Jay Tomio of Fantasy Book Spot
recently posted his reaction to a message board thread on his blog.
His reaction is, to my mind, perfectly sensible but not nearly vitriolic enough, not as far as my id -- or Jack, as I like to call him -- is concerned. So Jack and I thought we'd supply some more vitriol.
So what was Jay reacting to? Well, I won't quote the full shebang of philistine fuckwittery here -- just go and read Jay's quotes from it --but the basic argument is that Fantasy is intrinsically shallow vacuous pap that neither requires nor deserves the critical engagement of the reader, and that that's a good thing, hurrah! I'm not gonna beat up on the source here by tearing into the argument, because, frankly a) it's not much of an argument, b) some of it is tangential to my point, c) either I'd be downright rude or Jack would, and d) at the end of the day it would feel like kicking a sick puppy. However… there is one statement that I want to pick up on, because I've heard variations of this used widely, by fans and writers alike. I think Jay's Font of All Stoopidity puts it just perfectly in their very first sentence:I do believe that sometimes, one can read to
[sic] much into things
Yeah, that's right. Lemme run that past you again:I do believe that sometimes, one can read to
[sic] much into things
Sound harmless to ya? Well, I don't get it.
I mean, I've always wondered how you define "too much" in those sort of statements. Is it "too much" in the sense that the majority of meaning a reader (for some strange unfathomable reason) thinks
they've just gleaned from a novel is not in fact there? You know… you read a book and you think
it explores some really interesting questions about the human condition, but, hah! Gotcha, sucker! You've been duped. It doesn't really. Yeah, so it looks
like an intricate pattern of mirrorings and parallels and recurrent symbolism, whereby the individual actions and general development of different characters, the metaphoric language used to describe settings, and generally all those things what them literary types kinda like to put in their books -- whereby all of those kinda sorta seem to combine as kinda sorta explications and /or explorations of an abstract concept, offering multiple perspectives, contrasting or contradictory reflections on the general topic, and maybe even some sort of resolution into a basic statement on the core idea which all of these different takes somehow pivot around. Well, newsflash, buddy. It only looks
like a pattern. Like the weaving in that Persian rug looks like a pattern, but it's not really
. No. Even if it's all symmetrical and intricate, like. With, like, repetitions and reflections and shit. No. No, no, no. The meaning isn't actually
there. You're reading too much into it.
Riiiiiiiight. Pardon me for skimming over the philosophical complexities of whether the meaning of a book lies within the book itself or within the mind of the reader, but, gee George, if da pattern is a pattern den is it really a pattern? If da book is all patterny and stuff den does dat mean da book got a meaning, George? Are we gonna have rabbits and raise alfalfa and live off da fatta da land, George? Huh, George, huh?
Or is it that, yes, those patterns which are blindingly obvious if you actually look at the text are there, but, you know, that doesn't mean the author meant
to put them in? Or that we should actually be extracting them. Like that subtextual racism you get in some High Fantasy whereby the hordes of Evil largely consist of ugly, brutal savages with coarse features, flat wide noses with flaring nostrils, and dark skin covered in primitive daubings of white war-paint (you know, like in LOTR?), whilst the defenders of Good largely consist of attractive, noble sophisticates with refined features, flowing locks of fine hair, and white skin under their silken tunics and shining armour(you know, like in LOTR?)? I mean, I'm sure the author didn't mean the implicit racism so it doesn't matter, does it? It's only a story, after all. No, that's an unpalatable meaning which one should simply gloss over, sweep under the carpet, in order to properly enjoy the book without it leaving a nasty bad taste in your mouth. I mean, for God's sake man! You don't want to notice a subtext that might actually disturb you, when you could be innocently enjoying the glorious victory of the Aryan Knights over the Nigra Horde. You're reading too much into it.
O-o-o-o-o-o-kay. I mean, I wouldn't want to come over all politico and radical here but FUCK THAT SHIT! You wanna jerk off over some kiddie porn while you're at it? Can I getcha a snuff movie or three. Yes, let's all hold hands and traipse off to the movies together to see Birth of a Nation
in the late night, bring-yer-own-bedsheet, audience participation show where you get to boo and hiss every time a n*gger comes on screen and cheer for the KKK! Wanna come to a Skrewdriver gig with me? Hey, don't bother with the lyrics, man. The music rocks. Just don't read too much into it
Or is it that the meaning is
there -- because after all, every author puts meaning into their books whether they intend to or not, if not in the form of an implicit metatext then at least in the form of an implicit subtext -- but you know, well, you're not really meant to go digging too deep into the book for that meaning. After all, it's only pulp. But see, some readers tend to get a little more meaning than others, right? Maybe they've read the book twice, maybe they've read it slower, maybe they've read it with more concentration, hell, maybe they've just read so many other things that they've developed this uncanny ability to glean meaning from books on more than a surface level without too much brow furrowing and mouthing of polysyllabic words. Anyway, the point is, there's a correct
level of intellectual effort to be applied here when it comes to, well, certain kinds of pulp book. And you're not measuring down to it. Damn you, you're putting far
too much effort into your reading! You're trying too hard! Read it once rather than twice. And read it fast. Skim some chapters. Have the TV on in the background. Try drinking a few beers beforehand. But for the love of God, don't waste your precious time and energy trying so hard. Don't you see? It's pulp. It's not meant
to be read like that. It's not meant
to be enjoyed for anything more than the most superficial, readily apparent features. You're reading too much into it.
Ye-e-e-e-e-es. So someone puts a steak in front of me and I'm meant to lick the barbecue sauce off it and chuck the meat away, because once you've got past that surface flavour, well, why would you go to the effort of actually chewing? After all, it's just steak in a barbecue sauce. Or chicken in a barbecue sauce. Or pork in a barbecue sauce. Anyway, it's the barbecue sauce that matters. I mean… WTF? If I want to put more effort into reading a book in the hopes of getting more reward, then who, pray tell, has the right to tell me that I shouldn't
be bothering -- not on the basis that the book doesn't contain the meaning I'm looking for, nor on the basis that I'd best not pay attention if the book raises some thorny issues, but because it's pulp and pulp isn't meant to be read in that way. Which is to say, with half a fucking brain, an ounce of critical faculties, and an iota of fucking attention to the meaty goodness fucking sitting there in front of you just begging for you to get yer teeth into it God forbid we actually treat any
pulp book with such rigour; we might start to like it, and then start to expect it, and then realise it's not there sometimes, and then stop enjoying all our My Little Unicorn
and Dragonfucker of Porn
and Battlefield Mid-West
and Chronicles of the Objects of Power Saga, Volume Umpty Fucking Ump
Yeah, cause that would be a real fucking tragedy. See me weep.
Thing is, all of this sorta begs the question, anyway: How much is too much? Is there an upper limit on central themes? A quota on metaphors per chapter? Will something terrible happen to me if I notice too many instances of foreshadowing? If I detect a parallel between the hero's background and the villain's does that mean I should ignore hints of parallels between the hero's and the heroine's? Sorry, mate, I've done all me parallelism detection for this book; don't want to be reading too much into it. Ah, fer fuck's sake, now, we're backed up to here with insights into the human condition. Sorry, no. That doesn't count as satori; it's quite clearly a moment of apotheosis and ye've had yer fill of them. I'm going to have to expung that from me meory with a knitting needle up the nostril now. Oi, you, what's that yer trying to sneak in there? Perspective, mate? Too much bloody perspective! And as for symmetries, they're bloody fearful. Best keep well away from them
Or is "too much" measured in relative terms rather than absolutes? Like there's a perfect mid-point between too little and too much, a middle-brow approach somewhere between an academic treatise and bibble, bibble, bibble, pllrrrp? Come on, man. How much is too much? Is it more than a university professor, more than a literary critic, more than the average Joe Schmoe? Is it more than Random Cretin # 12 will pick up if he has the book read to him by a dyslexic with a stutter while they're sitting in a bar watching the WWF? Is it more than an eight-year-old child with Attention Deficit Disorder will pick up from their teacher shouting it at them while they run round the classroom screaming "I'm an aeroplane! I'm an aeroplane! Vrooooooom!"? Is it more than a chimp will pick up if you translate the book into "Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Ah! Ah! Ooh! Ooh!" and emphasise just how important a message this is for apekind by writing it on a wall with your faeces? Or is it -- is "too much"-- and here's an idea -- is it just that little bit more than any fucking brain-dead moron who uses that fucking phrase?
Does "reading too much into it" translate as, "getting more meaning from the book than me and therefore showing me up for the imbecile I am"? Cause, baby, that's what I hear under that phrase. You're reading too much into it. You think there's thematic complexity there? Well, you're wrong. I
read the book. I
don't see no stinkin complexity. You just gone and intellektshulized it, rashunalized it, doggone just plain thought about it too much, when in fact if you was self-righteously, arrogantly pig-ignorant like me, you'd clearly see that thut there book is just pretending
to be complex. Nossir, there ain't nuthin in there but smart-ass ideas put together in no sorta real sense whatsoever, and you can join up the dots for me all day long and point to how, no, actually it really does make sense, but, heck, it's clear that you're just reading too much into it, man, it's gotta be that, it couldn't possibly be that you're right, and I JUST DIDN'T FUCKIN GET IT.
Beats me why anyone with a modicum of self-respect would make this argument. I don't mind someone telling me that they think a book is shallow if they can substantiate that argument by pointing out its flaws. But they have to read the book at a certain fucking level to be able to tell me that those flaws are real flaws and not just the blind spot caused in this particular reader by the crayon jammed up their nostril and pressing into their forebrain. If it just comes down to me saying this book is gnarly and interesting for X, Y and Z reasons, and the answer is that I'm "reading too much into it", well then, mes amigos, that's the answer of a mindless dweeb who projects their own intellectual inadequacies onto others, plastering over their own lazy vapidity with a self-serving delusion that nothing is really beyond their understanding, and if it appears to be so why then that must be an illusion. And I say unto them, brothers and sisters:
the weakest link. Goodbye.