Sunday Salon: Are All Opinions Equal?

There’s been a lot of discussion around the book blogging world lately about disagreement—whether it’s possible in the online world to disagree politely and honestly, but passionately. (See for example, these posts at Wuthering Expectations, Tales from a Reading Room, and Ready When You Are, C.B.) I for one love it that most book bloggers and commenters are more interested in finding areas of agreement than areas of disagreement, but I do find value in divergent views. The question, however, that some of the discussion has raised in my mind is whether, when there is a disagreement, one view is more valid than another.

It’s easy enough to write off most disagreements over books as mere differences of opinion and taste. One person likes lots of action, another prefers slow, contemplative reads. Of course their views on specific books differ. That doesn’t make one wrong and the other right. It just makes them different.

Sometimes, however, people dismiss these differing preferences, saying that people like trashy novels because they don’t know any better or that they like classics and award-winners only because they think they’re supposed to, not out of a genuine passion. This is one of the reasons that I enjoy conversations about why people like or dislike books. When I learn that a friend enjoys trashy novels for the mental break they provide, I can’t argue with that. Nor can I argue with someone’s affection for books I find incomprehensible when I realize that this reader has more knowledge of or experience with the type of book in question. Maybe I could grow to like it too. (But then maybe I don’t want to.)

Not all bookish disagreements take the form of differences in preference, however. Sometimes people disagree on what constitutes good plotting or three-dimensional characterization. One person’s purple prose is another person’s lush use of language. The two readers might in theory look for the same kinds of things in their books, but they disagree on whether particular books meet their standards. Is one reader wrong and another right? Or is this something that is purely subjective?

Then there are the opinions that seem clearly wrong. For example, I remember a discussion of Jane Eyre in a college class in which it seemed that every single member of the class saw the ending as depicting an abandonment of the Christian faith. Jane chose not to be a missionary; therefore, Jane abandoned her faith. Period. No need to examine it more. I was at the time too nonconfrontational to take on the argument, especially since the professor seemed to agree, but I believed then, and believe today, that this was a misreading of the text. My classmates had an opinion, and I think that opinion was based on incorrect assumptions about Christianity, a skeptical dismissal of Jane’s prayer near the end of the book, and a failure to engage with the final moments of the novel. In short, their opinion was wrong. (Of course, my own opinion is colored my how my love of the novel is inextricably linked with my own faith, so there is some bias there on my part. But I still think my classmates were wrong.)

In some respects, this raises the question of critical authority. Should some people’s opinions carry more weight? I know I’ve found that some readers’ opinions don’t carry as much weight with me because they don’t have the same level of experience I do with certain kinds of books. Someone reading a Victorian novel for the first time might indeed find it too much a slog to see any value in it, but I’ve read so much of it that it tends to feel fluid and natural. Our differences in background lead to different conclusions.

Newspaper critics might say that their views are more objective and therefore more worth listening to than that of the typical blog reviewer. (See this recent post at Vulpes Libris for some insightful musings on this question.) I for one don’t believe that there is such a thing as a totally objective book review, whether in a newspaper or on a blog or in an academic journal. We are all guided not only by our own preferences, but by own our backgrounds, experiences, and moods at the time of reading. One of the things I like about blogs is that we have the freedom to own our subjectivity, to say that our own mental state or level of knowledge or personal biases and interests might color our views of a book. I love that about blogs. That openness enables me, as a reader of blog reviews, to pick apart the subjective and the objective elements of a review and better decide whether a book will suit me.

Print reviewers and academic critics may go through the same mental process trying to decide how much of their judgment has to do with the book and how much to do with themselves as they craft their reviews and articles, but much of that thinking remains in the background. Unless the particular critic is one I’ve read for a long time and whose tastes and biases I understand (and to be honest, I don’t read enough print reviews to have any favorites), I can’t always be sure when bias has played a role unless that critic explains his or her reasoning extremely well—and many do. However, the fact that a critic’s review has been printed in a newspaper or magazine doesn’t necessarily make their opinion any more or less valid or objective than that of a blog reviewer.

What do you think? Do some opinions have more merit than others? Can an opinion be wrong? Is there such a thing as objectivity when writing about books?

As for my reading this week, I’ve finished He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope for the Classics Circuit (post to come this Thursday. I’ve also just finished with The Right Stuff, which I enjoyed a lot. Today I plan to start The Belgariad by David Eddings, which I’ve heard great things about, although I’m starting to wonder if I’ve lost my taste for fantasy, given how little I liked The Summer Tree and how uninteresting most fantasy books sound these days. My current audiobook is Resistance by Agnès Humbert, a memoir about the French Resistance during World War II, which I’m enjoying, but there are some quality issues with the audiobook (sudden changes in volume, extra-long chapters that make back-tracking impossible).

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57 Responses to Sunday Salon: Are All Opinions Equal?

  1. At the risk of this sounding like a total cop-out, I think we each decide which opinions carry more weight. So to me, no, not all opinions are created equal, but yet another person might weigh those exact same opinions differently.

    And while I’ve definitely thought that people have read certain books the wrong way, if the text at all supports it, then maybe they really haven’t.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree with you that we all have to decide for ourselves whose opinions have more weight, especially when it comes to questions of taste. And yes, many texts do support multiple interpretations, but I like to see that textual support.

  2. Nymeth says:

    An excellent post, Teresa! While I don’t believe in objectivity in book reviewing, I do believe that a text can be misread (and for the record, this non-believer agrees with you about Jane Eyre). Sometimes those misreadings arise from ignorance (cultural, historical or just general), from personal prejudices, or from the reader overlooking certain aspects of the book. Then again, as Amy says, it all depends on what the text does or doesn’t supports. It can happen that a reading that goes against by every gut feeling isn’t actually contradicted by what is there in the novel, and in that case there isn’t much I can say.

    I’ve noticed that many of the situation in which I find myself thinking “You’re reading it wrong!” are the result of the reviewer and I having completely different worldviews. They’re interpreting the book through the same lens they use to interpret life in general, so what we disagree about is actually much more general/abstract/philosophical than just a novel – and also more difficult to have a debate about.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes! I think that world view difference you mention is fascinating. It came up in the Jane Eyre discussion. Several people argued that the moment when Jane heard Rochester’s voice could not be an answer to prayer, because Rochester did cry out to her. This gave them a “natural” explanation that fit their skeptical worldview. They never could quite explain how his voice carried–the power of love or some such? At any rate, it couldn’t have been divine providence because they refused to admit to the possibility of some such thing, even in the fictional world of a novel.

  3. Great post! I’ve been grappling with this concept a lot lately. I just read an interview with a poet and writing teacher who focuses on self-hood and spirituality, and she was making the argument that there is no such thing as a “good” poem or a “bad” poem. If it moves one reader, it is good, she argues. But the quasi-elitist in me wants to take issue. I want to say that the poems I wrote as a middle-schooler may have moved me to tears, but they were not good poems. And to argue that all poetry is good poetry (or all novels are good novels, etc) is to dilute the value of all literature. Isn’t it? If someone reads a “bad” book to escape, that person is not at fault or a “bad” person, but we can still hope he or she will one day experience a “good” book and be changed by it, right?

    • Teresa says:

      I too have a hard time with the idea of seeing all literature as equally good. I have no problem with people reading and writing things that I don’t think are much good because even not very good works may serve a purpose for somebody (as your middle school poems did for you).

      But even though I’d love for everyone to read high-quality books (provided that the definition of quality is broad enough to include many genres and styles), I don’t mind that some people don’t. There are lots of areas where I could improve my taste or appreciation but choose not to. If some folks would rather focus on something besides reading for intellectual or creative stimulation, that’s fine by me, really.

  4. There is no such thing as objectivity when it comes to books and, indeed, the arts—these are works whose goal is to make you feel something; while there are some basic technical requirements, there’s a point when it becomes personal opinion.

    As an English major, I’m being trained as a literary critic, and I delight in discovering all the different ways a story can be read. But I do think there can be some misguided readings; for instance, I think a reading of The Chronicles of Narnia that ignores the Christian subtext is thoroughly misguided, as the Christian subtext is, in fact, text.

    However, the fact that a critic’s review has been printed in a newspaper or magazine doesn’t necessarily make their opinion any more or less valid or objective than that of a blog reviewer.

    Amen. I tend to find book bloggers to be a more honest bunch; usually, in any given review, I find that a book blogger will admit and address her biases without undermining her own opinion.

    • Teresa says:

      The Narnia example is interesting because I do know people who never picked up on the Christian elements until someone told them those elements were there. So it’s possible to read the books without seeing that, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are there. But a person doesn’t have to see everything in a text to get something out of it, which is one of the wonderful things about reading and rereading.

      I did know someone years ago who thought the Narnia books were a parody of Christianity. He was laughing at Christians who embraced the books (“Don’t they know they’re being made fun of?” was his remark.) Now *that* is a misguided reading!

  5. What a fabulous and thoughtful post, Teresa! I’d never thought to read Jane Eyre the way your classmates did (perhaps because I come to it from a non-religious background) and find their interpretation fascinating. Like you, though, I’m not persuaded. I must spend the afternoon reading through some of it again!

    I love having arguments over books with my partner David. He’s brilliant and I respect his opinions immensely–but we have fairly different perspectives on books. (For example, he looks for the optimistic stuff and I for the depressing stuff.) Often I make assumptions and he makes assumptions about what is actually in the text, each of us sure that what we have seen in a book is what is there. But through dialogue, we see a broader picture. I love that blogs are doing the same thing for me!

    • Teresa says:

      I do love hearing other peoples’ perspectives. It broadens my own view so much, and sometimes helps me see things I missed.

      And what’s interesting about the Jane Eyre situation was that I think most of the people were coming at it from a nonreligious background and couldn’t accept that a smart woman would also be a Christian so they needed Jane to give up her faith so that they could love the book. (At least that’s the bias that I read into the discussion.)

      • Very cool. I read it with my historical interests in disability and gender, and the idea that there was anything to be said about religion one way or the other escaped me. I think for those of us who do not have faith as part of our spiritual lives or intellectual lives, it is easy to miss how important those issues are in Victorian (and other) literature. I wish I had studied this (and other) books in class–even if I disagreed with the interpretations of my classmates. Perhaps I could have learned earlier to see or anticipate alternate interpretations.

  6. Deb says:

    There’s an old, vulgar saying that goes something like this: Opinions are like [a certain part of the anatomy]–everyone has one.

    Yes, we all have opinions and we also have opinions about whose opinions we will listen to. For example, I’d be more than willing to try a book recommended on your blog. On the other hand, I’d run a mile before I’d touch a book recommended by Glenn Beck.

    But that’s just my opinion.

  7. bookssnob says:

    Having studied English Literature at university, I am used to having it drummed into me that there is never just one interpretation of a text, and we are entitled to our own interpretations, which are influenced by our unique experiences, backgrounds and beliefs, all of which we bring into the text without consciously realising. Some militants in my classes at university would insist on their interpretations being the correct ones, but I don’t think there is ever just one way of reading a text, even if the author’s intention is known.

    I know there has been a lot of talk about blog reviewers being less valid than print reviewers and I think that’s a load of rubbish, personally. No one gets more points for their opinion just because they’re being paid to give it. If an opinion is well informed, then I’m listening, regardless of who is writing it. The only time I mistrust reviews is when the person writing them is obviously uninformed about what they’re discussing or someone is reviewing a friend’s book, because I think people struggle to be impartial in such situations. Many bloggers are wonderfully intelligent people with excellent knowledge of what they’re writing about, and dismissing them as inferior is incredibly short sighted and elitist.

    Great discussion!

    • Teresa says:

      I do think there are multiple ways to read a text, but I do think an argument should come from the text, and I’ve heard plenty of interpretations that seemed to come right out of the reader’s head and have nothing to do with the text. That seemed to happen a lot in the particular class where the Jane Eyre discussion occurred. (Happily most of my other literature classes encouraged a more disciplined approach while allowing for multiple views.)

      I think a lot of the print reviewers who dismiss bloggers are only considering the worst examples (which means they probably aren’t looking very hard for good ones). The print reviewer at the event that sparked the Vulpes Libris post apparently said that his authority as a reviewer comes from the fact that he’s read a book a day since he was 12 (http://helencaldwell.wordpress.com/2010/11/30/blogs-rule/). How does he know online reviewers aren’t as well read as he is? Never mind that if he had read a book a day since he was 12, he can’t have read that many lengthy and challenging books, which actually reduces his credibility. (I’m really hoping he meant he’s had a book on the go every day since he was 12, which is more believable, but also almost certainly true of many many blog writers.)

  8. “What do you think? Do some opinions have more merit than others? Can an opinion be wrong? Is there such a thing as objectivity when writing about books?”

    I think some opinions do have more merit than others and that they can be wrong, specifically that MY opinion has more merit than any others and any opinion other than MINE is wrong ;). And I for one can be totally objective…

    …ha.

    Okay, seriously, I’m with you in that a “book critic” doesn’t have a more valid opinion than a book blogger about a book. As for an opinion being wrong, I don’t think so. It’s an opinion. You can disagree it, but it’s still that person’s opinion. And lastly, no, there is no such thing as objectivity. Everyone brings his or her own pair of glasses to the work, whether he or she wants to admit it or not.

    • Teresa says:

      LOL. Of course you’re right, and totally objective in every respect. ;)

      Actually, I do think opinions can be wrong, if they’re based on bad information or totally ignoring what the text actually says and does. I’ve seen a lot of people use “It’s only my opinion” as a way not to engage with a text or make an argument. If, on the other hand, it’s a question of liking something or not, then I don’t think it is possible for an opinion to be wrong. We all like different things for different reasons.

  9. gaskella says:

    A thought-provoking post Teresa! Personally, I didn’t study English or literature after 16, so I’ve had no critical training – I just read and blog for the love of it. I get rather fed up with the whole objectivity v subjectivity, press v blog, when is a review a review and when is it not, debates. I prefer to get to know my reviewers – be they bloggers or press – to follow them for a while, see if they’re in tune with me, or if they offer interesting counterpoints, and especially if they help me to get more out of my own reading experience. Oh, and I do like a trashy novel from time to time – the antidote to reader’s block for me and huge fun.

    • Teresa says:

      I find the debates interesting up to a point, but I do get impatient when people are so determined to stake out their “turf” that they refuse to really examine what others are doing.

  10. Jenny says:

    I think opinions about the merit of a book are difficult to argue, simply because, as you say, what’s a flaw for me might be a tremendous bonus for you. De gustibus nil disputandum and all that. Despite my best intentions, though, I have been known to feel a teeny bit judgmental when someone’s favorite book is a book I think is deeply stupid and/or pretentious. But I do recognize it’s a matter of personal opinion.

    Interpretations of books, though, can definitely be wrong. I don’t think the text of Jane Eyre supports a reading that she’s lost her faith, AT ALL. I had a similar experience reading Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”. I suggested that on a deeper level the poem was talking about looking back over a life as you grew closer to death. Everyone in my class looked at me like I was crazy, and my professor assured me that’s not what Frost meant. I think that’s less of a clear-cut case than your Jane Eyre one, but I still think my view was supportable. Hrmph.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I like that merit vs. interpretation distinction. I’d push the merit point a little further to say I think books have different kinds of merit. Being fun is one kind and being challenging is another. (And some books do both.)

      And now I want to go read “After Apple Picking” and see what I think.

      • I just read “After Apple-Picking,” just now. Jenny, your idea seems entirely reasonable to me. Likely, even.

        “One will see what will trouble
        This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.”

        I’m picking up more than a hint of death here!

    • Teresa says:

      I agree with you and Amateur Reader on the Frost poem. Seems logical to me.

  11. Trisha says:

    I believe that those opinions are most valid which has logical, valid support behind them, regardless of who holds the opinion. Being able to support your opinion with clear reasoning, examples, etc. is the most important part to me.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree, especially when it comes to matters of interpretation. But I also like to see some sort of reasoning for liking something. “I liked it” doesn’t tell me much. Why did you like it? In what ways did you like it?

  12. cbjames says:

    This is just the sort of interesting discussion I was hoping to generate with my post. Some great stuff here today.

    I think Sara’s writing teacher who does not believe in “good” or “bad” poems existing is arguing herself out of a job. The existence of a writing class rests on the existence of “good” writing. Otherwise, why bother with the class at all?

    My husband and I, after years of gallery going, have come to believe in seperating “taste” and “judgement.” We can like a piece for any reason or for no reason, taste, but we have to back up our opinions with objective reasons, judgement. This way I can complain about Virginia Woolf and Picasso as much as I want to, and still recognize great work when I see it.

    But I do believe that what constitutes a “good” poem is constantly shifting ground. Our understanding of quality changes as we grow both individually and collectively as a culture. You can look back at reviews written over 100 years ago, I have done this myself, and see what critics and ordinary people thought was great literature that would stand the test of time. Sometimes they were right, sometimes they were wrong.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder if that writing teacher was wanting to just give people a forum to let their muse speak or something.

      I really like that taste vs. judgment distinction. There are lots of works that I can see are brilliant but that I do not like at all. And there are some crappy books and movies that I hold dear.

      And an excellent point about the definition of quality shifting. I suspect that we would be surprised to see what contemporary literature stands the test of time and is still read and studied 100 years from now. (I predict Stephen King will have more staying power than Jonathan Franzen.)

  13. amymckie says:

    Fascinating post! I think we all have biases and what I like about bloggers is that we admit to those biases and talk about why we feel a certain way. Like you, that is what I find missing in print reviews. It’s not that they are unbiased because that is impossible, it’s just that the biases are hidden and unacknowledged.

    When it comes to opinions… I think some are more valid than others in some cases. For example I would agree with you on Victorian lit – I would defer to someone with more experience with Victorian lit as I’ve only read a (very) small number of books. Not that I wouldn’t talk about my own opinions on it, I would just be more willing to think others who have read more know more on the subject.

    That being said, I personally think there will always be differences of opinions even among those who regularly read the same books. Because we have different backgrounds and life experiences we will necessarily have different opinions and biases and one isn’t better than the other.

    • Teresa says:

      I love unpacking my own biases when I’m writing about a book. I think it helps me be a better reader. I suspect a lot of print reviewers do that same thing, but it doesn’t end up on the page.

  14. Emily says:

    I certainly believe in multiple valid interpretations of a text, and I also definitely believe that certain interpretations can be flat-out wrong. My favorite critical readings tend to be the ones that are a little provocative, which means I’m sometimes courting the “flat-out wrong” camp myself. I try to counter the wackiness of some of my arguments by finding as much concrete textual evidence as possible, and not getting offended if people disagree with me. :-)

    And your classmates’ reading of Jane Eyre seems a bit extremist – can one not be a Christian without being a missionary? Were they all missionaries in the class? Especially given that the book basically uses divine intervention to allow Jane to hear Rochester’s voice hundreds of miles away due to the fact that he’s started praying again after many years, it seems tenuous at best to see the ending as a rejection of Christianity.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m all for oddball readings, but I like at least some textual support. If everyone took the same line all the time, book discussions would be so boring. (I will readily admit, though, that I seem to skew toward the standard readings of most books.)

      What was interesting is about that class was the dominant view seemed to be anti-religious, mostly because they thought religion=legalism. Like I said, a patent misunderstanding of Christianity and the varieties of Christian experience. They refused to see divine intervention in Jane’s hearing of Rochester’s voice.

  15. Emily – not divine intervention – telepathy, one of Jane’s many non-Christian elf powers. Also, Jane actually started the fire herself using her pyrokinetic powers. She did it to protect Rochester from the attack of the vampire.

    The reason multiple interpretations of Jane Eyre are valid is not necessarily because all opinions are swell, but becaue Jane Eyre is complex.

    Does “objective” mean something that can be checked against the text? Or something else? I see people in book blog world use the word a lot, usually identifying it as something others claim to do (and they don’t). If a good critic – James Wood or Ruth Franklin or whoever – makes a claim to objectivity, I think that’s all they mean. Not that their judgments are infallible, but that they try to argue from evidence. My question to the subjective crowd then is, why on earth do you not want to argue from evidence? But maybe they mean something else.

    This year I went after a little book about translation Edith Grossman wrote. I agreed with her conclusions, but her arguments and evidence were terrible. I don’t care about anyone’s conclusions, including my own! Make a good argument. All opinions might be equal, but some arguments are better and some are worse.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh but it was the universe wanting Jane and Rochester together, trying to distract her from her love-denying prayers by sending her true love’s voice to her across the moors. (Wait, perhaps that could be defended textually. Hmmm… )

      And I like what you say about the meaning of objectivity. Whatever the professional critics mean by it, I can’t imagine not wanting to argue from the text.

      I think, though, that people in the blog world who talk about embracing subjectivity are talking about taste more than interpretation. That said, I don’t even like to argue my own taste without at least some examples of what I thought was good writing or interesting character development. (This is why my reviews approach and exceed 1,000 words most of the time.)

      What you say about valuing arguments more than conclusions seems like a key. It comes up for me in theological debates as well. There was one particular hot issue discussed at my church a few years ago that people on both sides tended to argue very badly, even though there were good arguments to be made on both sides. I remember saying that I cared a lot less about the conclusions people were drawing than I did about how they got there.

    • Stefanie says:

      “not divine intervention – telepathy, one of Jane’s many non-Christian elf powers. Also, Jane actually started the fire herself using her pyrokinetic powers. She did it to protect Rochester from the attack of the vampire”

      This cracked me up and I am going to be laughing about it for quite sometime I think. I had no idea Jane had such superpowers. Should have suspected he though when she starteled Mr. Rochester’s horse and it threw him. Horses are good at sensing stuff like that.

  16. christina says:

    I wish we all could sit roundtable with coffee, tea, and biscuits to discuss this! You, amongst all of the other commenters have such great opinions on this subject.

    I remember while in college and writing our papers, the professors would stress that we could have whatever opinion we desired providing the text could back it up. it’s a skill I teach even to my seventh grade students. If you think the main character is selfish and deplorable then show me where in the text. As we grow older and study further in literature, I think other skills are acquired (allusions, symbolism, cultural implications). As Ana stated above, differences of interpretations could easily be the differences of personal ignorances.

    So I wonder, is it our responsibility to research and break apart all text that we read and review? Or am I permitted to read Jane Eyre with cultural ignorance and rely only on my own sense of the story when I review?

    (Side note entirely – I just finished reading Jane Eyre last week and would agree with you and Ana as well. I did not see it as Jane snubbing or losing her faith. Rather, I saw her faith lead her to her fate).

    • Teresa says:

      This would be such a fun discussion to have in person!

      And you ask an excellent question about whether we must break apart every text. Personally, I think different reviewers can approach it in any way they like; that’s the beauty of the blog world. There’s room for reviews that focus more on personal response, those that take in culture, those that do a bit of both. One thing I like to do when a book raises questions that I don’t have time or the inclination to research is just to mention those questions.

  17. litlove says:

    What a good post this is – so rich and full of intriguing perspectives. Basically, I agree with just about everything you say here (isn’t that satisfying! :) ). What I think about opinion – (I’d say interpretation) – and its rightness or wrongness, is bound up in a correct assessment of the hierarchy of values displayed by the text. I think when the values in the text and the values in the reader function at cross-purposes, then misreadings begin.

    Your Jane Eyre example is a perfect case in point. The readers you were with took something – Christianity in this case – which is a relatively insignificant element of the book, and insisted it should be the only element of value, the only one worth judging the story upon. Maybe the religious angle was the most important one in their worlds, but it is not so in the world of the text. The better the reading of the novel, the more that reading corresponds to what the novel is trying to do, the more sensitivity it shows to the novel’s concerns. When the reader tries to impose his or her interests and desires on the novel, the more likely their reading is to be, well, wrong. Or at least, that’s how I always judged it when I was teaching.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s always reassuring to find myself in agreement with a smart reader like you, Litlove!

      And I don’t want to give the impression that my classmates raised Jane’s faith or lack thereof to a level of supreme importance. It was one of many topics discussed. (To be honest, it was probably more important to me than it was to many of my classmates because I found my own interpretation, in which God gave Jane her desires in the end, to be extremely liberating personally.)

      The thing about that class, though, was that there was a strong tendency among the most vocal members of the class to always privilege the outsider, nontraditional view, no matter what we were reading. Their view seemed to be that in order for a novel to be good, it had to be subversive. Many fine novels are indeed subversive, and Jane Eyre is in its way—but it seems to me that many fine novels also support the status quo, which Jane Eyre also does in its way. As Amateur Reader said, it’s complex.

  18. pburt says:

    I think the poster who spoke about complexity is onto something. Complexity, to me, is more than just a convoluted plot; rather it infers depth of some sort, either exterior or interior or in the hands of a really skilled writer, both. So a reader looks into the depths and takes away what relates to them. I tend to gravitate toward memory, ambiguity, the effect of secrets. My mother tends to gravitate toward familial relationships and secrets. We had very different readings and opinions of Her Artful Symmetry. We could both back our opinions up with text – neither was right or wrong.

    It is when you allow your gravitation toward a point of view to overwhelm you and it pushes you into seeing what isn’t there or to see too much of what is there – that’s when you can get into trouble.

    I think audience also matters. A critic is writing to a specific audience and his editors are mindful of that. A blogger may or may not have an audience and a general reader is an audience of one.

    I appreciate different views because it allows me to see different things. After talking to my mom about Her Artful Symmetry I saw different things in the book. Did I like it any better – not really, but I appreciated it a little more than I did before.

    • Teresa says:

      Right. A complex book can easily be viewed from a variety of angles–the more complex, the more angles there are. Your example is a good one for demonstrating that. I often found the same thing happening in my old book club or as I read blogs–different people will take an interest in different themes (as Lifetime Reader also points out with our different emphases in reading Jane Eyre).

      And I agree that audience matters when writing a review. Someone writing for a general audience is going to write differently from someone writing for a niche or for specialists. They’ll pay attention to different things.

  19. J.G. says:

    Where the text ends, the reader begins. (Can’t remember who said that.)

    It seems that a lot of what we “see” in a book is colored by our particular perspective (like the subversive = good example mentioned).

    That said, when I hear different viewpoints I like to know how well-read the reader is (so I can judge whether they would know a good book if they read it), and I like to hear specifically why they think what they think. A clear, well-founded argument goes a long way toward convincing me that a wildly different interpretation has merit.

    Politeness is persuasive, too. Ranting, not so much.

    • Teresa says:

      Knowing a reader’s background can be tremendously helpful, and it goes both ways for me. Sometimes I’d prefer to hear the impressions of a newbie to a genre or style, if I’m also a newbie. And I agree with you that the why is central.

      And yes on politeness. That’s one of the things I love about the book blogging world.

  20. What I tell the students in my literature classes is this: readings are right (even if they conflict with other “right” readings) if they can muster a persuasive amount of evidence drawn from the text (most importantly) and its historical/cultural context (secondarily). A reading is wrong if disprovable or totally disconnected from textual evidence. But some of the most fascinating texts produce simultaneous and mutually exclusive readings – I love the discussions that result from those!

    • Teresa says:

      That sounds like a good rule of thumb to me. I wish my professors had talked more about how to draw and support conclusions from texts. We did a lot of talking about literature but very little talking about how to talk about literature.

  21. chasing bawa says:

    What an interesting discussion. I too agree that there are multiple interpretations of texts just because I think it’s very difficult to be completely objective and that there is always some sort of context/agenda behind the review (whether they are aware of it or not). Even in science (where you would expect objectivity) it’s not always so. Personally I love reading views that are different from mine just to see whether I’ve missed anything;P

    • Teresa says:

      I enjoy the different views, too. It makes me think more. And I’m fascinated about what you say about the sciences. I suppose one’s own perspective would influence the questions they investigate and what kinds of evidence they choose to collect and how much evidence is needed to support a conclusion. I can see it.

  22. Jeanne says:

    I love the picture of Jane Eyre as a pyrokinetic.

    Through many years of teaching mostly first-year college students, I have come to believe that there’s little point in calling someone else’s view of fiction “wrong” or even labeling what they’re doing as “misreading.” It just makes them mulish.

    What I try to do is point that reader to more of the context that makes me believe something different. The more you read, the better a reader you become.

    And it would be a shame to squelch creativity like Amateur Reader’s, wouldn’t it?!!

    • I can keep going. Look out for the subtle clues that Rochester is killed in the fire. Who is that, then, at the end of the book? “Reader, I married a zombie!”

      Jeanne, you get to the heart of the issue. In the freshman classroom, there may be no right and wrong opinion. But that is just a necessary fiction, pedagogically useful.

      As for those of us here, we are no longer freshmen. Surely the standards can be different? Please, do not hold me to the standards of a first-year college student! I can do better.

    • Teresa says:

      Direct contradiction can cause people to dig in their heels. I know when I’m directly contradicted, I’m unlikely to change my mind right at that point. But questions or new information to consider keep me from feeling defensive.

      And of course Jane is pyrotechnic. That also explains the fire in her room.

      Unless we want to go with the idea that Jane is in fact dreaming. She is still in the red room and has concocted this whole fantasy of herself growing up and going out in the world, while she’s really locked up in a room… and who else in the book is locked up in a room? So in reality Jane is Bertha, and she must set her fantasy home on fire in order to be free to dwell in a home of her own. Just look for the color red…flames are red.

  23. I think the weight or value of an opinion or review should be based on the supporting evidence for the given opinion rather than the opinion-givers credentials or lack thereof. Very smart, knowledgeable people can take some ludicrous positions that don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. On another not, I find this post very timely. Recently, I rather strenuously disagreed with a blogger review of a book I haven’t even read yet. My comment on that review was much, much nicer than I wanted to be. In my view, the reviewer’s dismissal of the book had much more to do with his own lack of curiosity about the subject matter of the book. The reviewer clearly lacked even cursory knowledge of the subject of the book, which would be fine, but then don’t blame the author because he wrote about something you know nothing about. Isn’t that what reading is supposed to do is open up new worlds? And in the days of Google, it take about 10 seconds to get informed. No excuses.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s true, smart people can take ridiculous positions sometimes. I know I have! But if someone has generally been reliable in the past, I’m more likely to trust that person in the future.

      I’ve probably been guilty of something not unlike the lack of curiosity you describe–if for example I was hoping for a book to introduce me to a topic I’m only a little bit interested in and the book turns out to be over my head. I do try in such cases to mention that the problem may be in me rather than the book. That’s the kind of openness I value on a blog.

  24. Stefanie says:

    Enjoyed your post and the discussion it has sparked. I don’t have anything to add except thanks! Along with being able to express our subjectivity, bloggers also get to have awesome “conversations” and that doesn’t happen in a newpaper review.

  25. Dorothy W. says:

    This issue comes up in my classes pretty often, because students sometimes say “it’s all just your opinion…” and I don’t quite agree. I do think there is lots of room for differing interpretations, but it’s not the case that one interpretation is necessarily just as valid as another. There are definitely opinions that are wrong, and others that are better substantiated by the text than others. I suppose there are no really hard and fast distinctions among interpretations, and it’s enormously tricky to figure out which interpretation is more convincing. But I wouldn’t want to say that all ideas are equal either.

    • Teresa says:

      I think people sometimes use the opinion line as a way to avoid rigorous thought. I can understand not wanting to take a rigorous approach to every book (and not being equipped to do so in every case), but to choose not to think it through and still want your ideas to be treated with the same seriousness, that I can’t buy.

      And the trickiness of figuring it out is part of the fun.

  26. Pingback: A Bit of Lit Debate for a Lazy Sunday « Vulpes Libris

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