a mass campaign like this would account for the obviously inflated sales…

If you’re immersed in the viewpoint, then it all seems so reasonable. You miss the fact that there’s a step missing: proving that the people who review/praise/nominate/whatever the thing are lying. You’re using the unsupported premise that no one could actually enjoy a thing you didn’t enjoy as “proof” that people are lying, and using that “fact” to prove the rest.

“But why do you care at all if the book has a feminist perspective or queer characters or a Black author?” You might ask. “Why not just focus on quality, like we do?”

Well, there are two reasons, only one of which could be written off as “affirmative action”: in order to counter the extent to which books like these are ignored for reasons having nothing to do with quality.

Oh, here you think I’ve just confirmed what you’re saying? Nope. The reality of the situation (and even the reality of most formal affirmative action) is that it only means giving consideration to a book/candidate (which in this case means giving it a read, or at least starting to), not deciding it has merit before you’ve even seen it. Something like Ms. Bradford’s reading challenge doesn’t call on people to pretend to like books that they otherwise find bad. It asks them to give said books a read. If any of them wind up nominated, the balance of probability is that the nominator found them good enough to be worthy of that, isn’t it?

The second reason is what I suspect the more powerful and more common reason, given that we do read for pleasure and diversion and self-fulfillment. And that is… well, you know how sometimes people want to read books with, say, a Christian perspective? You know how sometimes people want to read a book with military settings and characters? You know how sometimes people reading a military science fiction story or a Christian SF/F story are interested in knowing before they plunk their money down if the author has lived the life they are describing?

The predictable response to this is something like, “Well, but nobody ONLY wants to read those things! I like mil-sci stories but I don’t read them to the exclusion of others! And yes I might think a story is more likely to be authentic if it’s from an author who has served, but ultimately what I care about is quality and if a good story is told!”

Just so!

And this is why when somebody asks you for a military SF recommendation, you don’t assume that’s all they ever want to read. You don’t assume they mean, “Tell me any random military SF story and I will read it. I don’t care about quality, only this one superficial characteristic.” No. You recommend something you think they will like and that fits the requested parameter(s).

This is the function of a book recommendation. That a person is asking for a book of quality or a person recommending a book of quality, a book that’s enjoyable, according to their tastes, is the most basic function. It doesn’t need to be stated as a parameter.

If you can see people talking like, “Can you recommend some books with a queer protagonist of color?” and you can only conclude that they’re ignoring quality and asking others to do the same, you’re ignoring the basic meaning of “to recommend” in association with books.

You might not understand why they care if the protagonist is a queer protagonist of color. But maybe they wouldn’t understand why you prefer libertarian-leaning heroes with military backgrounds, or whatever it is you prefer.

Maybe you’d look at the books that are put forward as fitting the bill and you wouldn’t enjoy them. They don’t do it for you.

And that’s fine.

Where you lose the plot is when you conclude on the basis of your own personal taste that the books are objectively unenjoyable, THEREFORE the people who praise them are lying and the people who recommend them are doing so only for reasons having nothing to do with quality, THEREFORE any success or acclaim it garners must be undeserved, THEREFORE if several of these books continue to garner any success or acclaim there must be some entrenched cabal with the power to make this happen…

Let me put forward an alternate explanation for why, year after year, book after book, people keep buying and reading and praising things that leave the Puppies puzzled and—unaccountably—sad:

Different people enjoy different things for different reasons.

That’s all it takes to explain what’s happening. No inventing entities in direct contravention of Occam’s razor. No conspiracy theory boards of imagined or intuited connections. None of that is necessary.