Standards and practices

January 21, 2010

I’ve been enjoying the xxxHoLic roundtable at The Hooded Utilitarian, and I have to confess that most of that enjoyment comes from the back-and-forth about critical standards that has blossomed in the comments of various posts. I quoted Ng Suat Tong yesterday, and I’ll do so again:

“For some reason, I’ve found that western readers seem to be far kinder to commercial dreck from the shores of Japan, lacing their reviews with only the mildest of reservations. Is this representative of a certain indifference to the qualities of commercial manga or is there some sort of cultural forbearance and variation in standards at work here?”

And add a bit of an expansion from the comments here:

“It’s something which I notice in manga reviews throughout the web (there are exceptions of course). It may have to do with the thrill of the “new” or it might just be that manga reviewers in general are just ‘nice’ people…”

If you’re me, all roads eventually lead to Sondheim, and I can’t help but hear the derisive purr of Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods… “You’re so nice… You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.”

Now, if you suspect that I’m going to launch into some defense of online manga criticism and decry these observations, let me hasten to assure you that I’m not. In fact, I’m going to cop to their accuracy, at least as they pertain to me. It’s not just comics from Japan, though. It has more to do with context and creator intent.

Not too long ago, there was some discussion on Twitter of tips for manga bloggers, and I remember the development of a consistent rating system (numerical, alphabetical, stars, what have you) coming up in conversation. I don’t use that kind of system due to a combination of laziness and, I frankly admit, inconsistent critical standards. What I almost always try to convey when reviewing a book is how much I enjoyed it, which I know is not a particularly rigorous or ambitious approach to criticism. But when it comes to comics, enjoyment my first priority as a consumer, so it makes sense to me that it’s also my first priority as a reviewer.

It’s entirely possible that, if I had a one-to-five-stars rating system, five being the highest, I could give both Red Snow and Kimi ni Todoke five stars. Should you conclude from that that I think that these books are equal in quality in terms of the pure mechanics of their creation, their respective levels of artistic ambition, and their impact on the medium? I hope not, and I hope (really, really fervently) that the reasons I enjoy a given book are sufficiently evident that people who read my reviews can tell the difference between the reasons behind an enthusiastic evaluation of Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu and an exuberant review of The Lapis Lazuli Crown, or for Asterios Polyp, or for Underground.

A lot of comics are created with the simple intent to entertain, and I think that’s fabulous. It’s one of the reasons that I read so much manga – it’s a functional, diverse entertainment industry that allows me to cherry pick the kind of stories and styles I enjoy and that provide the kind of enjoyment I seek when I pick up a comic. And since it’s a large enough industry, I can also enjoy comics created with less of an obviously commercial or populist intent, books that were conceived and executed with ambition and daring. But for me, it’s important to accept books from the various ends of the commercial spectrum on their own terms. Some comics are conceived in hopes of taking their places among fine works of literature, and some are created to help you pass the time while you’re riding the train. And this is true of comics industries all over the world. Even individual creators can move along that spectrum, and to me, those are the most exciting creators of all. There are those creators who, no matter how disposable and commercial the venue for their work is, demonstrate remarkable ambition and craft.

Should I apply equal levels of critical rigor to every book I review? I don’t really feel any obligation to do so, to be totally honest. For one thing, that’s not really why I got into blogging. Aside from the fact that it’s just a hobby, my desire to blog stems from a general enthusiasm for comics, an enthusiasm for writing and conversing about them, and a desire to identify the ones that give me pleasure as a reader and to find others that might yield the same results. I certainly admire critics who apply that level of effort to everything they write, and I’m hardly averse to trying to engage a challenging work on its own ambitious terms, but that’s never been my default setting.