Thursday, July 13, 2006

When Critiques Go Bad

I've finally found something to disagree with in Storyteller, the book by Kate Wilhelm that I've been slowly savoring. And it's something that really chaps my &$$. She mentions a male writer at Clarion who turned in a 10,000 word story all about a hero and his battles. She then says: "The students loved it, called it exciting, and we said no. It was static. Nothing happened." She went on to explain that it was static because: "Something had to change, either in the character, in the situation, or in the reader." She is, of course, wrong! And I wonder how many fine reads have been nipped in the bud by such criticism.

I don't mean to downplay a character's evolution as a person. I love it when that happens. But what is wrong with a story that is just an exciting read? Edgar Rice Burroughs didn't have a lot of character development in his John Carter of Mars books but I certainly devoured them. I still remember them far more fondly than some of the stuff I've read where the character "develops."

Wilhelm is wrong for many reasons. 1) She admits that the students loved the story and found it exciting. In other words, the "readers" liked it and she's correcting them. How can a reader be wrong about what they like? 2) Male readers, in particular, enjoy action, and what's wrong with a work that appeals primarily to males? It used to be that most books were written for males. Now it seems that most books are written for women. I don't think either extreme is desirable. I certainly enjoy many books that my female friends like, and I enjoy some they don't. That fact doesn't bother me at all. 3) Relating to the story in question, there actually is change if Wilhelm thinks about it, change in the readers. If they experience a lifting of mood, an escape for a few minutes from their worries and cares, then they have been changed. Maybe they haven't had an epiphany, but how often do those come around anyway?

Books and stories touch us as readers for different reasons. I treasure Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard because it took me on a spiritual journey with its transcendent prose. I loved Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men because of the relationship between the characters and how they changed. I've reread Louis L'Amour's To Tame a Land four times because it brims with action and excitement. I read the essays of Lewis Thomas and Loren Eiseley because they make science rich with mystery and possibility. Together they all changed me.

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