Check it at the door, kids

In recent years it has become increasingly common for reviewers of fiction to judge works by political criteria. This is unfortunate (I say this as someone who has never had such a review, or indeed, as of this writing, had any review, heh) for several reasons:

• It is discourteous to the review’s readers, most of whom presumably don’t want a political lecture but an evaluation of fiction as fiction.

• It is unfair to the author, who deserves to be evaluated as a producer of fiction.

• It’s lazy. It reminds me of a certain Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. Calvin is taking a test in which one of the questions is something like, “When did the Punic Wars occur?” His response is, “Modern physics shows the concept of time rests on shaky foundations,” or some similar nonsense. He then turns to the reader and says, “If you don’t know the answer, attack the terms of the question.” Indeed. It’s a little too, shall we say, leisurely, to refuse to engage with a work of fiction on its own terms.

• It is unfortunate for reviewers who indulge themselves this way, since they deprive themselves of the pleasures of fiction. If you’re shouting “This is too Maoist/not Maoist enough!” you’re missing the gorgeously subtle characterization and thrilling plot twists.

The problem is the intrusive replacement of the author’s interests and the potential reader’s interests with the reviewer’s interests. If the author has written about a 19th century Transylvanian vampire, it seems ill-bred to criticize the work for failing to be a screed in favor of, say, higher or lower tariffs on imports. It is like criticizing it for failing to be a screed in favor of, say, low-impact aerobics. It simply isn’t appropriate for reviewers to interpolate their own interests that way. Obviously there’s a time and place for politics, but it’s not all times and all places.

Nevertheless, some works cry out to be evaluated – at least partially – by political criteria. Which works? Why, the ones that have a political element introduced by the author him/herself, of course.

Thus I propose this rule of thumb for reviewing fiction:

If the author has introduced politics into the work, then reviewing it according to political criteria is appropriate. If the author has not done so, then reviewing it according to political criteria is not appropriate.

So, e.g. Atlas Shrugged and The Handmaid’s Tale  – to take two particularly obvious examples – are fair game, because their authors made them fair game. Those works are overtly political. But the rule also applies to an otherwise non-political work in which the author couldn’t resist making one or two political side comments. (Some writers think that if they only do this once per novel it’s subtle. Actually, it’s like having a glaringly wrong note in the middle of an otherwise perfectly-executed piano recital.)

Of course there will be fuzzy cases, but this rule of thumb will take care of most cases.