Tropes: Running a Deconstruction, or Devoting Your Life To Complaining About Things You Don’t Like

Ana's Note: This article originally ran as a Slacktiverse Special. This is a repost in case you missed it the first time.

My story closely resembles many of those on Slacktiverse. Some indeterminate time a few years back, I followed a link-to-a-link-to-a-link and landed who-knows-how on Fred Clark's exquisite Left Behind commentaries. I then immediately dropped to a zero productivity rate as I feverishly plowed through the entire series, from the first post to the last, in a frenzy of reading that left me gasping for more.

Although I don't remember the date or even the year this occurred, it still sharply divided my life into a sort of Pre-Clark and Post-Clark mentality. Here was something that was uniquely incredible to my experience: an eloquent, reasoned individual carefully and constructively picking apart a series that I had a visceral but difficult-to-explain reaction to. Reading Fred's words helped to untangle my own response to the work, and confirmed that I wasn't stupid, or deficient, or alone in my feelings. The experience was cathartic, and also delightfully entertaining. I was hooked.

The only problem with the concept of deconstruction was that by its very nature, it was an excruciatingly slow process. One reading segment a week for a 12 book series would span over the course of years just for that one series. And while the extensive length of time added to the enjoyment, it also meant that Fred Clark was not going to be able to run multiple deconstructions for every little thing out there that deserved a good picking through. Clearly, if we were to populate the world with more of these wonderful, affirming, cathartic deconstructions, it was up to everyone to pitch in.

In the last few years, an absolutely wonderful number of deconstructions have popped up. First there were the Left Behind spin-offs -- the expanded universe was too large for any one person to realistically handle, so good-natured souls started flinging themselves on the prequels and sequels and YA targeted novels. Then the field began to expand from LaHaye's brand of Christian fiction to other targets, moving from an emphasis on The Worst Novels In The World to an emphasis on novels that contained equally problematic elements, but packaged in a less overtly evangelical form. Problematic cultural elements of racism, sexism, abelism, and homophobia could be identified and addressed in dozens of other popular series without necessarily demonizing author or audience. Deconstructions became a magnifying glass for discovering how our cultural biases seep into our fiction and play a role in reinforcing and retaining those biases over multiple generations.

A few weeks ago, Kit asked me in jest if I wouldn't like to write a "how-to" guide for deconstructions, considering how passionate I am about the concept and process. (I'm currently running three on-going ones, and have plans to add more as soon as time can reasonably permit.) The thought stuck with me, so here are my thoughts on the running of a blog deconstruction and ways to make the experience as pleasurable as possible for all involved. (At least, I hope so. I've really only been doing this for less than a year, so I may still crash and burn and make a fool of myself online. Tune in to the crash-and-burn!)

1. Decide on source material you can work with.

Doing a deconstruction is a huge time commitment. Fred can probably work through Left Behind for the rest of his life, if he so chooses. It's taken me almost a year to get through the first four chapters of the Twilight book series that is essentially six books long. Even with running a concurrent Narnia feature with Twilight every two weeks, I'll probably still finish the 7-book Narnia series first at that rate. So you're going to want to pick a project that you can live with -- or, failing that, that you can wrap up gracefully if the need arises.

I think, from Fred's writings on the subject, he picked Left Behind because he saw something that he felt needed to be seriously addressed in terms of the religion presented in the books. For myself, I picked up Twilight and Narnia because I wanted to address issues I had with both in terms of feminism. These were popular series that had bothered some portion of my brain for quite some time, and I was reasonably certain I had enough to say on the topic that I could work out a post a week on the topic for basically the next ten years or so.

In some ways, you really want to pick something you either love or hate. There's probably not a lot of incentive to continue to discuss a book about which you don't have strong feelings. For myself, I both love and hate aspects of Twilight and Narnia: I loved Narnia as a child and I've come to appreciate Twilight for attempting to feature an everyday female protagonist who gains the perfect happy ending she always wanted. At the same time I remain deeply frustrated with both series because of the serious issues of sexism, racism, and ableism that I personally feel lurk under the surface text.

Beyond anything else, you want to deconstruct something that will bring you pleasure. When deconstruction starts to become a constant chore, then it stops being fun for you and it stops being fun for your readers. And don't ever feel like you can't respectfully say "this isn't working for me, I need to do something else". We're all in this together, so to speak.

2. Eschew personal attacks.

It's so easy to get so frustrated with a series when it contains problematic content. There's a huge temptation to lash out at the authors, or even the audience who enjoys the series, but usually this isn't productive in a deconstruction. It's one thing to, say, criticize an author who routinely threatens people with hellfire and damnation -- I think there's a lot of moral leeway there to push back against a genuinely toxic agenda.

But your average author is usually just trying to write a book, not push an ideology. If a deconstruction is focusing on the societal issues that leak into works, then the author's intent becomes largely immaterial on a couple of fronts: it's neither a magical shield to protect them nor is it a necessary front of attack when approaching the work.

This is also true for the audience. Pretty much every book on earth has been enjoyed by someone, and the members of that book's audience probably enjoyed it for different reasons. "This is a terrible book and you are terrible if you like it" isn't just going to drive away members of that audience, it's also going to come off as very judgmental and divisive.

This varies according to the material, of course, but it's worth noting that the Twilight fans and Narnia supporters have contributed wonderful and considerate viewpoints throughout their respective deconstructions. Without those wonderful viewpoints, the deconstructions would be essentially one flat note, stretched out through hundreds of blog posts. And nobody wants that, least of all myself.

The goal here isn't to burn a book, its author, or its audience in effigy. It's to tie a book's content into larger cultural issues and examine how those issues can work their way into our favorite books without many of us even noticing. Every book on earth has issues; the goal is to use those to open a meaningful dialogue and hopefully learn something valuable in the process.

3. Call out the little things.

There's the big, obvious stuff in deconstructing, of course. Turbo Jesus. Engine-stealing Edward. The Problem of Susan. But those aren't the meat and bones of deconstruction. They're important posts, but they won't carry you over the months and years it takes to get through the reading.

It's funny what you pick up on when you sit down with keyboard in hand to type a weekly deconstruction post. It's when you're reading through the next few lines, looking for the next red flag to shoot up that you suddenly have Sensible Shoes Vera pop up. Or you have Charlie sabotaging cars long before Edward ever thought to. Or you suddenly realize that the Twilight "Invitations" chapter pretty closely revolves around the concepts you'd already been thinking about that week in terms of elevator propositions and providing people avenues to flee should they choose to.

Or you notice that Santa's "here are some weapons, don't use them" gifts are never mentioned in text again, despite being potentially very useful, and the next thing you know you're questioning why they were put in at all in contrast to the Law of Conservation of Narrative Detail, and for that matter aren't there women war veterans in the ‘verse in which this whole novel is set, so it's Santa essentially being disrespectful of that fact and… huh. I guess I just got a blog post out of that.

The big things are problematic and should be called out as such, but they're not where the bulk of your audience is really going to resonate. Chances are they already know about the big things, because they've read one-off blogs and articles about the more problematic elements in a series. What's more, big things are usually pretty easy to identify and point out as problematic -- it's the little things that gnaw at the reader and leave them uneasy with the series but unable to identify why... until a detailed deconstruction puts a name to those little problems.

I think we've had more "ah-ha" moments on my blog regarding ableism in Twilight than we yet have over sexism. I'd like to say it's because I'm just so eloquent in my deconstruction of why a woman falling on her face isn't actually funny, but the reality is that the sexism was stuff everyone had already heard about long before I picked up a keyboard. The ableism stuff, on the other hand, hadn't been covered so much in the mainstream media.

4. Open up to the audience.

The best part of running a deconstruction will never be what you write. You won't turn the most eloquent phrase, you won't have the most obvious-in-hindsight insights, you won't have the epic moments of searing criticism or pitch-perfect reconstructive fanfic. Your readers are going to have those moments.

Those moments make running a deconstruction so incredibly rewarding. When someone posts something that makes me shout, "Why didn't I think to say that?", I feel a surge of happiness just to have inspired their genius in some small way. When the conversation derails for a good two hundred posts over FedEx arrows in George R.R. Martin's work and how it all relates to Twilight and Narnia and Left Behind and intent-being-or-not-being-magic, all I can do as the deconstructionist is look on in joy and awe at this wonderfulness that I am involved in hosting. And when someone posts that my words have helped them understand their own feelings about a work just a little bit better, I want to cry happy tears because that's pretty much precisely what I hope to get out of this, too.

Comments are the water and sunlight and fertilizer of a deconstruction. They are what will get you in front of your keyboard every week because by gum the deconstruction needs writing. So encourage those comments early and often. Allow anonymous posting so that everyone doesn't have to register a username and remember a password and enable the confirmation email and good grief I just wanted to leave a quick comment. Encourage off-topic posting. Speak to your audience, and thank them for their comments. You may think it's obvious that everything they write fills you with joy, but it's like any other relationship: they don't know they're appreciated unless you tell them. Treat them with respect, and remember how fearful you were the first time you posted a comment.

5. Never respond badly to correction.

Remember when I said that deconstruction wasn't negative? That everything on earth has Fail and that deconstruction isn't about criticism but rather about opening up a dialogue? If everything ever written has Fail in it, that means that eventually you are going to write something that has Fail in it.

Or not! It's possible, in a hypothetical universe! But maybe someone will read your Not-Containing-Fail post and ask for some clarification because it sure seems like it has some Fail in it to them.

This is a good thing. This is a dialogue. This is not a time to explain to them why they are wrong, because that is not a dialogue. A dialogue is between two people and it reads something like oh, I'm very sorry that my words came off that way. (Here you are apologizing for the impression created, and not in a non-apology I'm-sorry-you-were-offended way.) I was trying to say summary-of-what-you-meant-in-two-sentences-or-less. (Here you are providing the clarification that was requested.) But I can see how that could have come off the wrong way. (Here you are validating the experience of the other person and acknowledging that you are not perfect.) I appreciate you pointing this out to me and I'll try to express myself without that Fail in the future. (Here you are being polite, thanking the reader, and then you are actually going to go quietly think about this for next time and see if there's a lesson to be learned here.)

Remember that learning does not mean you were a bad, wrong, awful person. It means there is at least one perspective on earth with which you did not have experience. Quelle surprise.

Ultimately, the hardest part of running a deconstruction isn't the technical details of the site or the reading or the writing or the comments engine. The hardest part is retaining a necessary humility regarding what is largely a collection of personal subjective interpretations about which you are nevertheless going to feel very strongly. The hardest part is conveying that humility in one's posts so that you are always saying here is my interpretation but note that your mileage may vary. The hardest part is looking long and hard at books that many of your readers like, and being able to do so in a way that doesn't guarantee that on a long enough deconstruction timeline, everyone on earth will hate you. (This is, indeed, my biggest fear in the potential crash-and-burn department.)

The good news, at least for everyone reading here, is that in my online experience, the Slacktiverse community is the kindest, cleverest, most thoughtful online community I've ever participated in. So if any readers can weather my occasional dose of Fail and still be forgiving enough to come back for more, it's the Slacktivites. So I guess my final advice for running a deconstruction is to start here.


Omskivar said...

Thank you so much for this! I've begun

Ana Mardoll said...

Hey, that's awesome. I've only seen the movie... I have the books around here somewhere... Do I have you on the Blog Bounce?

Randall M said...

I don't know about Meyer and Twilight, but Lewis was definitely pushing an ideology with Narnia.

Omskivar said...

Yep, I asked you to add me about a week or so ago. (Used to be Sarah's Very Important Opinions, and then I kept changing the title. >_>; ) Thanks for that, btw!

Ana Mardoll said...

Oh, good! I remembered later that I'd read up on some of your deconstruction, but I couldn't recall if I'd added you to the Bounce. This December, I swear, is eroding my brain. *sad trombone*

hapax said...

I'm tentatively thinking of deconstructing TILL WE HAVE FACES starting in the New Year.

The idea scares me, because I truly have a love-hate relationship with that book.

Fourthage said...

hapax, I hope you'll drop a link here if you do. I've read Till We Have Faces multiple times and still don't know exactly what I think about it.

Ana Mardoll said...

I haven't actually read it, so this would be very fascinating for me. Like a "Mark Reads" but with Hapax. :D

J. Random Scribbler said...

OK, now I want to go read that GRR Martin conversation. That's another cool thing about the Slactiverse community; there's pretty much always somebody with something interesting to say.

Will Wildman said...

I saw this post before at Slacktiverse, but good things should be repeated. If I do set into a decon of my own, this will be an excellent resource.

On the subject of the blog bounce, am I inventing memories, or did it formerly re-order itself when each blog updated with a new post? It seems to be strictly alphabetical now, but I quite liked the previous as-it-happens reel. Was there something flawed in that system?

chris the cynic said...

On the subject of the blog bounce, am I inventing memories, or did it formerly re-order itself when each blog updated with a new post?

I have memories from that universe as well. Mind you, since the bounce was removed from post pages I haven't seen it as frequently.

Ana Mardoll said...

Whoops! It used to be 25, sorted by update. When I set it to "All", it reset to sorted alphabetically. Fixed, and thank you! :)

Casus Belli said...

Without those wonderful [diverging] viewpoints, the deconstructions would be essentially one flat note, stretched out through hundreds of blog posts. And nobody wants that, least of all myself.

I did not think of bringing this up when you posted the article on Slacktiverse, but it is interesting to me that I can't seem to remember any LB fan posting interesting dissenting opinions or defending the books, aside from the occasional (usually shouty) passers-by. I haven't read every comment thread, however, so I may be mistaken. Did it actually happen and I wasn't paying attention? It's a sad, thing, really, because it would have been interesting to have those viewpoints (if Fred's posts can be made even more interesting, which is a tall order).

Excellent post, BTW (I'd add: as usual).

Casus Belli said...

Hugh! Sorry for the HTML fail.

Casus Belli said...

And I just realized it is bad manners to discuss a blog on another blog. Sorry, then. Forget about me. Going back to lurking.

Ana Mardoll said...

LOL, it's all good, I think.

I don't recall any long-term LB supporters, per se, but I think there were a lot of fascinating conversations on many of the Christian beliefs and denominations available in our culture, and some of those were contributed by people who held those beliefs. And I think I've seen regulars say that they don't utterly dislike LB and have received non-ironic pleasure from the series.

Apart from the fan question, certainly there have been valuable discussions on Fred's views and how different people in the community feel about them. And I find that very valuable, both here and at Slactivist. :)

chris the cynic said...

Left Behind isn't that bad if you skim it. Grab five or more of the books, read them over a weekend, and you'll be going so fast that a lot of the problematic bits will blow by without you really noticing them so much. Also informed attributes are easier to accept without question when you're reading fast. You're told he's a great reporter, and you never slow down to notice that he never really reports.

I never thought that they were great works of literature, but when I first read (most of) them in high school I didn't notice most of the bad.

I have talked about being a sort of fan after reading them like that somewhat, though not recently.

Read fast, don't dwell on anything, accept what you're told about the characters as the basis for how you're going to interpret their actions, set your eye on the next bit of theology or action instead of how the characters treat other human beings, and above all else don't examine anything ... and you will find that the books are kind of, sort of, passable.

Mind you it's probably too late for anyone here to actually try that, I don't think you can unsee what you've seen, and that approach requires you to not notice a lot.


I also considered that we haven't really had anyone who is a current Left Behind fan participating in the discussion when I read Ana's advice. What we do have are a lot of people who have been exposed to the culture Left Behind comes from in a lot of different ways. I think that helps. Without that it would just be, "These books suck." That Fred is someone who understands where the books came from makes it a part of the discussion before the first comment is posted, and then various people in the comments bring different perspectives to the table.

Casus Belli said...

Indeed, you're right. And several commenters were (or are) indeed immersed in that specific culture, so they do provide valuable insights. Still, though, I think I'd have liked to hear an actual fan.

Casus Belli said...

Ha. Chris, our posts crossed. And now that you mention it, I can see how skimming would have you missing a lot of the problematic parts, especially if the overall theology agrees with you. But I won't try it, though. And as you said, I'm tainted now.

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