The OF Blog: How do you know when you're wrong?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

How do you know when you're wrong?

That is a question that's been bugging me for a while. Yesterday, after I finished reading a post over at David Anthony Durham's site, I couldn't help but ask myself that same question. In an insular world in which opinions are a dime a dozen and the people expressing them show a kinship with the street corner preachers declaring the only true path, I wonder just how often we really permit ourselves to think of that one simple question: "What if I am wrong?"

I receive dozens of books each year for review purposes. While inevitably there are some books that get lost in the shuffle and will end up waiting months for me to read them, I do try my best to at least comment on the books that I have received. I don't always review them (for example, I need to take the time sometime soon to talk about D.M. Cornish's debut novel, Foundling, which I found to be a mostly charming read, although it was published in 2006), but I do try to comment on them.

But when I do force myself to get in the "proper mindset" for reviewing, there is always that nagging voice, questioning whether or not I grasped all the facets and nuances within the work. Do I just write a treacly bit praising a book to the high heavens and compare it to other great works, since that's what many readers want, these comparisons to the "flavors of the month"? Do I just utterly trash a novel for not meeting my expectations? After all, I must have a valid opinion, no?

Usually, in the end, I find myself trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. When I'm writing a review (or even a commentary such as this), it usually is after I have had some time to reflect not just on the novel's merits and defects, but also on my own state of mind and how I received it. Sometimes, I get excited when reading a story, thinking "this is it!," but after reflection and sometimes discussion with others who have read the work at hand, there are those little niggling faults that creep up, ultimately lowering my esteem for the story. Am I "wrong" in my thoughts? Should praise be something tempered with caution?

Very recently, I have read a few comments from other online reviewers that are almost literally gushing about this relatively new fantasy author's concluding volume to his first trilogy. Phrases such as "best trilogy conclusion since LotR!" or "leaves others in his dust" have cropped up in a few places here and there in anticipation of a book that won't be on sale for at least another month in one country and over half a year in another. My first reaction (mind you, I have only read the first book of this author and while it is one of those that I need to review at length soon, for now it will suffice to say that I found it to be solid, but nothing else) was "Oh, really? What makes you so sure of that?" After all, there have been "hot releases" that have suffered from the almost inevitable backlash that occurs when other readers read the work at hand and expect the Red Sea to part, only to discover that neither they nor the book can walk on water.

I am not guiltless of this hyperbole, but I also don't trash a book just because it's what "all the cool kids are doing" (for the record, my opinions regarding one ponytailed/bearded fantasy novelist have been known in some circles for many years before the numerous parody threads devoted to mocking him appeared on a few forums). After all, I could do a re-read and discover things that I missed the first time (Moby Dick and my readings of it at 16 and 23 being a prime example), things that might cause me to change my mind completely about the book at hand.

When I was a history grad student a little over ten years ago, we were instructed in our short (3-5 page double-spaced) reviews to not just summarize what the article/book was about, not only what the author did right/wrong, but also to concentrate on how we came to that decision and to be prepared to defend our conclusion. That is something that I wonder if people need to do more of when they are reading or discussing a book or author. "Is my point defensible? What are the weaknesses that could be pointed out by another?"

Readers are not infallible perceivers of a text; neither are the authors or the reviewers. All I can say in my defense when I review a book is that if I don't discuss something at length, it is either because I didn't "get" it, I didn't place much import on it, or I purposely left it out so as to not color another's impressions of the work. Sure, I want readers of my reviews to sample the books that I enjoyed. But I don't want them to feel as though they must see the text through my eyes or to have the same opinions as myself. I would rather have some pointed questions directed at what I didn't cover/failed to address adequately than to just receive a curt "good review!" After all, unqualified praise helps as little as does non-constructive criticism. I want to continue to improve as a reader and as a critic and I believe for that to occur, I have to, embrace the possibility that I missed things and that another point of view might have been more constructive.


Lawrence said...

I hear what you’re saying. Especially the fifth paragraph rings very true. It is all part of the hype I think. There have been some things bugging me, though. The ‘author summon’ is always great, don’t get me wrong, but in some instances it goes overboard a bit. I won’t mentioned any specifics, rather I based it more on some observations I’ve made on different forums here and there. From marketing point of view though, it is a smart move; I got to hand him that. Yet, I can’t completely shake the feeling there’s something shrewd behind it all.

Then again, I am a skeptical person by nature. Maybe the guy just likes to interact with his fans.

With regard to the other points you make, I pretty much agree with you there. There’s not necessarily something wrong with being enthusiastic about a book, you just got to be careful about taking on too many superlatives. You don’t want your review turn into an advertisement (this was actually good advice MattD gave me at FBS a while back). Sticking with a few well-chosen superlatives is often as effective I’ve found. In addition, the reader is less inclined to have the same opinions as the reviewer in question. Thus you avoid ‘the brain-washing’ effect.

Neth said...

Larry, why do you write reviews? What are your goals?

These are fairly key questions to your musings.

It may be a cop-out, but I don't present my reviews as anything more than my opinion. In that respect, my opinion is what it is and 'right' or 'wrong' doesn't really come in to play. Regardless of the 'correctness' of my opinions, they are real and valid as I express them and I think there is real value in that.

Larry said...

I write in order to learn more about myself and others via my reactions, which I never trust to be static. Although the "benefits" are nice (the ARCs, interviews, etc.), I review as a means of presenting something for a possible conversation.

Which is why I think I'm so skeptical about many claims. While I certainly will "recommend" something (and the closest I come to a "scale" is the word I put in front of "recommended"), it is always written with the implied caveat that others will not have the same types of reactions that I do.

Lawrence, you make a really good point there in your last paragraph. While I've seen a couple of my reviews pared down into a blurb-like copy, to my knowledge, that was only to highlight the review and not to sell books from that. I'd be uncomfortable if reviews of mine were quoted with "best...", "amazing...," etc. Which is why I do try, when possible, to cite extracts to let readers decide for themselves if they like it.

After all, I could be mistaken about quite a bit. That's a nice watchdog to have, no?

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