Literary observations

Let’s do some literary criticism. I will try to refrain from words like “narrative” and other mental fitness, and just try to summarize what in my opinion is a good book (or movie). As always, this is a subjective view, unperturbed by sociocultural critique™.

First, the language. As I can more or less fluently read three languages, I have no real preference what language to read/consume a work in. What I find nevertheless important is the writing style. Creative metaphors, unexpected comparisons, unexpected referenced to other cultural artifacts are awesome. Even technical details that are written in this style feel good.

Second, the setting. Actually, the setting is not of greater importance; anything not too strange would do. At some points, the back-cover text tells enough; but in the overwhelming majority of cases, the initial state of the story is either acceptable or tells so much about the cognitive processes in the author’s brain that it acts effectively as a red flag. But as the latter is a rare event, the setting can be basically ignored in most cases.

Third, the plot. The plot is mostly a combination of character development and external events. Normally, external events should just give sufficient momentum to the plot; too much foreign influence tells that the author needs some sort of deus or satanas ex machina to get things going the right way, and while it is a sensible thing to do, a too frequent application of this technique makes everything sound constructed. Greek comedies suffer from this; some modern authors do, too. As a negative example I should mention “The Jesus Video”, which nearly literally uses a deus ex machina to explain the plot. I would prefer the plot to run on characters; as a positive example of a not too frequent application of deus ex machina I’d mention “Seveneves”, where something unexplainable happens to get things going, but after that, we get a thousand pages of character development.

Fourth, and, most important, the characters. I like them to be realistic (Mary Sue is fun the first time, but gets boring too fast) and smart. The latter does not necessary mean “degree in high energy physics”, it just means the character has to think about his perspectives on a time scale that is adequate and act accordingly. This is arguably a very specific requirement, and lots of well-written pieces do not conform to it. Dostoyevsky just plainly fails. Goethe, too. And while it is spiritually enriching to read about the failures of hysterical people, I personally feel either too much empathy to detach from the character or plainly start rooting for the Dark Side. Neither feels really good, unless the author tries to convey it as a cautionary tale, as George Martin does. “A Song of Ice and Fire”  sometimes does read like a story from the Darwin Awards; but it also does contain interesting people that are fun to watch and whose actions are well-thought instead of “oh hey, my family life sucks, let’s do something to make it suck even more”.

Something that I also like about characters is their development. Personal growth is always exciting, people in unusual (also social) situations are even more so. I have to repeatedly refer to “Seveneves” just because it is mostly about people who are faced with choices they never thought they’d have to make and are completely calm about them. “The Martian” is similar in this respect. I also have to hit “Interstellar” for the exact opposite; there is no place for long, emotional discussions about love when faced with choice with real, physically measurable outcomes. (Even worse, the choice that is portrayed as the rational one is, in fact, physically senseless.) Talking about negative examples, I found that off-the-shelf characters are pretty uninteresting. I mean, if it’s predictable, why read it? If there is nothing special about this person and their situation, why bother? I know that it is common to read for the style, but it is somewhat like drinking for the color of beverage.

A peculiar thing about reading books from several cultural contexts is also that you find several interesting, orthogonal perspectives on society. This is something I find fascinating, especially finding social defaults that are not discussed but widely accepted as the norm in my surroundings but not shared by the author. Minorities are trivial (and not necessary a default you cannot observe), but for example the concept of student protests is something that has extreme differences in perception depending on the culture of origin. For example, reading “Three Body” by Cixin Liu made me aware of Chinese history having a very prominent example of student protests that ultimately led to artillery duels inside cities and were not as fun as Star Wars may lead to believe. These small yet significant things actually make me aware of my defaults pretty convincingly.

And the best thing about these criteria is that most of them can be tested for with the ten page method 🙂

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