Friday Musings

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!


17 thoughts on “Friday Musings

  1. I’d say you’re in need of something soothing to read 🙂 E.M. Forster or von Arnim should fit the bill nicely. I often turn to something from a simpler time when I’m fed up with the modern world – like Barbara Pym.

    It’s very easy to be sharply critical of someone else’s work when you’re online and rather anonymous. That’s one of the pitfalls of internet communication – we do lose some of our natural sense of human nicety, and little enough of that seems to remain as it is!

  2. you’d think we butchered firstborn babies at dawn, rather than just write in a slightly annoying style.

    This made me laugh, although it sucks that you got unnecessarily harsh criticism. You’re so right that giving constructive criticism is an art form, and a difficult one.

    I am torn on the issue of writing negatively about books in a more decentralized way (a blog rather than a direct piece of workshopping with the author). On the one hand, I’m very aware that blogs are a public forum, and the author, or simply a reader who deeply loves the book I hated, could very well happen along and read what I’ve written. So I try to be compassionate. On the other hand, as women we have been socialized to prioritize being “nice girls” over expressing any negativity, and I believe strongly that that’s harmful and anti-feminist. Negative experiences are an important part of life and people should be able to talk about them. So when I write negativity I just try to keep it respectful and also try to identify as well as I can what I consider an objective flaw in the piece versus what just doesn’t work for me personally (as much as objectivity is a problematic yardstick, I do think a distinction can be drawn there). And I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m generally pretty good at picking out books I’ll end up enjoying, and when I slip up it’s because there have been so many positive reviews from other people.

  3. Amazing, he googled you and that made him react. That’s very odd. It had nothing to do with what you wrote. Constructive criticism is difficult but when something is really bad, one should be able to say it. It’s hard to find out whether that is really the motive behind our criticism and that the biggest problem. People are often self-delusional and when you don’t know your (hidden) motives you can be very unjust. Slightly off topic – Hope you got my mail I had some gmail issues.

  4. If the crochety review is the one I think it is, it was the nicest negative review I’ve ever read! And ‘bleating about your prejudices’ was a very fair way of presenting your criticisms. But I know what you mean, I once wrote something negative about a book I’d otherwise enjoyed and even now I experience a twinge when I think of it, especially as I didn’t reason it out at all. Still, I think that Emily and Caroline are right and if we all censor ourselves and write only positive things, we create a false world (not that I think that’s what you’re advocating).

    It would be great if everyone could be kind in their constructive criticism but most of us just don’t manage it. Worse, a savage review can be cruelly entertaining; I think sometimes newspapers pick reviewers who will hate a book and skewer it for this very reason. All we can do, I suppose, is fight against it in our own writing and point it out when we come across it (kindly, of course!).

    I am desperate for you to start on the Musil as I plan to read it too in the future and I’m keen to know what you think of it… No pressure…

  5. I’m always plagued by self-doubt when I say a negative thing about a book. In almost all of my negative posts, I’m careful to say, like, this is the problem I had with the book but I have X and Y prejudices so probably it was just me and if you are different you’ll probably love it. I’m conscious that I’m being silly in a way, but in another way I always try to think how I would feel in that situation. Or, possibly, I am hedging my bets so that nobody can accuse me of being a hater, because my argument can always be, Hey, this is just the response I had!

  6. Sorry to hear about the attack! I’m glad you are in a place where you can see it as saying less about you and more about the critic. And I agree about the oddity of the hate-on-academics thing. Who knows what personal anxieties lie at the root of that–for the hater, that is, not you. Bad grades in college?

    Like Emily, I have conflicting feelings about negative reviews, but in the end I think it’s not right to shy away from negative criticism, though it seems important to be thoughtful about why I don’t like something and not just to rant. Sometimes books you don’t like are the ones you learn the most from, too, including about yourself as a reader, so if I never wrote about them, that would be a loss to my reading and thinking life. But though I don’t usually worry about negative comments about well-established writers (witness my Eugenides review this month at OLM!), I have been feeling more sensitive lately about writers who I imagine are more vulnerable to criticism, perhaps because things like social media blur the boundaries between me and them a little. I read a novel recently by a writer I’m quite interested in and whose previous book I liked a lot, but I thought this one fell quite flat–and I haven’t written it up on the blog yet because I’m sorry about that. I follow the writer on Twitter, which has made me more aware of her as a “real” person with feelings! Something about the informality of that medium makes it harder to feel confident about the critical distance I used to assume. But I write up pretty much every book I read, usually, so I’m a little troubled at my own reluctance to be honest about this one.

  7. So sorry to hear that someone was nasty about your work. It takes a thick skin to put your work out for others to see, but still it is hard to take criticism–let alone when it is not meant helpfully. I always wonder how people feel after doing that–terribly empowered and clever? I’d feel awful. I think people should be able to be critical, but as long as it is done tactfully and fairly. There’s nothing worse than slamming someone’s work just because they have their own agenda or out of meanness. Just remember that for that nasty comment there were probably far more readers who thought your essay was well done–of course it is the nasty comment that will stick out unfortunately. I’d totally choose a nice soothing to help get your mind back in focus on more positive things.

  8. I’m really glad you took this nasty criticism with the adequate distance. Obvioulsy something entertaining should me on your program to take your mind off it. The Rossettis book seems quite fascinating, I look forward to your review!

  9. LL – It’s a strange thing, that critiquing business, thus some are extraordinary critics (Trilling, etc) and others should be kicked out of the critique club, so to speak. There’s such a balance there between being effective critic and being a jerk. We know the latter exists and still such an individual can catch us by surprise. The great thing is that you press on, know who’s who in the zoo and continue to write/publish. It’s so important; it’s so important to write and share.

    As for reading as the season shortens and darkens, oh, what bliss to read. Part of “cleaning” the house this weekend will involve moving books around to appropriate tables near the couches so that I can snuggle in and read – from the “immediate” short TBR stack to the seasonal favorites including Dickens and Wharton. (so predicable, I am!)

    Keep us current on your writing life, too!

  10. Becca – Barbara Pym is a very good call! In the end I began the Elizabeth von Arnim, and it is quite wonderful (as she always is). You are so right that the internet can lead people into bad ways. And there’s such a vogue for harsh criticism, a la Simon Cowell. When you really listen to him nowadays you realise that he has about five things he says over and over. I’m all for human nicety – it’s one of our very best qualities! You certainly have it in spades.

    Emily – your reviews are always so thoughtful and so intelligently constructed that I don’t think you stand a chance of falling into the cesspit of negative critique that I’m unhappy with here. But I would probably draw more of a distinction than you between a feminist awareness that women are too often obliged to be ‘nice’ and ‘compliant’ and a critic’s concern for what makes interesting, significant criticism in the field of the arts. As a woman, I want to be able to tell my husband when he’s annoyed me, or to stand up for social injustice where I find it. But as a critic, I want to do something far more interesting than just base a review on my value judgement. But there is bound to be some overlap in these roles, and I’d never say negative criticism wasn’t an option – sometimes it’s essential.

    Caroline – it IS difficult to figure out where the negativity is coming from when we stumble across a book that’s deeply annoying. I mean, there are plenty that I read and don’t like. For the purposes of this blog, I find I have a lot more to say, and a lot more of interest, when I like a book, so my inclination is to stick with the good reads. On the other hand I’d never tell anyone they couldn’t write exactly what they wanted, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a negative critique. Better to be honest, always. I just don’t like the sort of critique that says a book is rubbish because it doesn’t fall into the kind of category of books that the reviewer likes. That just strikes me as a lazy response. But you’re very right that sometimes it can be impossible to know where the negativity comes from, and to see clearly into our minds.

    Amateur Reader – I am so glad that I joined your challenge and read this book. It was very enjoyable and extremely interesting, too. My review just went up – hope you are getting near the end now. I really want to know what you think of it!

    Helen – the media is one of the main sources of negative criticism as a witty, funny sort of thing that has no regard for the feelings of others. Sometimes they do it well, and sometimes I find myself wincing at the unreasonable bitterness and brutality. You know what I mean? You read an article and really wonder whether the writer ought to be in therapy for his evident envy and narcissistic posturing! For some reason, your comment makes me think of Mister Litlove telling me about a trick Derren Brown played in a recent programme. He was following the movements of a man via video, going about his daily life, and he asked the audience to decide what should happen to him. Should he go home and find he’d won £10,000 or should he be kidnapped by louts? The audience decided en masse that he should be kidnapped. What happened instead was that, as the louts chased him, he ran out into the road and was run over. It looked like the prank had gone really wrong and the audience was stunned and uncomfortable. Derren Brown then explained that the ending had been staged – nothing had happened to the man really. But he wanted to show them how quickly mob rule takes over groups, and that when they are offered a choice between positive or negative events happening to others, they invariably choose the negative and become very brutal and vindictive. I thought that was really intriguing. On another note, as for Musil – I’ve begun! I started it yesterday and am about 40 pages in – very intriguing indeed so far.

    Lokesh – oh bless you. I must retrieve your email address from my yahoo account as I owe you a little note.

  11. Jenny – I am very much aligned to your perspective here! I always think: is this really the most interesting thing I can say about this book? That the characters didn’t behave in the way I wanted? Or that I didn’t like it for vague reasons? Stephen Fry made me laugh once by saying for him it was a theological problem. God had given the critic eyes and ears and a brain to think with, and the best he could do was say ‘this doesn’t work on all levels’? Your posts are always so funny and so engaging that I always like every book you discuss in any case.

    Rohan – I think it’s an admirable thing – that you are bothered by a question of ethics in your criticism, and it’s always good to be forced to slow down and look at what we do (and why) from a different angle. It is so much harder to be harsh on someone we know than on a stranger. That’s surely worth thinking about when it comes to critique. But in this instance it sounds to me as if there may just be less to say about this particular book, and that it isn’t worth a whole blog post. For me, I always appreciated the academic insistence (at Cambridge at least) that value judgements have no place in literary criticism simply because they are not very interesting. How a book worked, the questions it raised, the ideology it challenged, the symbols and devices it used, the moral universe it constructed, these were the interesting things, not whether some random person had read it and liked it. That’s how it holds together in my mind, but at the same time, I would never suggest that people couldn’t say negative things if they felt compelled to do so, and they might, after all, be full of interest and significance sometimes. It always boils down to what is really worth saying, don’t you think? As for that weird hate-on academics thing – oho, all sorts of inferiority complexes get stirred by intelligence. In the UK it is regarded with huge suspicion. Which is a shame, when you think of all the things that really ought to be regarded with suspicion but manage to stay buoyant in the public imagination. Ah well, prophets in their own country and all that!

    Danielle – you bring up another important point there, which is that the bad stuff sounds much louder than the good. It seems to be human nature to pay far more attention to the negative, which makes me feel that we should be careful when we use it, considering the weighting. I can’t say I have a thick skin, exactly, but I have mercifully had a lot of experience and am developing (in my 40s) a sort of stubborn resistance to people who clearly want to bring me down. Well, it works most of the time! I completely agree that tactful criticism is great. I mean, I really do want to know what’s wrong with something I’ve written. But really harsh criticism actually doesn’t tell you – it gives you nowhere to go. But I’ll be fine, it’s not really a big deal in this instance. And the Elizabeth von Armin book I am reading is a treat!

    Smithereens – thank you! And the Rossetti book is fascinating – big though, 400+ pages, which is why it’s taking me a while to get through. Expect a review in the week.

    oh – you really are such a sweetie. Who’s who in the zoo made me laugh – that’s such an apt description, as was the distinction between the helpful critics and the jerks! lol! It’s all a matter of bearing those grounded realisations in mind, isn’t it? And knowing you can learn from everything if you put your mind to it. I couldn’t agree more that the great compensation of autumn and winter is the amount of reading time they offer. We’ve had a very grey weekend and I have spent as much of it as possible curled up with books. Bliss! Hope you found your comfy reading corner too!

  12. Litlove, that trick by Derren Brown is really interesting in lots of ways isn’t it? Not just in terms of exposing mob mentality but also how easy it is to forget that other people cannot see inside your head, do not know what you know, that because you know something is a joke doesn’t mean someone else does and doesn’t excuse the suffering… Which waffly point reminds me, the second sentence in my comment above is awful, sorry, it looks as if I think that your calling your very sensitive analysis of your reserverations about that book ‘bleating about your prejudices’ was fair, when I meant your analysis was fair, and definitely not ‘bleating’. (Not sure I’ve made that any clearer…)

    Isn’t there a perhaps apocryphal story about Jeannette Winterson turning up on a critic’s doorstep after a harsh review? I don’t know if the review was unkind or just not very flattering, but I always felt quite a lot of sympathy for JW, if this were true.

  13. It’s good that you have a sense of perspective about the overly enthusiastic reader of your paper. You don’t do the baby sacrifices there at dawn? I thought all universities did and I was just too lazy to get up and attend the ones where I work 😉 As for writing negative reviews, I can’t say I agree with a policy of only write positive reviews or don’t write anything at all. If I don’t like a book I have to be honest and say so but like others have said, I try to do it in a respectful way and try to explain why the book didn’t work for me being fully aware that someone else might decide it is the best book they have ever read. You’ve got lots of good reading going on. I didn’t see Memoirs of Hadrian on that list anywhere though. Did you finish it and will be writing about it soon? I am so looking forward to reading what you thought of it.

  14. Litlove, I also love, as some have mentioned above, the line “It’s easy to right, but difficult to be helpful.” So wise, you are. 😉 I just sent my novel to a 20-time published novelist, a NY Times Bestseller, and among other things, he said my writing was careless. Of course, I would have loved to have heard it was good, but frankly it was helpful to just have somebody say “look again at this.” He is probably right in more ways than I want to admit. I think it is such an art to take criticism, and I try to remind myself that every time I get it. But it’s hard, especially when the other person often has some personal bone to pick or grievance to air that is at best tangential to you and your work. Thanks for this post.

  15. Helen – first of all, no need to apologise! I knew exactly what you meant 🙂 And so glad you thought the Derren Brown thing interesting – it fascinated me, and you’re so right that we are more invisible than we think. I hadn’t heard that about Jeanette Winterson, but it is SO possible and I just wish I could have been a fly on that particular wall! She’s got a quick and intriguing intellect, I think. Oh and dying to read her new memoir about being adopted.

    Stefanie – lol! Well, you know, those baby sacrifices are VERY exclusive! I quite agree that people should be able to write negative reviews if they feel that way. I’m interested myself only in what seems interesting (if you’ll forgive the tautology), so if people make a negative review interesting, either by exploring their feelings or the book at a deeper level, then that seems fine to me. Oh but poor Yourcenar…. she’s sort of dropped off my radar. But I WILL get back to her, promise.

    Melissa – ah yes, now that’s exactly the sort of thing I mean. Might you have felt more enthused if the novelist had suggested you look more closely at something, or add more detail, or check that all your sentences were of the same standard as those in chapter x, or whatever? I find my students are much happier if criticism comes couched as a task they can get their teeth into. Or if they feel that some of their work is good and has potential, and other parts need working up, then that is fine too. It is amazing how off-putting some dismissive remarks can be. At the university there are seminars available for students on how to use feedback, which are very helpful, I think, as it reminds them it IS feedback and to be used, not slander designed to destroy their confidence (although frankly sometimes the academics here seem ignorant of the distinction….) Good luck using your feedback – I have every faith in you.

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