Sunday, 16 March 2014

Stop telling me it's good just because you liked it!

In the vast majority of cases, I find that when somebody says that some movie or book or TV show is “good”, all they really mean is that they liked it, and when they say something is “bad” or “stupid”, what they really mean is that they didn’t like it. Which is fine and all, but unless I know the reviewer and their æsthetic preferences really well, it’s a pretty meaningless appraisal.

For some time now, I’ve been trying to be more explicit about whether my appraisal of something is an evaluation of its quality, or is a description of my own reception of it.

Good things that I don’t like

The need to make this distinction was driven home to me this week as I read Jonathan Tropper’s novel This is Where I Leave You

My full review is on Goodreads, but the gist of it is that:
  • I think this book is extremely well executed, and
  • I didn’t like it much at all.
That is, I think it is very much a good book, even it it’s not my thing.

In practical terms, this means that I would very honestly and enthusiastically recommend it to somebody whose æsthetic preferences I know run in the direction that Tropper takes his readers. (I don’t immediately know who that is, but I strongly suspect that if you liked The Royal Tenenbaums or Arrested Development, you’ll get some good laughs out of this book.)

Similarly, in TV terms, I might not have liked The Wire, but I would confidently recommend it to fans of gritty police procedurals, and although I ground my teeth all the way through the episodes of Glee that I sampled, I have honestly, wholeheartedly, and successfully recommended it to other people.

Things I like that are not good

In the opposite direction, I’m perfectly comfortable to say that there’s a lot of stuff that I like or even love that isn’t very good in any objective sense. I’m talking about the books, movies, and TV shows that people too often describe as “guilty pleasures” — a term I despise and reject because of its inherent notion of shamefulness at simply liking something that other people don’t like.


First, as a connoisseur of truly awful cinema, it’s important for me to distinguish between things I like despite their being not very good, and things I like because they’re really, really bad. The first category recognises that there’s more to æsthetic preference than simply the quality (“how-well-done-ness”) of a book, film, or TV show. The second category just reveals some kind of gleeful schadenfreude on my part.

To put that in perspective, the films I’m talking about in the second category aren’t the multi-million-dollar Hollywood flops that make up the “worst movie” lists of the Internet, but the films that make those flops look like masterpieces of cinematic art. I’m talking about the indie films that can’t even keep a shot in focus, or where (as a product of the script or the edit) whole scenes make no sense at all (“what just happened there?”), or where hapless actors unconvincingly pretend to be terrorised by a giant turkey head made of papier-mâché, or where the whole thing appears to have been shot in one take on a camcorder by some dude who clearly saw The Exorcist that one time. Seriously.

So as much as I enjoy watching these train wrecks, I think my enjoyment of them comes from a different place and does not reflect æsthetic appeal. And yet, I honestly liked Blood Freak and enjoyed the time I spent watching it more than the time I’ve spent watching many highly-acclaimed and competent films (anything by Quentin Tarantino, for example).

Investment in a bigger narrative

Maybe the most common examples of narratives that I (and probably many other people) like for reasons other than quality are individual sub-par installments of  TV shows, novel series, or film franchises. As a Star Trek fan, this investment in a larger narrative has kept me watching “Spock’s Brain” over and over and over again across decades as the episode comes up in my regular re-watches of the series.

My reception of this episode and similar atrocities from the Star Trek and Doctor Who canons can be explained wholly in terms of a belief in the overall quality of the series or franchise. (And I still draw the line at Voyager :P)

Geniune aesthetic appeal

Yet, there are still other narratives I like not for their incompetence, not for their part in a bigger narrative that I like, but simply—for whatever reason—on their own terms. 

For example, consider End of Days. I adore this film. I like its scope, its themes, its look, and its end-of-the-millennium vibe (for long-term readers familiar with my system of appeal characteristics, it scores high on story and affect; and medium-low on craft and idea). However, there’s no way that I’m ever going to try and defend it as a good film, and I have no idea of to whom I could possibly ever recommend it. There’s plenty of other genre films I could name here too, whose appeal to me is entirely disproportional to the skill of their execution or their ability to realise their creators‘ visions.


Next time you go to tell someone how “good” or “bad” you think a book, movie, or TV show (or painting, or dance performance, or game, or album) is, stop for a moment and ask yourself what you’re really claiming. Is the piece really that terrible or stupid just because it doesn’t appeal to you personally? And is your approbation all that’s required for a work to be “good”?

At the very least, framing an appraisal in terms of either “good” or “liked” makes further discussion and debate meaningful: the parameters are defined and explicit.

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