Wednesday 8 February 2012

But I Digress | Switching Off The Critical Instinct

If you've been following the blog this last little while you'll have seen, if not necessarily read - and no sweat as to that, for reasons which will soon become clear - my reviews of Project Nim and All Your Base Are Belong To Us: respectively a documentary about a chimp brought up in a commune and a potted history of video games.

So certainly not speculative fiction, whichever way I swing it, and it follows, like the onset of night after the last light of day, that neither is quite the preserve of The Speculative Scotsman. Which is to say me, and this here blog.

That's all well and good, though. I've never been one to exclude something from coverage here on TSS simply because said lacks dragons, or intergalactic space battles. Not everything I read or see can be categorised so simplistically, and I'd have been climbing the walls long in advance of this moment if I'd restricted myself to speculative fiction -- if I'd closed the proverbial door on all that lies beyond its boundaries.

In the interests of clarity, then, let me say what I'm not saying: that the blog, going forward, will be all speculative fiction, all the time. That's not going to happen. I wouldn't let it, and anyway, in my experience I've found a little crossover here and there is a great way to bring in new readers; to TSS, yes, but also, in turn, to the fields of genre fiction I'm particularly interested in.


The thing of it is, to come back to the examples with which we started, I hadn't actually meant to review either thing. I didn't watch Project Nim with the intention of writing it up, nor did I read Harold Goldman's account of video games through the ages thinking that I'd review it when I was finished with the thing. I read it to have read it. As a matter of fact, I consumed each of these products specifically in order to consume something I wouldn't feel the need to take apart.

And yet, and yet... here we are, at the end of a period during which I've posted reviews of both All Your Base Are Belong To Us and a movie about a monkey.

Now I don't expect you all to be interested in the many and various strange things I am. You don't have to watch documentaries or read comics or play video games to stop off at TSS. Perhaps it helps, but I like to think there's enough speculative fiction coverage on the site to keep all comers content. And content is king.

In any case, what concerns me here is the critical instinct, rather than the reader's response to it. Because I couldn't resist writing these things up, however much they might have been outside of my usual purview. I couldn't not review Project Nim and All Your Base Are Belong To Us, because I'd been thinking of them critically all along, despite clear and present contentions to the contrary.

I guess what I'm getting at is a frustration I've been feeling recently. Having trained myself to read with a view to reviewing what I've read at the end of the day, I find myself in bit of a position now, whereby I can't just reach into me and turn that instinct off. Not for a single solitary second. I see pretty much everything in terms of merits and demerits... of what it does well and what it doesn't. 

I watched Moneyball the other month, for instance - a great gripping film it was too, never mind that I couldn't give a fig for most sports, and nor, I imagine, could you - and honestly, the only reason you haven't seen a full-fledged review of it is because I contrived to forget my most pertinent thoughts about Moneyball whilst on holiday, without ready access to a computer to type them up.

So my question to other bloggers - and to a certain extent authors as well, because of course the author has to think critically about what they're writing if they have a hope of writing something worth reading - my question is this: what's a dude to do? Have I a hope in hell of ever experiencing anything without the critical instinct kicking in again, or can I not now unsee what I have seen?

I'd be fascinated to hear from any and all of you who find yourselves in a similar position. I wonder... is this a common problem? Come to that, is it even a problem, or do I assume much too much?


  1. You're not alone, Niall. Although, I would argue it's not so much since I've been blogging, as since I've been an adult. I've always been critical of movies and books. Some people (read: my WIFE) find this exceptionally annoying and hates watching movies with me as a result. But I enjoy the experience more when I view it through a critical lens.

  2. No, Niall, you're not alone. But I agree with Justin; I think that my critical thinking towards film and books began long before I ever picked up the pen. Since starting back to school last spring, I haven't the time to write about every single thing I see or read, but I daresay the compulsion to do so is still there. In fact, sometimes (even during periods when I'm not blogging regularly) it feels as though the movies and books I've watched are stacking up in a great, big pile on my back!

    But to the other point of this post, I am glad to see you branch out. I've always been a genre fan, but it can often be a love hate relationship. I think that I've always been in love with what science-fiction and fantasy COULD/CAN be, but I've often felt pretty disappointed by what it winds up being.

    The Sound and Fury of Kristopher Denby

  3. I think most people are critical of movies and books, just on a less informed basis, and perhaps on a more emotional one. I very rarely review books, and as an author I certainly couldn’t review a book I hated, but I always read with my critical dial turned up at least to halfway, whether it is to comment on the work privately or publically. So I suppose I read a book or watch a film somewhere around the mark of emotionally informed. Trying to think back to when I wasn’t a writer, to when I read purely for the pleasure of reading, it was inevitable that I would end up dissecting books, because the more I read, the more I recognised and appreciated the different parts that went into creating a story. I kind of evolution.

    As for reviewing outside of speculative fiction, Niall – it’s your website! I think most people tune in for Niall, not dragons and storm troopers! Readers who only read genre NEED to broaden their literary horizons, and who better to broaden them than an old and trusted friend.

  4. Everything I see and read, I find myself analyzing, and have for years. Plot, character, dialog. Plot, character, dialog. And I do find a certain joy to that, and a deeper appreciation as a writer. But sometimes I too wish I could just turn it off and experience it without having to run behind the curtain, so to speak.

    It doesn't work. There is no off switch. You cannot un-know. It's a bit like sex, isn't it?

    But you can branch out, to keep from getting jaded. Different genres, yes, but also writing and film from different cultures, couched in different contexts. You can be surprised again by plotlines, by character choices, by different norms and expectations. Living in Singapore, I have access to a vast array of programming coming from, for a Westerner, non-traditional sources. Chinese serials, Filipino tele-novellas. Indian and Malay shows. What I don't have is a subscription to the premium channels (HBO etc.) because I honestly have no interest in Hollywood box office blockbusters. If something is good, you and others will alert me :)