Fat Books & Thin Women

Criticism and the Self
February 9, 2012, 3:10 pm
Filed under: meme, Ways of Writing | Tags: , , , ,

This post is a part of the Literary Blog Hop held by the great ladies over at The Blue Bookcase.

Every month The Blue Bookcase posts a new question for their Literary Blog Hop. This round, it’s a great one:

In the epilogue for Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman writes:

“It’s always been my theory that criticism is really just veiled autobiography; whenever someone writes about a piece of art, they’re really just writing about themselves.”

Do you agree?

Sometimes when I’m reading a book review – and often, when I’m reading a book review on a blog – I get the sense the reviewer is writing as much about the book as about him or herself. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about this on book blogs, though the minor “is it reviewing or reacting?” war (prompted in part by The Reading Ape’s post on the use of “I” in reviews) died down long ago. The question of how objective book reviews are, or should be, or can be, is going to stick around for as long as people are looking, slightly askance, at book blogs and what they mean about the deires of the reading community and the trajectory of professional book reviewing.

I wouldn’t go so far as Klosterman in that there is autobiography in every review; but often, of course, it’s there, even if unstated. When I review books I try to maintain some sort of critical distance. I don’t want these purported book reviews to be more a catalog of my latest woes, or of what I “felt” while reading. Sometimes, though it’s impossible to maintain that critical distance, or to deny the influence of autobiography on how I read and review a book. Would I have been so suspicious of Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea if I hadn’t been a Peace Corps Volunteer with some firsthand experience of the spectacular failures of foreign aid? Would I have rolled my eyes through most of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, if I didn’t have years of living abroad to teach me that no place and no culture is there to help us “discover” ourselves? Would I have identified so much with Krakeur’s writing on Alexander Supertramp if I couldn’t see some of those same desires to escape in myself? Probably not, and I tried to recognize that fact in all three reviews.

That said, because of the clear influence my own life had on my reading of those books, when I reviewed them I felt obligated to give some background to my reading. Those reviews, in many ways, are more reaction and autobiography than a consideration of the works for their literary merits (or lack thereof).

I think that Ben of Dead End Follies has it right when he writes that we need to find a place in the middle when we’re reviewing – neither too close to the work nor too far away. To read a review with bits of autobiography can be an illuminating experience, when it’s done well and when that autobiography is used to better color the experience of reading the book. But when autobiography is simply tossed into the review, when it stands in place of looking critically at a book, the so-called criticism becomes anything but – it becomes simply another tired entry in the journal of “what I read and why I kind of liked it.” As Ben writes:

I read an alarming number of book reviews on a weekly basis that have a “the characters really got to me”, “I could feel her inner turmoil” and “I really liked it” in the body of their argumentation. Right there, you’re saying nothing about the book and everything about yourself.

Done well, a review with touches of the autobiographical can make the criticism as worthy of reading and critique as the work it is addressing. Done lazily, though, it can do the opposite and make the “review” an exhausting trawl through someone’s baggage or inability to express him/herself without a string of modifiers. I try to keep myself out of my reviews because I’m not confident in my ability to write a piece of criticism that artfully mixes my own life with the novel I’m writing about. That’s why you won’t see too many “I think”s and “I feel”s, around this site. Sometimes, though, I do wonder if book blogs don’t provide the best venue for this sort of reviewing. If we read book blogs in large part because we’re attracted to the personality of the reviewer, what does my effort to exclude myself from my reviews mean about the “success” of the reviews I write here? Or is it, as Klosterman suggests, impossible for me to excise myself from my reviewing so cleanly as I think I have?

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Like Kyle Minor said, I think reading in itself AND writing are subjective processes, so that extracting yourself from it would be a mere fantasy. But there are works that require a little more rational thinking than others (FREEDOM for example) and other that prey on your inner fears, like the last book I reviewed EVERY SHALLOW CUT would require a more visceral reaction.

Well all that to say I basically agree with you,

Comment by Benoit Lelievre

I always put almost too much of myself in my reviews. I think that’s the whole point of my reviews sometimes is that they’re my own and so I can put out my blasted, ridiculous opinions because those are my thoughts. It’s almost the opposite of taking a distance.

However, I too have experiences like yourself in studying abroad and living abroad and you’re right. I had questions about the same books you mention (I do love Krauker, I still need to read his book on the football qb who went to Iraq – but all else I love. He did write a response to Three Cups of Tea if you haven’t read it called Three Cups of Deceit).

Anywhere, this is definitely a topic that people feel differently about and I think that’s a good thing. If not we’d all review the same correct? Sometimes I’m going to love a book that someone else loathes and that’s the life of the reviewer.

Comment by Cassie

I thought Three Cups of Deceit was fantastic. I’m trying to remember if I did a review of that, I may have. Even that circles back to my own experience – I’d been falling in love with his writing for about a year before he wrote that, and to have a writer I admired so much coming out against Mortensen’s organization did a lot to influence my opinion. I need to read “Where Men Win Glory,” too. I’d forgotten all about it till just now.

And you’re right, the variety of opinions, and also of writing and reviewing styles, it what makes reading and writing reviews so much fun. I love getting so many views on the books I’m reading; it adds a lot to my own reading experience.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I feel the same way actually. I always like to read a few reviews after I read the book just to see what other people thought about the same book. One of the books that I’m most different on is One Day by David Nichols. While it’s good writing, it’s a terrible book, in my opinion. But people on the blogosphere LOVED IT. No clue why…still.

I loved you response to this question by the way. I’ll have to read a few others.

Comment by Cassie

Oh, One Day…I read such a glowing review of it that I bought the book and started reading it the same day. I hated it. Like you said, the writing is fine but something about it had me caught between wanting to throw the book across the room and trying to read it as fast as possible, just to get it over with. (I never want to be one of those people who says, “I didn’t like the book because the characters were unlikeable”…but seriously, there was NO ONE I wanted to root for here. And the whole “Dex and Emma, Emma and Dex” thing they say in about every chapter drove me nuts.) I think I may have read one middling review of the book, but I felt like the only person in the blogosphere who looked it with such vitriol. I am glad now to know I’m not alone.

So this comment isn’t totally hateful, let me add that you have the best blog name I’ve ever seen. Two things that should be at the center of conversation every day.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I think that book blog reviews are inherently different than more formal reviews. Not to say that formal reviews can’t be personal but that book blog reviews almost need to be. A blog is a reflection of the person, and those reviews are naturally tied to that image/reflection of the blogger.

For the most part, I try to keep a distance in my reviews, but there are moments when I feel I have to ‘fess up. Recently I reviewed Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me, and there was something deeply personal that completely changed my opinion of the book. It was a memoir, and it rang untrue and nearly insulting. I needed to share that for the reader to understand my intense reaction to the book.

However, that is rarely the case for me, and I try to steer clear of this as much as possible. It’s a difficult line because when I began blogging, my reviews were much too academic, and no one really responded to them in any way. I feel I’ve reached a comfortable level in divulging bits of my life when writing a more reader-centric review.

Comment by jenn aka the picky girl

I searched out that review so I could see what you meant, and I see why you wrote the review the way you did. I had such a clear picture of where you were coming from, as a reader, and why the book didn’t work for you. What I liked about it was that it gives the reader of the review a lot to identify with…I suspect more people who might read the book would identify with your world, where someone who has a maid and whose mother is working as a secretary needs to suck it up and quit whining about being “poor.”

I love that you mention the reader-centric review. I had totally forgotten about that, although the Reading Ape did all those posts focused on that idea a while back. I’m not sure that I succeed at writing reviews more focused on the reader than on myself, but it’s something to aspire to. Book blogs give us such a fantastic opportunity to rethink the way we write and read reviews, and I love how, even when the reviewer isn’t being out-and-out autobiographical, we can get a sense of them and their personality, by reading their reviews over the long-term.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Great post, I love reading the different opinions on this question. I think now a days an answer is even trickier because there are so many different types of “critics” who each may be trying to achieve a very different thing. I don’t think criticism is limited to sterile, technical writing from lit scholars. Or at least were it is, I’m not interested in it!

Comment by Shannnon

I think you’re wrong. You’re absolutely present in your reviews, even if you don’t start every other sentence with “I think.” If you were writing “pure” literary criticism, I probably wouldn’t be reading. You just manage to inject yourself without making it about yourself, which I think should be the goal.

Comment by Jennifer Maurer

Okay, I see what you mean. I guess I should have thought a little more about making some distinction between an “autobiographical” review and a review that shows, to some degree, my personality and way of looking at books. I like your phrasing, of being in the review but not making the review about yourself. Thinking more about it, there are some great blogs, like Books are My Boyfriends, where you can get such a clear sense of the reviewer’s personality; but the reviews don’t delve into autobiography.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Word! Great response. Thanks so much for participating in the hop. And thanks for linking to the Reading Ape “I” post. What an interesting discussion.

I agree with you that there needs to be balance between the self and the criticism. It’s a difficult place to find.

Comment by Christina

My balance has shifted over time, but I’m moving more away from the distanced/professional review. I don’t blog for work, to get into the industry, or any of those reasons–I blog to talk books with other book lovers. So yes, I’ll be discussing characters and writing, but I think it’s also important to know the reviewer to really understand their reaction.

I enjoyed your post. :)

Comment by Melody @ Fingers & Prose

That’s one of the things I love most about book blogs, getting to know the reviewers. I still read professional reviews occasionally, but I’m generally more interested in what these people, whose blogs I’ve been reading for the past year and a half, are reading. I’ve found so many books that I probably never would have picked up, if they hadn’t been recommended by someone whose opinions I’d come to trust.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I needed to read this. Thank you! You and I approach reviews the same, I think. At least, I relate much to your way of thinking.

I’ve been struggling with whether or not my adding “a review” at the end of my post titles is legit. I feel as though I’m really writing my experience reading the book rather than a review. But someone once told me that that’s simply another way to review: the NYTBR is not the only definition of book reviews, for instance.

I struggle too because I wonder if subjective pieces, in which bloggers tell about themselves by revealing their thoughts, taste, and emotions, are valid as reviews, as you mention.

Yet, I think this is the defining difference between book bloggers and “professional” reviewers. And to be honest, I also think sometimes our treatments of books are better written and at least give you more on which to go when deciding whether or not to read or buy a book, whether it’s subjective or not. The conscientious blogger will not write only her conclusion (I liked or disliked) but also include reasons why, which become the things I consider either when choosing to read a book or while reading.

You know?

Comment by Steph

Sometimes I feel the same way when I label a post as a “review”, to the point that I’ll skip it occasionally. You know, call it a “reaction” or something, whenever I start slipping into autobiographical mode. It’s hard to move away from this very traditional idea of what a review is/should be, even when we recognize that the NYTmes Book Review isn’t the only acceptable style.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about the fact that I prefer blogger reviews to professional ones, at this point, but I’ve never really thought about why. I think you nailed it – it’s because, 99% of the time, when I read a review on a blog, I know whether the blogger liked it or not. And because I can compare our reading and review histories, I can get a good sense of whether I’ll like the book, too. Sometimes when I read the Sunday Book Review section at the Times, I end up feeling like I’ve gotten plot summaries of all these novels, but I don’t always know if they’re GOOD or not; and other times, I really just want more analysis, more review, and a little less on the plot.

(Which, maybe not coincidentally, is one of the things I always worry over when I’m writing a review. How much space to devote to reviewing the plot and characters? How little can I get away with explaining, and have the review still be understandable to someone who hasn’t read the book?)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I think that personal experience is an important part of a review — at least a blog review, which in my mind is different from a professional review. Since you’re going to be influenced by your experience every time you read a book, it’s better to think about how those experiences influence your opinion and be up front about it. When I review I like to think about why a certain book either resonated with me or why I might have hated it and an equally intelligent reader might have loved it. One Day is a good example of a book like that. Goon Squad is another. I feel like my age sometimes has a big impact on how I read, so shouldn’t the reader know that?

And, some books just impact you more emotionally than others. I appreciated your example of Krakauer’s book, which is one of my favorites.

Comment by curlygeek04

I hadn’t thought about this much before, but I draw a distinction between the bloggers who, as you say, are up front about how their experiences have influenced their reading, and those who never approach the question. Really, it’s just a question of who is thinking about their thinking, and who isn’t. I find reviews that are too self-absorbed to be dull, and always not real useful when it comes to understanding the book; but reviews that are able to explain the book through the indvidual experience of reading it, those can be interesting and more illuminating than a sort of rote by-the-books review. In the vein of your readings being impacted by age, I love reading about people’s rereads, because those sorts of reviews are able to delve into the ways a reading shifts based on familiarity with the text, and on life experience.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Thank you. Youve covered this in more depth than most other sites I have seen.

Comment by Wayne

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