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).