Any ideas I had for a coherent blog post today have been bulldozed by a bit of a slaughtering my poor old Colette essay received at the hands of a reader. If I’d been twenty-two and on the receiving end of a diatribe, I’d have been crushed. But thankfully at 42, I care a lot less these days about what people think of me. I can’t tell you what a relief this is. And I’ve seen a lot of criticism come and go, and always there’s valuable information there, even if it isn’t couched in the terms one might have preferred. The really slamming pieces often say more about the critic than the object of criticism, and in this case, it was the fact that I am, or used to be, an academic that lit the blue touch paper. I don’t know this reader at all (it was a writing group thing), but he said he’d googled me and that seemed to really set him off. I’m so curious as to why academia provokes such strong reactions in people. I’ve come across it before and it’s very perplexing. I mean, the things I hear, you’d think we butchered firstborn babies at dawn, rather than just write in a slightly annoying style.
I’m sure the guy had no idea that what he had written would come across so hostile. It’s very, very easy to go too far when making criticisms, well beyond what the person they are aimed at can hear. I’ve said it before: constructive criticism is an art. It’s easy to be right, but difficult to be helpful, as the two are really quite different. Telling people they are doing something wrong actually achieves nothing (although the person doing the telling may get some relief from venting, or from feeling in possession of superior knowledge, neither of which is pretty). Usually the person is well aware they have done the wrong thing; what we all hope for in that situation is to be treated with compassion.
I’ve only written one crotchety review here this year, and after this I regret it. I knew there’d come a time when I regretted it, even when I was writing it. I think I could have done better than just bleat about my prejudices. Are other people beset by doubts when they have been critical of something? I almost always am, but then I’ve been on the receiving end and seen too many people completely shaken in their self-belief because of unnecessarily harsh critiques. I think there ought to be a law that you’re only allowed to give it if you can take it. There ought to be a sort of right to reply system, whereby authors of books we’ve hated come round and hate us right back. It would be enlightening, I think. I’m not saying that you can’t identify the flaws in something, only that there are better ways and worse ways of doing so.
Anyway, in reading, this week has been busy and I’ve not got as much read as I’d hoped. I have almost finished Eça de Queiros’s The Crime of Father Amaro, which is a nineteenth century Portuguese version of The Thorn Birds. It’s been very interesting, and a study in how to keep a book engaging despite having a cast of unsympathetic characters. A proper review will be forthcoming next week. I’m still working my way through The Rossetti’s in Wonderland, which needs a bit of peace and concentration to get the best out of it. What an extraordinary family they were, though! Much to tell you all about there. I have retrieved Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities from the shelves and it looks like being one of those books that slow you down. You have to enter the world and go at its pace, which is good for the fast-approaching winter, where slowing down is necessary. On top of it on the pile is James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, looking like a tiny weed of a book alongside the big bruiser that is Musil’s tome. But it’s been a long week, and I think I may well end up with a soothing book on the weekend. E.M. Forster, or Elizabeth von Arnim, maybe, either sounds lovely. Hope everyone has some nice, relaxing weekend plans!