Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Reflections On the Craft of Reviewing Fiction and Anime in Particular as Well

27. August 2017

“He is a man of thirty-five, but looks fifty. He is bald, has varicose veins and wears spectacles, or would wear them if his only pair were not chronically lost. If things are normal with him he will be suffering from malnutrition, but if he has recently had a lucky streak he will be suffering from a hangover. At present it is half past eleven in the morning, and according to his schedule he should have started work two hours ago; but even if he had made any serious effort to start he would have been frustrated by the almost continuous ringing of the telephone bell, the yells of the baby, the rattle of an electric drill out in the street, and the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the stairs. The most recent interruption was the arrival of the second post, which brought him two circulars and an income-tax demand printed in red.” – Confessions of a Book Reviewer, George Orwell

What is the point of book/anime/game reviews? Well, they are recommendations (i.e.‘read this book, don’t watch that anime for it is trash’). The reason people read reviews at first is just because they want to know what to watch and what to not watch to save their time as well as their patience. The obvious danger of relying too much on reviews and on other people’s opinions about fiction is that you will effectively have your opinion about fiction dictated to you (Examples of this include the visceral hatred many seem to display for the Twilight saga and the Transformers films). Another more subtle issue is that the relationship between you and that work of art ceases to be purely personal and it instead becomes communal. This has been made worse by the internet I think as you are only a google search away from other people’s opinions about fiction, even obscure fiction. There are many advantages of course to this communal environment for example if you use a listing website with user reviews like myanimelist or rottentomatoes you can quickly gauge if a title is so bad that it isn’t worth checking it out and for the more creative souls there is an audience to display their fan creations on websites like fanfiction.net, youtube, archiveofourown etc… I think that perhaps what push people to take this extra effort is not just the work of fiction by itself but the opinions surrounding it, one way to judge a piece of fiction is to look at its fandom, this is rather unfair I think because the work of fiction should be able to stand on its own. For example the rampant speculation and fan theories in the Evangelion fandom perhaps reveal that the show was not clear enough on its themes or plot (Don’t crucify me I love Eva but I don’t like how one has to look at outside sources from the series to understand what is going on). All of this said I think that the biggest thing lost by reading reviews is that element of surprise, of opening a book and not knowing whether you will like it and then being pleasantly surprised, of starting to watch an anime without knowing what it’s going to be about, not a single plot point and then being mesmerized by a beautiful story, of picking up a manga just by glancing at its artwork etc… I have personally gotten used to reading reviews and do not watch anything unless it has been recommended to be by at least a half decent source like a MAL rating a few months after a show has aired. I have a low tolerance for trash shows, eight years ago I watched and read anything that I could get my hands on and I enjoyed it but now my tastes have become much more restricted after watching too much anime.

So far I have only talked about reviews from the perspective of the reader but what about the reviewer? I think that writing a review, just as writing in general, helps to cement a certain a view about a piece of work and also other similar works although at other times reviews are nothing more than bookmarks in time as your opinions may vary over time out of your control (the scary thing about changing your mind, as Peter Hitchens puts it in a different context, is that often you can’t stop it,). I have seen people regret their opinions in reviews they wrote a long time ago (e.g. Gigguk on his negative Evangelion review although I am not certain of this, I am basing this on some comments on his video about saying that on a Podtaku podcast).

Should you read reviews of the stuff you are going to review?

Well that is a tricky question, reading reviews can lead to simply restating other peoples opinions in your reviews, in which case – what is the point(unless you are getting paid for it)? So I would like to say no but it is very tempting as you are sitting there wrecking your brain unable to start a review to do a simple google search to ‘look’ at what others are saying and then be disappointed that what you thought was your own original insight has already been pointed out by many before you even set it down in ink on paper or in pixels on a screen. I think it is alright to read some reviews before you watch something but not as you write the review, unless of course your review is a reply to someone else’s review.

Some people have different criteria like ‘sound’ ‘animation’ ‘plot’ ‘characters’ as a sort of guiding checklist to keep your review on point, I think MAL does have such a criteria which is regularly ignored and I can see why – I don’t really know that much about ‘sound’ or ‘animation’ and so on so my anime reviews often read like book reviews only concerned with the themes and the characters and plot unless the animation and sound aspects are so spectacular or so bad that even a lay person like me has something to say about them – this ‘book review’ effect is exacerbated by the fact that I am almost invariably reading subtitles when I watch anime because I do not know Japanese and I would rather listen to the saccharine squeaks of Japanese anime voice-actors rather than to Americans speaking in American (I am British), I am joking of course it’s just that the English dubs are not always available and they are not just translations but also adaptations of the Japanese source material, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Japanophile (as I am primarily interested Japanese anime/manga/LN/VN/WN otaku culture and a little about the post-war politics, economy and the current demographic crisis and the geo-politcs brewing in the background or is it the foreground of it all?) but I guess I am otaku enough to want to know the untranslated references in anime, if it’s a series that I particularly like I will watch both the dubbed version and the subbed version provided they are both good (like the Steins; Gate dubs and subs) in some cases I also prefer dubs but I will address the old dubs vs subs debate in a separate post (although I admit I have nothing much to add to it but just to be thorough and for the views I will probably write about it). Any way the point is that ‘pre-set criteria’ approach to reviewing doesn’t work for me although I can see it works for reviewers like ‘GRArkada.’ I prefer a more ‘review based around one or two main themes of the work of fiction plus some comments about the characters and plot’ kind of approach – following my A-Level literature teacher’s advice to write a lot about a little – this can of course degenerate into pretentious overthinking where the reviewer/critic uses the fiction as a prop to talk about whatever he likes but if he keeps in mind that he is trying to tell someone whether to watch something or not I think that can lead to a more honest assessment of the fiction rather than a detailed checklist-like assortment to see whether a work of fiction meets certain ideological requirements of the reviewer.

Finally I would like to talk, well write about the ‘leach’-like nature of the reviewing business. When it comes to the internet and blogs in general the bloggers are leaching off some other ‘real’ medium, for example like how most internet alternative news outlets use traditional news outlets as their sources for information, a very similar thing can be said about the craft of reviewing as the reviewer in effect acts as a publicist for the shows he likes by recommending to the audience as a sort of middleman sorting out the good from the bad which is something useful but this doesn’t change the fact that they are not producing anything other than analysis and critique, and the question as to whether they would be able to create something that they could objectively exalt according to their own standards remains open, i.e. unanswered. I wouldn’t exactly call this hypocrisy but something less which I don’t have a word for but which is embodied in the thought ‘If you know what it takes for a great story then why don’t you make one? Oh is it because you can’t.’ Perhaps it is unfair to ask them this for it is not their role and so I haven’t but I can’t say I haven’t thought it and asked it from myself (which resulted in that dreadful novella I wrote and posted on this blog a few months ago and which perhaps for the best no one has read – no I am not indirectly asking you to read it using reverse psychology- don’t read it and don’t accuse me of asking you to). As you may have noticed all anime reviewers I have mentioned above (GR Arkada, Gigguk) are video bloggers on youtube rather than bloggers and that is because most popular anime reviewers are youtubers, this isn’t surprising given the visual nature of the anime medium and of course it is much more comfortable to listen to someone than read small text on a blog like this. Mother’s Basement(another anime reviewer on youtube) recently made a video noting how illegal anime streaming services like KissAnime are leaching off of the anime industry and I think he is right but in a way I think that bloggers and reviewers who depend on the anime industry are also in a way leaching off of it just like Journalists could be said to leach off of miserable events for their ratings and views. Of course it is different – anime reviewers are publicists for anime while illegal streaming websites… well they are popularizing anime as well, in effect a significant portion of Mother’s Basement viewership would be gone if websites like KissAnime would be gone because that is where his viewers go to watch anime. I guess then that it would be fair to say that Mother’s Basement and all other anime reviewers are leaching off of the illegal websites he was lambasting – KissAnime being the main one. But what is the point of this all? Well, I was watching a Japanese drama series called ‘Starblazers’ about Hideaki Anno et Gainax and a mangaka who saw himself as Anno’s rival when he was in university and I have read some interviews given by the self-proclaimed ‘Otaking’(not Anno but the guy who directed Otaku no Video) at the MIT website (Just search for ‘Rei anime MIT’ and you will find a page with all the links to the interviews), I guess it could be classed as an ‘inspirational story’ I mean the story of Studio Gainax rising above from nothing amid innumerable financial and other hardships and what struck a chord in me was his comments on how otaku in the age of the internet and computers feel that it is enough to create websites and create commentary because they can easily get that communal aspect of their hobby without exerting themselves to create original creations themselves. I think he was spot on, I do not deny the hard work done by the youtube reviewers sinking hundreds of hours into their work to make anime more accessible to mainstream audiences but are they really satisfied by being publicists for other people’s work? And secondly I don’t really think that video reviews which are time consuming to make really add anything substantial that is not present in written reviews except of course the ability to reach a larger audience which matters of course but just like modern anime the only thing that cleaner animation has provided only a shinier surface to the same(or worse) scripts.

The next paragraph is a short run-down of the deviations of my opinions about anime ‘classics’ and ‘masterpieces’ from the majority of critics I have read. I suggest you to skip it if you don’t know that much about anime.

My tastes are pretty conventional although there are times when I do disagree with the majority of the anime ‘community’(that is one word I hate) for example ‘Your Name’ (and for that matter ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) are both silly simple romantic comedies with cute girls and with time travel as an unexplored plot ‘convenience’ device and nothing more (Watch ‘Steins;Gate’ one of the only good time travel anime which bothers to conjure up some sort of explanation and agency other than time travel for plot convenience) and most of Hayao Miyazaki’s works are to be blunt either environmentalist propaganda (even at his best I think in Princess Mononoke) or plainly boring ‘pretty colours’ like Spirited Away and lets not talk about his later bland works for which reason I think he retired. Or that ‘Ping Pong The Animation’ was aside from its unusual style was just the usual low stakes sports anime that has been done and redone worse since that baseball anime called ‘Touch.’ Finally ‘Kaiba’ is just another one of those shows that puts style over substance to mesmerize the senses of its viewers with its weird minimalistic cartoonish visuals in contrast with its ‘edgy’ ‘mature’ themes who will be distracted by how ‘forward looking’ ‘avant-garde’ it is to hide the poor boring characters, the quick and vague explanations etc… And let’s not even talk about that awful romance anime about cannibalistic monsters where the world was ending but the tension felt more fake than when watching a Hollywood blockbuster as I didn’t care about that fake world and even less about its two main characters. I think the problem that this director (and Miyazaki too to an extent) has is that he makes his characters run around too much to explore the weird settings which overshadow his characters whereas when he deals with a small cast in a confined setting he is much better like in the ‘Tatami Galaxy’ which for me was only rescued through its excellent ending(the last two or three episodes). Akira was just beautifully animated shock factor, to be frank it felt like an advertisement to read the much superior manga from which it was adapted from – but that’s not even an excuse, there just wasn’t enough time and the movie felt too long. The second Ghost in the Shell movie was just an exercise in quote mining different philosophers for a substitute for a proper script and some pretty colours, it wasn’t even that pretty.

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My Experience Writing Fiction vs. Writing Non Fiction

31. July 2017

Writing non-fiction for me is essentially an exercise in arguing with myself out aloud, it is quite easy to do without much effort as long as you have some topic and some data in mind, writing fiction, however, requires much more creativity not in coming up with the premise of the story, but in the execution of the premise through the characters, a coherent plot and dialogue which doesn’t break the immersion.

As I have already detailed at length I have an aversion towards morality plays and fiction that is generally made to preach or to make some point. I think that the essay form is good enough for that, but before criticising me on my stance I would suggest you to read the article I have linked above.

I generally find it more enjoyable to read fiction and write essays. However at the same time I don’t want to be relegated to the role of a mere critic and so I tried to write a novel of sorts which turned out to be a failure as I expected, I started writing it in third person person precisely because I did not want it to degenerate into a plotless internal monologue balancing the self-pity against the self-loathing with utmost care roughly peeling off the self-righteousness where the author-insert-protagonist uses the Socratic method to talk himself into a corner but that is how it ended up.

I also think there is a need to distinguish writing short fiction and long fiction, I personally find writing short fiction easier because it’s all about the shock value induced with some allegory, it’s not like I can’t take a premise to its logical conclusion, it’s just that I am too fast at getting to that conclusion which is fine when I write short fiction or essays but when I write something longer I am inevitably forced to start writing about a different but related subject and very soon the whole thing starts to feel formulaic even condescending like those short fairy tales with morals for children or the ‘moral lesson of the week’ scene at the end of the He-man cartoon (Even children know when they are being condescended to), at any rate it is boring, and being boring is the cardinal sin of writing. I am not saying that there cannot be a moral discussion in fiction but it shouldn’t feel forced and contrived and cheap like propaganda. Another problem I have encountered when writing long fiction is that it is too easy to inadvertently tell what the what the story is an allegory for, this is especially easy for someone who is more used to thinking about what other people write, in short form fiction even if you do tell what the story is an allegory for you can still try to play it off as the punchline to a long joke.

I have also tried on several occasions, to write what is known as ‘serial fiction’ because now thanks to the internet the serial format has become viable again as the cost to set up and distribute them is zero not counting any cost for advertising of course. A serial or a web serial is a story that is told in parts released in succession. It’s a bit like watching a tv series; It’s fun having to wait till the next part and think about what will happen next. You can find them on indexes like the one at topwebfiction.com and webfictionguide.com . The problem with the web serial format is that you have to come up either with some sort of cliffhanger or conclusion at the end of each chapter, all of which should lead to a specific ending. Coming up with a premise is easy but then it is an uphill battle afterwards. Every chapter is a story with a beginning and an end contributing to the whole towards some end.

I have mostly written about the difficulties about writing fiction but there are some difficulties to writing non-fiction too, first of all it is hard to gauge the tone that is appropriate which can sometimes lead to self-censoring and tasteless prose, sometimes the tone I am writing in changes from article to article without even me thinking about it whereas it is easier to carry an even in fiction. Superficially it might seem like research is more of a problem when writing non fiction but I have found out that it is much easier to labour on the same point when writing non-fiction by using analogies, given some general analysis, stating the same thing in more memorable ways at the end, starting the essay with some quotations. On the whole it is easier to start writing an essay and thereafter doing the research as questions pop into my mind whereas writing fiction is all about preparation, it feels very unnatural and so immersion breaking when authors try to retcon some half-forgotten plot point half-way through the story. Basically when writing non-fiction I can do the research as I am writing but when I am writing fiction I need to prepare a lot and it is easier to get stuck in the preparation stage for a long time and give up but even that is better than starting to write a story and going off on a tangent with no preparation (As web serials go on and on this preparation stage becomes even more imperative and continuous because readers will notice if I am trying to tell the same story over and over again every chapter). With all that said it is easier to expose someone’s lies including my own when they are written as a straightforward direct argument in essay form.

Another issue when it comes to writing non-fiction as I have just noticed is coming up with a conclusive conclusion and the ending when it comes to fiction, I can’t just abruptly leave the reader hanging up on a peak with an abrupt pause in my voice, an essay needs to be punctuated with a conclusion just like a sentence ought to be with a fullstop. Actually it may even be more vital than the punctuation itself. I am really bad when it comes to these, it’s as if after I have said everything that’s on my minds backlog my mind is suddenly empty and my hands abruptly stop typing, and then I have to think a bit about what I have written so far, an end up inserting sort of forced repeat of the intro. I always feel satisfied when my train of thoughts ends at a point when I can safely end an essay without aborting it. A tell-tale sign that the I was not simply bothered to write a conclusion and simply wanted to end the essay either because I was tired or ran  out of ideas or had written myself into a corner but didn’t know how  to end it is when I start the conclusion with ‘In conclusion’ and restate the premise of the argument in a slightly altered way.

 At any rate, at any rate, I have been writing ‘at any rate’ too much lately, I think I picked up those three words from Orwell and I have been taking them along with me too often – oh repetition is bad, so there’s that – but I digress… Endings. As the youtube anime reviewer GRArkada used to say ‘The Ending is Paramount’ in fiction, oh no wait he actually still says it in a video he uploaded two days ago(It’s his catchphrase, forgive me for being such a self-indulgent internet geek). Anyway the beginning of a story of a story is important to get people to read my stuff but the endings greatly affect what the final verdict of the reader which will inevitably affect the popularity of my story. They say the journey matters more than the destination but if the ending is a meaningless rushed clusterfuck, or if there is no ending at all like the infamous anime adaptation ‘read the light-novel/manga/VN-source material’ endings or when the author writes himself into a corner, this gravely affects the re-readability of the story too. It can be hard to write an ending after the climax, this is very evident in detective novels where the author simply doesn’t know what to do with the detective and so sends him to drink coffee at a caffè with his lobotomized-ask-man-reader-self-insert-assistant or ends the story with a lot of unsatisfying exposition about what happened to the characters later which looks like its straight out of an outline and so feels contrived (Look at the ending of David Copperfield). The ending is the seal on the story, those ‘life went on afterwards imagine it yourself because I am not bothered to write it’ endings are simply not good enough, especially those by Rumiko Takahashi(Seriously why didn’t she write a proper ending for Ranma? It felt like it was all for nothing, my childhood). A bad ending is vague and leaves a lot of questions (I am looking at you Neon Genesis Evangelion – EoE saved it though), a good ending takes the narrative to its logical conclusion and a very good ending can salvage even a show that is complete bollocks (the classic example for this is the ending of season 2 of Code Geass but now they are trying to milk it with a third season so I am not  sure it counts). In conclusion, a bad ending to a story is worse than a bad conclusion to an essay, because even though a null conclusion feels like it ends abruptly the rest of the essay still retrospectively counts but a bad ending retrospectively spoils the whole of the story.

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