Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Trust No One

As if I don't already have enough "required reading" I recently joined a book group, mostly for social reasons but also to force me out of the crime fiction bubble and give me an excuse to dive into something more literary. Although this month's selection, Suite Francaise, was deemed a must miss, the discussion was lively, the people were intelligent, and it was a lot of fun to sit and talk about a book for a couple hours.

Later on, I asked one of the members about some of the other books that they had read. One was, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which is one of my favorite books this year. But saying this induced a grimace from my book club colleague and a "Really? You liked that book?" I know that grimace. I have given that grimace. But that expression got me thinking. In the subjective world of publishing, whose opinion can you trust? Can you even trust your own?

For every book that is loved by millions, there will be at least ten people who hated it. As a reviewer, it's not good to be one of those ten. I'll be honest and give an example: The Shadow of the Wind. Everyone I know loved it. I hated it. Why? I thought it was boring. That's all I could give. There was nothing wrong with the writing, the characters were fairly well-developed, but I, personally, did not enjoy it.

If I was reviewing that book, as always, I would be honest. But what would that mean for my credibility? Would everyone stop listening to my opinion because I clearly don't know what I'm talking about? Would it deter them from even reading the book? And the big question, would a review, good or bad, affect their opinion of the book, even after they had read it? The answer, to all the questions is, probably.

For instance: My mother recommends books and movies to me all the time. But she doesn't just say she liked them, she says, "Oh, it was phenomenal! You MUST watch/read it!" Some of her recommendations are good, some are okay, others are just bad. So what happens? She has lost credibility as a critic (sorry mom!). But when I mention a book and she says it was bad, it definitely deters me from reading it because, after all, this woman loves everything and if she thinks it's bad then I definitely won't enjoy it. Furthermore, any time my mother says anything, good or bad about a book or movie, it immediately affects my opinion. If she says it was bad, then I know it's bad. If she says it's phenomenal, then I'm still skeptical because she thinks lots of things are phenomenal. Or worse, when I think something is amazing and the says, "Eh, it was okay," I immediately start questioning my opinions and wonder if I'm becoming too lenient a critic. See how this works?

When it comes to books, movies, art, etc., everyone has their own opinion. The trick is finding someone who usually shares yours: a critic, a librarian, a friend. I believe that life is too short to read bad books, but sometimes you just have to find out which books are bad by reading them yourself. And while it's easy to be affected by other people's opinions, as a reviewer, I try to stay neutral and write what I honestly thought of a book, even if that puts me in that small group of ten.


Bill Crider said...

I felt the same way about Shadow of the Wind.

poingu said...

I really like what you wrote here, Dana. I feel like you both trust your instincts, and know that yours is just one opinion.
A lot of reviewers instead try to hammer the rest of us into thinking exactly as they do about a book, and I end up feeling bludgeoned instead of enlightened.