Last weekend I was with my son at an open day for the university he’s considering, when I came across a writer and academic whose poetry book I critiqued negatively many years ago. Though we travel in similar circles, and have communicated with one another since, I was too embarrassed to say hello and missed what might otherwise be a good conversation with someone whose work I’ve now come to admire. This was not because I wrote a negative review of his work. It was because I was ashamed of the ignorance I displayed in my review. My whole approach to how I read poetry has changed over the sixteen or so years since I wrote that review and I no longer trust my immediate/gut response when reading something that is difficult.
Sometimes good writing takes effort on the part of the reader and immediate accessibility isn’t necessarily the best criteria for judgment.
Although the instant connection still happens and it’s delightful when it does, I’ve also been deeply moved and stimulated by work that was initially uncomfortable for me, or seemed incomprehensible until the third or so reading. Sometimes good writing takes effort on the part of the reader and immediate accessibility isn’t necessarily the best criteria for judgment.
As a critic and publisher of a website devoted to criticism, I continue to publish honest and sometimes negative reviews from the twenty or so reviewers who write for me. As long as the review is thoughtful and well substantiated, I do feel it’s the reviewer’s prerogative to approach books honestly and write about them with the reader’s interest, rather than the author’s interest in mind (reviewers are not PR people, after all). However, I no longer write negative reviews myself. Here’s why:
- Reviews are subjective. Reviewers try to be as objective as possible, using evidence in the form of examples from the text to substantiate arguments, but the response to a piece of work will always be coloured by life experiences, perceptions, and influences that vary from person to person and even moment to moment. There’s no way to be wholly objective in writing a review, nor would that be desirable. My reviews are not the sole arbiter of quality or value.
- Perception is subject to change. A reviewer might be in the wrong frame of mind to appreciate a particular piece of work. It might arrive when a reviewer is not ready for it, not in the mood, or in the wrong physical environment.
- Reviews are subject to varying aesthetics. There are genres that I don’t enjoy reading. This is not a judgement — it’s my taste. There are styles of writing and topics that just don’t sit well with me. I have a particular aesthetic which is unique to me and I will not be the ideal target for every type of book. Something I don’t enjoy may be loved by other reviewers and readers. One reviewer can never be the sole arbiter of value.
If a book doesn’t work for me, and many books that I read don’t, I’ll leave it alone, pass on my review, and perhaps, attempt to return to the book at some point in the future when I’m more open to perceiving its merits.
The joy and delight of reading is universal, but taste is variable. As a critic, I see my job as reading a little deeper than others might, and then, through analysis and explication, sharing the joy of these discoveries with other readers in order to open up the possibility of new books and new perspectives on reading. I can think of nothing quite so pleasurable. If a book doesn’t work for me, and many books that I read don’t, I’ll leave it alone, pass on my review, and perhaps, attempt to return to the book at some point in the future when I’m more open to perceiving its merits. It may be that the book will never be right for me. It may even be that, objectively, the book is wrong for many readers. But somewhere, someone might love and connect deeply with that book, gaining a new perspective on their own world, and I won’t be a party to diminishing the chances of that happening.