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Books Don’t Have to Explain Themselves To You

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I recently read The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo, an immersive and captivating fantasy retelling of The Great Gatsby (that also has a queer Vietnamese American main character!) I loved it, and as is my habit, I trundled over to Goodreads to leave a positive review. Plenty of other people also enjoyed the novel, but I noticed a trend in some of the negative reviews: they were unsatisfied with the worldbuilding.

The Chosen and the Beautiful is set in our world, but with the addition of magic (and demons). The magical elements are woven through the story, but they’re not the focus. It’s much more about the characters and plot of the original story with a new perspective. One of the things I enjoyed about the story was the mysterious fantastical elements. It’s unclear whether Gatsby really sold his soul or only wants it to appear that way. Drinking demon blood is outlawed with prohibition. Magic is always glittering in the corners of this story, but it rarely takes centre stage.

We all want different things from books, and that’s perfectly reasonable, but I take issue with readers saying that not explaining the magic system in a book like this is a flaw or weakness of the storytelling. Personally, I love books that include fantastical elements without being high fantasy. Magical realist and fabulist stories do this particularly well: the fantastical elements are used to establish mood or to have metaphorical resonance. Not only do I not need those magic systems explained to me, I think it would make the story less compelling to do so.

This isn’t the only example I’ve seen of readers irritated that a book didn’t explain itself. A worrying trend I’ve noticed is people taking quotes from characters and assuming that they reflect the author’s opinions, especially when it’s pretty clear from context that it’s meant to be a flaw of the character.

Reading is a conversation. The reader and writer both have parts to play in constructing meaning, and it relies on the reader being critical and thoughtful as they read. The beauty of fiction is that the themes are not usually spelled out directly: it takes seeing the entire arc of the story and noticing ongoing motifs to understand them. For instance, if the storyline is that the character starts off being fairly ignorant of social justice issues and then confronts that and educates herself over the course of the novel, there are likely going to be statements left unchallenged by the text at the beginning of the story, because her whole character arc is about that. It needs to be read in context.

We should absolutely hold authors responsible for the messages they perpetuate in their books, but that requires us to understand the purposes of a book. Only when we know what a book is trying to do can we evaluate whether it’s successful or not. It may be that a story that attempts to show a characters’ actions as unethical doesn’t make that clear enough over the course of the novel — but we need that context, not just isolating any line that could be misconstrued and declaring the author irredeemably problematic.

In a more low-stakes version of this, one of the most reliable ways for an author to anger their readers is by ending a book on a cliffhanger or an ambiguous note, especially if it doesn’t get a sequel. It’s understandable: we put a lot of weight on endings. They’re meant to contextualize the whole story for us. Did those characters win or lose? Live or die? Get a happily ever after or not? Endings often decide whether a book feels worth having read or not. But sometimes the best ending for a story is an ambiguous one, or one that leaves room for many possibilities. Staying true to the characters and plot arc can mean that a neatly tied up happily ever after doesn’t make sense — but no matter how justified, those ambiguous endings will often attract readers’ wrath.

We all have different standards for the books we read. For me, explaining a magic system in detail is not only unnecessary, but will often turn me off of a book — it’s easy for those explanations to become dry, info-dumping, and awkward. There’s nothing that is more likely to make me start skim-reading than dense character appearance descriptions: I don’t need to know everyone’s hair style and what color shirt they’re wearing. I want to get into the story and their personalities. Other readers, though, appreciate being able to picture the story in perfect detail or are distracted by magic systems that operate without explanation.

There’s nothing wrong with valuing different things in the books you read, but just because a book doesn’t match those expectations doesn’t mean it’s badly written. If novels are required to spell out the author’s thought process behind every line or plot element, they could only be didactic messes. I hope that in the future, we can evaluate books not just based on what we wanted from them, but also what they were attempting to achieve.

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