Tone and Intent in Criticism

My high school English teacher’s favorite question to ask of the class, each time we finished reading a novel or a poem, was to ask us what was the tone of the work. The first quarter, without fail, nobody knew what exactly she was asking. “The tone was positive…?” “NO!” “I think the tone was happy.” “Did you even read the poem, Miss Martinez?” It came to the point that once someone knew an upperclassman who remembered what the tone of poem x was, we would spread the word around so that whoever would get called that day would have some reasonable answer.

I feel that I’ve written about this before, but because of that teacher, the literary definition of tone has been embedded deep in my consciousness. Tone is the author’s attitude towards the characters or towards the story. It can be sarcastic, satirical, supportive, or indifferent. It’s a tricky thing to figure out since sometimes the tone isn’t as immediately obvious as the theme or the mood of the literary work. And because of that, tone’s the easiest to bullshit your way out of — cite a few examples where the author’s writing seems to take a critical viewpoint of the character and you can justify how your perception of the tone of the work can be just as valid.

I’ve been writing long-form essays on this blog for over a year. Previous incarnations of Tokyo Jupiter felt more fluffy, leaning towards summaries and glossed over reviews of various anime and manga. Now, I prefer writing about the grand, overarching themes, seeing the connections between disparate anime, manga, or books. I realize this style doesn’t make the blog a prime site for post-watching/reading discussion and/or fangirling, but I’m okay with that. I’ve found my niche and it’s warm and cozy here.

I brought up the topic of tone in the beginning of this post because I was thinking about this blog’s overall tone. I obviously love anime, manga, and books otherwise why would I be spending all this time writing about them, but I don’t have the luxury of distance from my own writing. I don’t know if I come off too snooty and pretentious (because of the editorial writing style) or if I’m coming off as too shallow (because c’mon, I’m writing about Japanese cartoons). And here’s the rub: as an author, the tone of the work is quite visceral and subconscious. Unless I’m the type of writer who carefully pores over every single word choice (which I’m not), my attitude in my writing comes from my deeply ingrained raw feelings about the work, feelings that will come to the surface even despite my best efforts.

So when I encounter an anime or a book that I intensely dislike, sometimes I don’t even hold back my words and feelings about it. But then, that brings up the question, how nice or how mean should I be when I’m writing in this blog?

Writer Austin Kleon wrote about how he deals with media that he didn’t get into: he simply says “it wasn’t for me.”

I like the phrase because it’s essentially positive: underlying it is the assumption that there is a book, or rather, books, for me, but this one just wasn’t one of them. It also allows me to tell you how I felt about the book without me shutting down the possibility that you might like it, or making you feel stupid if you did like it.

That’s nice, right? And he’s correct, there are just some things that everybody else loves that I just never understood (Doctor Who, The Big Bang Theory, Star Trek, Evangelion, superhero comics). On a theoretical level, I understand why there’s so much love for it, and I may have even given it a try myself, but many times, there are things that don’t click. It’s literally a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.” It’s me! I don’t know why I can’t love the things you do, but that’s just how it is. I am happy that you love it though, and I’m sorry that I can’t share in this happiness with you.

I feel though, that there is a line between not liking things because you don’t like them, and not liking things because they’re badly made — poorly written text, sloppy fact-checking, lazy storytelling, substandard production values, etc. It’s not snobbery, it’s just the basic premise of equivalent exchange at work. If I give you my money and my time, I think I have a right to expect a product where you, as creator, have poured in your all. If you give me something that you and I both know that you’ve pulled out of your ass at the last minute, then I don’t even know why we’re wasting our time. I’m almost embarrassed on behalf of creators where I have to criticize the obvious lack of effort.

I also think that I have to think of the media that I consume as a multi-person collaborative effort. Anime, for example, isn’t just about the original writer and creator — there are hundreds of people involved in producing a single episode, and each person has made a creative input in the end work, no matter how little the input may be. Authors may be the ones who brought the story to life, but editors and editorial directors can nudge them in a certain direction, and the marketing copywriter may have been the one who tweaked the book description to make it sexier. It’s easy to look at the cover and point out the creator’s flaws and forget how much work they did put into it. I know I wouldn’t be able to whip out two novels a year, so before I write up a scathing blog post on this author’s flaws, maybe I should remember that creating is harder than it seems.

 

Hazel and Quentin’s Favorite Books

Recently finished two books that received a lot of hype in their respective circles: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Dutton Books, 2012) and The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Viking, 2009). I feel foolish admitting this, but only upon finishing the books did I realize they’re both metafiction, which means that they’re books which are about books (or a book series in the case of The Magicians). Despite the wide difference in tone, I thought it would be a cool mental exercise to pick apart the way in which the authors used the concept of meta to shape their characters and their world.

Usual disclaimer: Presume everything after this point is a spoiler. Continue reading

To-be Read Queue: Friday the 13th edition

I don’t know how book bloggers or booktubers (book reviewers on Youtube) do it. I’m just dipping my toes into this world and I feel just as overwhelmed as when I was trying to be an episodic anime blogger. There’s just too many good things to read!

Anyway, even though I’ve only scratched off a couple of my tbr books from this list, I’ve since added a few more. Because why not be aspirational?

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Lots of hype from my friends about this title; I skimmed through the first opening pages and the atmosphere is appropriately creepy, which I do enjoy. I don’t know how I feel about 2nd person narration though.

The Iron King by Julie Kagawa
I’ve always seen this book on the public library shelves, and the covers are all beautiful that it seems almost a sin for me to ignore this series any further. Except, since it is the first book in a series, it means I’ll have to start YET another new one. Is it worth the trouble?

Beastly by Alex Flinn
Because it seems wrong to read Bewitching without starting this one first.

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
I’ve seen Libba Bray in a reading once, and she was so great and bubbly and gorgeous. At the time, she was promoting Beauty Queens, which I also want to read, but I know she has a lot of fans of the Gemma Doyle series. Again, it’s slightly creepy and mysterious, so it’s practically a perfect read for the upcoming autumn. And that cover, seriously, so pretty!

Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan
I feel I’m checking a list of all of the popular YA authors, so of course, I can’t forget Ms. Brennan. I’ve never read any of her books, so I’m hoping to remedy that with Unspoken.

Another v1 (novel) by Yukito Ayatsuji
I’m just setting myself to be creeped out all of October, aren’t I?

And these following books are already guaranteed to go on my tbr list as soon as I purchase them:

  • The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman
  • Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
  • Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  • (and maybe) Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

I don’t even want to talk about the nonfiction and adult books. I’m overwhelmed enough as it is.

Themed Book Trio: Birdwatching

Subconsciously, the last two books I read both had a name of a bird as part of their title. This amused me so much that I decided the third book should follow the trend, and that’s why I’m now writing a post about it.

Usual disclaimer: I’m terrible about avoiding spoilers for stories, so just presume that you’re going to read something that’ll spoil you for the book. As with my anime & manga posts, I also don’t like summarizing the story — if you would like to read synopses of the titles mentioned, please head over to Goodreads or Librarything or Amazon, et al.

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Love and/or Marriage and the YA Heroine

I think my problem isn’t that I am lazy and unmotivated to write, it’s just that I have too many places where I do write! I still have a Livejournal (omg I know), a tumblr, a couple of twitter accounts, Facebook, and Goodreads. I thought that keeping them separated would be better, since people who may be interested in anime/manga may not necessarily be interested in my personal goings-on or travel experiences.

But in separating these aspects of my online life, I’m leaving my poor Tokyo Jupiter fallow. So, I’m going to suck it up and just put whatever I’m currently obsessed with and compelled to blog about in this space. If you’re not interested in that specific post, sorry! You can scroll up/down or just let me know what you’d want to read more about — not that I can accommodate all requests, but it’s helpful to know what people are looking for and why they’re reading this blog.

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