Counter-factual criticism

by Jamie Johnston

Is it helpful to ask how a work of art might have been different?
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Brace yourselves, folks: this article is going to be quite self-referential and meta and second-order and things like that. Especially the way it starts, which is like this:

If I read a review on Ferretbrain of something I haven't read / seen / heard / tried, I usually look at the first couple of days' comments on the review to see what other people who have read / seen / heard / tried it have to say, and then I generally stop following the discussion because I don't know what they're talking about and I have nothing to contribute. And sometimes, a few weeks later, I notice that the discussion is still going, and it turns out that while I was looking the other way the discussion has turned into a very interesting (and sometimes slightly fraught) exploration of broad issues raised by the review or the work being reviewed. And then I read the whole discussion in one go, feeling simultaneously disappointed and relieved that I've missed most of it. Recently this happened with the thread of comments on Kyra's review of Graceling.

I'm not going to re-open that discussion. I hope. But it made me think about a particular type of critical approach that was adopted by a couple of different people in that discussion, and I mention the discussion merely to explain why I've been thinking about it, and also to give Ferretneurons a handy frame of reference.

Never having studied literary criticism, and having studied literature itself only to a middling sort of level, I've no idea whether there's already a word for this type of critical exercise. But I have studied historiography, so I'm going to borrow a term from that discipline. Counter-factual history is the exercise of asking (and trying to assess, as empirically as possible) what would have happened if some specific historical decision or contingency had come out differently. What I'm going to call counter-factual criticism is the exercise of asking what a work of art (1) would be like, and specifically whether it would be better or worse, if the artist had handled some specific aspect of it differently. Is this a useful way to look at art?

In some manifestations, it clearly isn't. Sometimes counter-factual criticism amounts to little more than a revelation that the critic would rather have been experiencing an essentially different work or art. To say, for example, 'Twilight would be much better if it had less romance and angst and more fighting and zombies' is to say little more than 'I personally prefer stories based on action and fantasy / horror elements to stories based on romantic and psychological elements'. Admittedly even this is of some assistance to a reader who shares the critic's tastes, but really such a reader need only read the back cover of the book to see that it isn't likely to appeal. A reader who does like romance and angst, however, will not be assisted by such criticism, because it doesn't tell him whether Twilight is good or bad romance-and-angst fiction. However it's at least easy to spot this sort of mismatch-of-tastes criticism and ignore it, making it harmless if not helpful. A close relative of this type of counter-factual is the one that says 'I wish this artist had created a different piece of work.' When R.E.M. released their 2001 album Reveal, for example, I was heard to remark that I'd like to hear them apply the sort of production values and instrumental and vocal arrangements found on that album to faster-paced material like some of the rockier numbers on the previous album New adventures in hi-fi. This sort of remark is not really criticism of any particular work at all so much as an appreciation of the technical or conceptual merits of the artist coupled with speculation about future work by that artist; as such, it's of course entirely harmless. At most it can amount to a general criticism of the artist and his whole body of work to date, in which case it can be valid and worthwhile so long as it is presented as such. But it can sometimes masquerade, unhelpfully, as criticism of a particular work, especially when it arises from an expression of regret that that real work by the artist isn't more like the imaginary work the critic is speculating about. In such cases it is profoundly unhelpful, because it fails to really engage with the work at all except to say that it would be nice if the artist had created something else instead.

The 'I wish it were something entirely different' sort of criticism can shade into a more potentially misleading counter-factual exercise in which the critic wishes the work of art were something subtly but significantly different from what it is seeking to be. Now, here I'm in danger of getting into trouble myself with vague talk of works of art 'seeking to be' anything in particular. It looks suspiciously like an attempt to use the language of authorial intent while avoiding the two major problems of authorial intent (namely 'How do you know what the author intended?' and 'What does it matter what the author intended if it isn't reflected in the work he's actually made?') by shifting the intention from the author and imputing it to the work itself as though it were a sentient being. All I really mean is that, as I think we'd all agree, any work of art has a certain idea or set of ideas (2) that are essential to it: they are what it's 'really about', as it were, and if they were altered the work would become something fundamentally different. The Iliad, for example, helpfully states in its opening line what we can probably agree to be at least a major part of what it is all about: 'Rage - ... the rage of Peleus' son Achilles' (3). Every non-trivial element and aspect of the work should further these essentials, otherwise it is merely distracting the audience or obscuring the point. For this reason it's important for both creator and critic to grasp what the core of the work is: the creator so that she can remove or reshape any parts of the work that don't support it, the critic because a major part of his task is to assess how well the work expresses and explores it (as, for example, one can criticize the 'catalogue of ships' in book 2 of the Iliad not only on the grounds that it is tedious but also because it tells us very little about the nature, causes, or consequences of the rage of Achilles' or anyone else but the unfortunate classics student called upon to translate it). A critic who expresses the wish that a work of art were substantially different in respect of X is not infrequently guilty of misidentifying the core ideas of the work; thus she thinks that X does a bad job of furthering those ideas, when in fact it's just that the ideas X is furthering are different from those she thinks it should be furthering. In other words, she has missed the point.

The trouble is, of course, that there is often room for sensible disagreement among critics about what the core of a work is. It may also be that a work of art that leaves itself open to such point-missing by reasonably intelligent critics has failed to express its point well. Nonetheless, I'd like to suggest that if a critic finds himself thinking that a work's core ideas would be better expressed or explored by a fairly significant but also fairly straight-forward change to a particular aspect of the work he should pause for a moment to check that he hasn't misunderstood what the work's core ideas actually are. This is especially relevant, I think, where the change he contemplates is quite simple and obvious (to think of, even if not to implement), because in such a case it's all the more likely that the author will have thought of and rejected the possibility, which in turn makes it somewhat more likely (though still by no means certain) that it would not in fact have enhanced the core idea. A critic who finds himself thinking along these lines should also be particularly on his guard if he finds that the essential thrust of the work, as he perceives it (and which he thinks is not well served by whatever aspect of the work has left him dissatisfied), is one he finds especially appealing or interesting. A critic who is inclined to find war brutal and dehumanizing might, for example, find a fair amount of material in the Iliad to convince herself that it is about how war is brutal and dehumanizing, and she might consequently find it disappointing that there is no character who expresses a coherent anti-war sentiment except Thersites, who is depicted in an entirely unsympathetic way (4); but, of course, the Iliad is not about the brutality and dehumanizing nature of war, but rather about the brutal and dehumanizing nature of rage. And this is where we return to circle close to the 'moar zombies' type of counter-factual criticism I mentioned earlier: for it's very easy, when encountering a work of art that deals with ideas very close to ones that one finds very compelling, to seize on that work as an exploration of precisely those ideas that one wants to explore, and therefore to come away unhappy that they were not explored as well as one would like. In those circumstances there is a distinct possibility that actually the work was never about those ideas in the first place. In short, this sort of counter-factual criticism, like the 'moar zombies' variety, can sometimes amount to little more than 'If I had my druthers this work would be about something other than what it is'.

This brings me to another sort of counter-factual criticism that lies in wait most particularly for the critic who is herself a creator of works in the same medium as the work in question. This is the criticism 'I'd have done it differently.' Now, I've had a fair amount of experience of this in the field of sketch comedy: writing alone, writing collaboratively, and giving and receiving constructive criticism on work in progress. I've learned that criticism of the 'How about doing it like this?' variety from a fellow writer can be very useful and insightful provided that the critic is sufficiently in sympathy with the basic thrust of the sketch, but it can be profoundly unhelpful from a writer who, consciously or unconsciously, wants to change what the sketch is about or to change the style it's done in or to make additions in a style that doesn't complement it. In cases where the fellow writer's input comes in the form not of making suggestions for the first writer to incorporate but of the second writer herself incorporating her ideas in a second draft (a not uncommon form of collaborative writing), such a lack of sympathy, however well-intentioned, can result in a sketch far far worse than it would have been if either the first or the second writer had written it alone. Of course a critic, in the sense of someone who independently assesses the merits of a work after that work is in its final form and released for public consumption, is not an artistic collaborator; but I mention such collaborations for two reasons. First, a change made in a spirit of collaboration by an artist to her fellow artist's work is, in part, a criticism of essentially the same kind as one made by a critic who suggests that a work would have been better if X or Y had been done differently, and thus the deadly blow a well-intentioned artistic collaborator can inflict on a work of art if she is out of sympathy with its essential nature illustrates the importance for the critic of being in sympathy with those essentials before venturing to say that X or Y should have been done differently. (This is perhaps nothing more than a further point in support of the argument made in my last paragraph.) Secondly, a fellow artist is more likely than the average critic to be seized by the desire to propose specific changes to another artists' work rather than merely assessing whether the artist's choices work well or badly.

It is often interesting to hear how one artist would have approached a subject tackled by another, but I suggest that this shouldn't be confused with formal criticism. The way I look at a sculpture as a sculptor (5) is very different from the way I'd want a critic to look at it: it essentially involves comparing what I'm looking at with my own technical skill, understanding of technique, and capacity for creativity and design. I say things like 'The execution of this bit is rather shoddy' and 'I'm impressed with the way he's solved that engineering problem' and 'Wow, I wish I'd thought of that'. I feel entitled to look down things that I could have done better, but I feel obliged to doff my cap to any sculptor who can do something better than I could. This is not what one wants from a critic: I don't expect Mark Kermode to advise me whether or not to see a film based on his own ability to make films. Similarly, the fact that I can play the guitar to a very low level positively interferes with my ability to make an objective critical assessment of any guitarist more technically accomplished than Richey Edwards because I find myself unable to say much more than 'Well, that's better than I can play it.' The short, the way a fellow artist looks at a work of art is and should be different from the way a critic looks at it (even if the person who is acting as critic also happens to be, at other times, an artisti). The critic must respect that difference, and that means, I suggest, criticizing the work as it is and assessing its strengths and weaknesses without crossing the line into speculating about how it compares with imaginary alternative versions of the same work; and this is most especially important for the critic who happens also to be an artist because for her the temptation to cross that line will be all the greater and all the more likely to lead to a failure of her critical objectivity. How, after all, can we expect a critic to conduct a fair comparison between an actual work of art by someone else and the similar but superior work of art that the critic herself imagines she would have created if she had been in the original artist's place?

But have I gone too far here? Let's return to the analogy with counter-factual history: it is a common defence of that rather maligned strand of historiography (and the principal defence that I myself would advance on its behalf) that in fact all history is to some extent counter-factual, in that whenever a historian asks 'What is the significance of this event?' (which is, after all, what most historians spend most of their time asking) she is really asking 'What would have been different if this event had not happened?', which is a counter-factual exercise. Surely we can say, likewise, that when a critic says, for example, 'The tender scenes between Hector and Andromache compare favourably with the bitterness of Achilles and also heighten the pathos when Achilles kills Hector and abuses his body before Andromache's eyes', isn't that critic just saying 'The Iliad wouldn't be as good without the tender scenes between Hector and Andromache'? Well, yes, that's a fair point. But I suggest there is a discernible frontier between helpful and unhelpful use of counter-factual speculation in artistic criticism (perhaps more easily discernible than the one between helpful and unhelpful counter-factual history), and a critic crosses it when he starts to positively construct an imaginary alternative version of the work he is assessing. Often when a critic does this it is a sign that he has missed the point entirely and is out of sympathy with the core of the work, which is the situation I described earlier with respect to the 'moar zombies' and 'moar sympathetic anti-war characters' counter-factuals. Moreover, even when entirely in sympathy with the work, the critic is there to engage with the work as it is, not to set himself up in competition with the artist. Of course this may involve identifying aspects of the work that make it better because they support and deepen the work's exploration of its central concerns, and of course this will often amount to saying that the work would be worse without those things; likewise it may involve making adverse comment about things that are irrelevant to the work's central concerns or tend to obfuscate them, and that will often be effectively the same as saying that the work would be better without them; and it's true that both those types of assertions are examples of counter-factual criticism, if we construe that term broadly. But neither type of assertion involves putting forward any particular vision of how, specifically, the author might have done it differently, whether for better or worse. One can say 'The Iliad's exploration of Achille's rage would be more effective if it didn't ask the listener to sit through 173 lines listing which members of the Achaean army came in which ships' without suggesting what could fill those 173 lines in stead, and one can say 'Twilight would be better if Bella had some discernible attractive qualities rather than just being extremely bio-magically compatible with Edward' without suggesting what those attractive qualities could be and how they could be displayed. That's what fan-fiction is for. The critic should think twice before indulging in counter-factual criticism.



Notes

1 · Friends, let's not get hung up on the word 'art'. I'm going to use it here to mean the deliberate imaginative design and creation of artificial experiences in order to evoke satisfying emotional reactions in others for no immediate practical purpose. Well, actually I'm going to use it to mean whatever I usually mean by it, which may or may not be accurately described by that rather wordy attempt to cover what I think that is without spending too much time thinking about it because I want to get on with the article. Possibly more helpful than giving a waffly abstract definition is to say that I intend to include things like novels, sculptures, plays, pieces of music, paintings, lyric poems, ballets, and so on, but that I'm inclined to exclude particular performances as distinct from the whole work in which the performance occurs (e.g. I treat Richard III as a work of art but not Laurence Olivier's performance of the part of Richard III in that play).

2 · I use the word 'idea' loosely to include not only themes and concepts but also emotions, atmospheres, and such.

3 · 1.1, translation by Robert Fagles (Penguin, 1990).

4 · 2.246-324.

5 · Or perhaps I should say a former sculptor, since I haven't done any significant sculpting since the summer of 2000.
Themes: Topical
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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 12:50 on 2009-11-23
Jamie, this is amazing, and I entirely agree. More sensible observations to follow but I'm rather glad you didn't try to fit it in a comment box ;) Anyway, if this is the article you were talking about, I don't think you have anything to regret.
Arthur B at 13:44 on 2009-11-23
Interesting that you bring up the Iliad in this context. I once had a conversation on another forum (OK, more of a knock-down hair-pulling fight) with someone who insisted that the Iliad was an anti-war poem, because he believed that anything of literary value must necessarily be anti-war; it simply never occurred to him that an artist would immortalise the glory of war in verse, because that would be the act of a base propagandist, and writing a work for propagandistic ends inherently converts it to artless trash.

Now, that's an extreme position, which I confess I might not be representing very accurately since it's a half-remembered account of an idea I strongly disagreed with in an internet argument several years ago, but your article reminded me of it because it shows how someone's idea of what a particular work "should be" can end up colouring their criticism of it. On the face of it, it's pretty difficult to see how the Iliad is anti-war - as you point out, the Iliad is more about the fearsome consequences of Achilles' rage. The tragedy is not that those brave Greeks fought at all - quite the contrary, that's when they showed their best - but that they fought for a cause which in the end turned out to be somewhat grubby and ignoble. But because that particular critic's ideology couldn't accept that a work of genuine cultural and artistic merit could also celebrate the noble Greek warrior in martial struggle against his foes, it meant that he ended up with an interpretation of the Iliad which I couldn't even recognise as being about the same poem I'd read.

Not sure what the point of this comment was, aside from enthusiastically agreeing with you and citing a real-life case of precisely the phenomenon you're talking about here.
Melissa G. at 14:03 on 2009-11-23
Very interesting observations, Jamie! I agree that in most cases as far as discussing the merit of the work, it's very counter-productive to talk about what they could/should have done differently. What I do think is helpful from the "counter-factual criticism" (when you're speaking DIRECTLY with the author) is that it might help the author pinpoint why the work is being misread and what they can do to subtly guide the reader back in the right direction. If they chose to do so, of course. I have personally been greatly helped by this in my writing. My friend will have a question or misunderstand something, and I'll say, "Well, what if I did this? Then does it...?" And it ends up being rather helpful. There are definitely things that I, as a writer, tend to miss because I already know what I'm trying to do.

But I do agree that it doesn't make much sense to get bogged down in "If they had done this instead..." Though it is of course an attractive idea to anyone. I know I do it all the time with movies. Star Wars prequels and Watchmen come to mind.... But as they say, hindsight is 20/20; it's very easy to judge what they should have done differently when you don't have any responsibility of actually doing anything yourself.

Very nice article!
Wardog at 14:04 on 2009-11-23
I was kind of staring out of the window, thinking about girls, during lit crit so it's possible there is something about this somewhere but it actually seems pretty unlikely to me because 'counter-factual criticism' just doesn't have a place in literary analysis. I mean, it's possible I'm Doin It Wrong but you're generally just grabbing a text and a perspective and some theory and bunging it all together in a way that hopefully comes out as a coherent, cogent whole. The point is that no matter what approach and what interpretion to wind up going for, you're never really allowed to lose the sense that this *one among many* potential interpretations, and so I guess you get points for how plausible you managed to make yours, and how well you made it look like other people arguing slightly different things are actually supporting you.

But I think it gets hazy when you move from criticism to reviewing. Truthfully, I've never sat down and hammered out what I thought reviews were for but I guess, at a pinch, I suppose you could argue that a reviewer attempts to identify the core of the text and evaluate how well the creator communicates that core.

This, in itself, is problematic because it leaves you with the notion that the value of a work of art lies solely how effectively the author communicated the 'true' intent of the text, and it minimises the role of the reader, while elevating that of the creator. Also, as you say, people are apt to find different cores in different texts. Since reviews, therefore, contain this sort of criticism, I suppose it's dangerously easy to slip from "this doesn't work for me" to "this work better if" to "this text should..."

I also find myself wondering - semi tangentially - if it has something to do with the roles of creator and reader. Since many people (eroneously, if you ask me) believe the act of writing is superior to the act of reading, then it's no wonder readers aspire to make themselves writers. Although perhaps we'd all be happier, and reviews would be better, if we contented ourselves with the idea that reading and writing are two entirely different acts, of equal value.

Melissa G. at 14:19 on 2009-11-23
it actually seems pretty unlikely to me because 'counter-factual criticism' just doesn't have a place in literary analysis.


I agree. I think once the author is taken out of the process, it is extremely unhelpful. And, again, it's only helpful to the author during an editing/rewriting stage. After it's published, it just seems catty and antagonistic.

And to relate to your later points, I agree that there is just as much responsibility on the reader to pick up on what the author is trying to do as there is on the author to give the reader the subtle clues. (The key word being subtle, Ms. Rowling, not spelling it out for me, thank you very much.) I very much dislike being hit over the head with theme in anything, be it book, movie, or TV.

So...yeah...I guess I'm just agreeing with everyone...
Arthur B at 14:50 on 2009-11-23
But I do agree that it doesn't make much sense to get bogged down in "If they had done this instead..." Though it is of course an attractive idea to anyone. I know I do it all the time with movies. Star Wars prequels and Watchmen come to mind....

I think the Watchmen film - and adaptations/remakes in general - are a bit of an exception as far as counter-factual criticism goes. In the case where you've got an adaptation of a work from one medium to another, or a remake of a previous work in the same medium, you do, in fact, have an entirely different exposition of the same core themes/ideas/characters, so the comparison can be a bit more meaningful. You can say things like "If they'd shot this scene this way, it would get across the point the book was trying to make," or "If they'd changed this scene just so, it would have helped highlight the contrast with the original film that they clearly wanted to set up".

But then, that sort of exercise clearly isn't quite what Jamie's talking about here, because it's comparing actual different implementations of the same story, rather than comparing the product in one's hand to a version that only exists in one's head.
Melissa G. at 14:55 on 2009-11-23
@Arthur

That's very true. It is a completely different circumstance.

I also realize that I may be coming at the word "critique" from a different place. When I think of critique, I think of a bunch of my classmates sitting around discussing the work of another classmate we all just read and discussing what did or did not work for us and why. I suppose if one is coming from the point of academic criticism where you rip apart a novel for funsies in an English class (and there is NO disrespect meant there, it is one of my favorite things to do), it's a bit different.
http://andy-godfrey.livejournal.com/ at 18:49 on 2009-11-23
I also find myself wondering - semi tangentially - if it has something to do with the roles of creator and reader.


This is something I've thought about before, and so it's great to see an article discussing it in some depth! I think you're right Kyra - I think the key is that people who are "creators" (artists or writers etc.) are more able to see artworks (under which I'm including books, plays, whatever) as unfinished or provisional. I think this article shows the dangers of that approach to extremes - if you react to things that don't seem to work by coming up with improvements or alterations, it can prevent you from digging a bit deeper or trying different, more favourable interpretations (such as trying to revise your concept of what the "core" or "purpose" of the work is).

As someone utterly uncreative myself though, I've always been more aware of the more positive flipside of the creator approach. Instead of venerating every detail as an essential feature of the work, it can be a bit more of a no-nonsense approach that's more willing to actually say "that bit is just rubbish". Which is sometimes far more to the point than an elaborate interpetation that struggles to make sense of something that blatantly doesn't work.

(Andy G on Open ID, as I'm currently having login issues :s)
Sister Magpie at 19:23 on 2009-11-23
Fascinating article! Which makes me think of a lot of practical applications...I work on a book series where the publisher is very fond of the 'premise' theory of story, where you need a strong premise that you're proving in the story, and that will usually guide you as to what should happen so that you don't get off-point. Which sounds a lot more strict then it necessarily has to be...some of Dan's comments on the Graceling post (which I really thank you for giving me a chance to go back and re-read to see the discussion I'd missed!) I think speak to this in a practical way, like when he talks about how the author's choosing the political situation to play out the conflicts she wants to play out that would be changed by gender swaps.

Does that whole idea disappear if we disregard the author? I'm not sure. I think people often have the feeling of a story "wanting" to go a certain way and the author failing to hit it right. I can remember a fanfic I read years ago where I was left with a clear feeling that the author just refused to resolve the story--mostly so that they could continue to keep the characters where she wanted them, with one being perpetually sacrificing and the other never ever being able to give anything in return. Because it only seemed to be a story of one character helping another character--it was really more just a meditation about how this character was perpetually giving and awesome and someone else giving back would spoil that. I remember it all these years later because I couldn't help but respond to it by saying what obviously *should* have happened at the end--she'd even put the details in there to make it easily resolved. She just witheld it. I think I even commented on it, saying it was a bit unsatisfying that the character being helped throughout came across like a bit of an oblivious, selfish brat (and this being a favorite character of mine I thought that was unfair!) but she just didn't feel he was "ready" to be able to give anything yet.

Hope that wasn't too much of a tangent. It just always seems like an example of a story begging to have someone explain where it should have gone, where even the audience can feel a tug towards something that never come. Or even in a small moment. I saw an old movie recently with a scene that included a conversation between two women, and the last line was a bit lame. In my head I had some idea of what the one woman *should have said*--not the exact words, but the sentiment, and it just wasn't put across correctly. In the commentary I learned that they did the scene a huge number of times, because the director was unhappy with the actress' delivery of said line. After the premiere he came up to her and said the problem, he now clearly saw, was that the line was wrong and she should have said X. X turning out to be exactly what I had vaguely formed in my head.

Damn, that was two tangents I went off on. I just feel strongly about the possibility for stories to almost have their own life, where you on some level have a sense of what the story's saying and how it's failing to say it. But of course, who's to say when a reader is correct in feeling that way and when the reader is just projecting what they want to see onto the text? But I do feel that sometimes considering those suggestions can be helpful, if only to show (as I think Dan did) that they wouldn't automatically strengthen the text.
Arthur B at 20:13 on 2009-11-23
Does that whole idea disappear if we disregard the author? I'm not sure. I think people often have the feeling of a story "wanting" to go a certain way and the author failing to hit it right.

I'm very familiar with this feeling. I was intensely disappointed with the ending of The Iron Council by China Mieville, because he pulls a stunt which - whilst not as audacious as the appearance of an Infinite Improbability Drive at the end of The Scar - has the net effect of ensuring that the central confrontation that the book had been building up to never happens.

It annoyed me partly because it was very clear that once that confrontation actually happened, Mieville's New Crobuzon setting would actually change one way or another, and I'd grown increasingly frustrated with Mieville's refusal to allow his setting to actually progress at all. But the other reason was that I wanted to see the Iron Council either win despite the odds, or fail gloriously, and Mieville contrived a way to avoid doing either.

I know exactly what he intended to achieve with the ending, of course, with the Council being a stand-in for all sorts of glorious might-have-beens, a sort of once and future revolution ready to spring forth at New Crobozon's darkest hour. It just also felt like an enormous cop-out, a dodging aside from the conclusion the story seemed to be inexorably working towards.
Dan H at 20:37 on 2009-11-23
Hmm...

I suspect that this is one of those all-too-common situations in which one cannot draw a sharp dividing line, but where never the less there are clearly two distinct states which are, well, distinct.

If I may condense Jamie's long, considered, carefully argued article into a glib one liner, the distinction here seems to be between criticising a text for being what it is, and criticising a text for not being something it isn't.

I'm not sure that proposing alternatives is necessarily the dividing line, although I think it frequently acts as a signal that the critic has started going off on one. If nothing else, a lot of points in a plot are binary, they can be one way or the other. Saying "it shouldn't have been like that" is more or less the same as saying "it should have been like this".

It gets even more complicated when you're actually dealing with discussion rather than (say) a review or a piece of lit-crit, because you might wind up being asked specifically *how* you think a particular flaw in the text might be corrected, or *why* you think a particular feature of the book is a weakness, and suddenly you're wading into the vast seas of hypothesis, possibly without a swimsuit.
Sister Magpie at 21:08 on 2009-11-23
Good point. Especially since stories are about raising expectations. I remember the creators of Avatar saying their entire story was built on disappointing the audience--yet that just made the audience more invested by raising the stakes.

Which is a case of the author intentionally raising a possibility you're supposed to consider and then frustrating it--definitely criticizing the text for what it is--rather than criticizing it for what it isn't, as described in this article.

In fact, I've again just remembered a specific example. I remember one of the actors in Superbad saying there were some critics who criticized the movie for not going where it "obviously" was really going by having the two male leads wind up romantically together. While to me that ending would have been about something completely different than what the movie was really about, except in ways that it was directly *against* what the movie was about. It was, I think, a case of criticizing the movie for not being something other than what it was. The answer to "why it should have been like this" required starting over from the beginning with completely different premises.
Jamie Johnston at 23:30 on 2009-11-23
Thanks for the comments, everyone! And thanks to whomever put the article in its theme - I looked long and hard at the themes and couldn't really justify any of them to myself. 'Topical' did seem the closest, but somehow it felt a bit of a stretch from 'related to stuff that's been happening in the world / on the internet lately' (which is how I'd previously looked at the theme) to 'very vaguely related to stuff that's been happening on Ferretbrain lately'. But if someone else is happy with that stretch, so am I. :)

Um, let's see...

Arthur: the Iliad. Yes, it's an odd one because in the modern world it's so hard to imagine a work of art that deals with warfare but doesn't take a view about whether it's a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. We can cope with anti-war art because basically most people agree that war is mostly bad even if we disagree about whether it's sometimes necessary and whether X is such a case; and we can just about cope with pre-twentieth-century pro-war art (like, I dunno, El Cid perhaps) because we can say, 'Well, culture was different, they believed they were on a divine mission, whatever'. But the wierd thing about the Iliad is that it seems to treat war primarily as just a circumstance, like the weather. Sometimes the war is fab, sometimes it's really quite depressing, but every day there it is, the war. As you say, it's the circumstance that enables heroes to be heroes, and it's also the circumstances that enables people to be killed in horrible ways that the poem describes with the same detachment that it describes Hera tarting herself up to flirt with Zeus. Since it's the only Geek war poem from that period it's impossible to say whether that's what Greek war poetry of the time was like or whether it's doing something extremely clever, but to me it seems absolutely right for a story that takes place in year ten of a twelve-year seige when the time for considering whether the war was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing has long since passed.

All of which has far less to do with the article than your comment did, but never mind!

Melissa: counter-factuals as suggestions for a work in progress. Yes, I quite agree that if one is actually offering constructive criticism to an artist who's asked for it as part of a working process than that's quite a different thing, and can be helpful. Especially when, as you say, the feedback is 'This doesn't feel quite right but I don't know why' and the artist says 'Well what if it were like this?'; it's usually less helpful, I find, when the feedback comes already packaged as 'Why don't you do it like this?', because then the artist has to try to reconstruct the thinking behind it to find out what problem this is supposed to be the solution to, and then usually has to come up with a different solution because other people's solutions don't necessarily fit.

Kyra: academic criticism and reviewing. Thanks for flagging up the difference, because as is apparent from the article I hadn't really registered it and was treating all evaluative commentary under the heading of 'criticism', while concentrating mainly on the reviewing kind because that, as you say, is where it tends to happen. Possibly a reason counter-factual criticism (broad sense) doesn't tend to happen in academic criticism is that most academic criticism (it's my impression) takes it for granted that the object of study is 'good' (at least in the sense of being worth studying) and asks 'What makes it good?' or, perhaps more often, 'What makes it interesting / typical / important / &c.?' Reviewing, whatever else it may try to do, is pretty much obliged to tackle 'Is it any good?'

But yes, looking at it from the reader's end (e.g. 'This text can be read as being all about X and its Y in relation to Z'), I think I would probably still be inclined to say that counter-factual criticism is unlikely to be helpful because it would tend to move towards 'This text could be read as being all about X and its Y in relation to Z, if only it were different'. Which doesn't really tell you much about anything.

Sister Magpie & Arthur: stories that want to say things. Hmmmm, yes. I'm wary of putting it in those terms because it all sounds a bit mystical, and any way of talking about art that sounds a bit mystical makes me nervous because of the risk of making audiences feel like art is something metaphysical that they have to commune with on a deep and mysterious level otherwise they're Doing It Wrong. Not to say that's what you're doing, just that it makes me wary. Luckily, I think I can agree with you while sticking to terms that I find more comfortable. The craft of fiction-writing, as we all know, is a lot about rules and devices that bind the story together lengthways by creating conscious or unconscious anticipation early on and then a sense of satisfaction and appropriateness when they pay off later. Maybe they work because they're inherent in human nature, or maybe they're a bit arbitrary but we're so used to them that an author's failure to observe them feels wrong. Either way, I'm sure writers often unconsciously plant things that they fail to resolve because they don't notice they planted them in the first place. (And that, of course, is one of the reasons the author's conscious intention can't be the ultimate yardstick of everything.) So what you'd describe as the story wanting to go in a certain direction I'd probably diagnose as the writer having set up certain things early on that, according to these deeply internalized / innate, demand to be resolved in a certain way (which perhaps is what you were saying anyway, Sister Magpie, when you said that 'stories are about raising expectations'). And, as your example shows, Arthur, that's especially true of endings because by the time we get to the end of a well-constructed story there should, according to the rules, be a small number of boxes that the ending must tick in order to satisfactorily resolve everything that's been set up. This often means that there's only a very few possible satisfactory endings that one can imagine, sometimes even only one. So perhaps endings in narrative art are a partial exception, an area where counter-factual criticism is valid. But even there I'd say it's possibly more helpful to say 'The ending was unsatisfactory because it failed to resolve X' than 'This would have been a better ending', firstly because (and here I hark back to what I said to Melissa about feedback on works in progress) it identifies the problem, which is what the reader of a piece of criticism probably wants to know about, whereas the latter proposes a solution, which is in itself useless since there's no possibility of the solution ever being implemented and also leaves the reader to work out what the critic thinks the problem was that demands that solution.

I'd say the point about endings applies equally to the endings of sub-divisions of a story, like your example of the conversation in the film, Sister Magpie. It sounds like that conversation was probably what screen-writers would call a beat, and that troublesome line was the ending of the beat, but one that failed to resolve whatever tensions or anticipations had been set up earlier in the beat. In that case, the fact that you and the director came to the same conclusion about what the right ending for that beat would have been does make a strong case for counter-factual criticism ('The line should have been this') being warranted here. But, without wanting to be all hard-line about it and say 'Grrr no one should ever under any circumstances do that', I'm still going to suggest that it would be better, if one were making that point in a semi-formal bit of criticism (broad sense - see reply to Kyra above), to say what the problem was with the original line rather than (or at any rate in addition to) saying that X would have been better, first of all because (sorry for repeating myself) others will gain more insight if you tell them why the original line doesn't work, and secondly because it would be nice to think, wouldn't it?, that there might be a writer out there somewhere with the ingenuity to come up with an alternative line that would work just as well or even better but that nobody would ever see coming.

Dan: binary plot-points and informal discussion. Your observation about some plot-points being binary is a very fair one, and (as above in relation to endings) I have to concede that in cases like that it's hard (and pointless) to be too firmly against a critic saying 'It should have been X rather than Y', since this is nothing but another way of saying 'Y didn't work.' But I wonder how many points really are only binary. If the hero finds a cage with a talking panda in it saying 'Please set me free', the two obvious possibilities are that the hero frees the panda and that the hero decides to leave the panda in the cage. But there's also the possibility that something intervenes before the hero makes the decision, and of course that intervention could be any number of things. Or I suppose one could say that there are still only two options there, one being that the hero frees the panda and the other being that the hero, for whatever reason, possibly including not having the chance to do so because something else intervenes, does not free the panda; but then one can always reduce any set of infinite possible futures to two, so long as one of the options is defined as 'all options other than the one already mentioned'. Perhaps I'm being silly and missing your point, but if so it's because I'm being obtuse and not because I'm being facetious! :)

As to context, yes, certainly in a back-and-forth discussion all manner of things can happen and one can be dragged into things. I personally would be wary (or I'd like to imagine I'd be wary - perhaps in the heat of debate I wouldn't be at all!) of responding to someone saying 'Well how would you have done it?' because that strikes me as an invitation to cross the line between criticizing as a critic / reader (evaluative criticism) and criticizing as a collaborator (constructive criticism). Keeping those realms apart seems to me very valuable, otherwise we find ourselves in a place where no one can criticize a novel unless she can write a better one, where my neighbour is so worried that he may have a beam in his eye that he flatly refuses to tell me whether I have a mote in mine, and 'My five-year-old could do that' becomes a legitimate way to denigrate the aesthetic merit of a painting. To say again what I've said a couple of times already in this long comment (which probably means I ought to have said it in the article), the really helpful and informative thing a critic can do is to explain why something is unsatisfactory rather than merely seeking to demonstrate that it is by producing examples of what would have been better. To use an analogy, I think most of us would probably agree that as a criticism of the sequence 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 16, 19 it's more enlightening to say 'The 16 is unsatisfactory because all the others are prime numbers and 16 isn't' than to say 'The 16 should be a 17'. One can, of course, say both; but the former contains the latter by implication anyway, whereas the latter on its own doesn't get one very far.
Sister Magpie at 01:53 on 2009-11-24
Just wanted to say--thanks for commenting on the "story wants to say..." in terms of mystical writing jargon. I hadn't thought of it that way, and I can't stand that kind of thing, but now that you point it out I can see how it can be read that way. I did mean it more as you described, in a more nuts and bolts way.

The more I talk about fiction, the more I see how important endings can be, for instance. Sometimes the ending of something is what puts everything that came before it into focus. It's only when you see where it went that you can see where it was going.

But as they read, readers are probably consciously or unconsciously making their own predictions or connections, and that can lead to that imaginary text that "should have been."

I'll completely admit, for instance, that part of me is still waiting for the "real" seventh book in the Harry Potter series. Even long after I've realized that this is where it was going all along, my own interests were so different than the authors that I still feel like I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop on that last book!
http://ninjacatman.livejournal.com/ at 08:04 on 2009-11-24
I think I might be repeating things people have said already, but I hope I am adding something new.

I don't think counter-factual criticism really works as a means of art criticism. It implies that there is a correct and an incorrect interpretation of art and I believe that, like a Reese Peanut Butter Cup, there is no wrong way to read a book.

Going with the Illiad example, while I can say with some certainty the authorial intent was not to write an anti-war poem that does not mean there is not sufficient textual evidence for someone to read it in that manner if they are inclined to. Someone else can read The Illiad as a pro-war poem and they would also find sufficient textual evidence.

In a more modern example, awhile ago I read two critiques of the comic book "The Dark Knight Returns" by Frank Miller, the authors of the critiques came from different personal backgrounds which led to them coming up with very different interpretations of the text, both interpretations took into account other works by the author as well as influential works and trends from the time it was written. The two critiques make mutually exclusive claims they cannot both be "correct". However I believe them both to be valid readings of the comic and I cannot point to any text or panel which would refute either of their arguments.

I think what I'm really trying to say is I agree with Kyra about the act of reading as an equally valid exercise as writing. And than I'm adding that finding meaning in a text and finding the author's meaning are two different things and just because the author may not have intended to include a theme doesn't mean it isn't there or that it is incorrect to read it in there.
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 08:35 on 2009-11-24
Gosh, I’ve read this essay so many times already and it’s filled with so much detail and information and thought-process and I’m still not sure if I’ve grasped everything… I just hope I have assimilated enough to be able to say what I am about to say – my own thoughts in response to this essay – with some form of clarity…


Is this a useful way to look at art?

This is especially relevant, I think, where the change he contemplates is quite simple and obvious (to think of, even if not to implement), because in such a case it's all the more likely that the author will have thought of and rejected the possibility, which in turn makes it somewhat more likely (though still by no means certain) that it would not in fact have enhanced the core idea


It may not always be ‘more’ likely that the author thought of it and rejected the possibility. Sometimes it might be just ‘as’ likely that the author didn’t think of it. Sometimes it’s ‘less’ likely that the author thought of it at all. It’s what Dan called the brand effect in his article about Race, Brand and the Placebo Effect and how there’s are a lot of decisions that we make subconsciously because of the effect of cultural branding that we don’t even realize that we do.

I don’t think it’s wrong to consider this possibility, yes even in works of art that we appreciate already – that some of the story’s details may not actually be deliberate choices on the part of the writer in the manner of: “I have considered X. I have considered Y. X makes better sense for my story and that is what I am writing.” Sometimes the story’s details may just be the result of “X is the first, obvious, only default choice due to the effect of my culture’s branding effect on my subconscious and I have not considered Y at all for the same reasons.”


…a critic crosses it when he starts to positively construct an imaginary alternative version of the work he is assessing. Often when a critic does this it is a sign that he has missed the point entirely and is out of sympathy with the core of the work…


Is this often the case? For example, when the sect of Firefly fandom suggested that the Firefly verse might actually make more sense as a futuristic, Chinese & American dominated-society if there were actually Chinese people in the cast. Or, as another example, when a sect of Harry Potter fandom thought that Rowling’s themes of tolerance and unity might have been better served if the Slytherins (as a considerable majority, not just Snape and Slughorn) had played a pivotal in defeating the Dark Lord.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think that yes, this is a useful way to look at art. I might even go a little further and wonder if we as readers/audience members aren’t obligated to ask these questions – Why did the writer make the story play this way? How else could the story have been told? Because criticizing art is not always just about examining how it has succeeded or failed in telling the story the writer set out to tell. Criticizing may – should, I sometimes think – also involve looking at how the story is influenced by, and what the story eventually contributes to the media database that is part of that cultural branding that Dan was talking about.
Dan H at 11:14 on 2009-11-24
For example, when the sect of Firefly fandom suggested that the Firefly verse might actually make more sense as a futuristic, Chinese & American dominated-society if there were actually Chinese people in the cast


I'm glad you used the Firefly example, beause I think it highlights a couple of interesting points about this whole concept. Certainly I would argue that criticising Firefly for having a majority-Chinese society with no actual Chinese people in it is valid.

I think the distinction Jamie is drawing is between saying "it is a problem that this show which is allegedly about a majority-Chinese society in fact contains no Chinese people" and saying "This show should have contained more Chinese people" or "the show's ethnic makeup would have better reflected its premise if River and Simon had been ethnically Chinese".

I'm actually not sure it's a useful distinction - but I have to teach a class now so will comment more later.
Arthur B at 12:58 on 2009-11-24
I think the key to the Firefly example is that it actually concerns a contradiction within the text - Whedon explicitly tells us that this is a Chinese and American dominated society, and then hides all the Chinese people. When authors create an outright paradox like that, then to an extent they've already driven us into a counter-factual realm, because certain facts about the work as presented to us are at odds with certain other facts.

For what it's worth, I see no distinction between saying "it is a problem that this show which is allegedly about a majority-Chinese society in fact contains no Chinese people" and "This show should have contained more Chinese people", so long as you attach a qualifier to the second statement along the lines of "if Whedon actually wanted to get across the idea that this is a Chinese/American future".

Inherently, by drawing attention to the paradox and quite fairly declaring it a problem, you're saying that Whedon "should" have done something different; it's just plain weaselly to claim that a text contains a glaring flaw, but then pretend that the text wouldn't be any better were that flaw corrected. With the Firefly example, there's really only two ways Whedon could have avoided the problem: he could have either included some actual Chinese people, or he could have dropped the Chinese angle altogether. If you're assuming that the Chinese angle is important enough to the text that it needs to be preserved, it then makes complete sense to say that Whedon needed to provide some Chinese cast members.

I think the line between useful speculation and useless counter-factualism gets crossed when you start saying that specific characters should have been Chinese. Why those characters specifically? There's a whole world of different imaginary Fireflies you could come up with simply by swapping the races of various cast members, and it just ain't useful to spent ages dreaming up all the different combinations.
Dan H at 14:28 on 2009-11-24
I think the line between useful speculation and useless counter-factualism gets crossed when you start saying that specific characters should have been Chinese


You see, this is where I think it gets a bit tricky. If it's okay to say "it was a bad idea to have no actual Chinese people in the main cast" and it's okay to say "you should have had some Chinese people in the main cast" why does it become a problem if you name names? If you say "for example, since Simon and River are supposed to be important members of the Alliance ruling classes, they could easily have been ethnically Chinese without it altering their characters in any way."

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the issue isn't "counter factualism" so much as simply "missing the point".

"Iron Council would have been a better book if Mieville had allowed the Council to either win or lose" is a perfectly valid criticism of the book (as far as I can tell, not having read it). "Casablanca would have been a better film if Rick had dumped Ilsa and got together with Viktor Laslo" is a stupid criticism of the film, but I don't think it's reasonable to say that they have a different *formal structure*. Both involve asserting that the text would be improved had it ended differently, it just happens that one of them is clearly dumb.
Arthur B at 14:44 on 2009-11-24
You see, this is where I think it gets a bit tricky. If it's okay to say "it was a bad idea to have no actual Chinese people in the main cast" and it's okay to say "you should have had some Chinese people in the main cast" why does it become a problem if you name names? If you say "for example, since Simon and River are supposed to be important members of the Alliance ruling classes, they could easily have been ethnically Chinese without it altering their characters in any way."
Ah, OK, I thought you'd picked Simon and River for your example simply as arbitrary picks. I think if you can take those characters, point out reasons why making them Chinese wouldn't do any harm to their characterisation or their role in the story, and additionally explain why having a scarcity of Chinese characters harms Firefly as it stands, then that's a very good reason to express that particular counterfactual. The argument would not look so good without the justification, though.

I think you're right that the real sin is missing the point rather than engaging in counter-factuals per se. At the same time, I think unjustified counter-factuals are more likely to indicate that someone is missing the point than justified ones. The Iron Council example only looks more sensible than the Casablanca one because I've laid out a few points as to why the existing ending to the book doesn't work for me. If you can come up with a justification for a change to the text which actually engages with the text itself the criticism is just going to sound more relevant than if you're just tossing out changes without regard to the product as it stands.

(Of course, talking about "missing the point" risks promoting a dogmatic, "Rowling's always right" view of things... perhaps it's better to say that the problem isn't missing the author's point so much as it's failing to grasp any point which the text supports.)
Sister Magpie at 15:44 on 2009-11-24
You see, this is where I think it gets a bit tricky. If it's okay to say "it was a bad idea to have no actual Chinese people in the main cast" and it's okay to say "you should have had some Chinese people in the main cast" why does it become a problem if you name names? If you say "for example, since Simon and River are supposed to be important members of the Alliance ruling classes, they could easily have been ethnically Chinese without it altering their characters in any way."


Or that would also apply to stories where, for instance, you've got an "exotic" setting but the prophesied savior/hero is a white kid. Which would equally apply to Firefly if there were a lot of Chinese extras in the background, but all the heroes were white. It asks a variation on the same question of whether the JW would have better demonstrated that this was a Chinese-American society by not hiding all the Chinese people. In this case it's saying that he might have better demonstrated that this is a Chinese-American society where the Chinese and Americans are equal by adding Chinese heroes to the crew.

Likewise, does it change anything that the producers of The Last Airbender movie decided to keep the Asian trappings of the cartoon world but originally cast everyone as white, and then later, probably in response to criticism, made the antagonists Indian? In that case we can compare it to the original telling of the story where the world was Asian-influenced and the characters were too.
Dan H at 11:41 on 2009-11-25
As I think Arthur pointed out earlier, adaptations have a slightly different set of rules because there is a genuine, extant original to which comparison is legitimate.

I think the thing is that it *is* quite common for people to criticise texts for not being completely different texts which may or may not exist only in their head, but I don't think you can cite "proposing solutions to problems with the text" as the dividing line between regular and "counter factual" criticism, although it might be a symptom of it.

For example, I've heard it suggested a couple of times on HP communities that they thought the series "should have" been told partly from viewpoints other than Harry's. This never struck me as a particularly sensible criticism, because being told resolutely from Harry's PoV is one of the defining features of the series.

I don't think it matters how the criticism is phrased, whether it's "I think it is a problem that the books focus so strongly on Harry's viewpoint to the exclusion of other characters" or "I think Deathly Hallows should have been written in alternating chapters, partly from Harry's PoV and partly from Snape's" the complaint still comes from the same place, which is a dissatisfaction with the book not being a *wholly different* book.

Although having just said *that* I suppose "focusing so much on Harry's viewpoint introduces problems in the text" would be a legitimate criticism, but I think from there the big step into counter-factualism is between saying "therefore the book should have been multiple-viewpoint" and "therefore those problems should have been addressed more carefully."

I think there's definitely something going on here, but I'm having real difficulty articulating it. I think the thing is that the *exact same criticisms* can come from a variety of different places, and whether they're legitimate or not depends partly on where they come from.

Of course down this road lies madness, because we're now not only dealing with the intent of the *author* but also with the intent of the *critic*.
Arthur B at 13:59 on 2009-11-25
So, what, you're saying it's OK to identify problems with a text but not OK to propose solutions? That seems a bit Spartan to me. I think it's OK to do that so long as you don't get such a personal stake in a particular solution you decide it's how the story was meant to be, or you deny the possibility of other solutions.

To take the Simon and River example... it's one thing to say "Simon and River could have been Chinese, and that would have solved the problem of the supposedly Chinese-dominated future with no Chinese people".

It's another thing to say "Simon and River should have been Chinese to solve the Chineselessness problem" - the implication there being that it's the only solution to the problem, or that Whedon had to solve the problem by introducing more Chinese characters when he could have just dropped the Chinese angle altogether.

It is a third and more extreme thing entirely to say "It's obvious Simon and River were meant to be Chinese all along, so obvious it's practically canon, and I'm going to criticise the show with that in mind."
Arthur B at 14:03 on 2009-11-25
For example, I've heard it suggested a couple of times on HP communities that they thought the series "should have" been told partly from viewpoints other than Harry's. This never struck me as a particularly sensible criticism, because being told resolutely from Harry's PoV is one of the defining features of the series.

Again, you're just tossing out arguments people spout without justification. If people can justify why they think that should be the case, and their justification makes it clear that they are in fact engaging with the basic axioms of the text in good faith, what's the matter with that?

(Of course, in that case they'd have to come up with a reasonable argument as to why for them Harry's point of view isn't a core axiom of the series, and since by the time DH came out 6 of the 7 books had been from Harry's point of view they'd have a bit of a mountain to climb. Then again, George Lucas has managed to convince otherwise-sensible people that the original Star Wars films were really about Darth Vader and not Luke Skywalker and Han Solo...)
Sister Magpie at 15:37 on 2009-11-25
Sometimes maybe it's not so much a type of criticism but a type of communication. I had a teacher in an adaptation class who used to call the suggestions she put out "bad suggestions" to make it clear it wasn't a direction the writer was supposed to take, but it was an example of what she was talking about and how it would work. Sometimes that's just helpful in explaining what you mean. For instance, to use the Firefly example, you show how making X characters Chinese wouldn't take anything away but would have Chinese characters working with the crew etc.

With the HP example, I think, if somebody is showing how the book would be half from Snape's pov (I did pre-DH see serious predictions that it would be half from Ginny's pov--from H/G shippers, of course) would change the book or give advantages. But I think it would also quickly show that you would no longer be talking about the same book at all since, as Dan says, the pov is so central to the series. Someone else could then point out how much of the series depends on thinking one thing and then having everything change when you have new information (Snape loved Harry's mother--gasp!). That doesn't work with that kind of change.
Dan H at 18:02 on 2009-11-25
So, what, you're saying it's OK to identify problems with a text but not OK to propose solutions?


Umm, I'm pretty sure I in fact said the exact opposite of that.

It's not about proposing solutions, it's about coming from a place which takes *as its starting point* the assumption that the book should have been a completely different book.

Again, you're just tossing out arguments people spout without justification. If people can justify why they think that should be the case, and their justification makes it clear that they are in fact engaging with the basic axioms of the text in good faith, what's the matter with that?


I think you're going too far into hypotheticals here. The point is that these sorts of arguments *do not* engage with the basic axioms of the text in good faith, nor do they attempt to do so.

Again, this is sort of part of my whole point. It's not about what you're arguing, it's about the position you're arguing it from. If you are - say - a Harry/Ginny shipper arguing that HP7 should be told half from the viewpoint of Ginny Weasley then you've actually left company with the text and have started talking about fanfic. Is it *conceivable* that one could arrive at the same conclusion from a close textual analysis? Probably, but I have not yet seen it happen.

As Sister Magpie points out, it all gets more complicated when you start thinking about communication rather than analysis.
Arthur B at 18:33 on 2009-11-25
It's not about proposing solutions, it's about coming from a place which takes *as its starting point* the assumption that the book should have been a completely different book.

OK, but what if you come to the conclusion that the book should have been a completely different one?

I'm one of those people who believes that a lot of problems with the later Harry Potter books came about at least partially because the series began as a light, jolly school-based fantasy series, and tried towards the end to become something quite different, and elements which worked perfectly fine in the early series became problematic later on. (An example that came up in the discussion of one of your earlier articles is the Sorting Hat: in the early books it's a plot device for quickly assigning characters to the appropriate school cliques, whereas in the later books it becomes a Calvinist device which automatically detects whether the wearer is one of the Elect or one of the Damned.) Do you think it's appropriate to read Half-Blood Prince or Deathly Hallows and come to the conclusion that the series took a wrong turn when it left its original genre behind, and that it would have been far better for Rowling to stick to the original format?
Dan H at 18:44 on 2009-11-25
Again, I think there's a difference between coming to the conclusion that a book should have been different, and starting with the assumption that a book should be different.

More precisely, I think if you feel a book should be completely different, you basically just have to step back and say "this book sucks" and leave it at that (to stick with the current argument, I know for a fact that you've not bothered reading the last two Harry Potter books).

I don't see much point in going into the hypothetical details of a book that was never written. There'd be no point trying to work out what Deathly Hallows would have been like if the Potter Books had stayed being school stories.
Niall at 00:45 on 2009-11-26
Slightly rushed and tired comment, this. To generalise slightly from some of what's already been said, in particular the Firefly comments: to what extent is political criticism (defined in a broad sense) counterfactual criticism (and vice versa), and to what extent does that matter?

My sympathies naturally lie with the arguments Jamie lays out in the original article. But I've been working my way through Zadie Smith's new essay collection Changing My Mind (very good, by the way), and was struck by this bit, re: the Steve Martin film Shopgirl:

"So: older rich man helps young poor girl out of a rut (while sleepign with her) and then mercifully ends the relationship so both parties can go on to date someone who is their true 'peer': a redeemed Jeremy for Mirabelle,and some classy older woman for Ray. In the (very good) novel [on which the film is based], Martin's writing is so sparse and elegant you can almost excuse the concept."

Once again, my sympathies naturally lie with the point Smith is making here. It makes sense to me that, say, a lot of the problems with representation in sf/fantasy are at root problems of poor characterisation. That is, if the book is well written enough, if a character is detailed and specific and nuanced enough, then by definition they are not a stereotype; the problem with sf/f is that most characters just aren't that well written.

The problem (I think) is that this reasoning is fine for any given book, but neglects the structural argument: ie, this is the thinking that led to the Canon, with all the biases it contains. But it seems to me that critiques that start from this point are to some extent inherently counterfactual; the whole point is to ask what the effect of different starting assumptions would be. And of course political critiques don't stay at this level, they go back down to the level of the individual book.
Jamie Johnston at 02:04 on 2009-11-30
Blimey. You know, I'm much less sure about all this than I used to be! I guess this is what happens when you write an article very quickly in a single sitting on a subject you hadn't considered until half an hour before starting to write, and then lots of very clever and well-read people discuss it and identify implications you hadn't thought of.

For those who have better things to do than read my epic comments, what follows can be summarized as: I still think I was more or less right, though perhaps not for the reasons I mainly relied on and perhaps for reasons I can't adequately explain.

One thing is this: counter-factual criticism may not be an evil in itself but tends to be a symptom of point-missing. I think that's somewhat consistent with what I wrote (possibly with a little retconning), and I think it's also somewhat consistent with one strand of Dan's commentary. It is, though, problematic in that it implies that there is One True Point of any given work and the exercise of criticism is concerned with hitting it. I think Dan's version responds to this by saying something like, 'No, point-missing occurs when the critic's interpretation is so far from engaging with the text itself, or engages with the text in so partial and incomplete a manner, that it isn't really an interpretation of that text at all but a flight of fancy loosely inspired by the text.' I'm not sure what my response is but that one sounds fairly promising so I'm going to sign up to that for the time being.

Another related thing is that, as Arthur in particular but also others have said, almost any criticism can be re-phrased as a counter-factual. I think I nodded at that problem in the article, and I agree that it does make the distinction between counter-factual and 'proper' criticism very difficult to make, and indeed raises legitimate doubts about whether it's a useful or meaningful distinction at all. I'm going to again rely partly on saying that the actual construction of a critical point as a counter-factual proposition isn't in itself the evil I'm worried about, but rather it tends to be an indication that the critic is coming at things from an unhelpful angle. Also I do think there's a perceptible line, or at least frontier-zone, between general remarks such as 'It would be better if it didn't have this problem' (which is simply a slightly less clear way of saying 'It has this problem') and propositions like 'It would be better if this were done like this and that were changed to that and there were far less of the other' (which is no longer analysis of the original but speculation about the alternative). I can't define the difference, but I feel it and I think it's there; and I'll try to do a bit better than that by suggesting that one may be able to tell which side of the line a statement falls on by translating it back into non-counter-factual terms and seeing whether it looks like a helpful and sensible bit of analysis. To use an example from the discussion, I suggest that one can see the difference in worthwhileness between 'It would be better if more of the principal characters were Chinese' and 'It would be better if Simon and River were Chinese' by translating them into 'It is a problem that few of the principal characters are Chinese' (which looks like a sensible bit of analysis) and 'It is a problem that Simon and River are not Chinese' (which tends to make one go, 'Huh?').

A final thing arises from Arthur's last comment, and I'm going to quote the paragraph in full so I can handily refer to bits of it:

I'm one of those people who believes that a lot of problems with the later Harry Potter books came about at least partially because the series began as a light, jolly school-based fantasy series, and tried towards the end to become something quite different, and elements which worked perfectly fine in the early series became problematic later on. (An example that came up in the discussion of one of your earlier articles is the Sorting Hat: in the early books it's a plot device for quickly assigning characters to the appropriate school cliques, whereas in the later books it becomes a Calvinist device which automatically detects whether the wearer is one of the Elect or one of the Damned.) Do you think it's appropriate to read Half-Blood Prince or Deathly Hallows and come to the conclusion that the series took a wrong turn when it left its original genre behind, and that it would have been far better for Rowling to stick to the original format?

Now, I don't mean to say that there's anything terribly wrong with that paragraph as a whole; what I want to say is that I don't find the final sixteen words helpful as a piece of criticism. Everything preceding the final sentence is interesting and stimulating and precisely the sort of thing I like to hear from a critic / reviewer (see my last comment for my broad use of 'critic'). It identifies a problematic feature of the work and puts forward a theory to explain the cause of the problem. It's my feeling that, having done all that, Arthur has discharged his duty as a critic and can lay down his pen. But going on to suggest a solution to the problem he's identified and explained is going beyond what I, at least, want a critic to do, and although I'm not going to say that it's a terrible act of supreme unforgivability I do want to suggest that it's mildly unhelpful / counter-productive.

At best, it adds nothing to what's already been said. If I accept the argument that problems arise from the attempt to change the Harry Potter franchise from one type of creature to another, then I'm perfectly capable of inferring for myself that it might have been better if Rowling hadn't tried to change it - if, of course, I want to do that mental exercise at all, which in fact I personally don't because the books are already written and all I want Arthur to do is to help me decide either whether to bother reading them (if I haven't yet) or what I should think about them (if I have read them). But, more than that, it distracts me from Arthur's discussion of problems by asking me to think about solutions. And we know that it's a very very rare problem that has only one possible solution. So now I'm thinking, 'Hey, surely another solution would be to change the earlier books to remove or alter the things that become problematic later in the series? Would that be a better solution or a worse one? Is there a third one I haven't considered?' and so on. And maybe I'm not only thinking that but also saying it in a comment on his article, and then someone else is saying something else, and suddenly we're having a great big hypothetical and totally insoluble argument about how to write the best Harry Potter series in the best of all possible worlds, and really we're missing everything that was interesting and worthwhile about Arthur's piece of criticism. And even more than that, by adding those last sixteen words it's as if Arthur has invited us to do that because he himself has apparently reduced his entire argument to a conclusion that seems both dubious (in that there may be better solutions to the problems identified) and simplistic (in that it implies a single elementary change would have made all the difference, which tends to make one feel that the problem can't have been all that terribly serious in the first place). Of course he hasn't, because those sixteen words aren't really his conclusion: his real conclusion, the conclusion of his train of critical analysis, is in the first sentence of the paragraph. That's the bit that gives me insight into the work in question and helps me look at it in a new way. That's the point at which my mind feels stimulated and I have a sense of having plunged into a deep pool and found a rich underwater landscape that I could explore for hours. The final sentence, by contrast, shuts down my thinking options, drags me out of the pool, and makes everything feel mundane and flat.

I know I've come over a bit rhetorical there and consequently haven't explained terribly clearly what I actually object to, but that's because I myself can't really pin it down. Maybe I have an eccentric idea of criticism and what I want out of it. But I just feel quite strongly that putting forward specific proposals about how to improve a work of art is not the job of a critic and actually positively obstructs the critic's task of giving insight into the work and provoking reflexion about it. If the critic proposes a change to the work without explaining the nature of the problem she's trying to solve then she's entirely failing to engage in any actual criticism; if, as in the case of Arthur's very brief example quoted above, she both explains the problem and also tries to solve it, the latter exercise goes beyond her remit as a critic and actually distracts from, undermines, and trivializes the helpful work of criticism she's done.

Sorry for the longness.
Arthur B at 02:31 on 2009-11-30
If I accept the argument that problems arise from the attempt to change the Harry Potter franchise from one type of creature to another, then I'm perfectly capable of inferring for myself that it might have been better if Rowling hadn't tried to change it

But if the point I'm raising leads to an inevitable conclusion, what difference does it make whether I enunciate the conclusion or leave it to you to enunciate?

And even more than that, by adding those last sixteen words it's as if Arthur has invited us to do that because he himself has apparently reduced his entire argument to a conclusion that seems both dubious (in that there may be better solutions to the problems identified)

You see, I think it's useful to propose the sort of thing that I propose in the last statement because it identifies a concrete step that Rowling could have taken (sticking to the original format) which might have helped keep me, personally, onboard.

If I'm identifying a problem I have with a text I'm not necessarily identifying a magical ur-problem which will necessarily hurt the enjoyment of every other reader; it could be that I'm identifying a personal problem, a place where the author has gone down a path that I personally am not willing to follow. Is it really that much of a leering, filthy crime against purity of criticism to say "had this happened, I would be able to support Rowling far more than I currently do?"

I think it's quite easy to read a review as though the reviewer were being absolutist, or engaging in fruitless speculation, or whatever, simply by misreading a statement of personal frustrations with the work as though it were a condemnation of an actual problem - or, as in this case, an exasperated with that the author had done something differently as an identification of the One True Way the text could be fixed. I don't think that sticking to the original genre is the only way Rowling could fix the Potter series, but it's a way, and one which I'm particularly disappointed she didn't follow. Given that any criticism that doesn't take place in a rigorous, academic context - and I can think of no less rigorous or academic place than FB - is always going to be a mix of well thought-out assertions and more personal points, isn't it only fair to give such criticisms the benefit of the doubt unless the criticisms actually have no foundation in reality?

In the above case, it's clear that you feel that the sixteen words were preceded by a well-reasoned argument, Jamie. Are you such a tyrant to deny me sixteen little words in one fairly extensive paragraph to express my personal feelings on the matter? You would allow me to stalk my prey but deny me the pleasure of driving the dagger home! Is my conclusion really such a brown, stinking floater bobbing in the deep pool of your cogitation? Surely the very fact it provoked such a response from you proves that it didn't shut down your thinking options at all?
Arthur B at 02:37 on 2009-11-30
Oh, and one other point: proposing that Rowling should have gone back and done something different from the very start would be a silly suggestion because it would reject the entire text, whereas my proposal would have rejected only a portion of it. And, if you want to be nitpicky, it would be more like accepting earlier texts of Rowling's but rejecting later ones as unworthy of the precedent previously set.

You might be aghast at the idea of a critic flat-out rejecting what a writer has produced. But this why I find myself drawn more and more to defend counter-factuals, provided that they grasp the point in the first place. Sometimes the point (or points) indicated by a text are noxious, nonsensical, or otherwise undesirable. Banning counter-factuals robs the commentator of the ability to say "this very endeavour was wrong-headed, and should not have been attempted". Not appropriate in an academic context, but FB ain't an academic context, and I ain't no academic critic or commercial reviewer. I'm a guy who rants online about stuff. And sometimes you have to just say that a particular subject was a boneheaded idea from start to finish, unworthy of anyone's time.
Wardog at 16:00 on 2009-12-02
I’ve been thinking about counter-factual criticism and reading the discussion – and I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that, although it may be an illuminating thought experiment, it doesn’t actually work. And by ‘work’ I mean, it’s not something that can actually be applied to criticism / reviewing. I don’t mean this in a condemning way, I thought it was a rockin’ article.

Essentially I think the problem is that I can’t quite establish for myself what counter-factual criticism IS – i.e., yes I know it is “criticising the text for being contrary to what you believe the text should be” but I don’t know how to apply that. I think it spirals too quickly into tremendously subtle distinctions, often into subtle distinctions of *phrasing*, and these distinctions are too easily influenced by my personal reading of whether the critic is wrong or right.

Ultimately I think I’m too eager to use counter-factual criticism in order to be able to point at something somebody else has said about a text and feel there is some sort of authority which will allow me to “THAT IS NOT FAIR CRITICISM.” And I think we can all work out precisely what I want to point at =P

I wonder if, perhaps, it’s something to do with specifics versus generalities? I think maybe the issue with counter-factual criticism is not whether you’re making demands on a text in order to have it fulfil your own expectations but whether you’re applying generally held principles to specific texts.

I’m not sure, though, it’s a tricky one :)
Jamie Johnston at 16:41 on 2009-12-02
You know how it is when you're making a point: it usually ends up sounding more generalized and more emphatic than it was in your head to begin with, partly because you convince yourself with your own arguments and partly just because it would be tiresome for you and everybody else to hedge the point with all the caveats and provisos that really ought to be present.

So yeah, no, I'm not seriously saying that it's the end of the world if you say what you think Rowling could have done better. I still personally feel that in most cases saying something like that will be so speculative and arguable that it may well add nothing; occasionally it may actually get in the way of the reader's appreciation of your point, though (as you rightly say) not so much that it will seriously discombobulate anyone who's reading and thinking with moderate care; but equally I see that sometimes it can be a useful way to clarify or illustrate the point you've made. My principal target is the use of counter-factual criticism in stead of actual analysis of the problem to which the counter-factual is supposed to be a solution.

Your point about formal and informal setting is an important one, though I think in a way it works both ways. In one sense an informal setting like Ferretbrain (or to a greater extent in similar places where the inhabitants are less well-behaved and sensible than we all are) can make counter-factual speculation even less desirable in that it's the sort of setting in which that sort of criticism can quite quickly provoke rather fruitless debate about what various things an artist could have done differently and whether they would have been improvements or not. But, yes, on the other hand it's perfectly true to say that in an informal setting we shouldn't have to worry too much about what types of things we should or shouldn't be saying about works of art and our reactions to them. To some extent I'm less concerned to discourage people from engaging in counter-factual speculation than I am to encourage people to perceive a certain sort of boundary beyond which it stops being anything we might call criticism and becomes just having a chat about our personal preferences or just playing the game of pretending we're re-writing other people's books. As long as we know that there's a difference and have some vague sort of idea of where the distinction lies, it probably won't do anyone any harm to move from one to the other.

I'm afraid I haven't quite managed to get my head around your last comment, though. When I said that one could just as well conclude that the first few books should be changed as that the last few books should, I didn't mean to suggest a rejection of the entire series, and I don't think that's a necessary consequence. I mean, this particular example is a bit wobbly anyway because I'm treating a series of separate books as one single work, which perhaps I shouldn't be, but let's stick with it for now: if we imagine someone who agreed with you that the change of genre was a bad thing but who actually preferred the later books to the earlier ones, why would it be less legitimate for that person to wish the earlier books were different than for you to wish the later ones were? Have I missed your point here?

In fact I rather think I must have misunderstood your whole comment, because to me it starts off sounding like you're suggesting, or at least exploring the possibility, that counter-factual criticism is more or less okay depending on how much of the original work of art it proposes to change (which is not a proposition I'd sign up to), and that it's less acceptable to reject an entire work than to reject only part of it (which again I wouldn't agree with), but then in the second paragraph it sounds like you're saying critics, especially non-academic reviewers, should be free to reject any or all elements of a work (which I thoroughly endorse). So, er, help?

But anyway I definitely don't want in any way to say that critics, however formal or informal, should feel inhibited from saying that part or all of a work of art is unmitigated rubbish. Absolutely not. I don't see that as a counter-factual exercise. On the contrary, it's the very beneficial exercise that counter-factuals can (sometimes, maybe, &c.) get in the way of, namely the exercise of actually analysing the problem with a work. The review you link to is an example of exactly that. It isn't what I'd call counter-factual; it would only be counter-factual if you'd written 'Jim Bernheimer's book would have been better if it had been totally different in every way' and then gone on to describe various ways in which it could have been different.
Arthur B at 17:00 on 2009-12-02
I mean, this particular example is a bit wobbly anyway because I'm treating a series of separate books as one single work, which perhaps I shouldn't be, but let's stick with it for now: if we imagine someone who agreed with you that the change of genre was a bad thing but who actually preferred the later books to the earlier ones, why would it be less legitimate for that person to wish the earlier books were different than for you to wish the later ones were? Have I missed your point here?

I think it is very hard to say that someone writing the Harry Potter series all over again, sticking to the style established in the final books, would, by books 5-7, end up writing the same book. It would be the same kind of book, but you couldn't just rewrite the first three or four books and leave the last few standing, because there are all sorts of setting elements from the early books which are still present (if only in a vestigal form) in the later books, but which you'd simply never introduce, or would appear in an utterly different form, if you were writing book 1 as an epic fantasy instead of a jolly school jaunt. (I'm thinking of things like the Sorting Hat in particular). The later books build on a precedent established by the first books, even though they depart strikingly from said precedent in a number of important respects - if you redid the start from scratch, you'd need to redo the whole thing.

In fact I rather think I must have misunderstood your whole comment, because to me it starts off sounding like you're suggesting, or at least exploring the possibility, that counter-factual criticism is more or less okay depending on how much of the original work of art it proposes to change (which is not a proposition I'd sign up to), and that it's less acceptable to reject an entire work than to reject only part of it (which again I wouldn't agree with), but then in the second paragraph it sounds like you're saying critics, especially non-academic reviewers, should be free to reject any or all elements of a work (which I thoroughly endorse). So, er, help?

I'm saying that rejecting an entire work is more extreme than rejecting part of it, and therefore requires more justification. Also, if you're rejecting a work in its entirety, that's fine, but it seems disingenuous to suggest that tossing out the entire text and replacing it with something different would be an improvement, because it's not - it's scrapping the whole thing and starting over. Whereas if you are rejecting a segment of a text as being not worthy of the whole, it's entirely cool in my view to suggest ways that the resultant hole could be patched to better reflect the precedent and standards set by the rest of the work.
Jamie Johnston at 00:30 on 2009-12-03
Eep, sorry, my last comment (as is probably evident) was meant as a reply to Arthur. Must have been writing at the same time as Kyra. Shall reply further as appropriate tomorrow or Friday depending on the things on which things tend to depend.
Jamie Johnston at 00:28 on 2009-12-05
Me again, hello.

Kyra: Certainly the discussion has persuaded me that 'counter-factual' is in practice unworkable as a category of criticism; it may possibly be identifiable as a tendency or an element or something like that; but really I think you're right that to a great extent it's nothing more than a way of expressing a point. And probably the main reason I'm wary of criticism that's expressed in a counter-factual way is that that way of expressing it can sometimes obscure what's really being said, thus either making a good point harder to grasp ('It would be better if X were Y.' 'Why?' 'Because X has the following problems.' 'Then why didn't you say that in the first place?') or making a bad point less easy to spot as bad ('It would be better if X were Y.' 'Why?' 'Because Y is cool.' 'But Y has nothing to do with this work of art.' 'But Y is cool!'). Somebody can say, for example, 'It would be better if there were more zombies', and the point underlying this could be a fairly sensible one ('The small number of zombies appearing in the film is a problem because it tends to counteract the sense that zombies are all around and could strike at any time') or an utterly ludicrous one ('The small number of zombies appearing in the film shows a morally unacceptable discrimination against the zombie lifestyle'): one can't tell from the counter-factual alone because in both cases it's the same ('Moar zombies'). Now, one can engage with the counter-factual on its own (counter-factual) terms by saying, 'Okay, where in particular would you put the extra zombies? Or would you replace existing characters with zombies? Which ones? How would that affect everything else?', but I rather think one's more likely to get to the heart of the matter by saying 'Never mind what it might or might not be like with more zombies, what exactly do you say is the problem that's caused by the lack of zombies?' And if the answer is, 'The small number of zombies in this film about the D-Day landings discriminates against zombies' then the silliness of the criticism is exposed, i.e., as you say, it amounts to nothing more than a complaint that the critic would rather have watched a different film.

Arthur: Can I take a few steps back? I know by doing so I may fail to respond to some of your specific points, and I'm sorry about that, but I've tried about ten drafts of this reply and every time I try to engage with your specific points I end up rambling at great length in a way that's perfectly coherent but ultimately fails to answer those points anyway because we're operating to some extent at cross purposes. To clear my mind and let you see where I'm coming from, I'm just going to start with some assertions.

Any change to any work of art creates a different work of art. LHOOQ is not the Mona Lisa. A tiny change may result in a different work that is so similar that any sensible person would accept it as essentially the same thing in a slightly variant form, but in terms of pure theory it isn't the same thing. The use of a counter-factual in criticism is therefore an attempt to illuminate the work in question by comparing it to a different work. The difference between counter-factual criticism and other comparative criticism is that in counter-factual criticism one of the two works being compared is imaginary.

If that's right, then to do this sort of exercise is not really to propose a change to the original work, because one is not actually suggesting that anybody create the imagined new work; nor is it strictly a matter of rejecting elements of, or the whole of, the original work, because one is not acting as a commissioning editor. The exercise is simply to create a comparator for the purpose of comparison, the comparison in turn being for the purpose of making or supporting or illustrating an evaluative or illuminating point being made about the original. To return to the Iliad, one can throw some light on the aesthetic function of the gods in the poem by comparing it to Troilus and Cressida, or one can just try to imagine what the poem would be like with all the gods taken out.

The disadvantage of using Troilus and Cressida as a comparator is that many irrelevant variables are different, not only the one you want to examine. The advantage of using the hypothetical godless Iliad is that the only variable that is changed is the inclusion of the gods and therefore it is much easier to be confident that any differences found between the comparator and the original are indicators of what difference the gods make to the work. The disadvantage of using the godless Iliad as a comparator is that, because it doesn't exist, one has no certain way of knowing what differences there actually are between it and the original. This means there's no way to prevent, or to prove, circular argument (for example, if one's argument is that the gods give the story a sense of scale and importance that would otherwise be lacking then it's all too easy, deliberately or simply as an unconscious result of one's belief in that proposition, to imagine a godless Iliad in which the story lacks a sense of scale and importance); and, on the other hand, it's very easy to challenge the conclusions drawn from the comparison by simply challenging the assumptions used to construct the comparator (for example, 'You say the godless Iliad would be less exciting because Paris would be killed by Agamemnon at 3.433, thus basically bringing the whole war to an end a quarter of the way through the poem, but that's only true if you deliberately choose to set up exactly the same dramatic scenario and then deny Paris any way of getting out of it alive except being rescued by Aphrodite, which is plainly not what any well-constructed poem would do').

It may in some cases be illuminating to use counter-factuals of a very very general kind. I'll concede that in, for example, a sentence like 'The intervention of the gods allows Homer to stage the dramatic fight between Paris and Agamemnon at the end of book 3 while averting the consequences intended by the combatants by having the fight end inconclusively; it is hard to see how this could be done otherwise' the last eleven words do add some force to the point and do amount to a very minimal sort of counter-factual. But by and large I simply don't see what's to be gained from using, or at any rate relying on, counter-factuals to any significant extent, given the dangers I've mentioned. Of course if they bring you joy I won't try to take them away from you, and perhaps in my never very successful efforts to be brief I ended up in the article sounding rather too censorious. But I think I'd still be inclined to stand by a modified form of my final sentence, to wit: 'The critic should think twice before indulging in counter-factual criticism, if her objective in doing so is to say something helpful and illuminating about the work of art in question.' And when I say 'think twice', it isn't a euphemism for 'don't do it', it means just what it says.
http://orionsnebula.blogspot.com/ at 07:42 on 2009-12-19
Jamie-- This whole discussion has been absolutely fascinating to me. Let me start with the obligatory concession of conflicts of interest

--I write fiction, and probably have often conflated criticism and writing in the way you mention
--I specifically have spent large amounts of energy contemplating how Harry Potter would have been different if X changed, and in one case (Slytherin!Harry)actually intend to try writing it once I've got a few original novels finished.

That said, I wanted to question the fundamental premise of your argument about the *purpose* of reviews and internet discussions. I don't approach them with the goal you've articulated *at all* and I suspect I'm not alone.

Formal criticism, as I understand it, is supposed to be exclusively about understanding the text itself--at least that's what I've been asked to when writing about literature, which I've dine frequently in my college career, though never through the English department. In that context, your advice seems to be totally valid, although as Kyra pointed out I don't think that kind of thing is usually possible in the format of formal criticism anyway.

But reading reviews, in my mind, has a much broader purpose than finding out whether to read or not to read a particular book. Especially in the age of the interent, we see a lot of "celebrity" reviewers where the primary reason for reading Mr.X's review of some movie is to hear more about how Mr.X sees the world;the text under discussion is just a pretext. Look at Fred Clark's 5 year running analysis of "Left Behind" on Slacktivist. That isn't about judging the series; we made up our mind years ago that it was irredeemably awful. The text, and the many counterfactuals proposed there, mostly serve as a platform for a discussion of journalism, international politics, christianity, and other issues raised in that series.

Plus, as a writer myself, I tend to view "formal" reviews (including Ferretbrain articles) as an opportunity to learn about writing, and ways which work or don't work; in that context I view considering hypothetical alternatives as extremely valuable. Similarly, less formal response, (like the comments on a typical blog review) can be a kind of market research that suggests what (at least some) people might want to see.

I don't think everyone approaches the texts exactly as I do, but I do think your understanding of the purpose of discussing a piece of literature is broader for most people than your article assumes.

Robinson L at 22:02 on 2009-12-24
Whew, that took a long time to read through.

Good article, Jamie, and a really great discussion. A lot of people have said more-or-less what I wanted to say, especially Orion. (I first got into the site about equally for the entertainment and the writing advice.)

I read a lot of reviews for entertainment/interest rather than a formal discussion of the works' strengths and weaknesses. I've also been known to take some pretty big liberties with my own online reviews, including constructing a somewhat detailed counter-factual version of the Doctor Who series four finale in which the Shadow Proclamation actually figured in the story instead of serving solely as a plot device to help the Doctor and Donna find Earth. (Although, since my objective in doing that was not to suggest that my alternative version was what Davies should have done but rather to point out in a humorous way that he gave us a fairly obvious Chekhov's Gun and then loaded it with blank cartridges, you might argue this wasn't quite what you were talking about.)

Dan: I suspect that this is one of those all-too-common situations in which one cannot draw a sharp dividing line, but where never the less there are clearly two distinct states which are, well, distinct.
Tangent Alert: Personally, I've moved away from the “sharp line” metaphor ever since I read The Science of Discworld. (Don't laugh. Oh, all right, laugh to your heart's content, see if I care!) In one of the “real science” portions of that book, the authors point out that the Manichean model doesn't actually work, because it's never really a case of two polar opposites and nothing in between. They propose the alternate model of a spectrum: you have one distinct concept on one end, a distinct and opposing concept on the other, and then there's this messy gray area in the middle, which is where the headaches come in. /tangent

Jamie: Either way, I'm sure writers often unconsciously plant things that they fail to resolve because they don't notice they planted them in the first place. (And that, of course, is one of the reasons the author's conscious intention can't be the ultimate yardstick of everything.) So what you'd describe as the story wanting to go in a certain direction I'd probably diagnose as the writer having set up certain things early on that, according to these deeply internalized / innate, demand to be resolved in a certain way (which perhaps is what you were saying anyway, Sister Magpie, when you said that 'stories are about raising expectations').
I think this aptly describes the phenomenon.

Jamie: I personally would be wary ... of responding to someone saying 'Well how would you have done it?' because that strikes me as an invitation to cross the line between criticizing as a critic / reader (evaluative criticism) and criticizing as a collaborator (constructive criticism)
Yeah, I've often been roped into doing that a number of times (often by Ptolemaeus), and it hardly ever ends well. In my experience, it generally takes the flavor of either the “I suppose you could've done it better” school of hack apologetics, or as in the infamous Graceling discussion from a genuine misunderstanding of my meaning; in either case the outcome is almost always that my original point gets completely lost and I end up arguing from a straw man position that I don't even believe in anyways. (Although I never advocated any counter-factual changes in Graceling.)

Arthur: I think it's quite easy to read a review as though the reviewer were being absolutist, or engaging in fruitless speculation, or whatever, simply by misreading a statement of personal frustrations with the work as though it were a condemnation of an actual problem
Oh I so hear you there.

Jamie: To some extent I'm less concerned to discourage people from engaging in counter-factual speculation than I am to encourage people to perceive a certain sort of boundary beyond which it stops being anything we might call criticism and becomes just having a chat about our personal preferences or just playing the game of pretending we're re-writing other people's books. As long as we know that there's a difference and have some vague sort of idea of where the distinction lies, it probably won't do anyone any harm to move from one to the other.
Yes, and a failure to recognize where the distinction lies (or a failure on the part of the critic to distinguish properly between the one and the other) can lead to an almighty kerfuffle, as in the Graceling debacle.

Jamie: 'The critic should think twice before indulging in counter-factual criticism, if her objective in doing so is to say something helpful and illuminating about the work of art in question'
... Which leads neatly into the other point I wanted to make, which is that sometimes, even in the most formal reviews, the critic may occasionally indulge in counter-factual asides which have little to do with evaluating a work on its objective (or maybe semi-objective) merits, and more to do with the reviewer's personal preferences. E.g., “I wished they'd just give Torchwood the can and send Jack back over to Doctor Who where he was actually good” or “They should kill off Rose already” (not actually my opinion, I'd be satisfied if they just stopped bringing her back) or “It's high time the Doctor had a male companion/alien companion/multiple companions again.” All of these are statements which could seem to engage in counter-factual criticism, but they're all obviously (I hope it's obvious) expressions of opinions based on personal taste, rather than attempts to establish some sort of objective Right Way to Do It. The reviewer in this example is sharing a bit of opinion along with (hopefully) a rigorous analysis elsewhere, and like Arthur, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Of course, I should maybe reiterate once again that when a critic (or respondent) fails to differentiate this opinion from (ostensibly) informed criticism, the results can be extremely unfortunate.
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