Confessions of a Hate Reader, or Bad Writing Habits I Picked up from Bad Criticism

Instead of a harsh teacher or a discouraging parent, the Critical Voice I’ve internalised is that of the nitpicking internet hate-reader.

And I say this as a nitpicking internet hate-reader. I have absolutely been there.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

It’s no secret that a good bonfire of rage gets more clicks than love.

There’s several cottage industries built around consuming and mocking media of all stripes, from the So Bad It’s Good to celebrated blockbusters, from charting pop songs to trashy novels.

There are many excellent, very thoughtful critiques of narrative in popular media, including novels, which use their nitpicks or plot hole spotting as an invitation to discuss larger issues. There are those who are able to examine these individual examples with nuance and grace and subjectivity, why certain versions work when other very similar version don’t. And there’s no small importance to examining harmful tropes and flat, reductive stereotypes in action, especially when it come to culturally dominant, mainstream works. I have learnt so much from work like slacktivist’s Left Behind critique, or Ana Mardoll on Twilight. I’ve loved Folding Ideas using Suicide Squad to explain the art of editing as well as basically everything Lindsay Ellis has ever done, but especially The Hobbit Duology.

But for every good, even half decent critic, there are numerous more who are just bad at it, peddling rage for cheap laughs. They would slam entire narrative or genre conventions as cliche without the slightest bit of examination on why. CinemaSins and the way they count “cliches” as a “sin” on their counter, dinging things like “scene starts with the character waking up” or how others would decry any and all exposition is just ridiculous.

The thing is, in consuming so much criticism, especially the bad faith nitpick-y genre-oblivious sort, I have interalised these critical voices. Much like how others have internalised the voice of a discouraging teacher or an overbearing partner.

And it has been bad for my writing.

I stress that I’m not trying to warn everyone off reading criticism of any sort forever. This is not an article advocating for a world where we only share positive opinions. I have half a degree in English Literature and I have written many a critical review myself. I recently wrote this monstrously long autopsy on The Rise of Skywalker, after all, and before that this piece on the Crimes of Grindlewald. I am proud of both. I have nothing but fond memories with the Loinfire Club, where my friends and I played silly drinking games whilst reading romance novels.

But I have encountered many a writer, new and old, for whom the primary instruction on how to write came from these exhaustive deconstructions. There are those who look to hate-reads as a form of “what not to do”, despite the fact that that most just aren’t written to teach that.

In many ways, it is also how I learnt to write and I picked up from that bad habits that I’ve still trying to unlearn.

So here is me sharing my misadventures with That Critical Voice (that lives in my head).

This is not a criticism of critics or their work, good or bad. This is about the Voice I’ve internalised.

Metaphors, Similes and Symbolism

One of the simplest effects of The Critical Voice is how much I’ve found myself shy of using metaphors or similes. Metaphors and similes, especially unusual ones, are just really easy to mock or nitpick. After all, they are built fundamentally on exaggeration and dissonance. I am not that much like a gazelle and what’s so graceful about a gangly gazelle anyway? Does the car really need to roar and pur? It’s not actually a lion and it would be weird if it were.

I remember keenly watching a YouTuber whose bad movie recaps featured a comedic bit where he mocked heavy-handed symbolism. He very rarely explained why any given bit of symbolism was bad because he wasn’t trying to teach me what good or bad symbolism looked like. Which is fine since that wasn’t the point of the bit and it was indeed very funny. I laughed, but to this day, when writing, I worry about my symbolism being too blatant, too cliched, too unsubtle. This YouTuber’s mocking graphic of SYMBOLISM!1!! would echo in my mind’s eye. Somewhere along the way I had internalised that symbolism is inherently bad despite this not being the joke’s intent.

And I’m not saying that all metaphors are good and appropriate or that all symbolism should be embraced, but in aggregate, this sort of criticism internalised made me to less adventurous in my prose. I felt like I need to strip everything right down, else I would end up shortlisted for Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award or similar. It was stylistic minimalism or nothing[1].

Allegory, Emotional Heft and Themes

Another thing I’ve internalised is an obsession with the logistics of the plot at the expense of larger themes or structural awareness. The Critical Voice is deeply unforgiving about inconsistencies and anything left unexplained is a plot hole (though at the same time, the Voice hates “exposition”).

There is more to a narrative than the events that happen within it, how it is told shapes the story and the meaning audiences are meant to take away. They’re not just puzzle boxes to solve and unravel. But the Critical Voice wouldn’t allow that, it wants everything to clear and simple and explained.

CinemaSins is notoriously bad at understanding the films they’re scrutinising. They approach media in a fundamentally literal way and see no meaning in a story beyond what is happening on the screen. Numerous other commentators have tackled how illiterate they can be, but it is just nonsense to talk about Snowpiercer without understanding that it’s an allegory about capitalism. The point of the film isn’t to exhaustively explain what fuel the train is running on and the various circumstances of that; it’s to explore class dynamics under capitalism through the passenger classes within the train. This isn’t to say the film is good, or succeeds at doing that, but it is core to the film itself.

Or take District 9, a distinctly flawed film, but it’s central conceit of an alien allegory for apartheid is obvious and should be easy to understand. And yet so much of the geek analysis of the aliens took everything said about them at face value: thus geeks speculate about how the aliens must a hive mind, that one who became a main character must be of a different insect caste. All of which completely misses the point of how the events of the film have dehumanised them. Being displaced and imprisoned in camps fundamentally disrupts, if not destroys, their culture. They may “like” eating cat food simply because it’s hygienic and tinned compared to what else they have been offered.

It isn’t even that these literal, detail-driven approaches have nothing to offer. Knowing what you need to do in order to help your reader suspend disbelief is useful. Plot holes can be very distracting.

That said, the ultimate solution to plot holes isn’t to fill in each and every one of them[2]. The art of storytelling is one of smoke and mirrors. People notice plot holes and inconsistencies when the story itself isn’t grabbing them. When the reader is emotionally engaged, they just won’t notice.

And that’s something the Critical Voice just can’t help me with. It generally doesn’t care about the larger themes of my work. Partly because most of them are basically Mystery Science Theatre snarky commentaries (or just recaps), and thus there’s a level where they aren’t critiquing the overall work as a wholistic piece of art. The Critical Voice is largely disinterested in the larger emotional impact or even the ending itself.

It isn’t that I don’t love meticulous, believable worldbuilding. It’s not that realism or plausibility isn’t important to me, but there’s more to creating a world than that. There needs to be purpose and theme. What do I want to say with this story? What themes do I want to explore? Why is this cool? And as such, how do those things shape the world?

The first question I ask when creating secondary world shouldn’t just be “what do they eat?”

Intended Audiences: Who Am I Writing For?

Bluntly put, internet critics skew white, male and unqueer. This isn’t to say that their insight is therefore invalid, but as I was internalising their critical voices as my own, it is significant. As a group, they may not be the intended audience of my work (or even the work that they are criticising). Appeasing that viewpoint can mean I am diluting my own work and centering a point of view who don’t want or need this.

As an example, the term Mary Sue gets slung around a lot by male critics of Rey from the Star Wars sequel trilogy or Captain Marvel. Chasing the approval of these critics won’t necessarily make a better character if your goal on some level is a female power fantasy. This isn’t to say that women are a homogenous demographic and that they can all agree on exactly they want (they really don’t), but it certainly isn’t going to help my own writing if the Critical Voice in my head is regurgitating talking points from that of angry men on the internet.

Very often hate reads are undertaken by people who fall outside of the text’s original demographic. I must stress that this doesn’t invalidate the criticisms (especially if we are talking about marginalised people deconstructing mainstream work written about them but not for them), but when it comes, say, to an unqueer white nerd who fundamentally believes all vampires should scary monsters and not romantic heroes, his point of view on Twilight may be useful but ultimately, I shouldn’t consume so much of his work that I internalise his voice, that I end up writing to please him and not myself. It would not be constructive. Because I am not trying to write for him. I am writing for me.

I should not cultivate in my head a Critical Voice that is antagonistic to the premises of the genre I want to write in. That way lies compromising my ideas to appeal to hypothetical readers who would never actually want to engage with my work, all the while alienating people who are actually invested in the premise itself.

Appropriation and Stereotypes

Moving away criticisms I’ve internalised from some of the worst voices online, even the best, most insightful deconstructions can unfortunately be reduced by my traitor brain to an unhelpful laundry list of “Don’t”s.

I cannot stress enough how much I am not saying calling out culturally appropriative, harmful media is bad. It is incredibly important work. But because the discourse is always two steps away from being derailed into giving advice to non-marginalised writers on how to not do the bad thing, we end up dissecting the harm of appropriation almost wholly in terms of content and accuracy rather than what voices are given the spotlight, what books are getting 7-figure advances, what projects get made into feature films and get arts council funding. The conversation is skewed by all the people demanding proof of the harm, proof of the stereotypes and thus we are endlessly rehashing how it is bad.

And the thing is, it’s never Just One Thing.

Often it is about how rooted the authorial voice is in a white, unqueer, mainstream perspective (delete as applicable). This is something that is evidenced throughout the text, little turns of phrases that seem othering or a strangely specific choice of detail rather than being a single obvious factual error that can be pointed out and fixed[3].

So if I were to read through a list of complaints or to follow a stream-of-consciousness live tweet[4], I might conclude that it’s bad for Asian books to have overbearing parents, soft-spoken women with downcast eyes or colourful hair streaks in long, straight, black hair.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t harmful tropes rooted in racism, sexism, colourism (etc) that should be avoided, but for many it’s not just a simple “do not do this”. It is important to understand that and not marinade in long lists to the point I’m filling myself with doubt, especially when most critiques will focus on accuracy. On things that the appropriating author got factually wrong, when really it is the act of appropriation itself or the orientalist slant that is at the heart of the issue. It can lead to me to hold myself to unhelpfully rigid standards of accuracy, not just because I’m being obsessed researching the exact flooring of Ming dynasty palaces, but that it holds me back from interesting or innovative mashups.

As I’ve said in Critiquing Cultural Appropriation in Meh Books, sometimes accuracy isn’t the most important thing. I may write that the dragon emperor’s favourite meal is one that my grandmother cooks and that’s not a mistake. I am allowed to intentionally do that in order to canonise her cooking. The point of art isn’t replication of reality.

Or to put it another way: marginalised people are understandably antagonistic when they are reading inaccurate, appropriative, overpaid work written about them. They have no reason to be forgiving. And that is exactly as it should be, but I as a writer (especially a marginalised one trying to write ownvoice work) should not be reading so much of that kind of criticism that I internalise that Critical Voice. It is neither appropriate nor helpful for me subject my own work to that level of scrutiny nor antagonism.

It is far easier to unite in hating a common misconception or ubiquitous stereotype, but it is important, for me at least, to actually understand what underpins the mechanics of othering, orientalism, what the roots of these stereotypes are, where they come from and a whole world of that, instead of internalising the most surface level criticisms, such the eye rolling at the appearance of yet another ethereally beautiful and emotionally stoic martial artist.

And yes, that is a lot of work.

But I can’t write with the Critical Voice in my head acting like the very mention of overbearing parents is a racist stereotype and therefore I’m not allowed to write about my own actual parents.

The Quest for Flawless Art

It is important to remember that even the best art is almost certainly flawed.

Few works can sustain the level of scrutiny that a hate-reader would but them through, especially if the reader is actively antagonistic to it for comedic effect.

And I think an important part of muting the Critical Voice in my head so that I can get some work done has been realising where it comes from: I’ve internalised all these antagonistic readers (some far, far more justified than others in their antagonism) and I’ve been carrying them all with me.

So what am I doing about it?

Well, I am trying to be more discerning in the critics I read and watch. It’s not just about who can make me laugh in their hyperbole. I am trying to treat film and book criticism not as a genre of entertainment in its own right or consumer advice. I look to it to give me insight about narrative and themes and structure and all that heavy stuff.

I also try to resist the allure of hatereading myself. If a book is bad and controversy is swirling, I don’t need to go out of my way to read it and mock it, deconstruct it. I have an overwhelming urge to gawk sometimes, but it usually just feeds that Critical Voice because I am giving it a target. I can just take the word of everyone else that it is bad (I stress how important the conversations around representation are but I don’t have to be part of ever single time) and read something good, something that I want to read.

I try to approach a work on their own terms, giving the author the benefit of the doubt and going along with the story they’re trying to tell rather than what I want it to be. I try to pay attention to the overall narrative and its themes rather than individual sentences or metaphors, clunky or otherwise. I try to leave behind me the days of asking where the food comes from or why isn’t there more farmland.

Not that it ever wholly goes away.

[1] For those who haven’t read my novel, Under the Pendulum Sun, my eventual style can only be described as “Victorian maximalism”.

[2] I highly recommend this video essay from Folding Ideas about Annihilation and metaphor in film. As well as this piece from MovieBob about “plot hole surfers” and Lindsay Ellis’ discussion of the live action Beauty and the Beast.

[3] Not that there aren’t books that are also just awful from the premise up.

[4] I cannot begin to stress how much people live tweeting books they are reading are not obliged to cater to my traitor brain.

novelist, hair wizard, game designer

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store