September 25, 2014

There's No Such Thing As Perfect


In my post on learning to trust your gut when it comes to reading, I talked a little bit about loving books that others don't. I thought about expanding on that idea - of not letting someone's negative opinion of a book you loved diminish your enjoyment of it - but I wasn't sure I could bring anything new to that conversation. But I did start thinking about something else: what about when other people dislike a book or criticize a book that you love for very valid reasons? Let me explain...

When I really love a book, 
I often look at critical reviews of it.

"WHAT?!" I can hear the collective gasps. I'd be willing to bet that a lot of people find that statement absolutely horrifying. When you really love something, who wants to hear bad things about it? Why would I actively, on purpose, seek out reviews where people have negative feelings about a book that I've loved? 

Before I explain, just know that I'm never seeking out critical reviews in order to:
  • Base my experience on someone else's experience
  • Try to "teach someone" that they're wrong / didn't get it
  • Start an argument or defend the book 
I've written a few critical reviews in the past that have gotten comments from other readers trying to tell me how I'm "wrong" about how I've felt. Listen, that is a waste of your time and mine. If I have gotten something factually incorrect (like a character's name or plot detail), it's one thing. But trying to convince someone they have experienced something incorrectly? Who made you the Supreme Ruler of Reading Reactions?

So, let's talk about why I do sometimes seek out critical reviews:

Typically, there are three reasons 
I'll look at critical reviews for books I love:

1. It can help me identify why I loved a book or what I connected to in it.
Do you ever love a book so much that you almost can't explain the reasons why? I often think it's easiest to write a review for a book I disliked because I can usually state why it didn't work for me. But when I'm really passionate about a book, it's like my brain is so overwhelmed with love that I just want to write: I loved this book for ALL THE REASONS.

Reading a critical review might help me understand my own feelings for a book. For example: someone may not like the way friendship is portrayed, but I might like it because it reflects a situation I've personally experienced. In this situation, a critical review can give me more insight into my own reaction to a book!

2. When it comes to recommending, I can better understand who may or may not like the book.
Reading is such a personal experience, and I've talked before about how no one will ever have the same experience with a book. You bring too much of your own story to a book for it another reader to ever experience it in exactly the same way! However, I do try personalize my book recommendations. 

I may love some books enough to push them on anyone and everyone, but usually I want the right reader to find the right book. So, I sometimes like to glance through critical reviews of my favorites to see what some of the common issues are with a book. For example: if I see lots of people mention they disliked the slow pace, then I would know that the book might not be right for people who prefer more action.

3. I can get another perspective and see issues that I might have missed.
Of the three reasons, I think this one is the most important to me. Personally, I will look at critical reviews so that I can see the book from another point of view. I only know what I know, and I don't know what I don't know. Certain books might be problematic for people in ways that go beyond something like writing style or pacing, and I might not be able to identify that on my own.

For example, maybe many readers felt that a book was sexist or racist. I might not not have picked up on it, so I want insight into what another person thought about it. Or maybe it's something that I noticed but couldn't fully express why it gave me pause. In both cases, a critical review can help me become more thoughtful about what I've just read and about the books I'll read in the future.

I may not always agree when I read another perspective. For example, someone might feel that a book condones a certain behavior whereas I might feel it just portrays that behavior. But what if I do? What if a critical review points out something that really is problematic about a book that I love?

I can love a book
and acknowledge that it has flaws.

Loving a book and acknowledging that it has issues aren't mutually exclusive. I can recognize that a book has problems and still love it. It can still be worth reading, and it can still teach me things about myself or the world around me. I see this most often with classics, but it can exist in anything I read.

Charles Dickens is an incredible writer, and yet I still remember being shocked by anti-Semitic comments in his books. L.M. Montgomery is one of my favorites, but she's written some things with horribly racist attitudes in them. I adore Gone With the Wind, but yes, it's racist. That's just three examples (and only of racism) - and just what immediately came to mind! There are many more examples, and it's not limited to books "from the past."

I like the idea the idea of engaging with the books I read - connecting to them and examining them. Sometimes that examination will reveal a books' flaws, but that's okay. I don't have to love it less because of it! I read mostly for enjoyment, so I don't really analyze everything I read... but there are some books that just call for discussion, that make me think, and often lead to some of my most memorable reading experiences.

4 comments:

  1. OK, first off, I think I'm coming from a bit of a different angle here. As someone who did a B.A. in English Lit and is now in the midst of a Master's in the same subject, criticizing literature is NOT new to me and is, in fact, COMPLETELY enjoyable. I love it. And I love doing it with both books I hated, and books I loved. And as you say, critiquing favourite books is not enjoyable because it's an exercise in goading someone else. Like you say, I like it because it introduces me to ideas I couldn't conceive of on my own; that adds to my understanding of the book, whether or not I agree with the critique. All that to say... I also don't really understand how some people are SO resistant to criticism of their favourite books. It seems very shortsighted to me, but again, maybe that's just because I've been trained out of it after 5 years of education.

    You would have made a good English major. :)

    P.S. It kind of breaks my heart a little bit each time I come across racism in Montgomery's work. :(

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  2. I think you raise some really important points here. I think reading criticism is a good thing and can certainly teach us more about our own thoughts and lead us to a fuller understanding of the novel as a whole.
    I guess the main reason I don't like reading too many critical reviews is that I've come across one too many that isn't constructive and provides no basis for negative opinions. Those sorts of reviews just leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. Rather than looking for alternate opinions of books I've recently read, I tend to seek out specific reviewers who can give fair, honest reviews of positive and negative book experiences.
    And that's such an important final message you make. Loving a book and recognizing its flaws is not only possible, but I think it makes you a stronger reader when you can do that.

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  3. I like this - you *can* love a book and still acknowledge that it has flaws. I completely agree that no book is perfect and sometimes critical reviews really can contribute to your enjoyment of the book.

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  4. Honestly, you've hit the nail on the head: it's not impossible to love a book and acknowledge it's flawed at the same time! While I have "loved" a ton of books, I'm always honest when I feel like there are things that aren't entirely perfect. The honesty is not a mark against a book; it's just a great way to identify what did/didn't work for you, and how that might affect potential readers in the future.

    As for reading critical reviews, I do that too! Some of my favorite bloggers and I have disagreed on books, but that doesn't mean I don't respect their views. It's interesting to see how they felt about certain elements and characters, and compare that to how I felt. When done right, a critical review is not an attack, but rather a thoughtful assessment of why this book didn't work for a particular reader... and I can get down with that.

    As always, I love your post, Hannah. Your discussions are always so thoughtful! You should teach me your ways ;)

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