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.



One thought on “Tone and Intent in Criticism

  1. 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.

    I think the problem is that “badly made” is so subjective. You cite “poorly written text, sloppy fact-checking, lazy storytelling, substandard production values, etc.” – with the exception of sloppy fact-checking these are things whose value of “bad” depends on the reader or viewer.

    For one, there are differences in perspection. Gatchaman Crowds is an anime I often see getting lambasted online as being poorly written because of “lazy writing” and “poor characterization” and whatnot. And yet when I look at the writing in the show I see something a sigh away from pure brilliance, and people who misunderstand it. Which one of us is right? (I am, of course. But that aside…) Or there’s the Aku no hana anime. The majority of viewers apparently looked at it and saw something so horribly vile and offensive that it destroyed the entire show. The minority, however, saw something interesting and unorthodox. Or there are the people who hate the seiyuu Kaji Yuuki and wish he had died at Fukushima, when they actually seem to project their irritation with the characters he voices on him.

    And there are subjective values of badness. Let’s say an anime series has “substandard production values.” (Let’s just ignore the part where the word “substandard” is rather subjective, since everyone draws the line in different places – hell, it seems some people think the art and animation in Kemonozume is “substandard.”) Lot of people seem to be bothered by choppy animation and not-100% consistent character models, and count these against the show’s general value. Me, I couldn’t care less as long as I find the show enjoyable on the whole. Like Shinsekai yori – I adored that series, I think it was the best anime I saw in quite a long time, and this is not affected at all by the fact that it apparently had a miniscule animation budget it showed. Or Aku no hana again. Some people kept saying how the rotoscoping was badly made because the faces were undetailed, eyes disappeared on faraway characters, etc. Personally, I thought that was done mostly on purpose (and the fact that they obviously didn’t have a huge animation budget), and it didn’t bother me at all.

    So I tend to stick with “not for me,” unless a show or book offends my sensibilities in a major way.

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