“I honestly want to give y’all a set of reviews that are devoid of the usual sort of expectant cynicism that comes with media criticism. Not that the world is ~bitter forever~, but I want to approach a new fictional world without preconceived notions of what it is. ”
The Mark Reads reviews of books and television are among the most effective and enjoyable multi-layered analyses I’ve read in an age. I have geeked out over many things, but never before have I been this unabashedly enthusiastic about a reviewer.
The basic format is that Mark reads books (and watches television shows) with as little advance knowledge as possible and responds to them on a chapter-by-chapter basis. (Edit: He gives a better summary in this interview.)
When you dig a little deeper into how this unfolds, it gets interesting. As his tagline warns, “You are not prepared.”
I would simply enjoy his reviews in my free time, but the Mark Reads site as a whole relate to my master’s thesis project on a metacognitive level. The thing is….the thing is that much of what Mark does to literature closely parallels what I want to do with visual culture as my master’s thesis.
With that in mind, what is going on here?
1) Reclaiming and defending the importance of young adult fiction
Many of the reviews in the Mark Reads site cover YA novels. Having hidden my lingering appreciation for this often-belittled genre, I am heartened by his rigorous but appreciative reviews of YA literature.
A cynic could argue that this exploits the nostalgia of twenty- and thirty-somethings, but Mark’s emotional and intellectual investment in these books is undeniable. Early influences are important, and that which we seek out for personal enjoyment (such as children’s literature) has a much better chance of becoming a lasting influence than more straightforward or assigned instructional material.
Many of the YA books that I explore anew through Mark’s reviews include themes that I assumed I didn’t encounter early in life. I picked up on the feminist themes in Tamora Pierce novels when repeatedly reading them as a kid, but Mark makes a knockout argument for the fact that these books do more than merely assign a female-bodied person as the protagonist of each series. The three protagonists for whom Pierce wrote quartets each defied gender norms, but (as Mark points out), they did so for different reasons. (Relevant motivations include body dysphoria, passing privilege, bullying, and being an ally.) I was never consciously aware of the novels’ queer-friendly subtext, but Mark is absolutely correct about its existence. Taken as a whole, these three protagonists’ narratives speak about individual agency rather than any one true way and reason to buck the system.
2) Demonstrating a sheer joyful appreciation for a work’s merits while pointing out its flaws
Most of the Mark Reads reviews are supportive of the texts they concern, but he is still critical. In the case of Pierce’s novels, he had early cause to point out possible racist tropes in the characterization of some minor characters, but by the twelfth book had ample cause to instead say:
“… this is what I love about how Pierce chooses to write her books. The evils of the world are still here – sexism and racism and homophobia and classism – and yet she positions the narrative so that it makes it clear that there is something deeply wrong. A lot of fantasy is realistic about its depictions of misogyny, but what does it do if you never engage with it? You end up passing those stereotypes and prejudices along instead of challenging them.”
When I said that these reviews subtly reinforce the validity of YA literature, I should have specified that they support quality YA literature.*
The Mark Reads reviews of the Twilight series unpacked its problematic elements in stream-of-consciousness form. I was particularly interested in his pie chart critique format, although the selfies-while-reading came in a close second. Perusing his Twilight reviews is an exercise in schadenfreude, but these reviews are also outliers.
Usually, it is the occasional example of unexamined racism, ablism, or sexism that earns a rebuke in Mark’s reviews. These absolutely crop up in the YA genre, so pointing them out is an important task.
We each have to come to a personal balance between rejecting flawed literature (or movies, television, games, or company) and engaging with it in a conscious but wary manner. This, rather than purely calling out the canon of art history, is what I want my art to do.
3) Blending multiple interpretive lenses to unpack fiction (making it personal and accountable)
Any critique which goes beyond the “good vs. bad” binary sets up a long term conversation about respecting differences of opinion and opening ourselves up to a wider range of empathy and understanding. Honesty and consideration are not mutually exclusive.
Critiquing can be quite the balancing act. It’s a complex thing, but one way in critics can maintain balance is to avoid bald-faced “like” or “don’t like” statements. Instead, compare the work to specific concepts. The literary version is the Mark Reads review of Brennan’s Unspoken. He straightforwardly states that he enjoys elements of the Gothic novel genre, and that might not be for everyone. To recap: he pointed out something that he enjoyed, then gave it context, and acknowledged that it wasn’t an absolutist stance.
At the moment, I am most interested in the way he effectively analyzes larger themes, calls out -isms, and makes it all intensely personal. Critiquing in academia often buries opinions under double-speak. Mark is honest and humble about instances when his own experiences heighten his interest or distaste for a character, event, or theme. It is more truthful to identify such influences than to pretend they don’t exist. As such, the Mark Reads reviews paradoxically become more meaningful because they break the usual rules of criticism. His willingness to acknowledge the role of personal experience in reading literature allows Mark to poignantly interpret themes such as Brennan’s treatment of loneliness in the Lynburn Legacy series or bullying in Pierce’s Protector of the Small. He never argues that these are the only valid way to approach these texts, but does unpack them for those who might not notice them as readily.
To get completely meta, here’s why this matters so much that it has to be mentioned on my own research blog: I am on the lookout for ways to critique the canon while acknowledging that my motivation is personal. I can’t just talk about my own opinions, but my opinions are only getting voiced because they are opinions about something that affects a lot of us. I mentioned Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle before. It still applies.
4) Respecting a full range of avid enthusiasts and newcomers
Mark encourages fans’ need to gush and debate while preserving the ability of new readers to avoid spoilers.
“I’ve always hoped that Mark Reads and Mark Watches could provide a starting point for folks who avoided a series because of how scary it seemed; it’s nice to know that there are others out there just as ignorant as you…..It’s why my spoiler policy is so deeply important to me: I want there to be room for newbies to be utterly wrong. I want people to not understand things, to struggle to comprehend twists and turns, and to figure things out themselves, because that often results in a much more rewarding experience in reading fiction” ( Mark Reads The Color of Magic, part 11)
His live reads and brain dumps are enjoyable whether or not you have read the book already. His reviews of novels by N.K. Jemisen and Sarah Rees Brennan convinced me to read them for myself, but his stream-of-consciousness reactions to Tamora Pierce, Gail Carson Levine, Patricia C. Wrede, and J.K. Rowling gave me a fresh take on old favorites.
An example of the latter effect crops up in his review of a critical piece of backstory in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
“You know, even I don’t know how to feel about Snape anymore. Actually…is it weird that I fear being embarrassed by my supreme hatred of Snape in all my past reviews? I just looked back at a few of them since the beginning of Half-Blood Prince and…wow, I really hated Snape.” (Mark Reads Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, ch. 33)
His experience of self-doubt after this big reveal was far from unique, but Mark’s stream-of-consciousness reviewing style allows him to document the experience of reading this book for the first time in an immensely satisfying way. It also saves his reviews from the coming across as oracular or arrogant. He worries about missing themes or nuances, but the important thing is that he opens the discussion as well as he can.
And he can. Rather well, too.
What can I take from all this? How will it relate to my master’s thesis, when none of it will come up in my bibliography?
He is humble, but his work also shows ambition. The reviews have become increasingly nuanced and readable while remaining approachable. His recent commitment to reviewing every one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels will take years,** but I absolutely believe he will follow through.
I don’t want to steal his idea, but I do want to borrow some of the humility, humor, insightfulness, and honesty that his project exhibits.
* This distinction will always remind me of Arthur Rackham‘s assertion that:
I can only say that I firmly believe in the greatest stimulating and educative power of imaginative, fantastic and playful pictures and writings for children in their most impressionable years….And it must be insisted on that nothing less than the best that can be had, cost what it may (and it can hardly be cheap), is good enough for those early impressionable years when standards are formed for life. Any accepting, or even choosing, art or literature of a lower standard as good enough for children is a disastrous and costly mistake.” (qtd. on pg 12 of Once Upon a Time)
** Mark has an impressive work ethic, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are about forty books in this series so far.